It really shouldn’t have taken all summer to read “The Big Burn” by Timothy Egan. The book is an easy read, entertaining maybe to a fault. I finally got through life’s distractions and finished it in August. Maybe I’ll learn to read faster this winter.
What “The Big Burn” did do for me was connect the events of 1910 to what I love so much today: the Idaho Bitterroots.
Here’s the summary: in 1910 the largest forest fire in recorded US history occurred in and around North Idaho. The forest service, only five years old, was terribly unprepared. The forests burned all summer long and when epic, hurricane force winds swept through the Bitterroots on August 20th the fires exploded and burned nearly 3 million acres of land in 48 hours. Nearly 100 people lost their lives fighting the fires while Wallace and nearby towns were obliterated.
So the Fires of 1910: a pretty big deal.
This past week I found myself on a spontaneous adventure with a friend to the Pulaski Trail, right outside of Wallace Idaho. A perfect expedition for having just read “The Big Burn.”
The Pulaski Trail is a quality, modern interpretive site that follows about 2 miles of the West Fork of Placer Creek* to War Eagle Mine. This is the location where Ed Pulaski saved all of his crew but five from the fire by leading them to this mine. Without the efforts of the USFS, this location would be lost to time. That’s the wonderful talent of nature: its ability to reclaim and erase. The burnt logs are gone. The creek has washed its bed clean. Trees have re-grown and all that would be left of this site is a hole in the rock, barely noticeable to a passerby without the interpretive site.
They even had an artist re-create the burnt out logs that framed the entrance in post-fire photos** for further distinction.
My friend and I tried to continue up on the trail but it was too overgrown for our exposed legs and feet. We decided to walk down and see if we could find another trail in the hills around Placer Creek.*** I decided to save my tires from the rough road and we made our way up by foot.
Just ten minutes into the hike an old Chevy truck rumbled up next to us. “I’ve never seen anyone out here walking just for fun!” the man said. We chatted, and he told us about a great ATV trail that followed the ridge up above. He gave us a ride to the top of the road, clearly excited for us and our adventure. I got a thrill out of bouncing around and seeing which ‘line’ he would take in his old truck over that rugged road.
He let us out at the top and we started walking. We followed the ridge due mostly west to a summit which allowed us a 360 view of the mountains.
Here was another “Big Burn” moment. Seeing the wide expanse of mountains and sweating from the hike gives one an appreciation for the folks who traversed these mountains before trail systems were put into place. But getting from point A to point B is all second to orienting yourself in the first place.
With our roads, trails and maps it is easy to wonder why explorers like Lewis and Clark were intimidated by the Bitterroots. Put yourself on top of one of the many ridges, look around, and you’ll feel a little lost and intimidated too.
*Maybe I’m just super oblivious but I had to go to this here to find the exact name of the creek that the War Eagle Mine was on. It’s kind of an interesting document if you are interested in that kind of extra, dull, enlightening, reading kind of stuff.
**http://m.spokesman.com/galleries/2010/jul/22/historic-photos-1910-fire/ is a great online collection of historic photos.
***I apologize I don’t remember the name of the side road we took but it’s a right hand turn about a mile up the road from the interpretive site. There is a bridge just about 20 feet from the main road that goes over Placer Creek.