IN SEARCH OF THE MOMENT

DOCUMENTARY MEDIA BY DANIEL LOMBARDI

 

 

 

 

Summer of Smoke

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August 8th

I dreamed I was walking through a young forest not quite regrown from the last fire. In my dream the song of a mountain chickadee was cut short by the rising wail of an air raid siren. It screamed in slow echoes through the forest. The sound was straight out of World War II and evoked an impending disaster. When the siren finally faded the forest was silent for a moment then a pack of wolves began to howl.

8/10 Sprague Fire Ignites
Thunder explodes overhead and I look up and realize its not thunder but an old stubborn larch snag being slammed around between a few tall lodgepole pines. It’s tossed into one trunk with a low boom then blows down the side of another, branches breaking like lightning. Soon actual lightning echoes in the sky. 

Afterward I'm told that the storm dropped 150 lightning strikes across Park. One of them ignites the Sprague Fire.

8/19 Sprague Fire is 519 acres
I run to the top of Huckleberry fire lookout 15 crow miles from the Sprague Fire. At the top I talk with John in the lookout and he shows me how he uses a fire finder to evaluate the growth of the fire over the past week. He says he’s been watching large trees topple and roll down the mountain, the trunks roll down the steep pitch and ignite the forest below them.

8/23 Sprague Fire is 1,364 acres My family came to visit this week. The kids love to swim so we go to the beach before and after ranger programs. I’d like to take them to my favorite beach on the north end of the lake but the fire is pooling its smoke on that end of the lake. The skies aren’t perfectly clear on this end of the lake but it could be worse.

8/23 Sprague Fire is 1,364 acres
My family came to visit this week. The kids love to swim so we go to the beach before and after ranger programs. I’d like to take them to my favorite beach on the north end of the lake but the fire is pooling its smoke on that end of the lake. The skies aren’t perfectly clear on this end of the lake but it could be worse.

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8/31 Sprague Fire is 2,091 acres I’m sitting in the backyard reading and taking notes on wildfire ecology. Scientists say that the historic practice of suppressing wildfires has been nothing less than an environmental disaster. They say we should let 20 to 30 million acres burn every year to allow natural processes that have existed for millennia to continue. This fire season has been larger than normal and will burn around 10 million acres. I’m distracted from my notes by a text from the park that says that the Sperry Chalet has just burned down. I visited the Chalet with my father as a kid and was able to revisit in July with friends. We slouched with giddy exhaustion in the dining room and drank a pitcher of lemonade and grilled swiss tuna melt sandwiches. Sperry Chalet was opened in 1914 on a rocky perch high in heart of Glacier National Park. It operated for over a hundred years as a jewel of living history in the crown of the continent. I’ve been doing research on the chalets for work and I’ve been taken by their fascinating history and how closely it ties to the history of the park itself. Without the chalets in Glacier and the tourism they brought the park might not have been preserved at all. We ride bikes to the lake shore to watch the fire. Swarms of people line the beach under a sky glowing orange. The park superintendent is here. Staring stoically across the lake with his arms crossed. The mood is sad and mournful.

8/31 Sprague Fire is 2,091 acres
I’m sitting in the backyard reading and taking notes on wildfire ecology. Scientists say that the historic practice of suppressing wildfires has been nothing less than an environmental disaster. They say we should let 20 to 30 million acres burn every year to allow natural processes that have existed for millennia to continue. This fire season has been larger than normal and will burn around 10 million acres. I’m distracted from my notes by a text from the park that says that the Sperry Chalet has just burned down.

I visited the Chalet with my father as a kid and was able to revisit in July with friends. We slouched with giddy exhaustion in the dining room and drank a pitcher of lemonade and grilled swiss tuna melt sandwiches.

Sperry Chalet was opened in 1914 on a rocky perch high in heart of Glacier National Park. It operated for over a hundred years as a jewel of living history in the crown of the continent. I’ve been doing research on the chalets for work and I’ve been taken by their fascinating history and how closely it ties to the history of the park itself. Without the chalets in Glacier and the tourism they brought the park might not have been preserved at all.

We ride bikes to the lake shore to watch the fire. Swarms of people line the beach under a sky glowing orange. The park superintendent is here. Staring stoically across the lake with his arms crossed. The mood is sad and mournful.

8/31 Sprague Fire is 2,091 acres helicopters drop more than 30,000 gallons of water on the fire in a single day

We sit with a group of park employees at the end of the boat dock and the moon, glowing orange through smokey veil, rises behind us. I dangle my feet in the water. Cutthroat trout and little brown bats skim the surface of the water devouring insects. Each pass sends ripples through reflections of the moon and fire. Around me people try and sort out their feelings. Some decry mismanagement I don’t think they know what their talking about, but who knows. One insists that fire is natural. Another insists that it is evil. Another insists we should stop eating beef to reduce our carbon emissions to make fire less likely. 

9/4 Sprague Fire is 9,403 acres and an evacuation has been issued for some areas
Joel visited this weekend and Whitney and I were able to expand some of our recently enjoyable conversations with him. Specifically, our thoughts on wildness and our desire to have it in our lives. Increasingly we wish to have wildness in our lives and find that just any old hike or camping trip may not be enjoyable to us if it’s not sufficiently wild.

We meet Joel on the crowded beach of Lake McDonald in darkness. Small clusters of people are all around watching the flames dance on the skyline. A faint green glow waves across the night above the flames, a solar flare of northern lights barely visible tonight. We talk with Joel about the fear of wild things. About the fear of wildfires. We are afraid we might have to be evacuated.

There is magic in wildness. It’s perhaps addicting and certainly very fulfilling and healing. Joel seemed to agree and know what we were talking about. Wildness is xc skiing at night. It’s swimming in a large lake during a storm. It’s hiking off trail. It’s watching wild animals far from a road. It’s bushwhacking to somewhere humans rarely go. It’s a challenging hunt or fishing trip. Landscapes evoke it when they are undeveloped. Other natural things evoke it as well. Mostly things that are at odds with civilization, the modern world, technology, even human life. Things that are really wild are often things that humans cannot stop. Wildfires,. Floods. Volcanoes. Glaciers. Bear attacks. Hurricanes. Storms. These truly wild things seem evil because they are at such extreme odds with human life and development. Wildness and civilization are perhaps wholly incompatible and opposing concepts.  

9/6 Sprague Fire is 13,343
Today I saw a grizzly bear sitting in a creek. It’s not very hot out. I think the bear may have been distressed by the thick ooze of smoke in the air.

Wildfires seems to very well capture the human repulsion of wild things. Most natural “disasters” do actually. Right now the gulf coast is dealing with many major storms. Two big hurricanes in a row have caused a lot of damage to civilization and dozens of people have died.

9/7 Sprague Fire growth is dampened by heavy smoke 
Large beetles crawl lethargically across window screens. They seem to suffer from the smoke as we do. A soft cold front is hanging around and it keeps the fire from growing much. The smoke settles on the fire and dampens its growth but it settles on us too. The air quality is characterized as “very unhealthy” at best but probably much worse. The smoke has also coincided with a migration of moths that swarm streetlights that remain lit well into the morning for the dimming effect the smoke has on the sun.

September 9th Sprague Fire is 13,674 acres
A faint breeze is blowing itself into a soft and steady wind. Wisps of smoke are on the move and fresh air from somewhere south west of us is a fresh reprieve for our lungs. The air is finally clear enough for me to go on a run. I round a corner of the trail and my view opens up to an oxbow bend in McDonald Creek. My presence startles a Great Blue Heron and it wings into the sky soft and slow. Some distance behind it an apache helicopter shadows its path through the air with a water bucket dangling below it. Both point south through the air.

September 16th Sprague Fire is 15,995 acres

Smoke still hangs around our house so we drive up the canyon. Clouds part and reveal a dusting of snow has landed upon the blue craggy cliffs all wrapped in yellow leaves of fall. I go running up the mountain while Whitney, still recovering from weeks of illness, naps in a meadow. 

I run away from the dull roar of the highway in search of something wild. After a week in the office I need something really wild. Half a mile up the trail I cross the train tracks into the park. Rails laid across my trail are the opposite of the wild, cold, mechanical, loud, and I hurry past them. 

As I go up the mountain the wildness deepens. I reach the first patch of snow and take in a beautiful undeveloped view into an obscure canyon. Few people ever come back here and it feels wild to me because of that.

I keep going and the snow thickens. The snow itself makes things feel wilder. For one thing it's cold and wet and beyond human control. It makes an entirely safe excursion into the forest feel a little dangerous if one were to get too cold and wet. But it also reveals a wildness that was there all along. I follow coyote tracks up the trail until they veer off to chase and snatch a squirrel. A wild story that was always true but only revealed by the snow. 

As I climb the final ridge the snow is blown into drifts and plastered against stunted trees making a wild scene and I'm soaking it all in. Then a mechanical and entirely not wild sound fills the valley from below. I look down and see the train, wheeling steel on steel, moving past where I'd been an hour earlier. Apparently I haven't ventured quite far enough to escape everything unwild. 

By the time I reach the summit the sound has faded and I can see into the heart of Glacier National Park to places and things truly wild. At the heart, the wildest thing in my vision, in addition to the undeveloped valleys filled with fresh snow and left over storm clouds catching on jagged peaks, is a smoldering wildfire. It was naturally caused and burned wildly through wild old growth forests and there was not a thing humans could do about it, but the snow will now slow and end this season of smoke. 

 

All content created by Daniel Lombardi. Copyright 2017.