Exciting 4-H Wagon Train ends early due to wildfires

by: COURTESY PHOTO: MARK MCBREARTY - Riders on the 4-H Wagon Train headed into the haze last week as they trekked near Central Oregon wildfires.Sweeping prairie views vanished in a smoky haze. Ash fell like snow in 90-degree weather. A neon-red sun burned in the sky and smoke stung their eyes and nostrils.

But for many participating in this year’s 4-H Wagon Train, it was one of the best trips they’ve had.

The wagon train drew 65 adventurers ages 10 to 82 on a 70-mile journey along a section of the Oregon Trail through the Ochoco National Forest via horse, wagon and foot.

Unfortunately, “The Ochoco Odyssey” also led participants into wildfires — collectively known as the Lava Fire — burning near Big Summit Prairie and Prineville.

“Maybe we could have finished and it would’ve been okay,” said Mitch Watson, who lives in Gaston and served as this year’s wagon master. “But I think going home early was the way to go.”

As the group traveled into Big Summit Prairie late last week, they saw plumes of smoke rising where they were set to camp that night. Soon after, wagon-train members saw increasingly larger helicopters flying overhead and dumping water onto distant flames.

At one point they came within a mile of the blaze.

The animals seemed unconcerned, Watson said. But the wildfire made some 4-H travelers nervous, including one who had once driven through a California fire with flames flying over the car.

Group members considered traveling at night to put more space between the wagon train and the fire. They also considered splitting up, with the more worried travelers hurrying ahead on their own. Ultimately they rejected both those ideas as unsafe.

“We banded together,” Watson said.

“There were times you couldn’t see 100 yards in front of you because of the smoke,” said Mark McBrearty of Beaverton, 16. “But we weren’t in danger at any time.”by: COURTESY PHOTO: MARK MCBREARTY - Mules worked hard to pull this wagon out of water last week on The Ochoco Odyssey.

Near the end of the trip, forest-service employees directed the wagon train off its intended path and away from the blazing public lands until participants found themselves camping between two streams on the Big Muddy ranch, welcomed by landowner Craig Woodward.

This was Linda Brim’s fifth time on the wagon train — and her favorite by far. “I was thrilled to see the Ochocos and Big Summit Prairie,” said the Astoria resident. “We all knew the fire was serious but we felt completely safe.”

Woodward gave the group a tour of his working ranch (which isn’t usually open to the public), complete with historic buildings and antique farm equipment. He shared stories of the prairie and a history of the Native Americans who once roamed those hills.

“I sensed that Craig [Woodward] was so into what we were trying to teach the kids that he wanted to help us out,” Brim said. “The kids wouldn’t have been able to experience anything like this anywhere else.”

by: COURTESY PHOTO: MARK MCBREARTY - Organizers are looking to recruit more walkers, riders and drivers for next years event. “This year was so scenic with all the open prairie land,” said McBrearty, who’s been on the wagon train four other times and considered the Big Muddy stop his favorite part. “And we got to explore all these old barns and houses.”

The next day, the group loaded up the animals and equipment and headed home.

Even though it ended early, McBrearty said, “it felt complete when we were done.”

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