The West Fork of Oak Creek is burning, Dan tells me, though perhaps the fire jumped over the canyon and spared it. But I picture charcoal on sandstone. The maples, barely leafed out this spring, no longer permitting the sun to admire their green hands held parallel to this earth. Those golden cliffs, smudged with smoke, blackened timber floating in the fouled water. How many times have I chosen to spend my birthday weekend there, among the falling autumn leaves? West Fork is one of the most lovely places in this state, holding its own even when compared to the Grand Canyon or the lush Sonoran desert.
I can’t sleep, worrying how much of it has burned. The trees will come back, I tell myself. Having just hiked through the Granite Mountain Wilderness, which burned last summer, I’ve seen the evidence of nature’s regenerative strengths first hand. The wildflowers carpeting the burned areas there were breathtaking. It would take decades, though, for the West Fork to be restored, perhaps longer than my endless numbered days.
One summer about twenty years ago, I hiked the length of the West Fork with Dan and Mike. Judy shuttled us into the wilderness high above the canyon, through a maze of forest service roads so tangled I fretted that she might not find her way out alone. We’d see her again three days later, meeting up with her and Rachel and Steve, who would hike upstream toward us. The canyon was our trail and we set off downstream, happy to be on our feet and done with the jostling four-wheel-drive ride.
We’d have to ford a couple of long, deep pools, Mike had cautioned. When we came to the first, he sat cross-legged on the sandstone and unrolled an ancient pool raft. Calmly and deliberately, he blew, coaxing the raft into shape. When it was ready, he and Dan lowered it into the pool and placed one of our backpacks on it. They hung on either side of the heavy load, like pallbearers, and floated it across the pool. They paddled across like dogs, keeping their grip on the pack-raft and their eyes on the goal of dry gear, and then returned for the next one. The dark pools were framed by steep canyon walls that blocked out the sun’s warming rays. The water was so cold it was a struggle to breathe. It felt as if the cold squeezed all the breath out of me. Even though it was July, I shivered uncontrollably after I’d crossed, my teeth chattering loud enough to rouse the spirits from the walls. There were three pools we had to traverse that first day in this manner.
After the last one, we were cold and soaked again, but our gear was still dry, thanks to Mike’s raft. A flask of scotch was revealed, a nip to warm us. I took a swig but still trembled, the only warmth travelling straight from my mouth to my belly. I turned to hoist my pack, hoping that moving towards that night’s camp would warm me. I took one step and found myself flung hard against the cold sandstone. The scotch, the slippery algae, fatigue – any number of reasons might explain why I’d tripped. I sported a few rock kisses, but was fine.
We were alone there in that remote end of the canyon, as few people venture on the back roads, choosing instead to park at the trailhead just off the highway where the West Fork meets the main creek. I don’t remember coming across anyone else that first day. By the time we met back up with Judy and Rachel and Steve, though, we’d encountered throngs of visitors who congregated from the other end of the canyon into this exceptional place. We spent one last night in the canyon, playing cribbage by lamp light and watching the mice scamper into our camp looking for crumbs. The next morning, we’d head home. By then it would be raining, and we’d be cold and wet again, and somewhat miserable to be heading back to our jobs and life in the city. For now, though, we continued downstream, cold and wet, but in high spirits, our laughter echoing within those canyon walls.