You can see the smoke billowing in the background as we drive up Seminole Trail into Ruckersville. A line of brown has formed like its own mountain ridge atop the Blue Ridge Mountains where the fire burns below on Quaker Run. We take a left onto US-33 West and continue our drive 14 miles up and around sharp curves. Our ears pop with the climb in elevation.
As we enter the Swift Run Gap Entrance Station, a sign reads:
LIMIT OUTDOOR ACTIVITIES…
UNHEALTHY AIR QUALITY…
As we renew our annual pass, I ask the park ranger which direction is best to avoid the wildfire conditions.
“Depends on the way the wind blows, but if you take a right on Skyline Drive you should be good.”
Right it is.
The air is cleaner than was our ride up. Crisp, cool autumn air circulates freely through our open car window. COVID has been running through our house recently; and for the first time in a week, I feel my sinuses clear. I can breathe.
Before COVID re-emerged, after a two year absence in our home, we’d planned a long hike through the woods during the season of ever changing leaves. Today we settle instead for a quiet ride along Skyline Drive stopping at various overlooks.
The contour of the mountains is unlike what you’d see in spring and summer, our usual hiking time. Each mountain has its own spine. The rock faces and sheer drops visible.
The air is cold as we step out of our vehicle. I momentarily regret switching over to shorts. It’s always a solid 15 degree difference from home — where I was sweating only 45 minutes earlier.
There’s no sign of the wildfire as we stop at Loft Mountain Overlook. The park ranger was right. Had we turned left on Skyline, the sight and smell would have been unavoidable. I think of the wildfire’s potential in these woods and mountains.
For some time, I’ve considered this beautiful park my backyard of sorts. I’ve hiked many trails here with my wife and kids. To think of it burned and scarred is saddening. Old Rag, one of the park’s most sought destinations for hikers is but a mere nine miles from Quaker Run, where the fire began.
Considered one of the 25 best hikes in the world by Outside Magazine, Old Rag is home to billion year old granite. It’s one of the bucket list hikes I have for my family before my kids graduate high school. We will conquer it one day, together. And like all our family hikes, a high five frenzy will ensue at its peak.
Rapidan Camp and Wildlife Management Area
The threat of the wildfire to Rapidan Camp can’t be overstated. Known as the resting stop for presidents before Camp David was founded, Rapidan first served as the retreat for President Hoover in 1929. Like the Two-Hearted River in an Ernest Hemingway story, the potential for charred ruins threaten this area and the trout which Hoover stated was a must when the site was chosen.
As we retrace our way back down Skyline, I think about this and the other threatened areas of Shenandoah National Park, of the homes and families in nearby Madison, of the fire crews and responders putting their lives in harm’s way to control its spread.
I think of the animals, specifically the black bear population within Rapidan Wildlife Management Area, of the heavy smoke and fire encroaching. This area is known as the premier location for the park’s bears, which comprise the densest black bear population in the United States with 1–4 bears per square mile in the park’s boundaries.
By the time we return home, the power to Big Meadows has been cut. The fire breached the 1,600 acre containment line. As a precautionary measure, the electricity which supplies the Big Meadows Campground and Rest Area has been turned off.
The Future of the Fire
What began as a 20 acre brush fire on private land on October 26, 2023, has now consumed more than 2,800 acres and growing. It was originally believed the fire would be under control by November 6.
On Tuesday, November 7, as I was typing this, Governor Youngkin declared a state of emergency as the fire has now burned more than 650 acres within Shenandoah National Park. Fire crews estimate it will be weeks before the fire is contained. The National Guard has been deployed and residents in the area near the wildfire have been advised to evacuate.
Update as of November 10, 2023: The fire has now grown to 3,700 acres and is well within the Rapidan Wildlife Management area as can be seen in a map updated daily by the National Park Service.
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