We started the Washington Backcountry Discovery Route (WABDR) more than a year ago with a plan to drive south to north. In 2012 we completed the southern Washington Backcountry Discovery Route legs after an initial attempt was thwarted by heavy wet snow that blocked the passes. Fast forward and today we are reversing directions looking to knock out the remaining northern legs starting at the Canadian boarder and heading south.
Our plan is to leave Seattle early enough Friday to arrive at the Nighthawk border crossing in time to establish camp and cook dinner before the sun goes down. Nighthawk to Lake Chelan Saturday, down to Cashmere on Sunday then scoot home.
Other Paul and The Young Turk will be driving together in Big Red, The Young Turk’s Toyota BJ60 that he has been building as an overlanding rig for a while now. Long travel suspension, fridge, tons of room for everything you could imagine packed in back, Big Red’s diesel plant rumbles up I5 from Portland on its way to pick up Other Paul in Seattle before heading east for our meetup.
I start the day optimistic as ever. Run into the office for a few short hours until the guys start heading east at which time I’ll take off and meet them in Wenachee so we can fuel up and caravan north to the boarder. The office clock now reads 5:00 p.m. and the dream of a setting camp before sunset is just a faded memory as I get the text: “On the Road heading east!”. Blasting out of the office, I make a quick mental check of the gear in back before running headlong into rush hour traffic. This may take a while.
Cresting the Snoqualmie Pass that divides Washington’s east from west, the radio station choices shift from Seattle’s alternative music scene to country western and Friday night high school football games. Hula Betty and I follow the two lane winding country roads down into Cashmere and the Milepost III Brewing Company as darkness descends.
Some of the best decisions are made over burgers and beers. When the guys arrive 20 minutes later, the three of us pour over the maps, talk about options and decide to drive into the dark as far as we can north, find a camp site and catch the Washington Backcountry Discovery Route heading south in the morning. We may be well behind schedule but we’re living well, breaking bread together and starting another off-road adventure as our waitress brings check, announcing closing time.
A 100 or so miles north sometime around 1:00 a.m. Lake Alta calls to us with an unlocked gate and available camp sites. Headlights and lanterns give off just enough illumination to fumble around as we set up camp in a drizzle that has been moving in on us. After the traditional raising of the prayer flags we each head to our shelter and drift off to sleep… some sleeping harder and snoring louder than others.
Somehow The Young Turk has found a way to stay in his warm sleeping bag as Other Paul and I explore the lake and surrounding cabins in the clear chilly morning air. But with youth comes an exuberance that is unmatched and The Young Turk finally pops out of his tent announcing he’s got breakfast. Out of the back of Big Red comes a shinny new stove followed by eggs, bacon, sausage, hash browns and fresh ground coffee. Like an artist applying oils to canvas The Young Turk masterfully paints steaming cups of gourmet coffee to go with our freshly prepared meal.
We may not be going where we planned but we’re having a time getting there. Since Other Paul left his Land Rover D90 at home, he is focused on navigation and working to get us back on track traveling down our own version of the Washington Backcountry Discovery Route. Between sleeping in and feasting like a king we are starting a little (ok a lot) latter then originally planned. Weaving along back roads, turning left, turning right, going down the little known access roads, Other Paul has us on the main Washington backcountry discovery route route in no time.
The southern half of the Washington Backcountry Discovery Route is very familiar to anyone who has spent time off-road in the Pacific Northwest. In the south logging roads carried us through dense forests with peekaboo views of Mt Adams, St. Hellen’s and Rainier. That was the southern half… We are well north and seeing another of Washington’s personalities. The northern legs of the Washington backcountry discovery route is were many folks go to get lost. Hills of scrub brush, stands of hardwoods, Ponderosa Pines and free range cattle, reminiscent of the old west. This is the part of the country where the land is still open and managed by the BLM. For us this is the perfect off-road adventure, exposing a side of Washington that is unlike any other we’ve explored in the state.
Exploring means finding… and sometimes finding what you never expect. After driving off-road most of the day in complete solitude we come around a bend in the two track only to find we’re no longer along. Several all-wheel drive vehicles pulled off to the side, a permanent looking yurt staged off the ground on a wooden deck and a dozen or so urban tribal members gathered 100 yards ahead on the trail. The tribe of Subaru driving, urban outfitted, Patagonia wearing, hipster subclass bohemians turn and look down their noses at our muddy 4x4s which are now at a dead stop on the trail. The glutton free, whole foods shopping, effortlessly cool urban hipster tribe members appear to see us as only a momentary concern, possibly a slight intrusion on their outdoor purest experience.
Recognizing us as peaceful visitors, the hipsters of the woods shift their attention back to one of their own cradling a raptor (in this case a red tailed hawk) in her arms as the rest snap pictures and shoot videos with their iPhones. Being charitable and cautious, well hell, we approach them to learn more about the strange goings on and to ask how long they will need the road.
As we cautiously approach on foot, one of tribal leaders steps forward to parlay with us. The silver haired bohemian explains that this is a research project studying the raptors’ migration through the eastern Cascade Mountains of Washington within the Pacific Coast Flyway. Their goal is to better understand the ecology and conservation needs of raptors in the area. He goes on to explain that he and the other hipsters have been drawn to the project for “a high-quality experience with on-site environmental education and interpretation conducted by a full-time, on-site educator”. The project has caught, tagged and released several raptors throughout the day and are preparing to free the last of the day.
As we watch the raptor release ceremony, the hipster’s tribal chief suggests a couple of locations that would make excellent camp sites several miles down the trail. Climbing back into our rigs we slowly move forward bidding Namaste to the hipster tribe and leaving them to their kombucha, organic sonoma spelt bread and authentic outdoor experience.
There is a chill in the air and the wind is whipping around. One camp site (a wide spot with a fire ring) after another appears but they lack flat ground and provide no shelter from the force of the storms that are rumbling in on us. Running out of daylight we settle on a patch of flat ground along a ridge line straddling two scrub brush valleys that stretch out forever around us. Just enough room between a few trees for two tents and a bivy sack, we maneuver the rigs so they form a break between our camp kitchen and the winds being driving up from the valley below.
This is bear country, in fall, when the black bears are looking for every opportunity to fatten up before the winter snows set in. We need to put distance between the cook stove and our bed rolls. While The Young Turk prepares fresh chicken and beef (not dehydrated, not freeze dried, not jerked but tender moist meat, thanks to the fridge in the back of Big Red), Other Paul and I go about pitching tents well away from the smell of grilling flesh that is being carried on the wind into the valleys below. Grilled onions, peppers, sizzling meat, grated cheese, fresh salsa all wrapped in a warm tortilla blanket of love reminds us that eating well on the trail is always a treat. The ambiance from the camp fire and head lamp glow adds to the culinary delight of the meal.
Nights around a camp fire on the trail are the best. Even though the wind is howling and clouds hide most of the stars, we have a small fire glowing brilliant yellow, orange and red. I don’t know that I could ask for better company on this adventure. A philosopher, a financial wizard and an entrepreneur, the three of us bring very different backgrounds to the adventure. Yet around the fire we eagerly discuss politics, religion and the zen art of road trip management learning from each others’ perspective and strengthening our bond. I’m convinced world leaders could escape the trapping of politic and solve most problems if they would abandon their mahogany desks and discuss issues openly with their colleagues around a camp fire.
I love the wild… and nothing says wild more than knowing I’m not at the top of the food chain in bear county. I’ve camped among the grizzly bears of Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks, I’ve watch black bear cross the trail a 100 feet ahead when hiking the Olympic mountains and I’ve woken to the site of steaming bear scat not more than 50 feet from where I laid my head the night before. Nothing makes me feel more alive or terrifies me more than being in bear county. At night when only a paper thin layer of laminated nylon separates me from four inch long razor sharp claws designed to open a log with one swipe, sleep does not come easy. In my bivy sack I can hear clouds being pushed around overhead as wind rubs the branches together next to me… at least I tell myself it’s the wind. It is this heightened awareness that reminds me how easy it is to be lulled into a false sense of security in our lives. Life is delicate. Life is precious. Life is fleeting. Each and every moment is to be savored fully. One day, it will be gone.
I finally drift off to sleep listening to mother nature’s lullaby of rain drops and wind dancing across my little shelter. In the morning I wake to Washington Backcountry Discovery Route off-road adventure north day 2.