Of Bears And Beers, Packrats And Lightning Storms

We headed out Friday at 5:00 AM. Our destination, a small hunting lodge in a very remote area of northeastern Washington. The lodge was built by a friend of mine on property his sister owns. His sister and her husband (our hosts) live on the property year-round. Their house is off-grid except for a “twisted pair” phone line. The lodge is completely off-grid. The property is some 60 acres, it is several hundred yards from the house to the lodge.

We arrived Friday at around noon. Our hosts drove down to greet us and brought their pet beagle along. The beagle immediately went crazy after something under the lodge – so the first order of business that day was to dispatch a packrat.

Friday afternoon and most of Saturday was spend unloading gear and setting up. We bring generators, propane tanks, extra gasoline and diesel, food, ice, and beer. We brought an estimated 320 cans of beer which turned out to be insufficient for the task. We took a 300-gallon tote down to the creek to fill with water. Once set up, the lodge has electric lights, hot and cold running water, and a complete bathroom.

Sunday was the opening day of bear season. Hunting, in what I would call the traditional sense, wasn’t really an option. DNR ground was completely shut down, Forest Service ground was open but heavily restricted. Walking in the woods sounded like walking on corn flakes and walking on the road made a small dust cloud with every footfall.

On Sunday the temperature went over 100 degrees. After a morning jaunt, it was time to seek shade and water – not doubt for us and the bears. On Monday, our hosts asked us to drive up and check on a neighbor’s property (the neighbor was out of town). We found a bear had torn the door off of a barn and dragged out all of the contents of the barn which the bear apparently found interesting – an enormous mess was strewn for 50 yards around the barn. We returned with some tools and fixed the barn door.

I can’t recall which night it was now, but our hosts had a bear come up on their porch sometime during the night and almost destroy an outdoor grill. We set up a blind on their porch the following night and waited several hours into the evening but no bear showed up. Our hosts have a lot of bear experience and they found this very strange – if a bear finds something interesting, it will normally return night after night until that interesting article is no more.

We removed a few trees that were too close to the lodge for comfort. We used our host’s chipper to clean up the mess. Since it was well into the ’90s almost every day, it was time to quit working and start drinking beer fairly early.

Our hosts went up to the neighbor’s place to clean up the mess left by the bear. They found among the ruin an empty box of rat poison and an empty box of ground squirrel poison. We fancied ourselves lucky not to have shot and butchered a bear at that point and gave up on bear hunting. We did keep a rifle handy at all times though as we did all our cooking outside the lodge making our front porch bear bait. We call the camp rifle “big smoke” – it is a single-shot break-open chambered for .45-70 Government. It’s zeroed at 100 yards and not much good at 110 – the bullet is going downhill at a pretty steep angle at that point, but it blows a big hole in whatever it hits.

Our hosts visited us for the evening meal every night. On Wednesday I believe, the beagle once again went crazy and another packrat was called to answer for its lack of manners. For someone accustomed to what a rat looks like in western Washington, these packrats are alarmingly large. The first one we dispatched was a big as some cats. But I’ve gotten ahead of myself.

Tuesday night a lightning storm rolled in around midnight. I don’t believe I’ve ever experienced a storm like this. Several times the thunderclap literally shook the lodge, the lightning flashes were absolutely blinding – like we were inside a flashbulb. The storm started several wildfires in the area.

Our hosts were understandably very concerned about the fires (the entire property is wooded). They asked us to drive around and check on some of the fires the DNR was reporting. Much of the country can not be accessed by roads so we took GPS, maps, and smartphones and were able to drive up on ridgetops to spot smoke plumes. We would then draw lines on the map from our location toward the smoke, then drive up on another ridge some miles away and draw another line to triangulate on the location. In one case, we had to “shoot” the fire from three locations. Sure enough, the fire of most concern was only about a mile from the property without much in its way but by the time we returned we learned that fire crews were already working on that one and their efforts were encouraging.

In our travels, we spotted another fire that had not been reported. We took map coordinates on it and called it in when we returned to our host’s house. A few hours after reporting it, some in our group drove back to where we had spotted it and watched as the aircraft dropped water on it – very gratifying to see.

We had one cool day after the storm. We had one night where the temperature never dropped below 80. Though we had a shower, it was of little comfort as you immediately began sweating again the moment you stepped out of it. Smoke from the fires blotted out the sun and we heard of some evacuation orders coming down about 20 miles away. We spent the balance of the trip working on the lodge and cleaning up the surrounding grounds – in the cool morning hours. Beer, good food, and conversation were the order in the afternoon.

I enjoy the isolation there. There is no cell service, you can’t find an FM radio station, and you can’t listen to NOAA weather radio either. The fires were the only thing to shatter that pleasant isolation. Your cell phone doesn’t come to life until you are 40 miles down the road toward civilization. In a place like this, you think of things you ordinarily would not, such as how many hours away the nearest hospital is and the fact that there is only one road in and out of your location. I suppose, particularly for folks much younger than I, such thoughts are few. A dose of reality in the internet age.

We had a good time even though, as is sometimes the case, it was nothing like the trip we had planned. And often those are the most memorable trips.

We headed home on Friday and mercifully emerged from the smoke about an hour and a half out from the lodge. Home now in western Washington, the temperature is quite mild and it is raining lightly, the change is stunning.


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