HUNT FOR THE TOLLGATE, OREGON METEORITE
In the early hours of February 19, 2008 a large meteor exploded approximately 17 miles above a rugged and snow covered mountain region near Tollgate, Oregon. It is possible that some meteorites survived and though an actual recovery would be highly unlikely, Rob Wesel, Dave Hess, and Mike Bandli decided it would make for a worthwhile adventure. This was our first meteorite hunt and let's face it -- We had no idea what we were doing, but it sure was fun and the trip would solidify a new friendship that continues to this day.
Tollgate Meteorite Recon
After a 6.5 hour drive from Puyallup, Washington, I met up with Rob and Dave in the small farm-town of Athena, Oregon. We immediately hit the local stores and hang-outs interviewing and educating people and hanging flyers. Nearly everyone in town heard the massive boom from the meteor. An employee at the hardware store said startled her father and described the sound as 'like a plane crashing nearby.'
After a quick run through Athena we drove to meet Larry, our pilot. After reviewing maps and proposed trajectories the four of us crammed into the small Cessna and headed for Tollgate.
We flew over the proposed fall area for approximately 1 hour and 45 minutes. The view from the plane was breathtaking and gave us a good idea of what kind of terrain and vegetation we were up against on this hunt.
Copyright - M.Bandli - Historic Meteorites
The next town on the way up was Weston (not that Weston!). With a population of 700, it was a perfect town to spread the word that a meteorite may have fallen nearby. The three of us canvassed the town and hung more flyers. The people were extremely friendly and fascinated when we showed them examples of fresh meteorites. After speaking with the Sheriff we learned that there was a large snowmobiling community up at Tollgate. This was good news as it could provide an easier way to access the vast stretches of mountains and ridges in the rugged and snow-capped area we wished to search.
We arrived at Tollgate mid-day and decided to focus on interviewing and educating the locals and snowmobilers. Rob happened to meet a friendly man named James Taylor, who had 29 years of Snowmobiling experience in this area. Later, he would prove to be our golden ticket for being able to search this area. In a short period of time Rob secured a guide, three snowmobiles, and a place to stay.
Before calling it a day, we made a quick trip to the east side of the mountains to the town of Elgin. Again, we split up, interviewed and educated people, and hung flyers in businesses. This completed a successful sweep of the closest surrounding towns to the proposed triangulations.
The Real Adventure Begins
We left base in the morning and wasted no time beginning our hunt. We drove our snowmobiles down miles of winding roads, stopping at various locations and constantly checking the GPS. Getting anywhere close to the area we wanted to search was proving to be a challenge. The fact that we were in such a beautiful place and were riding snowmobiles masked most of the frustration of finding the right spot. If not for our volunteer guide, James, it would be impossible to navigate the rat's nest of trails we explored.
Our guide - James Taylor
Rob Wesel checking our bearings
Me trying out the snow-shoes
Rob demonstrating why snow-shoes are necessary
Search on Foot
We got as close as possible to the bulls-eye with our snowmobiles and decided to mount a search on foot. While navigating through some deep woods I found myself resting 10 feet away from a Cougar's den with fresh tracks. I didn't even bother taking a picture and got the hell out of there. The three of us strapped on snowshoes and resumed search while James guarded our snowmobiles and other gear.
The hike through the woods was a workout. Even with snowshoes, I found myself having to rest about every 100 feet. We broke through the woods and came into a pristine open area with small growth. It was perfect hunting grounds. Lichens and seedlings would occasionally show themselves as a dark spot or hole in the snow and, all to often, got our hopes up.
Daylight was running short and we had to have the snowmobiles back by 6 pm. We eventually turned around and headed back to James. The drive back to base was surreal. It was a race on the machines to get back before dark. Clouds were rolling in and it was starting to snow a bit.
Despite not finding any meteorites, the experience of the hunt was well worth the long drive. The many kind people we met coupled with a great recovery team and the experience of snowmobiling through remote terrain proved to be one of the most thrilling times I've had in years.
If meteorites were produced from this fall then they can be found. Work continues in the area and we remain hopeful. This was just the first look. One thing is for certain: The people of Tollgate and the surrounding towns have been educated and will be looking for meteorites over the next year. As a result, the chances of finding material have been increased dramatically.