Al Craig was a serious man who owned a beat-up hat. He was a physician and exercise physiologist who specialized in helping swimmers, and his travels took him all over the world. He also owned a house and forest near Jim and Sara’s house in Canadice. “He was a different person out there,” says Sara. “He would put on a flannel shirt and his straw hat and become a woodsman. It was part of what we loved about him.”
Al’s property became the first conservation easement the Land Trust held in the western part of the Finger Lakes. He made another major donation that made it possible for the Land Trust to buy the Wesley Hill Preserve. He knew about the bike ride and supported it. But Al passed away suddenly in February, so his family decided to make a challenge grant for the ride in his memory. “He died too quickly, and we never got to say goodbye to him,” said Sara. “So we’re taking him along in spirit.”
We have climbed five 3,000-foot mountain passes in the last four days. Today we climbed Sherman Pass, which at 5,500 feet is the highest in the state, and it’s our last big climb for a while. It felt like a big day for us, so I put Al’s hat in my bike bag. We started climbing immediately at 7am; it was 16 miles and 3,300 feet to the top. The forecast was for another day of afternoon temperatures above 100 degrees, so we shortened our route to end at the Columbia River around noon.
The eastern part of the Kettle River Range is wetter, so there were lodgepole pines and tamarack lining the canyon, horsehair ferns along the road, and the lively sound of O’Brien Creek just below us. It was a Sunday morning road, with virtually no traffic. We climbed fast and within two hours we could see the top, but our surroundings had also changed; instead of large trees, there were vast fields of dead standing timber and young trees growing below them. We puzzled over what this could be until we passed an overlook commemorating the White Mountain Fire of August 1988.
Lightning started a fire on this slope that eventually burned 21,000 acres. More than 3,000 firefighters worked for 24 days to bring it under control. The kiosk explaining the fire had this quote from US Forest Service crew boss Karen Soenke: “The wind changed direction that evening and our fire grew and began burning in the canopy. Half of our crew was separated from us. We only had radio contact to inform them that we had returned to the safety zone. We deployed our shelters and waited it out.” The heat became so intense that granite boulders in the fire zone cracked apart.
The fire destroyed thousands of acres of lodgepole pines. But the trees are well-adapted to fire, so their cones open and release seeds when heated to 113 degrees. Twenty years later those seedlings are eight feet tall, with their dead ancestors still standing above them. Stands of larch trees were more likely to survive because they have thicker bark and replace their leaves every year, Today they run in dark streaks along the slope below the overlook. The dead snags have become prime habitat for birds like the mountain bluebird and Lewis’ woodpecker. The fire had an impact on public policy, too. Since it ended, the Forest Service has stopped fighting all fires in favor of holding “controlled burns” that simulate the natural fire cycle, or just letting some fires go.
Several miles later we were at the top. Bruce Sanford, a guy from Nova Scotia who dreams of going cross-country on a bike some day, took our picture (note Al’s hat). Then it was down and down again, the biggest down so far, but the grade was almost perfectly engineered so we didn’t have to use our brakes more than occasionally. We just steered and cruised at 30 miles an hour; it felt like piloting a plane. Near the bottom I glimpsed the Columbia River through the trees. I had never seen it before. It is really, really big.
We reached the Columbia at Kettle Falls. At that point it is a 150-mile-long lake behind the Grand Coulee Dam; we were near the northern end of the lake, which is named for Franklin D. Roosevelt. We rode four miles north to an RV park near the drowned part of the Kettle River, which branches off to the east of the Columbia, and the heat closed in on us like a fist.
I floated in the cool water of Lake FDR and thought about how different it is to be an environmental advocate when you live out here. In New York, you can set aside millions of acres in the Adirondacks and prohibit all tree-cutting, damming, or other human activity. You can poke out your chest and brag about how you’re passionately devoted to the “forever wild” clause in New York’s state constitution. You can afford to write off all that water. In the west, if you didn’t dam the rivers, no one would be able to eat or drink. Nature in the west has been re-plumbed so our civilization can exist there.