WEEK FOUR: FEEL THE BURN
As fires continued their sweep through the Santa Ynez Range of Southern California, one thousand miles to the northeast I was busy exploring my own piece of singed territory. In 2003, the Hidden Lake Fire scorched the slopes of Montana’s Pioneer Mountains, burning thousands of wilderness acres, including the route to Sawtooth Lake that had captured my current interest. On a June afternoon in 2016, the forest along the trail was a mix of the living and the dead. A few survivors stood tall, but scattered across the forest floor lay the fallen soldiers of the incendiary war. The next generation of lodgepole pines had taken root in the graveyard, promising a return to shadier times in the distant future.
In the back of my mind, I was slightly worried about what the media in California was calling the Scherpa Fire. Sparks from a wood splitter had ignited the 8,000-acre blaze, which now smoldered less than four miles from the red cabin I called home. My girlfriend Kitty was prepared to rescue any material goods from the cabin if necessary, so I tried to relax and focus on the task at hand.
Hiking to Sawtooth Lake was simple. I could clamber over most fallen trees, and a few had even collided above the trail to create archways that I could pass through without ducking. But upon reaching the lakeshore, I was able to choose among destinations with more adventurous potential. Two mountains cast their reflections in the subalpine waters. Sawtooth Mountain had a broken and toothy ridgeline. If I tried climbing along that blade, I’d likely get slashed, if not outright sawed in half. I felt drawn instead to Highboy Mountain – Sawtooth’s slightly higher and more approachable brother.
To reach Highboy’s upper slopes, I had to chart my own course through a lodgepole forest that had been untouched by the Hidden Lake Fire – for which I was extremely grateful. Bushwhacking through fire-burned lodgepole pine is the worst. The charred trunks slowly topple over the course of decades, creating dense thickets of spindly material that are guaranteed to trip up the most light-footed hiker.
In contrast, bushwhacking through fire-burned chaparral in Southern California is the best. The Mediterranean climate there supports a dense, drought-resistant plant community of shrubs and grasses, and fighting one’s way through it is an exercise in self-punishment. There’s no winning strategy; the best one can do is use brute strength to crash through the brush and suffer the scratches and lacerations as well as one can. After a conflagration like the Scherpa Fire, however, everything is reduced to bare soil and grey ash. A person can hike anywhere, and the unrestricted mobility is a revelation. I looked forward to seeing if any new opportunities for exploration had opened up when I returned in the fall.
Where the forest ended, the stairway up to the Highboy ridgeline began. I didn’t mind the steepness, so long as I found room to avoid the snowbanks and unanchored boulders that the mountain laid in my path. In short order, I breached the gauntlet and rested atop the mountain crest, content in my victory.
Around me grew the makings of a stunted garden – scattered bits of alpine vegetation that nestled in the scraps of soil between the stones. The plants scarcely dared to poke their heads out above the rocks, for the wind at 10,431 feet was fierce and cold. They seemed to use their flowers like a blanket, growing them in tight layers of baby blue, yellow and magenta to help shelter their tiny leaves. As attractive as the flowers were, I wasn’t surprised to find a lack of butterflies at this elevation, even with the temptation of deliciously cooled nectar. Their wings were too fragile. The task of pollination fell instead to the flies, who were less likely to be torn apart by the gusts that frequently swept Highboy’s summit.
A solitary pika, shaped like a lumpy potato with little ears and whiskers, played hide-and-seek with me in the talus for a while. Eventually it decided that I posed no threat, and it made the unusually brave move of bounding to a nearby patch of grass and nibbling some blades in plain sight.
I chewed on some granola bars myself and surveyed the scenery, which included a dozen mountain ranges, some extending all the way into Wyoming and Idaho. Ice floes were still breaking apart on the lakes beneath Highboy. To the east, multiple grey scars discolored the foothills of the Pioneers where the Hidden Lake Fire swept through over a decade earlier.
The regeneration strategy of lodgepole pine forests depends on specialized pinecones sealed with resin that open to release their seeds after being exposed to extreme heat. Lodgepole pine bark is rather thin, so this is the only way the species can endure a severe forest fire.
Back in California, the shrubs along the devastated hillsides use different tactics to ensure survival. Scrub oak and manzanita invest energy and nutrients in creating “root crowns” that grow fresh shoots whenever the vegetation above ground is completely incinerated. Other plants like ceanothus form thick coats around their seeds that only crack at high temperatures, allowing water to enter so the dormant seeds can germinate.
I had no concerns about the chaparral landscape of Southern California being able to restore itself. My cabin was a different story, however. I’d have to keep my fingers crossed and hope the firefighters could spread enough retardant along the ridgeline that separated my home from the Scherpa Fire. Much of the foliage there contained highly-flammable natural oils, so if the wind picked up, suppressing the flames wouldn’t be easy.
I took a short cut off of Highboy Mountain, glissading a thousand feet down a network of steep snowfields. My sneakers served as rudimentary skis, and whenever the snow became too soft to keep me from falling through the crust, I simply dropped onto my backside and began sledding. Hands and hiking poles helped to control my descent, but once I noticed I couldn’t feel or move my fingers anymore, I decided the merriment had to come to an end.
I traversed over to some rocks and tore off my soaked, threadbare pair of cotton gloves. As circulation returned to my frostbitten hands, they burned, as if every nerve ending had been lit on fire. But the flames eventually subsided, just as they would, sooner or later, in California. I flexed my fingers to keep the blood moving, and continued down the mountain.