Ladd Canyon offers drivers on Interstate 84 a challenging array of winter-time issues, such as black ice, whiteouts and fog. Nick Myatt, who lives in Baker City and works for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, has made more than 200 trips through the canyon between Baker City and La Grande since he was assigned a temporary job in the ODFW in June 2011. Despite the sometimes difficult driving conditions, Myatt said he has actually witnessed only one accident, and never been in one himself. CHRIS BAXTER/The Observer
by BILL RAUTENSTRAUCH, JAYSON JACOBY and CHRIS COLLINS / WesCom News Service
Interstate 84 offers locals who drive it daily a range of difficult driving conditions
After more than 200 trips through Ladd Canyon, the Interstate 84 pass between Baker City and La Grande known for its fearsome blizzards, Nick Myatt knows one thing for certain.
His next car will have four-wheel drive.
“This experience will definitely affect my decision about what car to buy next,” said Myatt, who lives in Baker City and works for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.
Since June 2011, when he was assigned to a temporary job with the agency in La Grande, Myatt has made the 90-mile round trip five days a week most weeks.
He traveled most of those miles in his 2002 Chevrolet Cavalier.
It’s a decent choice for the task, with its relatively economical four-cylinder engine and front-wheel drive, which offers better traction than rear-wheel drive.
But not as good as four-wheel drive.
“It can be a pretty dicey stretch of freeway,” said Myatt.
And an unpredictable one.
Although Ladd Canyon is the most notorious part of Myatt’s commute, he said any section of the route can be treacherous.
“It entirely depends on the day,” he said. “Some days it’s Ladd, or it’s worse between Baker City and Baldock Slough (about five miles north of Baker City). You just never know.”
Despite the sometimes difficult driving conditions, which range from black ice to whiteouts to fog, Myatt said he has actually witnessed only one accident, and never been in one himself.
There have been a few “close calls,” however, he said.
“Most everyone realizes that they need to be cautious, and traffic slows down,” Myatt said. “There’s an occasional SUV that comes blowing past you, going way too fast for the conditions.”
He has many times seen the aftermath of a driver who perhaps underestimated the lack of traction.
“I’ve seen as many as six trucks off the road just in the three-mile stretch by the rest area (in Baker Valley, about eight miles north of Baker City),” Myatt said.
He considers black ice the most dangerous hazard because unlike, say, a heavy snowfall, black ice is not always readily apparent.
Myatt is hardly the only Northeastern Oregon resident whose job requires him to ply I-84 on a near-daily basis.
Gerald Hopkins, Summerville
Gerald Hopkins commutes from his home in Summerville in the central Grande Ronde Valley to the school in North Powder, a town by the freeway about 25 miles south of La Grande.
It’s an 80-mile round trip Hopkins makes four or five days a week. He catches the freeway in La Grande in the morning, and gets off it at night at the same exit.
The greatest danger of the route, in his view, is that some drivers, many of them probably not familiar with the area’s topography and weather, don’t recognize the risks and do careless things.
“The main thing is, people who are not familiar with the road are the ones who get into trouble,” said Hopkins, who’s the principal at North Powder Charter School.
He said that in winter, a particularly troublesome spot on his drive to work is the eastbound stretch of road leading down from the top of the Ladd Canyon hill toward North Powder.
“That’s where I see a lot of accidents. It’s steep and they get going too much, and they can’t brake or their brakes lock up,” Hopkins said. “Most of the accidents I see are trucks not used to the icy conditions and moving too fast.”
He added that trucks stopped in Ladd Canyon to chain up have potential to clog the freeway and create hazards during heavy snowfall.
“Sometimes they double up and I’ve had a hard time getting around them. I’ve had to wait behind,” he said.
Before going to work at North Powder, Hopkins was a school administrator 13 years at Huntington, a town along I-84 about 50 miles east of Baker City. He had a place to stay in Huntington, but also spent a lot of time driving to and from his home in Summerville.
He said that in his long experience as a regular I-84 traveler, he’s seen the Oregon Department of Transportation work hard to keep the road passable and safe.
“The highway department does a good job. They usually have police up there in the mountains when the snow’s coming down hard,” he said.
Sandi Fuller, Weiser, Idaho
“I don’t love the drive,” said Sandi Fuller, who works at Marvin Wood Products in Baker City. “But my circumstances warrant that I make it.”
Fuller’s commute includes a 50-mile stretch of I-84 between Farewell Bend, just over the Malheur County line, and Baker City.
It’s not an especially imposing section in a topographical sense, with no grades to rival Ladd Canyon or Cabbage Hill.
But the route climbs from just over 2,000 feet elevation at Farewell Bend to 4,000 at the Pleasant Valley summit about eight miles east of Baker City.
“The temperature difference between Weiser and Baker City can be as much as 10 degrees,” Fuller said. “I always check the road conditions on my phone before I leave, and I have a thermometer in my car that I pay attention to.”
Fuller also is well-acquainted with Cabbage Hill; she lived in Milton-Freewater, near the Washington border, while she was attending Eastern Oregon University in La Grande.
Cabbage Hill’s combination of 6-percent grades, curves and frequent cloaking fog — which sometimes coats the road with ice — can be intimidating, Fuller said.
“Sometimes it’s a good idea to just stay home,” she said. “Awareness of the conditions is huge.”
Fuller said that although she thinks advances in auto technology, in particular four-wheel drive and anti-lock brakes, probably lend some drivers a false sense of security, she rarely sees what she would describe as “reckless” driving.
“People tend to be careful when they need to be,” she said.
Wendee Morrissey, Medical Springs
Although the notion of driving a big school bus — and one loaded with precious teenage cargo, no less — might seem intimidating to many motorists, Wendee Morrissey said there’s actually an advantage to all that mass.
Buses actually have pretty good traction, despite being rear-wheel drive vehicles, said Morrissey, whose job requires her to haul Baker High School sports teams on the entire section of Interstate 84 through the Blue Mountains.
The Bulldogs’ conference opponents include Ontario, 70 miles southeast of Baker City, and Milton-Freewater northeast of Pendleton; the latter trip includes about 90 miles of the freeway between Baker City and Mission, near Pendleton.
Besides the added traction, buses have an advantage in height compared to passenger cars.
“Visibility is so much better in a school bus,” Morrissey said. “You can see what’s coming and prepare for it.”
Baker’s school buses are equipped with automatic chains — which drivers can activate from their seat — as well as conventional chains.
Morrissey, who has never had an accident during her 27-year career, said the best way to deal with ice and snow is also the simplest: slow down.
“Sometimes you do 10 mph,” she said. “You give yourself as much space as you can.”
Morrissey said she worries as much about water puddled in lane ruts, and wind gusts, as she does about snow and ice.
Puddles can cause buses to hydroplane, and the tall, long buses are vulnerable to strong winds.
Brian Tannehill, North Powder
Another frequent commuter on the interstate is Brian Tannehill, an employee of La Grande-based Hodgen Distributing who lives in North Powder.
These days, Tannehill delivers beverage products to customers in Baker and Wallowa counties in a minivan, but in other times he drove a truck. He said he’s been driving truck in Northeastern Oregon off and on the last 41 years.
He said that over a long stretch of time, I-84 has become much busier.
“I started when I was 21 years old. I can remember a time when I’d top Ladd Canyon and look off toward the Baker Valley at five in the morning, and I’d see the headlights of one or two cars. Now it’s a steady stream,” Tannehill said.
ODOT figures bear out his observation.
In 1972, the average traffic count along the stretch was around 4,500 vehicle per day. Now, the number surpasses 9,000.
Tannehill said that over the years he’s learned to adjust his driving to conditions, knows by the look and feel of things whether he should be doing 60 miles an hour or 35. Like Hopkins, he thinks most of the wrecks on the interstate happen because of driver error.
“That’s everything. You just have people go flying by you. They go too fast and don’t realize they might have to brake suddenly,” he said. “I’ve never seen a dead body, but you see the wrecks. I know there’s been a tremendous amount of truck crashes.”
Tannehill said he thinks vehicles are better equipped now than they were in the past, and he’s especially happy that the van he drives has siped tires that hold the road well.
He also said he’s pleased with the condition of the highway and its safety features, though he said he questions whether the heat strips installed in Ladd Canyon a few years ago are truly effective. He also said that sometimes, when the snow is particularly heavy and the wind is blowing hard, reader boards can be difficult to make out.
As for ODOT’s maintenance crews, Tannehill had nothing but praise.
“I think they do a tremendous job. They’re out there 24-7,” he said.
Matt Henneke, La Grande
Matt Henneke works as an information technology specialist for the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation.
Throughout the week, Henneke makes the drive along I-84, negotiating along the way the curves and 6-percent grades of Cabbage Hill. He said the road is well-maintained and he has no issues with the way ODOT does its job.
“I have to drive the road twice in a day, and I see the plows out, keeping the road clear of obstacles,” he said.
He added that for him, the key to driving safely in winter is to test the conditions and adjust speed accordingly.
He also said he that while he often sees people driving too fast for the conditions, he thinks people going too slow can be a hazard as well.
“I don’t think they should be doing 20 miles an hour when they could be doing 50,” he said.
Ty Duby, Baker City
Oregon State Police Sgt. Ty Duby, who has spent the past 15 years in the OSP criminal division, is supervising the patrol unit of the Baker City office temporarily this winter, with staffing at an all-time low of four troopers. They are charged with patrolling the 50 miles of freeway between Weatherby, southeast of Baker City, and North Powder.
In the past the officers’ responsibilities had extended another 20 miles southeast to Farewell Bend, but that line was drawn in because of the low number of troopers available to respond, Duby said. Officers from La Grande and Ontario are called upon when extra help is needed, and OSP also has had to rely on the Baker County Sheriff’s Department to help provide coverage throughout the county.
Duby said the officers responded to “a ton” of crashes on icy roads this winter.
“Everybody says it was obvious they were driving too fast for the icy conditions,” he said.
In most cases, the crash involved just one vehicle and was the result of driver inexperience.
“They start sliding and then brake,” he said. “They spin out of control, slide into the median and roll over once.”
Duby said drivers are especially surprised when they travel through the Encina area at Milepost 313, about 10 miles south of Baker City. With an elevation of 4,028 feet above sea level, it is the second highest point on the freeway between Portland and Ontario, behind only the 4,193-foot Blue Mountain Summit near Meacham.
Crashes happen as the travelers make their way through Baker City, which is about 600 feet lower and less likely to have ice or snow, and then hit slick roads just a few miles out of town.
“They get up there and it’s iced over,” Duby said, and they lose control.
Duby says he’s slid off the road en route to skiing at Anthony Lakes, but it’s a head-on collision his brother, Tad, was involved in years ago that made an impression on him.
“People are just oblivious for the most part,” he said. “It’s weird, until you’ve been in a crash — especially inexperienced drivers — you don’t realize how fast it can happen and the magnitude of it. It’s hard to fathom.”