Lessons From a Dog Named Shasta

I know it's down there somewhere!!

Making her way over a large collection of freshly cut trees still, Shasta knows that her trail still lies beneath.
Making her way over a large collection of freshly cut trees still, Shasta knows that her trail still lies beneath.

Finding the way along the Bigby Trail

As fire season quickly approaches, I am reminded of my own personal experience living in the mountains, dealing with the destruction and loss only a forest fire can bring. In the mountains of Colorado, the Missionary Ridge Fire of 2002 sparked new interest in reducing wildfire fuels around the rapidly growing area subdivisions.

Work quickly began to thin 40 acres of heavily forested land running through the middle of the Forest Lakes subdivision in Bayfield where I lived, in order to reduce the risk of wildfire and create a healthier forest. According to Scott Wagner of the Pagosa District, San Juan National Forest, “There's a lot of pre-settlement trees (he’s reluctant to use the word ‘old growth’) within the Forest Lakes subdivision. Due to the fact that the area was never logged, there are many high-risk trees that are over 150-200 years old.”

Forest Lakes homeowners will undoubtedly see the benefits of this work for a long time to come—first and foremost with a reduced chance of wildfire devastation. Yes, the forest will be healthier overall and pre-settlement growth will be preserved for a longer and stronger future. But there is still a story to be told of a dog, a family and a meandering trail that was once ran right through this particular stretch of land. The trail where my family and I would come each day to escape from civilization became affectionately known to us as The Bigby Trail.

The Bigby Trail was named for our former neighbor’s oversized Dalmatian, Bigby. When Bigby would pass our house on his daily walk with his master Jeannie, he would beckon our dog, Shasta, with one large bark to join them. Shasta would hear Bibgy’s call, seemingly listening for it all day, bolt out the dog door (sometimes even from a sound sleep), gracefully leap our utterly useless fence and disappear with Bigby for some frolicking and fun time.

Shasta loved this daily excursion with her best friend and deeply missed Bigby when he moved away. Several months later, Shasta and I set out for our afternoon walk and at the end of our road, Shasta ventured into the BLM land on what appeared to be a deer trail I had not noticed before. I could see that it curved up and down through ponderosa pines and gamble oak and I realized as I watched Shasta completely at ease as if she had been here a thousand times before, that this is where she must have come walking with Bigby each day.

I followed her as she pursued some potent but unseen scent, eagerly sniffing at each tree that Bigby probably marked months earlier. She pranced merrily, with her tail held high, and I trailed behind, trying to remember specific landmarks in case I got lost and also to help me remember the trail if I wanted to walk it again in the future. Shasta led the way along the remnants of an old trail past a spooky dead pine tree whose branches had withered downwards in such a way that they resembled the scrawny arms of a wise old wizard urging us forward on our journey. Onward we ventured past a tree trunk that had been burned out by lightening and looked as if it could be a carved totem pole, protecting us with its ancient magic as we passed. We continued on, noticing a large forked pine and then discovered a magnificent view of the Pine River Valley ridge with a comfortable log to sit and enjoy it from. At this point, we looped around to begin the journey home. We found ourselves walking through decayed, fallen trees, softened over time, that formed what appeared to be a gateway—maybe to a slower and gentler time. As we neared the end of the trail, we passed a row of some sizeable uprooted stumps, whose long-forgotten tangled roots, hardened over time lie as reminders of the forest that stood here before we did.

This trail became one of our family’s favorites. When we walked it for the first time after the Missionary Ridge Fire, we were overwhelmed by the tremendous sense of relief that it was all still there for us to enjoy. We inhaled the sweet, rich, fragrant offering of sap, pine needles and earth and reveled in the sound of the freshly fallen pinecones crunching beneath our feet. We sat at our view spot looking dizzily, but with unending gratitude, at the untouched Pine River Valley ridges that stretched out before our eyes, the sound of birdsong ringing in our ears. With one glance up river we could see where the fire stopped before it engulfed our area. We knew all too well what might have been for us, for our homes and for the beautiful Bigby Trail.

When the contracted workers began the thinning efforts, it was difficult for me to watch them cutting down tree after tree down, carving roads into the delicate landscape, oblivious of all vegetation and animal life that lie in the path of destruction. Our trail disappeared beneath the littered carcasses of the trees that once stood as our guardians, watching over us as we journeyed through their land. I could no longer even recognize the path I once thought I could follow with my eyes closed. I knew it was there beneath the fallen trees and rutted roads, Shasta knew it was there too. She led the way, nose to the ground, as I tried to keep up. We climbed over the maze of fallen pines as they bled fresh sap from their severed limbs and trunks. And though I would catch a glimpse of the trail here and there, I looked around, stunned, sometimes no longer even recognizing my own backyard. Some of the landmarks I initially identified still remain, but without the trees that formerly surrounded them, they no longer look the same either.

I know the carved roads will eventually disappear beneath a few seasons’ blessings of bark, pinecones and needles. I imagine the road might gradually become a single-track trail once again, meandering through the oak and pine out to our favorite view spot and back. I know that in time, the area will probably be more beautiful, with more sun shining through the forest canopy to nourish the vegetation and wildflowers that will undoubtedly flourish below. My husband has even taken advantage of the newly created space to create what he claims to be Bayfield’s first and foremost mountain disc golf course.

With all that in mind, I cannot forget that my son has become a young man, my husband and I have become closer and my pup has grown and mellowed as we walked along The Bigby Trail beneath the trees’ protective canopy. I feel fortunate that something is being done to reduce the potential fire hazard, but I do miss the pristine and untouched quality this area once possessed and most of all, I miss the trail and the trees that became our friends.

Like Smokey the Bear says, “Only you can prevent forest fires”.

Here are some simple and affordable methods to help homeowners reduce the risk associated with living in forested areas.

  1. Clear away the vegetation from around immediately around the home.
  2. If possible, build with fire-resistant materials.
  3. Be careful when burning rubbish, never leave unattended. Know the county's outdoor burning regulations. Unlawful trash burning is a punishable offense.
  4. Keep barbecues and propane 10-15 feet from the house.

10 Tips for Campers:

  1. If smoking is permitted outdoors, use extreme caution.
  2. Don't park your vehicle on dry grass.
  3. At the first sign of a wildfire, leave the area immediately by established trails or roads. Contact a Ranger as soon as possible. If escape route is blocked, go to the nearest lake or stream.
  4. Leave campsite as natural as possible, traveling on trails and other durable surfaces.
  5. Never take burning sticks out of a fire.
  6. Never take any type of fireworks on public lands.
  7. Keep stoves, lanterns and heaters away from combustibles and dry grass.
  8. Store flammable liquid containers in a safe place.
  9. Never use stoves, lanterns and heaters inside a tent.

For more information about protecting your home and community, visit the Partners in Protection web site: http://www.partnersinprotection.ab.ca

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