Lightner Creek Fire

It was the Wednesday before July 4th and the Lightner Creek Campground and Cabins staff were making preparations for the busy weekend when our friends and fellow camp hosts – Tony and Amelia – raced into the park. This was unusual because the speed limit is 5 mph and camp hosts try to enforce it. They had just come back from town and breathlessly told us that there was a house on fire just east of the campgrounds. We all rushed up the park’s hill to gawk.

It was the house of our, shall we say, interesting neighbor. She lives there with her kids and they regularly shoot off fireworks and guns. On Memorial Day there were loud gun shots coming from there well into the night which made the campground guests nervous. Someone called the sheriff, but the shots stopped before they got there. One of her other neighbors said there were three loud explosions before the house caught fire. The house was burning very quickly and the color of the flames suggested that a gas fueled the flames. Rumors in the community said that she grew pot and processed something more potent in a back room, but we never verified any of that.

As we stood on the hill, we watched the fully engulfed house, when suddenly the fire jumped to the trees and started up the mountain. We all started panicking and using a lot of four letter words. Thank God the wind was blowing away from us.

Amelia – a 911 dispatcher in a previous life – asked if there was an evacuation plan. Robert and Andrea, the owners, fetched ours from office and contacted its creator – the original owner who lives alone at the campground’s west end. She came over, very upset and helped coördinate the evacuation. The plan broke the campgrounds into sections. The owners assigned camp hosts different sections and sent them to their assigned area with instructions for how each campsite should exit. We told everyone to “prepare to evacuate”. It couldn’t have been more than 15 minutes when we got a “MANDATORY EVACUATION” from Code Red – a must have cell phone app. No matter where you are in the USA, it will send you emergency alerts for your area. When the alert sounded, the camp hosts spread out to their assigned areas and began evacuating the campers. Several people were in Durango then, but we made sure anyone in the campgrounds knew they had to leave. After we got the guests out, Deb and I started to hook up our trailer, but before we could, a sheriff showed up in front of our rig and said we had to leave; NOW! So we started throwing stuff in the truck and car and abandoned the trailer. I had time to put in the awnings and turn off the propane, but that was it. A personal evacuation plan for our RV is on my to-do list from now on.

The fire quickly spread after jumping the road. Fortunately, the wind kept it away from the campgrounds.

The campground is in a box canyon and the only way out was down the road toward the fire. The wind was blowing the fire away from us, but it had jumped the road and started up Perins Peak to the north.  The fire had jumped across high enough that the road was not blocked. We drove through a maze of fire trucks but finally made it to Hwy 160. We assembled on the side of the highway and wondered what to do. We could see the smoke billowing out of the canyon and flames crawling up Perins Peak. We didn’t know if we would have anything to return to, but we got everyone out safely.

At The Rendevouz
After getting out of the canyon, we gathered at the sided of the road to ponder what to do next.

One of the guests in the group got word that the Red Cross was at the La Plata County Fairgrounds setting up an evacuation center. A seasoned camp host knew where it was, so most of us followed him. Wouldn’t you know it, the fairgrounds booked a rodeo for the holiday and the parking lot was full. Trailers and motorhomes were redirected to the high school parking lot next door. The next day the shelter moved to the Escalante Middle School which had a big parking lot for rigs. The Rocky Mountain Team Black Hotshot fire fighters moved into the fairground shelter. By the way, the Red Cross was great! They provided a place to sleep, water, snacks, and food – donated by various town restaurants.

Deb and I opted for a hotel room instead of trying to sleep in a dormitory full of kids, dogs, and people. When I got on the phone I found out that most of the hotels were booked for the big weekend. I finally found a room at the Holiday Inn, and we spent two nights there until they let us go retrieve our trailer. One at a time, a sheriff escorted the camp hosts in to hook up trailers then get out. The fire was only 20% contained so planes were flying over us while helicopters picked up water from trout ponds close to the road. Some idiot was flying a drone in restricted air space and delayed air operations a day (he was later found and he’s facing charges).

Lightner Creek Fire Damage
This is the ridge that the fire went up when it first started. The wind blew it over to the other side. This ridge goes right up behind the campground. The burn line runs along the ridge line and the only campground exit was down the canyon and past the fire.

It was a relief pulling our rig out of the park. We headed straight for the middle school parking lot where we dry camped for two nights. The Red Cross commandeered the dining room and they organized a big meeting on the fire’s fourth day with all the players; fire fighters, police, sheriffs, etc. who gave us the status of the fire. Denver TV stations filmed the meeting and we made the evening news. They told us that the fire was still only 20% contained, but they were letting some homeowners return to their homes. Since we were not home owners but were permanent summer residents, officials excepted the camp hosts and they issued us special Rapid Access ID cards. The next day they let us go back to the campgrounds. Whoopee! The road was still closed to the public and we couldn’t take any guests yet, but we were back in our summer home.

Fire Damage
This is where the fire started and continued over the top of the ridge toward Hwy 160. You can see how close the fire came to the campgrounds.

Since we had the campgrounds to ourselves, we threw a 4th of July Bar-B-Que. The campground wasn’t burned at all, and the facilities were fine. The fire came closer than we thought, but it did not cross the boundary. We were very lucky. There were a lot of cancellations for the 4th of July week, but we are now back up to full capacity and it is still a great place to spend the summer.

Fire Break
The morning we got our trailer out there was a line of fire fighters walking in single file to cut that fire line.

They have not identified the reason the house caught on fire, but it was very suspicious. Since the house was destroyed and the fire was so hot, the fire investigators couldn’t find the fire’s cause. As for our interesting neighbor … she wasn’t at home when the fire started, but she did check into the evacuation shelter, so she’s homeless but otherwise ok.

Fred Poteet

Mesa Verde National Park

After blowing all our money last year on the Alaska trip, Deb and I thought we were doomed to learning new survival skills for staying all summer in hot Arizona. Then our neighbor, Tom Beavert saved us. He spent his last five summers in cool Durango, Colorado and told us about jobs as camp hosts at the Lightner Creek Campground, so we checked in to it, and got the jobs.

We arrived in the middle of May, just in time for a little snow storm. This was a pleasant surprise after leaving AZ where it was already getting into the 90s. The campground is in a box canyon at 7000 feet elevation. That means the mornings are always cool (40s) and the afternoons are not that bad either (70s or 80s). We work 3 days on and 3 days off, so we have plenty sight-seeing time. It’s really nice staying here for the summer.

Google Map Durango Area
The map shows the highway between Durango, Colorado and Mesa Verde National Park.

Our first outing was to Mesa Verde National Park, about 35 miles west of Durango. We wanted to visit it before the hot summer set it. When we were dating, Deb and I had stayed in Cortez, CO and had stopped at the park, but only briefly. Hmm . . . I guess we had other things on our mind back then. This time as an old married couple, we saw everything. We spent 4 days in the park and took all the tours. There are a few self-guided tours and plenty of to do on your own, but the best ruins are only accessible via $5.00 guided tours, and because the tours fill quickly, you need to sign up early.

Cliff Palace
Cliff Palace, the crown jewel of Mesa Verde National Park and an architectural masterpiece by any standard, Cliff Palace is the largest cliff dwelling in North America.

Chapin Mesa is the main visitor center. It’s here you’ll find The Archaeological Museum, Cliff Palace (the largest cliff dwelling), Spruce Tree House, and Balcony House. The tours of Cliff Palace and Balcony House are a must. Balcony House is the most challenging tour. It starts with a climb up a 32 ft. ladder and ends with a crawl through a 12 ft. tunnel on your hands and knees. Believe me; it’s worth it. Allow a day to take both of these tours.

Long House
Long House, about equal in size to Cliff Palace, fills an expansive 298-foot-long sandstone alcove from end to end. The village includes about 150 rooms, 21 kivas, and a row of upper storage rooms.

Wetherill Mesa is the “quieter side” of Mesa Verde. It offers a number of opportunities, depending on the season. Mesa Verde is one of the few National Parks that allow bicycling, and on Wetherill Mesa there is a 5 mile loop built for a shuttle bus. The bus was discontinued, so now you can walk or ride your bike on a nice paved road. Wetherill Mesa was my favorite because it was less crowded and had one of the best tours.

Square Tower House
Square Tower House, a beautiful cliff dwelling built-in an alcove in the upper walls of Navajo Canyon. The “tower” had windows, doorways, and flooring, and the inner walls were plastered. About 60 of the original 80 rooms remain.

The Longhouse (the second largest cliff dwelling) tour takes 2 hours and you really get to explore all of it. Step House and Badger House are self-guided tours and you can ride your bike through the Badger House Community Trail. Allow one to two days to see everything on Wetherill Mesa.

Long House
Long House, a well-preserved four-story triangular tower rises from floor to ceiling at the far west end of the alcove.

Here is a tip for grabbing a good lunch. Far View Terrace is a nice cafeteria with a gift shop run by the Ute Indians. Their prices are good and the gift shop has a better choice than the Visitor Center. The only other place to eat on Chapin Mesa is Spruce Tree Terrace, near the museum. They are both good, but Far View Terrace is much larger and quieter. We had a wonderful Navajo Taco. If you are going to Wetherill Mesa, they only have a snack bar and a covered patio where you can eat your own lunch.

Far View
Far View was a popular place in the early days at Mesa Verde. From A.D. 900 to about 1300, it was one of the most densely populated parts of the mesa. Far View House in the background and Pipe Shrine House were part of the Far View Community.

Don’t forget to pickup the Amateur Photographer’s Guide at the Visitors Center. It is just one sheet, but it has some pretty good advice. It identifies the most photographed areas, the light at different times of day, and suggested locations for shooting. You need a telephoto lens for some overlook locations, but don’t wait for sundown to shoot from the overlooks. The best time is from 5:00 to 6:30 pm to get the most light on the cliff dwellings. Note that high contrast will overexpose parts of your picture and underexpose others. It is best to zoom in on either a dark or light area.

Petroglyph Point
Petroglyph Point Trail, An ancient loop trail starting at the Chapin Mesa Archaeological Museum leads to a petroglyph panel and through scenic wildlife habitat. Hikers must register at the trailhead or museum. The trail is physically challenging and is steep and uneven, with steps, cliff edges and tight passages, and includes strenuousness elevation changes.

We really enjoyed Mesa Verde and now it’s time to move on to our next adventure. We will be exploring downtown Durango and its surrounding area.

Fred

Haines – Alaska

Surrounded by glaciers with a deep water port and only ONE cruise ship comes here.

I talked to the local fish shop and they said there was a late fun of red salmon. They counted over 15,000 in one day, so . . . we stayed in Haines another day so I could try to catch a few. The guy told me to go when the tide was in, which was 6:55 today. I was at the mouth of the Chilkoot river at 7:00 ready to go and so were some other fisherman. I got my rod together, fly on, waders on and headed into the river. It is full of boulders and is very hard to walk in, but I headed out to a small island near the middle. That’s when I heard some loud growls coming from the bushes. I know they were loud, because I didn’t have my hearing aids in and I could hear them loud and clear. It was a mama grizzly taking her two cubs out for breakfast and I was in the way. She was about 20 feet from me when I saw her, so I headed for the bank as slow as I could make myself walk.

This is the Grizzly sow that made Fred give up his fly rod and grab his camera. She had two cubs with her, and a mama grizzly with cubs is not to be taken lightly.
This is the Grizzly sow that made Fred give up his fly rod and grab his camera. She had two cubs with her, and a mama grizzly with cubs is not to be taken lightly.

When I got to the bank, I headed straight for my truck and traded in my fishing stuff for my camera. I’ll send you a picture of her and the cubs when I can. A park ranger showed up and told me; oh that’s “Speedy” and her latest kids. They come out about this time every morning. WHY DIDN’T THE FLY SHOP TELL ME!

After they had moved on down the river and I made sure there weren’t anymore surprises, I got out my fishing gear again. Another thing the fly shop didn’t tell me was the commercial fisherman were turned loose this week and very few of the reds were making it up the river. Just my luck. Oh well I did catch a big Dolly Varden that fought like a salmon. I released it, since they are not that good eating, but not before I took a picture. I’ll send it to you. When I landed it, I didn’t know what it was so I whipped out my trusty fish identifier and sure enough, it was a Dolly.

Fred's Dolly Varden
A nice size Dolly Varden Trout, a species of Arctic Char.

And now for the bad news. When I quit fishing and started walking out the boulder field in the river, I lost my balance and caught myself with the hand I had my rod in. Broke my rod! Guess I’ll be testing the Orvis guarantee.

We’re headed for Whitehorse tomorrow to see if we can get our refrigerator fixed. We’ll keep you posted.

Fred