As Published in the Trailhead News Nov/Dec 2015 Issue
The summer of 2015 was a rough one in the Pacific Northwest. A winter that wasn’t conspired with an even drier spring to fuel the wildfires that scorched our region and cause untold misery. From the Pasayten’s Newby Lake fire to emergency evacuations throughout the region; I saw entirely too many billowing clouds of smoke over the summer. Needing some good news I took a trip to Haney Meadow north of Ellensburg for a different perspective and to get a glimpse of what these areas may look like in coming years.
My first introduction to the realities of wildfire came with the Table Mountain fire of 2012. After riding and camping in the clear cool air at Haney Meadow just days before the fire I’ll always remember how the smoke stung and burned my eyes as I drove past fire camps and under helicopters laden with water buckets on my way to Ellensburg only a week later that same summer. Three years later I returned to the Ken Wilcox Horse Camp. This is what I found.
The road. If you’ve heard of Haney Meadow you’ve heard about THE ROAD into camp, especially from those that haven’t driven on it. Regardless of your source of information, the drive up Forest Service Road 9712 is much better now. The worst of the rocks and holes have been smoothed and while you won’t break any speed records you can certainly get an LQ horse trailer in. Now anyone can visit, camp, and ride in this fabulous spot. As you make your way to the Ken Wilcox horse camp you’ll see plenty of evidence of the 2012 fire in the stands of bleached white and charred black trees that haunt the forest. You’ll also see evidence of the re-growth that’s occurring throughout the burn area. Summer visitors will enjoy the masses of fireweed with their purple/pink flower spikes blooming in waist high drifts, gently rolling across the forest floor.
Once you’ve made your way to the horse camp proper you’ll be surprised at how “normal” the camp appears. Green pines and firs still tower overhead. With the exception of a few campsites in the upper loop most of the camp areas are relatively unscathed. The most noticeable impact that we saw were the scores of downed trees surrounding camp. Once campfire restrictions are lifted there will be plenty of downed wood for cozy campfires for gathering and telling tall tales in the dancing light. In the meantime enjoy the flickering beauty of the countless hummingbirds that are enjoying the wildflowers.
Some parts of the camp are very definitely changed. The Haney Meadow Cabin is gone and with it my habit of peering through the door and imagining the life of the shepherds that once called the structure home.
The trails in and around Haney Meadow are just as fabulous as they’ve always been, in large part due to the efforts of the Back Country Horsemen of Washington who have put in untold hours of sweat clearing trails, rebuilding bridges, and improving trail tread in the years since the fire. When you visit please be sure to give the BCHW members that participated in these efforts at least a silent “Thank You” or better yet join the next statewide work party and help keep your trails open for years to come.
A Note of Caution: When riding and camping at Haney Meadow keep a close eye out for deadfall. Although the trails have been cleared dead trees will continue to fall as their roots slowly decay. A trail that is open now may well have a new log blocking it next week. Hang a saw from your saddle; you may be glad that you did. Likewise don’t tie to a dead tree during your lunch stop. You’re horse may not appreciate having his hitching post fall on him if you didn’t thoroughly check the stability first.
The Table Mountain fire burned an area of over 65 square miles. To put those 42,000 acres in another light, that’s an area larger than the cities of Bellevue, WA, and Berkeley, CA. Combined. However, not all of the space within the burn area was completely blackened. The fire ate through the forest in a patchwork leaving some areas charred and other places with green branches peaking through the soot. We even saw some trees that were burned on only a single side. It’s well worth a visit if only to experience the uniqueness of riding through a forest of blackened trees looming overhead and then into a verdant green oasis and back again multiple times within an hour or even less.
Even in the areas that were completely blackened, life is returning. The signs of renewal are everywhere. A quick glance down past the fireweed will reveal colonies of baby lodgepole pine sprouting from the still black soil. The lodgepole pines are just one species that relies upon the heat of a blaze to release the seeds of the next generation. And it’s not just pine trees, an observant eye will catch glimpses of many wildflowers and grasses that survived to sprout fresh new growth after being freed overlaying forest duff by the blaze.
As always for the latest and best in information on this and other trailheads and camping locations visit www.trailmeister.com, the Back Country Horsemen of Washington’sguide to horse trails and horse camping destinations.