After Yan Seiner's Pacific Northwest Get-together we headed out for our next announced destination: Vancouver Island, as decreed by the campsite selection committee. I dutifully punched Victoria BC into the GPS, and started driving the designated route. Leaving Silver Lake headed north, we passed Fort Rock, grabbed a burger in La Pine, hit the state park there for water and a dump, and ambled on up U.S. 97 through Bend, Oregon, cutting east toward Portland on SR 26 at Madras.
Here we saw devastation – a 60,000 acre fire had just burned much of the grassland on the Warm Springs reservation. Unfortunately, this fire was started by an RV driving on its rim after a flat tire – any kind of spark in the current drought creates runaway chaos. What livestock was left poked among the few remaining patches of grass for forage. A semi full of hay from another tribe had rolled in and was being unloaded – when your land management strategy spans millennia, you'll figure out a way get through things like this. As we climbed up through 2500 feet, the ponderosas reappeared, and soon we were back in the forest south of Mount Hood.
I suggested, and the campsite selection committee deliberated and concurred, that we turn right on SR 35 instead of continuing on toward Portland to check out our old boondocking site in the Mount Hood National Forest, which we call Lupine Meadows. We spent two wonderful weeks there in August of 2011, and returned the following September for another week. And we were ready to sit out in the forest for a few days to decompress after two months of the bustle of the Oregon and California coast.
Three or four miles east of the 26-35 junction, there was our turnoff – Elk Meadows trailhead. Across the creek and up the hill… jackpot. Nobody was in it. It's a logging spur, a gravel road a couple of hundred feet long used by lumber companies to load trucks with timber they had cut. The clearing is big enough for us to get solar and hit the satellites, but completely surrounded by virgin forest. We pulled in, set up the dishes, took Fiona out to reacquaint herself with the surroundings, and bundled in for the night, waking up the next morning with absolutely nothing we had to do once we made coffee. For the first time in months, we could look in all directions and see no fellow human beings at all.
The nice thing about dispersed camping is no neighbors. You can wander around outside in your pajamas, or even less if you're washing up, and nobody will care. You don't have to worry about quiet hours, assigned parking spaces, and all the other things campgrounds need to maintain order among the tightly packed multitudes. Sure, there's no water, electricity or dump, but we did fine here for five days at a time in our 2003 Chevy, and now could go twice that long in our new unit. The trouble, though, is that this was an inpromptu stop-in. We hadn't grocery shopped since before Yan's get-together. No fresh pastry, but we had plenty of other stuff, and made do.
We would see one or two cars a day go by, but otherwise had the place to ourselves. Mount Hood National Forest had largely been spared the fires in southern Oregon, northern California, and Washington state. We had one day of haze, but it was otherwise asymptomatic. The signs we passed on the way in indicated extreme fire danger – total burn ban, which we obviously complied with.
Another thing about dispersed camping in such an isolated spot – it's just you and the wildlife. Due to the drought, most of this wildlife consisted of yellow jackets – there were so many that there was a constant low hum coming from all directions. They didn't bother us, though, except for a few wandering into the rig occasionally. The usual ground squirrels were sparse, and no gray jays at all this time. The drought was taking its toll – it's a bad year to be living off the land in the Pacific northwest.
There was deer and elk sign on the bare patches of ground around our spot, but we only saw a couple, in contrast to the earlier visits when we saw at least two or three a day, without even looking for them – they would just wander through. The bad thing about deer in the forest, though, is that they're invisible to you until you walk close enough to them for them to get nervous, and then they crash through the underbrush, leaving in a hurry and scaring the heck out of you until you get a visual and confirm it's a deer, not something less welcome. There are mountain lion and bear out here too. We kept a very clean camp and did our best not to provoke any unwanted attention from such visitors.
After four days, the winds picked up, which increased our anxiety about the fire situation, so we packed it up and hit the road again. We checked in at the ranger's station on our way out – the ranger there said she was pretty nervous too, but so far so good. They had had a few small fires, but stopped them in time with local resources, which is all they have because the firefighting teams have their hands full elsewhere. Their luck was holding. We'll be back when times are better and the lupines bloom again.