2013 was the year of the snake, and still is actually, until February 2014. I read that snakes (in Chinese astrology) are generally associated with the fire element, so the water element of this past year should have created balance. Inadvertently I gravitated to water all year long, but knowing me is to know that finding me at water’s edge is not unusual. Water is the element of gentle persuasion, in which feelings and emotions are as important as knowledge.
The snake also represents a slippery illusive quality. It is not a symbol under which one should expect to hold fast to anything for long. 2013 started out with great promise: meeting new friends, finding new career paths and fabulous adventures on tap. It was full of adventure. I saw new rivers, met a lot of new people, pushed myself to perform in a new professional arena. But I also discovered to my great disappointment and sadness that some of those who claimed to be my friends were deceiving me and they slid away without so much as an explanation. I poured my heart in to work that was new and exciting and grew professionally, but also watched my hard work unceremoniously plucked from my lap and transplanted without so much as consultation. However, my spirit and enthusiasm with which I can meet new people and approach new work lives in me, and no one can smother that. After my unexpected letdowns in spring, I picked up and carried on to my next chapter. I charged into summer ready to paddle, climb and explore. I was on fire and the friends who proved true were at my side, cheering me on.
What turned into the great Rim fire and burned up the Clavey and Tuolumne River basins into Yosemite National Park was my first fire of the year. I sat on a tiny Tuolumne River beach about 2 miles up-stream of the Tuolumne-Clavey confluence and watched orange smoke billow up from the other side of the ridge. It looked as if at any second it could crest the ridge and come raging down on us. My kayak remained packed even as we planned to spend the night there. Spotting planes crisscrossed the sky followed by helicopters and more planes dowsing the flames with pink retardant and water from Don Pedro reservoir. Little did we know that we were the last on the river, the last to see what the canyon looked like before the fire.
The following morning smoke no longer billowed from above us, but a thick layer of white had settled down into the canyon and set us coughing. Visibility was down to a few hundred feet and we crossed our fingers that a wind would carry it away. As we waited for the scheduled release of water the wind did blow the smoke upcanyon. It also stoked the flames in the Clavey canyon and soon the planes and helicopters were back. It created a dichotomy of frantic fire-fighting over our heads, but serene calm on the water with no other boaters in sight. Unbeknownst to us, the Tuolumne put in and campground at river level had a mandatory evacuation since the night before. We gave the fire little thought after we rounded the bends below the Clavey confluence and enjoyed the silence of the river for the next 14 miles.
Only in the weeks to come did we discover that we had witnessed the beginning of such a devastating fire; one that ultimately burned 371 square miles and took three weeks to contain.
A week later I sat atop the Sorcerer at The Needles in Sequoia National forest. I had just completed a climbing route that had eluded me many years before. It was also the same route where my partner had lost a friend when he attempted to lower off an anchor with an incomplete knot and fell to his death. I was exhaling my own relief at having put this route behind me when I looked up to see the first white puffs of smoke to the north. The Kern River basin was on fire.
In the course of a couple of hours we spotted three regions of fire and planes were dropping pink spray like mad. The Fish fire, as it was later named, grew to about 4 square miles while satellite fires flared around it. From our line of sight about 10 miles away, we could see flames crowning out in the giant trees and shooting hundreds of feet in the air. Again, by morning only wisps of white smoke trailed up from the fire, but the entire upper Kern basin was filled with thick white smoke. It resembled paintings I’ve seen of southern China where high mountains are visible peeking out from misting waters below, except, this wasn’t misting water, it was smoke.
A couple of days after returning to Santa Cruz a fire started in my home county. The coincidences of my presence at the ignition of fires did not feel strange to me. It felt like an extension of my own passions that couldn’t find their way out. I didn’t look at them so much as destructive as purifying and energizing.
In early September I headed to the San Joaquin River to kayak a special release of water on Horseshoe Bend. I awoke in the morning to the shenanigans of locals popping off their shotguns at who knows what. On the way to set shuttle, yep, there is was, another tell-tale string of white smoke. A fire in infancy, just waiting for that breeze to feed it into the crisp dry brush. By the time we were running the pick up shuttle at the end of the day the hillside overlooking the fire was heavily fortified with fire engines, water tank trucks and ground crews.
Even though much of the summer went up in flames I came out wary, but relatively unscathed. I stopped trying to hold on to anything or force anything happen, letting my world slide along its own undetermined course. Sometimes it’s just not the right season for fighting your way upstream, especially in a drought year. Sometimes all you can do is sit on the beach and watch a fire burn down one of the things you love the most.
When the flames die down and what has burned is momentarily unrecognizable, there’s a hiccup in time. Its a moment when your mind is free to imagine anything in the blank space. Like waking up in the dark and not remembering where you are, you can let yourself panic or choose to be patient and, for a moment, completely free.