by Jesse Garnett White

Driving across the Pacific Northwest to your desired destination should be a safe and fun adventure. A full tank of gas, money, and a safe place to stay are all important first steps, but what about the unforeseen? What could you be forgetting that might be necessary to stay safe or even save a life?

As a geologist and naturalist who commonly goes it alone, I’d like to provide some humble advice to travelers in the Pacific Northwest. Personal experiences have given me insight into how to avoid common mistakes while on the road. I sincerely hope that my stories and advice will provide you with tools to stay safe and avoid problematic situations.

Preparation is Key

It may seem obvious but preparation is key. It doesn’t matter if you’re going to a local campground or hiking Mount Rainier. Without proper consideration and gear your travel adventure has the potential to turn into a problematic situation.

Always check the weather, tides, river levels, snow levels, trail conditions, and potential fire hazards before you head out. If you are planning on traveling on back country roads no matter your familiarity with them, be sure to phone the proper authorities before heading out. Above all, be sure to let someone know where you plan to go, how long you will be out, and when you are supposed to return.

A few travel tales from my many adventures that were needlessly difficult:

Northport to Metaline Falls on FS 4752 (May 1st, 2016)

I was viewing Cambrian carbonate debris flow outcrops between Northport and Metaline falls on Forest Service Road 4752 with my dog Missy at my side. Much of the road was wet, muddy, and free of snow but snow increased of shadow the farther I traveled towards Metaline Falls. My confidence was high and I was unconcerned.

Downhill and around a tight hairpin turn I easily managed through a muddy melting snow patch but farther down I became stuck in a deeper field of melting snow up to the axles. Even with all-wheel drive I wasn’t moving forward and backwards was uphill. Two of my tires weren’t even engaging. As the other two spun, the friction between the tread and the snow created a layer of ice and muck making forward progress impossible. In the car I had a come-a-long, tow strap, flares, signal mirror, compass, cell phone, sleeping bag, food, water, and a rock hammer but what I really needed was a shovel! I’ve never been so upset with myself for not having a shovel, tire chains, and a satellite phone!

It can be extraordinarily frustrating and frightening to be stuck miles from anywhere without any kind of communication. It would have been an arduous 11-mile walk from the car to the closest habitation and I had to get out of the situation as nightfall was not far off.

The come-a-long wasn’t long enough to tie off to anything substantial so I attached my tow strap to it then to a small tree. Cranking the come-a-long the tree wasn’t strong enough to hold the load and started coming out of the ground at its base. I couldn’t believe it! I looked around for another tree or anything to weave the straps through for more torque, but my line wasn’t long enough. I was forced to dig the car out with my hands and rock hammer.

I shoved rocks, bark, tree limbs, and small logs under the tires only to spin-out back and forth in an attempt to gain traction. It took two hours to free the vehicle in the downhill direction and once through I started towards Metaline Falls only to realize that wasn’t an option. There were berms I would have been high-centered on and beyond that the snow was so deep I knew I was screwed. Heading back the way I came I again became stuck in the same snow patch, twice! I replayed the dig-out twice more but in reverse. I remember telling Missy the dog as she watched in boredom on the sidelines, “Can’t you help me dig? Isn’t that what you do? You’re going to have to walk out of here to!”

Under the threat of nightfall, with a dog that refused to dig, I contemplated either sleeping in the car until morning or walking out to the nearest habitation towards Northport. That’s when I realized I could straddle the ditch onto the near 45° dirt highwall. I figured it I hit it at a high enough speed I could get past the snow patch without rolling the car. I put Missy back in the car, looked at her in the rearview mirror and said, “Hang on!”, and floored it!

My idea worked but this choice caused major damage to the Subaru’s back end as I slammed hard into a low spot. Once past the snow patch I still had to contend with the hairpin turn I’d come down covered in muddy wet snow. Instead of risking getting stuck in that I continued at high speed and hit the inside ditch throwing mud and debris everywhere as I slid and tore up the hill yelling outload, “Come on damnit! Come on! Come on!”. Once through and safe I just kept yelling, “Yes! Yes! Yes!”.
Missy and I made it out alive and unscathed. I was furious with myself that I didn’t have the necessary tools that would have made the experience much less harrowing. Every year or two the local news in Washington State reports stories of folks that get lost or stuck on logging roads and aren’t discovered for days or even weeks. It is not a common occurrence but certainly happens and as adventurous spirits we must be prepared.

Freezeout Pass, Northern Idaho (Fall 2006)

On an epic trip from Western Washington to Yellowstone National Park I camped out near Clarkia, ID for a few nights one of which I decided to pitch near Grandmother and Grandfather mountains on a knoll near Freezeout Pass.

I parked my Subaru Legacy at the pass then hiked to a knoll and set up camp for sunset and sleep. When darkness came, I could see the vehicle from afar and the overhead light was on. What? Why was the overhead light on? I left my camp and hiked back to the car, couldn’t figure out why the light was on, and had no idea how to turn it off. Tens of miles from the nearest habitation I couldn’t risk my car battery dying so I hiked back to camp, packed everything up, and went back to the car. I drove all the way to Emerald Creek to a friend’s house where I spend the night in safety. That being the case, had I not noticed the problem I would have returned to the vehicle the next morning to a dead battery and a very long walk back to Clarkia.

Moscow to Potlatch on West Twin Road (Winter 2002)

In college at the University of Idaho, friends and I spent most of our weekends camping out, reviewing geological formations, and having fun outdoors. A few of us became so comfortable with our travels on the backroads we’d often go out without any concern of the unforeseen. One fateful day in January a couple guys and I left from Moscow for Potlatch on a logging road we’d traveled during every season without any problems. We were heading to Potlatch to meet up with some friends. I was only wearing shorts, wool socks in Birkenstocks, and a coat.

Along the ice- and snow- covered logging road towards the top of Moscow Mountain is a hairpin turn followed by a high angle uphill stretch over about 100 feet. As we neared the hairpin, I told my buddy driving his 4-wheel drive vehicle, “Be sure to hit that slope hard, fast, and don’t stop!” as I was sure it was solid ice and it was.

He hit the hairpin but about halfway up began losing traction. From the back seat I yelled, “Don’t take your foot off the gas! Don’t stop! Don’t brake!” That’s when halfway up for some godforsaken reason, he put his foot on the brake. We slid back down the hill backwards and out of control right into the deep snow of the hairpin and nearly rolled over. The back tires were in over 4 feet of snow and the front tires were in the air. Without cell service, dusk closing in, and at least 15 miles from the nearest habitation I got out from the back seat and started running down the mountain. None of us were prepared to spend the night and I was quite ill-prepared without proper clothing. I ran, and ran, and ran until I couldn’t run anymore. My socks were wet with slush, legs cold, and sweat had soaked my upper body. I was freezing and falling into hypothermia. Darkness had fallen and I wasn’t even close to the nearest house when I decided to rest on a high berm under a spruce tree.

I had only stopped to rest but the next thing I knew I was awakened by my friends in the dark yelling my name. They’d managed to get help from friends in Moscow and somehow found me in the middle of the night asleep under that tree where I surely would have perished from hypothermia had they not.

The three mishaps I have shared with you are what I have experienced in the Pacific Northwest. I have found other people in my travels that I’ve been fortunate enough to help in Alaska, Idaho, South Dakota, and Texas where I was blessed to be in the right place at the right time. No one can predict the future but we can all be prepared to the best of our ability for the unforeseen.

My “Must Have in the Car” Safety List

In the Pacific Northwest there are certain safety items you should have in the vehicle (in no particular order):

  • Paper maps
  • Compass
  • Water and snacks
  • Extra clothing
  • Hand, foot, and body warmers
  • Blankets/Sleeping bags
  • Cell/satellite phone
  • Ice scraper
  • Shovel
  • Emergency hammer/seatbelt cutter combo tool
  • First-aid kit
  • Tow rope/come-a-long
  • Fix-a-flat
  • Fire extinguisher
  • Warning light, hazard triangles, flares, and/or light sticks
  • Jumper cables or a portable battery booster
  • Flashlight
  • Tire inflator

Regardless of where you are going, the Pacific Northwest is a beautiful place to view with numerous recreational activities to enjoy and experience. I encourage you to visit every corner and hamlet you can, meet the good folks that live and work within the borders of Idaho, Montana, Oregon, and Washington while growing with each trip you take! It is my sincere hope that you will consider traveling safely from point A to point B.

Before you Head Out …

Before leaving the driveway always check that your headlights, break lights, blinkers, and hazard lights are working properly. If you are towing a trailer or boat be certain that all the same lights you would expect at the rear of your vehicle are working on the trailer. Also, be sure that your load is secure and that your trailer is properly hitched with the pin and chains intact. Be certain that your chain link is not dragging on the ground. Check your vehicle’s oil levels, transmission fluid, brake fluid, windshield wiper fluid, and tire pressure. Walk around the vehicle to check for any damage to your windshield, exterior mirrors, and tires including sidewalls and tread. Concerning the tread, take a penny and place it into the tread gaps and if the top of the head of our good buddy President Lincoln can still be seen, you are at risk of a tire blowout. Always check to be sure that the light above your rear license plate is working. All that being good travel safety and stewardship above all, never drink/drug and drive.

Jesse Garnett White

Born and raised in Washington, I'm a geologist with a BS from University of Idaho and MS from University of Alaska-Fairbanks. I'm excited to share with you the geological and naturalist view of Washington state. The present landscapes are the result of a number of geologic processes providing us with fertile grounds for agriculture, beautiful beaches, estuaries, hot springs, islands, lakes, mountains, and rivers. But why are they here? I can't wait to help you think outside the box and really “dig into” understanding the phenomenal natural surroundings of Washington state.