Wildfire

In July 2012 lightning ignited a wildfire in the woodlands on the northeast slopes of Reading Peak. The blaze was contained one month later, having scorched more than 28,000 acres, nearly 17,000 of them within the boundaries of Lassen Volcanic National Park.

In the wake of the fire, trails in the park’s northern backcountry, including the Cluster Lakes Loop and sections of the Nobles Emigrant Trail and the Pacific Crest Trail, were closed. Hazards included falling trees, blocked routes, and voids where the roots of trees incinerated underground. Knowing winter snows would help settle things down and start the rejuvenation process, park officials kept the fire zone closed until the summer of 2013. 

I first ventured into the burn in August 2013, traveling north from Hat Lake on the Nobles Emigrant Trail. I knew the trail was wide enough and flat enough that I should be able to negotiate whatever the fire-scarred landscape presented. What I encountered was stunningly eerie. 

The mosaic at the outset of the hike, with some trees scorched and others still green, is a relatively common sight in Lassen’s older fire scars—and in other areas of California’s mountains, where wildfires frequently erupt in summer and fall. Fire zones in various stages of recovery, some the result of controlled burns, can be seen on the trail to Chaos Lake, at Bathtub Lake, on the slopes of East Prospect Peak, around Snag Lake, and elsewhere.

But in the Reading burn, the scene was entirely new to my senses. I walked from a healthy woodland into a foreign landscape; two miles in, I found myself standing in a ghost forest. The floor was uniformly gray and powdery, thick with ash and sterile. There was no sign of wildflowers or grasses—harbingers of rejuvenation. I could hear the knock of a woodpecker, but otherwise nothing flew, not bird or bug. Hat Creek was a thin green ribbon lacing through the firescape. The standing trees were blackened matchsticks, and the wind set them to creaking. I found myself on high alert, waiting for the dead to come crashing down. Then the route disappeared, lost in broken trees and unbroken ashfall. I was done; I turned around.

I returned to that same stretch of trail a couple of years later, and by then nature was mending. The wind in the trees created a familiar rushing sound; no more creaking. Cicadas chirped and scattered underfoot. Orange and purple butterflies flitted from deadfall to greening bush . . . because there were greening bushes, and wildflowers to gather nectar from. Back again in 2018, seasoned by a wildfire that flashed within feet of my Wine Country home in 2017, I was relieved to see head-high brush alongside the historic track, and signs of people at work in the woods: tire tracks in the mud; deadfall cut and stacked off to the side of the trail. 

Firestorms, especially in these days, have become more common and more dreadful, especially in the wildland-urban interface. But fire is a natural, critical element in Caliornia’s ecology. It’s supposed to be here. It’s something that foresters, biologists, and other wildland experts are learning to use and coming to appreciate. Back in 2013, dead wood in the Warner Valley stood in pyramidal pyres, slated for ignition as part of a controlled burn once the first snows fell. When all was said and done, the forest floor was mostly cleared of what essentially amounted to tinder, and healthier for the effort. While climate change and a culture that promoted fire suppression have exacerbated wildfire danger throughout western forests, this paradigm shift—using fire to fight fire; allowing fires to burn when they don’t threaten human life and property—may mean the Warner Valley will be spared intense firestorms like those that ravaged the forest north of Hat Mountain, the city of Paradise, and the oak woodlands of the Sonoma Valley. 

When I was selecting a new hike to include in this version of the guidebook, I asked Lassen’s rangers for advice. I considered options outside the burn zone, but I was drawn to the Reading burn, where I could witness both the damage done and the recovery underway. Spending the night in the burn area was still not recommended: widowmakers. But a day hike to the Bear Lakes, where maps show the Reading Fire burned hottest, attracted me like the proverbial moth.

I walked with the words of Maya Khosla, Sonoma County’s poet laureate and a wildlife biologist who researches fire recovery, circling in my head. On a hike with her in the Nuns Fire burn scar near my home, she listened for the birds, which are among the first to recolonize woodlands after wildfire. Khosla has spent seasons in Lassen doing research post-Reading, and has documented increasing populations of the black-backed woodpecker in the park. This species, a candidate for listing as endangered, thrives in the burn in numbers she believes are greater than anywhere else in California, numbers that are “phenomenal.” They share the burn with sapsuckers, warblers, Clark’s nutcrackers, hairy woodpeckers, and more.

Khosla sees beauty in the burn, a landscape fecund, not ghostly. In her poem Rejuvenation, she writes: 

The living are awake to the growth and profusion soon to follow

They will grow with the diligence of all known colors unfurling

from the soil’s chocolatey darkness

from the trees re-greening come spring

from the blackness.

I walked like the living, and while that first vista of devastation took my breath away, I found colors unfurling in the butterflies and wildflowers, in the tawny shades of the water, in the rim of green around the shorelines, in the softening silvers of the dead standing. I was able to do something I couldn’t have fathomed back in 2013, when the Reading Fire was new, or in 2018, when the memories of my own fire flight were still raw. I was able to sit and stay, to listen and touch, to pause and reflect. And it was lovely.

Falling

A story of humility and a primer on what hikers should always carry in their packs

This was not my finest hour.

Last month, while hiking with my friend Nick, I slipped on a steep pitch of trail and folded my ankle over onto a rock. The impact fractured the base of my fibula, but I didn’t know that in the moment. All I knew was it hurt like hell and I needed to lie down.

Nick, following my lead, gave me space, then gave me a stick, then two sticks, then his arm. The thinking was if I could stand and hobble, maybe I could make it back to the trailhead without much fuss and the hike wouldn’t be a complete loss. We were five-and-a-half miles into what would have been a lovely seven-mile ramble through the backcountry of Jack London State Historic Park and the Sonoma Developmental Center, following trails we both know well. A snoop around Camp Via, a blossom hunt in the old orchard, a visit to the ancient redwood—the grandmother tree, too gnarly and difficult to be brought down, just like me.

Or not.

The fall happened on the downhill run, as we were approaching Fern Lake. All adventurers  know if something’s gonna go wrong, it goes wrong on the descent. Blink. Slip, twist, down. And down for the count.

I knew I’d probably broken something. There was a telltale crunching noise in the disasterous mix. But I’m prone to rolling my ankles, so as I lay in the dirt trying to settle my stomach, I held out hope that’s all it was—a bad roll. After a few long moments I stood up, hoping to carry on.

No go. Two sticks and Nick’s strong arm notwithstanding, when I put weight on my right foot, pain ricocheted around unhelpfully. I got clammy and queasy and had to lie down again, while Nick paced the fire road, a self-described “brilliant humorist at the height of his powers,” saying helpful, apparently hilarious things I can’t remember.

Eventually I sat back up and began rifling through my daypack for my first aid kit, looking for a painkiller. I am a hiking guidebook writer, after all. I carry all kinds of nerdy equipment no matter the length of a chosen ramble. Emergency blanket, check. Water purifying tablets, check. Buck knife, check. First aid kit … crapola.

I did have a small flask of whiskey, however—a throwback to my circumambulation on the Tahoe Rim, when we would end long days on the trail with a bone-warming tipple. If a cowboy could medicate with whiskey before the doc dug the bullet out, a shot oughta get a hiker with a bum ankle down a trail, right?

I took a swig. I stood. A blast of pain, and my stomach revolted. I threw it up.

My predicament wasn’t an emergency, I insisted to Nick, after he propped me up against a log. We’d been discussing ego earlier on the hike, and mine took firm control of the decision-making process. I am a hiking guidebook writer, after all. I’m all about self-sufficiency in the woods. We needed to figure out how to get off the mountain without summoning the National Guard — and it turned out the National Guard was a distinct possibility, since a passing mountain biker told us a unit was training on SDC that day, along with the sheriff and the fire department. A helicopter flew overhead. I sank deeper into the log.

Fortunately we were close to home, we had cell phone coverage, and together Nick and I sorted our options. Plan A involved calling the non-emergency lines at the Eldridge Fire Department and SDC police department to see if we could get someone to open a couple of gates; that way one of my sons could drive up and retrieve me. Plan B involved calling friends who own land bordering the SDC; Steve knows the web of trails better than anyone, and has a four-wheeler that could get me out easily. Plan C involved crawling and crying.

Plan A was a wash: My son ended up leaving messages that weren’t returned until several hours later, when I was being treated in the emergency room. Calling 911 would have gotten us a quicker response, but … well, hiking guidebook writer …

Fortunately, Plan B was a success. Several “where are you again?” calls were necessary, because SDC’s trails aren’t marked and must be described using language better suited to wayfinding in the nineteenth century. After clarifying our location with reference to creeks and dams, Steve and my son navigated to my rescue.

Time of fall to time of arrival back in civilization was, all in all, about two hours. We got a little cold while we waited, but both Nick and I had layers. If we’d had to wait longer, even overnight, we had food and emergency shelter and ways to purify the water Nick could have retrieved from the nearby creek. There would have been crying and crawling, but we were equipped for survival. Hiking guidebook writer, after all.

I’ve done a lot of thinking about what happened on the mountain since the accident, if for no other reason than I can’t do much else. In researching Search and Rescue Alaska (where I wrote about survivors) and Death in Mount Rainier National Park (where everybody dies), a significant common denominator became crystal clear: The folks who survive bad breaks of all kinds in the wild are the ones who are prepared, and who follow bad luck with good choices. Nick and I didn’t compound a bad situation with bad decisions. We didn’t panic. We didn’t despair. We were prepared, mentally and physically, to cope. Our resilience was in the layers we carried ward off the cold, and in the good humor we shared as we waited.

I’m a solo hiker—I’ve walked most every trail in the guides I’ve written alone. I’ve had more than my fair share of uh-ohmoments; I’ve also had more than my fair share of good luck. In this instance, luck took the form of a clear-thinking companion. But I also carry luck with me, in my pack, on my back. Even without Nick, even without first aid kit, I would have been just fine.

What’s In My Pack

Water

Hat and gloves

Lightweight jacket

Buck knife and pocketknife

Emergency blanket

Mace

Flashlight

Whistle

Notebook and pen

Cell phone

Camera, tablet, GPS unit (if working on a guidebook)

Paracord

First aid kit

Poop bags for the dog

Poop bag for myself (TP + ziplock bags to pack it out)

Water purification tablets + ultraviolet water-purification wand

Medicinal candy (Sour Patch Kids. Trust me.)

Electrolyte tablets

Snacks

Flask of whiskey (optional)

Published May 1, 2021, in the Kenwood Press