Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Santiam Pass

The snowfall that started yesterday continued into this morning. While this would have delighted skiers ("fresh powder!"), it had me concerned because today was the day that I was to drive across the Cascade Range from Sisters, Oregon to Portland.

The Portland office said not to try it - they advised me to wait the storm out and come over some other day. The people I had met with in Sisters would have preferred that I had chains on my tires, but felt that the big Dodge Durango SUV I had rented was otherwise up to the crossing. The girl at the desk when I checked out of the lodge just said to "take it slow." My waitress at breakfast: "Good luck."

I headed out of Sisters on Route 20. The road had been plowed, but the snowfall had already covered the trail and I drove over hard-packed snow. Just as I got out of town, a sign advised, "Severe Weather Hazard: Chains Required. Traction tires allowed in place of chains on vehicles under 10,000 GVW." I guessed that my Durango was under 10,000 GVWs, and I hoped that the rental agency had equipped me with traction tires. In any event, the car seemed to hold the road well, so I pressed on.

After a few miles, I passed Black Butte Ranch, a private resort community. According to Wikipedia, Black Butte Ranch was developed starting in 1970 by a lumber company on the site of the former Black Butte cattle ranch. The ranch has its own post office and is one of the largest employers in Sisters. According to a picture on Google Earth, in the summertime the ranch looks like this:

Today, all I saw was this:

Eventually, the road started climbing toward Santiam Pass. As I climbed, the snowfall increased to near white-out conditions and the snowpack on the road grew thicker. I tried to follow in the tracks of the car in front of me. Also, as I got higher in elevation, the height of the snowbanks on the side of the road grew.

Wind gusts would knock the snow off of the boughs of the trees, creating little blizzards and avalanches of their own. Occasionally, the trees gave way to what I guess would have been vistas of the surrounding mountains, but all was lost to the snow. Again, Google Earth shows nearby Mount Jefferson as looking like this:

But all I saw was this:

Eventually, the road summitted Santiam Pass (elevation - 4817'), but the descent proved even more treacherous than the ascent since I now had to contend with gravity, which wanted to pull me down faster than prudence and good sense told me that I should go. But I drove carefully and stayed on the road.

The road eventually forked, and I followed Route 22 past Detroit Lake toward Salem. As I dropped down, 4,000 feet, 3,000 feet, 2,000 feet and so on, the temperatures rose, approaching freezing, and the snowpack got slushier. Near Detroit Lake, I fishtailed a little of the loose granular, giving me a nice little adrenaline rush, but both car and driver remained under control.

I imagine that in the summer the lake levels are a lot higher, but this is what the lake looks like in winter:

And here's the dam (note the high-water mark way up above the winter water level):

A few miles past Detroit Lake the elevation dropped below 1,000 feet and the temperatures rose up above freezing. Soon, the snow itself disappeared, and it was smooth driving all the way on to Portland.

Altogether, the trip took about 4 hours. I got to Portland in time to go to lunch with the office staff there, do a few hours of work, and then watch the sunset from Portland City Grill up on the 30th floor of the U.S. Bankcorp Building. Dinner was at a Cuban restaurant in the Laurelhurst neighborhood with the office manager.

I only have one day in Portland, which means that I get to drive up and over the Cascades again tomorrow. My flight home out of Redmond leave at 1 p.m. - I will have to start early.

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