Eclipse could bring chaos to Oregon's forests and mountains

Whoever scheduled the solar eclipse for Aug. 21 should be fired.

That’s the joke, at least, among land managers bracing for the tidal wave of humanity expected to descend on the nation’s public lands for the once-in-a-lifetime event.

Millions of visitors are projected to swarm the forests and mountains in states within the eclipse path of totality, at the same time wildfire danger and summer tourism is reaching its apex.

“It literally could not be happening at a worse time,” said Jean Nelson-Dean, public information officer for Deschutes National Forest in Oregon, the first state that will get eclipse views.

“It’s the peak of fire season. Our emergency responders are going to be spread thin. And the forest is going to be filled with a lot of people who don’t camp very often and might have little experience with the outdoors,” Nelson-Dean said.

The nightmare scenario is a wildfire breaking out while roads are clogged with cars and campgrounds filled with people.

But there's also concern about thousands of people fighting for just a few open campsites, along with flip-flop wearing hikers attempting to climb dangerous mountains.

“The thing we’re worried about is people waking up the morning of the eclipse, heading out and expecting to find a campsite or beautiful place to view it,” said Cody Norris, public information officer for Mark Twain National Forest in Missouri.

“Don’t show up at the last minute," Norris said. "And once you’re here, be prepared to get stuck somewhere for a long time.” 

Virtually all public campsites that can be reserved within the eclipse path were snapped up long ago, officials said.

But in places such as Illinois’ Shawnee National Forest, all campgrounds are first-come, first-served. That could mean competition for sites given the number of people expected, forest spokeswoman Sue Hirsch said.

"We're expecting high numbers and I wouldn't be surprised if people got here pretty early," she said. "But it's hard to gauge how many people will actually show up, and we've opened up three other areas so we have room for everybody."

Those without an official campsite can still spend the night on public lands. It's known as  “dispersed camping” and is typically allowed throughout land managed by the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management, typically on the sides of roads or by hiking to a specific spot. 

“If you’re planning to do it, we’re asking people to think about leaving no trace and picking places that are already impacted,” said Grady McMahan, district ranger for Willamette National Forest in Oregon. “Don’t put a tent down or try to camp on fresh vegetation.”

It’s not just about where people spend the night, but also where they plan to view the eclipse.

McMahan said his office has fielded numerous calls from people planning to climb Mount Jefferson, Oregon’s second-tallest mountain, to view the eclipse.

The problem is the 10,495-foot mountain is a dangerous and technical climb that’s taken multiple lives in recent years.

“A lot of people who’ve called clearly don’t know what they’re getting into,” McMahan said. “We’re planning to have extra rangers near our major peaks to kind of talk to people and make sure they have the equipment necessary to make a summit attempt.”

Here’s a few common questions — and answers — about what to expect in the outdoors during what’s been dubbed the Great American Eclipse.

Why is this a big deal again?

At 10:16 a.m., the sky will go dark over Oregon.

The moon will pass in front of the sun, creating a shadow that will turn day into eerie twilight on earth. But the phenomenon will only be seen in totality within a narrow path that happens to pass directly over Newport and Lincoln City, Salem and Albany, Detroit and Madras, into Eastern Oregon and then the rest of the nation.

That has meant eclipse chasers and lots of other people looking to see the phenomenon while having a fun vacation have spotlighted Oregon. Every hotel, motel, campsite and patch of grass has been booked — some for almost a decade.

In terms of places to actually watch the eclipse, however, few places offer a more spectacular backdrop than Oregon’s mountains. The sight of the sun-blocked disc shimmering above Cascade Range volcanoes has many photographers drooling.

All of this has led visitors to the state’s vast swath of public lands on the coast, Cascades and Central Oregon.

Will there be any campsites open?

Every public campsite that can be reserved within the eclipse’s path of totality has been snapped up, officials said.

Oregon state park campsites sold out more than 1,000 sites within an hour of opening for registration in April. 

There are camping spots on private land available, but be ready to shell out serious money. Eclipse Camp, in Jefferson, is offering four nights of camping for $499.

On public land, the only sites that remain are a handful of Forest Service first-come, first-served sites.

The first-come sites are typically at small campgrounds and are scattered throughout Siuslaw, Willamette and Deschutes national forests (call ranger districts for details). 

Nabbing one of those sites would likely require claiming it early — perhaps as early as 14 days in advance, the maximum length of stay allowed at a national forest campsite.

Where can I pitch a tent or stay overnight in national forest?

On public land — which in the eclipse path includes Siuslaw, Willamette and Deschutes national forests — people are allowed to stay overnight pretty much wherever they please.

The practice of camping at sites that are not designated is known as “dispersed camping.” People typically do it on the side of Forest Service Roads or by carrying gear to a specific spot.

“If you’re planning to do it, we’re asking people to think about leaving no trace and picking places that are already impacted,” McMahan said. “Don’t put a tent down or try to camp on fresh vegetation.”

How serious is the fire danger?

That depends where you’re headed. Fire danger becomes worse the farther east you go.

On the west side of the Cascades — around Detroit Lake, for example — the spread of a catastrophic wildfire is a concern but not an overwhelming one. 

“There certainly is the risk of fire, but here on the West side, fires tend to be a little slower in spreading,” said Grady McMahan, district ranger for Detroit Ranger District. “We’re planning to have extra engines and support from the air staged at different places to fight the fires if they break out.”

Fear is greater on the drier east side of the Cascades. Central Oregon — which is expected to see the greatest number of visitors — will have prime conditions for a fast-moving fire, Nelson-Dean said.

“We have a lot of tall grass from the wet winter and spring, and by late August, it’s really going to be dried out,” she said. “A single spark could get the grass and brush going. We will have teams staged and ready to respond, but it really could not be a greater threat in terms of wildfire and our ability to respond.”

More: Solar eclipse tourism brings 'unprecedented' fire danger

Should I climb Mount Jefferson to view the eclipse?

Only if you have a lot of mountaineering experience.

Oregon’s second-tallest mountain has emerged as a focal point for people looking for that epic view of the eclipse, McMahan said. So has Three Fingered Jack and Mount Washington, which are both within the path of totality for the eclipse.

The problem is all three mountains are technical and very challenging, meaning unless you have experience, climbing them is an awful idea. Multiple people have died on the trio of mountains in recent years.  

McMahan said the Forest Service is bringing in extra climbing rangers to be near the peaks and talk with people before they make a summit attempt.

“We’re getting calls every day from people really excited about getting to that high point — particularly Mount Jefferson,” he said. “But a lot of people clearly don’t know what they’re getting into. So we’re trying to explain that, and the extra rangers will be there to make sure people are prepared and have the right equipment.”

What about backpacking into wilderness spots like Jefferson Park?

Expect a lot of friends.

Hiking trails that lead to views of iconic mountains and the eclipse are expected to be very crowded, said McMahan and Nelson-Dean.

If you’re planning to visit places such as Jefferson Park or Canyon Creek in the Mount Jefferson Wilderness, get there early and expect plenty of company.

Extra wilderness rangers will be at trailheads providing information about Leave No Trace principles.

Will I be able to drive to the coast or mountains?

This might be the toughest question to answer, because officials have no real idea how many people are going to show up.

Unlike a Super Bowl or World Series, where there’s a defined number of people in the stadium, the count visiting Oregon could range from 200,000 to well over 1 million.

Either way, state highways are expected to be a mess from Aug. 17 to 22.

The most gridlocked roads are expected to be Oregon highways 18 and 22 between Salem and the Oregon Coast, along with Oregon 22/20 from Salem to Santiam Pass and Sisters, said Oregon Department of Transportation spokesman Lou Torres.

U.S. 101 and Interstate 5 could also be a major challenge.

“These are roads where traffic is already slow on normal summer weekends,” Torres said. “Add this into the mix, and we’re expecting severe congestion to total gridlock.”

Torres suggested residents in places such as Lincoln City, Mill City and Detroit get their supplies in advance and try to avoid being on highways during the six-day window.

ODOT officials are planning to stage emergency responders at various locations in advance, but getting emergency vehicles to injured people in the event of a crash could be daunting.

“The message we’re trying to spread is for people to get to their location early and stay there, well past the eclipse,” he said. “If you are on the road, make sure you have extra food, water and gas, and make sure you think about a place to use the restroom. You might be there for a while.”

All of this assumes just lots of people, but there are X factors as well. On eclipse day, if people wake up in Lincoln City to a foggy morning, there could be a rush east on Oregon 18 which leads to an essential parking lot.

“I don’t think any event (in Oregon’s history) compares to this,” Torres said.

More: Eclipse to cause 'biggest traffic event in Oregon history'

Planning to travel around eclipse dates? Be prepared

Officials recommend that anyone traveling state highways within the path of the eclipse from Aug. 17 to 22 be prepared with extra water, food and supplies. Wait times could be hours. The most heavily impacted roadways are expected to be highways 18 and 22 between Lincoln City and Salem, and highways 22, 20 and 126 between Salem/Albany, Santiam Pass and Sisters.

Zach Urness has been an outdoors writer, photographer and videographer in Oregon for nine years. He is the author of the book “Hiking Southern Oregon” and can be reached at zurness@StatesmanJournal.com or (503) 399-6801. Find him on Twitter at @ZachsORoutdoors.

© 2017 KGW-TV


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