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08 june 2007

Smelling Smoke
By Sheila Eldred

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We hadn't actually smelled it yet. But we could see it, rising
in fluffy plumes in distant hills. Smoke had already started to cloud the views of the mountains and turn the sun into a hazy orb of maize and crimson.

This was our last foray into the wilderness for the foreseeable future
with the birth of our first child six months away. My husband and I had been promised seven days in backcountry Alaska, light paddling interrupted by long lunches and even longer gourmet dinners and campfires.

Instead, our group of 10 pulled and dragged our canoes and rafts over a rocky river bottom covered with just enough water to make the stones slippery. Conditions were ripe for a long, raging wildfire season. "It's not the fire that's the issue," our companions agreed at the campfire that night. "It's the smoke that kills you."

I fled to the seeming safety of our tent and sobbed. The fetus in my stomach was only two inches long, much too small to feel any movement. But in my mind, he was a toddler teetering between following his daddy up a mountain or listening to me cajoling him to
stay on the ground. My maternal protective instincts had kicked in at conception: I'd avoided the smoking sections of restaurants and called my doctor when I thought I might have eaten fish with high mercury content.

Eventually, we saw it. Up on the river bank, smoke curled in a thin column. Our eyes followed the column to its source: orange flames lapping a tree trunk. The fire looked so overwhelmed by the greenery surrounding it that the flames seemed more like a campfire than an ominous sign. But I knew that by afternoon, the wind would pick up and set the hillside ablaze.

The group consensus: I was overreacting because of pregnancy hormones.When you're pregnant, your hormones go into overload. Some people demeaningly call its effects "mom-brain," but the physical changes of pregnancy are there for a reason: Your sense of smell is intensified, for example, to ward off eating rotten meat— or to sniff out fire.

The air ahead was thick with smoke, accompanied by its acidic smell.

Officially in the midst of flames, we doused bandannas in the river
and tied them around our mouths and noses. Fire raged around us; for hours, we watched as trees caught fire, blackened, and fell. We
waited, flicking embers away before they burned holes in our clothes.

The surrounding hillside turned into a smoldering mass. We were alive, but with an unknown number of days of paddling ahead,
and no guarantee the fire was behind us. It left my husband
exhilarated; me exhausted.

Four exhausting days later, we reached the landing. I was exuberant. Food tasted better; a shower was a fantastic experience. We were all alive, and safe.

Now, Wes is 2 years old. When he leaps into a swimming pool on his own, or launches himself off a platform with unwavering trust that we will catch him, I think of that canoe trip. Our son is learning to take risks, learning to love adventure.

And with each new plunge into the unknown, we're there to catch him.

Sheila Mulrooney Eldred is a Minneapolis-based freelancer specializing in fitness, health and parenting topics for magazines such as Health, Parenting, Runner's World, Golf Magazine, American Baby and Ladies' Home Journal. In her other life, she trains for triathlons and gets extra running in by chasing her 2-year-old son.

You can check out her blog here.




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