Aegolius Creek is the story of Donald Karlsson, an aged, widowed logger, who has spent decades on his family’s century-old homestead in Aegolius Valley, Oregon. When a new animal is discovered on his property, an injunction is filed preventing him from logging trees he planted forty years before. He turns to his three adult children, Billy, Zeke and Stacy to help.
Each of the Karlsson children has a different agenda served by helping their father. Billy, raised in the image of his father, expects to one day inherit the homestead. Stacy, who fled rural Oregon for a legal career in Boston, returns hoping her father will leave the homestead. Zeke, an idealist, hopes to preserve the land and prevent any further logging, siding with environmental activists against his father. An ensuing courtroom battle spills over into protests and riots that split the state, the community and the Karlsson family.
The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything done in it will be laid bare.
-2 Peter 3:10
Everything begins and ends in fire. That's what Mrs. Green told me when I was eleven in her youth Bible study at the Aegolius Creek Community Church. God created the heavens and the earth from a great ball of flame. Which doesn't seem much different than the Big Bang Theory, though Mrs. Green said it was blasphemous to suggest something other than God was responsible for creation. She’d obviously never discussed the matter with Mr. Spence at Crawfordsville High School who said that the only way God created anything was by using the laws of physics, which clearly proved the Big Bang really happened. In either case, it doesn’t matter who was right, because whomever you believe, everything began with fire.
According to both, just as everything was created by fire, it's supposed to end the same way. Even if Mrs. Green was right about how it all started, the Bible says God is going to incinerate it all anyway. And if Mr. Spence's insights into astrophysics are to be believed, things won't be much different. The sun goes nova and burns the earth to a crisp before absorbing its matter and energy. All of which is to say that if fire is the starting point for everything, it’s also the end. All matter, all energy, all of creation, it all began with fire. And everything created eventually burns. Even those things that last forever. They all end in flames.
I woke up when my head bounced off the wheel well in the back of the truck. Tad said to get some sleep, which wasn’t a problem after four days in the bush. Jose was driving, which seemed like a pretty bad idea, as was the decision to make the run along the east side of the mountains instead of crossing over and taking a straight shot up I-5. We’d driven through the hole in the wall, one-traffic-light hamlets of Chiloquin, Chemult and Crescent, which was pleasant enough, even in the back of a dirty yellow pickup. After crossing over Willamette Pass, we followed 58 down to Oakridge, where we stopped for a piss break. It seemed fitting since I remembered taking a piss break in Oakridge whenever Pop took me up to the mountains to go fishing. We’d stop at the A and W or the ice cream shop, get a snack and head to the restrooms in the back. But that was years ago. After the mill shut down, those places disappeared, and the only place Jose could find was a little park on the way into town that had a couple port-o-potties.
After Oakridge, I jumped back in the bed of the truck and pretty much passed out. I’d say I dreamed, but I don’t think I did. No one dreams exhausted. If I did dream, I dreamed of smoke. Dark, thick deep grey smoke. Which is pretty much like not dreaming at all.
Tad seemed surprised when he told us we were moving. The crew was at base camp getting a meal, filling the water truck, and drinking whatever terrible beer had been foisted on us when we heard him swear several times. Every morning Tad and the other crew leaders got a report from central command, which I’ve heard is in some boardroom in Salem or Eugene. We’d get our marching orders, where to go, how long the fire lines were supposed to run and other stuff. Half the time we ended up ignoring the orders because Tad would see something the “experts” in command hadn’t, fallen snags, masses of brush or something no one sitting in a room in Salem looking at satellite photos or weather radar could notice.
Tad had been fighting fires with the Forest Service for almost ten years, which was about nine years more than any of the rest of us, so when he told us to do something, we did, even when it was different from the orders handed down by central command.
Jose bounced up to the truck with a large sandwich in his hand, or at least what looked like a sandwich. Jose never stopped eating. At least not as I could tell. We could be out on the line, digging, running the hose, hacking back brush, building a line, and Jose would be doing it with one hand. Tamara says Jose has a metabolic disorder, which kind of makes sense given how he’s so skinny despite the fact he’s always eating.
When we gathered, Tad took a minute and guzzled from a bottle of water before he started to talk about our next assignment. “Looks like we’re movin’ out.”
Tamara groaned. “I was just getting used to this place.” She shook her head in disgust. “We don’t have this one under control. Why are we moving?”
Tad shrugged. “No idea. Just got the order. Goin’ to Age-o-lus Crick.” He paused and looked at the yellow slip of paper. “Agg-ole-us Crick.” He paused again. “Og-lee-is Crick.”
I grabbed the paper from his hand. I stared at the block typed sheet, somewhat in shock. “Aegolius Creek. I grew up near there.”
Tad looked at me skeptically. “What the hell kind of name is Aegolius?”
“It’s a kind of owl.”
Tamara took a swig of beer. “An owl? Never heard of it.”
“It’s an owl in Europe. I think.”
Tamara punched my shoulder. “Chris is from a place named after a European owl. Sounds about right.”
They always gave me crap about being in college. It used to bother me. Tinges of self-consciousness and fears I would be identified as the privileged one in the group had gradually given way to acceptance. I was the college kid mixed in with a hardened blue-collar bunch, the one who used an occasional big word or referenced an obscure name. I was the one who was smart but not wise, intelligent but not experienced, clever but green. I’d grown accustomed to the role.
“The kicker is it’s supposed to be an omen of bad luck.” As the words left my mouth, I realized it probably wasn’t a great thing to say. Tad grimaced and Jose turned and started to walk away.
“Great. We're going to a place that's a bad omen.” Tamara punched my shoulder again, harder.
“It’s just a name.”
When we turned off the freeway and drove up the valley, I could feel the curves start to change from the wide, slow arches tracing the edges of Dexter Reservoir to the tight turns back and forth along the McKenzie River and finally the breaks and bumps up the Aegolius. We passed the shake mill, the fishpond, and the old railroad. About halfway up the valley, Jose pulled over and we all got out.
Tamara pulled up behind us in the water truck. She’d named the water truck Rudy after an old boyfriend, who left her when she joined the army. Rudy the truck wasn’t in the best shape, with balding tires and the Forest Service logo nearly worn off its driver side door. It was on the smaller side, holding about five thousand gallons, with a portable pump attached to the back. The great thing about Rudy the truck was we’d learned we could take it pretty much anywhere. Old logging roads, dried creek beds and washed-out gullies had all been traversed by Rudy. Every time we needed to douse some charred embers, or put out a flag fire, Rudy would get close enough to make it so. I’d wondered if the real Rudy was as reliable as Rudy the truck, though Tamara’s description of Rudy the boyfriend suggested otherwise. Which might be the reason she preferred driving Rudy the truck alone.
We gathered around the hood of the pickup, and Tad pulled out a folded map. Folded Forest Service maps were an essential tool for navigating the area around a fire, given the lack of cell service and spotty GPS. He looked at the coordinates on his phone, stared at the map for a minute then looked up in the sky.
“Spotters on Butte Tower tagged smoke coming from there.” He pointed at the horizon. “But I don’t see a whisper.”
Jose leaned against the pickup, pulled some kind of candy bar from his pocket, and pointed at me. “Show him. He’s from around here. Maybe he knows.”
Tad handed me the map. He put his finger on the coordinates.
It took me a moment to orient myself to the curved lines and jagged symbols outlining the contour of the tiny valley. I’d lived about five miles up the Aegolius Highway from the time I’d started first grade until I left for college. The area Tad pointed to gradually became recognizable. I tapped the spot. “That’s the old Karlsson ranch.”
Tad took the map back. “Anyone live there?”
I cleared my throat. “Used to be. There was a family there. Old man Karlsson, two boys and a girl. I think the kids may have moved away. I’m not sure if anyone’s left.”
The Karlssons were an odd clan. Growing up I hadn’t had much interaction with them, as the Karlsson kids, two boys and a girl were all much older. What I knew mostly came from hearsay and gossip. Their homestead lay near the northeastern end of the Aegolius Valley, up where the creek first rolled out of the Cascade foothills. Mrs. Karlsson had reportedly died during the birth of her third child, Zeke. It had been rumored the older two kids mostly raised themselves.
Tad sighed and folded up the map. “Here’s the deal. We need to get up there, find out if there are any structures in the vicinity, try and protect them, start containment and report back if it looks like we need help. Supposedly, this is a small fire.”
Jose, Tamara and I nodded, knowing “small fire” could be interpreted a number of different ways.
Then Tad added something we hadn’t heard him say before. “Oh, and there’s one other thing. Given the EMC and the fact there wasn’t a weather event, if you see anyone in the area, don’t approach them and tell me immediately. I need to know.” Tad paused. “Anyone.”
Tamara looked at Jose and me. “What did he just say?”
“I think he’s suggesting the fire was man-made.” I looked at Tad to see if I was right.
Tad frowned. “Not just man-made. Intentionally man-made.” He paused.
Jose raised his eyebrows. “You mean like arson?”
Tad didn’t respond but shot a serious look as he climbed back in the truck.
We drove farther up the valley. The two-lane road became one and the asphalt gradually turned to gravel. The Aegolius Valley was a mile wide and thirty miles long. Hills covered in Doug Fir, Oak, Pine and Madrona lined the narrow valley floor. The road and rail line, both used at various times to haul timber off the hillsides and into the nearby mill towns, flanked the meandering creek. The mysterious smoke plume we hadn’t seen as we entered the valley gradually became visible as the road grew narrow.
It became clear why Tad was worried about arson. The valley was still too wet for a fire to start without propellant, and no recent storms meant no lightning strikes. I’d never seen a forest fire started on purpose and wasn’t entirely sure what it meant. Why would anyone start a fire near Aegolius Creek?
When we arrived at the base of the smoke plume, the sky reddened, and we saw flames for the first time. Doug Firs, a hundred feet tall, was being shredded by the blaze. Sword fern and dogwood at the base of the great trees smoldered as flame rose through the canopy. The trees on fire were taller than the rest of the surrounding forest and the very tallest were immediately adjacent to the road, which gave the illusion of a great basilica awash in flame. Jose drove the truck slowly up the gravel road into the inferno. The road cut through the giant pillars of fire, which was close enough to redden the skin, distant enough not to burn, and created the illusion of entering the nave. The pews astride the road were filled with flames reaching to the heavens like the forlorn hands of sinners seeking to escape perdition.
As we drove on, the intensity of the fire grew. Tad yelled something, but the fire was too loud for the rest of us to hear. Campfires crackle and pop. Brush fires whirl and snap. Forest fires roar.
Somewhere near the center of the fire I made out a small dwelling, its shape and contour that of a double-wide trailer. Were it the structure we were expected to protect, I couldn’t imagine what we could do to save it. A couple hundred feet away, we stopped driving and hopped out. As Tamara started to pull the hose and pump off Rudy and Jose grabbed a chain saw from the back of the pickup, Tad waved us off, signaling that the fire was too hot. We prepared to retreat when Tamara screamed and pointed at the house.
In the midst of the inferno, the silhouette of a man stumbled through the front door, face obscured by smoke and flames. We yelled to drop and roll and pushed forward before being repelled by the heat. Instead of running from the burning house, the lonely occupant stood recalcitrant and unmoved. The figure stopped on the porch, yelled something we couldn’t make out over the roar of the fire. A raised fist made clear he was not about to leave. Tad grabbed the pump and tried to roll out the hose, but the fire was moving too fast. As we watched, flames engulfed the man, who in one final act of defiance, extended the middle finger from his angry clenched hand.