Saturday, December 27, 2008

Deadly beauty

White-out conditions somewhere between Oakridge and Gilcrest
For nearly half my life, twenty years, I lived in the Klamath Basin, on the eastern slopes of the Cascade Range. Klamath country is some beautiful high desert country, let me tell you, with hot, dry summers, and icy cold winters, and very short transitions between the two.

The main route that connects Klamath Falls with the Willamette Valley and Oregon's main population centers is a run up US Highway 97 to its junction with Oregon Highway 58. Fifty-eight runs from Chemult, up through the Willamette Pass by way of Oakridge, to Eugene. I have traveled that route perhaps a hundred times, in just about every weather condition you can imagine. I have stories of close calls and witnessed accidents at nearly every point on the route.

Treacherous roads

My family had planned a Christmas get-together at Sunriver this year and so Maty and I and my brother Eric braved the blizzard-like conditions on the Willamette Pass on Christmas Eve. The road conditions were as bad as I can remember seeing them. Snow fell steadily on the already snow-packed roadway and there were a few vehicles in the ditch at various points. On the drive from Gilcrest north to Sunriver, there were near white-out conditions and the sun sank fast as any boat anchor. It all made for a stressful drive, but we made it without any hiccups.

The next day, I awoke to a sight of stunning beauty: winter in the Cascade Mountains. It was as if I had found myself in a Russian fairy tale. Maty commented that the scene reminded her of the winter sets of the movie "The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe." The air was crisp and cold (the temperature stayed in the low 20's (Fahrenheit)), and my breath came out in thin, white wisps. An occasional gust would blow through the trees and send a fine white shower of snow cascading down.

Snow-clad ponderosas
It was an enchanting sight. But as I hiked around in the snow, my thoughts kept returning to the harsh, unforgiving environment and how easy it would be to die out there in that country.

If one were to get lost out in the woods, or fall into the river, or turn one's ankle out away from other people, the situation could become critical very quickly.

Deschutes River
On a similarly frozen winter day, in Redmond, Oregon, back in 1976, I stood helplessly on the shore of a frozen pond and watched two young boys, brothers, break through the icy surface. They had been playing football on the ice. One brother broke through and the other ran to help him, only to break through himself. Myself, and my friend Jeff Lucas, and a passing motorist all could only watch as the two disappeared under the ice, never to return to the warmth of the living world.

Odell Lake
And there was the sad story of the Chemult boy a few years back, who took his horse out riding on a cold winter day. The horse came back that night, alone. The State of Oregon and hundreds of volunteers mounted an extensive search for the lad. But they never found him.

A memorial for the Lost Wagon Train
And as far back as 1852, the snows of the Cascades have proven deadly. In that year, a group of settlers branched off of the main Oregon Trail to take a short cut through the Willamette Pass, hoping to get ahead of the late fall snow. The wagon train ran into many problems and in mid-October, the people were starving and stranded in the mountains near Oakridge. But, thankfully, one of the young men of the party forged ahead and found other settlers who mounted a rescue effort and saved the group, which later became known as the Lost Wagon Train.

It is impossible to travel through the Cascade mountains and be unmoved by the beauty all around. Nature is beautiful, but also terrible; it is an unforgiving beauty, a beauty that demands respect. Especially in the Cascade mountains in winter.

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