Where There’s Smoke, There’s Idiots

5:30 Sunday morning we were lying in bed, awake, because…well, we’re freaks, I guess. There’s no other logical explanation.

In any case, our alarm was set for 6:00 a.m. anyway (see? Freaks!), so when Tara said, “Want to drive out to Cape Horn to catch the sunrise?” I did not resist as much as I might otherwise have. We were headed out in that direction anyway, planning a hike at Beacon Rock, so I figured we might as well. Tara had been wanting to catch a sunrise out that way for years, and this was the perfect opportunity.

It was still darkish when we left home, headed east into the Columbia River Gorge after a quick stop at McDonald’s for a bite to eat. Say what you will about them, but I do love me a good Egg McMuffin. I rarely go there, and when I do it’s only for a quick breakfast, and that breakfast always consists of an Egg McMuffin. I feel it’s the one thing they do really well.

But I digress.

We got to the Cape Horn overlook right around sunrise – 6:35 a.m. And saw nothing but thick smoke from the Eagle Creek wildfire. Side note: Eagle Creek had been our original destination. It’s the most popular hiking trail in the Gorge, and for good reason: the scenery is stunning, all forested canyons and waterfalls, and the trail is mostly level. I was last there in May and slogged through a wet but spectacularly scenic hike.

Well, sadly, some asshole hiker decided to play with fireworks on Saturday afternoon and started a brush fire that stranded 153 hikers overnight! They were brought to safety Sunday morning, but by then the fire had grown to 3,000 acres and is now threatening the entire town of Cascade Locks. I am so pissed at these idiots…and heartbroken. Very afraid to see what the trail looks like after the fire is eventually contained, which is sure to take a while given the continued hot, dry weather and windy conditions that are expected to develop. And to think we were this close to going hiking there that very day. We only changed our minds because the weather was supposed to be a couple of degrees less hot (I can’t even say “cooler” because we’re talking 94 versus 98), and then of course by the time we were ready to go hiking the whole place was up in flames. It’s amazing to me how fickle fate is, and how your life can turn on a dime. Granted, we’d have gotten there early in the morning and the fire didn’t begin until 4:00 p.m., but what if the other hiker had set out earlier? What if we’d stayed longer? You just never realize how close you come to catastrophe sometimes, I suppose.

Anyway, when the sun climbed above the horizon, we began to spot it through the smoke. And suddenly, it was glowing a beautiful shade of red. These photos are completely unedited; I just pointed my trusty Nikon eastward and pressed the shutter button.

After killing a good half hour watching the sun and snapping a million pics, we continued on to Beacon Rock State Park, where we ended up doing a couple of short hikes: 2.1 miles to a pair of waterfalls, and then another 1.2 miles to the top of Beacon Rock and back down. There were some pretty breathtaking vistas along the way that afforded us views of all the smoke.

Nothing super strenuous, but it was uncomfortable breathing in all that smoke, and after a while we noticed sprinkles of ash drifting down on us. So we headed back home, our mission accomplished.

Ash on Tara’s truck.

Our mission, I should point out, was banking calories for The Bite of Oregon, our favorite local festival in Portland. We go every year, and always try to do a hike in the morning so we can splurge guilt-free in the evening. This year they changed it up quite a bit; it’s normally held at Tom McCall Waterfront Park the second weekend in August, but they pushed it back to Labor Day weekend in 2017 and moved it to the Rose Quarter, which is a lot more…concrete-y, for lack of a better word. I suspect they decided on a later date in order to beat the heat, which backfired because it was in the mid-90s and hot as blazes anyway. That always seems to be the case, and is the reason why we hold off until the evening to head over there. We left home about 6:00, drove to the Parkrose MAX station, grabbed a light rail train, and were deposited in front of the Rose Quarter 30 minutes later.

The moment we walked in, we could tell the vibe was different. Instead of its nice location alongside the Willamette River, the more urbanized setting suffered from a funky, disjointed layout. There were fewer vendors, and those that were there didn’t compare to some of the “regulars” we’d become accustomed to over the years. The chef’s bounty tables were history, the wine and beer gardens were maybe half the size, and crowds were sparse. Even the 80s cover band playing on stage kind of sucked. I hate to say it, but they ruined The Bite. If there’s some weird silver lining to look at, hey – at least it’s one less thing to miss should we decide to move. We still grabbed some food, because we were starving after all, but hightailed it out of there in less than an hour. Normally we linger for several.

We got home and parked ourselves on the back deck, listening to music, even though it was still warm. And then I got an overpowering urge to drive east, into the Gorge, to look at the fire up close. We debated this for a few minutes – it was late at night, a 40-minute drive, we didn’t want to be gawkers – but in the end, curiosity and a desire to capture some really cool pics won out. I guess I’m a photographer at heart, albeit an amateur one. Besides, Tara pointed out that it was a warm summer night; we could put the moonroof down, listen to some tunes, and witness something up close that few people ever get a chance to see.

That was good enough for me.

Driving over twisty two-lane mountain roads in darkness so thick you need a constant hand on your high beams is not for the faint of heart, but 30 miles to the east we came upon the fire, which was raging out of control across the river. The flames were encroaching upon Bonneville Dam, adjacent to Cascade Locks.

Flames from the Eagle Creek fire in the hills behind Bonneville Dam.

It was a sad and surreal sight, and we joined throngs of onlookers who had pulled over to gaze in wonder and take pictures of their own. It looked like we were in Hell.

We didn’t get back home until 12:30, but man, it was worth the long drive and late night.

I’m beyond saddened by all this. At least they’ve identified the suspect who started it. Wonder of wonders, it’s a teenage boy. I never would’ve guessed that.

We’re planning a much lower-key Labor Day. For starters, I’m pretty sure I hear a Bloody Mary calling my name. Then we’re headed to my parents’ house for dinner this evening.

Hope y’all have a good holiday, and hats off to the brave men and women fighting this devastating fire in the Gorge.


Published by Mark Petruska

I'm a professional writer and editor living my best life in south central Wisconsin.

13 thoughts on “Where There’s Smoke, There’s Idiots

  1. We also have a fire burning really close to us that was started by fireworks, they are interviewing some people but no names or ages so far…

    Amazing pictures that you took there Mark, like you said the ones of the fire are a view a lot of people will never see, it is sad that people can be so idiotic and cause wildfires like this, it’s a crying shame that a lot simply do not use their brains.


  2. Tremendous photos, despite the sadness of it all. I’ve only experienced a fire when we were at Yellowstone. It wound up blocking the East Entrance, so we had to find another route out to get to Cody, WY. The smell that carried for miles is what stuck with me. Glad you and Tara are safe!


  3. Mark, like you, anything that has to do with destroying nature (especially when it comes from carelessness), saddens me very much. And yes, hats off to the brave men and women who fought that devastating fire. Glad to hear you and Tara were not there at the time. You’re right, fate was with you that day. Whew!

    Your photographs are stunning. And I mean STUNNING! From the ones of the sun rising in the smoke-filled horizon to the ones of the fire itself. AMAZING captures!

    Hope you and Tara had a fantastic Labor Day!


  4. The whole thing is pretty discouraging. Running up into the gorge for one of the many great hikes is a key benefit to living in this area. I wonder how long it will take to recover a level of its former beauty? At least I got one last pristine trip to the Punchbowl up at Eagle Creek.

    And as for moving The Bite inside, that bites.


  5. I wish I couldn’t believe that someone had done that, but I’ve heard enough booms at night to know we have some of the same #&*!$%%s (words censored as they are unbecoming of this lady) who enjoy putting the rest of my neighborhood at risk during times of drought and/or high wind. The images are tragic.


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