OFF-ROAD FIREFIGHT: PART 1
A quest for the Mexican border completely off-road
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.