COOPER DISCOVERER: Ochoco Challenge 2016 - Ochoco NF, Oregon

Thursday, 6/23/16


Now in its fifth year, the Ochoco Challenge has grown from five guys in three trucks in 2012, to 22 people in ten trucks* + a motorcycle in 2016. (*For this trip report, we're classing the Volvo 245 as a truck.) The basic idea is to get off-pavement in a stock truck/SUV and enjoy Oregon over a long-weekend. To make it more of a challenge, bring a car, or something that you picked up off craigslist for under a grand.

For the second year in a row, I was taking my '89 Volvo wagon. When I bought it, it had 242K on the clock, and the clock had been broken for years. The 2015 challenge was pretty hard on it, (flat tire and blown strut,) and within a month of getting back, the intermediate cam seal blew out, (unrelated?) I replaced the seals and timing belt over the winter, I took the Thursday before we left off to change the oil, put the skid plate back on, and get it "ready".

Last year's route, (which I still plan to make a report on, someday,) took us south to the heat of Christmas Valley, so I was really looking forward to returning to the Ochoco NF. Picking a date in June is always a bit tricky. I chose the last weekend of June so we wouldn't be on top of Father's Day, and to give us the maximum time for snow to melt and downed trees to get cleared, but before fire restrictions are in place. As a result, I've managed to be right on top of NWOR three years running. Someday I'll get up there to see what it's all about!

Sandy Fred Meyer is a convenient jumping off point; gas up, and buy any last minute items. It was pouring buckets outside, and HVAC performance in the Volvo was way off the mark on account of fan settings one, two, and three having the same air-flow as off. The 2016 crew started to arrive; Jeep Liberty, Ford Explorer, Honda Africa Twin, Volvo 245, Ford F250, Nissan Frontier, GMC 1500, Jeep Grand Cherokee, GMC 2500, Jeep Cherokee, and an Acura MDX. 13 adults, 9 kids.

I crossed my fingers that Freddie's would have one of the cheap 12V fans in their automotive department, but got skunked. From this point on, it was windows cracked, despite the late-June downpour.

Heading east on 26 up the slope of Mount Hood, the rain kept coming down harder and harder. We all felt pretty bad for Dan on his brand-new Africa Twin. In reality, emotions were mixed; we were all clearly jealous of the new bike, but not the riding in the rain aspect.

At the north end of the Barlow Road, (yes, we ran it backwards!)

Ben's kids, Abby and Jack!

Libby never likes to stay in her seat!

I'd never run down the Barlow Road previously, and was glad I could include it on the route, even though we'd be running it backwards from the Oregon Trail settlers, one of the many hazards of loop-route planning. My wife and I had pre-run the section the weekend prior to make sure it was Volvo-worthy, (or rather that the Volvo was up to the challenge!) In previous years, bridges have been washed out, or I've been up there too early, (snow,) to drive the route.

The Volvo was able to scamper through this gap, but the big Ford, (and GMCs,) had to take it slow!

On our way into Thursday night's camp, we passed a group of ~50 horses and riders, camping in the same rain that we planned to. They were in my backup camping spot, so I was really hoping that the prime location was still available. I shouldn't have worried, as the monsoon we were in the middle of ensured that our camping spot was vacant.

After the first year, when I broke the tongue on my tent trailer, I've been using just a cot, and the Gore-Tex shell on my sleeping bag. I forgot my cot, and had to sleep on the ground that night. Thank you Gilbert and Robert for the (mostly) dry night! And thank you to Ryan for coming out early the next morning, (with my cot!) to join us for the rest of the trip!

Next: Horses, water crossing, Ochco NF.
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Ochoco Challenge 2016 - Day 2



I was up early Friday morning, missing my cot. My wife was kind enough to drop it off at Ryan's place the night before, so I only had to sleep on the ground that one night.

My girls, Abby and Libby, slept warm and snug in the wagon:

Jack helped me fix breakfast; biscuits and gravy. I set up a pan with a little water in the bottom, and a strainer on the top, full of biscuits, and let the steam heat them while Jack re-heated the frozen gravy that my wife had made previously.

The horse camp got on the road earlier than we did. I'd never seen that many mounted people, (~50-ish,) in one place before. It was pretty neat!

Things were still soggy on this side of the Cascades, but you wouldn't know it to look at our kids.

The schedule had us on the road by 0900. We left around 0930, which I think wasn’t too bad. This is the largest group I’ve yet organized for this type of trip. We were a long train! After reviewing our route in my trusty Benchmark Oregon Atlas, we set off for the day.

Doug, (with son Michael,) in the MDX said he didn't mind following me; "If I take your line, I'm almost guaranteed not to hit anything!"

Our route took us down some smooth forest service gravel roads out to HWY 26, then southeast to Madras, where we made a quick stop at Safeway for everyone to catch up.
From there we headed southwest toward Lake Billy Chinook, and the Crooked River National Grassland.

Passing through Lake Billy Chinook:

On the pre-run my family and I did Easter weekend, we couldn’t go down NF-1393, as it was seasonally closed through the end of March for “large mammal breeding.” I believed them, as we saw north of sixty deer on that trip. This time however, the road was open, and I had everyone go ahead of me, down to the Whychus Creek crossing. Usually I’m leading, which is nice because the Volvo doesn’t have AC, so we need to keep the windows down, and if you’re in the lead, way less dust. In this case, we let the train get far ahead of us before starting.

The crossing had a nice picnic area with a couple tables, and enough shade keep us cool. While the kids all headed down to the creek, I broke out lunch; DIY sandwiches, cookies, and chips, BYO drinks!

Dustin volunteered to take is Nissan across the creek first in order to take pictures of the rest of us.

Jeremy's oldest daughter, second to drive across.


I followed the Acura across, and claim to have now completed 95% of a water crossing in the Volvo wagon. Things were fine on the near bank, but when I got to the far bank, it got deeper and I felt like I was slowing down, and so I really gave it the beans. This accelerated the water I already had ingested right past the MAF, through the intake manifold, and right into the cylinders, where it promptly drowned the engine. My front wheels were out of the water, but I wasn’t going anywhere.

Before the trip, I had (prophetically?) attached my recovery strap to the front tow point, and looped it around the brush guard. That made it really easy to hook it up to Justin’s truck and get pulled out.

Now out of the water, I popped the hood and pulled the #1 spark plug, dry. However, 2-4 were wet, and once they were out, I turned it over until reports came back that no more water was coming out, only fuel. I had previously disconnected the airbox, (the filter from which was sopping wet,) so, hoping for the best, I put the plugs back in. I started cranking, and within 30-60 seconds of cranking, (and some application of the loud pedal, ) she fired back up. I held it at 1200 rpm or so, (no tach right?!?) until I could get it to idle. Lots of congratulatory shouts from the guys when it fired up, followed by even more laughter as water poured out of the tail pipe, (and would for some time.)

Couldn't have picked a nicer spot to break down!

While I was doing repairs, the rest of the crew crossed.

I squeezed what felt like a two liter’s worth of water from the filter before putting it, mildly damp, back into the airbox. Now fully buttoned up, I was pleased to see the Volvo was running fine.
We continued on NF-1393 to pavement, and gradually worked our way east to Prineville. 10 cars is a long train, and we did get separated for a bit, but rolled into to Prineville mostly as a convoy. The Chevron I’d picked was under construction, so we dispersed to a couple other gas stations, eventually meeting up at the Shell/Taco Time on the east end of town. Fun fact, they use FRS channel 12, just like we were using!

Our campground only ~35 miles away, Doug led us in the Acura to Bingham Springs Campground, via Steins Pillar.

I gave Libby, (7,) my Nikon, and she got some great shots!

Bingham Spring is a primitive campground on the north edge of the Mill Creek wilderness. It was a fantastic, if cold, place to camp. We had a foursome of our group make it through two rounds of an impromptu Frisbee golf course, complete with a Costas-esque commentator. At one point I was standing too close to the pin, (my car,) and took a Frisbee just below center mass.

My girls, 7 and 10, persuaded me to sleep in the back of the wagon with them. On the plus side, it was warm and cozy. On the other side, crowded, and I was the only one who woke up in the same orientation as when I went to sleep. It felt at time like my littlest, Libby, was riding a bike in her sleep.

Next: Fire lookout, cinnabar mine, flat tire, swimming!
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Ochoco Challenge 2016 - Saturday



It was cold enough Saturday morning that the water in the wash and rinse tubs was frozen over. Not much, but still, it was June 25th! I wasn't expecting it to be that cold. I fired up the stove to make some percolator coffee and Jason, (who beat me up by at least an hour,) waited for the rest of the crowd to wake up. Breakfast was pancakes and bacon, (cold cereal for my kids, who apparently don't grok breakfast food.)

The first stop of the day was Whistler Spring campground, where we've stayed a few times before. We planned to fill up our water cans from the spring there, only to find that it had slowed to a trickle. My backup water plan was the Deep Creek CG, which would require some backtracking later in the day.

Colin, Jason, Dustin, me and the girls, waiting on the main road for the water party to come up from Whistler spring.

As we crossed over HWY 26, we parted company with Robert, who was due in Roseburg later that day.

Following FS 2630, we hit the first rough patch of the day.

Just a few hundred yards up the road, I got a call on the radio to hold up; Ben had found a spring, and was filling up our cans. The girls and I waited on the side of the trail for the train to catch up, glad we wouldn't have to detour later.

We followed 2630 east up the north side of Mt. Pisgah, then turned up the hill west, and followed the trail all the way up to the lookout, where we could see just about every local mountain save St. Helens. We also had 4G and some bars way up there! I used the opportunity to track down a place to fill my propane cylinder. I just picked up a new 1-gallon unit, which I thought would be enough for the weekend, but I burned through the bulk of it cooking all the spaghetti the night before. Mitchell has no propane, but the gas station in Dayville said they could re-fill my tank. I persuaded Dan, (that is, I asked nicely,) to make the trip on his motorcycle, since he would be the fastest. He would head out when we got closer to FS 12.

Giving Dan directions to Dayville.

We headed down Pisgah on a road I'd never been on before. Pretty rocky, and would be a lot more fun climbing than descending.

We dropped out on FS 42, (paved,) and headed west toward the Lookout Mountain road, where I was planning on visiting the Motherlode and/or Independence mines. We had not seen too many people thus far, as we were well off the beaten track. That changed at the Lookout Mountain trailhead. Holy cow, there must have been two dozen cars already there. We made a group decision to head back east on 42 to the Blue Ridge mine to have some lunch and do a little foot exploring. Jeremy, Dave, and their girls took leave of us there, heading back to Portland. One of Jeremey's daughters was having an allergic reaction that Benadryl wasn't touching, and they wanted to get her home.

We continued on 42, east across the south end of the Big Summit Prairie. You could just see the lookout tower we had visited earlier that day. We crossed the North Fork of the Crooked River and followed it for just a bit before peeling off the pavement to the North, heading back into dirt and gravel.

We climbed, pretty shallow at first, and then more steeply, with water from a spring running down the left side of the two-track. I'd been here before, flatting the two right-side tires of my Tercel wagon in 2013. I was hoping not to repeat the performance.

I asked Ben to go ahead in Big Red, counting on him for a tow if I needed it, but praying I wouldn't. We got through the first rough patch, and I thought “this wasn't as bad as I remember!” Then I saw the road go back into the trees, and Ben slow way down as he entered it, and recalled that the worst was yet to come.

I waited what I thought was long enough for Ben to clear the next section, lots of camber change, dirt, deep in the shadows, and narrow. I would have to rely on inertia to get the girls and I up this stretch; it was way too steep for me to start again if we got stopped! We surged ahead, the girls cheering as we bounced our way up the trail, luck as much as skill guiding the old Volvo up the goat trail. We were doing fantastically well, better than I'd hoped, and then I saw the back of Ben's GMC, still lumbering up the trail. No, no, no! I got to within five feet of him and had to shut it down. In hindsight, I should have honked, but too much was on my mind. He never even knew we were there. After he stopped up ahead, I caught up to him on foot, and asked him to tow us out. I tried restarting, but couldn't get moving.

With revcovery strap attached, Ben started pulling us. I thought I'd make it easier, and assist. For whatever reason, I slipped it into reverse, started the engine, revved it up and dumped the clutch. The mighty 8.1L in Ben's truck didn't seem to notice, and kept pulling us along. Doug yelled to me that I was in reverse, and I embarrassingly put it back into first.

The rest of the crew made it through the trail with no issues, even the MDX. Ryan in the Grand Cherokee, “That's a pretty good road!”

The trail took us north through the Broadway Lava field back to 2630.

We split up at an old rock quarry, where some stayed to do some shooting, and some of us continued on to Cottonwood Pit campground to get set up, and go swimming in the old quarry there.
Alex and Ben were out in front in their GMCs, Adam was behind me in his Explorer. About five mile from the campsite, the Volvo let out a hellacious bang, and I could hear and feel things bouncing off the bottom of the car. Heavy things, not gravel. I pulled to the side of the road and shut the engine down. Adam pulled up next to me, “What's up?” Neither of us had a tow-strap, (and I didn't want to use my recovery strap for towing,) so off he went to the camp site to get help.

In the meantime, Abby, Libby, and I walked down the road, picking up the pieces of the Volvo's shattered block. Alex showed up shortly, and we flat-towed the Volvo to camp. I was able to get a cell phone call out to the Mrs., who reserved us a tow dolly in Redmond to be picked up the next day.

In the meantime, Ben had picked up a hole in his left rear tire, and had it off when I got back. He also had the truck off the hi-lift. No injuries save pride. The tire was plugged, and mounted back on the truck.
The shooting crew rolled in about the same time Dan returned with fresh propane. Chicken yakisoba stir fry was on the menu, so I was relieved to get the propane, as I didn't relish the thought of doing that meal over the fire, not cooking for 14 that is!

Lib caught the one and only rainbow, but was too small to keep!

The kids retired early that night, leaving the “adults” to philosophize around the fire about hummus, Fireball v. Black Velvet, and the sweet sweet sounds of a two-stroke bike; Brapppp, brapppp, bripp, brpp, brrp.

Next: Heading home!
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Ochoco Challenge 2016 - Sunday



Sunday breakfast was leftovers: biscuits and gravy, diced (deli) ham and eggs, French toast, cereal and coffee.

I love Sunday dishes, just pile everything in the Rubbermaid bin and bring it home.

Carnage update: Dustin managed to get a flat the day before, and had to run his spare the rest of the trip.

We split into three groups; Dustin, Colin, and Jason headed back to PDX. Ben, Alex and me doing the Volvo tow, and Dan, Ryan, and Doug continuing on the original plan of visiting the Painted Hills, Antelope, Shaniko, and Fossil.

While we waited for Ben to get back with the Dolly, we struck his campsite, and packed everything up. We being the "adults," the kids spent there time fishing!

Around noon, I got a 3G signal, that brought a text from Ben: “Drop the driveline.” I'm glad Alex stuck around to help, because breaking those driveshaft bolts loose would have been tough without him.

Ben got back to the campground, and we finally were ready to leave around two. Just some minor trailer light repair, and we were our our way!

It was nice to be back in AC again! Abby, Jack, and Libby read books most of the way home. I treated everyone to a meal from McDonalds in Madras. We got back home around eight o'clock. Side note, OMG, big-blocks are thirsty!

Volvo is in the driveway, empty of gear, and the dolly is back at U-Haul. I was getting lot of “encouragement” to do a V8 swap into the wagon, but the voice of prudence won; I currently have used B230 in the back of my Landcruiser.

Another awesome trip to the Ochocos! I've already got some ideas kicking around my head about where to go, what to see and do next year. There is still a lot of the Ochoco NF left to be explored! Do I make it easy on myself and take the Landcruiser, or do another "challenge" with the Volvo? Right now the leather, AC, and sound engine of the Toyota are very appealing!

Thank you Libby, Dustin, Ben, Doug, Jason, Ryan, and Adam for the photos! You guys are great!
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Your trip turned into an adventure, things went wrong. Part of the fun. My Volvos have served me well over the decades in the back country. I did have to come home once with the exhaust system strapped to my roof rack on the 245.
I enjoyed your report.


Overlanding Nurse
Great fun with great folks, well written. Thanks for inviting us along!

The Volvo. Definitely the Volvo...if travelling in company!
Thank you for the kind words guys. The Volvo is indeed a tank, and has more room, (at least to lay down in,) than the Landcruiser.

This is my 8th(?) trip report posted here on ExPo, and I'm really glad the timing worked out for this contest!

I'm hoping these will indeed be great memories for the kiddos!