Monday, January 20, 2014

EV Scenic Byways: Historic Columbia River Highway


Broadly defined as those cultural bits that we identify ourselves with at various moments in our history. For some, Americana defines us on a personal level.  


CHAdeMO Quick Charger
When my unborn grandchildren study American cultural artifacts from the first half of the 21st century, I believe that they will look at the electric vehicle (EV) quick charger as a piece of Americana. Much like how the drive-in movie theatre defined the post-WWII America six decades ago, CHAdeMO or Tesla Supercharger stations will be cultural icons of Generations Y and Z. 

There is little doubt that the internal combustion engine (ICE), gasoline-powered car will inevitably go the way of the dodo. The trump card for ICE vehicles now, though, is a massive infrastructure.  With more than 120,000 gas stations in the U.S., Americans are free to travel from sea to shining sea as easily as commuting to work from the burbs.  

On a societal level, for electric cars to replace our gasoline-powered vehicles, EVs must be able to do just that: take us to work and allow the freedom to travel long distances.  The requirement of traveling to work was satisfied with the release of the first mass production EV, the Nissan LEAF.  The LEAF allows for travel at highway speeds with all of the driving comforts we expect of our vehicles. Lacking, though, was a nation-wide infrastructure of quick charging stations to support long distance travel.  

Now with the pace of quick charger installations picking up, there is a growing interest from LEAF owners to use their EVs for road tripping duties, too. The U.S. now has more than 300 CHAdeMO charging stations, and although the LEAF is range-limited to about 75 miles per charge, one could theoretically drive their EV in perpetuity if there was an abundance of quick charging infrastructure.

CHAdeMO in WA & OR (January, 2014)
The possibility of limitless driving is becoming a reality in the western halves of Oregon and Washington. There, government-backed efforts have established the backbone of a robust CHAdeMO infrastructure. 

After my wife and I transitioned to owning two LEAFs, and no ICE cars, I longed to take my family on impromptu weekend excursions and far-reaching road trips.

Recently, while looking at the CHAdeMO location maps on, I discovered that I could now drive a LEAF east of Portland, OR...quick charging all the way out to The Dalles. 

A trip from where we live (35 miles north of Seattle) into the heart of the Land-o-CHAdeMO (Oregon) would allow me to test the LEAF's ability to quick charge time after time, and hopefully cover some serious mileage. 

Taking my two kids (ages six and two) on a weekend trip to Oregon sounded great; all the better was that we could check out the town of The Dalles, which is where my father grew up.

The drive east of Portland, along the Columbia River, is a simple affair in an EV. Oregon has CHAdeMO charging stations located in Cascade Locks, Hood River, and The Dalles; all installed as part of the West Coast Green Highway.

Because my children would be with me, I plotted out some sight seeing along the Historic Columbia River Highway.  This 15 mile "highway" is a two-lane affair that runs parallel to I-84 along the Columbia River, between the CHAdeMO stations in Wood Village, OR and Cascade Locks, OR. With seven easily-accessed waterfalls and six state parks along the way, it is no wonder this section of byway was named one of ten "Ultimate Road Trips" in the world by National Geographic. The Historic Columbia River Highway's design is also impressive, as the grades never exceed 5%...making this road truly an "EV friendly" scenic byway.

The Historic Columbia River Highway: Then and Now

The night before my kids and I departed, I took out my father's autobiography, which he completed before passing away five years ago. It was actually the first time since Dad passed that I was able to get myself to read his life story. 

Flipping to the parts that talked about his family's time living in The Dalles, I read his account of the byway: "...and we moved over the Old Columbia Highway that was very crooked and had panoramic views of the Columbia Gorge. At one point, the whole hillside collapsed just behind our car with huge boulders crashing onto the highway."  This piqued my interest! 

Continuing through Dad's writing, I read more about his time living in The Dalles . What I was really hoping for was to read about a kid-friendly stop in The Dalles that would be a nice grand finale for our road trip. Dad's account of Celilo Falls seemed to perfectly fit the bill:

...(Celilo Falls) was remarkable for its powerful eddies and brave Celilo Indians that fished off flimsy wooden scaffolding platforms hung out over the falls to net salmon weighing 50 pounds, or more.

And, later:

"...a tourist heaven with Celilo Falls as the top billing." 

I started getting emotionally overwhelmed, and stopped reading the autobiography. However, I had what I was looking for: The Grand Finale--Celilo Falls.

The goals for the road trip were set.  One, collect data about battery pack temperatures related to driving my LEAF on a road trip where successive quick charging would be used. And two, provide my kids an opportunity to see some of the most beautiful scenery in the Pacific Northwest.


Leaving home on a Friday night, we quick charged five times, arriving in Cornelius, OR for our overnight stay 7 1/2 hours later. Notably, the drive from Seattle to Portland took 5 hours, 7 minutes. Before driving EVs, the Seattle to Portland haul was about a three hour trip. 

Driving freeway speeds, up to 80 m.p.h. on that first leg of the trip, and quick charging five times, did have an impact on battery pack temperatures. We arrived in Cornelius with an average pack temp of 102.5 degrees.  

Parking outside for 8 hours helped to cool things down!
I parked/charged the LEAF outside during our 8 hours in Cornelius. The effect of low ambient air temps was remarkably effective at dropping the battery pack temps. 

To view the complete pack temp/GIDS/travel speeds spreadsheet, visit: 

To view the complete LEAF Spy data file with the above information and much, much more, please email me at: coramsc at gmail dot com.

Is this charging station ever used for EV charging?!?
The next day, Saturday morning, we set out from Cornelius driving due east along the Columbia River, and planned on arriving in The Dalles that afternoon.

Our first quick charge on Saturday was at a Walmart in Wood Village, OR.  To say that this location was a pitiful charging station situation was an understatement! There were shopping carts filling both EV charging spots, with more shopping carts overturned next to the charging station itself. After moving some carts, I was able to squeeze the LEAF in to access the CHAdeMO station.

With a 72% charge, we left Wood Village and headed up to the higher elevations to travel the byways.  

Driving along the Historic Columbia River Highway was nothing short of spectacular!

12th Man Pride at the Women's Forum Outlook
60mph Wind Gusts at Crown Point Vista House
Latourell Falls
Yes, kids love waterfalls!
Here at Shepperd's Dell Falls.

Bridal Veil Falls
Multnomah Falls
At Multnomah Falls, we could not get closer than the lower parking and viewing area, as a large boulder had fallen onto Benson Bridge less than two weeks prior, taking out a swath of the footbridge leading to the upper falls. It was just as well because we were into the afternoon hours and still needed to get out to Celilo Falls, two quick charges away. 

I drove as reasonably fast as possible from Multnomah Falls, into Hood River to charge, and then into The Dalles. In The Dalles, we quick charged to 67% which gave us just enough juice to make the 13 mile drive east to Celilo Falls, and back.

The grande finale...Celilo Falls!
At 4:30pm, we pulled into Celilo Park. It was getting dark, so we zipped into the parking lot and hopped out. At the water's edge, all that could be seen was the tranquil Columbia River lazily flowing past. 

I was dumbfounded. My father's own autobiography noted this place as the "crown jewel of the Columbia." We walked back to the car. The road trip was over, and it was time to figure out how to get home.

Celilo Falls: It's History
Just before leaving the Celilo Park parking area, I pulled up next to a historical marker and sign. I read about how Wyam Falls (later, referred to as Celilo Falls) was an ancient fishing ground for the Celilo Tribe, and in 1957, with the construction of The Dalles Dam, the fishing grounds were inundated by the subsequent rise of water.  History.

Originally, I had planned for us to head back into Cornelius for a good night's sleep, before returning home on Sunday. After the disappointment at Celilo Falls, I really just wanted to be back home to read again about what Dad said of the falls. 

Driving home, I stuck with the same formula for driving as on the trip down: drive at, or above, the speed limit.  But this time, I didn't go above 70 m.p.h., which I knew would still get the battery pack plenty hot.  

We were making good time, and everything was drama free until pulling onto the I-5 on-ramp after a quick charge in Castle Rock, WA. With an average pack temp of 115 degrees (the highest temp sensor in the battery pack was showing an EV-melting 132.8 degrees), I tried to do a typical torque-loving acceleration onto the freeway.  However, I was sent into sensory shock when the LEAF didn't respond to the pedal to the metal efforts.  

Looking at the dashboard display, I could see that the LEAF's idiot-proofing was in full effect.  The car's computer had restricted power delivery by more than half and brake regeneration by a whopping 75%.  

Here's how a LEAF tells its driver to "SLOW DOWN!"
Neither my wife nor I are overly zealous at babying our EVs. Instead, we believe that we will use vehicles to best fit our needs, even if it means that pushing the envelope reduces the vehicles' performance in the long run. 

At this point, however, I actually was not worried about the long-term effects of a melting battery pack. No, instead, I was concerned that if I kept pushing the LEAF hard, my kids and I may end up on the side of the freeway in the middle of the night with a dead car.  So, I set the cruise control in the low 50 m.p.h. range, and succumbed to a tortoise's pace the remainder of the drive home.  

We pulled into our garage at 3:00 on Sunday morning, having completed our 729 mile road trip in just 33 hours!


The next day, I again took out my father's autobiography.  I wanted to see if there was anything that I had missed while reading about Celilo Falls.  This time, while not in an emotional state, I read Dad's full account of his years in The Dalles, including his thoughts of Celilo Falls:

On March 10, 1957, The Dalles Dam changed the river's direction when they closed the flood gates for the first time...never again did we get to see big, thick salmon caught and the mighty spot on the Columbia.
The Columbia River ran backwards the day they closed the spillways on The Dalles Dam, and the roar of the falls was history. 
So, I had missed it.  I had missed reading my father's own words explaining that Celilo Falls no longer existed.  Looking back on the road trip, though, I am actually glad that I didn't initially know the truth. Discovering the loss of Celilo Falls firsthand was a moment that I will never forget.  And if I'm destined to remember the anticlimactic "grand finale," I will be sure to keep that tragedy alive with my children as they grow up.  

Perhaps the real story of this EV Scenic Byways: Historic Columbia River Highway is that we humans play a major role in deciding the fate of the natural treasures we most admire. For better or worse, Celilo Falls no longer exists.  And I cannot stop wondering if my children will someday take their own kids to see the sites along the Historic Columbia River Highway, and be surprised to find out that one of the remaining jewels of the Columbia River Basin is gone forever.  History.

If electric vehicles are to supplant gasoline-powered vehicles, the development and maturing of a quick charging infrastructure must happen.  Will CHAdeMO and Supercharger be ubiquitous in thirty years? Or will the limited quick chargers that exist now be oddities that a generation is defined by?  

Either way, they are destined to considered Americana.  

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