Trail mix: a few observations on a Labor Day weekend beset by wildfire

An ongoing event such as the Eagle Creek/Indian Creek fire will produce many stories. After two days covering the event in Cascade Locks and environs, here are a few observations, with no pretense of having personally experienced hardship or difficulty.

I have never been forced to spend a night in the woods (other than one or two backpack trips my Dad made me go on when I was 12), something I thought of as we waited several hours Sunday afternoon for the 140 hikers to be reunited with family at the Eagle Creek just west of Cascade Locks.

Family and friends waited with sandwiches, fresh fruit, water and juice, even pancakes. Their children, brothers and sisters and friends had largely gone without much food or water for the past 24 hours. It is a tribute to the hikers and those who helped them that everyone came out healthy (though one woman was treated for dehydration).

I, too, was unprepared for being stranded: I found myself cooling my heels at the hatchery parking lot with the waiting family members a bunch of other media. (I had squeezed into a KGW-8 van for the carpool from Bridge of the Gods.) Our quarry was the three buses bearing hikers from their rescue point at Wahtum Lake an hour-and-a-half away.

There was a water fountain at the parking lot so hydration was not an issue, but I had totally forgotten (do we ever partially forget?) to bring a sandwich. Bag of trail mix. Granola bar. Package of nuts. Anything.

I had nothing to complain about. I was not in the same situation as the 140 or so people who were stuck out all night with little or no sustenance Saturday night at Tunnel Falls. Those who did have snacks and water shared what they had, in what was a true case of cooperation under difficult circumstances.

Forest Service and Fire Marshal officials answered plenty of questions Sunday and Monday at their information post at Bridge of the Gods in Cascade Locks as they wove in and around the central realities: at that point the freeway was open, as was the Bridge of the Gods, and Cascade Locks had largely shut down under evacuation orders, and the Historic Highway and all trails were closed due to fire. Questions included: how bad is the fire, how close is it to Cascade Locks, is Bridge of Gods open, where can I get a meal or gas and, my favorite, “How I am supposed to go hiking anywhere?”

The well-phrased answer to that was, “Go across the bridge and find a hike on the Washington side, away from the fire.”

Which brings up the “Ready, Set, Gorge” campaign by Gorge Tourism Alliance, started this summer, a brochure and online outreach encouraging people to spread out to trails and attractions in Skamania, Klickitat, Wasco, and Hood River counties, in the interest of opening new vistas and relieving congestion at the more heavily-frequented places.

Currently, people have no choice but to find other places to recreate.

Wahclella will have to wait.

Oneonta is Off.

I wonder, what will be the long-range situation with Eagle Creek trail, one of Oregon’s most-used trails, now ravaged by fire?

When the freeway was closed Monday night, I went out to get photos at exit 62, where on-ramp gates were chained closed, the freeway nearly devoid of traffic. (I’ve always loved the fact that in Hood River and Troutdale, ODOT installs gates to the freeway.)

You will never find a better-spirited ODOT worker than Joe Whitesell of The Dalles, whose job it was to stand just east of the 62 off-ramp and direct traffic (with the help of his truck and readerboard on its bed) off the freeway and onto 62. “I may be here all night, I don’t know. But this isn’t bad duty,” Whitesell said.

Before I talked to Joe, I encountered six or so drivers atop the 62 ramp who needed directions, coming either from I-84 or from Cascade Avenue and unaware of the freeway closure. Take the freeway east to exit 63 or 64, and the bridge over to White Salmon, then west on Washington Highway 14, I told them.

People asked, “Is there another way to Portland?” I told them about Highway 35 south to Highway 26, which by Tuesday morning would be congested.

Noteable, to me, was that in the age of GPS and “AI” equipped machines telling us where to go, at least one of those drivers did not know what I meant when I mentioned highways 26 and 14. The fire, and all its effects, is a truly disorienting phenomenon.

The rescuers of the Eagle Creek hikers deserve all the praise we can give them, and some of the hikers. Others, dressed in flip flops and light shirts, are examples of what not to do. Compare that to Washington, D.C., visitor Emily Yan, a Chinese citizen, on her first day in Oregon, who came for a day hike with sturdy shoes, and a pack equipped with snacks, water, water filters, and a headlamp. Those last pieces of hardware were richly appreciated on the precipitous trail that night.

She had come a long way to see the Gorge and was ready and set.

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