Fire at Flaming Gorge


As they watched the flames they realized an inner fire was burning.

It is natural to think of fire here, for captured in the very rock that surrounds you are the flames of a thousand fires, waiting for the evening sun to set them free. It is a land where the soils are scarlet, white hot, or crimson, where the clouds are filled with orange, where—even as the day is dying—the heat still dances on the broad, flat stones, a shimmering genie fierce with glee.

Small wonder that when explorers came to Wyoming and Utah, they also called this a canyon of fire. “We name it Flaming Gorge,” John Wesley Powell said.

Matt Free, 17, stared at the campfire. His mind was full of Flaming Gorge, of a morning spent drifting on the river, of red cliffs blazing in their color, of water fights, of talks with his father, of a testimony meeting held in a grove of trees.

He watched the flames, twirling and yellow. He heard the pop of a pine log sizzling.

Matt realized that there was a fire growing in him.

“And when ye shall receive these things, I would exhort you that ye would ask God, the Eternal Father, in the name of Christ, if these things are not true” (Moro. 10:4).

Just this afternoon he’d read the promise—again. Each time, the words seemed to burn inside him.

Matt wasn’t alone at the fire. All of the youth and youth leaders of the Orem (Utah) Fourth Ward were there, each alone with his or her thoughts on the last night of the river trip.

Joseph Free, the Young Men president, was glad for the calming effect of the flames. He tugged at his jacket, amazed at how quickly mountain air can turn cool, and he breathed in deeply.

“It’s been a great week. But somehow, on a youth trip, there’s always one more last-minute thing. Have we all got life preservers? Check. Make sure the ranger knows we’re here to do the service project. Check. Prepare a talk for the fireside. Check. Remember to delegate. Check.”

Now the only checking left to do was to make sure everybody got home safely.

“I think the kids have had fun,” Joe Free thought, looking at the group. “But have they learned anything? Has it been worth it?”

Some sparks shot up.

At the far side of the circle he saw his son.

“I think he’s making some important decisions,” Brother Free thought. He looked at his son again and was proud.

“It’s been worth it,” he said.

Mariam Conarroe, 12, yawned. She was tired and had a right to be. “Only three days,” she said to herself. “And we’ve done everything.”

Even before the trip began, the schedule had been full. Six months ago, as part of the preparations, everyone had been challenged to read the Book of Mormon. There had been regular reminders and repeated encouragement. Everybody had at least read some of it. Then there was the planning, and the preparation—how many times had they talked in Young Women classes about coming here, about how fun this would be?

Then—was it just a few days ago?—Mariam remembered getting up early, piling into trucks and cars, getting teased and teasing back, and suddenly being in Vernal, at a service station where Tyrannosaurus rex waves at motorists, urging them to buy gasoline.

From there the next three days rushed by in a blur. A visit to the bone quarry at Dinosaur National Monument. Two hours at a water slide. Pitching tents for camp. Skits and talks and firesides. Washing your hair with the help of a bucket. Floating the Green River—not once, but twice. A morning spent alone, reading the Book of Mormon and praying. Testimony meeting. A service project clearing aspen seedlings at the base of a fire lookout tower. Biting into juicy, sweet fruit at a watermelon feast.

Mariam yawned again, tired but happy.

“It’s been busy.”

She felt something comfortable, but it was more than the glow from the campfire. There was a wonderful feeling inside of her, a knowledge that here among leaders and friends she could do good things and be accepted.

She wrapped her quilt around her. It sure felt nice to be warm.

Brian Little, 18, found himself staring at a red-hot coal, fascinated at the way that, once it was burning, it seemed to generate its own heat.

“Funny,” he thought. “It didn’t start on fire all by itself.”

Brian kept thinking of someone who wasn’t even at the camp, a ranger, a young man not that much older than himself. The ranger lives in the fire tower, alone. He spends all summer up there, just watching the hills. Today, after they had cleared the brush away around his tower, the Orem Fourth Ward youth had presented him with a copy of the Book of Mormon.

“At least he’ll have a lot of time to read it,” Brian chuckled.

It had felt good to sign his name in the front of the book, along with all his friends, to give it to this ranger, to tell him he knew it was true, and to ask him to read it. Could this be what he would feel in the mission field? If he could feel like this constantly, for two whole years, wouldn’t it be terrific?

“It takes a fire to start a fire,” he thought.

He looked at the burning coal again.

It was still giving off heat.

Valerie Bean, 14, picked up a piece of wood, a twig really, and tossed it to the flames. She kept reviewing what another ranger—this one a Latter-day Saint named Lee Skabelund—had said the night before at the fireside.

He had quoted from the scriptures.

“All things which come of the earth … are made for the benefit and the use of man, both to please the eye and to gladden the heart;

“Yea, for food and for raiment, for taste and for smell, to strengthen the body and to enliven the soul.

“And it pleaseth God that he hath given all these things unto man; for unto this end were they made to be used, with judgment, not to excess, neither by extortion” (D&C 59:18–20).

Valerie thought of a campground she’d seen, littered with trash.

“It made me mad,” she thought. “I mean, if you ruin it, who’s going to fix it?”

Now, thinking about the scripture Brother Skabelund had quoted, she realized something important.

“I bet the Lord is disappointed when we don’t take care of the earth,” she thought.

She picked up another twig and fed it to the flames.

Allyson Kitchen, 17, could see the stars now, overhead, their sparkle unchallenged by city haze or street lamps. She liked the way the fire created a haven of light in the vast darkness of the woods. And she noticed that although the campfire made shadows prance in the forest, here where it burned brightly there was no fear.

Like the others, Allyson found her mind filled with three days of memories. The time she’d spent with her friends had been important.

“They’re goofy and I love them and I’ll be going away to college soon.”

The service project had made her feel good. “We worked hard and we helped somebody,” she said to herself.

And she even felt closer to her leaders, just because she’d been around them.

“It’s fun to see the bishop in something besides a suit.”

But the memory that Allyson was really thinking about was the morning she had spent, alone on a hillside covered with wildflowers, reading the Book of Mormon and pleading with God to know of its truth.

She looked at the stars again, scattered across the sky, and remembered reading: “The scriptures are laid before thee, yea, and all things denote there is a God; yea, even the earth, and all things that are upon the face of it, yea, and its motion, yea, and also all the planets which move in their regular form do witness that there is a Supreme Creator” (Alma 30:44).

Allyson felt close to her Father in Heaven and to her Savior. And she took great comfort in the reassurance that they are near.

This is Flaming Gorge. It is natural to think of fire here. But the fire the youth of the Orem Fourth Ward will remember means more than rocks in a canyon or wood that’s been kindled.

They have known the warmth of the Spirit; they have felt the flame that burns in the soul.

Plan for a Great Time

Without spending a lot of money or traveling far from home, your ward or branch can have a great summer activity, too. The single most important key to success is planning.

“If you’ll be visiting a U.S. Forest Service area,” says Lee Skabelund, a ranger at Flaming Gorge, “make sure to contact the Forest Service before you visit. We can offer a lot of advice.”

For example: “Make reservations early. A group that wants to use facilities in the summer should be contacting us in January, February, or March, so that we can make sure you’ll get the facilities you need.”

The Orem Fourth Ward wanted a secluded location where the youth could read the Book of Mormon, pray, and hold a testimony meeting. Because they contacted the Forest Service in advance, they were able to get just the right spot.

“It really helps us if you know what kind of an experience you want to have,” Brother Skabelund says. He suggests that the Bishopric Youth Committee should take time to ask some questions:

  • What kind of activities do you plan on doing? If you’re running the river, you’ll want to camp at a different location than if you’re waterskiing by the beach.

  • Wouldn’t a service project add to your experience? The Forest Service is glad to make arrangements for volunteers.

  • How many people will be in your group? Be accurate—having 85 people trying to use a camp designed for 50 could result in a fine!

    In addition to such basic questions, here are some other ideas to consider while you’re making plans:

  • Use a checklist for equipment and food. Review it periodically, and you may think of things you’ve overlooked.

  • Do you have appropriate fire containers or portable stoves? Do you need to bring firewood?

  • Plan for disposal of garbage and human waste.

  • Make sure there will be enough adult supervision.

  • Do you need facilities for the handicapped?

Like any good ranger, Brother Skabelund is full of other suggestions—be courteous, don’t tack paper signs to wooden signs (it damages paint), have a pair of pliers for lifting things out of the fire, let the Forest Service send you maps and provide a short course on water safety or “leave-no-trace camping”—and on and on.

Remember, even though these tips are based on experience with the U.S. Forest Service, similar help is available in other countries, and from other state and national agencies in the U.S.

The point is, plan ahead. Figure out what you’d like to do. Then contact the agency that controls the area you’d like to visit. They’re eager to help you.

Editor’s note: Since this story was written, both Matt Free and Brian Little have entered the mission field. Elder Free is serving in the Osaka Japan Mission, and Elder Little is in the Norway Oslo Mission. Allyson Kitchen is now a student at Brigham Young University.

[illustrations] Illustrated by Dilleen Marsh

[photos] Photography by Richard M. Romney

[photo] Memories of the river filled Matt’s mind—water clear as diamonds, cliffs as red as fire. But there were deeper feelings, too—a realization that something had been kindled in his soul.

[photo] Brian remembered signing his name in the book, remembered how good it felt to let others know that God does speak to prophets. In his heart he knew that it takes a fire to start a fire.

[photo] Valerie felt the warmth of a growing understanding. “The Lord said he was pleased to give us all these things,” she thought. “It must be terribly disappointing when we don’t take good care of them.”

[photos] Allyson noticed the way the fire created a haven of light in the darkness. She realized that she felt the same way about the Church. Regardless of any future challenges, she knew she could always count on that haven of light.