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Originally published April 25, 2012 at 4:00 PM | Page modified April 25, 2012 at 6:01 PM

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Experience Oregon's high desert, but watch the weather

A spring camper outing includes a rude awakening when rain comes to the backcountry — and remote roads turn to muck.

McClatchy Newspapers

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Still poor planning. It's iffy this time of year to be somewhere that's 45 minutes from... MORE


Pat. Pat. Pat-pat-pat-pat-pat. RAIN! Heck. It's 3 a.m.

My wife and I were camped six miles up some two-track road somewhere around Blue Mountain in southeast Oregon when the storm hit.

We head to the high desert each April for hiking, solitude and sightseeing.

But who would have known? I looked at the evening sky before hitting the sleeping bag and it was pretty clear. We wouldn't have driven up the unimproved desert road if we knew it was going to rain that night.

We had cell service, and I checked the weather on my smartphone. The forecast called for rain or snow showers, not anything constant.

Pat. Pat. Pat-pat-pat-pat. This wasn't a shower. It sounded like a significant rainstorm had set in. I looked out the window of the camper and the canyon was socked in. There was no break on the horizon.

We were at least 45 minutes from a decent gravel road and then another 3 or 4 miles from pavement.

Dry desert

The road we were exploring was cement solid when we drove in during the afternoon. The desert is really dry this year.

All looked well for a morning of hiking and exploring some of the West's most remote high desert. Phlox was blooming and buttercups were popping out. We had seen mule deer and pronghorns on our travels.

Pat. Pat. Pat-pat-pat-pat.

I turned on the light in the camper and looked over at my wife. We both agreed in a second that we'd have to break camp or stay up this canyon for days. No tow truck would make it in if we got stuck. The mud would turn to cement and we'd need one of those giant helicopters to lift the rig out.

That's what you think about when it's raining in the desert and the roads are changing to slime.

We did everything right. Checked the weather. Had enough supplies. Told relatives where we would be and when we would be home. They had our GPS coordinates and vehicle description. We made sure the rig was in good shape. We topped off the gas tank at the last town. We had maps and GPS.

We had enough food and warm clothing and gear to survive a week out in the wilds but soon discovered that water was a problem.

I thought if we ran out of our original supply of water in the camper, I'd be able to filter water from creeks. The creeks are always running in the desert in spring.

Not this spring. Intermittent streams and watering holes are bone dry.

We started packing. We didn't even fold up the bed. We threw gear on the bed. There was no time to put stuff away.

I ran out in the rain in my long johns and slippers with my trusty headlamp and packed the porta-potty tent. In came the camp chairs and dog dishes. Down came the top on our pop-up camper. It's a good thing we didn't have the awning up.


Not good

As I scrambled around the rig for a final check, the dusty soil was changing to goo and sticking to my slippers. Not good.

Breaking camp when you're not awake leaves room for mistakes, mishaps or forgotten gear. I searched the campsite a few more seconds.

The dogs slept on the camper floor right through my desert fire drill. We piled in the front seat (not the dogs), started the van, and dropped it into four-wheel-drive. It took off with a slight slip of the tires and started down the road.

DEER MICE! Watch out! They were all over the place. No wonder there was so much coyote scat along the roads out here.

So far, the rig was doing fine on the wet road. The soil hadn't turned to thick gumbo yet. As we crawled along in granny gear, each mile we made brought some relief.

(Watch out for the jack rabbits. At least they're faster than the mice.)

Sinking in mud

I've heard lots of horror stories of people getting stuck. I remember a guy who got stuck more than 20 miles from the pavement after he drove to a spot in the morning while the road was frozen.

By the time he returned to his rig after a hike the day had warmed, and his vehicle had become mired in the soft mud.

Luckily, he had a mountain bike and was able to ride 20 miles of gravel road to a town to call for help.

You prepare for the high desert with food, water, clothing and gear. You watch the weather and road conditions closely.

Even so, there are no guarantees way out in what some call "The Big Lonesome."

We pulled into another camp spot just 50 yards from the main gravel road, set up camp again, and hit the sleeping bags.

We slept in until about 9 a.m. It was much easier to get some sleep closer to a good road.

Have fun exploring. It's a perfect time for seeing the high desert.

Pat. Pat. Pat-pat-pat-pat.

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