Remember summer? That long stretch of time when we had no rain, wildfires galore, and a nasty haze over Seattle? It’s hard to imagine now that we’ve settled into the rainy days of winter. At the time though, it made all the sense to read The Big Burn for our September Book Club meetup.
Laura chose to hike to Park Butte Lookout, once a functional fire lookout above a broad glacial valley with killer views of Mount Baker. The lookout was built in 1932 and volunteers from the Skagit Alpine Club work to keep it beautifully maintained.
There was a chill in the air when we met at the trailhead. I bundled Evie up like a polar bear in her fuzzy white jacket and strapped her into the carrier. We set off toward Schrieber’s Meadow. This meadow is somewhat famous for its prolific blueberry supply. Since the summer was so hot, we weren’t expecting many good blueberries, especially in late September. However, we found a decent amount and happily snacked on them as we chatted about the book.
The Big Burn recounts the story of the 1910 wildfire that burned 3 million acres in Washington, Idaho, and Montana in just two days. Eighty-five people died as result of the fires, the vast majority of them firefighters. Edward Pulaski, a name that may be familiar if you’ve ever volunteered for trailwork, was a fire crew leader fighting the wildfires near Wallace, Idaho. When his crew was surrounded by fire blocking their attempts to retreat, he led them through to an abandoned placer mine where they barely survived the night.
The fire had a broad effect on the function of the Forest Service and how they manage the land. Egan dives deep into the politics and the fascinating friendship between President Teddy Roosevelt and his Chief Forester, Gifford Pinchot. We all agreed that The Big Burn is a classic and a must read for any PNW outdoor lover.
As we continued on the trail, dark clouds threatened rain for the first time in months and obscured any views of Mount Baker. It didn’t matter though, because as we finished the switchbacks and entered the meadows near the crossroads with the railroad grade trail, we found the motherload.
Blueberries dotted the landscape as far as the eye could see. I plopped Evie down and showed her how to pick them. I squished a few and fed them to her. She looked around for more. Laura and Andy quickly jettisoned their water to free up their Nalgenes for storage as we picked and picked and picked and picked.
We never made it to the lookout. Instead we feasted on the berries for a very long time. It was addicting and too difficult to stop. There was a seemingly endless supply and they were perfectly ripe. We all agreed that North Cascade blueberries are just the best around.
It seemed the end of summer had finally arrived. It didn’t rain that day, but the vibes had changed. It gave me a sense of relief from the heat, haze, and fires. And it made me hopeful that the wildfire season would be over soon.
The Big Burn by Timothy Egan
_____________________ Book Ends ______________________
Read the article Timothy Egan on The Big Burn for more in-depth history of the largest wildfire in U.S. history.
Watch The Big Burn documentary on American Experience.
Learn more about the Park Butte Lookout and Skagit Alpine Club.
Check out what we would have seen on a nice day at the lookout, Lookouts: Park Butte.
Be sure to leave a comment to let me know if you enjoyed the book and what you think about how wildfires are managed today.