Tony Vagneur: Lake Christine fire scar is entry way into Basalt Mountain’s new beauty and storied past |

Tony Vagneur: Lake Christine fire scar is entry way into Basalt Mountain’s new beauty and storied past

Tony Vagneur
Saddle Sore

My hiking partner Margaret and I tackled the foreboding landscape of Basalt Mountain last week. A burn scar some would say, an iconic valley landmark left bereft of trees and green. It certainly was a tragedy, the Lake Christine Fire of July 3, 2018, continuing throughout the summer.

Basalt Mountain is huge, relatively speaking, and I’ve never really spent much time up there. My most intimate knowledge was gained from riding an outlaw horse up there once years ago and watching the incessant deliveries of water to the fire, via helicopter. Margaret nailed down some trails with a local map and we set out to examine the world from that huge promontory.

Almost from the beginning, we were impressed with the amount of ground cover and aspen stands that are proliferating everywhere one looks. The intertwined plants along the ground are so thick it would be very difficult to venture off-trail without an established path to follow.

Most striking, perhaps, were the burned remnants of what were once aspen and evergreen forests. Haunting in their black upright deaths, refusing to give it up just yet, charred all around, but not burned clear through. Confounding is the fickleness of fire; many evergreen needles, scorched but not flamed out, still clinging to tree branches here and there, many at or near the very tops. The same is true for many aspen leaves, but true to nature, the various trees exhibited different forms in death as they had in life. The splitting bark on the aspens was of particular interest.

The trees, without their grounding life strength, are threatening to fall in every direction, and there is tree after tree leaning on their neighbor, just waiting for the right wind direction and velocity to topple them to the ground. Or maybe the neighbor will get tired of bearing the weight, which in turn could set up a chain reaction of several trees plummeting to the ground. It is, and will be for some time, very dangerous to walk or ride a horse among those trees.

Now, with no shading cover from above, wildflowers almost totally blanketed what was once the forest floor; blazes of different colors were everywhere one looked, almost stacked on top of one another. Some we could identify, others unknown, maybe because the new environment made the soil conducive to novel species.

If you follow Upper Cattle Creek Road to get to Basalt Mountain, you must pass Fender Lane as you near the plateau of Missouri Heights. Basalt Mountain and the Heights are pretty much Fender country, no matter who makes claim to the area. The family goes back generations, to Otis Fender and the settling of the countryside up there. One of the sons went over by Carbondale (Tybar Ranch), the other stayed on the Heights.

As we walked down and up the Mill Creek Trail, or along the Basalt Mountain Trail on top, an overriding thought of mine was, “This is great cattle country.” Parks here and there dot the landscape, giving one a view of spectacular scenery and grazing areas, plus the grass through the trees can only be imagined as grade-A for cows. Who ran cattle up here? Fenders, from the beginning.

As one approaches the flat of Missouri Heights from El Jebel, there is a great expanse of meadow off to the right, home to several black-nosed bovines and three or four horses. At one time, this ranch belonged to Ruth and Harold Fender, who put up enviable crops of hay and raised fat cattle. People admired their place for its bucolic appearance and lifestyle, and didn’t waste any time grabbing their piece of country living on the Heights. The view isn’t bad either.

What went wrong? The Fenders got complaints from various new arrivals about their livestock making too much noise, or smelling up the ambiance of neighborhood roads, and after a certain amount of dealing with that, the Fenders finally put their ranch on the market. Where the irrigation water went, no one seems to know.

Just above them lived Marvin Fender, a prince of a man, with his family. The pasture in front of his house was always a welcoming and enticing part of the drive up the hill. His lovely daughter Sharon is still in the neighborhood, raising her family and maintaining the credibility of the Fender clan. Talk to Chris or Mark Fender about how deep the agricultural roots were to their upbringing and to their memories today. These are people, above all, to be looked up to and respected.

Just as the Fender name is synonymous with Missouri Heights generations after they first arrived, the rock of Basalt Mountain will still be overlooking the valley eons from now, and people will say that in spite of the hardships caused, the Lake Christine Fire was necessary for the health of the mountain.

Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at

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