Smoked out: Late summer fastpacking

So, let’s discuss my attempts to get out in the mountains during August and September.

First, however, I’ll mention that I built an experimental backpack intended to be used for fastpacking trips – backpacking with a significant running component. My goal was end up with a pack that would last for a little while, be fairly cheap to build, and get a learning experience.

The pack uses the Stitchback PZ pattern with some modifications to the standard dimensions, and with running vest-style straps. It cost me $34 in materials. It holds my stuff! and I learned a lot and have several ideas to tweak in the next iteration.

My kit isn’t completely optimized for running trips yet – I need to replace my sleeping bag with a quilt and could think about a lighter tarp – but with this pack I’m able to attempt some trips.

My hike around Brokentop

In August, I had an overnight permit for the Three Sisters Wilderness and was planning to circumnavigate Brokentop (approximately 40 miles on my usual route). Then, right as I was about to leave, thick wildfire smoke rolled in.

Let’s back up just a little. 2021 was a record setting drought year in much of the western United States. Low snowpacks and a very warm, dry spring created dangerous conditions, resulting in a historic wildfire season and complete forest closures in Arizona and California. Here in Bend, Oregon, we were practically encircled by wildfires to our north, south, and west throughout the late summer. The primary fire causing the smoke in our area was the Middle Fork Complex, a set of fires north of Oakridge and directly west of Bend, placing it in prime position to blow smoke our way. The Middle Fork Complex burned consistently through August and September and is yet to reach full containment as of this writing.

When you live relatively close to a fire, smoky days are surprisingly difficult to predict. A small change in the wind can bring clean air or smoky air to you. The post image above is from one of my trail runs this summer. The smoke had settled overnight in low-lying areas near Bend, and was starting to blow up to the forest near my house just outside Bend. It can be very localized.

So, I wasn’t shocked to have to cancel this particular trip. Even though smoke forecasts may have been wrong, I knew the smoke was somewhere out there. What was disappointing, however, was that the smoke blew out almost exactly at the time I would have arrived back home at the end of the trip! I wish I would have made it, but I have grudging respect for the power move by the universe on this one.

My next hike around Brokentop

In early September we had a weather system come through and bring us a little rain. It cleared the air and I had the opportunity to try this again. This time, I didn’t have an overnight permit for the Three Sisters Wilderness, so I had to structure my route to camp outside the wilderness and use a day use permit to pass through the following day.

I chose to camp at Little Three Creek Lake, and spent my afternoon covering 17 miles to get there.

But, shortly after my arrival, thick smoke rolled in once again. Thankfully I was carrying a N95 mask. I waited a while to give the smoke a chance to clear, but it became apparent it was going nowhere. Since I couldn’t sleep with the mask on, I decided to improve my situation and hiked back home in the dark via a shorter route.

Let’s try this again

So, a couple weeks later in September, more rain came through and the air cleared up. It was time to try again.

This time, I picked a different route taking the Metolius-Windigo Trail south to Quinn Springs. This is a cool area near Quinn Meadows Horse Camp, with a number of springs feeding Quinn Creek next to a lava flow. My intention was to circle back home through the Three Sisters Wilderness the following day, skirting South Sister and Brokentop to the south.

However, once again, thick smoke rolled in after I reached camp. This was the last smoke of the season. I was able to get a ride back home.

So now…

… I guess I keep trying! We’ve still got some time in October for some good trips, maybe even into November (then, it’s snow season, which is another thing altogether).

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