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DAY 1 

Alex Reynoso checks cornbread.A lanky, mustachioed cowboy named Alex Reynoso, 31, of Cody, Wyoming, headed up our pack. His purple-striped shirt and bright lavender neckerchief set him apart from the bleakness around us. He led us out over 11 miles of very rough trial on that first day.

Trees littered the path, making our trek slow going. Creaking branches, devoid of needles, rubbed against each other, creating a haunting sound as if the ghosts of the dead trees that died so suddenly hadn’t quite made it to the next world. We reached the top at 8,600 feet and finally began our decent into the Mist Creek Valley, and our first night's camp. Coming down was even more strenuous as my calves and thighs ached from the strain of putting my weight on my feet and on my butt, leaning back so as my center of gravity would be better for my horse, Reba.

Lodgepole tree trunks stand like 12 by 12s."Much of the park was like a huge lumberyard," said Despain. "Stands of old-growth lodgepole pines stood like twelve by twelves in the millions stuck on end, spaced just far enough apart to allow good air circulation but close enough for each to ignite its neighbor. Destructive crown fires swept through the treetops as rolling and tumbling ground fires ate up dried brush. Roiling orange-gray, gray-green smoke filled the air. Occasionally it would stop, and you could see right through."

Two types of fires burned through the Yellowstone forests–one ignited the forest canopy while the other burned through the ground vegetation. Those on the ground spread spread slowly as they consumed smaller plants and fallen dead branches. This accumulated source of fuel caused these fires to burn longer and with more intensity. More trees suffered from the ground heat and fire than from the fires blowing through the canopy.

Before the late 1960s, the National Park Service and National Forest Service believed fires to be harmful, so they both adopted fire suppressant policies–fires were to be extinguished as soon as possible. But by 1988, Yellowstone was long overdue for a large fire, During that exceptionally dry summer, many of the smaller "controlled" fires combined, burning in a mosaic pattern, leaping from one area to another. Some areas remained untouched while the fires consumed others.

Fallen trees lie everywhere.What made the situation even worse was the dryness of the winter of 1987–1988. Only 31 percent of the normal precipitation fell, but the skies opened up in a deluge that saturated the parched land during April and May. This caused the abundant growth of grasses and other ground plants. Then in June the rains stopped, not to fall again for another four months. Yellowstone plummeted into the worst drought in its history in July. The luxuriant grasses turned to dry tinder. On some days the relative humidity reached all-time lows below 20 percent. Park ecologists recorded the moisture content in the fall timber as low as five percent. Fierce dry lightening storms led to the rapid spread of some of the fires.

By the time we entered the area, small foot to foot-and-a half high seedlings covered the forest floor even though the fire had destroyed the mature trees, some as much as 250 years old. It burned the ridges in a tapestry-like effect, some areas still green, barely touched, others somewhat burned, and still others, burned to a crisp.

"The fires burned with varying degrees of intensity, with much of the burn relatively light," said Despain. "It burned in what we call a mosaic pattern."

Food cooks on the grill over an open fire.We began our descent into the Mist Creek Valley, and set up our first camp in an island of evergreens that somehow miraculously survived the fire storm. The cowboys set up camp in the rain, an unlikely prospect and a very wet and dirty job. The rain continued for hours into the night but that didn't stop us from having a hot supper of beef stew, cooked in a large pot on the stove and served smothering thick slices of bread. Ranger John Lounsbury, manager of Yellowstone's Lake District, joined us for supper.

"From the 1880's to the 1970's Park policy was to put out all fires as soon as possible," said Lounsbury. "This was like loading the Park up with kindling. The dry climate and long winters here greatly retard the removal of dead wood through decay. Much of that 90 years' worth of kindling remained on the ground in 1988."

"A more recent policy, tagged ‘Let It Burn,’ has been in effect since the 1960s," he added. "It gives us discretion in handling fires ignited by lightning or other natural forces. If they pose little threat, they're allowed to burn. The reason behind this is that fires set by natural forces do a number of important jobs in tending forests and making meadows. The fires burn patterns, randomly written across the landscape, promote regrowth of diverse vegetation of different ages, which supports diverse animal life. Such fires also clean out dead fall–old kindling–that can burn easily."

A cup of hot cocoa sure tasted good in the raw wet weather. As I crawled into my sleeping bag, I heard the howls of distant coyotes and, just maybe, the howl of a lone wolf, which had been released into this section of the park. Where we were–while only 11 miles from the trailhead and Fishing Creek Station Service Center–seemed like a million miles from civilization.

Next: Day 2  

 

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