This should have been a routine camping trip: a quick jaunt up to Waldo Lake, taking advantage of some unseasonably beautiful weather to sneak in one last trip before the rainy season began. But the wilderness had other plans.
I left work early in the afternoon, hopped on my loaded-up Beast, and rode out to meet my friend 10guy and his Ural rig. We made quick time to the lake via some slab and Hwy 58. I’ve put 3500 miles on Beast this summer and the bike is running like a top.
Autumn riding at the 45th parallel means racing an ever-earlier sunset. We made it to the lake right around Golden Hour.
While the skies were a gorgeous blue that day, the lack of cloud cover meant the temperatures plunged as soon as the sun set. Overnight temperatures dipped close to freezing. I did not want to get out of my sleeping bag until after the sun appeared the next morning, and I needed my mug of coffee, a hot breakfast, and seat next to the campfire before I was warm enough to get riding.
We spent the day riding around the Cascade Lakes Scenic Byway. The temperature was 42°F (5°C) when we left camp and 76°F (24°C) when we reached Bend, which made me grateful for heated gear and wearing layers!
Back at camp, we watched another beautiful sunset over the lake.
That night, the temperatures plunged again, this time below freezing. The wind also started to gust high in the canopy of trees above us. I wasn’t too concerned about this, as I make sure to check for dead trees and branches above when selecting a site to pitch my tent.
The next morning, it was 31°F (-0.5°C) when I went down to the lake shore to enjoy a cup of coffee and some breakfast.
The wind didn’t die down. In fact, the gusts seemed to be growing stronger, but they remained high in the tree canopy. After breakfast, I wandered back up to camp and was sitting next to the fire when there was a loud crashing sound from a neighboring campsite: a tree had fallen over next to their camp.
10guy and I decided that was a good sign for us to start packing up. We weren’t in a particular hurry, as the wind gusts didn’t seem that bad, and surely a forest next to an alpine lake is used to a bit of wind, right?
We were wrong, because half an hour later, I heard a huge crack! and watched in amazement as the tree I was standing next to broke off at its base and fell over — right in the direction of my tent!
It’s amazing how fast perceptions can change. What had been a moderately interesting windstorm instantly became a dangerous situation. Of course, it was dangerous before this moment, but due to our ignorance we didn’t realize it.
When the duff had settled, I scrambled over to my tent and found it uncrushed, but skewered by a falling branch. My beloved Nemo Obi 1p had narrowly averted disaster. I immediately started pulling up stakes and guylines while my heart pounded its way down from being lodged in my throat. 10guy helped me pick up the tent and carry it back to the rest of my gear. We were now in a hurry. You’ll have to forgive the artist’s rendering below, as I wasn’t in a mood to take pictures of the immediate aftermath.
Not ten minutes later, a third tree broke and fell down in an adjacent campsite whose occupants had vacated only a few minutes before.
At this point, we stopped packing and started throwing gear onto our bikes as fast as we could. The plan was to get out from under tree cover and find an open area where we could repack our gear properly. Though it only took a few minutes to finish loading up, it felt like forever as the cluster of trees towering over our bikes swayed in the wind.
We finally left the campsite and found a large, empty parking lot at the boat ramp. The wind gusts continued to grow in strength and whitecaps could be seen out on the lake.
After re-packing our gear, our next concern was the possibility of downed trees on the road back to Hwy 58. Indeed, we encountered a tree partially blocking the road immediately after leaving the campground, and two more trees a few miles after that. Someone had moved the trees enough to open up a lane on the road, and we were grateful for that. It was interesting to see so many people heading up to the lake despite all the fallen trees. Like us, they probably didn’t realize just how dangerous the situation really was.
In hindsight, we probably should have moved to open ground during the night, when the wind gusts became constant. I’m no stranger to bad weather camping, but most of my windy camping has been done on the Oregon Coast, where the trees can withstand most wind short of a hurricane. In an inland pine forest, stressed by drought and an unusually warm summer, even 30mph gusts can start to bring the giants down. This was certainly a learning experience for me, and a good reminder that experience doesn’t always apply to different places.