Last Best Streams: #854.

I’ve been out this season, working away at The List, though I haven’t been writing the up. The persimmons and the woolly worms say it’s going to be a rough winter, and I want to have something to look forward to.

I knew I wanted to do this one first, though. It had come up when I picked streams back last December, and I had known since the spring it would be on the bubble. But I hadn’t heard anything about the fire for months, and so I got up early and packed my tent and ambled toward some new mountains, stopping occasionally to look at old steam locomotives and passenger cars, to take pictures of mountains and mesas. Stopping for the cows which inevitably crammed the roadway, stopping for green chile.

I had noticed the cloud hanging over the mountains all day, but didn’t think much of it. I noticed the sign on the highway blinking that the canyon was closed, and didn’t think much of it. Maybe it was only closed to backcountry travel and dispersed camping. Maybe it was day-use only. Maybe you couldn’t stop in the canyon, but the river above was open. Not closed-closed.

The kiosk at the National Forest Office was more informative, though the place looked like it hadn’t been open in years. Closed for fire, closed for flash flood hazard. This is our future, I thought- living in a west where it can be too wet and too dry at precisely the same time.

I stopped for gas, for a coke and an empanada, watching a trickle of trucks roll down the mountain, their beds laden with personal belongings, drivers staring, lost in their own thoughts. I looked at the map, looked at a creek across the divide, wondered just how closed things were over there.

Two hours later I was switchbacking along a narrow road on the side of a mountain. You could tell trees had been torched, in places the fire had burnt the wooden posts of the guardrails. Even still, the landscape wasn’t barren- much of the ridgetop was burned, but much of the forest on the side slopes was still intact. The meadows and the willows in the bottom were still green. Bees and butterflies still visited blooming flowers. Wild hops still rambled along derelict wire fences.

The creek itself was in rough shape, thick gray ash matted grass and vegetation along its banks, the water dark and opaque. I couldn’t imagine a fish living there. Maybe somewhere along the valley some spring or meadow pool wells up and provides refuge.

I kept on down the road until I reached the gate. The signs justifying closure, the signs thanking firefighters. I stepped out of my car and watched a dozen turkeys loaf in the yard of an empty cabin. I hadn’t noticed until then there were no cars parked in front of any of the residences. Overhead, the low thud of helicopter blades as they carried red totes of water over the mountain.

Back in town I tried washing my hands at the gas station and no water came out. I blamed poor management, but the man on the radio pointed out the fire and its ash had fouled the town’s principal water supply. Thirty thousand people had to budget their reservoir between domestic use and fighting an ongoing blaze, months after the news trucks left town. They would need to figure out a plan for the foreseeable future.

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