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If You Live Long Enough
I have lived in the western shadows of Crow Peak for nearly three decades, and in all of that time, I have never had this much company.
Long lines of tourists pack the drive, sitting with cameras and binoculars watching the mountain shed an irritating layer of pines after a fortuitous lightning strike gave her the opportunity to lose some weight.
It has been burning for four days now. The endless rotation of helicopters that fly over my roof in 5-minute intervals drop lake water from north of the interstate onto the flames in an attempt to steer the worst of the damage away from homes and ranches. Shifting winds hopefully will cause it to burn back upon itself and toward the layers of bug-killed pine that have fed the fire and kept it blazing.
I have a bit more history with Crow Peak than most. Other than having her name associated with my business, I spent a summer 36 years ago as a high school student building the hiking trail to the top. I earned my first promotion that June, becoming a crew chief while trying to impress a few of the ladies on my team by working a little harder than my companions.
I still have a piece of that summer on my desk — a pine slab cut from a pitch stump that we carried down from the summit on our shoulders. The growth rings are enormous, speaking of a 50-year period where it must have rained in epic proportions. Eventually, that tree was also taken by fire.
History tells us that between burrowing beetles and fire, the pine forest has been regularly swept away to make room for oak and aspen, grasses and wildlife. Each time, those who are merely tourists mourn the darkening of a specific view.
If you are only here for a short time, it seems such an inconvenience and perhaps even a loss to have a view you cherish altered during your days or years here.
But if you live long enough, or have faith that you might, fire can be a beautiful thing.
My grandfather is nearing 102. At his 100th birthday, he blessed me with a journal from my great-grandfather, who also lived more than a century. They both traveled through Spearfish 53 years ago to inspect me, their newly-born namesake. Great-grandpa’s journal mentions the lush hay fields along Spearfish Creek. He must have seen the barns now being dismantled and repurposed.
Barns, forests, and people transition through life and the newer versions can be even more beautiful than those they replace.
Many of us recall the devastation we felt in 1988 when more than a million acres of Yellowstone burned. Twenty-five thousand firefighters took turns battling the blaze. I, too, have fought fires for the Forest Service and admire the efforts being made on my behalf on the slopes of Crow Peak. Yet 20 years later, I relish my return trips to Yellowstone. The fire is but a memory and a few blackened stumps.
Here in the Hills, the two largest fires consumed 63,000 and 83,000 acres and occurred in the last 20 years. Once blackened, these areas are now some of the most sought after wildlife winter ranges, so much so that the majority of our elk now winter near Custer and bighorn sheep were able to be transplanted on the newly opened slopes near Deadwood.
If we live long enough, or expect to, fire can be seen as a way to sweep away the old and usher in the new. Perhaps there will be bighorns in Crow Peak’s future after the flames subside.
The thought of hiking the trail I helped build with future great-grandchildren and bumping bighorns from the rock slides is worth living a century for.
Robert Speirs is an educator and operates Crow Creek Wildlife Management Service in Spearfish.