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Home arrow Features arrow Baker County Travel arrow State highway map doesn't show roads as closed in winter

State highway map doesn't show roads as closed in winter

SNOW GO: The official state highway map makes no mention of the fact the road past Granite isn't plowed in winter (above). The map does note that some Oregon roads, like the one where a  California family became stranded earlier this month, are closed in winter. (Detail from the Oregon Department of Transportation Official State Map).
SNOW GO: The official state highway map makes no mention of the fact the road past Granite isn't plowed in winter (above). The map does note that some Oregon roads, like the one where a California family became stranded earlier this month, are closed in winter. (Detail from the Oregon Department of Transportation Official State Map).

Have you been stuck on an Oregon road in winter?

By JAYSON JACOBY

The official makes potentially lethal trips look easy.

From Granite, 45 miles west of Baker City, Forest Service Road 73, also known as Elkhorn Drive, runs north for nine miles to the North Fork of the John Day River.

From the river, Road 73 branches west, leading to Anthony Lakes and, eventually, to Interstate 84 at North Powder.

Another route, Forest Road No. 52, heads east to Ukiah.

A third route continues north, follows the Grande Ronde River and connects with Highway 244 just eight miles from Interstate 84 near La Grande.

Each of these roads is paved, a fact which the map's legend accurately portrays.

The legend also shows that these roads, with the exception of the Grande Ronde River route, are designated Scenic Byways.

What the map doesn't mention, however, is this key detail: Although all of these routes meander through blizzard-prone mountains where snow sometimes drifts deep enough to bury a pickup truck, snowplows stay away.

The Oregon Department of Transportation doesn't scrape snow from these roads.

Nor does any county road department.

Nor does the Forest Service, the agency which manages most of this region where public land predominates.

In fact, for as much as half the year, the only motor vehicles capable of traveling these roads are snowmobiles or similar, non-wheeled conveyances.

If you didn't know any of those things, however, you might, as you roll past Granite perusing your map, decide to see just how scenic those Scenic Byways are.

Every year some drivers do precisely that, heading north from Granite during the snow season, which in these mountains can start before Halloween and persist past Memorial Day.

And every year Mitch Fielding helps a few of those drivers who recognize, too late, that regardless of what the map implies, you can get well and stuck even on a scenic byway.

Fielding and his wife, Pat, own The Lodge at Granite, the only motel in the historic gold-mining town, population 25 or so.

The Fieldings have lived in Granite for 11 years.

Mitch Fielding figures that, on average, he assists half a dozen or so drivers each year whose rigs get mired in snow on one of the unplowed roads around Granite. Often as not, he said, the road in question is one of those scenic byways represented by a seemingly innocuous black line on the map.

Pat Fielding said she and other local residents persuaded the Forest Service a few years ago to put up a "Road Closed" sign along Road 73 near Granite once the snow starts to accumulate.

She thinks that sign has reduced the number of rescues.

Not everyone sees the sign, though — and anyway it's not always in place before the first heavy storm.

Paper maps aren't the only sources of potentially misleading data for drivers, either.

There's a slew of Internet mapping services, and you can't be sure they will alert you to seasonal road closures.

Go to mapquest.com, for instance, and plot a course from Granite to Ukiah. The computer directs you to follow Road 73 and Road 52.

That route doesn't change even when you click the "Avoid Seasonall-Closed Roads" box.

Google Maps suggests the same route.

Pat Fielding said she's not surprised some drivers continue north from Granite.

"I think they figure they can get through to Ukiah or over to La Grande," she said. "I don't think they have a clue about what lies ahead."

Unfortunately, conditions in Granite can fool drivers as completely as a paper map or an Internet site can.

"There might not be any snow here, but what you see here in Granite is not what you're going to see 15 miles up the road," Fielding said.

"Up the road" is literally true in this case — Road 73 climbs almost 1,000 feet between Granite and the North Fork, and the roads to Anthony Lakes and to the Grande Ronde ascend higher still.

Considering their experiences over the past decade, the Fieldings have watched with particular interest the news coverage this week of the search for a San Francisco family whose car became stuck in snow on a road in Southern Oregon.

That case ended tragically, as the father, James Kim, was found dead on Wednesday. He had walked several miles in a vain attempt to find help.

Kim's wife and two daughters stayed with the family's car, and all three were rescued Monday.

In each case in which the Fieldings were involved, all the stranded travelers survived.

But there have been some close calls, Mitch Fielding said.

One of those took place on Thanksgiving, two days before the Kims got into trouble.

Fielding said a hunter who was driving near the North Fork of the John Day came across a husband and wife from La Grande and their two children, a girl about six and a boy of 11 or 12.

The family was driving home when their truck slid off the Grande Ronde River Road near Chicken Hill, Fielding said.

They had walked about seven miles, but were still about 10 miles from Granite, when the hunter found them.

Fielding said the hunter, who drove the family to Granite, told him he didn't think the family, who were not dressed for wintry weather, would have survived the night.

The temperature dipped into the 20s that night, and snow fell.

Pat Fielding said the "Road Closed" sign near Granite was not in place on Thanksgiving.

The scenic byways near Granite aren't the only mountain roads in Northeastern Oregon that could lure drivers into a dangerous situation.

The Wallowa Mountain Loop Road, Forest Service Road 39, starts at Ore. Highway 86 between Halfway and Oxbow.

The Loop Road is paved, but snowplows don't keep it open during winter.

 
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