Refuge

A heavy winter snow had bent the stovepipe of our ancient Majestic woodstove, leaving a hole in the roof for the rain and snow of both winter and spring to drip into the kitchen and rust out the stove. The Byzantine plumbing system was leaking again; no hot water until we could find a plumber who had a washer and some kind of mysterious packing material for the seventy year old faucet. The mantel of our stone fireplace was once again covered in tiny bits of wood; some mysterious invisible bugs were slowly devouring our roof but seemed immune to any pesticides. A straight, temporary post was holding up our porch, since the weight of two trees falling on the roof two winters ago had cracked our lovely curved lodgepole pine support.

Cabin 2009 157The damage to the cabin was trivial, however, compared to the devastation around us. Our woodpile, the cabin next to ours, and the barn from Camp Senia’s dude ranch days had burned in an aggressive firestorm the previous summer; the owners had decided not to rebuild and had already obliterated all traces of the buildings. The awkward, empty spaces surrounded by severely burned trees were a reminder of our close call and our lost bits of camp history. The steep slopes to the north and south were grimly black and grey, with a few patches of orange from trees which had died but not burned, and even fewer spots of green. The charred, fallen trees on the mountainside to the south were a remnant of the massive windstorm which had preceded the fire; Mother Nature had played Pick-Up-Sticks and then thrown a lightning bolt into the mess. As we tried to assess all of the destruction in and around our cabin paradise, a dynamite blast from construction on the road above exploded the last remnants of our composure.

My husband Dave clearly did not want to leave me here alone for three days while he visited his family in town.

“I’ll be fine,” I said brightly, and then more urgently, “I need to be here. I have nothing to do at your parents’ house, and plenty of work here.” More importantly, I needed to have some time alone with all of the changes, to grieve, and to look for new life among the ashes. I wanted to be with other cabin folk, to share our experiences of the fire and rejoice in our survival. I needed to sit on the screen porch and stare at the mountains.

Summer 2008 082For two days, I re-lived my terror from the previous July: seeing the first cloud of smoke from the Timberline Lake trail three miles above the cabin, trying to keep my emotions numb until I could get down far enough to see where the fire was, and planning alternate ways of escape in case I was cut off. When I reached the end of the trail, a huge pillar of fire was approaching from the west, and ground fires were already spreading across the north slopes above the twenty-five cabins. Those images had invaded my dreams for months, and now I needed to confront the damage the fire had wrought.

Cabin 2009 040After two days of quiet grieving, I began to explore the area in earnest. I took pictures all over camp, paid silent tribute to the solitary chimneys at the sites of three more burned cabins farther up the road, and then continued west along the West Fork trail until I reached the edge of the burn. A short walk turned into an 8 mile hike, and the blisters haven’t healed yet, but I learned on that day to look for green instead of dwelling on black. Meadows with blue penstemen were encroaching on new territory; ground cover was flourishing along the creek and all the streams that fed it; leaves were poking up among the shards of granite rocks which had peeled from the intense heat. Record numbers of chipmunks, marmots, birds, and moose were attracted to our island of green.

Cabin 2009 163The most intense moment of healing came on the last day of my trip, when I stood in the spot at the foot of the Timberline trail where I had snapped my picture of the approaching firestorm. At the time I was sure we had lost everything; the cabins built in the 1920s, all of my childhood memories, the hope that I would someday bring grandchildren there. Thanks to the luck of the wind, the capricious nature of fire, and the dedicated efforts of firefighters who camped there after the first wave of the fire and continued to protect the cabins, Camp Senia survives. The forest will regenerate, and my family will have this incredible place for years to come.

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