Riding out dangerous Northwest heat wave

  • The Epic Van in an epic heat wave in western Washington state, trying to hide in the old-growth Douglas fir.

By Tom Nichols

We’re baking in the midday sun, even while sheltering under old-growth Douglas firs at Rockport State Park.

“I’m in the sun again and I’m about to cry,” Judy says, as our chair dance, perpetual jockeying on the checker-boarded forest floor, moving away from sunshine and into soothing shade. It’s our third day in the northern Cascades.

Blitzed by a record heat wave in the Northwest, worst since the 19th century, Judy and I scramble to stay as cool as possible while keeping close enough to a sports bar to enjoy the Phoenix Suns playoff run in the Western Conference finals.

The forecast high today is 110 at Howard Miller Steelhead Park, our unshaded county camp site along the North Cascades Highway. It’s the best camp we can find during peak vacation season.

At least the overnight lows on the west side of Washington Pass are only in the high 70s, much preferable to the road east.

Our strategy for coping with high temperatures is well rehearsed: keep the tin can out of direct sun if possible, vent the windows, put up reflecting foil, turn the exhaust van all the way up and stay outdoors until 9 p.m. while the Epic Van and its contents cool to a tolerable degree.

It’s so hot Judy is ready to switch on the air conditioner at our plug-in site. It’s the first time she is eager for artificial air since our first Epic Van summer near Glacier National Park in 2015.

The unit lurches to a start, puffing to circulate cold air. Then no follow through. There’s something wrong with the fan. The unit worked fine the last time I used it in her mom’s driveway in Scottsdale.

As added precaution during the heat emergency, we bought a Washington State Parks day-use pass to shelter our van and sit among the shadiest trees available. For additional cooling, we intend to dip our toes into the glacier-fed waters along the Skagit River at Rasar State Park. (The park attendant warns visitors against swimming because the current is fast and life-threatening; flows are near peak.)

Unfortunately, we are so rattled by our exposed campsite and eager to get a parking spot at Rasar that chairs are left behind. Judy and I will lounge by the cooling river tomorrow, dammit.

When we finally sat by the river, birches sheltered us all day, until we left at 4 p.m.

Our original plan was to leave North Cascade National Park for a weeklong roll through eastern Washington on the way to Yellow Pine, Idaho, for July 4.

After checking forecasts for dozens of places in Washington, Idaho and Montana, where temperatures are forecast at 110-plus, we will take a one-day Death Valley-like drive to Joseph, Oregon, where the daytime high is forecast in the upper 90s.


  1. Reply
    Kirstin June 29, 2021

    Yikes! Glad you are able to find cooler spots up the road. Stay safe!

    • Reply
      Judy Nichols July 6, 2021

      It was BRUTAL!

  2. Reply
    Meredith stewart June 29, 2021

    Oh wow. That seems hot. I’m mean it is ROASTING in phx but we Phoenicians know…we don’t leave the ac even if Target is calling. Take care. Sorry about chairs. I bet feet felt great in river. Xxoo Meredith

    • Reply
      Judy Nichols July 6, 2021

      Thanks, Mer! No one has AC up here. Crazy hot!

  3. Reply
    Jeannine Dahl July 4, 2021

    Looking good,tom

    • Reply
      Judy Nichols July 6, 2021

      Thanks, Mom!

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