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With rain threatening, Oregons many rain shadows offer dry escape

by: Darryl Swan BLUE SKIES AHEAD — Jim Swan, brother to Spotlight Publisher Darryl Swan, surveys blue skies to the east of a basalt outcrop located northeast of Mt. Hood. Rain-free conditions can often be found in the Cascades’ rain shadow, the result of warm, moist air discharging on the mountain’s windward side, allowing dry air to advance.

It's not that my brother Jim and I couldn't have handled a spell of cold, damp camping in Mt. Rainier's back country over his birthday weekend, which is pretty much what the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration had been forecasting for July 16-17.

Much of our philosophical leanings in the realms of hiking and camping, in fact, are centered on the extreme; tales about Italian mountaineer Reinhold Messner - who shattered perceptions about 8,000-meter ascents in the Himalaya - or Earnest H. Shakleton's legendary Trans-Antarctic expedition, stir our blood and imaginations to ambitious heights.

But it had been a pretty crappy spring. And the western Oregon summer even in the immediate weeks following the near-sacred July 4 milestone, when UV rays are supposed to be the norm and not the exception, was shaping up to be a letdown.

Let's not forget that Jim, having only recently traveled for a bit of holiday fun from Pennsylvania, hadn't fully appreciated reports about the lingering cool air and snowpack in the Cascades' upper reaches, and hence brought a lightweight sleeping bag rated to a liberal 30 degrees.

Therein, however, lies a different kind of Oregon amazement: We have choices.

Having scrapped our plans to venture into the 7,000-foot threshold of Mt. Rainier's southern flank, Jim scouted the Internet for an alternative trip. We decided on a spot located at the northeastern edge of the Mt. Hood National Forest, in the rain shadow.

Rain shadows are dry zones positioned leeward of large mountain ranges, such as the Cascades. They're the result of moist, warm systems that converge with cooler, high elevations and drop their precipitation on the mountain's windward side and at the top.

It turned out to be a perfect strategy. Throughout Saturday we had the luxury of watching storm clouds collect to our southwest and northwest, including a few thunder bursts, all while drenched in rain-shadow sunlight. An additional bonus was that the wilderness area we chose - about 20 miles west of Dufur off of National Forest Development Road 44 - was nearly vacant, whether the result of its somewhat obscurity or because the Portland outdoor circuit snuffed its weekend excursion plans upon waking to rainy skies is hard to tell.

Still, we employed the two-man tent's rain fly to good effect (a few sprinkles and one mildly hard stretch of precipitation during the chilly night) and planned ahead of time for the worst, though it never came.

Sunday we awoke to morning sunlight and textured skies that maintained the clear line of sight to the hazelnut-brown desert plateau east of the last ridge of Douglas fir.

Unlike prior trips, such as climbs up Mt. St. Helens or roundtrips near Broken Top or Gray Butte, this one didn't leave us with a sense we had tested our mettle against nature and arrived on the other side better men because of it.

But we had a good time and enjoyed beautiful weather and comradery while tromping through beautiful country, and that's worth a lot.

Messner and Shakleton be damned.