Another Road Trip

Also to eastern Washington, also partially for botanical survey reasons, also because since I’m going on the long drive for the botanical survey, I might as well see and do other stuff on the way.

This includes revisiting a favorite campsite of mine, and hopefully checking out other campsites that might be of use for seeing upcoming the Perseid meteor shower. That favorite campsite of mine is on a very rough road; for the meteor shower I want to be on a road that any old passenger car can safely traverse, because it is going to be a group event.

Back from Wyoming

More precisely, back from a nearly 2-week road trip that went as far east as western Wyoming. It involved seeing a part of the country I had always wanted to see, revisiting the place I finished up my college degree, helping a friend collect environmental sensors from the field, a quick swing through Yellowstone National Park, seeing a significant chunk of Montana for the first time, and visiting some of my companion’s friends in rural Idaho.

I had always wanted to see the Malheur basin ever since the area caught my eye on highway maps as a teen. Alas, it’s been a dry year, and the Federal government is still (understandably) jittery that right-wing extremists will try re-occupying the refuge headquarters, which meant that:

  • The area was nowhere near as lush as I imagined it; water levels were sufficiently low that many of the wetlands had dried out, and
  • It was impossible to see Malheur Lake itself, because the only road providing access to it passes through the headquarters compound, which is still very much off-limits.

Before we got there, I was studying the DeLorme Atlas of Oregon while my companion drove and noticed a place called Glass Butte that our route would soon skirt. I surmised (correctly) that the name alluded to obsidian deposits, so an impromptu side-trip was scheduled in the hopes that it might prove to be the place where one can find the rare red-and-black obsidian I’ve seen in collections from Oregon (as opposed to the more common plain black kind). Indeed it was.

I did then visit a real oasis in the desert: the Cache Valley of northern Utah and southern Idaho. It’s an area I’m very familiar with, having attended Utah State University for two years. It was a nice surprise that the valley was still very much rural and had not filled in with houses. The extensive wetlands in its bottom were, in contrast to the mostly dried-out ones at Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, very lush and green.

The college campus had of course changed a lot since I had visited, but I chose to focus on what had not changed. The administration has done a good job of preserving the integrity of the more historical parts of campus, focusing on putting the new buildings where large parking lots used to be, so many campus views were precisely as I had remembered them.

It’s little-known except by locals, but that region also has some of the most spectacular fall colors in all of North America: in the surrounding mountains, the red and oranges of maples and the clear gold of the aspens contrast with the sombre green of firs. Nowhere else I can think of has all three elements (northern New England comes close, but doesn’t have the large numbers of aspens). Alas, it’s a short display that comes early, and true to form a storm and cold spell the week before had already left the trees mostly bare and blasted, despite it being the first week of October.

Then it was on to western Wyoming to collect the data loggers. That’s a place I visited a few times on day trips in my college years, so I got to see what Kemmerer (not much different) and Jackson (lots of new construction) looked like after about thirty years. That involved learning the hard way that my partner will call just about anything a “pretty good road,” even a rough track only suitable for four-wheel drive vehicles (my truck is only two-wheel drive and not suited for such routes). No lasting harm was done, and he did readily agree to cover the resulting towing bill. The weather was cold with snow flurries.

Then a short trip through Yellowstone. We spent a day watching geysers and saw about ten different ones erupt. They were all frequent performers. I can’t really be disappointed that it fell short of what I saw thirty years ago. That involved a simultaneous display of four major geysers (including Giantess, which erupts only irregularly) jetting hundreds of feet into the air.

I wish I had studied the maps more on the following day. Had I known we were going to pass through Butte, I would have scheduled a detour to some labor history sites, including the grave of Frank Little. My efforts at trying to do something impromptu were frustrated by it being both a Monday and a holiday; both the visitor information center and the labor history museum were closed.

We camped just east of Lolo Pass and that night were treated to the heaviest snowfall of the trip. That may sound dramatic, but even that just amounted to a light dusting. There was actually more snow at our campsite than there was at the summit of the pass! Highway 12 west of the pass has to be one of the loneliest highways in the lower 48 states; we drove for hours through forested mountains before we finally reached the small town of Lowell. Traffic was very light, maybe one vehicle every five minutes.

After spending the night with my travel partner’s friends near Riggins, we resumed driving west. It was a relief to see the sign welcoming us back to Washington as we crossed the bridge from Lewiston to Clarkston, even though it was the opposite side of the state and many more hours of driving lay ahead. It was nice to see things get progressively greener and greener with each passing mile from The Dalles to Cascade Locks.

My travel partner lives in Portland, where I had planned to spend the night. After hearing about the series of storms due to hit (high winds, heavy rain) I changed those plans and decided to rest a few hours then press on and try to beat the worst of the weather. I’ve been unpacking and tidying up since and after spending over a day doing so, it was time to type in this post.

It was fun, but it was also time to end when it did.

Red Huckleberry Jam

I had planned on picking dewberries and blackcaps on the Toandos Peninsula last weekend. I know of a good spot for both there.

But fate intervened and ruled that option out, so I went to a revegetating clear cut where I have noticed a lot of berry plants before in the Green Mountain State Forest instead. That resulted in a different harvest, as most of the berries I found there were red huckleberries instead.

They’re a new one for me. Oh, I’ve snacked on them many times, but never set out to harvest them and bring a quantity home with me. The jam turned out great: I followed the “low sugar” recipe, using a tad more than the recommended amount of sugar because the berries are naturally tart. For the same reason, I opted not to add any lemon juice to the recipe, figuring there was plenty of natural acidity to set the pectin.

The result was tangy and flavorful, just like the berries it was made from.

Frosty Nights

We’re having a spell of clear, dry weather and in the winter that often means cold weather, as the clear skies and long nights let temperatures drop. This time is no exception to the rule. Afternoons are still in the forties, but anywhere the sun doesn’t reach doesn’t thaw.

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Different than I Imagined, but Nice

P9291828wThe main difference between how I imagined the North Fork Skokomish Valley (a.k.a. the Staircase area of Olympic National Park) and how it actually was is that I had imagined it as being much more broad. In fact, there really wasn’t much of a flat valley bottom at all once one got above the campground.

It was, however, full of mile after mile of intact lowland forest, pretty much as I had imagined. It wasn’t all huge old trees (natural calamities do “reset the clock” in forests), but there still were an awful lot of them.

I also did manage to successfully make a couple of PSK31 contacts operating portable, so chalk up another goal for the summer season as accomplished.

The campground was surprisingly well-patronized, given that it was a weekday in late September and the water had been shut off. It’s probably just as well I didn’t even try to get a spot there last summer.

A New Experience

The best thing that happened on the Deer Park camping trip was the new experience of being on a mountaintop as the sun set.

I’ve been on mountaintops many times, but always as the part of day hikes that involved the goal of getting back to the trail head before nightfall. This time, the summit was only 1.2 miles from where I was camped, most of the route back was on a road, I had a light and spare batteries with me, and the moon was nearly full.

So it was easily possible to stay until the sun had completely set, which is exactly what I did, watching the colors change on the mountain slopes, the fingers of darkness creep up the walls of the valleys, and the sky turn colors in the west.

It was a new and magical experience, and the light from the moon meant I didn’t even need to use my light on the way back to camp.

Back from the Mountains

Finally went camping at Deer Park after wanting to for over 20 years. Granted, many of those years I wasn’t much into camping in general and just kept procrastinating on it, by choice. And for a good chunk of the other ones, I was in either California or Oregon.

But for the past few years, I have been in this area, but I just haven’t had the time. There’s no reservations for the Deer Park campground, which means that a quick weekend getaway is impossible: if you attempt one, you’ll find that every spot is already occupied for the weekend by people who took a day or two off to get there early and secure their spot.

So it was a natural idea of someplace to go now that recent circumstances mean I might as well make my getaways on weekdays, when it’s less crowded.

It’s a beautiful spot, and I plan on returning, but it’s not quite as idyllic as I imagined, because even on random weeknights the campground completely fills up, so you don’t get the privacy you would at some spot with lighter use.

Surreal Trip Experience No. 2: Road

Highway 20 is officially the northernmost road through Washington State, much like the Crowsnest Highway is the southernmost one through British Columbia. Both roads are very scenic as they engage in feats of engineering to circumvent obstacles which otherwise could be circumvented by crossing the 49th parallel.

But I digress. Highway 20 is officially the northernmost road through Washington state. While studying my map of the Okanogan National Forest, I discover another road even further north going from the hamlet of Loomis to Winthrop. It involves a long gravel segment, and there are two Forest Service campgrounds along it, which is convenient, since if I’d take that road I’d probably be going by at about the time when I’d want to stop for the night. One of those campgrounds is listed as having an elevation of 6800 feet, which is the highest campground I’ve ever run across in Washington. This pretty much decides that I’m going to take that road.

It’s signed as Toats Coulee Road and breaks off from the road to Palmer Lake just north of Loomis. I pass several fire camps before I make the turn. Oddly, there’s no column of smoke visible anywhere on the horizon.

The road starts as your typical primary paved county road: narrower than your typical state highway, with tighter curves, but still a pretty good road. Soon it loses lane striping. It starts climbing. After I pass the site of an old power plant and cross a cattle guard, the quality of the maintenance decreases and the number of potholes increases. Pretty soon it’s obvious that it’s been some time since the road has seen any sort of maintenance at all. Huge potholes crater it. In a few sections, the pavement has crumbled entirely and it’s now a gravel road. Since these have been recently graded, they offer a superior ride to the pothole-cratered paved sections.

I see a pickup truck with the name of a fire agency on it parked at a scenic viewpoint. I stop to take a few pictures myself then query the occupant about the fire. It apparently was burning pretty vigorously up to a few days ago, but recent rains have really put the damper on it, hence the lack of a smoke column.

The road continues to get worse. Weeds and shrubbery encroach on it from the sides. Aside from the one parked truck, I haven’t seen any other vehicles on it. The empty nature of the road plus its decripitude gives an eerie, post-apocalyptic feeling to my drive. Deer cross the road in front of me multiple times.

After miles of dodging potholes, a welcome sight: the end of the badly-maintained pavement. What appears to be the “main” road continues ahead as a recently graded two-lane gravel road, but my map clearly indicates it dead ends after a half dozen more miles. The road I want is the one-lane gravel one branching off to the left.

It’s very lightly traveled. Grass grows in the middle of it. Yet the worn ruts are grass-free, and my sources indicated that the road is indeed open all the way through to Winthrop. It enters a burned area and for mile after mile it goes from one ridge to another, switchbacking its way up and down the ridges when it crosses valleys. It’s mostly in pretty good shape but the odd eroded spot is hard to see in advance, which keeps me from going faster than about 20 mph. I eventually do meet a vehicle coming in the other direction. We’re both startled to see someone else on the road. The other driver confirms that he started from the other end, and is floored when I say where I have come from on it. Apparently he didn’t have a map and is just following the road to see where it goes.

It’s about 5:00 in the evening when I finally come to the campground. It’s small (only six sites) and completely empty. I snag the best site (the only one with fully intact trees around it; the others all have varying degrees of fire damage).

I discover that the water jug in the back of my truck, despite being secured, has tipped over. Worse, despite there being a plug in the air hole, the pressure difference between 900 feet elevation (at Tonasket, where I verified it was securely plugged) and 6800 feet (where I was then) had caused pressure to build up to the point where the stopper had popped out of the hole. So not only was I virtually out of water, there was a mess in the back of the truck.

Thankfully, the ribbed design of the truck bed plus drain holes intended to let rain out had minimized the impact of the mishap. The campground’s name is Tifffany Spring, which was a big hint at a solution to the water shortage, and indeed the namesake spring was easy to locate. It had but a small pool, largely obscured by a lush growth of sedges, but with clear cold water which was deep enough to fill containers with. Between spring water for cooking and washing with and the remaining water in my jug for drinking as-is, I was set for an overnight stay.

It was a treat to have the luxury of car camping with sheets and blankets off the ground in a location so remote and high-up that one would normally have to backpack there and sleep on the ground in a small tent with a thin pad on irregular surface.

Surreal Trip Experience No. 1: Hail

The day warmed up rapidly as I worked my way north from Wenatchee on US 97. By the time I was in Tonasket the temperature was between 95 and 100 (a bank thermometer said 112, but no way was that correct). A black cloud loomed over the highlands to the east, my destination for the day.

As I drove up into the highlands, I noticed winds, evidently downdrafts from the thunderstorm ahead, were blowing. I opened my window and it was about 70 degrees outside, a good 25 degrees cooler than it was just minutes ago. No more need for the air conditioner.

Soon the road became damp, then outright wet as I chased the rain retreating southwards (I only ever experienced light showers on this drive). More and more runoff was evident; the storm I had just missed was a real gully-washer. The temperature fell into the sixties.

Ground fog loomed ahead. I knew what that probably meant: hail on the ground, creating a temperature inversion close to the surface. Indeed, my hypothesis was soon verified. The temperature was now in the fifties and I had my headlights on as I crept through the fog in a white landscape. In July, in eastern Washington, at 2:30 in the afternoon.

The campground that was my destination for the day was in the heart of the hail zone. It was about three inches deep when I got there, and didn’t completely melt until the next day.

Well, Scratch That Approach

It took a day’s exploring to find Kitsap Forest not long after moving to the west side of the Sound. The location is not publicized, because it’s a sensitive area and hasn’t been developed with visitors in mind, but it is public land and visitors are allowed.

The past winter I while studying my public lands quadrangle map of the area, I realized it probably would be possible to get there from the opposite direction that I found. So last February, I set out to do just that.

The results were less successful than my attempt from the other direction. I spent most of a day wandering around old logging roads, turning back after one dead end after another. Eventually I found the most promising old logging road of the day, but couldn’t fully investigate it because doing so would have meant completing my hike in darkness (and I had no light with me). So I made a note to return someday.

Well “someday” ended up being yesterday. This time I brought my knobby-tired bike, so I didn’t have to walk so much. Unfortunately, the promising old road gets very overgrown quite quickly, and it peters out before it reaches any interesting areas. Technically, it does reach the preserve, but at that point it’s not the old-growth forest yet; it’s just a buffer area of regrowing clear cuts.

After a lot of pretty intense bushwhacking, I realized that a) it was going to be very hard for me to follow my exact trail back, and b) if my GPS batteries died, I’d be pretty screwed (i.e. lost). And I still was in old clear cut territory. I had been chasing large trees, but they were all the occasional older tree the loggers had left behind to provide seeds to revegetate the area.

So I turned around; better safe than sorry. I did indeed promptly lose my trail, but it was of little matter because it was easy to home in on the waypoint I had entered at the end of the old road.

After downloading my GPS track and putting it in both a GIS database I have of Kitsap County and in Google Maps, it became clear that I had actually been only about 150 feet from the start of the old growth where I turned around. So if I had persevered for ten minutes or so more, I would have found what I sought.

But it is of little matter. Even with that knowledge, it’s so much more difficult coming from that direction. The first way I found has old roads going straight to the old growth. It’s a bit of a confusing maze, and I only found the correct way after eliminating virtually all other possibilities, but now that I know it, it’s a snap to get there. No bushwhacking involved.

So I don’t think I’ll be revisiting the more challenging approach any time soon.