When Land Burns and Rivers Run Dry: A Rafter’s Story
My wife Julia and I walked by a large green inflatable raft sitting on a trailer under a redwood tree. A man was sitting in the boat, stowing gear. He was tan and lean with a trim beard. “Is that your little wagon?” he asked and pointed to where our tiny gypsy camper was parked. We told him it was. “I love it,” he said. The man said his name was Mark.
Drifting and Floating
Our little red wagon has been a great conversation starter and introduced us to many people we ordinarily wouldn’t meet. I asked Mark what he was doing.
“I’m just getting back from a private white water rafting trip,” he said. I asked him if he was a guide. “No,” he said and tossed his hand back like he was throwing something over his shoulder. “I used to do that, but that was many years ago.”
Julia and I asked him where he was from. “Chico,” he said. Chico is west of San Francisco.
Ever since Medford, Oregon, Julia and I have been dismayed to see how smokey the air is. Smoke is everywhere, hanging over towns, blotting out mountain ranges, stinging our eyes, and blotting out the sky. What happened to the clear western skies?
Folks we spoke with in Oregon said the smoke came from wildfires in California, so I asked Mark what he knew about them.
“I lost my home to one four years ago,” he said. “I used to live just a little outside Chico. It was up a long valley that was almost intact, except that it didn’t have wolves or bears. And the fire came and just completely burned it out. That fire burned 14,000 homes.”
I asked him if people were rebuilding after the fire or moving away.
“About twenty percent of my friends who lost their homes moved away. Some moved to Asheville, North Carolina. A whole bunch moved north into southern Oregon. Others are rebuilding.”
“Losing our home to fire devastated me,” Mark says. “I felt totally destroyed. My friends would call and ask if they could come down and help, and I had to tell them, ‘please don’t come try to help. I just can’t deal with anyone right now.”
“We couldn’t figure out where to go, so we decided to stay. I’m in the rental property business, so my wife and I moved into a property that didn’t burn. We subdivided it so we could live in one half and rent out the other half. After I got finished rebuilding the house, I was so tired and burned out that I meditated for five weeks. I laid down and just lay there for five weeks. After the end of the fifth week, I thought, ‘I can either die or get up and get on with my life’, so I got up.”
“That was a transformational part of my life. I learned that we can get by with a lot less. We’re now living in 600 feet.”
How Fires Can Lead to Homelessness
I told Mark how we’d seen so many homeless people in southern Oregon and northern California.
“That became a real problem for us after the fire,” he said. “I saw first-hand how it worked. The neighborhood up the hill from us wasn’t great, but the people who lived there left us alone. When all those people’s homes burned in the fire, they had to find a new place to live.
“A lot of them couldn’t afford to rebuild, so we had a homeless camp behind our house for about two years after the fire,” he said. “At first, it was okay because I understood how many of those people had lost their homes in the fire. Then they started stealing everything. They stole the Welcome mat from in front of our front door. They stole electricity from our outlets. Finally, we had to put up a fence around our house. And then everyone in our neighborhood started putting fences around their houses.”
“I used to be an empathetic liberal,” he said, “but I’ve turned into a conservative liberal.”
Six Inches of Dust
I was born in Seattle, Washington, in 1968. I told Mark how I remember the Olympic Peninsula as being soggy, drippy, and wet. The trees were huge and covered in mossy green beards, and everything dripped.
“It’s not like that anymore,” he said. “They’re having a drought, and the rainforest is drying up. The discussion in the white water rafting community is how much longer there’ll be rivers to float on. Word is that if you want to float one of the big western white water rivers, you need to do it in the next ten years while there’s still water. After that, there won’t be enough water to float down them.”
“My raft weighs 2,000 pounds when it’s loaded up, so it needs a fair amount of water to float on. You can get by with less water with a kayak, which is why so many people are switching from rafts to kayaks.”
He mentioned the name of a river he’d rafted on growing up. “We went there a while back,” he said, “It was six inches of dust.”
Julia and I went back to our camper and cooked supper. Supper was homegrown garlic sautéed in olive oil with lentils and spinach salad, all cooked on our BioLite wood-fired stove.
Desert was an unfrosted blueberry pop tart and ginger tea. There was a large river running behind the grove of redwood we were camped in. It’s good to know water still flows in the wilder parts of northern California. Tomorrow, we head toward Reno.