mAmerican Angler 1990

Rivers of Fire

When I was two I took a book of matches out to a grassy field behind our garage and promptly proceeded to burn the whole field down. It took every fire engine from both municipal townships to keep the fire from burning across Mr. Bliss's field of corn stubble to the tinder-dry hardwood thickets along the banks of Princeton's Lake Carnegie. I don't remember anything about it, but I do think it left me with a deep seated fear of fire that even now, some forty 60 years later, I still carry with me.

I have a hard time leaving my house, say for a fast trip down to the hardware store, without stopping first to sweep the non-existent dust away from the hearth of my woodstove in winter. And on my return trip, as I round the corner at the top of the hill, I can't resist stretching my neck to get a better view of my roof as it first appears, just to make sure that flames aren't leaping from the edges of the chimney. These aren't rational responses I know, but that's just the point.


And so it was, in the early afternoon of the 23rd of July when my father and I first rounded the corner on a high, prairie ridge in Yellowstone Park last summer, when we first saw the smoke. We were driving toward our favorite spot in Montana to fish a meandering, meadowy section of a cutthroat creek that Colin (my father) and I had been fishing every summer for nearly twenty years. And there was no mistaking the source of the smoke. Where we were going was where it was coming from. I could feel the muscles at the base of my neck tighten up just thinking about it. We hadn't had much snow in Montana for about four years in a row, and the forests had become progressively drier each season.

"Do you realize how dry it is," I said?

"I hope that smoke isn't drifting back down the valley," said Colin. "My asthma won't take it."

Mormon Cricket As we emerged from the head of a small canyon just past the turnoff to the Slough Creek campground, I could see a steady breeze blowing the smoke eastward, up and over the ridges and high plateaus to the north of Saddle Mountain. The air in the valley itself was still clear. Colin wouldn't have any trouble fishing as long as the wind didn't change. We pulled off onto a gravely turnout at the east end of the meadow and climbed out of the car to stretch our legs and look things over.

It was an incredible sight. A herd of Bison surrounded a pair of elaborately outfitted fly fishermen who were working both ends of what Colin and I have always referred to as the President's pool. And about three or four miles past the far side of the valley, from somewhere up a steep, heavily forested canyon, an evil mushroom stem of gray, blue, purple-orange and black smoke rose straight up into the trade winds about a thousand feet over the tops of mountains and then dispersed eastward in a massive, swirling smear of confusion. It wasn't a big fire yet, but it was a hot one. A noisy Park Service helicopter was thumping over our heads, canting itself into the wind, chopping its way across the smoky valley toward the source of the fire.

The water was lower than either of us had ever seen it before. At a time when this little creek should still have been bank-full, the water was clear as tepid tapwater, and there was hardly enough of it to drown a mouse. I wanted to run down the road and grab someone. To shake them by the shoulders and yell at them. The Park Service and their late 1960's back-to-nature-let-it-burn policy was going to incinerate the whole park on a year like this. Nobody seemed to realize what was going on!

Colin and I looked at each other several times without saying anything. "I hope they know what they're doing," said Colin.

"They'd better put this one out right now," I said, "or it'll burn through to Dead Indian pass before the end of the summer."

After a quick conference Colin decided to fish downstream, to fish the Two Lonesome Cottonwoods pool, and to stay close to the highway in case the wind shifted. I like to move a lot faster than Colin does, and he gets mad if I fish out ahead of him, so I decided to take my waders off and strike out across the valley, to head upstream toward the source of the fire. It was warm enough to wet wade, and I could cover a lot more ground with sneakers on.

The water was low all right, but it was still quite cool, and the fish were as bright and healthy and hungry as they could be. They were so obviously concentrated in what little deep water there was, at the heads of the pools and at the bends of the ox bows, that the fishing was as good-or as easy-as I'd ever seen it before.

As I moved upstream, often walking and casting simultaneously, only slowing down to fish seriously at the best looking banks, I had to laugh at my circumstances: I wanted to slow down and relax, to take in my surroundings and enjoy the most intensely beautiful day I had seen in a year or more, but I found myself becoming increasingly agitated and less interested in the fishing. My eyes kept drifting southward and upward to the source of the smoke and the flames.

I realized I was being drawn southward by a powerful and irresistible force. Like a schoolboy chasing fire engines on a bicycle; I wanted to see the fire.

I also began to notice how remarkably dry and overworked this valley had become.

Back in the early 1960's, when Colin and I first started fishing here, approximately two hundred bison and somewhere between three and four thousand elk inhabited the northern portions of Yellowstone Park. In order to control their numbers in the absence of any natural predators, the Park Service employed trained government hunters to shoot large numbers of these animals during the coldest part of the winter.

It was a controversial policy from its inception, but it seemed to be a successful one, because the riparian range lands were in prime shape.

But jealous hunters and vocal animal rights groups had raised such a fuss that the shooting was discontinued, and the herds have mushroomed ever since, until now, in the late 1980's, the northern Yellowstone Bison herd is estimated at nearly nine hundred individuals, and the elk herd, depending on who's counting, at anywhere from twenty to thirty thousand!

And for the first time since we'd been coming here I noticed large numbers of purple headed bull thistles cropping up through the tall grasses. And not just a scattering of individuals, but whole fields of thistles taking over prime grasslands along the banks of the river. The northern valleys in Yellowstone Park were starting to look like the overgrazed cow pastures along the banks of the Gallatin River near Four Corners.

"This must be why they're so anxious to reintroduce the wolf," I thought. "It's the only way the Park Service can control these herds and still hang on to the idea of a natural ecosystem."

In order to avoid wading through a long stretch of poor fishing where the river drains over a hard, smooth bedrock bottom at the base of a cliff, I cut diagonally across a boggy, willow-choked section of bottom land toward a string of deep pools and good fishing I knew about a little further upstream.

I was hunched over and walking backwards-watching the tip of my rod while plowing through the willows-when I suddenly burst out into a small clearing and nearly ran into a crazed Bison.

Early in the summer, when the sun is at its hottest and when the deer flies and the horse flies are at their worst, a few of the biggest, orneriest, most dominant bull Bison drift off from the herds to stake out a territory and build a dust wallow where they'll often stand and snort for weeks at a time, baking their brains in the hot sun, rolling on their backs, pawing the ground and getting meaner by the minute.

Stomping and snorting, swishing his tail in a great cloud of finely sifted ochre-colored dust and buzzing horse flies, this ton and a half behemoth wasn't even aware of my presence, and I wanted to keep it that way.

I was cut off by the cliffs to my left, by an impenetrable thicket to my right, and by an agitated, dangerously lunatic Bison in front. My only choices were to backtrack through the willows-and to wade straight upstream through the barren bedrock riffles-or to abandon the river altogether, for a mile or more, and to head out across the prairie to the mouth of the canyon, where, just below the source of the fire, lay a series of deep pools and riffles that only a handful of fishermen ever get to in a year's time.

I don't like backtracking before I'm through for the day, so I decided to head out across the prairie. It had been years since I'd been all the way up to the canyon, and I was excited about seeing it again.

I decided to bag the fishing, at least for a while, and charge all the way up through the canyon until I could actually see the flames. Then I could wade back downstream with the current and fish all the way home. If I timed it just right, I'd be meeting Colin at the Vanagon right at dark.

The horse trail above the creek bed rises to about a hundred feet above the water in a few spots, so I thought I ought to make my way down to the water while I still had a chance. I jumped off the trail and hop-stepped down a 60 degree slope of loose shale scree, sliding two or three yards with each step amidst a tinkling waterfall of rock chips until I reached the bottom. Then I started wading, running and boulder hopping up through the canyon until I reached a sulfurous hot springs just below the mouth of a small feeder stream-where I first smelled the smoke-and where my desire to actually see the fire rapidly began to fade.

There is a certain lonely, spooky, spiritual adrenaline factor to spending hours alone in the high altitude wilderness that has always intrigued me, ever since my first summer in the mountains when, at the age of four, I collected spiders for a naturalist at the Rocky Mountain Biological Labs at Gothic Mountain Colorado.

But things were starting to get out of hand. The smoke was so close now I had to look almost straight up to see it, and every time the wind shifted in my direction I thought I could actually hear the snapping and the crackling of the flames. I was still a mile or two from the actual fire, but my imagination was starting to run wild. My mind kept conjuring a herd of snarling grizzly bears running headlong down the mountain in a panic retreat from a crowning wall of fire. I decided it was time to start thinking about fishing again.

I heard the droning engines of a large plane laboring toward me from the north, and then saw it appear momentarily in a wafting, ephemeral seam of clear sky in the middle of the burgeoning smoke and drifting ashes.

It was an old World War II tanker of some kind with two propeller engines on each wing and a belly full of water and fire retardant, I guessed. So hallelujah, there was hope for Park Service after all.

I tried to follow the sound of the engines through the smoke as I re-strung my rod and greased up another grasshopper fly. But it was hard to figure out what was going on. The plane circled overhead twice, making two complete circumferences around the fire area, and then it left again, lumbering off toward the clear skies of Mt. Washburn and points west, without ever losing altitude, and without swooping down to empty its watery load.

The fishing was indescribable. I slaughtered them like never before. My grasshopper flies became so saturated with fish slime they wouldn't float anymore, so I switched over to Wulff flies and then to Humpies, eventually exhausting my meager collection of dry flies. I wasn't in a mood to fish wet flies, so I tied on my last floater, a gargantuan foam bodied Salmon Fly imitation that was more bass popper than trout fly.

To my great surprise, the Salmon Fly turned out to be the fly of the day. Instead of a strike every five or six casts, I was suddenly nailing a fish every second or third drift! And I didn't have to worry about my slimy tin of Muclin, because there was enough foam on that fly to float a small trout.

After twenty five years of fly fishing in Montana, this had to be the best day yet. In some of the very best spots, say where a choppy, medium current lapped up against a rock cliff wall, I would often watch two or three shadows rise up at once in a finny foot race to see who got to the Salmon Fly first.

The water in the main creek was so sulfurous from the hot springs it was nearly undrinkable, and I was getting mighty thirsty. So I began boulder hopping and swimming down through the canyon, trotting along the gravely beaches, body surfing through the narrow canyon riffles and fishing here and there until I reached the mouth of Opal Creek, where I drank about a gallon of sweet mountain water, stretched out backwards on a patch of soft wet moss and savored the events of the day.

I must have dozed off for a few minutes, because I woke up to the throbbing chop chop chop of another helicopter. I decided to pack up my rod and head back to the car. If I didn't waste any time, I would still get there before dark.

After about an hour's forced march down along the dry sagebrush bench above the river, I finally dropped back down into the creek bottom about a half mile above the highway and surprised a spin fisherman who was working some deep water along the edges of a beaver lodge. I stopped to chat with him for a while, to see how the fishing was, and to see what he thought about the fire.

He didn't seem too concerned.

"I'm from Jackson," he said. "I've got a summer place down there."

Then he said, "You know, I've been fishing the lake for years, (was he talking about Jackson Lake, or Yellowstone Lake? I wasn't sure) and I've caught a zillion cutthroats, but I've never seen as many big ones as they've got right here in this creek."

"What're you fishing with," I asked?

He pulled up the tip of an old, weather worn spinning road and dangled a small lead headed jig in front of me. It seemed to have a wide band of silver tinsel stretched out along the shank of the hook, embedded in an oblong, minnow shaped lump of clear soft plastic.

"I use 'em all the time," he said. "Best damned lure ever made. But ya know, there don't seem to be any small ones here. They're all fourteen inches or bigger, and I've taken a few that were pushing twenty inches."

"Well, don't tell anyone," I said. "If they don't all boil to death, they'll still be here next year."

"Oh, I suppose," he said. "Course we had a fire like this down in Jackson a few years back, when they first started this let-it-burn thing, and it never did amount to much but a bunch of smoke. Had everyone down in Jackson mad as a hornet's nest though."

"Yeah, I remember that fire," I said. "But that was burning in a lot of damp, north facing spruce timber. And it's a hell of a lot drier than that up here."

"Yeah, it's drier'na pop corn fart alright," he said. "I suppose you're fishing with flies. D'you manage to catch anything yet?"

"Oh I do alright," I said. "See you later. I'm heading back in."

It was interesting, I thought, that he'd noticed there weren't any small fish in here. Colin and I had wondered about it for years. We had also noticed that the fish all seemed to leave in the fall. We'd more or less decided that the shallow waters in this meadow section scoured out with anchor ice each winter, that these were migratory fish, that they came here during the summers, and then swam back downstream to the deep pools in the Yellowstone for the winter.

But it occurred to me, just then, and for the first time, that I'd been catching quite a few tiddlers in the upper canyon.

"Those loose pea gravel runs between the canyon pools must be where they spawn," I thought. "And I'll bet that's where the big meadow fish go to spend the winter."

"I'll have to come back this fall," I promised myself.

And then, as I looked back over my shoulder, "If there's anything left of it," I thought.

Colin was snoring in the back of the Vanagon when I got there. He woke up with a start when I threw open the sliding door.

"What a day," I said.

"I could die tomorrow and I wouldn't have any complaints," said Colin. "What'a'ya say we drive up to Silver Gate and have a snort?"

We drove on up to Silver Gate to get a beer at the Range Riders, and then on to Cooke City to get a steak at the Watuck. We thought about getting a motel and staying the night, but there was a lot of smoke in Cooke and Colin's asthma was acting up. My feet were so sore I wasn't sure I'd be able to fish the next day anyway, so we filled a pair of foam cups with weak, lukewarm western coffee and headed back towards Bozeman.

When we got to the Northeast Entrance to the Park a ranger was still sitting in the dimly lit ticket booth, which was unusual for that time of night. He must have been waiting for someone. He tried to wave us on through, but I wanted to chat with him, so I rolled down my window and asked him about the fire.

"Which one?" he said. "We've got several of them burning right now."

"The one up above Cache Creek," I said.

"Oh you mean the Clover Mist fire," he said. "It's burning about three or four hundred acres right now, up on the Mirror Plateau."

"Well, what happened with that tanker plane?" I asked. "It flew in about two o'clock this afternoon, circled the fire twice and then left."

"There was a back country research cabin that was threatened, so we sent the plane up there to try and save it, but by the time they got there the cabin was already gone. It's our policy not to fight lightning caused fires unless structures are endangered, and the cabin was already lost. So they flew on over to the North Fork fire and dumped their load there. The North Fork fire was man caused, so we're doing everything we can to stop it."

"Well, I'll tell you," I said. "If you don't stop this one soon it'll be here in Cooke City by the end of the month."

"Oh we're not too concerned about the Clover fire," he said. "There's a lot of timber between here and there."

"That's what I'm talking about," I said.

On the way home that night we talked a little about the fires, but mostly about the fishing. Colin was surprised to hear my tale of the invincible Salmon Fly. Small hopper patterns had been our mainstay here for years. There are zillions of small hoppers in the Park's northern valleys each summer, and the drier it is the more hoppers there seem to be. They fly away from your footsteps like macro dust particles as you plod your way through the tall brown grasses.

But there are always a few of the giant hoppers there too, the big yellow bellied locusts that can jump twelve feet and then fly for another thirty or forty yards. And it must have been these big, buzzing, clattering locusts that the cutthroats were taking my orange-bellied Salmon Fly for.

I told Colin about my new theory of the migratory meadow fish, about how I now thought it was upstream rather than downstream that they went to for the winter.

"It doesn't sound right to me," said Colin. "I can't see them swimming back upstream when the water gets as low as it does."

"I'm too old to hike up to that canyon in any case, so it will have to be your adventure."

Then he added, "Either way we should come back again soon. I'm afraid there won't be enough water to fish in if we wait too long."

But it wasn't to be. Because by the first of August Yellowstone Park officials were starting to show the first signs of genuine alarm as the summer blazes, whipped by weeks of hot, dry gusty wind storms, were starting to exhibit what fire fighters refer to as "extreme behavior."

The lodgepole pines were reacting to the severe drought conditions by closing down their "stomata," the minute pores in the surface of the pine needle that normally, and collectively, release vast quantities of excess water vapor into the forest atmosphere. Forest humidity readings were reaching unprecedented lows of five percent and less, with no hint of rain in sight.

Later that month, on "Black Saturday," the twentieth of August, 1988, one hundred and fifty thousand acres of timber burned in a single day.

By the end of the first week in September the whole park seemed to be on fire. Alarm was rapidly turning into total panic as fierce mushrooming convection currents of superheated smoke and steam a half mile wide and forty thousand feet tall could be seen from a hundred miles away. Cooke City had been evacuated and Old Faithful was on the verge of being lost. Tidal waves of fire and gale-force winds were blowing down mature stands of old growth lodgepole pine like stacks of paper cards, crowning over the tree tops and exploding across the high ridges. Twenty-four-a-day retardant flights, nine-thousand firefighters and many hundreds of army six by sixes, all terrain vehicles and pumper trucks from as far away as Minnesota and South Dakota were like a family of beavers trying to hold back the flood waters of the Nile.

On the evening of the tenth of September, all non-essential employees, rangers and their families prepared to evacuate the Park headquarters at Mammoth Junction as a ring of crowning, superheated incendiary mountain tops to the west, to the south and to the east, like a belching archipelago of spuming pre-cambrian volcanoes, routed the darkness of the night skies and closed to within a few frightening miles of town.

On the morning of the eleventh of September, a light moist snow fell on the Park, and the climax of this season of despair was over. A few of the fires, including the massive 450,000 acre Clover Mist fire, now some thirty to forty miles east of Cooke City, flared and smoldered on into the end of October. But none of them ever really got going again.

When the smoke had finally cleared, Park reconnaissance flights revealed that although the outer perimeters of the fires did encompass an enormous area, as much as fifty percent of the timber within those perimeters still remained intact.

Raging rivers of fire near the Norris Geyser Basin and along the highway between Mammoth Junction and Tower Falls had vaporized huge blocks of timber, leaving little more than blackened toothpicks puncturing a soft fluffy groundscape of powdery white ash. But larger areas were scorched by milder blazes, leaving a curious mosaic of burned, slightly burned and untouched timber.

Most of the meadow areas in the Northern end of the Park were burned off in late August and early September, but grassy meadows don't burn with much intensity, and they will be back as green-and possibly overgrazed-as ever next summer.

The Park Service will have to wrestle with political decisions about its management policies for years to come. In recent congressional hearings Park officials did admit they could indeed have extinguished the Clover Mist fire-if they had acted aggressively in its earliest stages-but still kept in question the wisdom of doing so. Most of the rest of the fires were uncontrollable from their inception, making the question of Park policy somewhat moot.

In defense of their Let-It-Burn policy, which had, of course, been abandoned long before summer's end, Park officials argued that the severity of the fires had been exacerbated by a hundred years of ill-advised fire suppression, which had built up an unnatural and dangerously combustible inventory of dry old growth timber in the Yellowstone Ecosystem.

Others argued that a better policy would have been to suppress all fires during dangerous, unpredictable drought conditions, and then, in wetter years, to burn off unwanted stands of old growth timber with carefully planned "prescribed burns."

At the heart of this issue is an unresolved philosophical conflict between those who want an active "hands on" management policy for the Park, and those who prefer to let nature run its course, with as little artificial manipulation by man as possible.

On a late October trip through the Park with some friends last fall, we stopped briefly at the turnout across from the President's pool. We contemplated hiking across the still smoldering meadow to the cindery remains of the canyon, to see if the elusive, mysterious migratory cutthroats were indeed there as I suspected. But we decided to wait for at least another season to find out.

Yellowstone needs to lick its wounds for awhile.

Later that evening as we watched a beaming sunset filtering through the mountain peaks near Mammoth Junction, reflecting brightly off the smooth rimrock canyons to the south, silhouetting blackened lodgepoles on the high ridges to the west like rows of lonely, strangely naked soldiers, it wasn't clear that the fiery storms of the summer could have or should have happened any other way.

The bureaucratic and political squabbles of mankind had, however temporarily, been transcended by the powers of nature.