Only You Can Prevent …

by Scott Sadil

We watched the lights come our way, bright spots creeping through the dark, at the curiously slow pace that seems exaggerated by boats drifting in pitch dark on a black river sliding somewhere between invisible banks.

A broad beam swung through our camp, momentarily capturing the two tents, our makeshift galley, the waders and rods and haphazard order of a one-night pause while fishing your way down a big Western river.

“Fire upstream!” shouted someone from the passing boat.  “Fire upstream!”

No shit, I resisted shouting back, by way of a reply.

Deschutes River redside
Deschutes River redside

My reaction, contained, seemed justified nonetheless.  Joe and I were up on the railroad tracks, trying to decide how seriously we needed to take the conflagration upstream, which we had watched for the past hour as clouds of smoke, fueled by wind, rose into the twilight sky above the hillside and campsite just around the bend – the same site, we both assumed, our alarm-sounding nighttime rafters had very recently abandoned.

Neither of us felt the need, however, to continue our assessment of the line of reasoning, and mental acuity, that had prompted said rafters to start a campfire in the canyon in the first place – a hundred-mile stretch of river notorious for these selfsame winds and an abundance of dry, vegetative tinder.  Sure, fires are legal in the canyon until the end of the month.  But at the moment, it mattered not who had done what nor why.

Watching flames crest the hillside, we had to decide, right about now, whether we needed to clear out of Dodge – or, in this case, Nooky, a pretty little site, officially designated, on the banks of the lower Deschutes River.

Having grown up in the West, specifically in southern California, I see flames and wind and I tend to get a wee bit nervous.  Things, need I say, get out of hand quickly – as our neighbors upstream had apparently just discovered.

Joe Kelly

We broke camp as the acrid scent of smoke drifted our way.  Never a model of discipline, I could barely close my dry bags by the time I hastily stuffed my gear inside.  We packed up the raft and climbed into our waders.  No telling where we would actually pull out or what we might find.  

Oh, and I almost failed to mention: This was the one trip I forgot a headlamp, my excuse being the late hour of nightfall after full days of fishing, a schedule that offers good reason to fall into your tent come the first hint of darkness.

“I was looking forward to it tonight,” said Joe, slumped between the oars as we watched the flames coming our way.

But then we decided to stay put, tied to the trunk of a little alder on the bank below our now empty campsite.  Attuned to sailing mishaps and the notion of a “cascading series of errors,” I agreed with Joe that we really didn’t want to float a big, wild river at night—unless, of course, we had to.

Deschutes River
The Deschutes River: no stranger to wildfires

We were stretched out on our backs, lying on the ground in our waders, when we spotted more lights coming downstream.  I climbed out on Joe’s raft and raised my Luci light, which I had been wielding awkwardly in the dark.  The big group in the campsite upstream from the fire had decided they had to move, too.  They saw my light.  I invited them to pull in, wait here with us to see whether we eventually all needed to head farther downstream.

A port in the storm.  Five rafts tied up alongside us, fifteen folks in all, plus three dogs — a party of river rafters not atypical for the holiday weekend.

The dogs, I’m happy to report, were remarkably quiet.  Most everyone else, however, had a few choice words about the campers who had chosen to start their legal fire.

In the morning, Nooky looked as if it had been invaded by half the Sierra Club. The scorched hillside across the river lay quiet, as well.  Joe and I slipped away early.  We stopped and made coffee around the bend, then proceeded down river, catching fish, sometimes lots of them, wherever we waded between the sheer canyon walls.

Gray’s angling editor Scott Sadil stomped out a tiny grass fire that almost escaped his fire ring on an island he camped on while sailing his first boat, Tía, up the Columbia River.  Lesson learned.