Deserts follow

Chris Nikkel

The first time I drove the Kenney Dam Road was in April of 1999. I was working as a tree-planter, having made the journey to the Nechako River Valley, in British Columbia, to earn money for university tuition.

The Nechako River flows through the geographic centre of the province at a town called Vanderhoof. Twelve hours’ drive south is Vancouver. Eight hours’ drive west is the Pacific Ocean. East are the Rocky Mountains. North is the Alaskan town of Hyder, famous for the ‘Hyderizer’, a drink 75 per cent alcohol. Connecting these places is a sparsely populated blanket of forest made up mostly of lodgepole pines. Every year, thousands of Canadian students migrate to these forests to plant six-inch saplings in commercially logged clear-cuts.

It was a late spring that year. Snow filled the ditches on the way to the bush camp where I’d pitched my tent—home for us tree-planters. There were no buds on the trees. At night, frost coated the canvas sleeping bag around my feet; by morning it had glazed the walls of the tent and frozen the laces of my boots as well. The days were not much warmer than the nights. One morning, snow fell so thick we couldn’t see the soil we shoved the trees into.

We had set up the camp ourselves, on a site chosen with two things in mind: running water, in the form of a stream that flowed nearby, and open space. Deep in the forest, finding space to accommodate the camp facilities and parking for eight four-wheel-drive trucks is usually the bigger problem. Most camps are located in gravel pits or abandoned logging sites.

There were forty of us. On the first day of the season, we set up an eating tent, a first-aid tent, a tent for drying clothes, five tent-toilets and four shower-tents. We squeezed our personal tents between the trees surrounding camp. Beside the eating tent was a cook trailer, which looked like a hunter’s shack. Propane tanks for the stoves were kept outside the kitchen, half buried in the ground like unexploded shells. An walk-in fridge, eight fee by eight, built of insulated plywood sheets, stored the food. Gasoline-powered pumps fed water from the creek into the showers and dish sinks. Drinking water was hauled from Vanderhoof. In four hours the gravel pit was transformed into a village, complete with hot running water, electricity and a fully equipped commercial kitchen.

Our work crew was contracted to plant trees in ‘beetle blocks’. ‘Blocks’ is short for cut-blocks, a more gentle term than clear-cuts, which is what they were. Beetle blocks were small clear-cuts – about the size of a football pitch – where the trees had been killed by the growing infestation of mountain pine beetles and cut down after their red needles, a sign of beetle infestation, were spotted from a helicopter the winter before. The government had flown in hand-fallers, chainsaws and jugs of lighter fluid shortly after the dead trees were discovered among the green ones. The fallers cut and burned the infested pines on the spot, a process called ‘fall and burn’. This was the first attempt at controlling what locals in the Nechako River Valley – and most people in the province of British Columbia – came to refer to as ‘the beetle’.

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Bert and Mary Irvine were among the first people to settle down the Kenney Dam Road after it was bulldozed through the forest, in 1952. They moved into a cabin built by an American draft-dodger named Hull. The homestead was close to Cutoff Creek, at the end of the old Fort Fraser wagon trail. The pioneer trail began at Fort Fraser, where European fur traders had built a trading post in 1806, one of the earliest European settlements west of the Canadian Rockies.

Bert Irvine worked a trap line he took over from Rich Hobson, who was too busy writing novels to bother with it. Hobson had come to the Nechako River Valley as a rancher in 1944 but, after Bert built a desk for him, nestled beneath the stairwell of the ranch house, he spent more time sitting in his chair than on a horse. The makeshift office included a small window overlooking the lonely range, from where Hobson chronicled the perils of the Frontier Cattle Company as they rustled herds through the hills and valleys in the northern forests.

Bert remained a trapper. Hiking over frozen rivers and through the snowdrifts in the valley hills, he collected his catch, mostly weasels and squirrels, and the odd lynx or mink on good days. By 1965, the Irvines, now a family of six, moved further up the Nechako River to their current address down Irvine Road, a trail that Bert hacked through the lodgepole pine forest himself.

What had made Bert’s homesteader dreams possible was the construction of a dam twenty kilometres from what became Irvine Road. The Kenney Dam was touted as the biggest of its kind, anywhere in the world, an earth plug that filled the Nechako Canyon – some 317 feet from trough to peak. The dam reversed the flow of the upper Nechako River, flooding the upper valley to form a reservoir. Shortly after the dump trucks used to construct the dam rolled out of the forest, the logging trucks rolled in, taking advantage of the same access road that had allowed Bert Irvine to build his solitary cabin on the banks of the lower Nechako.

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The mountain pine beetle (Dendroctonus ponderosae) is not a social insect, like the ant, and it does not flit from tree to tree like a bird; it stays put as a larva, feeding off the moist phloem of a pine, which carries sugars created during photosynthesis from the leaves to the roots. The phloem offers nutrients that the larva needs to transform itself into a beetle. After about ten months, the new adult burrows out, no bigger than a grain of rice, making its own exit hole out of the girdled tree. The following year the pine needles turn red. Eventually they fall off altogether, creating hillsides of grey, bare branches.

The mountain pine beetle is native to the lodgepole pine forest, but its population has traditionally been kept in check by the harsh climate in which the coniferous trees grow. Two things happened between 1999, when a mere 164,000 hectares of land were deemed ‘red’ by the Forest Service, and 2003, by which time the affected area had ballooned to some four million hectares. One was the onset of drought, the driest three years on record in British Columbia. The aridity weakened the pines, especially those over ninety years of age. Successful fire-suppression campaigns had created a glut of these elderly pines. Scientists estimate that perhaps four times as many mature lodgepoles had survived to old age than had a hundred years earlier.

The second factor behind the beetle attack was warmer winters. In forests where temperatures once regularly hit minus 40 degrees Celsius, thermometers now rarely fell below minus 30. This change helped to raise the mountain pine beetle’s survival rate by as much as 70 per cent. As a result, by 2004, more than seven million hectares of forest had been infested by the beetle, an area roughly the size of the Republic of Ireland.

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Driving south from the Kenney Dam, the first thing logging trucks pass is a cut-block. It stretches from the road to the reservoir on the left side, and up the hill as far as you can see, on the right. There are hundreds of cut-blocks along the Kenney Dam Road, but this one is different. Cut-blocks are rarely located on shorelines; waterfront property is classified as a ‘viewscape’, and is mostly preserved as such. For the same reason, cut-blocks are never planned beside tourist highways—it is best to keep a ravaged forest out of the public eye. But the cut-block near the Kenney Dam was not cut for profit. It was a fireguard, cleared during a 2004 forest fire as a buffer between the Nechako Lodge, a fishing resort near the dam, and the flames.

The Kenney Dam Fire burned in the last week of June. The province was in the middle of a heat wave, with temperatures rising to over thirty degrees Celsius. High winds fed the flames like bellows. All told, the fire torched ninety-four square kilometres, devouring beetle-killed pines and dozens of replanted cut-blocks, some of which I’d helped plant myself. The heart of the fire burned through the Nechako Canyon Protected Area, where the river used to flow prior to the building of the Kenney Dam.

Nechako Lodge, located ten kilometres from the Canyon, was drafted into service as the base camp for the firefighters. The ash-covered crews slept in cabins Bert Irvine built when the lodge opened in the 1960s. The helicopters landed on the shoreline to fuel up, between trips carrying water from the reservoir to the fire.

The helicopters dumped their water loads on the burning beetle-killed pines, including in the hills surrounding Bert Irvine’s homestead. His log cabin was directly in the line of fire. As the fire crews aimed sprinklers at the cabin’s roof, Bert and Mary, already in their eighties, made plans to rebuild should the cabin burn. But their hand-built home didn’t ignite. Bert and Mary thanked the firefighters, and were sleeping in their own beds by the end of summer. Out their window was a forest of charred trees that stretched the length of Irvine Road, and for many kilometres on either side of the Kenney Dam Road.

The Kenney Dam Fire raised the alarm, but it was by no means the only fire that raged in the beetle-killed forests surrounding Bert and Mary. Between 2003 and 2005, nearly 26,000 hectares of forest burned within the Vanderhoof Forest District’s boundaries. To put this figure into perspective, in the thirty-three years prior to 2003, fires scorched a mere 5,155 hectares of forest in the district.

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In the aftermath of the Kenney Dam Fire, in 2005, I was employed in the Nechako River Valley as (among other things) a fire coordinator, responsible for enforcing a fire plan. By law, if a forest is in flames within five kilometres of a worksite, tree-planters are expected to fight it, at least until Fire Service officials with proper equipment can respond. I made sure that fire tools were available at each tree-planting worksite.

One hand-tool per tree-planter was the regulation. Tools included garden spades, axes, and pulaskis, which have an axe on one side of the tool-head and an adze on the other. The pulaski is the tool of choice for professional forest-fire fighters. Indeed, it was created for the job, and named after a fire-fighting ranger in Idaho, Edward Pulaski, who once saved thirty-seven men from incineration during a blaze by leading them to the safety of an abandoned mine shaft, and who is widely credited with inventing the tool.

In addition to hand-tools we had backpack hand-pumps, which everyone called ‘piss-cans’. A more extensive fire-fighting toolbox was left in camp. In it were more shovels and axes, but also hundreds of feet of fire hose to connect to a two-stroke Wajax water pump, which, although invented in Canada to international acclaim, rarely worked.

We were working across the Nechako River from Bert Irvine’s place, planting cut-blocks in response to increased logging. The small beetle blocks had ballooned to over a hundred hectares in size. The cut-blocks were laid out next to one another in a seemingly endless ribbon of stumps, rising over hills and dipping through valleys. The trees left uncut were mostly red.

Because of the presence of so many dead trees, tree-planting crews were on constant lookout for fires. Our camp supervisor was a man named Nathan, and it was with him that I went searching for a fire on a blustery afternoon in May. From the cab of his truck we watched storm clouds roll across the valley. We saw sheet lightning in the distance, followed by faint, rumbling thunder. As the storm squeezed between the hills, a few stray forks of lightning were on the horizon, but nothing seemed too close. We continued driving toward the worksite.

A stroke of lightning touched down within a kilometre of the road, and a boom of thunder followed immediately. Dark clouds popped up from behind the hills, exploding over the cut-block. We stared at the hillside, the lightning still forked in our retinas. A wisp of smoke rose from the forested hill.

I radioed the first-aid attendants working in the cut-block and told them to evacuate the twenty tree-planters. Nathan parked the truck at the side of the road next to a cache of fire tools. We had one Honda quad-bike in the box of the truck, and another was parked beside the cache. We grabbed a shovel, a pulaski and two piss-cans, strapping them to the quads with bungee cords, then started the engines and tore down the main road to search for a way to get closer to the smoke.

The day before, I had noticed an overgrown trail in one of the cut-blocks, and so we headed for it as the rain began to fall. At the trailhead, a wooden sign nailed to a tree read: ‘Larsen’s Road—Kept up by the Larsen Family’. Nathan and I turned down it, heading for the hillside. The rain pelted my helmet—I had to squint to see the path. Nathan’s waterproof jacket clung to his body like a second skin.

The first five hundred metres of Larsen’s Road were clear of debris, but when we came to the tree line the road was squeezed out by brush. Alders grew eight feet high between the disused tire tracks. The wiry stems would disappear under the front grille of the Honda, then pop back up beside the exhaust pipe behind me. The rain now fell as a mist; once in a while a droplet, collected on a leaf or branch, hit my face with a splash.

We continued down Larsen’s Road to the shore of Square Lake, where a clearing opened up and the remnants of a campsite were visible next to the water. Another wooden sign caught my attention. The words were gouged into a quarter-inch plank: ‘Forests Precede Humans’.

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Otto Larsen was a Swedish immigrant who helped Frank Swannell survey the Nechako River Valley in 1910, then came back with his family in 1921. He arrived the second time by horse-drawn wagon via the Fort Fraser wagon trail. While crossing Swansen Creek the wagon overturned, and Mrs Larsen’s dishes were washed away. A year later, the cabin Otto had built burned to the ground.

Eventually, they successfully settled beside a canyon next to the Nechako River, twenty kilometres from Fort Fraser. Otto and his wife raised five children there, and the canyon is still known as Larsen’s Canyon. When the eldest son, Willie, was charged as a deserter during the Second World War, he returned to the Nechako River Valley to hide. His brother left food at designated drop spots. Willie split his time between two cabins he built. One of the cabins, at Copley Lake, was about ten kilometres from where Nathan and I spotted the smoke.

We passed Square Lake, dodging fallen trees on the overgrown road. As we drove I glanced up the hill searching for smoke. The only time I’d seen a forest fire was from a distance of ten kilometres, three years earlier. When we reported it the Forest Service dispatch told us to look for a helicopter – and when I stared closer I saw glints of something shiny flying in and out of the smoke. But this time, if there were a forest fire down Larsen’s Road, Nathan and I would be the first on the scene.

We came to a massive balsam fir that had fallen across the trail. Nathan turned his quad downhill, weaving between lodgepole pines in the hope of getting around the rotting fir. I jumped off my quad and walked uphill, hoping to find a passage that way. Neither option worked. The only way for the quads to get past the fir was to cut a path with the chainsaw, which we hadn’t bothered to bring. We grabbed the fire tools and strapped the piss-cans to our backs, and started to walk, staring into the maze of forest. We saw plenty of red, and some green, but no orange glow.

The rain had stopped, but in the trees the drops continued, falling from the leaves and pinging off our helmets. Nathan scampered up the hill to get closer to where we had spotted smoke. Nothing. I ran down the trail, searching through the trees. Nothing.

We strapped the fire gear back on the quads and headed back the way we had come. On the ride out, I noticed another sign hanging off a dead lodgepole pine. It was the second half of the quote I’d read on the way in, another message from someone in the Larsen family: ‘Deserts Follow’.

Read more in The Dublin Review issue No. 40 Autumn 2010.