Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Where there's smoke, there's fire.

We planned our first long raft trip of the season to be on the John Day River. We were looking for a calm, safe river to take several novices and kids for their first rafting adventure. Along on the trip were 5 adult experienced rafters, two young women from Germany, an eleven year-old and six year-old.

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We launched on Monday June 30, and due to the unusual weather this year, the water was high enough to raft this river without concerns that we'd have to drag our rafts over rocky river bars. The envisioned trip lay ahead full of swimming, fishing, great meals and lounging about.

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The days were hot, over 100 degrees, so the routine developed of frequently dipping into the river to cool off. Drying off took only a few minutes then the heat would drive us back into the river.
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As we got further into the canyon, the incredible basalt rock cliffs gave us plenty to ponder. Talk about patterns!
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And so the first 2 days went, lots of sun, water, good food and company. We saw columns of smoke off and on, which did not alarm us, as they were off in the distance. The thunderstorm on Sunday night no doubt started a few fires. Wednesday was another great day on the river. We found a sweet campsite where someone in the area must have frequented, because it had a picnic table under the shade of a large juniper tree. A jar hanging from the tree had a small notebook for campers to log their stays there. We noticed it was used almost every night. There were many great tent sites, so we all got settled into our spots early to enjoy the late afternoon and evening off the water. We had a fabulous dinner of pasta with Italian sausage in tomato sauce and fresh green salad.

Just after cleaning up, our friend and experienced rafter and fire fighter, climbed up the ridge to investigate the smoke we could see behind us. He quickly returned and called the adults together to report that the fire was closer than we thought. We needed to consider breaking camp and moving on. It would be the wise thing to do. Well, it was almost dark, and for any of you who've rafted a river, you know that camp spots can be miles apart. Leaving this great spot in the dark was not an attractive option. We agreed that Norm should go take a second look to see if the fire was headed our way.

I went to our tent, just to survey what it would take to pack up. I noticed Mike had not only set up the tent, but also had taken our bedding out of the dry bag and made our beds. We'd also felt a few sprinkles of rain, so we'd put on our tent fly. (I make note of this because it has importance in what was to follow. The more thoroughly set up our camp, the more gear to pack up!)

When I pulled my head out of the tent, I looked over my right shoulder to see apricot colored clouds of smoke. The fire was heading our way, and our tent site would be the first to burn. I hollered out, "We're going!"

Our friend Dawn, also experienced in emergencies, listed the things of importance to do. Get the kitchen box in the raft--we'd need to feed ourselves down the river. Get all the young ones in a raft, so we'd know where they were when we had to push off. Everyone else, take down tents, stuff what we could in bags and load the rafts.

Leaving the stronger parties to load the kitchen box and heavier items, I started on our tent. I first dug our my headlamp then shoved our clothes and bedding in our dry bags. I'd just begun to take down the tent, when I looked up river again and saw flames. I figured our tent was a goner, because I just couldn't get it down by myself in time. Suddenly three or four other people arrived, and in what seemed like seconds, the tent was down, rods folded and all stuffed in a bag. We all headed to the rafts and through our belongings aboard.

By this time the fire had enveloped our tent site and it was now dark. We simply pushed off and rowed across the river to watch the fire burn through our campsite. We landed, huddled on our rafts with wet cloths to breathe through to protect our lungs form the hot smoke. My husband Mike and I gathered up Angelica, our 6 year-old granddaughter, to sit with us, as she'd come over on another raft. We wanted to be able to assure her that we'd all be okay. Even though I personally was pretty darned scared, I knew how to fake calm and be reassuring to others.

We not only had the hillside fire show, but an incredible lighting storm lit up the sky. We decided standing in the water was not a smart place to be, given the close proximity of some of the lightening strikes. We watched for embers traveling to our side of the river, since that is the way fires jump the river.

We sat on the rocks of the river in shock for a while as the adrenaline in our system wore down. We realized it was something short of a miracle that we got our belongings loaded. Dawn, who'd been keeping track of the time, said it was about 20 minutes from the time Norm first spoke to us about the fire and it's proximity to our camp and our landing on the other side. Everyone had been in overdrive, and no one had panicked. Even the 6 year-old had lugged chairs down to the rafts before crawling on board.

Then, thankfully, the storm produced rain. The rain cooled everything down, including the fire. The raging flames got smaller and the air cleared. We pulled some tarps and ponchos out to keep us dry. It rained for just long enough and then the stars came out. We realized moving on in the dark was not a good choice at this point, since the eminent danger seemed to have passed. The fire across the had mostly burned out and it had not jumped over to our side. We pulled out our sleeping gear, and helped everyone get some padding and covering for the night. I think most people got some sleep, especially the young folks. Dawn and I stayed awake most of the night, both to keep watch and because we couldn't shut off our brains.
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I wish I had pictures of that night. Perhaps I'll get some from other folks on our trip, but for now it's only the morning after. Did I mention we slept on rocks?
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And here's our campsite the morning after.
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After surveying our old campsite, we found one hammock still intact and a pair of sunglasses sitting around the chars of the hat they sat on. The glasses were, of course, ruined. We ate breakfast and carefully repacked our gear before heading down river. Our goal was to find a great spot early in the day and let everyone play, swim and catch up on sleep. We could see we had an exhausted crew. All Elsie, the eleven year-old wanted was a hammock to sleep in.
 
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We knew which side of the river we had to stop on this time. As far as we knew the fire was only on one side, and we'd stop on the other. We pulled up on a nice rocky beach and looked around for smoke. Indeed there was some, but we were on the opposite shore.
 
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And where there's smoke there's fire.
 
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And we found out shortly after lunch that where there's smoke and fire, you might find helicopters gathering buckets of water to suppress the fire.
 
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Some of us tried to unwind and just watch the show.
 
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While others caught up on sleep.
 
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At the end of the day spirits were elevated by rest and another good meal.
 
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Elsie is rested and much happier.

The rest of the trip was back to the expected: swimming,
 
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wildlife sightings,

 
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enjoying each other's company.
 
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On Saturday afternoon we pulled off the river without further excitement. The fire was behind us and just a piece of memory.

I'll conclude with an interesting fact. Mike and I have now been on three raft trips where we had to float through fires. Does this guy look like he has bad kharma?
 
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5 comments:

Ruth said...

Wow... what a trip! My son is on the Lower Salmon river in Idaho as we speak. I'm going to be praying for a fire-free summer for him!

Don't know how often you check art buddies, but I just got my blog up & running... thanks to your inspiration!
Check it out & let me know what you think :)

Anonymous said...

"Holy smoke!!" ...seems to be the comment called for. So glad you are all cool headed in hot situations. We've been reading about the thousands of fires this summer. The FS will have it's job cut out for it. Julie

Linda said...

Thanks for sharing your amazing adventure, great photos and useful lifesaving tips in such a situation.
You have inspired me to start a blog, too.
Linda

Anonymous said...

What an amazingly unbelievable trip. And you didn't wait for meeeeee!!! I am so glad you are all safe and sound and have great memories of good times together. I don't quite get how to produce great meals right at home with a kitchen. So producing them at a camp site down a river really throws me off. Maybe when I'm there, you will explain it to me. You have some really great patterns to work with.

We are having 30-40 ft fountains out of Pu'u O'o but that is completely safe except for breathing. You guys did a great job of saving yourselves in a really tricky situation.

Thanks for writing all the details and taking and sending the pictures.
Petie

Anonymous said...

WOW, what an exciting adventure. Glad you all came out unscathed. I was once caught on a river camp in a lightening, rain and wind storm. It was one time I was glad I was a little hefty to hold down the tent!! But, fire is an entirely different matter. I can see some good paintings coming out of this trip!
Marline