Photo by Karen West
Elise Putnam and Arrow lounge in a float tube stranded on land by a lack of customers floating the Methow River.

Exercise on hold for climbers, bikers and runners

By Karen West

Early afternoon on a hot August day and Elise Putnam is sitting in the shade, passing time on her cell phone.

“We’ve actually had nobody today,” Putnam said of her wait for customers at Methow River Raft and Kayak. “Nobody wants to be outside right now. Everybody just wants to be inside.”

Officially the air was “Unhealthy” on its way to “Very Unhealthy” thanks to wildfire smoke pushing south from Canada and the Diamond Creek fire in the nearby Pasayten Wilderness.

“Tubing is actually the best way to be outside right now,” said Putnam. “Just chill and float down the river.”

Paul Smotherman agreed. He’s been steering guests at his North Cascade Mountain Hostel to the Methow and Chewuch rivers to beat the summer heat. But as the smoke thickened, cancellations were coming in and backpackers were non-existent. “With the fires people are really nervous about coming over,” he said. “They see the different smoke levels. It’s been difficult.”

There are exceptions such as the adventure cyclists who stayed at the hostel recently and were sticking to their planned itinerary. “What are they going to do except keep going?” said Smotherman. “The smoke will just become part of their story.”

Waking up to soupy air is “a huge de-motivator,” said C.B. Thomas, general manager of Goat’s Beard Mountain Supplies in Mazama. The shop is getting calls from concerned climbers who, like Thomas, are reluctant to risk their lungs exerting in poor air.

Thomas expressed surprise at the number of rock climbers he found at Washington Pass one day last week. But he was even more stunned by a group of about 40 bicyclists that stopped by the shop Friday morning. They were huffing through the smoke over the North Cascades highway to Newhalem, Thomas said.

Goat’s Beard customers David Thompson and Cindy Simmons, climbers visiting from Spokane, agreed with Thomas that safeguarding lungs should take priority. They arrived to find worse-than-expected smoke so were planning day-by-day. They set up camp in the forest above the valley floor and scrubbed all high climbs. “One reason to go up is the grandeur,” Thompson said.

Two afternoons a breeze cleared the air just enough by evening that they did some low-rock climbs. They also hiked twice to a mountain canyon that harbored cooler, fresher air.

Flexibility also is the key for high country visitors, according to Steve Darwood, owner of Cascade Wilderness Outfitters, which takes horseback riders into the Pasayten and Lake Chelan-Sawtooth wilderness country.

The Diamond Creek Fire has closed an extensive network of trails into portions of the Pasayten Wilderness. The closures have caused people to cancel pack trips, according to Judy Burkhart, whose husband Aaron Burkhart operates Early Winters Outfitting and Saddle Co. Some trips have been moved to other locations.

Darwood said he had cancellations from a couple of people “who had a specific destination in mind,” but most people have been willing to “bend a little” and change locations so they don’t lose their vacation and he doesn’t lose his income. “Outfitters really appreciate it when people are willing to work with us,” he added.

And what’s the air like in the mountains? Winthrop resident Barbara Newman and seven friends returned Friday from a five-night pack trip into Spanish Camp with Darwood. The ride out was the only smoke-filled day they reported.

Newman said plumes from the Diamond Creek Fire were visible one afternoon. Others said there was haze one evening and in the very early morning. But there were no regrets, just raves for the high mountain air, stunning views and spectacular wildflowers.

But back on the valley floor, the resident super-fit were searching for options. “There’s not much you can do outside and feel good about it,” lamented James DeSalvo, a competitive runner and executive director of Methow Trails.

After a couple days of indoor exercise, the DeSalvo family, which includes active young boys, was piling in the car to search for better air on the west side of the Cascades.

At the U.S. Forest Service compound above Winthrop, Methow district ranger Mike Liu was shooting photographs of the non-existent view of the Rendezvous and Mt. Gardner. The number of campers using Forest Service campgrounds was dropping, Liu said, and he expected people who hadn’t arrived were making alternate plans.

Inside the office, information assistant Kathy Corrigan reported that foot traffic was down and phone calls about the smoke were up. “You want to tell them what they what they want to hear but you can’t,” she said. “I don’t want to lie to them.”

Instead, Corrigan describes current conditions and gives callers several popular web sites where they can track information and make informed decisions. Among her favorites are inciweb.nwcg.gov for fire information, wasmoke.blogspot.com to track smoke, and the valley web cams at methownet.com with real time views up and down the valley.

Diehard visitors, determined to make the best of whatever Mother Nature offers up, can be found at Pearrygin Lake State Park, where the “Campground Full” sign was posted Saturday. The staff had answered only two cancellation calls, both from asthma sufferers. Those site vacancies were filled immediately.