This is an image of charred snags silhouetted against iridescent clouds in the Columbia River Gorge, Oregon.
This is my first image from the Columbia River Gorge since the Eagle Creek Fire that started in September of 2017. I have to admit that this image makes me feel many conflicting emotions: sadness, shock, wonder, hope, strength, loss, and confusion to name a few. It's taken me a while to get comfortable enough with it to put it out there, but I knew that it was special to me and that one day I'd make it part of my portfolio.
It was an interesting first hike through the burn. The barren ground and charred snags were a haunting reminder of our mistreatment of our natural areas. The land felt foreign and it hurt deeply realizing that a place that I had such a deep emotional connection to, a place that I had such familiarity with felt like a stranger to me. The sun was harsh and created stark shadows instead of that soft green diffused light that I had come to love. I longed for the hugs of tall ferns and leafed out vine maples. If you've hiked with me you may have noticed how often I reach out and let the foliage grace my hand, feeling for that connection that I go to the gorge to find. Only it wasn't there this time. It wasn't the same touching the trees, their charcoal skin leaving my hands black almost if they were trying to show me how much they were hurting.
I hiked for several miles before reaching a waterfall. The waterfall looked the same as it had in the past, the mist and spray of the amphitheater keeping the fire at bay. It was the first time on that hike that I felt like I was somewhere I knew. A sanctuary in an unknown world. I sat and listened, watched, felt, and cried. I examined the area and could see how close the fire had come to it despite all the moisture. I looked up and could see the snags on the top of the cliff, scorched and burnt, just out of reach from the protection of the waterfall. That's when I noticed the iridescent clouds in the sky and for the first time on the hike I felt compelled to photograph.
I spent a good hour shooting the scene, The clouds having different textures and colors as they moved across the sky. My hike out had a different feeling. I'm not sure if it was because I had finally felt like I was somewhere I knew or if it was the scene I was shooting that spoke to me, but I was more aware of the life around me and I hiked back with more hope in my heart. The foliage was already starting to come back. I looked at base of the vine maples and saw a tremendous amount of growth exploding from their charred bases. Burnt stumps of ferns had fresh fiddlehead shoots reaching out. I even crossed paths with a bear, my first ever bear encounter in the gorge. While the canopy of the forest was thin, it was still present. I know that some areas burned with more severity but it was refreshing to see the tenacity of nature and I found strength in that. It turns out that the gorge is still the place I've come to know, only instead of me being the one who is hurting and fighting demons, it's the gorge itself. I believe this image speaks a lot about my hike that day and the emotions I felt. I almost feel like that scene I was shooting was nature telling me to have hope.. that she's going to be okay.. that we'll all be okay. Photo © copyright by TJ Thorne.