Spring Adventures Can Bring Dangers
As we get a warm and beautiful weekend, I am reminded of the spring of 2011.
I was one of those schmucks from the city that get lost in the mountains trying to take the scenic route that gets caught in some freak natural disaster.
I started to blog about it then but never really finished the thought.
Living in Washington now for good since 2010, I was fresh from living in Florida. Before a few years in Florida, I lived in Washington and was a stay at home dad while my ex-wife worked out at Hanford.
With Hanford's three day weekends, we spent countless weekends and various days up in the mountains or traveling through them. My favorite time of the year up here is spring when we get some of the best fishing in the Lower 48. Sure I was a novice back then, not even knowing how to tie a good fishing knot much less how to camp. My idea of a survival kit was a case of soda and beef jerky.
Since then I have spent so many nights under the stars here in Washington, going to such a family-friendly place like Tucannon seems routine on most trips. Not in the Cascades, Tucannon is over to the east of us in the Blue Mountains. When I thought of Washington as I looked out over the endless horizon of the gulf, it was the sound of the Tucannon River at 3:00 am on a cool, crisp April morning that ran through my mind.
Don't get me wrong, I still love St. Pete and can't wait to buy my second home there, but there is something magnetic about the smell of tall pines and the crunch of the mountain under my feet. I have never felt so at peace or so at home as when I am standing in the shallows of a flowing stream dividing a canopy of trees.
One Friday in April of 2011, the family and I set out on what was to be the perfect weekend of fun and fishing. I reserved a little suite at one of the mountain hotels in Dayton, the town between home and our favorite little corner of the Blues. We checked in around 6:00 pm and barely through a few things inside our room to ease up space for a more comfortable ride. Too late for fishing, but we were taking the girls up to make a nice fire and roast some marshmallows to make s'mores. It had been a beautiful day with few clouds and temps in the 70s. I was wearing shorts and a t-shirt, though I had packed warmer clothes... you know, just in case.
It was the first day of spring break up here, so most of the campsites in the valley were already filled. Being so family-friendly, Tucannon gets rather crowded on certain weekends of the year. Aside from the various trails for hiking, horseback riding or ATV madness, the river, the hunting, or fishing on the river for steelhead, there are several small lakes that sit in company with a hatchery. We are talking thousands of trout, catchable on every single cast. It. Is. Awesome.
I drove up about ten miles to a spot up in the lower mountains, but still far enough to avoid the crowds at an area I am very familiar with. There is a nice clearing right off one of the narrow mountain roads that always has plenty of wood and a left over circle of rocks to build a fire. We roasted our first marshmallow by 7:30 pm and sang songs with the girls. Not that I could remember a whole lot of songs, but we managed to have fun trying anyway.
Forgetting essentials like flashlights and my warm hooded sweatshirt, when we saw a few flashes of unexpected lightning we decided to call it an evening. Especially when we heard a clap of thunder really close to us as we extinguished the fire. After finally beginning to make our way down the rocky, dirt mountain road the rain began to fall.
“Well, at least we know the fire is out for sure,” I joked to Robin.
She thought I had been a little too meticulous in putting out the fire. As we crept forward Robin commented how the trees seemed so close to the road they appeared to lay across it.
I thought that was odd since to my left there was a two-hundred foot drop straight down to the river below. To my right there is a 25 foot incline that goes straight up, then flattens to slowly rise and make up the side of the mountain.
There shouldn't be any trees near the road at this point. But there it was.
A large, burnt pine had fallen over the only road in or out of this portion of the Umatilla National Forest. A tree several stories tall and weighing countless tons had fallen just moments before we passed by. That was not thunder that we had heard as we loaded the Land Cruiser with kids. It was a big friggin' tree that had just made my hotel suite down the road something of a distant dream. We were trapped.
There is no cell service in this section of the mountains.
My twins were still infants needing formula and warmth. I had no way to call for help.
I drove back up the mountain road and ventured further up where a trailhead and National Park campsite might have someone with a chainsaw.
There was no one but a father and his son there for youth turkey hunting in the morning and he hadn't bothered to bring his chainsaw either.
I drove back down to where we had lit a fire and made s'mores earlier in the evening. I had a decent amount of gas, which was good because the rain soon turned to snow. We kept the Land Cruiser running as often as we could over night trying to conserve gas for the ride out.
The next morning as we awoke to light, there was three inches of fresh snow.
Since the road was a single lane mountain road, I left the rig parked there and left my wife and five daughters in the warmth of the running vehicle. I was wearing shorts and a t-shirt since it had been almost 80 when we checked into the hotel. Snow pelted me in the face.
I decided I would run to stay warm.
I crawled under the huge pine that had fallen over the road not knowing how far I was from the lowest group of campers I remembered passing. It ended up only being about three miles, well within my ability to cover quickly.
The group at the bottom had ATV's, generators warming two super nice RV's, and warm coffee being poured as I stumbled down the road.
They acted like I was a long-lost relative and threw me in the rig and handed me a blanket and coffee.
They had chainsaws.
The two dads had the tree cleared within ten minutes and rode up to my waiting family on the ATV and told them I was okay and on the way. My ex-wife drove down not waiting.
A little stiff from sleeping in the Land Cruiser all night, but we were safe and we were free of the mountain.
It could have ended differently.
Don't be me. Don't be unprepared or unaware of your surroundings.
Remember - it is spring and snow is just a cold front away in the mountains.