February 1, 2016
By Dutch Franz
Photo at right: Painted hills and dramatic views await visitors to Sutton Mountain and the John Day Wilderness in North Central Oregon. Photo by Charyn McDonnell
The 2015 wildfire season was one of the worst on record, according to the National Interagency Coordination Center that is responsible for tracking wildfire activity.
In the Northwest, 4,292 fires affected nearly 1.8 million acres stressing resources and threatening communities and recreation areas. The economic impact of the fires is often hard to see, but lasts longer then the dark smoke and charred wood.
The wildfires affected the people and businesses that support outdoor recreation and tourism throughout the region. After this record-setting fire season, OutdoorsNW wanted to check in with communities and popular destination areas to see how both were recovering.
The good news is that outdoor recreation has bounced back and the message from these communities was unanimous — the doors are open for business and the welcome mats are out! The best way to support wildfire areas is to visit; the resilience of the land and people will inspire you.
Okanogan County is just east of the North Cascades and experienced two back-to-back years with the largest wildfires in Washington State history. The region is a popular outdoor destination with an abundance of recreation opportunities from hiking, climbing, and fishing in the warmer months to skating and all types of skiing during the winter.
According to Jenn Tate of the Okanogan County Tourism Council, the fires impacted local tourism by keeping visitors away during a portion of the peak summer recreation season.
Despite these interruptions, the area rebounded quickly and is experiencing high snowfall this winter. The region offers some of the best Nordic skiing in the country with over 120 miles of groomed track connecting the towns of Winthrop and Mazama.
The trail system was unaffected by the fires and is experiencing excellent snowfall. If skiing isn’t your thing, try the trendy sport of Fat Biking. Bikes can be rented at many locations and most ski trails allow Fat Biking.
Tate says that the Loop Loop Ski Bowl near Twisp is the best-kept secret in the state with terrain for all activities and abilities, great food and a family-friendly atmosphere. In addition to world-class skiing, Winthrop offers a unique ice skating experience with an outdoor refrigerated ice rink that is open through March.
The best way to help wildfire communities, urges Tate, is to visit Okanogan County where there is something for everyone.
Eastern Oregon was hit hard by the Canon Creek wildfires that burned over 100,000 acres in heart of the John Day Wilderness — east of Bend and west of Interstate 84. Many of the area’s popular destinations were closed for part of the summer and lodging that was normally filled with tourists was occupied by firefighting crews.
Alice Trindle, of the Eastern Oregon Visitors Association, said it was inspirational to see the resiliency of the people and land after the fire; she highlights an outpouring of support that included the donation of hay for livestock that lost pasture to the fire.
This region is home to some of the best recreation in the Northwest — hiking, camping and river rafting to name just a few. The John Day Wilderness features the colorful soil stratifications of the Painted Hills and 40 million years of history found in the John Day fossil beds.
Travelers to this region will be happily challenged by all the outdoor opportunities and delighted by the historic sites, microbrews, and the culinary treats that are hiding in every nook and cranny of this unassuming destination.
One of the best-kept secrets is the biking. The Old West Scenic Bikeway is a challenging 173.8 mile-loop that offers riders a chance to enjoy dramatic vistas, wildlife encounters, and tour an actual 19th century Chinese apothecary at the Kam Wah Chung State Heritage Site. The route is well-marked and the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department has a list of lodging and eclectic eateries along the way.
When the recreation is on pause, Trindle recommends the 1188 Brewing Company, in the town of John Day, for a wide selection of microbrews and an excellent menu. Also recommended is the Roan Coffee Company in Prairie City for excellent coffee and tasty pastries that will rejuvenate the weary adventurer.
Idaho also experienced a tough wildfire season with thick smoke choking out tourism and recreation over the months of August, September and October in some areas of the state.
Katherine Hoyer of the Coeur d’Alene Convention and Visitor Bureau said that some of the communities north of Coeur d’Alene in the Idaho Panhandle were hit hardest by the fires.
Hoyer highlighted the resilience of these communities and how they pulled together in difficult times. Now, she says, the communities are enjoying business as usual and looking forward to a good snow season to boost recreation opportunities in the area.
Idaho boasts some of the best skiing in the Northwest and these areas are experiencing better than average snowfall this season. The many hiking trails offer excellent snowshoeing and snowmobiling through pristine wilderness areas. When temperatures rise this spring, check out the many hiking, fishing, kayaking, and mountain biking adventures this area of Idaho has to offer.
British Columbia, Canada
The Testalinden Creek fire near Osoyoos in south central British Columbia—about 166 miles east of Vancouver—burned nearly 13,000 acres of land renowned for its wineries, agriculture and year-round recreation. The damage to these signature industries was minimal, but tourism in the area was affected during the height of the wildfire season. Showing fortitude and resilience, this region rebounded quickly and was open for business as soon as the smoke cleared.
Osoyoos occupies a unique geographical and climatic niche that combine to create a semi-arid pocket desert with an abundance of rivers and lakes ideal for agriculture and recreation. The warm year-round temperature is popular with snowbirds — people who migrate to warmer climates during the winter — who flock to the area to enjoy short-sleeve golfing weather in February.
Adventurers of all shapes, sizes, and abilities can spend hours hiking the rugged landscape and searching out the nearly 300 species of birds or ancient pictographs found in the area.
Osoyoos Lake is home to the largest sockeye salmon run in Canada and is also known for its smallmouth bass fishing.
If you aren’t quite ready to leave winter behind in February, just a short drive from Osoyoos is Mount Baldy. The ski area offers 22 runs and over 500 acres of skiable terrain. When you are done with your outdoor adventures, winery tours and tasting rooms are open year-round.
Dutch Franz is a Seattle-based freelance outdoor adventure journalist and writer. His work has appeared in numerous regional magazines and his short stories have been published in two anthologies.