We were trapped by a forest fire
In the British Columbia wilds, fires aren’t supposed to start in May. But this one did and only two game horses saved our lives
“It Happened To Us”
This is another of the series of personalexperience stories that will appear from time to time in Maclean’s . . . stories told by its readers about some interesting dramatic event in their lives.
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The wind was from the north when we first became aware of the fire. Lillian, my wife, was the first to detect the presence of smoke on the air. She'd been troweling a flower bed, fixing the earth ready for the seed, sifting it through her fingers to make it friable. The sun w'as just at the setting, and my son Veasy and 1 were indoors, patching a fish net that had got snagged when last we dipped for squawfish. We both glanced sharply up when Lillian came running through the door, face streaked with earth.
“Smoke!” she said tensely. “1 can smell smoke.”
At mention of that dread word, smoke—for we were all rightly scared to death of forest fires—I heaved out through the door and stood there smelling the air. Lillian was right, there was a forest fire burning. In the north, a dense pall of smoke was riding above the forest. To the north of us, but how many miles to the north? And why this early in spring? Too early yet for thundershowers so we couldn’t blame it on lightning. In June or perhaps July, when we could expect electrical storms, but not this early, on the fourteenth of May, 1947.
I tried to soothe Lillian’s fears by telling her,
"I doubt it will run very far now. Woods aren’t quite dry enough yet for a fire to hit full stride. It will likely go out before getting a chance to do much damage.”
I was soothing my own fears as well but at least I spoke from years of experience in the wilderness. I came to Canada from England in 1920 and since 1931 I had had trapping rights on 150,000 acres along Meldrum Creek in northern British Columbia. My son was two when we built our first cabin there.
We finally dismissed all thought of fire from our minds, believing it could do us no harm
while the forest floor was still moist. But sometimes a flame once kindled is stubborn. It might lie dormant and unseen, smoldering slow'ly away within the punky wood of some rotting windfall, or entirely underground, feeding on the roots of a tree that has died. It will sometimes smolder with scarcely a wisp of smoke to show there is any fire there at all.
May was about gone, and the smoke that had been in the north forgotten, when the clouds went aw'ay from the sky, allowing the sun to glare down on the forests as it lifted and stooped from horizon to horizon. And the wind came
down from the west, a keen w'ind which, if cool and pleasant against the skin, drove little puffs of dust ahead of it when it touched a naked game trail.
And with the wind came the smoke once more. Barely noticeable at first, soon ft was pluming up into the sky to the north. Uneasiness began needling my mind. Ever since coming to the woods to live I have dreaded a forest fire. Even when fires were far to the west, many miles away. I would climb the high timbered hill whose spine is but a mile from the house and from its top
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We were trapped by a forest fire continued irom page 29
“The whole country around Devil’s Lake is on fire,” Veasy reported.
“The wind is carrying it this way”
focus my binoculars on that country to the west, trying to track the path of the fire, and wondering if a sudden shift in wind would drive the flames toward the headwaters of Meldrum Creek and into our trap line. All trappers dread the possibility of fires burning their trap lines, for after the flames have gone there is little left in the burned-over area for carnivorous furbearers to track down and kill. A forest fire brings death.
Now, with the northern skyline darkened by smoke, I suggested to Veasy, “How about you saddling up a horse and riding to the top of the hill for a look?”
Two hours later he was back, his face serious. "The whole country around Devil's Lake is on fire," he said somberly. “The wind is carrying it this way, toward Meldrum Lake.”
Devil's Lake bordered the northern reaches of our trap line. There the country was littered by boulders, and scarred by almost impassable ravines. Long fingers of forbidding muskeg thrust out from the lake into the forest, like fingers from a hand. The lake itself stank like a cesspool of decomposing vegetation and slimy alkali mud. This gave the. lake its name.
“Let’s saddle up early”
About seven miles of fir and jack-pine forest lay between the south end of Devil's Lake and the north end of Meldrum. The woods between were crisscrossed with moose and deer paths, yet none were wide enough to balk the fire in a brisk west wind. Falling trees are a bridge that enables fire to cross a trail.
After supper, Veasy rode to the top of the hill again. It was dusk when he got back. At sundown the wind had calmed down a little, and without wind or encouragement from the sun the fire would mark time through the night and not resume its march until morning.
"We'd better wrangle the horses first thing in the morning,” 1 told Veasy, “and follow the east shore line of Meldrum Lake to where those traps aie hanging at the north end. If fue hits either one of those spruce trees the traps will be ruined.”
When first we came to the creek we only had some four dozen assorted traps and some of these weren't much good. Now we had six hundred. We had them for weasel, muskrat, mink, fox, fisher, lynx, timber wolf, and otter. In recent years I had invested more than a thousand hard-won dollars in this large collection of traps, for now that Veasy was running his trap lines too, we had so much more country to cover.
Many of the traps hanging in the spruces at the end of the lake were number 4s, costing forty dollars a dozen. There were several smaller sizes too. On any large trap line the traps are seldom toted back to the cabin when they are picked up from their cubbies. They are collected in bunches and hung beneath spruce trees, until trapping season comes around again.
"How many traps are up there anyway?” Veasy wanted to know.
1 went to my desk, took out a wellthumbed ledger, and riffled through the pages until I came to the one that ac-
counted for the whereabouts of all our traps. When traps are scattered over a trap line, a dozen here, another dozen there, it is easy to forget just where they are cached without some written record of where you left them.
“We’ve got four and one half dozen." 1 announced, "hanging under those two trees."
By morning the lake at the house was almost hidden by low-lying smoke. It had settled overnight and now clung
to every fold in the ground. Horses, too, are terrified of forest fire, and this morning ours out in the pasture were as nervous as week-old moose calves, and almost as elusive. Even Lillian’s potbellied mare whom we could almost
always walk up to and catch showed us a clean pair of heels. Around and around the pasture they galloped, keeping well away from the corral whenever they neared its wings. But finally Veasy was able to corner the old mare in a V of the fence, and slip the halter over her head. When she was'led into the corral the rest trailed in behind her.
But it w'as closer to II a m. than 10 when we climbed into the saddles. The sun had been up for five or six hours now, and the wind was again briskly from the west. And the smoke had
gone up from the folds in the ground and was now over the hilltops.
Lillian was at the barn when we saddled up the horses, a bit of worry in her eyes. “Be careful," she murmured, as if she didn’t want to say the words but somehow felt she had to. Lillian was really frightened of fire. She knewhow fast a fire can run when it is burning in heavy spruce timber. She knew, for instance, that it can outpace a man afoot. She’d seen snowshoe rabbits cremated in their tracks. She knew many a wilderness
cabin has gone up in smoke when flames jumped the clearing on which it sat.
"We'll be careful.” 1 promised. “But there’s nothing at all to worry about. Just the traps, that's all. We ll be back in a couple of hours.” And to give added assurance I said. "The fire will never get here. The beaver ponds will stop it cold in its tracks before it does that.” That was our only hope. Still I couldn’t be sure.
Our horses had to swim at the crossing where the creek came out of Meldrum Lake. Below the lake a couple
of hundred yards, the beavers had dammed the creek, backing the watei up to the lake itself. I glanced downstream to the beaver dam, upstream to the lake, then shot a glance over my shoulder toward home, and thought. “Thank God for the beavers!”
Clear of the w'ater we put the horses to a swift lope. If the fire reached the other end of Meldrum Lake before we did our traps would be lost.
“Wonder who started this one?” Veasy said suddenly, half to himself.
“Some damn fool,” I retorted. “Someone firing a tenor fifteen-acre meadow maybe. Whites, I figure, not Indians.” There were no Indians in the near vicinity.
“Why doesn’t the forestry department do something?” Veasy was in a mood for arguing. “Why doesn’t the forestry department catch a few of those maniacs that are forever dropping matches in the meadows and let them light their matches in a penitentiary?”
“What can they do?” Veasy’s thoughts had often crossed my own mind to be dismissed with a shrug of the shoulders. “How often have you or I actually seen anyone starting these fires? Never. And we're in the woods all the time. If folk living off the country haven't got brains enough to keep the forests green there isn’t much the government can do about it.”
The smoke was thickening now. We were halfway up the lake drawing away from pine and fir timber into heavier growths of spruce. Our horses were lathered with sweat and it was use of quirt on rump rather than kindness in the voice that urged fhe horses on. They were unwilling to face that smoke.
Now we could hear the crackle of burning spruces and the occasional crash of a falling tree. Soon we were almost within sight of the end of the lake, dodging stands of flaming spruce, and neck-reining our horses through aspen and willow thickets close to the shore. To our right a hundred yards was a litter of blowdowns, either felled by wind or fire of other years. On three sides the windfalls were surrounded by spruces that were losing their greenness and becoming gaunt spars even as we looked toward them.
Suddenly from among the litter of windfalls a form took shape out of the smoke, so still and lifeless that surely it was only my imagination that made me swear it was a moose. Yet a moose it was, an old cow with hair greying and rusting at the withers.
But why did the cow stand so still? Why was she there at all, with the spruce trees on fire from toe to crown and spewing flaming brands all around her?
Then I knew why the old cow stood there. “Judas Priest!” I cried aloud. “She’s got little ones in the windfalls!"
Veasy leaped out of the saddle. He quickly hitched his horse to a tree and muttered, “We’ve got to get them out of there.”
The .303 Ross rifle was in its scabbard between my stirrup leathers, and I thoughtfully fondled its butt. “How? That’s an old cow. We’d have to put a bullet through her head before we could lay a hand on those calves. Better the loss of two lives than three. The cow will live but the calves are gonners already.”
I knew just what Veasy was thinking. Go into the windfalls, hoist the newly born twin calves across the saddle and pack them down to water’s edge beyond reach of the flames. But he was
reckoning without the old cow. She'd never allow us to touch the calves; she'd charge if we tried to do that. And there was no sense in shooting her and trying to save the calves. Without the mother they’d die anyway.
"Judas Priest!” I sang out again. And keeping a watchful eye on the cow 1 urged my horse a little closer to the windfalls.
The calves—about a day old—all legs and awkwardness, were lying side by side by a blowdown, necks stretched flush with the ground. ”Ai-ya!” I shouted at the top of my voice. “Get!” And the twins raised their heads, staggered to their feet, took a few hesitant steps toward their mother and then went down in a heap.
A flaming spruce began swaying on its roots. Its top leaned. There were no needles left on it now, and the branches themselves were spitting fire. A shudder wracked the tree and it crashed to earth.
The top of the tree fell within six feet of the twins. But neither moved. Heads and necks on the ground, liquid eyes fixed on the smoldering tree, they lay there. The stink of scorched hair and flesh came to my nostrils.
“Judas Priest!” My hand dragged to the butt of my rifle. I pulled the gun and bolted home a shell. "It’s better this way, son,” I murmured quickly to Veasy. I lifted in the stirrups and
brought the gun to my shoulder. I squeezed the trigger twice, and could scarcely hear the shots for the awful roar of the fire. The twins twitched a little and then became limp and still.
“We must swim for it”
The delay cost us our traps. The trees in which they were hanging were burning as we came in sight of them. Nothing could go near those trees and the traps were a cherry red; the temper would be gone from their steel. They’d never be of use to us again.
Behind us was the intermittent thud of burning timber falling across the trail. The fire had by now, no doubt, jumped the trail at a dozen different spots and was seeking what it could find toward water’s edge. I wheeled my horse sharply west and loped it down to the lake. The northern end of the lake was only two hundred yards away but I could see nothing of its shore line. All I could see was a sheet of brilliant flame.
I looped the bridle lines around the horn of the saddle and quietly told Veasy, “We’re trapped.”
While there was no fire over on the west side of the lake, the burning forest at the north barred our escape there. And we couldn’t retreat the way we had come for now the fire was on either side of the game trail and crowding down against the water. Forest fire to the north of us, to the south of us, to the east—and to the west there was only the water, in places forty feet deep.
A couple of loons danced their crazy devil dance out in the middle of the lake. They, anyway, were safe. So were the fish. I glanced at my horse's ears, patted its neck. There was only the one way out: we must swim the lake.
"Tighten your cinch,” I bade Veasy, slipping out of the saddle and tightening my own.
He looked at me for a second or two. “You going to swim the horses?”
“I’d rather drown than roast. All set?”
I asked, swinging back into the saddle.
“Whenever you are?”
I neck-reined my horse into the water;
the gelding snorted and fought to get the bit between its teeth and turn back to land. “Get going!" And I brought the quirt hard down on his rump. Unwillingly he breasted out into the lake, feeling for the bottom he could not see.
I slung my rifle over my shoulder, and lifted my feet clear of the stirrups. 1 grabbed a handful of mane with my left hand, and took a firm grip on the bridle lines with my right. Suddenly there was no jar at all to the gait of the horse. He moved easily along, head high, nostrils flared, tail floating. As far as movement was concerned I might have been riding on a cloud. We were swimming.
The gelding was a strong and willing swimmer once he knew that he was in deep water and unable to turn back. The water sheered away from his side, and his eyes were riveted on the opposite shore line. My face was almost brushing his mane, my knees about touching my chin, calves of my legs pressed tight against the leather. I had to maintain balance. If I lost balance and leaned to either side, the gelding might be thrown off balance too and roll over on its back.
“Veasy, all we can do now is trust in God and the horses!”
“I’m trusting!” There was no fear in the words and their closeness told me that Veasy was right behind me.
I wanted to turn for one swift appraisal of how Veasy’s horse was making it, but movement of any kind might' throw the gelding off balance.
“Look out, we’ve got company!” Veasy’s voice sounded very close. I thought, “His horse must be outswimming mine.”
I saw a huge head take shape. The head was crowned with a set of antlers which, though now a mass of velvety pulp, would in three months’ time measure fifty inches or more across. “Gol’ durned bull moose,” I grunted.
The bull was as much at home in water as on land. It made two yards for every one my gelding was making, and was only a few feet from the horse as it passed. But it paid us no attention at all. Its eyes too were on the nearing shore. Human being, domesticated horse, and bull of the north woods, all out there in the lake fleeing a common foe.
The bull moose was perhaps a half mile off in the timber when our horses touched land. “Swam like a moose yourself,” I told the gelding, patting its quivering neck and loosening the cinch. “Got us out of one heck of a muddleup that time, you did.”
And there across Meldrum Lake, and in the country to the north, thousands of acres of forest were on fire. There was jack pine and fir, spruce and aspen, willow and alder, all going up in smoke. And there were Franklin’s and ruff grouse chicks, wobbly moose calves, spotted fawns, little black bear cubs, soft - furred fisher cats, baby rabbits, clumsily gaited porcupines, red squirrels and flying squirrels, bluebirds and robins, coyote pups and lynx kittens—all going up in smoke.
Next morning we could both see and hear the flames from the cabin door. They were only a half mile away, and they had swept down the east shore line of Meldrum Lake in seven-league boots. Then suddenly they marked time. Because at the creek, where it came away from the lake, they were halted in their tracks. Though they had destroyed much of our forest, they could not destroy our home.
Seventeen years earlier, when first we came to the creek, there was only a trickle of water moving down creek from Meldrum Lake. Then such a fire would have crossed the creek and leaped to our cabin without a pause. Now, below Meldrum Lake, for mile after mile, lay the beaver dams. Their every gate was closed. Unable to press south the fire turned, following the edge of the beaver ponds, thrusting here, reaching there, seeking a path to cross the water and march forward again on the other side. But there was no path, and there was only the water of the beaver ponds—and that no fire could cross.
In mid-June the overhead clouded and rain beat down on the forests. Again the underfoot became sodden as it had been when the last of the snows were melting. The fire halted, and eventually was extinguished. Our home was saved. ★
This is an excerpt from Three Against the Wilderness, Copyright, ¡959, by Eric Collier. It will be published soon by E. P. Dutton á Co.