Winter driving musings

As we progress through this first winter split between Portland and Enterprise, I’ve been noticing more and more differences between winter driving in Eastern Oregon and winter driving on Mt. Hood. Most obvious (besides the crowds!): Hood is wetter, even when it’s snowing. That means there’s a greater potential to slide on ice on Hood than over Meacham, because by golly, if there’s going to be a low temp for the day in winter, Meacham (on I-84 over the Blue Mountains) is most likely to be one of the coldest spots in the state where the Hood passes tend to run right at freezing. It’s a lot harder to skid on ice with temps in the teens or lower F.  As I remembered the other day, on our way to Portland for Christmas, when a driver in Lostine started backing out of a parking space without looking, and I hit the brakes to keep from getting caught between inattentive driver and parked ranch truck. It was slower braking than non-icy dry pavement, but no spin, no scary skid. I can think of times on 26 where a brake like that might mean heading for the ditch.

But there’s more to it than that. Chain conditions on Hood in my past experience focus more on either carry chains or else everyone chains up (unless you have traction tires). Not so over the Blues. There’s three conditions there–carry (A), vehicles over 10,000 lbs/towing chain up (B), or everyone chains unless traction tires (and sometimes even then) (C).  I’ve yet to see the fabled C condition over the Blues but that may be a factor of weather bad enough that we stay put (i.e., I don’t wanna be there). B conditions can be hairy enough.

Granted, a lot of the craziness over Hood has to do with lots of ski resorts/winter play areas near a major urban center, plus it being a major route to and from winter recreation in the Bend area. That means lots of inexperienced drivers who are either overly timid or too aggressive for the conditions. Not so much over the Blues, though stuff still happens far too easily (again, there are certain conditions we watch for that will cause a trip abort and reschedule. Freezing fog is one of those, big time). However, most drivers going over Meacham in winter usually know what they’re doing and adjust their speed accordingly. Nonetheless, so far the conditions over Meacham have been much less scary than my daily commute up the Mountain was during a typical winter.

The other thing is that besides the difference in chain conditions, the warning system from the Oregon DOT doesn’t quite match what I’m accustomed to on Hood. “Severe Winter Warning” on Hood usually means things like “eeek. Damn. Slick! EEEEKKK. Getting OFF this road ASAP!!! OMG, I’m home, Break Out The Booze To Settle My Nerves.”

But I’ve seen “Severe Winter Warning” in Enterprise for packed snow that, while it bears watching, is pretty much standard winter conditions for at least a couple of months here. So I’m needing to recalibrate what those warnings mean–which usually means looking at several websites to figure out what the weather is bringing.

Weather. We’re in a radar hole here, an area of small population with interesting microclimates and geology that affects things like winds, precipitation, and temperatures. There’s a local weather site that puts all the radars on one page and advises a look at Boise and Pendleton radars to get a better picture of Enterprise weather. I’ve found that looking at Portland and Medford frequently is a good idea as well–with the storms of December, trying to figure out how badly we were going to get hit by rain and wind involved that sort of triangulation. The last big snow dump, people in Cove and Elgin got much more snow than we did here. We’ve also had less intense winds.

To some degree the mountains to the south that cause our weather also shelter us from some things. I’m still figuring out just how that works, but having visibility up to 10-15 miles down the mountain chain kind of helps. I’ve been watching as storms that I thought would come through town cling to the mountains and don’t spread unless they are very big.

And even though we’re at a higher elevation than the lower valley, we got a graphic illustration of how cold air sinks while driving home. We went from 5 degrees F in Wallowa to 15 degrees F at our house in Enterprise, going by the temperature gauge in the Subaru.

So it’s a winter. Snow flurries from Cascade Locks to Pendleton, then sun from the top of Cabbage Hill until we got home. We had to sweep the driveway to clear two inches of dry, fluffy snow–and it was much more comfortable out than when we loaded the car at 28 degrees in Portland with a stiff east wind.

Now we’re tucked in with a nice wood stove and staying warm, even though the temp outside is now -3 F.

Winter is here.

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