Oregon · USA
Afternoon sunlight streams through a break in the clouds and illuminates Wahclella Falls in a tantalizingly warm glow.
It was a little over two years ago that I last walked this trail (see “The Last Dance”), just before it and a host of beloved others in the Columbia River Gorge were continuously assailed by fire for over three months, the devastating aftermath of a 15-year-old’s careless act. Though several trails were remediated and reopened months ago, Wahclella needed more time given its proximity to the scene of the crime. After all, it was just a mile east of here that the boy had lobbed a smoke bomb into the tinderbox maw of Eagle Creek Canyon and set into motion a tragic screenplay that unfolded in far too many acts, all of it documented in excruciating detail on the news and social media in the days, weeks, and months to come. Though the flames have since quenched, the story of the recovering forest is an evolving narrative that will continue long after you and I have departed this earth. Even still today, many of the longer, more obscure (but no less spectacular) trails are awaiting trail keepers’ attention—something that realistically may never come for some due to fiscal limitations and the sheer logistics of it all.
Despite the mosaic burn pattern, the scars left behind by the conflagration here were not subtle: The understory wasn’t nearly as lush as it once was, downed trees and rockfall from accelerated erosion of the denuded slopes littered the gorge, and above our heads charred trees rimmed the canyon walls like looming ebon palisades. Just past a crest in the trail, the path levels off before threading between two colossal old-growth Douglas-firs jutting obliquely from the canyon walls in blatant defiance of physics—the torque on their root systems here must be enormous. And yet walking in the midst of them for me has always offered a kind of comforting reassurance, as if in a hostile land known to traverse the territory of thieves and wolves, two grand shepherds, familiar and enduring, suddenly appeared at my sides. But seeing them again was bittersweet—their husks blackened by flames that ostensibly reached tens of meters tall. Coupled with the risk of greater erosion resulting from the fire-denuded slopes, there’s no telling how much the Eagle Creek Fire might have accelerated their inevitable collapse.
But then just a few more steps beyond this was Wahclella, exploding through its basaltic flume every bit as emphatically as it did before the inferno, its raw power commanding my undivided attention as it always has. And yet, there was something different about being here this time...something far beyond the realm of the eyes—the land’s char and ashes, the stream’s flotsam and rubble, the singed treetops and unfamiliarly open canopy. Things sounded different. It *felt* different.
It wasn't the usual cacophony of people blasting their music on UE BOOMs for all to hear (whether they’d like to or not), or unruly dogs unleashed from their negligent owners, or trail congestion from selfie ops by people just out ‘doing it for the ’gram.’ There was no carousing for those climbing down to the plunge pool...no hooting, no hollering...only marvel. At a time when trail etiquette has been relegated to relic of an antiquated era, fellow hikers on this day seemed unusually subdued, courteous, even neighborly. And all seemed genuinely attuned to the power of this place and the fleeting beauty of every moment they were privileged to be in its presence. Reverence supplanted revelry once more, and it seemed for many the magic of the Columbia River Gorge was back.
But in truth, it never really left the place, did it? No, I don’t think so. What I believed happened—not just here, but in (far too) many places—is in an alarmingly short time, social media fully penetrated the brain and inoculated the bloodstream of the people, and a kind of immunity to the world around us—a destructive insensitivity—festered. Egotism and utilitarianism became pandemic, and the natural environment only merited our concern when it served our immediate base needs, inasmuch as an actor casts aside a cheap stage prop after the director yells Cut! It didn’t matter who you were or what you actually believed...what mattered was whether you could convince everyone you were who you wanted to be through a meticulously-staged photo and optional hackneyed quote, whatever the cost (just google “selfie deaths,” for example). Image wasn’t everything—it was the only thing.
If I’m being totally honest here, I believe this indifference, this disregard of the natural world around us only corrupts us from within and poisons all we touch, and I’m saddened that it took the large-scale devastation wrought by an adolescent’s recklessness to snap us out of it (hopefully…?). But if that’s where we find our collective consciousness now, then the better for it...the ashen toll notwithstanding.
If there’s any immunity to be valued, then it has to be Wahclella’s empirical resilience in the face of mankind’s arrogance. It took this fiery body blow with nary a flinch, and despite outward appearances it was really us that suffered the deepest burns. Wahclella will endure man’s worst. For us, though, barely out of diapers in the grand life story of the universe, I think the prognosis is far more uncertain.