We left Phoenix a little before six a.m. When we entered the riparian canyon north of Sedona a little over an hour later, a delicious chill crept in the open windows, along with the tangy odor of smoke.
For those who’ve not been, Oak Creek Canyon is best described as enchanting. Sculpted rock cliffs soar on either side of the winding two lane road and lush cottonwood trees arch overhead. We were the only car on the road as the 89A was closed about a mile beyond the West Fork Trailhead. We drove slowly and even stopped in the middle of the highway to scan the cliffs for fire damage. The small resorts and cafes we passed all displayed banners, mostly handmade, expressing thanks to the fire fighters and first responders.
At Slide Rock State Park we got our first glimpse of fire damage. High on the western cliffs of the canyon was a harsh line. On one side pink rock was studded with clusters of green trees and on the other the cliffs were ashy white, with only a few black skeletons of trees remaining.
Still, tall cottonwoods and sycamores crowded the 89A. Birds raised a ruckus of song and the early sun slanted into the canyon. Pink tape blocked every pull-out along the west side of the road and each barrier was posted with a closure notice. We started to suspect we would not be hiking the West Fork.
Sure enough when we reached the trailhead, barriers blocked the way. We stepped out of the car into cool, pine-scented air. The posted Coconino Forest Service closure order stated “the necessity of protecting public health and safety due to ongoing wildfire and rehabilitation efforts”. A forest service map fluttering in the breeze showed the entire watershed of the West Fork Oak Creek was closed.
A ranger at the Slide Rock State Park told us the fire and the creek intersected at a point about a mile and a half from the West Fork trailhead. I’ve hiked in that far, crossing the creek numerous times along the way, hopping on rocks and teetering on logs. A profusion of pine, oak and aspen trees sink roots deep into the stream banks and stretch leafy branches toward light at the top of the canyon. Gnarled apple trees, products of errant seeds carried on long-ago summer breezes persevere. Even patches of fern thrive in the moist shade. It’s hard to think of the hot breath of a raging fire blowing away that all that tranquility.
But, in an article published a few days later in the Arizona Republic, Roger Naylor reported that rangers told him the fire burned along the creek side at low intensity and stayed close to ground level. This spared the tree canopy. If so, it won’t be long before ferns and chokecherry push out shoots and once again offer shelter and shade to all kinds of life.