FIGHTING FIRES: PART 2
Battling wild fires, wild policemen and crazy heat in a bid for the Mexican border
Iawaken to a feeling almost as bad as a hangover. My back is in shambles from two nights sleeping on the ground and two days pounding down pothole filled forest service roads (FSR). My mouth is dry and parched with a hint of dust; my sinuses are the same. My head is groggy from an inadequate amount of sleep and my skin is sticky with the mixture of dust and sweat as I peel myself out of my sleeping bag. It's late (9 am) and we haven’t gotten out of the tents yet.
The disheartening situation is a result of a horrific series of failures suffered the previous day. My good friend Blake and I had a dream of off-roading from the Canadian to the Mexican border. That dream was dashed on day two when we ran into no less than four separate wildfires blocking our route, forcing a detour down paved highways. Despite a late night with a couple near disasters, we were not physically defeated, however we were mentally. After nearly 500 km, roughly 50-percent of our travel was on dirt trail, as we were forced to bypass five trails. Our priorities had now changed, no longer are we trying to get to the Mexican border off-road, now we were just trying to get there with as many off-road kilometres as possible.
Disappointed, but at ease with the realities of goals lost, we broke camp and continued along the first leg of the day towards the town of Ellensburg, WA. The trail was a nice technical winding lane through an arid forest that slowly became more and more narrow. With our Backcountry Discovery Route maps programed into the GPS systems (iPhone
on the Blake’s KLR650, iPad in the Grand Cherokee EcoDiesel), the route seemed to make a turn into a very overgrown side trail. Dismounting, we scouted ahead to find our first disappointment of the day. The trail had been excavated with a large ditch and hill and turned into a horse trail. Blake could have likely gotten the KLR through the obstacle, but there was no way a stock Grand Cherokee was going to make it without a winch and total disregard for the aesthetics of the bumpers.
We moved up to a clearing at the top of a hill to get our bearings and break out the map. There was a “Y” in the road a kilometre ahead that provided an alternate route into Ellensburg, so we pushed ahead with plan B.
Plan B came to a rapid halt at the “Y” junction where we met a local bow hunter who gave us the rundown on the current fire situation on the west side of the range. “Don’t bother going down there, you’re just going to get turned around in 20-miles, it’s all on fire.” With the map on the hood once again, our only option was to take a service road back out to Wenatchee, the town we were in the night before. We were effectively moving backwards.
We drove a great twisting mountain road down to the highway and cruised our way to Ellensburg with smoke getting thicker by the minute. Connecting to some Wi-Fi at a Dairy Queen, we could now reevaluate the situation. The local forestry news had reported that the fire situation was bordering on crisis. Nearly every mountain range had a fire burning out of control and the air quality was getting toxic. By some miracle our next leg was clear, an easy climb over the grassy hills of Umptanum ridge, followed by a steep climb over Cleman Mountain. The second half of the day was looking up.
The smoke cleared as we climbed out of Ellensburg, and the sobering sight of massive wild fires burning on the side of three mountains dropped my jaw in awe. It looked like volcanoes spewing ash into the air.
Arriving at the entrance to the Umptanum pass, we aired down, and proceeded into the wide-open hills. The road was extremely wide and we had vision for kilometres, until some crazy driver in a Subaru passed us rather recklessly in a great cloud of dust. My first thought was it must have been a rally driver getting some practice, with such a wide and smooth road. Nope, I was wrong.
The Subaru pulls Blake over and the two get into a rather long chat. At first, I didn’t think anything of it, likely another friendly local giving us some helpful advice. Then the Subaru backs up to the Cherokee and an arrogant little mirrored aviator sunglass-wearing dude, proceeds to lambaste me. He identified himself as a volunteer police deputy; I will refer to him as Deputy Cranky Pants. Well, Deputy Cranky Pants goes on the craziest of all power trips, spewing gibberish for the first three minutes, something about speeding, radioing ahead to the police up the road to arrest us, then accuses Blake of doing 70 mph. “Whoa, whoa, that bike doesn’t even do 70! You go ahead and call your buddy up ahead and get him to arrest us.” I was in no mood to take any more abuse, but it was time to exit without risk of upsetting an already irate American who likely had several firearms within reach.
The Umptanum Pass was a fun, rather wide-open gravel road; however once we passed through a gate into the Oak Creek Wildlife Area we finally got our first proper off-road track. The steep climb up the valley wall was on a road base of jagged rocks the size of softballs. Blake, with his brand new Progressive suspension installed, blazed off into the distance, while I had to stop, air down and raise the Grand Cherokees suspension to “Off-Road II”, as high as the air bags would let me go. The rough jagged road through the wide-open scenic vistas slowly transformed to a more challenging washout track through the higher altitude forest.
The challenging terrain was just what I needed after all the frustrations. Beautiful views and quaint winding roads are great, but I needed to be challenged, and Cleman Mountain was doing just that. We worked our way up to the peak to reveal a magnificently clear view of the whole Cascade Range. After so much disappointment, we were finally rewarded after a successful climb.
We decided to celebrate that night by getting a motel and
heading down to a local pub for a welldeserved dinner and beer. Making friends with the locals, we shut the pub down late after closing time.
The luxury of a hot shower, good food in my belly and a queen size bed all to myself was milked for all it was worth. I don’t think we hit the road before 10:00 am. The entry to our first leg of the day was only a few kilometres down the road from the motel. As usual, we came upon a challenge first thing in the morning, although this was only a herd of sheep blocking the road.
The leg was yet another scenic climb through an arid canyon up onto a high plateau. The morning heat and talcum powder road surface produced massive plums of dust. Behind the bike, I had to slow to a crawl just to see. By 11:00 am, it was 33-degrees Celsius as we came down onto the White Pass for a road section into Packwood.
Despite climbing to the passes high point, the temperature continued to climb along with the thickness of smoke filling the air. Cresting the top, we were welcomed with an eerie sight. The thick smoke obscured the view of the monster in the distance. Mount Rainier in all its majesty is a daunting sight; even more mystic when it seems as though it does not want to be seen.
We rolled into the small town of Packwood where the temperature continued its upward movement, reaching 38-degrees. We stopped at the local market to grab some fruit, veggies and beer, only to be blasted by the heat reflecting off the asphalt of the parking lot. The market was air-conditioned and we realized we walking in circles just to prolong our exposure to air conditioning.
Back at the Jeep, I took time to bang out the air filter, leaving an impressive pile of Washington State’s finest dust on the ground at the Chevron before we pushed back into the hills on our final leg of the Washington Backcountry Discovery route (WABDR). Our last night in Washington would be Wallup Lake. After a rather busy run up several dusty winding roads, we arrived at the lake earlier than planned. I was relieved to learn it was $18 for the night and there was lots of room. A cold dip in the mountain lake was our reward for a long hot day in the dust.
Leaving camp on day number five, we were inspired on the first leg by great vistas of Mount Adams and the backside of Mount St. Helens. An amazing number of campsites litter this region; people here really like to get out into the wilderness.
We left the roller coaster mountain runs behind, following a wide forest covered valley south towards the Oregon border. These roads were driving me nuts, potholes becoming the bane of my existence. Blake’s bike was soaking up every little bump, but I would have to almost come to a stop for every series of holes.
After some playful driving through several large mud pits and water crossings, we arrived in Stevenson, the end of the WABDR. What had been a hot, dusty, exhausting, fire plagued route, ended in a mud bath as we reached the routes ceremonial end at the Bridge of the Gods. But where now?
Finding some Wi-Fi in town, we contemplated the rest of the trip. To our horror, we found that fire was blocking the Oregon route as badly as the Washington route, and California was even worse. We had to abandon our off-road quest. I
needed to get the Jeep back to Chrysler, but Blake made the run to Baja on the Coast Highway, making a pilgrimage to the iconic Mikes Sky Ranch outside Ensenada, Baja.
While our goal of completing the border-to-border expedition failed epically, it was nevertheless a grand adventure. The Washington Backcountry Discovery Route is a magnificent route that takes you through some of the most scenic terrain in the North West. The Grand Cherokee turned out to be the perfect vehicle for the task. The roads were easy enough that you could pass with a stock vehicle, challenging enough that it needed to be a Jeep. Even more impressively, the EcoDiesel completed the entire 900 km of the route on a single tank of diesel. For those who are looking for an overland adventure, I can’t say enough about the WABDR. It is a hugely rewarding trip, but whatever you do, for the love of God, don’t go in August.
Someone’s made the trail impassable!
A smoky haze followed us throughout the trip.
The trail up Cleman Mountain was tough on tires – and backs.
The ridgeline along Cleman Mountain was the most scenic vistas.
The Cherokee washing some of the dust off.
The end of the Washington Backcountry Discovery Route.