I returned home on the 3rd of September to news that the Columbia River Gorge was on fire and nowhere near being contained. Over the next few days, our community would see ash falling like snow from sky the and hear reports that the fire damage might be so bad that the Gorge would never be the same. For those who have never seen this area of the world, just know that it is a very special place to so many people. It’s full of beautiful cascading waterfalls, railway history, US history, amazing geological history, and can be downright magical at times. Talk to any local between Portland and the Dalles, Oregon and they’ll tell you that without a doubt, the Columbia River Gorge is a gift to the region.
When I hiked from Timberline Lodge to Cascade Locks on the PCT, I walked through some incredible corners of the forest. Those forests are now on fire and until it’s contained, we’ll never really know what the extent of the damage is. The places we've come to love and admire are in flames. The thought that charred trees now stand alone in the middle of what was once a lush green forest simply puts a pit in the stomachs of those who loved it the most. For those of you who fall into this category, this post is for you.
It could be years or even generations before the Gorge is back to what it was not more than a week and a half ago. For many of you, the Gorge isn’t just a tree covered area with some pretty waterfalls scattered throughout. It’s far more than that. The Gorge is a place where you’ve grown up, taken your children to explore, explored yourself, and maybe even fallen in back in love with the natural world. You’ve witnessed epic sunsets, sunrises, snow-covered cliffs in the winters, and the most incredible winds and rain the region has to offer. The Gorge is a powerful place and that’s why you love it.
I too morn the loss of the Gorge I knew all my life. I'll miss it, however I can’t help but wonder what the other side of the coin looks like and how maybe, just maybe, this fire might be a gift to us all in the end. I know, it sounds crazy, but hear me out for just a minute. My journey on the PCT this past summer brought me through some amazing places. Some of them I’ll never forget for the rest of my life, but they weren’t all beautiful at first glance. I’ve hiked through miles and miles of forest fire destruction and trust me when I tell you that hiking during the summer heat in the middle of an old burn is not exactly the best time one could have. Where there was once shade, there is none. Where there was once a lush forest, now stood looming sticks projecting into the sky offering nothing but a creepy and dim outlook on life. It can be downright disturbing and when you know you have to walk through it for miles on end, it doesn’t exactly make things easier.
I’ll tell you this though, it sure as hell makes you appreciate that moment when you finally enter back into an unburned forest and feel the cool air it provides as relief on a hot day. Somehow in that moment those miles you hiked under an earlier canopy of trees just don't seem so bad after all when compared to the burn you just experienced. And just like that, it makes you stop and think for a minute about the natural world. That charred forest that was once something beautiful is actually still there. It didn’t go anywhere. It will never go away, ever. It simply remains and rebuilds like it has for millions of years and will continue to do for another million. The only thing that did change is the manner in which we perceive it. Maybe it comes back stronger, maybe it doesn’t, but it still comes back. That burned portion of the forest doesn’t care if it has or doesn’t have big towering trees on it. It will make do with what it has and the moment that fire finally went out, it wasted no time in reinventing itself.
Will the Columbia River Gorge be forever changed, or will those of us who remember it as it once was be forever changed by the Gorge? Will it be strange to see a charred forest? Sure, but it’s also strange to see ourselves in the mirror after a change in hairstyles. In time, we will get used to it and even grow fond of it once again. What was once abnormal, will become normal once again.
I’ll let you in on a little secret. Those miles I hiked through old burns were also some of the most beautiful miles of the trail. The contrast between the charred black trees and the bright green regrowth offered a view that no lush green forest could ever provide. To top it off, it turns out that flowers happen to love freshly burned forests. The most common of these flowers is purple in color and at times they light up the landscape like something you’ve only dreamed of. For miles you can walk through fields of flowers filled with the sound of honey bees gathering their harvest. Trust me when I tell you that those who call the Gorge home have something to look forward to.
The Columbia Gorge is and will always be a magical and inspiring place. No fire could ever change that. Be grateful if you were one of the lucky ones to see it how it once was, and be thankful that you can look across to the Washington side and explore it how you always have. Be excited you get to witness nature do what it does best in the coming years.
Like many others, I will miss seeing the Gorge in the way I’ve seen it all my life. It will take some time to get used to seeing it differently, but I can’t help but think that some ancient peoples living on the River hundreds or thousands of years ago had probably experienced this same exact thing once or twice. Their river and mountains likely changed drastically during their lifetimes and before them, someone was watching it as it was being carved out by glacial ice flows.
Millions of flowers are coming to the Gorge and it is going to be beautiful. Just think about it.