On and on the Miriam fire burns, scorching an ever-widening swath of lightning-struck forest near White Pass. And on trudge Pacific Crest Trail thru-hikers, slightly unnerved but undaunted, rerouted but full of resolve.
With each bad fire season in the Cascades — and, now, it’s almost noteworthy when the wilderness doesn’t ignite — the appearance and personality of the PCT changes. In places, what once were stately rows of redwoods and firs have been reduced to charred and ravaged patches of sadness, husks of blackened trees scattered like the old children’s game of Pick-Up Sticks.
Hikers on the PCT, which is celebrating its 50th year as a National Scenic Trail, have seen the damage wrought by wildfires most acutely in the California Sierra Nevada mountains, but verdant stretches running through Oregon have been scarred mightily, too. And, alas, significant portions of the lush segments running through Washington state also have been affected. The ongoing Miriam fire has closed a 12-mile stretch of the PCT from Tieton Pass to White Pass. Last August’s biggest blaze here, the Norse Peak fire, burned 10 miles of the trail near Mount Rainier and closed 99 miles of the trail for the rest of the fall.
At the risk of being melodramatic, not to mention anthropomorphic, to look at portions of the PCT today is like seeing a loved-one felled by illness: once so vibrant and hale, now scarred and diminished.
You could rail all you want at the weather gods that sent the lightning that started many of the blazes. You could cast aspersions on humanity for the what many believe are human-contributed temperature spikes and prolonged droughts that make for prime fire conditions. You could — and have every right to — mourn the damage.
You could do all that — and wind up feeling pretty miserable. Or you can see the Nalgene bottle as half full and view the wilderness around the PCT as morphing rather than mutilated. Not dead so much as just entering a new phase of existence.
That was the message we received after speaking with noted outdoors writer and photographer Tami Asars, author of four hiking guides, including “Hiking the Pacific Crest Trail: Washington.” She had just descended into Cascade Locks, the northern terminus of the PCT’s Oregon section, and she was devastated walking amid damage from last year’s Eagle Creek Fire, set by illegal fireworks use.
“It’s heartbreaking,” she said, cell-phone crackling. “There’s an area farther south in Oregon, near Mount Jefferson, pristine and lush like (Mount Rainier’s) Wonderland Trail. Two years ago, I camped there, picked berries there, had these memories of giant beautiful trees. This time when I walked through, it was all gone. With each step you are taking, there are little puffs of dirt coming up. Heartbreaking.”
And yet, Asars is heartened because she’s also seen parts of the PCT burned a decade or two ago that are rebounding.
“Walk through some of those areas, and they almost look like little Christmas tree farms,” she said. “The pink fireweed was pressed up against the pink azure sky — sort of picturesque. I thought, here’s a little story of regrowth, rebirth. No matter how low life knocks you down, there’s a way to get back up. That’s what fire zones teach you.”
Upon returning to fire-ravaged PCT trails now, Asars has seen nature’s resurrection up close. Seen small animals take up residence in downed logs being worked on by woodpeckers. Seen hummingbirds feeding on new flower species such as the white- and yellow-tuffed Pearly Everlasting, which thrive in fire zones. And she’s plucked huckleberries growing in soil newly acidic.
“It’s almost like Mother Nature has to redecorate every now and then,” she said. “The trail’s always changing. Probably as long as there’s been this crazy trail that goes up this coastline, there have been fires. The trail’s almost like a living, breathing thing.”
Though an optimist, Asars cannot help but grieve over what has been lost on her beloved PCT. All she can do is remind herself of the cycle of nature.
“Maybe,” she said tentatively, as if trying to convince herself, “we’ll see a healthy drought-resistant forest come from all this — just not in our lifetime.”
• Members of the Yakima Herald-Republic editorial board are Bob Crider and Sam McManis.