Fireweed Glow

An Excerpt


Jeanette F. Chaplin



Mount St. Helens: 1986


THE MOON hung listlessly in the mid-morning sky—a translucent gauze echo of the full brilliance it had displayed the previous night. A lone hiker scrambled to gain footing on the loose pumice of the barren landscape surrounding the dozing volcano. A check of the watch indicated three hours into the hike. Straight ahead lay the shattered remnant of the summit of the volcano. Just a few more yards before resting and taking a drink of precious water.

To the north, the colorless landscape traced the path of destruction. A plain of pumice and hummocks of lava occupied the former paradise. Once-verdant forests alive with scurrying wildlife and birdsong had been replaced in seconds with devastation and destruction. Still, the mountain loomed majestically over the landscape and the urge to conquer its heights was if anything more compelling since the eruption. The second most-climbed mountain after Mount Fuji, the mountain challenged novice and beginner alike to conquer its summit.

This hiker sought a more challenging pursuit—one of the forbidden canyons that had been set aside for scientific research. Not wise to climb alone, but this would be the last chance for a long time and not many hikers were still around this late in the season. Besides, no one could be trusted to take part in this clandestine adventure. Occasional tremors were also a concern—mild earthquakes had continued to assault the site since the 1980 eruption. Although most scientists thought they had subsided by now, an occasional one still threatened the area. The hiker decided that experience and prudence would compensate for any inherent dangers. Leaving the well-traveled Loowit trail that encircled the mountain would protect the hiker from discovery by any late season tourists or unsuspecting scientists while exploring one of the obscure canyons.

Satisfied after a brief lunch break, the hiker looked furtively around for observers, left the trail, and headed toward the canyon. Keeping up a brisk pace, the hiker soon neared the goal. Breathing in deeply the fresh mountain air and the exhilaration of conquest, the hiker took in the sights few had ever seen: striated canyon walls, trickling streams, and still-bubbling mud flats.

Seeing a natural pass in an outcropping of rock, the hiker decided to ascend for a better view of the hummocky plains below. At that instant a tremor violently shook the unsuspecting hiker and loosened many of the huge rocks above. The hiker was helpless to do anything but hunker down and wait until the tremor passed. A lava boulder offered temporary protection until the clamour of an avalanche reached the tentative refuge and dislodged boulder and hiker in one screaming instant, hurtling both to the floor of the canyon.

* * *

A faint glimmer of consciousness allowed the hiker to glimpse the waning moon in the jet sky before slipping again into the swimming void of pain and nothingness.

The second return to reality proved more successful. Now it was daytime and no remnant of moon hung in the sky to provide a clue as to the passage of days. The hiker tried to assume a half-sitting position. Why was it so hard to breathe? Nothing seemed to be broken. The hiker had the sensation of sinking into a warm and comforting bath—evidently a hallucination.

Then as the hiker began to regain full consciousness, it became evident that the sensation was not imagined—the hiker was sinking slowly, into the terrible tentacles of an area of quicksand, or more accurately, quick mud. Several of these patches had remained since the volcano, gradually cooling and hardening, but many still soft and warm—posing a danger for the unsuspecting.

The urge for survival jump-started a tentative plan in the barely functioning brain: remain as motionless as possible, flatten the body, spread the arms, look for something to grab onto. With eyes wide, the hiker scanned the perimeter of the death pit. Success. A fallen log just out of reach, but apparently stable. With a rush, the hiker lunged in the direction of the log, but missed. With the second thrashing attempt the hiker reached the desired object and maintained a tenuous hold while gaining strength for the second phase of the escape. With a final desperate effort, the hiker reached the relative safety of the arid, ashy ground surrounding the bubbling pit, then sank into a numbing sleep.

With the sleep came a restoration of mental facilities and the hiker assessed the situation: backpack still intact with one strap torn loose; jeans ripped at the calf revealing a gaping tear in the skin; muscle intertwined with shards of lava. The bleeding had stopped, leaving a burning pain in its place. The hiker examined the wound and determined that no bones were broken. A tentative search of the backpack produced a half tube of ointment—enough for a casual scrape, but certainly not adequate to stem the infection that broiled under the exposed surface of damaged flesh.

Gingerly, the camper extricated the foreign material from the wound with a camping knife, starting the bleeding again. After splashing the angry sore from the limited supply of water and applying the ointment and a gauze patch, the camper was ready to attempt the painful walk back to the campsite. Stomach cramps were a reminder that the rations for the intended day hike were long gone. The hiker took a slow swig from the water bottle and eyed the nearby stream. Too saturated with pulverized stone to be drinkable. The little that remained in the flask would have to do. The hiker started tentatively but resolutely toward safety.

The next morning, after a cold night wrapped in a silver emergency blanket, the camper awoke to a dry mouth, fever, and a relentless throbbing in the wounded leg. The water was gone and the only hope of survival was to make camp by evening. Staggering steps slowed to a shuffle as the hiker began to weaken and finally stumbled and fell. After regaining the main trail, the hiker resumed the slow painful march and survival once again seemed possible. Lulled into a mindless rhythm of painful steps in the afternoon sun, the hiker misstepped and plunged downward in a second, more devastating fall, scraping the dressing from the tender sore. A gasp of pain escaped between parched lips. The hiker vomited dryly and drifted off into oblivion, to be roused by a faint droning. Struggling to perceive the source of the potential rescue, a helicopter maybe, the hiker raised an aching head and opened red, swollen eyes.

The droning was bees, hundreds of bees. Moaning, the hiker instinctively covered face and bare hands in anticipation of a painful ending to what had turned into a nightmare. But the bees ignored the intruder, evidently not perceived as a threat. Clear-headedness began to return slowly as the hiker analyzed this new threat—or maybe it wasn’t a threat. Honey. Large swarms of bees meant hives—and honey.

The bees are returning from a lush field of Fireweed in a secluded corner of the vast Mount St. Helens Monument. Similar in appearance to ordinary plant ordinarily found in areas that have been burned, this strain is bigger and more fragrant, hardier. This variety sprang from the force of the volcano itself. The immense blast that leveled 150 square miles of forest with the force of 350 atomic bombs caused the germination of prehistoric seeds that had lain dormant for thousands of years.

The same force that destroys also provides the means to reinstate the ravaged forest, for the seeds produced a superior plant with a potent form of pollen. From the pollen, an errant swarm of bees produced a magnificent super honey--capable of nourishing the struggling survivors and new immigrants to the barren ash-covered hills. From the plants and the honey and on up the life chain, the super-charged nourishment promised health and renewed life for the delicate emerging ecological system.

As long as man doesn't interfere.

With the last ounce of will, the hiker raised to a crouch. The bees were hovering around one of the fallen logs that carpeted the blowdown area. The hiker pulled up hood and tightened it, leaving only eyes exposed, removed some essential from the backpack, and inched toward the log slowly so as not to alarm the bees. When the swarm had become accustomed to the foreign presence, the hiker tentatively reached a gloved hand into an opening in the log. When the hand emerged, it was covered with bees and was clutching a precious section of dripping honeycomb.

Grimacing from random stings, the hiker stifled the urge to panic. Slowly, even more slowly, the hiker retired to a spot a few yards from the log, brushing bees tenderly from the treasure with a trembling hand. Finally the feast was secured and the life-preserving sustenance was devoured. One hand still smeared with honey, the hiker looked down at the newly exposed wound, the pain once again demanding attention, and cautiously applied the remains of the sticky liquid to the flaming flesh.

The hiker sunk into a deep, refreshing sleep and woke with the moon overhead. The pains in the stomach were gone and the hiker rose thankfully and removed a flashlight from the backpack. Time to make the last leg back to camp. The honey was nutritious but wouldn't stave off dehydration for long. Cautiously the hiker rose to a standing position and tested the damaged leg. It seemed to be numb from the cramped sleeping position. The hiker started down the trail, cautiously lighting the way for each step. Favoring the leg, the hiker was astounded to realize that the pain had subsided. Sitting on a log by the trail to examine the wound, the hiker discovered that the pain and swelling had subsided and the angry redness had been replaced by a protective scab. Overnight the wound had changed from potential gangrene and amputation to a pain-free, rapidly healing, functional limb.

This was no ordinary honey.

With unexpected stamina and energy, the hiker returned to the camp site as the morning sun topped the nearby mountain ridge. This time the hiker was going home with far more than memories. This discovery would give the hiker's life an unexpected turn—and was destined to change the course of everyone involved in the drama of the recovering forest.


Copyright © 2000 Jeanette F. Chaplin