Sunday, June 5, 2011

Smoke and Old Memories

When I read this post by John Fleck two nights ago, my window was wide open, and the smell of smoke from wood-burning stoves was seeping in — not strongly, because it was only mildly cold and most neighbors have ceased wood burning in favor of hoping for summer. As the faint scent crept in with the wonderfully cool air, I realized that I too love the smell of smoke on the wind, even though large range fires irritate my eyes and nose, even going so far as to sometimes make me sneeze.

As I sat there, reading and breathing it all in, I felt some connection to previous brush fires (one in the Trinity Alps in 1981 specifically jumped into my memory), and some connection to other smoky times, such as when thick smoke hovers near the ground on cold wintry days and nights at our lake house — a pleasant connection because I love winter. The smell also brought back the many campfires of my childhood, particularly a campfire in the woods of Pennsylvania or New Hampshire (really, I'm not sure where it was, just that it was north of Virginia), and another one from high in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Other camps and other places were all mixed into this one mental ball of smoky associations, and pulling them out individually required a bit of effort; sometimes the pulling resulted in views and visions of big redwood trees, sometimes meadows and valleys, other times the waterfalls of Yosemite, and then again a campsite (or two) of reveling geologists. This mental ball of smoke evoked marshmallows, field days and nights, hilarity, song, and laughter. It evoked being warm while out in the cold, not-quite wilderness.


I'm not sure why the fire near the Trinity Alps sticks in my mind. My field assistant and I were staying in the smallish, semi-touristy town of — pause while I go look this up on Google Maps — Weaverville, CA, working up Highway 3 in the Trinity Mountains on the east side of Clair Engle Lake (AKA Trinity Reservoir), along or near the Trinity-Shasta County line. Or at least that's where I think we were, although I haven't quite been able to place the area on a topo map.

There were two ways into the submittal or follow-up property we were evaluating. Our main route came in on paved Highway 3 on the west side of the lake, crossing over the northernmost arm of the lake on a small bridge. At some point, we exited pavement for logging roads that then took us eastward into the hils. I only vaguley remember the second way in: possibly we never went that way at all.

Smoke came up that one afternoon, maybe it was the first or second day we were there. To us, the source was unknown, and though it wasn't the first unknown fire we'd experienced that summer, the effect was, as ever, the same: my adrenaline shot up and I wanted to go for high ground to try to determine the location of the fire. When not knowing the direction or distance to a fire, I prefer to leave the area. But which way do you go?

We had a second route out of the area if we conintued on dirt or pavement to the south, a way we had possibly already come in on, a way we may have never taken. I don't recall our decision that day, but do know that we decided to go in the next day — we had found out while in Weaverville that evening (firefighters were everywhere) that the fire was west of Highway 3 and west of the lake — and we figured the lake was a good fire barrier.

So we went back, the second or third day, driving up the west shore, across the northern arm, into the property. The air was heavy with smoke and distinctly reddish to yellowish orange. Standing trees (those that hadn't been felled by logging) were hazy, even when close at hand. The ground itself, littered with clinkery rock fragments (probably of meta something) was reddish to orangey brown from alteration or weathering, adding to the red-yellow nature of my memory. We had, the previous day or two, investigated and walked the lower hills, seen some half hidden old mining shacks and relicts in the green, damp depth of the uncut areas; we had tried making our way through one of the clearcuts to find any outcrops or float that might extend the area of known mineralization (gold, I would think), hauling ourselves laboriously over slash piles, stumps, and downed logs.
Although it was cool in the lower uncut trees, up on top — where the old workings and gently dipping silicified or mineralized zones were sticking out in plain sight, where the trees were thinner even without logging — it was hot. Damp and hot. Sunny and hot. The smoke from the Trinity Alps fire (I don't know the name of the fire, anymore, and can only find vague references to fires possibly in June or August – and I'm pretty sure it was August) — the smoke didn't cool things off: even though it shaded and cut the sun, the smoke just made the air thick and the breathing a little more difficult. And even knowing we were most likely safe from the fire jumping the lake, we worked as hard as possible, took as many samples as fast as we could, and didn't go back the next day, even though we hadn't gone around that last ridge.

I've always wanted to go back. The area holds a still-unknown potential. California's requirement to completely reshape all mining areas to the original contour makes open-pit mining nearly or entirely impossible. After taking out some ore-bearing rock, where does one get the dirt and rock for complete recontouring? Scrape it from some other hillside so as to merely shift elsewhere the need for recontouring? Buy it from some limestone company in southern CA and have it hauled in at great expense? Consequently, I won't be going back, even though the area might hold some underground potential and even though the price of gold is up. No one wants to mine in CA anymore, only a few counties are at all predisposed or amenable toward mining, and no major companies will even look at CA submittals. I guess we had our chance back then, and even then the area was difficult, being always too close to wilderness areas or wilderness study areas; always too close, no matter where in CA you happened to be working.


And somehow, that's where @jfleck's post and a hint of wood smoke on the air at night took me: deep into the past, deep into forests hazily, yet intensely remembered — into the color and sound of rocks, the dips of grey, silicified beds, and the ridge around the corner of the hill: what was around that bend, anyway?


Nina F said...

Wonderful story - I felt like I was right there with you, breathing the smoke and hauling myself across slash piles. Thanks for a great read this Sunday evening.

Silver Fox said...

Thanks, Nina! :)