July 5 & 6, 2015
We arrived at our new base of operations in Spokane, where my bestie from college, Nicol, is living, and spent several days just unwinding from the roughly 3,000 miles we had traveled already from Leaky, Texas. We enjoyed the luxury of a kitchen, real beds, four walls, laundry machines and air conditioning, which was surprisingly necessary. When we arrived in Spokane, it was 96 degrees! Part of a record-breaking heat wave that Nicol’s Grandma Marcia said was like nothing she’d seen in 20 years of living there. And here we thought we’d escape the heat by going north. Though I suppose 96 is cooler than 106. Of all the luxuries at Nicol’s house, by far the most delightful was just familiar company. There is nothing quite like visiting an old friend in a new place, combining the thrill of exploring a new place with the comfort of intimate conversation about any and all topics. I treasure memories of chilling on the porch in Spokane and chatting for hours on long summer evenings.After so long traveling through places and only having brief interactions with strangers, the joy of being able to speak and listen about deeply personal views and experiences was exhilarating. But after a few days of indoor luxuries, I began to get the itch to sleep under the stars, on the ground again. So we decided to spend a few nights at nearby Riverside State Park. The handful of campsites weren’t great–right beside the park office, close together and with only a few tall pines for trees. Our site was even under a florescent lamp that was on all night. So much for seeing the stars. But we went ahead and set up camp anyway. As we cooked dinner, we sighted some wildlife, in the form of many small wasps buzzing in and out of the ground. A closer look revealed that they were actually dragging caterpillars into holes. I’m guessing they stash the unlucky caterpillars underground and lay eggs in them, so that when the wasp larva hatch they have plenty of food. Contrary to popular stigma, which condemns wasps as painful, annoying and worthless, something that should be wiped off the face of the earth, they’re actually top predators controlling the populations of insect pests like gnats, mosquitoes and caterpillars. Basically, wasps are the wolves of the insect world. Wasps that lay their eggs in caterpillars, spiders and other insects are called parasitoid wasps. This is a really common reproduction strategy for wasps, but one that seems extremely strange from our megafuana-centered perspective. While we waited at camp for Nicol to get off work and come visit us, we watched the sunset adorned with wispy clouds fringed with a hint of rainbow lining over Nine Mile Reservoir. A young park employee came out of the office to join us in watching the sky and we ended up having a pretty philosophical conversation about the nature of Nature, lifelong journeys and perspective. We recognized Chase as a kindred spirit, one of those who contributed to my assertion the there are wonderful people everywhere, you just have to know how to find them. As a memento of the brief but bonding connection we shared, the next day I gave him one of my poetry postcards, and to my surprise he quickly came back with one of his own, which is one of my most cherished souvenirs from the trip. I’ll share my favorite part of his poem here: “Simply life is what this is with lots to learn I’ll tell my kids. It’s meant to be here and now don’t force a change just take a vow that you will bow to how you are and whatever it is that made the stars.” Thanks a million Chase. A word may not be worth a dime to sell, but exchanging sincere words creates a warmth no money can buy.The very next day as we drove beside the Little Spokane River, we saw thick smoke over the ridge. We had already seen the distinctive haze from nearby fires on many occasions. This was fire season after all! And on one of the hottest years, during an intense drought. Even with state wide burn bans, fires still sprung up across the state, and by the end of summer, 2015 was declared Washington’s worst year for wildfires, with about 500, 000 acres burned, beating the record 413,143 acres that burned last year. A dual rotor helicopter was flying over the the fire, dumping water from the lake and then returning to scoop up more water. Morgan and I both had never seen how a wildfire was fought before, since there isn’t a fire season where we’re from. We headed to a favorite hang-out-and-watch-sunset spot where the cement foundation of an old mill makes a good sitting place.Fighting the fire was clearly a marathon, not a sprint. From where we were, on the opposite side of the ridge from the fire, about all we could see was the aerial containment efforts, the helicopter flying back and forth steadily, almost tranquilly. But on the ground, close to the fire, I’m sure the scene was very different as fire fighters struggled bravely to protect homes and evacuate families. As we watched the helicopter circling between the lake and the plume of smoke, which never seemed to shrink, a bird flew over the river rapidly, repeatedly back and forth. I assumed it was catching the bountiful insects milling ab9ove the surface in the soft evening light.When it landed to rest, the bright yellow tail tip and vibrant red wing spot on an otherwise drab grey and rust-colored body indicated that this was a cedar waxwing (Bombycilla cedrorum), which actually eats fruits, not insects. A little bit of reading dismissed my assumption. It must have been flying from bush to bush eating little berries. The field guide I keep in my travel library works great for being in the wilderness without internet or cell coverage, but because the inch thick book is trying to describe hundreds of bird species, it is limited on the amount of information it can provide. Tremendous online resources like AllAboutBirds.org created by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology can provide far more information about the lives of each bird, including recordings of bird songs. Both the website and the app (Merlin Bird ID) make identifying birds simple and fast, just a matter of clicking the body type or size, and then the main colors. Watching the waxwing fly, silhouetted against the smoke behind him, reminded me of how hard the fires must be on wildlife. Humans suffer from losing their homes to wildfires, and even with precautions, evacuations and advanced equipment, people still lose their lives to fires every year. But for wildlife, the impact must be even more drastic. Unlike the unlucky grounded creatures who must try to outrun the fast-moving fire, birds can fly out of the immediate danger, though it may require abandoning the nest and any unfledged chicks. However, the configuration of their lungs and respiratory systems makes them easily damaged by smoke. Flight is an excellent adaptation for surviving in an ecosystem like this one, where fire is part of the natural cycle of the forest. Though the fire seems destructive, it actually clears space and prepares the land for new seedlings to grow, as long as the fire doesn’t get too hot. But when fires are stifled over and over to safely keep them away from homes and towns, fuel for the fire builds up, year after year, with more and more pine needles and branches, therefore the fire can burn deeper and hotter, destroying the buried seeds that would have sprouted afterward. There is a whole branch of ecology, called fire ecology, devoted to studying how the ecosystem and fire work together.The fire we were watching kept burning, the smoke darkened occasionally to almost black. Finally an airtanker flew over and dropped some sort of powder on the fire. The fire retardant substance is known as slurry and contains a mixture of water and ammonium sulfate or ammonium polyphosphate, which acts as a fertilizer for the plants in the fire’s wake. Slurry’s bright red color makes it look dangerous, but the color was added so firefighters can see where they’ve made a solid perimeter to block out the fire. Whether the slurry is environmentally damaging is still being hotly debated. Some sources claim that like any fertilizer large amounts damage the watershed with a flood of nitrogen that can alter water chemistry enough to kill fish, but others argue that it is diluted enough by the time it reaches the water that there isn’t a problem. Environmentally friendly or not, the fire retardant slurry is effective at stopping fires and saving homes. The fire we were watching seemed to be sufficiently suppressed because the plane didn’t make another drop. But the helicopter went around a few more times before we left to go hang out at Nicol’s and chat about whether we preferred the hurricanes, tornadoes and flash floods in Texas or the fires in Washington. As far as choosing “favorite” natural disasters, I think we all preferred the Texas storms we were used to.
See more pictures from our time in Spokane here
Click here to read about the previous adventure in Montana,
where we unwittingly camped just miles away from one of the most environmentally
contaminated places in the country.