Join Date: Apr 2018
Waldo Lake 2020 Trip Report
We left Monday September 7th for our annual Waldo Lake (Oregon) trip. This camping trip has been a family tradition for many years. One difference this year was leaving on Labor Day instead of returning that day, a benefit of being newly retired. Waldo Lake, the second largest natural non-alkali lake in Oregon, is a beautiful, pristine lake in the Willamette National Forest renowned for its purity. With extremely clear water and very little organic material, on a clear day one can see depths of up to 120 feet. We were looking forward to camping, and for me, mountain biking and kayaking. We just acquired an inflatable SUP and my daughters and I were looking forward to trying that out.
We got an early start and arrived at Waldo about 11:30 a.m. We quickly found a campsite, and though the campground was fuller than expected, we were happy to find a nice spot. We got set up and had lunch and a bit later I got geared up and rode my bike up to Charlton Lake. This is a short ride, but usually serves as my warm-up to Waldo and its 5,420 foot elevation. Later that afternoon the camp host came by and said we were under a red-flag warning for fire danger. He explained that while campfires were still allowed, they were to be kept small and that we should keep a bucket of water handy and drown the fire before leaving or going to bed. We noted the increase in wind and smokiness. Before we left home in Portland we had received a National Weather Service alert for high winds. This would prove to have a huge consequences for our trip.
We had dinner, built a camp fire and had a pleasant evening. By bed time, the winds had increased substantially and I poured a bucket of water over the fire. As we prepared for bed in the van, we talked about taking the pop-top of the van down due to the high winds. The pop-top tent was flapping ominously and we were concerned, but in the end we left it up. The upper berth provided by the pop-top is where my kids sleep, while I sleep in the lower bed. After lights out, I had trouble sleeping. The wind blew relentlessly and I was restless. I could tell by the movement above me that the girls were restless as well. Nevertheless, I dozed off. At around 1:30 a.m., I awoke to a rapping on the side of the van. I quickly awoke and asked, “What’s going on”? What followed was a quick conversation between the camp host and myself. “We have numerous trees coming down all over the campground”, he said. “You need to evacuate immediately”!
As we grasped the magnitude of the situation, we quickly dressed and prepared to evacuate. Normally, when we leave camp, it is a slow process of repacking all our gear and converting the van from camping mode to driving mode. We had lots of gear outside, including our camp stove, solar panel, kayak, mountain bike, inflatable SUP, chainsaw, chairs, water jug, etc. With the windstorm upon us, getting out quickly and safely was our primary concern. We quickly dressed and began to stow our inside stuff and put the top down. Even without putting outside stuff away, this takes time. McKenzie and Trinity made quick work of it. I loaded my bike, grabbed the not yet inflated SUP, and put the solar panel in its case and under the picnic table. Most of our stuff was on or under the table and we quickly threw anything else under the table and added some large rocks to the tarp we already had over most of our gear. And then we left!
Leaving camp we got a look at some of the devastation. Trees were down all over and branches, and other forest debris were everywhere. We left camp and drove out the Waldo Lake Road, FS 5897, towards Highway 58, 8 miles away. As we drove, we pondered where to go. I was at once bleary-eyed from being woken up and jittery from the adrenaline in my system. It was hard to think where to safely go and what to do next. We did stop briefly at a large flat area down the road and closer to Shadow Bay campground where others were sheltering, but after a few minutes, we decided we were still too close to many large trees. Ultimately we decided to head to the nearby town of Crescent Lake Junction and look for a spot to spend the night. We ended up in the parking lot of the Willamette Pass Inn. At that point we considered getting a room, but the thought of waking the proprietor and checking in seemed like more than we wanted to deal with. We slept in the parking lot, top down, with Trinity sharing my bed and McKenzie squeezed onto the floor of the van. Despite the chaos, we were able to get some sleep and happy to be out of the worst of the wind and away from tall, swaying trees!
Things looked better in the morning. There was less wind and the sun was shining. I walked across Hwy 58 and got coffee while the girls got dressed and made up the bed. Next, we drove over to the nearby Mountain House Kitchen for breakfast. While at breakfast we heard some other evacuees say that the Forest Service would not allow anyone in to Waldo before Thursday. We spent the next several hours trying to verify and expand on this information. We tried calling the Middle Fork Ranger District of the USFS in Oakridge. For the rest of the week, their phone message said continued to say only that they had lost power and the office was closed. No help there. We tried driving over to another Ranger Station in Crescent. They didn’t have any knowledge of what was happening in the Willamette National Forest whatsoever, since this station was in the Deschutes National Forest. We drove to La Pine and went to Bi-Mart and purchased a single burner propane stove. We had discovered that we had a leak in our van’s propane line while at Waldo and had left our grill stove behind in the evacuation. At least now we could cook again! We tried stopping at the La Pine Rural Fire Protection District Station and the only thing we learned was that all recreation sites in the Willamette National Forest were closed due to hazardous fire conditions. At this point, all our efforts to gather information, in person, online and by phone had been thwarted. We were tired and just wanted to land somewhere safe, so we drove over to La Pine State Park.
The campground at La Pine State Park turned out to be a pleasant place to stay. We grabbed one of the last available spots and settled in. Since all our external gear was still at Waldo, setting up consisted of opening our new one-burner stove and attaching a propane cylinder. But we were happy to be in a nice campground (with showers!) and I knew there were trails I could ride nearby. Over the next 24 hours I rode my bike three different times and explored the area trails. The weather was gorgeous with very little smoke and the Deschutes River was next to camp. The Fall River was also close and very scenic. Throughout our stay, McKenzie kept trying to find out more information. Cell service was tenuous, but she could get an intermittent signal in certain areas of camp.
Wednesday we decided we would just pack up and drive to Waldo and see for ourselves if we could get in and retrieve our property. Back we went towards Hwy 58 and Waldo Lake, only to be stopped by a traffic jam a few miles short of the turnoff to Waldo. We waited anxiously for almost an hour and barely moved. We kept seeing people turning around and ultimately discovered the Hwy 58 was closed ahead. Later we learned that there were two fatalities, and the highway remained closed for 7 hours. Thwarted again, we turned around and headed towards the Cascade Lakes Scenic Byway. I was pretty sure we’d be able to find a place to camp, since this was in the Deschutes National Forest, which remained open. I had in mind heading towards Wickiup Reservoir, which we did and found a small campground called Reservoir. Although it was on the “shore” of the lake, much of the lake is dry at this time of the year. Nevertheless, we were pleased to have the campground to ourselves, and once again set up camp for the night. Here we had a decent cell phone signal and were at least able to try to find out more information. The Forest Circus unfortunately still provided little info, beyond saying the Willamette National Forest was closed.
The next day was Thursday, and we were determined to try to reach Waldo again. After breaking camp, we set out towards Waldo. We approached North Waldo Campground and I was nervous about whether we’d be able to get in. At the entrance there was a pickup blocking the road and we could see Forest Service vehicles in the campground. But luck was with us. The campground host approached and after a brief conversation we were allowed into Waldo to collect our gear. Much to our delight, our gear remained much as we had left it, though dirty and windblown. We quickly set to work packing up and even cleaning things off a bit as we loaded up. The devastation at Waldo was very apparent. Downed trees, branches, limbs and other debris were everywhere! Once we finished packing, we did a slow drive through the campground taking pictures of the destruction. One of the most powerful views was of two classic VW vans parked together, smashed by the same tree. Another sight was a huge tree that had fallen only a few yards from our own camp! But we were elated to have now safely retrieved our property.
As we packed, smoke began moving into the area. Waldo Lake was nearly obscured from our campsite and the smell of smoke filled the air. We decided to try out nearby Odell Lake for the remaining two days we had allotted for our trip. Arriving at Odell Lake we found a spot at Trapper Spring Campground and proceeded to set up, happy to have all our gear. We spent the next two days camping in heavy smoke. On the plus side, I was able to go kayaking each morning and the lake was completely calm and smooth. I even put a line in the water, but failed to catch a fish. I enjoyed our lakeside camp despite the heavy smoke that nearly obscured visibility. Saturday morning after paddling on the lake, then cooking and eating a big breakfast, we packed up once more and headed for home.
We arrived home to find our lawn covered with leaves and a few downed branches from Monday night’s storm, but none the worse for wear. Unfortunately the heavy smoke only increased as we drive home and as of this morning was so thick I could barely see across the street! The smoke has lessened a little now and it looks like we may get some rain in the next days. After reading about all the damage, destruction, evacuations, loss of property and even loss of life, I feel fortunate to be home safely. We were lucky and our trip was an adventure that ultimately involved a small bit of inconvenience for us. I fully recognize that many others are not so fortunate.
2001 Ford Econoline E250
GTRV camper conversion