Friday, December 23, 2011

Mining the Christine Marie: Moving Into The Cabin

Gene enjoying the solitude.

The cabin almost finished.
The cabin was nearly finished but I wasn’t sure I was ready to move down. Moving to my new cabin on the Christine Marie was not without a little trepidation. It would mean I would be isolated and further from any kind of assistance. Such isolation is of a little more concern to me than most people because I am an insulin dependent diabetic. I cannot be without insulin or food for very long. A severely sprained ankle or broken leg could easily be life threatening.
I packed my propane tank, stove, propane refrigerator, bedding, food, clothes, explosives, water, and other supplies in the scout until it was full and headed down the steep road. I arrived without incident, and moved into the cabin. I walked back up the road to get the loader, drove it down, and went to work.
A Christine Marie Morrisonite Specimen
Living in isolation is something relatively few people get to experience. The people who have, will say that after 3 or 4 days with no human interaction or communication a fundamental change takes place in your personality. For some people the experience is horrifying and for others it can provide a sense of confidence and peace that is hard to describe. The depth of solitude after 3 or 4 days is different than the solitude experienced in the more temporary time dictated by our busy society. Go ahead and try it. Try to find a place where you will have no contact or communication with another human for 24 hours. It is actually hard to do. The need to communicate, however, never leaves and has been portrayed well in the movies. Tom Hanks’ character in Castaway befriends a volleyball and refers to him as Wilson. Tom Hanks’ character has many conversations with Wilson. The character was marooned on an island for many months and when he tried to leave the island on a raft, he takes Wilson with him. When the volleyball falls off the raft and floats away, the loss felt by Hanks’ character is far more than that for a volleyball.
Sun setting on the canyon.
At first I was just pleased to not drive the road up to the top every day. I was close to my work and I was spending more time mining. After a while I noticed I would speak directly to my tools. If I could not find my pick I would call for it. Over time, in the absence of not being able to talk to anyone, I had numerous conversations with my rock pick and long bar about the jobs they were or weren’t doing. I encouraged them to find more jasper.
A Buzzard circling  above.
I loved sitting in front of the cabin watching the weather move through the canyon. The canyon is so big that you can see any storm or change in the weather long before it arrives. The canyon itself causes thermal winds with the sun first heating up one side of the canyon and then the other late in the day. The winds come down cold over the east slope in the morning and go up warm in the late afternoon. About 2 miles to the south about 20 buzzards live within sight of the cabin door. They live on the edge of a cliff on a rock face that turns red in the late afternoon sun. The buzzards hunt their prey in pairs, one following the other. They float on the warm rising thermal winds and seem to take pleasure in effortless flying. Sometimes they are almost motionless on the rising air as if glued to the sky. Despite all the mining problems and restrictions, I consider my time living alone in the cabin on the Christine Marie a mere 100 yards from my work site to be some of the most pleasurable of my life. 

Friday, December 9, 2011

Mining the Christine Marie: A New Cabin

The Christine Marie cabin at a distance

Side view of the cabin
Driving the Scout down to the mine on the Christine Marie and back every day started to wear on my nerves. The drive had to be executed with precision and that was hard to do after a hard day of mining. One time on the drive up on switchback 9 (which cannot be driven around without stopping and backing up) I put the Scout in reverse, backed up, and started revving the engine for the next stretch up to switchback 8. Normally I would put in the clutch, let the Scout roll back, and be ready to go forward again. Somehow, perhaps because I was so tired, I forgot that I had shifted into reverse. I let out the clutch expecting to get a good running start on the next hill and almost backed the Scout over the cliff behind me. Another time, the engine started cutting out on the steepest grade of the drive. I determined later that if the gas tank was less than ½ full the engine could not suck enough gas to keep running on the steepest parts of the road. To solve the problem I installed a second gas tank in the back of the Scout where the gas could run downhill or level to the engine going uphill. I had a switch on the gas lines so I had my downhill gas tank and my uphill gas tank. You had to make sure you were on the proper gas tank depending if you were traveling down to the mine or up to the cabins.
Gene visiting the cabin years later
                I eventually decided to build a cabin on the Christine Marie. There was really only one good spot to do this. There was a very large rock on a flat area just a few yards off the road. The back side of the rock was relatively flat and about 7 feet high. The flat side would be the back wall of the cabin and the rock would support the roof. I had no money to spend on building a shelter so I started gathering things I could use. I, of course, had lots of big rocks so I moved several of them that had nice flat sides close to the larger rock with the loader. I found 4 long poles left over from building a coral half buried in the desert and dragged them to the upper cabin with the Scout. Getting them down to the Christine Marie was an adventure worthy of “America’s Funniest Home Videos.” Back in Wisconsin at The Gem Shop we had replaced several glass counter tops because they were scratched. These were packed up and brought out to the mine to use for windows.
Interior view of the cabin with the built counter and shelves.
                In the front part of The Gem Shop we pulled up the old linoleum tile floor to reveal the wood floor beneath. 8 of these 4x8 sheets of plywood with 1 foot square tiles attached with a black tar like glue were transported out to the mine and used for the roof. Pieces of wood of all sizes and shapes were gathered without concern for how they would be used. All the scraps from construction would later be used for fuel in the ancient, cast iron, hot water heater originally designed for coal that I found to use as a heater in the cabin. On the way to Oregon each year I usually stop at the large Army Surplus store just north of Ogden, Utah to look for supplies. There I found a nice large metal framed window with hinges that opened which I bought for $5.00.
The view looking out while the cabin is under construction.
                I worked on the cabin off and on for several years. After I positioned the large rocks for the base of each of the walls I built a heavy wooden frame to put on the top of the front rock.  I attached the large wooden poles I found earlier in the desert to the large standing rock by drilling some holes in the rock and pegging the poles in place on the rock. The other end of the poles rested on the wooden frame and extended out in front. This provided a strong support for the tile covered plywood roof which was later covered with dirt and rocks. I then built the walls on top of the rocks to meet the roof, leaving an overhang in front and on the sides. I had a window in each wall and a doorway in the front. Two of the windows were made from ¼ inch scratched counter glass and the third was the $5.00 window I purchased near Ogden. Inside I built a few shelves to hold food and a small counter for my propane stove. In the opposite corner I constructed a frame to hold my bunk about 3 feet off the floor just under the window I could open. The inside space was about 10 feet by 10 feet and with my old, coal burning, hot water heater in the corner it was very cozy. I spent a total of $34.00 building this cabin excluding gas and diesel for transportation. 

Friday, November 25, 2011

Mining the Christine Marie: The Nature of the Deposit

The first vein of Morrisonite Jasper
When I got the dozer down the last hill to the flat area where the road comes up from the river, I had only a couple hundred yards of level road to make before I would be in the deposit. It did not take me very long to get the dozer over there and I did not do a very good job on building the road either.        
As I was pushing loose rock to the right down the slope, I hit a big solid rock in the hill on the left side of the dozer. I worked around the rock with the dozer and then stopped to take a look at it. Much to my surprise I could see a vein of jasper running down the side of the rock. The vein was about 2 inches wide at its widest point and narrowed down to nothing on both ends. It was about 2 feet long and had a well defined egg pattern through most of it. I worked on the jasper in the large rock for several days digging around the big rock and chiseled and hammered to remove the jasper under the big rock I discovered more small broken rock with no jasper in it.
The mine at its deepest. The top 1/3 of the mine contains the float.
                When I first hit this rock with the dozer blade I thought that I had hit a protruding piece of host rock. That is to say that I had found the deposit and would now be able to follow the jasper into the hill from one rock to another. This was not the case. There was no jasper to be found around the big rock. The large rock was a float rock just like the little small rocks around it. The deposit had to be deeper into and up the hill from this rock which had moved down from above to its present position.
                All the jasper bearing rock on the hillside on the south end of the Christine Marie is fractured and moved. The deposit is as if a gigantic mass of rock was shattered, cracked, and then pushed slightly to separate all the pieces but not enough to mix them up. The top of the deposit is mixed up and is a steep slope containing all sizes of rocks. It is falling down over itself and small pieces of jasper can be found anywhere on the slope. The deposit excavation I made into the hill was about 20 feet below the original surface. Here the rocks were bigger- one ton or more in size but still stacked on top of each other with cracks between them sometimes 8-12 inches wide. The float, or mixed up rock on top, was 5 to 10 feet thick.

An early shot of the mine. notice all the cracked rocks.
The interesting and very unusual thing is that the cracking in the host rock has nothing to do with the cracking that allowed the jasper to form. The jasper must have been formed at an earlier time when the welded tuff was not shattered as it is today. While mining it is possible to follow the jasper in one rock to another rock even though the two rocks have been moved apart from each other. The jasper on the Christine Marie, unlike the jasper on the Jake’s Place claim, is held very tightly to the host rock. On the Jake’s Place claim the host rock is easily broken away from the jasper and most of the jasper follows cracks in the host rock. On the Christine Marie the welded tuff must be broken off the jasper with considerable effort, and it is rare for the jasper to be found in a natural crack. This means that the mining requires a lot more hammer work. On the plus side, the severe cracking in the host rock makes finding the jasper bearing rocks relatively easy. This is a very good thing because of the scarcity of the jasper in the deposit.
Notice how the jasper jumps from rock to rock without any relationship to the surrounding rocks.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Mining the Christine Marie: Watching a Rock Fall

Rocks fall onto mountain roads all the time, but rarely do people see it happen. Trees fall in the forest when the wind blows hard, but it is unusual for a person to be in the right place at the right time to witness it. The more I worked into the steep slopes of the Christine Marie claim, the more I knew when a rock slide was about to happen.
Big rock ready to fall.

I was following small veins of jasper in small rocks down around a very large rock. The large rock, about ten tons in size, did not have any visible jasper showing in it. The large rock was nested in among a vast number of smaller shattered rocks that did have some jasper. The large rock had moved here from some place higher up the slope. I worked slowly down the side of the rock over a period of several days, exposing it as I went down. The jasper I was finding was good, but small. The seams were barely ¾ inch wide, and did not go very far but traveled from one rock to the next as I worked down. I finally found the bottom of the large rock which seemed to be standing on its end, and the jasper in the small rock started to show indication of getting better. I started to follow the jasper under the big rock.
Rock in the upper left before the fall.
After working for a while, I got up to take a break and look things over. A little to my surprise the big rock looked a little more precarious than it had earlier. It was hanging in the back wall of the pit with not a lot of other rocks holding it in place. I thought it would be fun to watch the rock fall by itself. I went back to work, more carefully this time, removing rocks from under and around the large rock, one at a time. After a while I started to hear small noises coming from around and under the rock. I got out of the hole I was working in, found a nice rock to sit on far enough away to be safe, and watched and waited.
The whole process took about thirty minutes. Every few minutes there would be a creaking sound or a small pebble would slide down the slope under the rock. Then, there would be a long silence before another sound or trickle of dirt would cascade down the slope somewhere else. After another long silence, I became impatient and tossed a small stone below the big rock. At first the sounds and movement increased in intensity but then it went back to their natural rhythm.
The rock after the fall.

Finally, after about thirty minutes the sounds and rock slides under the big rock rapidly increased and the large rock fell over on its side as if someone gently pushed it over. It was fascinating to watch the whole process and realize that the rocks on this slope are continually falling; some just faster than others.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Mining the Christine Marie: Abrasive Rock

The two host rocks separate.
The jasper on the Christine Marie claim is in a steep rock slope about halfway down the canyon from the rim above. The host rock is labeled a welded tuff, and extends from the slope of the hill up past the cliff above to the pinnacle on the Amy Ellen claim; a distance of around 200 yards. The jasper formed in cracks in the tuff before it was in its present position. The entire hillside is a mixture of very large rocks (2-10 tons) and millions of small ones (1/2-5 pounds).

This rock is very abrasive. Because of the rock’s abrasiveness the rocks do not fall easily, but cling to each other. This quality contributes to the steepness of the area by not allowing rocks to erode downhill as fast. To illustrate this, it is possible to take two flat pieces of this welded tuff, place one on top of the other and tilt the pair of rocks almost 80 degrees before the top rock will fall off. Try this with most other rocks and the top rock will start to slide off with a tilt of a little over 45 degree
Gene holding the two pieces of abrasive rock.

The jasper in this deposit is scarce, but very good. A lot of rock must be carefully moved to collect a small amount of jasper. The abrasiveness of the rock takes a toll on your gear, as well. There were many days where a new pair of gloves in the morning would have one or two holes in the fingers by late afternoon. Using duct tape on your fingers was a common practice used to get more use out of a pair of gloves, or a little less wear on your fingers. I learned to buy a new pair of boots before I came out to the mine because a pair of boots lasts about a month working in this rock. I always use steel toed boots to protect my feet. After a month of mining Morrisonite, the leather would be worn off the toes of the boots revealing the scratched, shiny metal underneath.

Notice how tilted the rocks are, and they still stay together.
One very good thing about working in this rock was that it would always warn you when it was about to fall. Unlike other rock slopes which can give way with no warning, this rock will talk to you before it falls or gives way. The abrasiveness of the rock holds the pieces together until gravity becomes too much and you will start to hear small sounds. Soft sounding “ticks” and small creaks can be heard once in a while, and then more frequently. Through experience you come to understand when to get out of the hole you are working in and wait for the rock to cave in or get out of your hole and start the rock slide yourself, thus making it safe to work again.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Mining Morrisonite: Christine Marie – CASE 850

The levers.
Operating a CASE 850 frontend loader is about as different from operating an old D-4 Dozer as it gets. While operating the dozer, I was constantly moving my arms, pulling levers to steer the machine. The CASE could be driven with just my left hand! There were three little levers right next to each other on a pedestal between my legs as I sat on the machine. The right lever, which can be moved with one finger, provides power to the right track in low gear if pulled back and high gear if pushed forward. The left lever does the same for the left track. The middle lever moves the machine forward if pushed forward and backward if pulled back. The middle position for each lever is neutral.
Gene and the CASE-850 hard at work.

The machine can be turned to the right two different ways. By placing the left track in high gear and the right track in low gear, the left track will move forward faster than the right track turning the machine to the right. This is an advantage for the CASE because most other machines turn by subtracting (breaking) power to one track or the other rather than having power to both tracks. The CASE can also be turned to the right by putting the left track in high or low and leaving the right track in neutral. The weight of the machine will hold the right track in place while the left track drives forward, turning the machine to the right.

Gene, the happy miner.
Because the CASE 850 has a torque converter transmission, the tracks are free to roll if there is no power directed to them. But if turning right on a steep hill by providing power to the left track and leaving the right track in neutral, the machine can actually turn to the left instead. The free-wheeling right track can outrun the powered left track and move the machine to the left rather than right. This can make for some interesting times while operating on steep ground. Also it is very important not to allow the engine to stall; this will result in a 10 ton machine rolling down a hill with nothing to stop it but the bottom of a steep ravine. 

The CASE 850 does have breaks, but they are a joke. They were designed using old car parts and never worked well. I almost never used them. If I was driving the machine forward and needed to stop it, I could easily put the machine in reverse and accelerate. This machine had a foot-operated accelerator just like a car. The automatic transmission or torque converter would slow the machine to a stop and start moving backward. 

A view of the levers from the seat.
All controls which move the machine can be operated with the left hand on the three levers freeing the right hand to operate the bucket. A machine which can pick up rock and put it where you wanted it, is a vast mining improvement over a machine that can only push things around. Jake’s suggestion that I buy the CASE 850 greatly improved my success mining the Christine Marie.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Mining the Christine Marie: My Second Machine

 My friend Jake leased on the “Big Hole” claim from Lissa Caldwell. She was the wife of Tom Caldwell who worked the claim in the middle 1970s. Tom owned the claim, and Lissa inherited it when he died. It was originally purchased by Tom’s father and given to Tom as encouragement for his mining activities. Tom was known as a very good agate miner and was hired by other claim owners to work their claims.

Before Tom Caldwell decided to try mining Morrisonite, most of the mining had been done by hand. The lay of the deposit on the Big Hole Claim – later renamed “Jake’s Place” – on the precarious hillside was pretty well known because of all the previous hand work. Tom decided to ask Jake to help him get started and open up the deposit so that it could be mined more efficiently. Tom owned a CAT 955 track frontend loader, and Jake owned a Case 850 frontend loader. They moved both machines, a compressor, drill, and explosives out to the saddle above the deposit and set to work. They built the two still existing cabins in 1976 on the saddle so they would be safe from vicious weather which came across the ridge.

Jake and Tom drilled 12 foot holes with Tom’s 80 pound hand-held sinker drill, filled the holes with explosives, and broke up the rock. They then used both frontend loaders to push the barren rock over the edge as they worked down the side of the steep hill towards the deposit. They did this over and over for about three weeks without getting any jasper. About this time Jake moved back to mine Bruneau where he knew he could produce rock he could sell easily.

The area that Tom and Jake exposed is known as the “South Pit.” This area produced some very fine jasper. Some pieces from this area have gone to the grave with their owners at their request. A piece from the South Pit, now in a private collection, was featured in our 2008 Calendar of Fine Agates & Jaspers during the month of October. Most of the jasper in the Morrisonite area is found in shattered or cracked rock, in or under steep rock slides. One time Tom was working in the South Pit with his 980 frontend loader, and a rock slide buried his machine with him in it. He dug himself and his machine out by hand and got his machine up 600 feet, back on the saddle. Tom did not mine much Morrisonite after that.

The South Pit is now buried under about 20 feet of overburden which was mined from the North Pit on the Big Hole/ Jake's Place Claim and Veronica Lee Claim in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Tom’s drill was found years later rusted and frozen up. It was put in a container with oil for a year in an attempt to salvage it. After it was working again, I took it to Mexico where it has become responsible for most of the Coyamito Agate in the market today – there is not a deposit on the Coyamito ranch that does not have holes made by this drill.

Tom’s frontend loader ended up in Herrington’s Rock Shop in Adrian, Oregon. Jake obtained the machine with a lease, performed some repairs on it, and moved it back to Morrisonite in 1986. Jake sold his Case 850 to Glenn Pegrem who used it on some of his claims north of Jordan Valley about 35 miles from the Morrisonite claims.

Jake watched me build the road to the Christine Marie for two years with my ancient D4 Dozer. He told me that I needed a better machine and said he knew where I could get one that would not cost too much. He introduced me to Glenn, and, one year and $8,000 later, I had a Case 850 frontend loader – my second machine. I returned it to the Morrisonite area, and it stayed there for eight years.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Christine Marie: My First Jasper

My First Christine Marie Morrisonite Specimen
I had a productive day working on the road with the dozer, and I was getting close to starting the last downhill stretch of the road. I walked the road back up to the cabins and made supper – a ½ mile and 600 foot climb. I was full of anticipation that I soon would be mining jasper. This was the middle of June, and the days were long. I walked over to Jake’s cabin told to him that I thought I would walk back down and inspect the area I intended to mine. I walked down the south canyon. This canyon contains the rock formation known as the pinnacle which is in the center of the Amy Ellen Claim above the south end of the Christine Marie Claim. The descent is steep from the top of the canyon, but it is a shorter distance than walking down the road, and there is a good game trail to follow.
The pinnacle (right) is on the opposite side of the photo from the Christine Marie mine (left).
                The area which had signs of good jasper is a strange mixture of very large rocks (5-10 tons each) and small shattered rocks (1/2-2lbs.). I could see that it would be necessary to route the road underneath the largest rock on the side of the hill. I would probably start working under the big rock. I saw a small piece of jasper sticking out of the ground. I picked it up and wiped off the dirt. The piece was loose and not attached to any larger rocks. It was part of a seam with a very dark blue – almost black – outside and a soft looking light blue “egg pattern” on the inside. It had a gemmy consistency and a beautiful pattern. I immediately started back up the canyon to show Jake.

The Pinnacle above the Christine Marie Claim.
After the steep climb out of the canyon, Jake and I sat in his cabin examining the rock. “You know,” Jake said, “there are two good sides to that rock, and there should be two more pieces of that seam down there.” And then, to my surprise, he said, “Let’s go down and take a look.” For the third time that day, down the canyon we went with about two hours of light left in the sky. I had not marked the spot where I found the jasper, but I felt sure I could get right back to that spot.

We walked all over the side of the hill, but could not find another piece of jasper like the one I found earlier. We climbed back up to the cabins and arrived with just a glow left in the western sky. In the next eight years of mining this area, I never found another piece of this vein.
The Christine Marie Mine at its most dug.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Roads: Going Over the Edge

 The rock ridge that extends out towards the Owyhee River from the Jake’s Place mine becomes a vertical cliff before it meets the talus rock slope below. This is the first place that I could move the route of the road out of this canyon and onto the rock slide between this canyon and the next. After the nine switchbacks down the canyon, the road had to go past the base of the cliff, across the rock slide between the two canyons, and down into the next canyon. The area that contains the best jasper on the Christine Marie Claim is in the slide between the next canyon and the one after that -- on the southern portion of the claim.

                I had just finished building switchback number nine and was looking down towards the cliff that I had to go around. It looked like I had one more, steep slope down. Then I could lessen the slope of the road and even build it level to the horizon for a while. The rest of the road would be a downhill route around the sides of hills to the south end of the Christine Marie. There would be no more switchbacks.

I was having a lot of trouble building the road around the corner at the bottom of the cliff. There was not a lot of rock to work with and not much room to move it either. I had to angle the road down again to get past the lower end of the loose rock slide created from the mining above. I was in a bunch of big rocks when I got stuck with the dozer almost sideways on the road. I could not move backwards and the only way forward was down over the slide and down the slope.

                Rationalizations for actions in dangerous situations are easily colored by desires that do not reflect reality. I remember thinking that I could just drive the dozer down the slope and start working on the road from the other direction. Never mind that ten tons of steel goes down a slope with a great deal of speed, that the machine could roll over easily killing me in the process, or that operating the dozer on a 60 degree slope might be a little different than operating on flat ground. But the road had to be built.

                I went over the side. I lost all control. I grabbed the right clutch to straighten the machine out as I felt it slide and immediately grabbed the left clutch as I started to slide the other way. With my right hand free I slammed the hydraulic control forward lowering the blade. Rock collected in front of the blade and stopped the machine upright facing straight down the hill. The ride lasted about four seconds.

I sat down on a rock for about 10 minutes with my whole body shaking. I had survived the catastrophe which resulted from a very rash decision.

I walked up to where Jake was working and told him what had happened. The next day he brought his front-end loader down, continued construction on the road down past where I went over to the side and built a spur road over to, and just under, my dozer. I started the dozer, drove it onto the spur road and up to the main road. Getting back on the machine was one of the hardest things I have ever done.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Wiggins Fork Fire

Vapor cloud from fire 7.25 as viewed from Horse Creek

View of the fire from 3 miles away 7.26
Every year I travel to Wiggins Fork / Double Cabin Campground, Wyoming to collect Petrified Wood and Limb casts. I have done this for 39 years. The Campground is at 8300 feet, and the agate casts form at about 9000 feet. The Petrified Wood is in the mountains at about 10,000 feet. All of these materials wash down the rivers and can be found in the river gravels.

Norton Point, morning of 7.26

This year my wife and I arrived on Monday, July 25th at Horse Creek Campground, ten miles north of Dubois, Wyoming. We had received a message that a small fire had started on Norton Point and that the Forest Service had recommended that everyone leave Double Cabin Campground.

Fires burning on Burn Creek and Fire Creek, east of Wiggins 7.26
On the previous Friday a storm had come through the area with lightening and started a small fire. On Friday it was still burning but not of much concern. On Saturday there was a strong wind, and the fire expanded and started to move. On Sunday the fire moved very quickly down the slope on Norton, jumped Wiggins Creek, and started up the other side.

Burning towards Frontier Creek 7.26
On Tuesday we drove up to Double Cabin and watched the fire all day from the far side of the meadow on Frontier Creek, opposite the fire which moved slowly down the slope against the wind toward the creek. I have never witnessed a forest fire before, and it was amazing to hear and see trees explode into flames as if they were bombed from a mysterious source.

Frontier Creek
The fire stopped at Frontier Creek and Norton Creek, but moved all the way up Wiggins Creek. It also traveled over the ridge and down into Caldwell Creek and was threatening Bug Creek. On Saturday, August 6th, the Forest Service and Fire Fighters held a public meeting where they explained that the fire had so far cost one million dollars but that no one had yet been injured by it. After a little more than a week of the fire burning, Double Cabin Campground was reopened, and we were able to spend four days there. Some of my pictures were taken at that time. On our last day there, August eleventh, the fire intensified and burned most of Caldwell Creek. The Forest Service said they expected the fire to continue until the first snow fall.

Listed below is a first-hand account from Tom Noe who was up Wiggins Creek on Sunday.

Fire intensifying near Elk Lake
 Late Saturday afternoon I was camped close to the Frontier Creek trailhead lying under the cap of my truck in the back and working a crossword puzzle. I looked east and saw what looked like a streamer of campfire smoke just across Frontier Creek, rising maybe 150 yards north and upslope of the ranger cabin. It was about 300 yards away from me. I knew there wasn’t any trail over there, and I couldn’t think of any reason why anybody would be camping there; it was dense forest and probably had lots of downed and dead trees. No place for hiking. And why would anybody be starting a campfire at that time of day anyhow? I decided to let Earl, the campground host, know about it. It took a few minutes to walk across the meadow, and when I got to Earl’s rig he was just coming out with binoculars. Somebody had notified him already and he’d just notified the rangers. I told him I didn’t think that was a campfire, and he looked and said, “No, it’s not, and it’s getting bigger.” He said it was probably a lightning strike from Friday night, when we had a storm with lots of lightning and wind. (The tenters next to me had all the stakes in one of their tents pulled up. The only thing keeping the tent down was them sleeping in it!) Earl said a tree had probably been hit then, and it finally got enough oxygen to start burning.
Early view of the fire

Fire approaching Frontier Creek
I walked back to my truck and took some photos over the next few hours. I saw three firefighters head across the creek at 8:30 and took a picture of them. Later, just about dark, one of the rangers drove around to my site and she explained that the fire was close to the wilderness area. If it had been in the wilderness area, letting it burn would be the policy, but it was in the national forest and the campground area had 300 people in it. The Wind River Backcountry Horsemen had a huge gathering, including over 100 horses, the biggest crowd ever in the campground area, and with human safety a concern they had decided to put the fire out. It was about half to 2/3 of an acre at that point. The three firefighters were going to fight it until midnight. Sunday morning a larger team would be coming in. They didn’t think they would need aerial support, but a helicopter at Yellowstone was standing by just in case. She was very confident that the fire would be out Sunday just using ground tactics. That was the plan.
The fire as the firefighters arrive

I went to sleep in the back of the truck and watched the orange glow from the fire as night fell. Whenever I woke up during the night the orange glow was coming up from the site of the fire. It didn’t seem to get much bigger overnight.

Frontier Creek
Sunday morning I checked with Earl again about current information. At first the valley was full of smoke but it cleared off and the sun was shining. He said all the trails were still open and the word was still that they would be putting the fire out. I could see three green Forest Service trucks close to the campground entrance but no personnel. I told him in that case I’d be heading up Wiggins Fork to look for petrified wood. He asked me how far I’d be going and I said not far. I wanted him to know where I was.
I waded Frontier Creek and then hiked across the point on the trail by the cabin, then up Wiggins Fork, so I had pretty much gone around the fire completely. It showed as a column of smoke rising with the wind taking it slowly east. Couldn’t see any flames. Occasionally, as I was hunting the Wiggins gravel terraces for wood, I noticed that the column of smoke was getting bigger, but I assumed that was because the day was heating up.

Monday morning

Norton Point
Norton Point
About 10, I looked south down the canyon and the fire had spread down to the western banks of Wiggins Fork. Flames were twice as high as the trees. Some trees exploded from the heat, and I was close enough that I could feel the heat flashes on my face. I decided that was too close, so I walked north. The fire seemed to be burning faster right next to the bank than it was across the upper slopes. I didn’t want to head back down that way while the fire was burning so fiercely, since the wind then was stronger from the west, and flames were blowing east over the creek. I thought that if the fire jumped the creek I’d be in real trouble, and about noon they did. They spread north a lot faster on the east bank of Wiggins than on the west bank. Through the afternoon I kept moving north as the fire came north. I’d watch it from the terraces in the middle of the river. It was impressive. That whole end of the canyon looked completely cut off, and I didn’t see how I was going to get back to the campground. I figured they’d have to send a helicopter for me, and I was glad Earl knew where I was. I didn’t think climbing the ridge back over to the Frontier drainage would be a good idea. I could break an ankle or something, and that would put me in a place where nobody knew where I was. I knew I could stay out all night if need be—I had rain gear and matches (not that I needed matches) and I could build a campfire from driftwood to stay warm and use water from the creek to drink. I’d only been planning to stay out until noon, so I didn’t have much clean water and only a little food. I didn’t want to drink from the creek unless I had to.

By early afternoon a helicopter was cruising around overhead every so often, but way high, looking at the expanding fire, not low enough to spot me. But I still waved my hat and my handkerchief on a stick to try and get their attention.

Later Sunday morning

From Frontier Creek Looking at Norton Point
Late in the afternoon a fishing party from Nebraska of five men, four horses and a dog was coming south along Wiggins. They’d abandoned the Wiggins Trail because it was blocked by fire, and entered the streambed south of me. So I was behind them, but I waved my handkerchief on a stick and caught somebody’s attention, then I went down to talk with them. I had met them several days earlier. Like me, they’d heard that the fire was under control, small, and supposed to be put out on Sunday, so they went out fishing as usual.

Norton Point
Mark, the leader, said they were going to head south in the middle of the creek, stay away from any falling trees along the bank, and make for the camping area. I told them I wasn’t going to do that. No way. I had been caught in the woods during the 1988 fires in Yellowstone, with fires burning all around me in a 40 mph wind, and I knew fire could do anything once it got started. The end of the canyon was full of smoke, and fire was burning on both sides. I told them if they wanted to try that it was fine, and if they got through to let somebody know where I was.

They left, and as they disappeared into the smoke there were trees bursting into flame on the bank by them. A little later the helicopter came racing straight up the canyon, quite a bit lower this time. I thought they finally might be looking for me, and I found out later they were, so I waved like a crazy man, but they didn’t see me. I was right in the middle of the creek on a gravel terrace, in plain view. But they seemed to be going about 80 mph.
Monday morning -- one mile away
 Then no more helicopter, and the fishermen had been gone for about 45 minutes, and the sun was heading behind the ridge, and I figured if I wanted to get back to my truck before dark I had to start south no matter what. It was cooling down and the fire was less severe by then. Smoke was still strong.

Norton Creek holding the fire from spreading west
So I headed into the fire area. Trees on the west side of the creek were bursting into flame every so often, and the fire on the other side seemed to be farther back in the trees but creating a lot of smoke. Some younger trees right next to the water and out on the terraces were fine, still green, but a lot of the driftwood on the gravel beds had burned and I was stepping over remnants of driftwood logs and trunks, smoking shadows of ash left on the rocks.

Trees Exploding
I found the place where the trail led around by the cabin—the way I’d come that morning—and it was burning, so I knew I’d have to go farther south. At one point I was wading across one of the streams and fell in, so that meant spending the night out wasn’t an option anymore. It was hard to keep my footing anytime I stepped in, and my ankles started swelling. My lips were sticking together and I figured that was dehydration. My legs were cramping, probably hypothermia. I kept telling myself, “Don’t do anything stupid.”
Monday afternoon from 30 miles away

Trees Exploding
I got down across from the meadow south of the campground, picking my way carefully through the braided streams to avoid the deepest parts, but it was dusk by then and hard to tell the depth of the water. I left the wood and my backpack on the east bank, and figured I’d come back for them in the morning. When I reached shore I needed to get moving as fast as I could to my truck and get into some warm clothes. It was probably about half a mile. I stopped on the way to let Earl and the Nebraska fishermen know I was okay. It was dark when I reached the truck, so I changed as fast as I could, but my hands weren’t working right. I couldn’t tie my shoelaces, and my legs were still cramping, and my teeth were chattering. I had a quart of sun tea that was still warm from the day’s heat, so I drank all of that. I started the engine and sat in the cab until it got warm, but I didn’t feel any warmer. I wanted to get a fire started in my little camp stove and boil some water for tea, but I couldn’t use my hands for anything. With my coffee cup and a teabag I went miserably back across the meadow to the Nebraska fishermen to see if they could boil some water for me, and they invited me to stay for supper. I could barely talk. They had fresh elk ribs and chicken and corn on the cob. I couldn’t hold the corn on the cob in my hand. Finally I could feel my hands again and I had some food in me, so I felt pretty good, but I was exhausted and I kept staring off into space, picturing the scenes of that afternoon with the fires coming up the canyon toward me. We all sat around the campfire and watched the flames from the fire against the mountains, which by then was in the upper slopes on the east side of the valley. Nothing like a nice forest fire to pass the time.

Vapor cloud from fire on Caldwell Creek 8.11
Burnt area near Norton Creek 8.11
The next morning I made three trips back and forth to the place where I’d left my wood and gear. I didn’t want to risk falling in again. Getting in the water even for a minute left my legs cherry red. There was nothing much to do the rest of that day (Monday) except watch the fire, since all the trails but Frontier Creek were closed, so I said goodbye to the fishermen and got some advice from Earl on other places south along the river to look for wood, and that’s where I headed. The fire was just starting to spread north along Frontier Creek, so that meant it would eventually jump the creek and spread along the western side, where the campground was. The firefighters were trying to save the cabin and the campground, but otherwise letting the fire go. The Nebraska folks were hoping to stay, but I figured Frontier would be closed soon (and it was). They had plans to be at Double Cabin a week and didn’t have any other options set up. Depending on the wind, you were either getting a wonderful view of the huge column of smoke and trees bursting into orange flame, or you were in the middle of the smoke with watering eyes.

Caldwell Creek on the other side of the mountain
When the Forest Service decided to “let the fire burn,” I don’t know if that was just another way of saying they had lost control of it. Not that it made much difference at that point. One person who saw the firefighters come on Sunday morning said they didn’t seem to be in any rush. They were having coffee, chatting, not dashing over to the fire. I guess they were real confident they could put it out.

Caldwell Creek
Of course, they were telling everybody, “We’re putting it out and all the trails are open,” so they knew there were people on the trails. I wish they had sent somebody out on a horse to let me know. Earl knew right where I was and he told them. I wasn’t much more than a mile away at that point.
I haven’t heard of anybody getting injured by the fire, but I was pretty banged up and exhausted. At home in Indiana I finally got all the smoke smell washed out of my truck. I hear the campground is open again. I may go back next year just to see what it looks like. The last time I was there in 1992 all the trees were alive, so it looked a lot different when I got there this year, and next year will be something else again.


View up Caldwell Creek from road 6 miles to the south 8.11

A Forest Service map of the fire