It happened in a small farming community in the northwestern part of Connecticut that also included a large forest preserve and a once glacial river, now a bubbling brook, a lake, and a spring-fed pond. The community’s roots began in 1680, as The Salmon Brook Settlement that was also home to Native Americans like the Tunix, the Massaco, and the Mohican.
It was a perfect summer day. The morning was cool and the sky was a brilliant Periwinkle blue. The deep, dense forest was a monolith of wonder for elementary school age kids. The ancient woods that the Salmon Brook flowed through provided the Native Americans with all kinds of fish, fowl, and river animals, like beavers.
Evidence of their inhabitation lingers still in the form of arrowheads, pathways, in meadows that were once crop producing fields, where they grew tobacco, beans, squash, and corn, as well as middens of shells like clams, mussels and we often searched these for artifacts. There were plenty of bones to find too, mostly animal, but sometimes, human bones that would be exposed as they washed up on the rocky river banks.
On this beautiful summer morning, a small band of kids, having traversed deeply into the forest, smelled smoke and considered it might be a fisherman on the river, frying up fish at the nearby lake. At first, they weren’t considered about the smell of smoke. The smoke was coming from some distance away.
It happened suddenly, when the leader, looked up and saw fire and one of the other children, yelled out, “FIRE!” All heads turned to the leader of the group, who stood mesmerized by the yellow-orange fingers of flame surrounding a giant oak tree, that suddenly became engulfed in flames that nearly reached the sky. The forest fire was closing in around them, silently sneaking up on them, until it roared like a lion. The fire then leapt among the tree tops, high into the sky, turning the blue sky into a purple twilight, billowing with smoke and fire.
Like deer, caught in the headlights of an on-coming car, they frozen in fear, initially. Then they ran, following their leader to an old wagon wheel road where giant, thick oaks lined the road, that was little more, now, than a pathway. They ran and out of the corner of their eyes they watched the fire exploded into the giant oaks behind them. As they ran, animals of all kinds joined in their fierce need to escape the flames that were now, 40, 50, 60, 100 feet in the air and animals ran alongside of the five children. The leader, shocked to find a black bear keeping pace at her side, just kept running. Wild Turkeys, Foxes, Porcupines, Skunks, Woodchucks, ran with the humans, side by side on the narrow path, until the path widened as they reached an open field and ahead of them was Canton road and fire trucks with long hoses and a helicopter flew overhead. The parents of the children were kept back by officers and firemen.
The children emerged, blackened with smoke, wild-eyed with fear, and the animals took off in different directions, some crossing the road to the other side were safety could be found, unmindful of the crowd gathered on Canton Road. The children, now at the point of exhaustion, collapsed into their parent’s arms as the firefighters dosed them with cool, clear water.
This was a day the five children would never forget. The one thing I remember clearly, is the black bear running by my side. I remember we looked at each other, the black bear and I—with a look that was full of wonder and hope. I was eleven years old.