Tag Archives: Okanogan Country

Over the mountains to sunshine

It’s no secret that this has been the wettest winter on record in western Washington (almost 45 inches of rain between October 1st and April 30th – our average, for well over a hundred years of record-keeping, is closer to 35 inches for the entire year), and one of the coldest. There’s no argument that it’s been incredibly depressing as well (and personal reasons have made it even more so for me).

So, when the weather forecasters for this past week noted (with great cheer) that it was supposed to get to and over 70dF on the west side of the mountains for the first time this year on Wednesday and Thursday, and even warmer, with lots of sunshine, on the east side, I thought, you know what? Screw it, I’m going camping.

Of course, when I thought about the east side of the mountains, my first idea was to go back to the Okanogan, which almost feels like home after the time I spent there researching my first two Tales of the Unearthly Northwest. I was also hoping it would nudge me back into writing the third Tale, which has sat there a few chapters in whining at me for longer than I want to think about it, due to those personal reasons I mentioned above. That didn’t really happen, but at least I got to spend some time in the sun, in nature, and to see lots of spring wildflowers.

The first place I went for flowers wasn’t on the way to the Okanogan, not in the region proper. At some point in the past I had picked up a flyer titled Wildflower Areas in the Columbia Basin, and one of them was about ten miles southeast of Wenatchee.

That turned out to be something of an adventure, as the photo of the Rock Island Grade Road will show. At my first sight of it, I thought, oh my gosh, I hope that little dirt road climbing up the side of a canyon isn’t the one they’re talking about, but yes, it was.

The Rock Island Grade “Road”, looking back towards the Columbia River from where I saw so many wildflowers.

It wasn’t the steepest, narrowest road I’ve ever driven, but I think it’s the steepest, narrowest dirt road I’ve ever driven. The recommended place to stop was about two and a half miles up, and the flyer hinted that there was a parking area. Ha. And what it turned out to be was a place for locals to go up and shoot cans, with all of the attendant garbage. That said, it was also literally carpeted with wildflowers. I managed to park Merlin as close to the edge of the road (not, at that point, hanging over the cliff) as I could, in case someone else came by (no one did, thank goodness), got out, and this is what I saw.

Spreading phlox spreading everywhere along the Rock Island Grade Road.
A phlox close-up.
And another. One of the things that makes phlox one of my favorite wildflowers (and garden flowers) is the infinite variation of a simple five-petaled flower in such a limited color palette.
The yellow flowers are wild radish. The purple ones are blue mustard. Both are tiny, but were profuse.
Yakima milkvetch, which was a new one to me.
And the first of more balsamroot I’ve ever seen in one trip before, which is saying a fair amount.

After I made my way cautiously back down to the highway, I headed back to Wenatchee, then north along Hwy. 97, which borders the Columbia River. It was getting fairly late in the afternoon by then, so I stopped at Lincoln Rock State Park, the first of three parks with campgrounds north of Wenatchee. I’d never camped there before. All of the sites are within sight of the river, and it was a peaceful, warm evening. I sat out in my lawn chair and just absorbed it all. Unfortunately, the batteries in my camera chose just then to give up the ghost, and apparently I’d forgotten to bring the spares, so I have no photos of that.

And that was my first day east of the mountains this year.  More tomorrow.

Coming home from the Canadian Rockies, Days 10 and 11

The last of the Rocky Mountains, along the Trans-Canada Highway.
The last of the Rocky Mountains, along the Trans-Canada Highway.

Two weeks ago, June 21 and 22, 2015.

So, yesterday was the Fourth, which means I didn’t spend a whole lot of time on the computer. Plus my monitor died Friday night. Fortunately, Best Buy was open on the holiday.

The penultimate day of my trip was the summer solstice. I also crossed back into the Pacific Time Zone, so it was quite a long day. I woke up at the crack of dawn again, into a gray-gloomy rainy day (which sounds so lovely right now — the temperature outside right now is over 90F, and has been for the last five days).

I’d had a reservation at a hostel in Kelowna, 215 miles down the road from Golden, but I’d decided to cancel it the previous night, because, well, now that I was on my way home, I wanted to see how far I could get. I always get sort of antsy the last day or two on the road on a trip like this — ready to get home.

I headed west again on the Trans-Canada Highway, through two more smaller national parks, Glacier National Park (yes, Canada has a national park called Glacier, too), and Mt. Revelstoke National Park, but there really wasn’t much reason to stop. The section through Glacier, over Rogers Pass, was the last section of the Trans-Canada Highway to be completed, in 1962. That road is younger than I am! There’s a historical site at what I’d call a rest area here in the States at the top of the pass, and I stopped to take a few pictures.

Approaching Rogers Pass, in Glacier National Park.
Approaching Rogers Pass, in Glacier National Park.
Trans-Canada Highway monument, Rogers Pass.
Trans-Canada Highway monument, Rogers Pass.
Looking east from the Rogers Pass Monument.
Looking east from the Rogers Pass Monument.

From there on it was down, down, down. I stopped in the town of Revelstoke, at a combo Tim Hortons and gas station, for liquid refreshment for both me and Kestrel, then turned south off of the Trans-Canada at the small town of Sicamous, onto Highway 97, which stays the same number in both Canada and the U.S.

Chicory flowers, near Sicamous, BC.
Chicory flowers, near Sicamous, BC.

I drove past a pretty lake, and saw some blue wildflowers that had to be inspected and photographed, then south to the big city of Kelowna, where I arrived just in time for lunch (and was really glad I’d cancelled my hostel reservation). By that point, I’d left the lush forests of the western side of the Rockies behind, not to mention the rain and the cool temperatures. It was almost 30C, according to a bank thermometer in Kelowna, which translates to the lower 80sF, and not a cloud in the sky. It only got hotter the further I went, too.

The map had been somewhat misleading. I’d assumed that the double line that was Hwy. 97 through Kelowna meant that I’d be on a freeway, but no, just a four-lane boulevard with stoplights every hundred yards or so. It took me a while to fight my way through the traffic and reach the bridge across long, narrow Lake Okanagan. Then, after I was out of town, it turned into a freeway. Oh, well.

A glimpse of Lake Okanagan, south of Kelowna, BC.
A glimpse of Lake Okanagan, south of Kelowna, BC.

Lake Okanagan is lovely, and the road clings to the cliff as it threads its way down past vineyards and through small towns and the good-sized city of Penticton. After Penticton, orchards were the order of the day, and I could have stopped and bought cherries any number of times. Alas, I was down to my last couple of Canadian dollars and didn’t want to get more at this stage, plus, I wasn’t sure if U.S. customs would let me through with them. So I didn’t.

Lake Osoyoos, BC.
Lake Osoyoos, BC.

I reached the U.S. customs station, just north of the little town of Oroville, Washington, along the shores of Lake Osoyoos (oh-SOY-oos — I asked the customs agent), about the middle of the afternoon. A very nice Hispanic lady checked my passport, asked me to take my sunglasses off for a moment so she could get a better look at my face, and to pop my trunk. If I’d known she was going to want to look in there, I’d have put all my dirty clothes back in my suitcase, but the only comment she made was how she, too, liked the brand of chips I had in my food bag. Oh, well, worse things have happened.

And then I was back in the land of miles and Fahrenheit (a rather high degree of Fahrenheit at that, almost 90 degrees, alas). I drove past Tonasket, which was the knot of the lasso of this trip, on to Omak, another hour or so, and got there around four. Found the motel I stayed at on my research jaunts for Sojourn, and crashed and burned. I’d been on the road since about 6 am Pacific time, and I slept like I was really working at it.

And the next day I got up and drove the five hours home, over familiar roads, down 97 past Wenatchee to Blewett Pass, to I-90 and home. I think I made three stops, one for gas and real MickeyD’s iced tea in Brewster, one just north of Wenatchee for cherries, and one just before I got back on I-90 to gather one last picnic from my cooler and food bag for lunch that I ate as I drove over Snoqualmie Pass. I got home about 2 in the afternoon. The condo hadn’t burned down and the cats were fine (although extremely eager to go outside, and beyond annoyed with me).

And that was my trip to the Canadian Rockies. Decidedly one of the best trips I’ve made in recent memory.

Off to the Canadian Rockies, Day 1

Wild rose at the logging historical exhibit.
Wild rose at the logging historical exhibit west of Sherman Pass.

Twelve days ago, Friday, June 12, 2015

I think it was about three months ago when it was pointed out to me that I’m no farther from the Canadian Rockies than I am from

Yellowstone (about a hundred miles closer, in fact) and I thought, you know, I’ve been to Yellowstone how many times in the 22 years since I moved to western Washington — why have the only trips I’ve made to Canada in that time been a couple of weekends via ferry to Victoria?

So I renewed my passport and started making plans for the trip as soon as the exhibit was finished. That this happened to coincide with the dates the U.S. Open golf tournament was held less than
fifteen miles from my house was just a bonus (I am told the traffic that week was pretty overwhelming).

Anyway. As is normal on any first day of a vacation like this, I spent most of it on the road. Northeast on SR 18, where I began my day with a hawk stooping at prey right beside the road as I drove by, then east on I-90, of course, to the town of Cle Elum, just over Snoqualmie Pass, where I picked up a back road for a few miles to U.S. 97, which stretches north to the Canadian border, and,
incidentally, allowed me to bypass driving up I-5 through the entire
Puget Sound conurbation, plus avoid one of the busiest border crossings between here and Detroit.

I did not, however, go straight up U.S. 97 to the border. I turned east at the little town of Tonasket, in the heart of the Okanogan country, to explore the northeastern part of Washington before I headed on. I’d always been curious about this area, but it was just a bit farther than I’d want to go for an overnight.

I don’t know if anyone familiar with eastern Washington who’s reading this is as surprised as I was to discover how mountainous the northeast corner of the state actually is. I mean, south of here it’s pretty much flat and seriously monotonous all the way from
Ellensburg to Spokane. But SR 20 climbs quickly up from the
Okanogan River valley and enters national forest land. I passed through the “town” (if there were half a dozen buildings, I’d be shocked) of Wauconda, crossed a 4500 foot pass, dropped down to the San Poil River valley at the town of Republic (which could be the twin of Libby, Montana, where I lived briefly a long time ago), then climbed steeply to Sherman Pass, elevation 5500 feet.

The Sherman Pass viewpoint looks out over one of those curvature-of-the-earth views, over mountains that had obviously been burned in the not-too-distant past. An exhibit board said that the fire had taken place in 1988, the same year as the Yellowstone fires, and the landscape looked similar to the park.

View of burned mountains from the top of Sherman Pass.
View of burned mountains from the top of Sherman Pass.

East of Sherman Pass were a couple of historic landmarks. The first one was the site of a CCC camp in the 1930s, with some fun
sculpture:

Metal boot sculpture at the CCC historical marker.
Metal boot sculpture at the CCC historical marker.
Metal sculpture of a CCC worker at the CCC historical marker.
Metal sculpture of a CCC worker at the CCC historical marker.

The second one was apparently about logging, but with no sign, it was kind of hard to tell. On the other hand, this is where I saw the first of many, many wild roses in bloom on this trip (photo at top).

I crossed the Columbia River, actually Lake Roosevelt above the Grand Coulee Dam, at the town of Kettle Falls, the namesake of which is now buried under the reservoir.

The Columbia River, from a viewpoint just west of Kettle Falls.
The Columbia River, from a viewpoint just west of Kettle Falls.

But it had an interesting little historical museum where I took a break from the road.

The Kettle Falls Historical Society Museum.
The Kettle Falls Historical Society Museum.

And then I drove the last few miles to the county seat of Colville (pronounced CALL-ville, not COAL-ville), where I spent my first night on the road!

A trip to the Okanogan country, day 2

Harry the pig, who resides in the hamlet of Molson, Washington.
Harry the pig, who resides in the hamlet of Molson, Washington.

The knee could have been worse, I suppose. I won’t be doing any hiking today, at any rate.

But I head north to one of my favorite places in the Okanogan Highlands, the little half ghost town, half hamlet of Molson, which has the name of a Canadian beer because when the town was first founded, its settlers thought they were north of the 49th parallel (as it turns out, they were a couple of miles south of it, but oh, well).

It’s kind of a drive up there, another hour or so along the Okanogan River, past the little village of Riverside and through the slightly larger town of Tonasket, up to Oroville, along the southern shore of long, narrow Lake Osoyoos, which is cut in half by the U.S./Canadian border. There’s a huge grocery store just south of the customs building, with a parking lot always full of cars with British Columbia license plates. I guess groceries are cheaper in the U.S.?

At Oroville I turn east on a little two-lane called Chesaw Road (you know you’ve made the correct turn when you see the sign saying this way to the Sitzmark Ski Area, a little rope tow out in the middle of nowhere about forty miles out of Oroville), and head up through a narrow canyon, gaining quite a bit of altitude in the process before I come out on top of an undulating plateau. These are the true Okanogan Highlands, and are mostly ranchland where they’re not part of the national forest. About twelve miles east of Oroville is the lefthand turn on Molson Rd.

This is beautiful countryside, in so many ways. If you love rolling hills, larches and pines, golden brown grass, and wide open spaces, or you have a thing for wondering who lived in the occasional old, abandoned building out in the middle of the meadow, or even if — in spite of being absolutely in love with the thick Douglas fir forests on the west side of the mountains — you’re simply enthralled with the enormity of the bright blue sky, then the Okanogan Highlands are a balm.

One of the abandoned buildings you find scattered about the Okanogan.  This one is on the road to Molson.
One of the abandoned buildings scattered about the Okanogan. This one is on the road to Molson.

And the little town of Molson is well worth the drive. In the first place, it’s the home of the Molson School Museum I mentioned a couple of posts ago.

In the second, the citizens of Molson have preserved about an acre’s worth of historic buildings, which are open all the time so you can go in and explore.

The ghost town of Old Molson.
Part of the ghost town of Old Molson.
Inside one of the ghost town buildings of Old Molson.
Inside one of the ghost town buildings of Old Molson.

And in the third place, they have Harry the pig.

I love Harry.  I wanted his backstory so badly I invented one for him.  And then wrote a novel around it.
I love Harry. I wanted his backstory so badly I invented one for him. And then wrote a novel around it.

Now, I don’t know if the plaster pig in the abandoned store window in ‘downtown’ Molson actually has a name — I never asked. But in my novel Sojourn he’s Harry, and he’s very important to my fictional Conconully. As a matter of fact, the town might not even exist without him. So I love him. He’s just such a whimsy for a place like that.

After a couple of hours exploring and a pleasant picnic lunch, and a gravel lane that eventually leads me back to Tonasket, I reluctantly head south again. I need to be home by tonight, and it’s a good five-hour drive if I take the bit of a detour into the Methow Valley that I have planned.

My goat trail for the trip.  Actually, it was a very nice, well-maintained gravel road.
My goat trail for the trip. Actually, it was a very nice, well-maintained gravel road.

At the town of Okanogan I turn west, and less than half an hour later I realize that I ought to have checked the road conditions first. Unfortunately, as I mentioned in my last post, this past summer Washington state experienced its largest wildfire ever, which covered over 250,000 acres in the north central part of the state. The Carlton Complex fire caused damage that the area will still be recovering from years from now, and part of that damage was to U.S. Highway 20 between Okanogan and the Methow (pronounced Met-how, pronouncing the T and the H separately) Valley. The traffic was down to an alternating one lane for over a mile, and I lost a good half an hour by the time I reached the valley.

That was just my first check. The second was that State highway 153, which runs south down the valley towards Wenatchee, was also closed due to fire damage. Fortunately, a backroad runs parallel to it and a detour was set up. But I lost another hour by the time I got to Wenatchee.

Still, it was worth it, although I don’t think I’d have made the detour had I known. U.S. 20 climbs up over a magnificent pass and descends into the scenic Methow Valley, and the backroad down the valley was spectacular, crossing and recrossing the Methow River in the shadow of glorious mountains. And I found a non-crowded fruit stand just north of Wenatchee and loaded up on apples and pears.

I didn’t get home till well after dark that Sunday evening. I was tired and my knee was sore. But it was all so worth it. I highly recommend a weekend in the Okanogan country.

The Okanogan Country — Sojourn’s setting

A wide-open Okanogan Country road.  On the way to Conconully, IIRC.
A wide-open Okanogan Country road. On the way to Conconully, where Sojourn is set, if I remember correctly.

The first time I visited the Okanogan Country, in north central Washington state, was in the fall of 2010. I was basically just looking for somewhere new to go on a weekend, because after living here near Seattle for almost two decades, and being an avid day and weekend tripper, I’d pretty much hit everywhere within reach on the west side of the mountains. More than once. So I headed east, on a whim.

Little did I know that I would fall in love with the place. I’ve been back twice since, and my novel Sojourn, and my upcoming novel, Reunion, are set there.

The Okanogan Country or just the Okanogan, as locals call it, is a big wild place. If you were to look for it on a map, you’d find it just east of the Cascade crest, stretching east to about two-thirds of the way to Idaho, and south almost to U.S. Highway 2, which runs east to west across the state about a third of the way down from Canada.

A map of Okanogan County.

Part of it is mountainous, and part of it is what’s called the Okanogan Highlands, a rolling countryside laced with small canyons and topped with forest-covered hills, the rest smoothed over with thick, lush meadows, green in the spring, brown in the fall. The Okanogan River is lined with orchards — Washington’s famous apples, along with pears, cherries, peaches, and other fruit.

Orchards along the Columbia River from the viewpoint at old Fort Okanogan.
Orchards along the Columbia River near its confluence with the Okanogan River, from the viewpoint at old Fort Okanogan.

Okanogan County is one of the largest counties in the state (over 5200 square miles), and the least densely populated. But it wasn’t always so lonesome. Back in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, this was gold country, full of prospectors trying to find the mother lode, or on their way to Canada’s Cariboo gold rush. Homesteaders came to try their luck, too. The Okanogan is dotted with holes in the ground and with tumbledown buildings, some of them clustered together as if for mutual support, in odd crannies and sheltered places.

Abandoned homestead along the way to Molson.
Abandoned homestead along the way to Molson.
An alive and well ranch along the same road.
An alive and well ranch along the same road.

Some of these ghost towns are truly abandoned, some only partly vacant (one little town called Molson is about half and half), and some of those old mining hamlets are still going concerns.

The ghost town part of Molson, just a mile or two south of the Canadian border, hence the name.
The ghost town part of Molson, just a mile or two south of the Canadian border, hence the name.
The post office of the modern day hamlet of Conconully.  I don't know why I didn't take a photo of the museum next door, too, but I didn't.
The post office of the modern day hamlet of Conconully. I don’t know why I didn’t take a photo of the museum next door, too, but I didn’t.

They’re all interesting, too. Historical museums in the county seat of Okanogan, in Molson, and in the little town of Conconully where Daniel Reilly lands, not by his own choice, in Sojourn, are all worth visiting. The county historical society has done a fantastic job with historical markers by the side of the road, too. And the site of old Fort Okanogan, at the confluence of the Okanogan and Columbia Rivers, has its own museum telling the Native American side of the story.

The old Molson schoolhouse, now a museum, of the fun "town's attic" variety.
The old Molson schoolhouse, now a museum, of the fun “town’s attic” variety.
A display of old cameras in the Molson School Museum.
A display of old cameras in the Molson School Museum.

But this was supposed to be a couple of blog posts about my last trip to the Okanogan, this past September. So, now that you have an introduction to this fascinating, little-known chunk of Washington state, I’ll post about that trip starting tomorrow. I hope you’ll join me then!

An update on Tales of the Unearthly Northwest

Sojourn E cover 300

My new series, Tales of the Unearthly Northwest, now has its very own page on my website, with a link to the first book, Sojourn, and its first chapter.

I’ve also set up a pathfinder for Sojourn‘s setting and history, the wild Okanogan Country of north-central Washington state, and a page in my photos section so you can really see what Harry the pig’s prototype looks like, and some true orange larch trees, as well as the Okanogan Country’s beautiful lonesomeness.

I hope you take a gander.  Let me know what you think!

Sojourn two steps closer to publication

Houston, we have a cover:

Sojourn E cover 300

And back cover copy:

Washington state trooper Daniel Reilly never thought he’d wind up in his stepmother’s favorite movie. Chasing a suspected drunk
driver through the desolate Okanogan Highlands is part of his job, but crashing his cruiser and waking up in a ghost town sure isn’t. And when that ghost town starts to come to life?

The local version of Brigadoon isn’t a lighthearted musical.

You can read the first chapter by clicking on the cover.  Take a look at pictures of the real Okanogan Highlands here.  And take a look at Sojourn‘s research pathfinder here.

Tell me what you think!  I’d love to hear it.

Sojourn will be available for pre-order by the middle of September, and for purchase in October, 2014.