FIGHT­ING FIRES: PART 2

Bat­tling wild fires, wild po­lice­men and crazy heat in a bid for the Mex­i­can bor­der

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

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.

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