OFF-ROAD FIREFIGHT: PART 1

A quest for the Mex­i­can bor­der com­pletely off-road

4WDrive - - Contents - Words and pho­tos by Budd Stan­ley

What the hell do we do now?” I couldn’t help but mum­ble th­ese painful words, head in my hands, as we poured over a map spread across the dusty hood of a Jeep Grand Chero­kee. “What do we do now?” had be­come the motto of our an­nual epic sum­mer ex­pe­di­tion.

Blake, an ad­ven­ture rider with a Kawasaki KLR650 as his steed, has al­ready trav­elled all over Amer­ica and clear across Canada. How­ever, ex­plor­ing the Baja penin­sula was a box still left unchecked on his bucket list. That planted a seed in my brain, be­cause I had al­ways wanted to drive from the Cana­dian bor­der to the Mex­i­can bor­der com­pletely off-road. Over beers one night, we came to the bril­liant con­clu­sion that we should com­bine our dream ad­ven­tures into one epic ex­pe­di­tion.

Our plans started with the Cas­cade Moun­tain Range. Luck­ily, Back­coun­try Dis­cov­ery Routes (BDR) has al­ready done a vast amount of the trail plan­ning for us, with ded­i­cated maps run­ning back road routes from the Cana­dian bor­der to the bot­tom of Ore­gon. From here, one of Blake’s two-wheeled bud­dies sup­plied us with way­points to get us through Cal­i­for­nia. Once across the bor­der, we would fol­low the Baja 1000 route as far south as we had time for, and find a nice beach to en­joy a Corona.

With a route pinned into our GPS sys­tems and back-up maps at the ready, our first chal­lenge was trail-ready ve­hi­cles. As it turned out, one of the big­gest chal­lenges was sim­ply get­ting to the start­ing line. Blake’s KLR was los­ing power and he was con­tem­plat­ing a re­build. He would forego the re­build, but did in­stall a Pro­gres­sive sus­pen­sion kit to up­grade the bikes abil­i­ties off-road. In my camp, the VW turbo diesel en­gine slated

to power the Sa­mu­rai was still sit­ting on a work­table in Van­cou­ver.

I knew Blake would have to mus­cle the bike through hot, dry, dusty con­di­tions, and as­sumed I would have to do the same in my half fin­ished Sa­mu­rai. But with D-Day ap­proach­ing, there was no re­al­is­tic way we would be able to have the Sami up and run­ning. Plan B was hatched with only a cou­ple days be­fore our sched­uled de­par­ture. I called tech edi­tor Irons to see if he would vol­un­teer his Jeep. All I heard over the phone was un­con­trol­lable laugh­ter fol­lowed by a “click.” Calls to friends pro­duced the same re­sults.

The call went out to Jeep. I had ex­pected to be sweat­ing it out in the sum­mer heat with my two-wheeled friend; in­stead I would be forced to sit in the full leather in­te­rior of a Grand Chero­kee Sum­mit Edi­tion EcoDiesel (with in­fo­tain­ment and air-con­di­tioned seats).

We hit the road early in one morn­ing pointed to­wards the Knighthawk bor­der cross­ing in the Sim­ilka­meen Val­ley. It was a blis­ter­ingly hot day, even for the Okana­gan, and it didn’t take long to get jammed up in traf­fic, stopped while wa­ter bombers made their at­tack­ing runs on a for­est fire next to the high­way.

Cross­ing the bor­der, a fun tar­mac road car­ried us past Palmer Lake where we turned off onto the gravel for the first time. Air­ing down at the turn off, we were over­come with eu­pho­ria. No more cell phones, no more email, no more com­put­ers, just two friends and the long trail to Mex­ico.

The road was al­most dis­ap­point­ingly good, but the arid desert moun­tain vis­tas were amaz­ing. The en­vi­ron­ment is the same as the Okana­gan, even shares the same name, but it seems you must travel to a new re­gion to truly ap­pre­ci­ate the beauty of your own.

For our first day, we de­cided to only tackle the first moun­tain range. On the far side, we stum­bled upon the North Fork Nine­mile Camp­ground, a beau­ti­ful camp­site sit­u­ated right on a creek with­out a soul in sight. We set up camp, fried up some sausages for din­ner and toasted ‘day one’ on the road with a beer.

We needed to tra­verse Wash­ing­ton State in three to four days if we had a chance at Baja. Day two be­gan as Blake blasted off on the KLR and I fol­lowed be­hind with a GPS track­ing my every move on an iPad fixed to the dash. We came across sev­eral burns from pre­vi­ous for­est fires, the black­ened trees made an eerie back­drop for all the pur­ple flow­ers cov­er­ing the ground. Once we reached the top of the first moun­tain, the view of the sur­round­ing area was spec­tac­u­lar. Some moun­tains had only par­tially won the bat­tle with fire, oth­ers were lush, and a few looked as though they had been bombed into sub­mis­sion.

We fi­nally came across a cou­ple rough sec­tions with sharp rock cov­ered roads. I aired down once again to 18 psi, and lifted the air sus­pen­sion to “Off-Road” to keep the front chin spoiler of the Jeep from bot­tom­ing out. We then pushed up over Skull and Cross­bones Ridge, Thun­der Moun­tain and Lone Frank Pass, bring­ing us down into civ­i­liza­tion once again. The town of Con­conully was a sleepy lit­tle town, good for a lunch stop, and a fuel up for Blake.

A short jaunt on as­phalt took us to a turnoff onto gravel once again. It was here that we stum­bled on the ghost town of Ruby. There was very lit­tle of the town left save for a few crum­bling foun­da­tions and a clear­ing with a plaque pro­claim­ing the mining towns once great ex­is­tence. From there, we pushed high into the moun­tains. It was at this time that I started to notice our views were be­ing ob­scured by haze.

As we rum­bled up Loup-Loup Canyon, the view was be­com­ing ever more opaque. Fine, tal­cum pow­dered dirt from the road was run­ning off the Jeep like wa­ter.

Obliv­i­ously pass­ing a Toy­ota 4Run­ner with “FIRE” writ­ten on the hood, we pressed on through an ever-thick­en­ing smoke-filled for­est. We moved onto a smaller tight wind­ing moun­tain road lead­ing up the side of Thrapp Moun­tain.

The smoke was now hang­ing like a thick blan­ket of fog in the trees, the con­stant smell of camp­fire fill­ing the Jeep. Af­ter a close bear en­counter, we popped off the small trail and out onto a main ser­vice road where we sur­prised a group of fire fight­ers pulled off the front lines to re­cover. Af­ter a quick sit­u­a­tion re­port with them we learned that A: we were not sup­posed to be where we were, and B: our route over Thrapp Moun­tain and Woody Moun­tain was in flames.

Forced to back­track to high­way 20, we pulled out the map and re­al­ized we would have to cir­cle around Thrapp on high­ways 20 and 153 to then link up with the next sec­tion of the BDR.

The next sec­tion was Gold Creek. It didn’t take long for our hopes to be dashed as yet an­other fire block­ade im­peded our progress. Out came the map but again, there were no gravel roads that would see us through to the next leg. The de­ci­sion was to push on to Che­lan.

Set­ting up in a cof­fee shop in Che­lan, the sit­u­a­tion was clear. Pretty much all of Wash­ing­ton state was on fire. En­tire ranches and towns were razed to the ground and charred black. Nearly every moun­tain range was closed to traf­fic but thank­fully, the next leg in the route was clear, and we could push to Cash­mere to end an al­ready painfully long day.

The route over Che­lan Moun­tain (aka Stormy Moun­tain) was strik­ing. The sun was set­ting, the smoke filled air mak­ing it glow an eerie red. The higher we climbed, the more ar­rest­ing the view as old for­est fires had cleared the top of the moun­tain. Be­fore long the road me­an­dered down into the next val­ley as dark­ness set in.

It was at this time I started feel­ing un­easy. It had been an in­cred­i­bly long day and Blake’s en­ergy was be­gin­ning to fail with the light. Com­ing into a rut­ted sec­tion of road, I could see the bike swing wildly as Blake fought to stay up­right. He just saved it; the con­se­quences would have been a long fall down a steep em­bank­ment. It was time for a break, some wa­ter, some calo­ries and a chat about push­ing on. Blake sparked up a lit­tle and re­ally wanted to make it to the next town, so off we went into the dark­ness.

This was not the best de­ci­sion, as the road we would come upon would prove to be the most chal­leng­ing of the trip. Mas­sive ruts and washouts gave way to an in­cred­i­ble drop into a black abyss be­yond the head­lights. It wasn’t an im­pos­si­ble trail, but with fa­tigue, lack of food and po­ten­tially lethal con­se­quences, our pace had slowed to a crawl. Af­ter a par­tic­u­larly tough sec­tion, we took a hike 500 me­tres up the trail and we de­cided enough was enough. An­other map study­ing ses­sion un­der LED light re­vealed a main­tained road down to the high­way. We made the de­ci­sion to get out while we still could and live to drive an­other day.

Ar­riv­ing Ar­den­voir, we found a sleepy lit­tle town with noth­ing open. Even worse, a fire crew camp closed the route that would take us into Cash­mere. By now it was well af­ter mid­night, no choice but to head straight for We­natchee.

We ar­rived in We­natchee phys­i­cally beaten and men­tally de­feated. By this point, all we wanted was some food and a ho­tel room with a hot shower. To add in­sult to in­jury, a lo­cal con­cert had every sin­gle ho­tel in town sold out. Get­ting some cheap fast food for nour­ish­ment, we headed to­wards Cash­mere and set up camp as soon as we hit the for­est. What a dif­fer­ence a day makes. The first day was easy and tran­quil, while the sec­ond was long, dirty and ex­haust­ing. Four of our seven legs were im­pass­able, and we weren’t even a third of the way through Wash­ing­ton.

Spe­cial Edi­tion 1

Two ve­hi­cle ex­pe­di­tion pushes on over easy ter­rain.

It didn’t take long to find the rem­nants of a mighty burn, this was early morn­ing on day two.

The Yanks do a good job of mark­ing all the trails.

Our first de­tour routed us through some dev­as­tat­ing sights. This burn lasted nearly 25 km.

This was be­com­ing a frus­trat­ingly com­mon oc­cur­rence.

For every road­block, we would try to sal­vage some non-tar­mac road­way.

A beau­ti­ful trail lead­ing to a smoky end

The trails we did find open were spec­tac­u­lar, along with a smoky sun­set.

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