The Washington Backcountry Discovery Route (WABDR) is a off-road route running from Oregon to Canada across the state of Washington. The 575 mile route uses mostly un-paved back roads through the beautiful Cascade Mountains and some arid landscapes of Eastern Washington. The WABDR exposes you to the some of the most amazing scenery Washington State has to offer exposing you to the dirt roads less traveled.
As I mentioned earlier, The Young Turk has been bringing his outdoor gourmet game. On this off-road adventure he has busted out all the modern cooking conveniences and created mouth watering meals that Other Paul and I have thoroughly enjoyed. His uber outdoor kitchen contrasts my minimalist ideals. Don’t get me wrong… I did not once turn down his fresh salads, crisp bacon, spicy sausage patties and fluffy eggs, grilled sandwiches, cheeses or meats. But this morning it was time for The Young Turk to see that The Old Bull has culinary skills.
With nothing more than a few camp fire coals, hot rocks, tea pot and backpacking grill I set about making my breakfast of cheese and landjäger quesadilla with fresh hot coffee (ok there is a titanium french press involved too). For me the idea of cooking over a simple open fire is as much a meditation as it is about nutrition. The water takes forever to boil instilling patience, tortillas must be continually turned to avoid the flash point that causes them to cross from soft and warm to burnt and chewy. The cheese requires mindful coaxing to evenly melt and hold on tight to thin slices of Bavarian dried meat. Not as simple as igniting propane or as easy as scrambling farm fresh eggs on a griddle while sausage sizzles and home fries brown but this is by far the best tasting quesadilla… ever!
Coming down from the hills following the dirt roads, the little town of Chelan is in site as we hit civilization. This is our planned fuel up. Diesel for Big Red, premium for the Blue Bunny… and coffee for us. If you have ever stood next to a jet at take off or witnessed a two year old’s full scale meltdown in the Walmart checkout line then you understand the decibel levels of an unlimited hydroplane. The boats, more floating engine than sailing craft, are flying around the lake course in front of us, throwing 100 foot rooster tails into sky as we make our way along the lake into town. Their deafening roar shakes coffee cups at the local Starbucks a block off the water. Normally a sleepy little town, today it is filled with race fans cramming together on any patch of beach they can find.
Torn between watching the races and a desire to get back on the dirt, Other Paul navigates us through town and around the lake, back onto the Washington Backcountry Discovery Route. With Other Paul’s navigation keeping us on the straight and narrow it has has been reassuring to know that he is always two turns ahead of where we are on the route. Joe Merchant once said “The best navigators don’t always know where they are going, until they get there!” Other Paul… always knows.
The backcountry discovery routes usually have a couple of alternatives along the way that are more technical challenging, especially for a fully loaded dual sport rider. Coming up to the alternate, the map indicates “brush covered, expect pin striping but should be passable”. Of course the maps are created by motorcycle riders and for motorcycle riders. Other Paul and The Young Turk are coming off an extremely bad bushwhacking experience earlier this summer but decide to cowboy up and take a chance on the alternate trail.
We’re 5 minutes in and Other Paul is now walking the trail ahead sawing off overgrown branches to clear a path. Another 100 yards and it is clear this is what is meant by “squeezing a camel through the eye of a needle”. Motorcycles may get through with a little pin striping… the Blue Bunny and Big Red… they have reverse gears and we are using them. Backing down the narrow corridor until we can find enough clearing to turn around…. and that maybe a while.
Back on the main route, making our way along McKenzie Ridge heading to Chumstick Peak the views are spectacular. In 2004 forest fires took down 10,000 acres of trees. Over the years Mother Nature has replace the tall timber with a green carpet of salal and young saplings. Without dense forest growth, the route is wide open, showing off the expansive solitude that make this area so special.
Switchbacks with the occasional down pours define a big part of the route today. The cooler September temperatures signal the rut is on with a pair of large bucks sporting heavy antlers bounding down the hill as we approach. It wont be long before this section of Washington backcountry discovery route gravel, dirt and rock will be wearing a heavy blanket of white with travel limited to snow machines or cross country skis.
It began and now ends at the Milepost III Brewing Company. It is hard to fit everything you want into a weekend adventure but the northern legs of the Washington backcountry discovery route did not disappoint. Miles of dirt, solitude, amazing scenery, good friends, camp meals to die for and discovering the Hipsters of the Woods tribe. The Washington Backcountry Discovery Route does not disappoint.
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.
Early this morning the sun was shining. I was laying in my cot, thinking how she’s changed, remembering her chestnut hair and the sparkle in her eyes that had caught me from across the bar more than 20 years ago…
This was our second attempt to complete the first two legs of the Washington Backroads Discovery Route. You remember the first attempt ended prematurely when we were turned back by snow at the passes… No? Here (WABDR off-road adventure fail) we’re moving fast so catchup. This time the snow was gone, the weather was here and Hula Betty is beautiful.
Like before the other Paul and Chris met us just outside of Stevenson WA. Any camp ground that has RV anywhere is the name is not exactly the middle of nowhere… camps sits stacked on top of each other, conversations carrying from inside tents and kids racing up and down the trails to the toilets. But we were sitting by our fire telling tails of adventures past, planning our next morning and sleeping under the stars. Besides, where we were heading this weekend would keep us well off the beaten path.
Snow is not a problem in August. Dust is a problem in August. Paul in his D90 and Chris in his FJ40 were going open air with just a top to keep the 90 plus degree sun off their back. One of my favorite things about wheeling is driving with the windows all down feeling the cool breeze and warm sun on my skin. Air conditions doesn’t suck. With all the dust I fell in behind everyone, rolled up the windows, cranked the AC and blew the iPod throughout the cabin. What it lacks in getting back to nature it more than makes up for in comfort. And every time Chris wipe off a layer of dirt and grim from his brow… I remembered I was suffering in the back of the convoy so he and Paul wouldn’t be eating my dust… such a giver.
The back roads took us through the Gifford Pinchot National Forest with St. Hellen’s and Rainer peaking through the trees as we weaved our way north. Leg one ends at Packwood. You have to look hard on the map to find the dot that is the little town of Packwood. Population just over a 1,000, a gas station, a few art galleries, a cowboy coffee shack, more real-estate agencies than you can shake a stick at and a burger joint define this little town. Our tanks were low and the stop for fuel felt good. Off-road adventures only get better when your directed to a secret local landmark that serves handcrafted double bacon cheese burgers, spicy fries and thick shakes. There is something about sitting around a picnic table with a basket of burgers and fries that forces laughs and good conversations. The sun was still high in the sky as we revved up our engines and took to a long stretch of black top, heading to our next unending stretch of dirt.
I don’t dream when I sleep, driving on adventures is when I explore the recesses of my mind. There is no structure to my internal conversations, recalling unrequited love, considering the value of a business proposal, debating new rear gearing choices or pondering the usefulness of the Pythagorean theorem.
Leg two of the WABDR transitions from forest roads to 4×4 trail and two track. Making our way to Bear Lake for camp, the low sun reflected off the dust our rigs tossed in the air creating an aura of burnt orange around each rig. The hard pan, heavily rutted trail alternated between tight wooded twists and barren, vista exposed plateau edges.
Rolling into Bear Lake under the cover of darkness we found the solitude and rustic camp sites we were looking for. Flat ground was a little harder to find and forget spotting an outhouse… this was a dig your own hole camp. With the sun long gone, setting up camp was a headlamp affair. The heat of the day now gave way to a cool evening making the camp fire a welcome addition to our evening conversations. Around the fire, Chris could barely contain his smile as he recounted how well his FJ40 was working it maiden adventure. Chris has spent the last year rebuilding just about everything on his rig (we liked the Metal Tech tube doors) and despite the fourteen layers of dirt he was wearing, we all new he wouldn’t trade the experience of this trip for anything.
I could feel the cool morning dew on my face as I laid on my cot waiting for the sun warm up my bones enough to crawl out of the bag. My mind wondering back twenty some years, the calm morning air carried song birds’ whistles to me, in hi-def clarity, encouraging me to join them and begin the days activities.
As we all cook breakfast I was reminded of the difference between participating in life and committing to live life to the fullest. When it comes to a breakfast of bacon and eggs, the chickens participate in the process… Pigs on the other hand are fully committed.
When I think adventure, images of rigs meandering down a lone track through that magical space between isolation and solitude. As we made our way north, we found this thin line. The trail clearly showed less and less evidence of use until we eventually arrive at the point where mother nature reclaimed the road. The tracks were replaced by ribbons of grass, young saplings filled the spaces where rigs once rolled and the only signs that life had been where we stood, were piles of bear scat marking this as their territory now.
After considering our options we decided to respect the line of demarcation mother nature had thrown down and retraced our tracks 30 miles back to find a new route out. The west has always had a relationship between, public BLM lands and private livestock owners. Rounding a bend in the road, we shared in this relationship, finding our little convoy surrounded by hundreds of sheep moving from one grazing area to the next. We couldn’t help be smile as we slowed down to a snails crawl picking our way through the herd and considering the cowboy life that still can be found in the west.
Our convoy finally popped onto the highway a few mile from Whistlin’ Jack lodge just in time for dinner. Although the help was a little taken aback by our rag tag appearance, the hot meal and clean toilets made this another perfect stop before hitting highway 410 that would take us up over Mt Rainier back to home.
The WABDR promises mind-boggling variety of terrain and scenery and so far we’ve not been disappointed. Still in front of us are two more legs that promise to take us even further into Washington’s back roads. There are no shortages of adventures locally in the northwest to fill our calendar. Where we find our next adventure is anyone’s guess but I swear I saw Hula Betty peering longingly in the direction of leg three.
The Washington Backcountry Discovery Route (WABDR) is a collection of routes across Washington State from Oregon to Canada that winds through the rugged Cascade Mountain Range. The 600-mile route follows a connection of mostly unpaved forest roads that can be driven in high-clearance 4×4 vehicles. That’s the brochure. The truth gets even better…
Hula Betty and I aimed the blue bunny at Oregon’s Cascade Locks, spending the night in a little KOA camp a stone’s throw from the Bridge of the Gods. This adventure was planned as an easy shakedown run with Paul (the other Paul) and Chris, two friends I’ve been lucky enough to wheel with on several occasions.
Leg one of the WABDR mianders from Oregon’s Bridge of the Gods to Packwood, WA, the self proclaimed gateway to Mt. Rainier, Mount St. Helens, and the Gifford Pinchot National Forest. The route stitches together dozens of forest roads zigging and zagging, as it climbs the foot hills surrounding Mt. Adams, Mount St. Helens and Rainier. Our day started out perfect with robin egg blue skies, fleecy white clouds, soft warm rays of light and gentle breezes on our back as the three rigs explored the dusty back roads.
The northwest is fill with forest roads the state carved out to aid logging efforts, which usually means huge swaths of clear-cuts creating a patch work quilt of brown and green. However, Mother Nature is resilient and she has taken back the hills replacing the brown spaces with lush new groves of young green trees, framing up postcard perfect views of the mountains. And where there are mountains, there is snow.
This last winter brought record snow fall and 80 miles into this first leg we found the snow. At 4,500 feet the snow patches stretched across the roads, crusty on top, squish underneath and very very slick all the way through. Initially we crashed through the first couple of snow patches but as we climbed higher the snow began to get deeper and catch hold of our rigs, refusing to let us pass. Out came the shovels, we’d dig, rock the rigs back and forth and dig some more until the snow released its icy grip. After spending three hours to cover a half mile of trail we agreed something had to change. Hungary and frustrated we decided it was time to eat a hot meal and come up with a new plan of attack.
You never know where you’ll find a diamond in the rough. Trout Lake is just a foot note on the map, in the middle of huckleberry county with a remarkable cafe that servers everything huckleberry… huckleberry pie, huckleberry shakes, huckleberry flapjacks, huckleberry scones, huckleberry muffins… you name it and you can have it with huckleberries. Pushing the door open, we found the rustic little cafe full of locals and tourists. The walls were filled with old license plates, historic town pictures and gas station signs dating back to 50s. The smell of burgers, fries, and tonight’s roast beef special hung in the air, cut by laughter and conversation which seemed to infectiously jump from table to table as the waitress made her rounds.
Over burgers, onion rings, sweet potato fries, iced tea and huckleberry cheese cake we talked through the day’s adventure and schemed how we would manage to make Packwood without doubling back to Oregon. Full and re-energized with a plan, the only thing left for tonight was to find a place to lay down our bedrolls. Stepping out of the cafe we found the sun well below the mountains and with darkness giving way to starlight we headed to a campground just outside of town.
It’s hard to oversleep when you’re camping… The sun has a way of letting you know it’s morning shining directly into your eyes no matter how many layers of tent, sleeping bag and beany you try to put in the way. The screeching of crows piercing the air calls to you in your dreams more clearly than any alarm clock back home. It is only 6:00 a.m. and we’re burning daylight. Morning around camp is a time when anything is possible. Its a new day, a new opportunity to explore and a chance to try those huckleberry flapjacks. Packed up it was back in Trout Lake and the little cafe before heading into the hills.
Our plan was simple, try a few different forest roads that appeared to skirt the hills at elevations lower than 4,500 ft. hoping to avoid the snow. Twenty miles out of town and coming around the corner of a little forest road spur we found more snow… this road too was not going Packwood. At least not this time of year. No problem though, we would come back down a couple of miles rejoin the main forest road and see if the next spur showed any more promise.
On the way up we had passed a few bicyclists struggling against gravity, peddling their way up the steep incline. At the point where we rejoined the main forest road the bicyclists where now waving their hands wildly to grab our attention. One of their bikes had blown a tire. No spare, no other cars, no other people, we were their only hope for a ride to anywhere. Tossing their bikes on the roof and making room for two riders in our rigs we headed 20 miles, in the opposite direction of our goal, back to Trout Lake, scooping up a little Karma along the way.
Back in Trout Lake, again meant we had an excuse to try the huckleberry shakes… Like you really need an excuse for huckleberry milk shakes. By now the staff recognized us and gave a greeting reserved for old friends as we wallaced in for the third time in two days. Chatting with the owners it was clear, we would run into snow if we tried to use any of the forest road over the mountain passes. The only way out for us was back the way we came.
We had started this adventure planning to cover two hundred miles, finishing two legs of the WABDR and ending up in Ellensburge. Instead we were turned back, several times, only 80 miles in and now driving to where we started just outside the Cascade Locks. But this weekend was anything but a loss, we had met new friends, help fellow travelers out of a jam, camped under the stars, seen the beauty of the northwest, indulged in great food, and shared the company of good friends. We’ll be back. In fact we’ve already started planning our next attempt.
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