Dispatches From the Road: Fire in Big Canyon Country, Part II

A smoky river canyon in Idaho. (Chris Marshall/CNS)

“You’ve got to get to Glacier,” the veteran news reporter said a few years back during a job interview in Montana, where I was consistently humbled by the quality of the job candidates. Turns out many talented people love living in Big Sky Country enough to cobble together careers. I can understand, at least during the unfrozen parts of the year.

While the reporter agreed Yellowstone is worth a visit and Grand Teton is splendid, she and a few others declared Glacier National Park a must-see for someone like me who professed love for the natural splendor of Big Sky Country.

“Maybe next trip,” I would reply.

What’s that, dear reader? You say I ended the past dispatch at the bottom of a canyon, a wildfire seemingly headed my way?

Fear not, Klaus the dog and I survived, and no worse for wear.

I shot awake at what must have been close to first light, the camper now so smoke-filled I could barely see the door less than fifteen feet away. Luckily the fire had not moved close enough to the tiny RV park to require an evacuation. But the smoke was bad enough for me to get ready quickly as possible and, after feeding my canine co-pilot, wolfing down some breakfast of my own and taking a couple pictures in the slightly less smoky air outside the camper while he did his morning constitution, I hit the road again.

The river running alongside the RV park in Riggins, Idaho. (Chris Marshall/CNS)

Tiny Riggins, Idaho, mostly slumbered at that early hour, and the few people who were out didn’t go in haste. Perhaps they knew something I didn’t. Perhaps they are so used to the threat of wildfires they’re immune.

The smoke dissipated as we weaved through canyons, interrupted here and there by mountain passes that sometimes opened into great fields before plunging anew.

Progress was slowed when we reached mercifully smoke-free Kooskia by an old man in a beat-up pickup.

Hair shock-white, the driver chewed aggressively on what I assume was gum while his truck swayed from one side of the road to the other, almost into a ditch a couple times, and always at under 15 miles an hour. Not sure if he was drunk, in the midst of a stroke or screwing with me, I kept my distance as he stared through his rearview mirror at this presumably wild-eyed and certainly wild-haired creature in the dirty camper with California plates.

The truck eventually crawled to the left, into the wrong lane, before the old man corrected, turned and puttered away. I sped up, but almost immediately noticed a sign saying the bridge ahead over the Clearwater River was closed. No mention of a detour.

After driving past the shuttered bridge Google Maps told me to keep going. The road turned to gravel, then dirt as it ascended what I soon realized was an experimental forest service road. I pulled over and looked at the directions. The app wanted me to climb another five twisting miles to the end of the road, turn around, retrace my steps and then go over the same bridge.

Given the landscape I imagined there weren’t quick alternate routes, and Google Maps, like a mule, insisted on the closed bridge. If I couldn’t cross the river I’d have to drive back through smoke-filled canyons on what would probably be an eight-hour detour.

Laughing since the other option was to cry, I imagined the real-life emigrants depicted in the old “Oregon Trail” computer game, losing oxen, wagons and sometimes their lives trying to ford rivers. Then I envisioned the size raft we’d need to get my behemoth of a truck and camper over the river.

Studying the map again I realized that had I just followed the old man I would have come upon a bigger, newer bridge just a couple miles upriver.

After making my way back and crossing the open bridge I sped up again, but then thought I saw a sign indicating trucks, RVs and trailers were prohibited from crossing the next bridge. I’d barely begun formulating my excuse (I’m in a camper, not an RV!) when I came upon stopped traffic ahead of the light at the end of the one-lane bridge.

Realizing I couldn’t turn around if I wanted to I begged for forgiveness from my mother and the gods I doubt exist for my next transgression – and, if they were so inclined, for any of my many other recent sins.

The bridge looked sturdy enough as the truck inched over it. Hitting pavement on the other side I noticed a gargantuan motor home at the front of the waiting line, then a truck towing a travel trailer and finally a big rig.

Maybe I imagined the sign. I sure felt less guilty.

Flowers and a river canyon in Idaho. (Chris Marshall/CNS)

For the better part of the afternoon we meandered through the Nez Perce National Forest, the hills wooded and riversides green, no towns or buildings for hours, save an outhouse for the occasional primitive campground tucked along the riverside.

Around one bend a large deer of a type I’d not seen before stood in the road. He turned his head to look at the camper before heading up the steep mountainside. Wondering why he didn’t go for the river and fearing he would flop back I slowed to a crawl. With dust flying from his hooves, the beast bounded quickly up the incline, dodged a few small trees and disappeared into the forest.

Hours later, near the Montana border, we began to climb. Though a historic placard near the summit of the Lolo Pass beckoned I rolled on, knowing that should I stop now my laden camper would crawl the rest of the way up the mountain.

As we reached the valley floor on the other side scars from the destructive Lolo Fire that sent smoke southeast into Yellowstone National Park the summer before came into view. Green sprouts of new vegetation interrupted the otherwise blackened fields.

An impossibly white fence around a freshly paved driveway stretched to a house with a paint job so bright and eye-catching I concluded the house couldn’t be more than a few months old.

After a blissfully uneventful night at a KOA on what used to the edge of now-sprawling Missoula I drove to court to learn about a new case management system the state was rolling out in anticipation of electronic filing.

The Missoula County (Montana) Courthouse. (Chris Marshall/CNS)

The lesson complete, the local reporter and I headed outside where the mountains kept the smoke high above the valley. She mentioned she had some interviews lined up later that morning for a story about best practices for wildfire management.

What they were she didn’t know yet. But we agreed that my adopted home state’s apparent obsession with fighting every fire and saving every structure ended in exhausted firefighters and budgets and left behind vegetation that could feed future infernos.

She mentioned proposals to use controlled burns to thin vegetation and to let more fires burn out.

But public perception is that all fires are bad, and the smoke is unhealthy.

I recalled a recent conversation I had with a woman in California who said her parents had to evacuate their house due to a fire, and if the house burned down they planned on using insurance proceeds to rebuild, with no guarantee the second house wouldn’t suffer the same fate.

Agreeing only that something needed to give, she headed for her bike to ride to her first interview. I went to my camper to meet up with a friend for the final leg of the trip to Glacier.

The story of why we only made it a couple miles into the park is for next time.

Hells Canyon, Idaho, shrouded in wildfire smoke. (Chris Marshall/CNS)
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