Dreaming of Wawawai

The rolling hills of the Palouse disappeared behind us as we began our descent into Wawawai Canyon on a winding road that leads to the Snake River in southeastern Washington.

Being that it’s late April, springtime was in swing, and we’ve seen a lot of rain lately, more than usual, making the hillsides of the canyon a vibrant green.  By July the green grass will have yellowed into a sprawling, goldish-beige, but for now in late April, a green carpet makes up the desert expanse.

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After we reached Wawawai County Park we found the trailhead of the short 1 mile loop hike and set out.  Balsam roots were everywhere, their yellow blooms popping up on either side of the trail.

Across the river the great desert bluffs rose high above the water line, and the same green carpet that surrounded us had been laid upon the other side of the river as well.  The immense greenery that was everywhere was a startling sight to someone who had only ever been to the Wawawai area during the summer, fall, or winter months where the majority of the landscape is made up of yellows, beiges and browns.

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We had seen burnt trees here and there on the drive down the canyon, and Amber reminded me of the wildfire that had scorched the grassy hills the summer before.  It had begun on the opposite side of the river, started by a group of irresponsible campers who started a campfire in the middle of a dry season, and with the help of heavy winds the fire actually jumped the Snake River to the northern banks and over 11,000 acres burned in the fire, hopping from Garfield County into Whitman County.  Luckily, no one was hurt and only one outbuilding was lost in the 2016 Snake River Fire.

After finishing our short hike, we moved down the river about a mile to Wawawai Landing and met up with some friends for a barbecue, and watched them catch some massive fish off the shoreline like the monster pictured below.  I’m not sure how Matt was able to hold that thing up with just one arm.

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After spending some time with them and enjoying some delicious grilled chicken cooked by Matt, Amber and I set off toward Steptoe Canyon.

On our way there, we stopped at Granite Point and scaled the small rock cliffs folks jump from in the summer time, taking in some excellent views of the Snake, and hoping the increasingly ominous-looking clouds overhead wouldn’t begin dumping rain on us.  While at Granite Point we heard wild turkeys gobbling from across the river, albeit it took hearing it a couple times to confirm what the strange sound that was traveling faintly across the river actually was.

From there, we made our way to Steptoe Canyon, where our road turned to gravel, and made our winding journey toward Colton, Washington, and eventually to our home of Pullman, Washington.

Throughout our journey, my mind kept returning to the awe-inducing green that made up the desert landscape.  It seemed like it was a far more vibrant and thick green, particularly in the areas that had burned the summer before, than a typical spring.  Obviously, our unusually heavy snowfall and rainfall this winter and spring play a large factor, but I couldn’t help but think that last summer’s blaze had something to do with it.

The next day I spent a good amount of time researching fire ecology, and reading of other stories of wildfires and their effects.  In my research, I discovered that this was par for the course as it relates to the rejuvenating effects of wildfires on a habitat, particularly ones that are typically dry.  The ashes from fire, rich in nutrients, act as a fertilizer, and new life is born in the wet spring months.  For dry, desert environments, fire is often necessary and welcomed to sustain balance in its ecosystem. This makes sense, especially as I considered that dryland farmers in the Palouse region often burn off field stubble in controlled burns during fall months.

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Nonetheless, for some reason, the concept of fire and subsequent death bringing about new life with the turn of two seasons has set my mind ablaze (see what I did there?).  There’s something poetic about it, although I can’t quite put my finger on why it has hung with me so profoundly.

With that, I’ll leave you with a quote from Stephen King’s IT:

In the midst of life, we are in death.

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