Pole Creek Fire – Sisters Wilderness “Oh Lawd Jesus It’s A Faahhr…Ain’t Nobody Got Time For That!”

As many of you know Gus and I had quite an interesting weekend.  A weekend that included sun, snow, ice, wind, fire, rain, and over 30 backcountry miles logged on myself, and my dog’s legs.  A true reminder that when one ventures into remote and wild places, sometimes mother nature has other plans and natural course, takes natural course.

With Jeneé taking a long weekend back to Michigan to visit her family, Gus and I decided to spend a quick one night out-n-back backpack trip deep into Three Sisters Wilderness west of Bend.  I chose Camp Lake, a really high alpine lake set between the massive sleeping giants, South and Middle Sister mountains where we could find stunning views and virtual solitude.

The 8 mile hike to Camp Lake was gradual, and absolutely stunning.  Taking off from Pole Creek Trailhead the climb gradually gains elevation and passes through several ecosystems including alpine, sub-alpine, and taiga. From dense ponderosa forests to mossy ice-carved rocks and snowfields.  I was thinking the entire time I was hiking, “boy Jeneé would LOVE this hike!” Little did I know that hike would be forever changed in a matter of hours!

Camp Lake sits at 7000 feet and above the treeline.  Views of all 3 Sisters expand in all directions, and without much protection, you also can succumb to some nasty weather changes at the altitude.  A truly beautiful place.  After setting camp, and taking a swim, Gus and I hiked to explore some glacial moraines above the lake, and take in a sunset from 8000 feet at the base of South Sister.

Camp Lake with South Sister

Moraine with floating ice below South Sister

Gus taking a dip


The next morning, we ate what was left of a granola bar and some nuts, and packed a lightweight summit pack to explore the snow fields, and glaciers that flank Middle Sister.  We hiked along the ridge connects South and Middle Sister before beginning an ad-hoc scramble to see if the South Sister summit would be within our reach.  The climb was brutal.

Remember climbing construction site dirt piles as a kid?  You take a step and then slide back 2 feet?  Well image a 10,000 foot dirt pile with volcanic obsidian mixed in.  Each step it felt like we slid back two.  And with the best options to climb Middle Sister being, ice axe and crampon-style glacier slogging, it really wasn’t in the cards.  After scrambling some rockfall and lava fields, and coming within 500 feet of the summit, I decided to turn back.  I was impressed with our progress, but both my dog and I were exhausted, the barometer was dropping, and the 2.5 hour window I had given myself to make the summit had closed 20 minutes before.  It was time to head back, break camp, and go home to watch some football.  That’s when I saw the mushroom cloud looming over Middle Sister’s Southeast ridge.

On the ridge

Middle Sister in the background

Climbing Middle Sister

A fire had EXPLODED in the area I was to hike down.  In fact it seemed to be right where I had parked. After glassading back down to the lake in a hurry, I was told that the fire was blocking our way out, and Search and Rescue was sending a heli in 15 minutes to pluck us out of here.  I stuffed camp into my pack in minutes, heart racing, and nervous about the prospects of facing a massive wildfire.


Others who had camped near the lake now waited for news, and this is where the mixed-intel started flowing in.  One person would say they spoke with somebody, who spoke with somebody that said a heli-ride was in store.  Others said a ranger was coming to lead us out, and even others said the trail was still pass-able just smokey.  One thing was sure, I was not going anywhere near that mushroom cloud, and at mid-afternoon it was too late to hike out in other directions without being forced to bivouac somewhere high on the mountain.  I called Jeneé, and made sure she knew we were staying an unexpected second night, and that we were absolutely safe up there.  I then called 911, and was instructed to “save yourself” and that the nearest rescue points where S & R would be located were at trailheads over 20 miles in each direction, and on the opposite side of the mountains.  Not good options at 6:00pm with a tired dog with raw paws and my legs weren’t exactly bridge stanchions at this point either.

So I made the decision to set camp high above the lake, on a rocky ridge protected by small pines and low shrubs.  At this vantage I could see the fire’s movement, and gauge if it was getting closer or further.  Near sundown on Sunday, the wind picked up leading in a cold front.  The air from the Pacific is pushed up into the Cascades and funneled through these mountains with jet engine force.  The wind throttled Gus and I in our tent, and made for an absolutely miserable, loud, cold night of anxiety and little sleep.  At sunset the fire got ENORMOUS fueled by the winds.  As well-defined smoke balls exploded into the air, it was the only point I was legitimately nervous, and I think the video below captures my emotions.

I decided to keep my entire pack ready to grab and go, where I could just ditch the tent and with Gus, could run to safety higher up.  I set an alarm to wake up each hour to check the ridge to make sure I couldn’t see flames, and created 2 or 3 contingency plans if the fire were to approach.  One included scrambling up to the glacial moraines I had seen the night before, and hunkering there until morning, and the other included pumping to the ridge, where I had seen several good spots to setup my rain fly and emergency blanket into a makeshift bivvy.  Both sounded horrible, and I really hoped it didn’t come to that.  After my dog and I split a dry pack of tasteless Ramen (a truly pathetic sight) for dinner, Gus and I curled up wrapped in down sleeping bag and down jackets, and both of us shivered on through the night.  Wind gusts of over 50 mph rattled our tent, and made for a sleepless night for us both.

At 6AM my watch went off.  I had managed to sleep soundly from 3-6, and myself and a few other backpackers had decided to rally at 7AM and discuss options.  I poked my head out the tent, and Mother Nature had thrown another curve.  What had been a clear night blasted by icy wind, had turned to dense fog, freezing mist, and spitting snow.  Visibility dropped to a half-mile, and our contingency of “up and over” the ridge to the other side of the Cascades for a 20 mile hump, turned into a surefire chance to give myself hypothermia.

We met the other hikers, and as a large group decided to make our way down out of the clouds.  Reports that morning trickled in that the trail was open to Soap Creek (where the fire had started) connecting with Green Lakes trail, and besides being burned, it was passable even though it was black.  I had developed a healthy cynicism of these reports, and decided I would take bits and pieces, and then follow my gut.  I knew two things:  I wasn’t going to mess getting close to that fire, and I would keep at least one body of water between me, and it.

Fortunately, within our group there was another person – Wilbur – who shared my conservative outlook. Because we had topo maps and had a compass, we became the de-facto leaders of the expedition.  We started on the trail down, and by the first trail intersection (2.5 miles down) we were already in heavy smoke.  With eye-stinging smoke, and ash falling like snow, we all decided this was as far as we would get into the monster.  We broke trail, and follow the N. Fork of Wychus Creek due east for 3+ miles until it intersected with the Green Lakes trail.  Bushwhack style, we followed the path of the stream down hill.  It was nice to lose elevation, but still nerve-wracking to be within a mile of the fire.

North Sister with the growing fire on my hike down. We entered the smoke about 1/2 mile later then started the bushwhack

Finally we popped out on Green Lakes trail, which runs North/South through the wilderness.  This was a point of celebration for our group, because now we knew we could take Green Lakes trail south, and each step we took would get us away from the flames and smoke.  We took water, and ate some trail mix, then shouldered our packs for the 6+ mile slog to Park Meadow.

After 6 miles (through unreal scenery I might add) we were met by Bill, the forest ranger.  What a welcome sight! He took our names, and other intelligence we could provide and let us break for 30 minutes or so.  He told us we had one more 5+ mile stretch to the trailhead where Search and Rescue would be waiting to give us rides back to Sisters.  There we would find out if our car was one of the 4 out of the 24 cars parked at Pole Creek trailhead that was toast, or if it was ok.  Yikes.

Gus and I quietly lumbered the 5 rolling miles of Park Meadow trail.  My legs felt like they were made of goo, and I had quarter sized blisters on my feet.  All I could do during the hike was sing Sweet Brown’s now infamous viral YouTube hit to myself the entire way (It has over 1 million hits) to keep my mind focused. “Oh lawd Jesus it’s a faahhr!  Ain’t nobody got time for that!”

A shedding sense of relief came over me when I loaded into the back of the Search and Rescue suburban.  I called Jeneé, and was so happy to hear her voice! Gus plopped helplessly into the back, and immediately fell asleep.  We drove the 15 miles back to Sisters where they dropped us at the Forest Service station.  I was interviewed by several authorities, then found out the fate of the Highlander.

Gus is whacked

In an amazing stroke of luck, I had randomly parked on a pitch of gravel off to the side of the trailhead.  All the cars around my car has burned to the ground, yet the Highlander remained relatively unscathed!?  A melted license plate cover, and rear bumper slightly burned, as well as a pack-a-day smoke smell on the inside was all she had to show for withstanding the nasty fire which blew through the Pole Creek trailhead.  In fact, the forest rangers and fire personnel had taken several pictures of my car, because they were so amazed it hadn’t burned.

Our melted rear end

The cars directly in front of ours (pic taken by Ranger)

Cars in front of ours – the truck in front was Wilbur’s 😦

The officer flipped me my keys, I loaded up Gus and we drove home.  It was an amazing sense of relief to get home, and pound a Deschutes Green Lakes Amber Ale as I sat quietly in my living room dirty and sore.  Overall, we had done 16 miles that day, which included 3+ miles of bushwhack and gone 36 hours without food.  But we were safe, and home!

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To read more about the details of the fire click here.


17 thoughts on “Pole Creek Fire – Sisters Wilderness “Oh Lawd Jesus It’s A Faahhr…Ain’t Nobody Got Time For That!”

  1. EJ

    What a fantastic story. As a hiker myself I can understand the tough situation you were in. You handled it very very well.

    I just got back from 2 weeks in Colorado hiking and know how hard it is to keep moving along when you are spent. Did you take a tent with you or just a tarp? I bet Gus was really raw by the time you got back.

    Geof Gelina

    Sent from my I Pad.

      • Hi EJ,

        What an amazing story my friend in Portland just sent me this. He is going to be climbing the same mountain this weekend. You must feel very fortunate to still be alive, it sounds like something out of a movie.

        All the best.

  2. Wow, E! You did a fantastic job reporting the saga of EJ, Gus, the Three Sisters, and the Pole Creek “Faahhr” complete with amazing photos/video. Can’t rid myself of goosebumps……yipes!!! Now, don’t do that again, okay?

  3. EJ!!!! I had to read this 4 times before I was able to write you. I cried, I laughed, cried again and then I stopped to say some prayers. You are an excellent writer. You have to keep doing this (not the getting caught in a wildfire part, please don’t ever do that again) Tell Jenae to hug you from me. And give Gus an extra rawhide. Love and miss you guys. Stay safe.

  4. Great story!!!! I’m one of the firefighters on this fire! Im thrilled that you made it out safe and sound! Unfortunately I saw the convoy of trucks pulling out the toasted cars on the way to do grid two nights ago, they looked terrible and I couldn’t imagine what they’re feeling, but it’s very fortunate that yours made it out! I’m sorry that this fire crushed your trip 😦 we’re trying to get a hand on it as fast as we can! Come back in another 3 or 4 years and it will be filled with new growth and wildlife, fire is a great natural cleanse for the forest, and it’s a fantastic nutrient boost for the soil as well! Glad to hear you’re all safe and sound 🙂 Oh and thanks for the good bedtime read!!!!

    • Thanks Blake! I appreciate the work you do, and being from Montana I can understand that the work you do is back-breaking. It was an awesome site to be close enough to feel its power, but still able to keep the fire at arms length. The hike will be beautiful because of the natural cleanse. Thanks for reading, and you all take care of yourself getting this thing under control.

      I will pray for snow to help the fight!

  5. EJ and Gus, this is Glen Grochowski. We saw you and Gus on Saturday evening when 4 of us (Glen, Cynthia, Rich, and Rene) first arrived at Camp Lake with a little brown dog named Crash. We camped on the other side of Camp Lake and headed back down Sunday morning shortly after you headed up into the South/Middle Sister saddle area for your day hike. We have a story too, that involved reversing direction and hiking over the saddle and out the Obsidian Trailhead with another foursome and their dog. S&R picked us up at the Obsidian TH around 11:30PM. Your account of that night is terrifying and confirms that we did the right thing by not waiting or spending another night up there. Among the 8 of us, we had 3 cars burned and I found your story by trying to figure out what happened to Wilbur, who we talked to on Sunday before we headed out to the PCT. Wilbur had the fourth car burned and we have wanted to know how he and the others who stayed at Camp Lake that night had escaped. Your story covers it. We live in Bend and would like to reconnect and perhaps talk about this in person with you and Wilbur.

    • Hi Glen. Yes I do remember you guys! I had heard about the group that went up and over that same night but didnt know it was you. That must have been an unreal haul. I would have considered it, but I wasn’t familiar with that area, and night was closing in. Not to mention Gus and I were taxed from our day. I am glad to hear you made it safe, and I am very sorry about your cars.

      Wilbur was in our group the whole way down. I sat right next to him in the SR suburban on the way down to Sisters. I was really sad he lost his car too. Feel free to email me, and we can exchange contact information. My email address is edaws42@hotmail.com. Thanks!

  6. Wow – we are so thankful you and Gus are safe!!!! Hopefully the blisters and sore legs have subsided. I appreciated the picture of everyone looking after Gus at the clinic. 🙂

  7. we met you and gus on the way up saturday. told you we had stayed in your spot last year with our dog crash. we went out over the pass earlier sunday. we spoke with wilber and told him that the trail head was closed and got his girlfriends number…we went out to the pct and hiked north to the obsidian trail….our car was the one in front of yours….glad you guys made good choices too///rich and renee

    • Hi Rich thanks for the note. Very sorry to hear about the loss of your car. I bet you guys have quite the story to tell as well. I spoke with the Bend Bulletin tonight, and there is supposed to be an article about the campers that were trapped up high in the sunday paper. Thanks for checking in and I’m really glad you guys all got home safe,even though I bet it was a grinder of a hike out. Take care. – EJ

  8. Hi EJ, Can’t begin to understand how stressful that experience must have been for you and your entire family. I was with Grandma Ike when Lani called to tell her of your great adventure. We were happy it was over before we knew what was going on. It’s a good thing you have had so much experience with the great outdoors and were in good shape. Every night when I say my prayers I ask God to watch over my sisters, brother and their entire families, children, spouses, etc.for whatever challenges they may be facing. You are part of that group. From what you went through and how it turned out I think A LOT of prayers were being said for you by a lot of people. So happy to hear you and Gus are doing well! Aunt Laurie (Jenee’s Green Bay aunt)

    • Thanks Aunt Laurie. It was quite the experience for all the people involved. I really appreciate your thoughts and prayers, and those of all the people who were thinking of us! Makes for a great story thats for sure! Hope you all are doing well.

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