By Steve Coram
More than 100 years ago, Washingtonians, on both the west and east sides of the Cascade Range, yearned for a viable northern crossing of the majestic mountain range bisecting the state. There was great hope of increased trade when the Cascade Wagon Road was opened in the late 19th century in the Upper Skagit River region. But it wasn't until the early 1970s that a paved highway was completed to link the northern reaches of the Cascades. The North Cascades Highway was not only a critical connecting link for tourism in the North Central Washington region, but also became a destination all its own and is now commonly referred to as the most spectacular mountain pass crossing in the entire state.
I always considered it my own personal tragedy that I had never been across the North Cascades Highway. And after becoming an owner of a Nissan LEAF two years ago, I succumbed to the idea of traveling into the "North American Alps." Driving a sub-100 mile EV from sea-level to almost 5,500ft. seemed like a great recipe for being stranded.
However, in just the past two years, electric vehicle infrastructure has improved immensely. The West Coast Green Highway established DC quick charging stations across another Cascade Range pass, Stevens Pass, allowing for Seattle-area EV travelers to head into Wenatchee, located on the east side of the state. And a grassroots effort by Plug-In North Central Washington to install high-amperage Level 2 charging stations north of Wenatchee made it possible for EV travelers to drive to the tourist playgrounds in Pateros, Winthrop, and Mazama along the eastern slopes of the Cascade Range.
The Stevens Pass route made EV travel to these wonderful locales possible. However, that direct-shot crossing of the North Cascades seemed like a pipe dream for Nissan LEAF drivers. Late last year, I actually wrote a blog entry about the possibility of driving a Nissan LEAF across the North Cascades Highway, traveling from west to east. In a nutshell, to successfully cross the North Cascades Highway in a Nissan LEAF, there would have to be a charging solution somewhere between Burlington (sea level) and Washington Pass (5,477ft).
With Seattle City Light still working through the bureaucracy of installing a Level 2 charging station at its Newhalem site, I started looking at the possibility of crossing the North Cascades Highway in reverse direction, from east to west. Using the West Coast Green Highway and Plug-In North Central Washington's charging infrastructure, I could easily get all the way to Mazama, WA located less than 20-miles east of Washington Pass. The trade-off was that it would take a full day of driving just to get to Mazama.
The trip was set: I was going to be the first Nissan LEAF driver to cross the North Cascades Highway! In my usual fashion, I decided to add a bit extra to the trip to make it fun for my kids (convincing my wife that it was a great idea for me to take our two children, ages six and three, for 24 hours didn't take much persuasive power). Before crossing the North Cascades Highway from Mazama, I would drive our LEAF to, according to DangerousRoads.org, the highest point reachable by car in the state, Hart's Pass. Actually, we would continue past Hart's Pass and drive up to Slate Peak before descending a vertical mile back into the town of Mazama.
We arrived at the Level 2 charging station in Mazama 11 hours after leaving home. It was about 97 degrees outside and mid-afternoon. We still had to go to the highest point in the state accessible by car, back down, charge, then make a first-ever drive across another mountain pass to get home. Not wanting to bake in the hot weather any longer, I did some quick calculations and decided that with the 71% charge our LEAF had, we could make it to Slate Peak and back without being stranded.
Let me be blunt: nobody should drive a Nissan LEAF up to Hart's Pass. If doing this trip in a car, the minimum capability vehicle would be a Subaru. We saw quite a few 4x4s. For reference, the only two other vehicles that made it all the way up to Slate Peak were two old, no-muffler, lifted Toyota trucks.
I'm getting a bit ahead of myself. Yes, we made it to Slate Peak! I recorded an ending elevation reached by our Nissan LEAF as 7,283ft. However, leaving Mazama with a 71% charge was nearly a fatal mistake. Just as soon as we arrived to Hart's Pass (6,197ft.) the Low Battery Warning chimed in the LEAF. From Hart's Pass, the fire lookout tower at Slate Peak can be easily seen. I couldn't resist my daughter asking to "Go up there!" to see the tower. There is more than a thousand feet of elevation gain driving the three miles from Hart's Pass to Slate Peak, though. Our Nissan LEAF quickly barked at us with a Very Low Battery Warning within the first couple of switchbacks. I was committed, though. Anything for the kids, right?
After parking, the kids and I hiked the remaining distance to the fire lookout tower at the top of Slate Peak. The views were INCREDIBLE!
On the way back down from Slate Peak, the car regenerated about 2,500 watt-hours. This is not as much as an EV driver may expect from a vertical mile descent. We were traveling too slow on the decent back into Mazama to transition much from the friction brakes and take advantage of brake regeneration.
Back in Mazama, at the Mazama Country Inn, we plugged into the Level 2 charging station. We were all exhausted and starving, so we went into the restaurant for some hamburgers and air-conditioned relaxation.
While the kids slept after dinner, I sat there for about 45 minutes trying to make a final decision on how to best approach the next part of the EVentrue: the North Cascades Highway. During the week prior to departure, I had spent considerable time reaching out to various RV Parks located on the west side of Washington Pass. However, not a single inquiry was welcomed. I figured that I had two choices. One, pull into one of the RV Parks and start charging without the blessing of the management. Even though I was unlikely to make EV-converts out of the RV Park folks, I didn't really want to succumb to guerrilla tactics for getting my car charged. My other option was to drive all the way to the next charging station, a CHAdeMO quick charger located in Burlington, WA. It was 121 miles away.
In my pre-trip planning, I never even considered this second option. All of the elevation profiles and mileage charts that I created and saved for reference along the trip had us leaving Mazama and stopping at one of the RV Parks along the way into Burlington. But as I started putting the elevation profiles together, I became more convinced that the long-shot attempt of driving 121 miles was possible. So, after three hours of charging in Mazama, we departed.
Once at the summit of Washington Pass, I pulled over to take a quick picture of the accomplishment and to try and take in the grandeur of the North Cascades under the moon's light. Both kids were asleep in the back, so I figured that I should treat myself to some solitude while I had it. It was that isolation that ended up surprising me. While looking around at the summit, I realized that I had not seen another vehicle since leaving Mazama. Why weren't people driving on the North Cascades Highway?
Underway again, and now starting the long decent into Burlington, it dawned on me. People choose to not drive on the North Cascades Highway at night. Not at night because of all the deer! Up to that point, I had passed seven deer on the roadway. Each time, the deer behaved in a consistent manner when our car approached: Head raised; body moved in place--usually sticking their rump at me; then, as we passed, the deer would hop into the brush. When we approached the eighth deer, I didn't think twice. I shifted from neutral to B Mode (heavy regen) to slow down as we passed the deer until it hopped away. But this time, after the deer raised its head and turned its bum to us, it darted right at our car! It happened impossibly fast...the swerving, horn blaring, daddy cursing, brake pedal mashing...deer hitting. At 11pm, on a deserted mountain pass with no cell service, I hit a freakin' deer.
After coming to a complete stop, I hopped out of the car. The deer was gone; hopefully hopping through the trees. In trying to assess the situation and regain my composure, I started looking the car over. Right away, it was clear that a new hood, new bumper, new fender, and new headlight would be needed to fix my car. Thirteen days after delivery, I smashed my car. I didn't even have the license plate mounted yet!
Back in the car, and getting underway once more, it struck me at how lucky we were. If I had hit the deer straight on, instead of at the corner of the front end, we would've been in a completely different scenario. It was a chilling thought to say the least.
The remaining drive into Burlington was actually quite pleasurable. My children were zonked out in the back seat and I was the only car on the road. And I only encountered one more deer, this time without incident.
Pulling into the Burlington CHAdeMO quick charging station, my LEAF was at the very moment of going into "Turtle Mode," as one battery cell was down to 3.050 volts (hat tip to Tyrel Haveman for the data analysis). We had driven 121 miles on the single charge. A new record for me!
The world is getting smaller to us EV drivers. It won't be much longer when we look back on these EVentures with amusement and nostalgia. The transportation world is changing quickly, and the future stories of EV travel will likely be more about the destination, rather than the journey. But for now, it is all about the journey. The EV pioneering travels!