Migrating East on the Cross Washington Mountain Bike Route

About 120 years ago my dad’s side of the family migrated southwest out of Alberta, Canada, and settled on a rocky slab of wheat land in central Oregon. Thirty years later my mom’s side of the family left the dust-choked plains of southeast Colorado and traveled west to settle in orchard country outside of Salem, Oregon. And six years ago I left rain-ravaged western Oregon, home for most of my life, and settled in far northeast Oregon and eastern Washington.

Migration is in my blood.

My ancestors arrived by horse drawn wagon packed with farming implements or jalopy trucks loaded with furniture and heirlooms. I migrated by U-Haul with a collection of mountain bikes.

I intermittently migrate in short bursts, mostly by mountain bike. I search out long distance routes across states and provinces with no other goal than to wander, to seek, to arrive. And then I return home and dream up another possibility.

Twenty pounds of gear is my limit – I want to go fast and long. I want it to happen in the mountains, deserts, and wildlands far from traffic and social discord.  But that isn’t easy to find today.

The Cross Washington Mountain Bike Route was recently created by Troy Hopwood and he organized an inaugural group depart on May 14 with a start in La Push and a finish at the Idaho border near Tekoa.  I was familiar with the eastern portion of the route he created but not the western.  Here was my chance to play out an eastern migration across the entire state.

Two friends I met last summer while riding the BC Epic 1000, a mostly rails-trail  route across southern British Columbia, were coming and that sealed the deal.  We, along with half the others signed up for the event, were planning a race pace while others were fast touring.  The distinction between the two groups blurs at times and often depends on injuries, moral, and inspiration.

We met in Spokane, piled bikes into a van, transferred to another van in Seattle while adding even more riders, and ended up in La Push.  This is about as far west you can get in Washington.

We had an afternoon to blow prior to the morning start so the two dozen of us explored the beach in a hazy sunshine not typical for May.  Rainfall is nearly 100 inches a year.

These bikepacking events are a chance to meet new people, some of which you see only at the start and others who become companions through all or part of the route.

Ian is from Ellensburg and travels with a camera and quite a few other things.  I’ve seen pictures on his blog of him bikepacking with a portable keyboard hanging from the handlebars in a protective case.  His enthusiasm for this event is infectious in spite of a panicked repair to his bike at the last minute.

Shiggy from Wenatchee lives to create. He built the bike frame and most everything else in the picture above.

Allan is from Kimberley, British Columbia, and is emotionally solid beneath a calm exterior.  He rides fast and long.

Lennard is from Kamloops, British Columbia, and hosted the BC Epic 1000 last year. Creating and hosting these events is more work than you can imagine, especially if no one has ridden the route in its entirety. While the flavor of bikepacking events is self-sufficiency, self-support, and self-responsibility, a certain amount of blowback towards the organizer can occur if things go sideways. But, like in his profession, Lennard pays attention to details and risk when he organized the BC Epic.  He also rides like the wind.

Blake (left) is no stranger to long distance bikepack racing and is humble about his achievements. He is also a great conversationalist and seems immune to discouragement.  The weather had reverted to a normalized drizzle by the start of the race but his spirits were up.  Troy, (right) worried the details on getting everyone to the start line, something that isn’t easy when the start is a small village in a far corner of Washington.  I peg he and Blake among the top finishers.  I’m happy to rank among those who make it to the finish and to be sure that the 60+ age bracket is represented.

Early Sunday morning we got ourselves somewhat organized at the edge of the ocean for a group photo and a few deep breaths.  The waves grumbled behind us as sea gulls made their rounds salvaging food off the beach, just like bikepackers rolling into a strange town to hit up the first convenience store that offered calories.

The paved road out of La Push favored a fast start and a dozen riders quickly pedaled out of my view.  I’ve learned from similar events that enthusiasm and nervous energy creates these unrealistic early paces and that by mid-day everyone will have settled into their natural pace.  I passed and am passed by Shiggy, Hugh, Matt, Corey, and others whose names I have regrettably forgot.  We followed the Calawah River to its headwaters and once we reached the Forest Service boundary ancient Sitka spruce, some 800 years old, lined the banks.  A weak sun poked through the foliage at times as we followed a river with a flow goosed by unusually abundant spring rains. Most of the federal land has been clearcut at least once so the old trees are sparse.

The bike barriers started by mid-morning but teamwork made short work of getting our overloaded bikes through trees and rockfall.

More formidable was the beginning of the snow trekking. The snow was unexpected since the elevation is less than 3000 feet. But an abundant winter snowpack followed by a cold spring presented a snowy road as far as we could see. And that was on the southwest aspect.  Many miles of shady northeast aspect followed.

I felt fortunate to be in the middle of the pack.  A smooth trough for the bike wheels and footprints to the right.  Most of the time I could stay near the surface and then divert around knee-deep post holes where others had broken through.  We marched on with the worse part being the uncertainty of when it would end.  Three hours later, or six miles, we were facing a road that was paved and downhill.  The heavy rain then started making for a cold ride down from the pass.

We turned onto the paved Discovery Trail once we reached the forested lowlands along the Sol Duc River.  Following this rail-trail through old forest was a treat after the morning’s humpy landscape.  Here, I picked up Cody as a riding partner and then later Matt.

The route diverted off to the Mt. Muller trailhead and then east to Lake Crescent.  In retrospect we shouldn’t have been on that trail in the rain.  We left deep ruts in the mud and likely a lot of ill-will towards bikers by the hikers who will later use the trail. Also, the Forest Service still uses the archaic practice of planting buckskin logs to divert water off the trail.  My front wheel slid of one of those bad-ass logs and I did a head plant into the mud.

Lake Crescent brought respite from the previous tunnel of trees.  The Spruce Railroad trail along its northern shore is far removed from the rush of traffic on the other side of the lake.  I slowed, now alone, to take it all in knowing that the trail from the lake into Port Angeles was not going to be as kind.

I picked up the Olympic Discovery Trail at the northeast corner of the lake and ran into Cody again. We began the roller coaster traverse towards Port Angeles. The trail is beautifully maintained and quite rideable in spite of the steep terrain. After getting temporarily confused by an error in the GPS track we continued off through the tunnel of trees.

I grew up recreating and working in coastal jungle vegetation and really don’t miss it.  I feel the vegetation pressing in as I ride.  Little wildlife permeates the dark forest and flowers are limited to a few trilliums. It is a nice place to visit but I don’t want to ever come back to live.

Darkness crept up as we crossed the mighty and now undammed Elwa River (long live the salmon) and diverted from the official course along the Strait of Juan de Fuca to the commercial part of town.  Cody and I grabbed rooms at a seedy motel, as the other option was to camp in cold dampness just outside of town.  My goal for a 150-mile first day got grounded at 106 miles.  A glance at the Trackleaders page indicated nearly unanimous acquiescence.

Only the McDonalds was open in our neighborhood after 10 pm so we took our chances on that happy food. I quickly remembered why I don’t eat at McDonalds. I was shivering uncontrollably as we walked back to the motel and spent the night napping briefly and then jumping into the shower to stabilize. The fish burgers and shake proved only transient.

I got out of town early and made my way east along the waterline bike path.  Such a peaceful prelude.

I winced once the GPS track lead away from the lowlands and into the hills and mountains. A lowland continuation to the east would have allowed for an easy glide through Sequim and then to the Kingston Ferry.

The highland route turned out to be not one climb but many, gaining and losing the same 500 feet of elevation over and over.  My growing discontent was fueled by not knowing if snow clogged the route at higher elevation.  The pass ahead was 3500 feet.

Snow drifted from the sky as I reached the pass but the old snow was mostly gone. The scenery was unremarkable – mostly second growth forest.  Clouds obscured the peaks. The detour into the mountains seemed to be a lot of effort for little reward. Maybe sunshine would have perked things up.

Quilcene rewarded me with a good sit down meal but at the price of having to listen to loud modern country music about unfaithful wives and misplaced patriotism. The peach pie was killer.

An ominous south wind blasted from the south as I traced around the mud flats of Quilcene Bay and headed up along a ragged route over logging roads and county roads through mostly industrial forest land.  This is productive forest land but it requires rough treatment to make it give up its profits.  Ground-gouging machinery clearcut the stands at age 40, other machines pile logging slash, and competing vegetation is sprayed repeatedly.  A few rhododendrons make it through the fray.

The Hood Canal bridge squirmed in the wind as I crossed over to the Kitsap Peninsula. A lone duck bobbed in the waves to the right as monster pickup trucks tracked to the left.

I tucked into the relative calm of Port Gamble and headed south along abandoned and recent logging roads through the Port Gamble Forest Heritage Park and adjacent industrial forest land.  The rain started up for the late afternoon and I obediently followed the purple line in the display of the GPS.  Each mile seemed like the last.

A dodge to the east on county roads put me in the North Kitsap Community Forest on a contorted traverse via very muddy trails.  Again, I felt bad about the ruts I was leaving in the trails.  I would have detoured around the trails to avoid the damage if I had known anything about where I was.

I arrived at the Kingston Ferry terminal near dusk and struggled with what to do. On the opposite shore was Edmonds and the wide expanse of Seattle to get through in the dark. My preference would have been to ride the ferry back and forth until morning while sleeping on the long upholstered benches.  But they seem to have a rule against this.  The ferry dumped me down the Edmonds terminal ramp all too soon.

I climbed up the hill out of Edmonds and get directed by the GPS to make a tour of Yost Park on the trails.  The mud was slippery and I did a header on a steep section and then cautiously walked other sections.  I topped out and realized an adjacent paved road would have got me to the same place without rutting the city park trails.

Seattle has more hills than I imagined.  I should have considered that the glacial scouring that had occurred from north to south would be at odds with biking east to west.  In the dark, in the rain, it just seemed unfair.

The route doesn’t go through areas with motels or even food so by 11 pm I was getting worried that I would have to ride through the night instead.  A weird foray through Ballinger Lake Park landed me behind the park’s community center.  I wheeled my bike to the back deck and pressed my nose against the glass.  The inside looked so inviting but I figure they probably had an alarm system.  I whimpered and then realized that the covered back deck was dry.  And that became my housing solution.  Later, I found out that Blake had slept in a shipping crate at a construction site.  In comparison, my digs were upscale.

The next morning continued the crooked path through neighborhoods and city parks, but now with rush hour traffic whisking by.  The streets with constant traffic and no shoulder terrified me.  My spirits sagged lower when entering Blythe Park and the view of the Tolt Pipeline corridor indicated I was facing an hour of walking up a steep trail.  A cooler of beer and soda at the top of the climb planted by a trail angel mitigated the sting to some extent.

The next few hours along the Tolt Pipeline corridor didn’t improve my mood.  The terrain climbed and descended steeply numerous times.  Then a man with an umbrella stepped up to me and said, “Hi, Chip”, in a cheerful voice.  Mike lives next to the corridor and was making sure he was out there cheering each time the Spot tracker indicated someone was riding by.  He took my picture and offered to dry my clothes and feed me. That was good for a few dozen miles of smiles down the road.

Twenty five miles into the day I reached the Snoqualmie Valley Trail, a well-maintained rails-trail that would take me to the beginning of the John Wayne Trail. Along with the faster speed came greater cold though.  My toes were numb and my fingers were not far behind.  I didn’t want to put on my down coat for fear of it getting wet underneath my rain coat.

I got to North Bend and found everyone, except for Adam, was in a holding pattern.  Troy and Blake had seen images of the blizzard at Snoqualmie Pass on the web cam and were undecided what to do next.  Lennard and Allan were warming up at Twede’s Cafe and in no hurry to go forward without warmer clothing.  A stop at the hardware story got us some proper insulated gloves, an unfashionable but effective raincoat for Lennard, and Allan treated us to a round of chemical hand warmers.  The three of us headed off into the drizzle not knowing what to expect at the pass.

I quickly fell behind Lennard and Allan because I only have one pace and it is not their pace. The John Wayne Trail (which is also called Iron Horse State Park) is smooth gravel starting from Rattlesnake Lake and continuing east to the Columbia River.  The Snoqualmie Tunnel borrows beneath the crest of the Cascade Mountains but State Parks keeps it closed in the winter because of ice that can fall from the ceiling.  Late snow had delayed it being opened for the year.  They hadn’t announced when it would open.  The alternate route adds about two hours because of the elevation loss and gain and the need to walk through some old snow.

Now with cozy feet and hands, my mind wandered widely as I pedaled the smooth rails-trail. Empty mind pedaling. I keep the screen display off on my GPS, except for 30 seconds after I push a button to check my location – just to save on battery life. I forgot I had to divert prior to the tunnel and ended up at the tunnel entrance in an “oh shit” moment. But the tunnel gate was open.  The tunnel is over two miles long and a shuttered gate at the other end would mean even more backtracking to start the alternate route.

I headed in and, sure enough, the gate was open at the other end.

The sleet put a bit of a damper on my relief, as did the hour of walking in old snow to the east, but I was encouraged by the thought of exiting winter and moving east into spring.

Adam’s large footprints in the snow and the adjacent track of his bike made my push easier, both physically and mentally.  Knowing someone else had pushed through countered the brisk cold wind and fading light.

The restored train station in South Cle Elum came into focus and I briefly held hope that the restaurant would be open and with it the possibility of sleeping in an enclosed area. But the place was closed on Tuesdays and the overhanging porches were getting the full force of the wind.  Reluctantly, but no too so, I rode into Cle Elum for a motel room.  I ended up with a room next to Adam but since we had never met I didn’t know if he would appreciate me banging on his door late at night.

This picture was taken during a previous trip.

The rails-trail out of town was flat and smooth and made faster by a ripping tailwind. The route roughly follows the Yakima River downstream and, where human activity is absent, the river and surrounding hills are magical.

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With winter firmly behind me I stopped at the Kittias post office and mailed home several pounds of cold weather gear.  A lighter bike can create a lighter mind and I knew something about the route immediately ahead.

The route ahead is the Colockum Wildlife Management Area, a expansive complex of state land that is home to the largest elk herds in the state.  The roads are mostly unmaintained and the route we took had to account for getting around a persistent snowpack.  Two weeks previous I had scouted out a snow-free route that stayed as low as possible.  It required routing along the powerline corridor which meant a lot of ups and downs on rough doubletrack.

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The extended climb up to and along the central ridge consumed several hours and part way I was startled by Lennard and Allan coming from behind.  They had erased the two hour penalty incurred due to the tunnel bypass and that was fine with me. We munched sandwiches and listened to the bird song. Underway again, they eased ahead after a while because of my singular pace.

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The powerline has some charm.  The elk are attracted to the shrubs and grass that grow in the treeless corridor.  Early flowers fringe the tree line. The route made an abrupt dive into Tarpiscan Creek and then an equally steep climb to the intersection with Colockum Road, our passageway to Wenatchee.  My GPS screen was off and so I just rode the route I had scouted.

I didn’t notice until later that the official GPS track included an outer loop before connecting with Colockum Road.  That outer loop was an addition I knew nothing about but it sucked in Blake, Lennard, and Allan.  Through no fault of their own, they endured four hours of frustration and toil as they were prompted by the GPS track onto a roadless slope choked with rocks.

The 3000-foot drop to the Columbia River was partial compensation for the Colockum frustration but, when each of us reached the barren bench next to the river, two hours of riding into strong headwinds separated us from Wenatchee.  It hadn’t turned out to be the walk-in-the-park sort of day that the morning had suggested.

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Getting out of town was complicated.  I wanted to call it a day and start the next section with fresh legs but I couldn’t find the part of town with the seedy motels.  Furthermore, I was feeling guilty about having had wimped out twice already by retreating to a motel room.  I dutifully rode the highway out of town and found the start of the Rock Island Grade to begin the 2600-foot climb in the dark.  It was the right decision.  The sounds and lights of civilization fell away and the clouds parted for the stars.  My predictable evening second wind kicked in and I pedaled slowly with no cares.

I found a wide spot along the road and laid down and slept soundly.  Awakened by the early birds, I squinted and saw flowers and native grasses huddled around me.  And snowy peaks beyond that.  It was the right place to be on the fourth morning of the race.

I finished the climb and dropped into Douglas Creek canyon.  The neglected dirt road was freshly graded which was a nice touch but when I reached the creek I found no bridge or culvert, only knee deep water.  I had so wanted to avoid a fourth day of wet feet.  My feet were starting to host some furry parasites.

A grader came around the curve and churned through the stream toward me. The operator stopped and we talked about the weather, the difficulty of grading a road when the surface was only cobbles and dirt, and why I would find pleasure riding a bike across the state.  You know, important stuff.

Perhaps feeling a bit guilty about turning my knee deep wade into a knee deep wade through muddy sludge, he offered me a ride across the stream.  He crabbed the blade so it was close to the cab and this allowed me to sit on the edge of the step while holding the bike upright. The bike wheels were perched on the concave upper surface of the blade. Like a bike rack but with no attachment points.  If the bike had slipped out of my grasp the front wheels would have made short order of my beloved bike.  He backed up through the stream and deposited me on the far bank unharmed and dry.  A thumbs up and I was on my way.

The route committed me to a rough jeep track down Douglas Creek canyon and four deep stream crossings so that was the end of dry feet for the day.  The canyon was an oasis of streamside trees, flowers, and sheer rock walls.  Those who ride into the night and camp here would be rewarded for the effort.  All the basics for the dirt bag bikepacker – water, quiet, and the company of wildlife.

The Douglas Creek jeep track connected with the main Palisades valley road, followed by a lonely climb back up into the wheat fields.  The route into Ephrata incorporates Sagebrush Flats Road and Sheep Canyon Road, names which conjure up a pre-wheat landscape.  Landscapes of wheat attract few birds or other wildlife and so the grumbling of tires on gravel was my lone travel companion.

I’m sorry Ephrata but you do have a reputation, albeit it may be undeserved.  I’m sure you agree though that more than one or two social misfits with excessive gun collections have settled in the area.  Nevertheless, you have my compliments for maintaining a tidy and thriving downtown.  Your reputation is further heightened, in my mind, by having a book store with excellent coffee and food.  And that is where I landed for lunch.

I knew that the next half day of riding was going to be a bit lacking in something.  Like scenery, green vegetation (other than irrigated fields), and elevation diversity so I put my head down and pedaled mindlessly.  A bit too mindlessly though because south of Moses Lake I caught sight of a dog bounding towards me from the right.  My strategy towards dogs these days is to hold my ground and react only if attacked.  But I didn’t expect a dumb-as-a-rock dog to run out in front of me and then stop.  I tried to bunny hop over the dog but it was much bigger than a bunny.  Down I went, all the while grazing my knee on the pavement.

Dumb-as-a-rock weaved unsteadily back to his yard, not realizing that had I been driving a car natural selection wouldn’t have treated him so kindly.  I found the owner and he offered to shoot the dog for attacking me.  I hesitated and then told him that truthfully the dog hadn’t attacked me but was just plain stupid.  He locked the dog up (it actually was his visiting girlfriend’s dog) and apologized profusely.

I stopped to fiddle with gear and Blake rolled up to me.  I hadn’t seen him since the beginning of the race and it was a welcome surprise.  We rode together for a short while and then he pulled ahead, only to backtrack and intercept me again.  Like me, he too has a tendency to not pay attention to turns.

I hit the general market in Warden before it closed and got my calories for the night and then headed east on the John Wayne Trail.  This began home turf for me.  From Warden to the Idaho border the route follows the John Wayne Trail, except for some notable detours.

This is a treeless landscape.  In the heat of the day, a grain elevator is the only shade you get.  But it has sagebrush and I’m a sagebrush fan boy.  The smell, the look, the many species of wildlife dependent on sagebrush all appeal to me.  I rode off into the dusk with my sagebrush buddies.

Rail-trails make for easy riding at night.  Except, this section of the John Wayne Trail has high gates and missing trestles.  The first requires an overhead squat thrust followed by a wild grasp for the rear wheel as the bike flops over to the other side.  The second requires being awake enough to see the indistinct path through the grass that bypasses the gap.

I was just about ready to lay my sleeping bag in the trail for a spell of sleep and saw headlights in the distance.  So I waited.  Lennard and Allan pulled up.  We rode together towards Lind with the unreasonable hope that the lone tavern in town would be open late on a week night.  It wasn’t. We decided to sleep in the city park but that turned out to be a bad idea since many trains came by, each trying to outdo the last with the number of horn blasts.

We continued along the bumpy rail grade in the morning and diverted to Ritzville for a final food resupply.  Lennard and Allan left Luv’s Truck Stop before me and I was left alone to ponder the excess and mindlessness on display at America’s truck stops. I liked the doughnuts though.

After yet another tour of wheat fields, the route fed back onto the John Wayne Trail and the beginning of my favorite stretch of the race.  The channeled scablands ahead were pocked by small lakes and wetlands.  Included is Rock Creek, a feeble placeholder in the wide valley scoured by mighty Missoula Floods  Few people live in this country since the floods removed much of the soil necessary for growing wheat.

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Beyond Ewan the route requires a final excursion into the wheat country, just to avoid a section of private land along Rock Lake.  The climb is rift with false summits and, for this late in the race, the course seems unduly harsh.  It really wasn’t that bad but my alarmingly swollen feet and tingly toes told me that I needed to finish by evening.  I didn’t have another day of riding in me.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

I passed by Malden and Rosalia without pause and focussed on getting to Tekoa before dark.  The GPS track between Rosalia and Tekoa was wrong though and I got snookered into following the rail grade into a swamp.  I should have known better – I’ve made that mistake before.  I climbed out of the trough, traversed along the edge of a wheat field, and got onto the paralleling gravel road.  Now, on track, I pumped hard into Tekoa and then to the Idaho border.

Regrettably, I finished in the dark but was greeted at the border by lights and Pat. What a wonderful ending.  She grabbed her camera, shot a video of me babbling incoherently.

And then she rushed me off to Tekoa where Adam, Blake, Lennard, and Allan were holed up.

The scene was welcoming and crazy.  We were treated as heros by the town, albeit heros conquered by six days of riding.  C & D’s Tekoa Bar and Grill opened a free beer tab for the finishers.  Across the street a dinner to raise funds for the annual fireworks display was in progress.  The town bought us dinner and more free beer.  That town knows how to welcome strangers.

With the help of Garry, a local friend, we got the filthy five of us and some filthy bikes to our house in Spokane.  By late morning everyone had figured out a way to get back home and bring the migration to a close. We sat around the table stuffing waffles into our mouths and telling stories about the previous week that were mostly true.

The final steps for getting landowner permission to allow access to the railroad grade extending east of Idaho border are underway.  This would feed into the Trail of the Couer d Alenes, a paved rails-trail, that spans the width of Idaho.  That same railbed, now converted to a logging road, extends to St. Regis in Montana. So, the migration routes expand and allow me to dream of new horizons.

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Colockum Recon

The Cross Washington Mountain Bike Race starts May 14, in less than two weeks, and spring is sputtering.  A persistent snowpack in the Cascade Mountains has already precipitated a re-route of the high country in Troy’s original track to an alternative to the east and lower in elevation.  But even that route is being threatened by the cold spring. The nearby snow gauges are consistently showing three feet of snow. Someone needs to get up there and see what is going on.

This is where I come into the picture – I will do anything to get out of town and into my favorite mountain biking destination.   Where is the Colockum Wildlife Refuge?  Look here between miles 371 and 392.

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A rare break in the weather provids a two day window of no rain and wind.  I drive to the north end of the Wild Horse wind farm and park about where Parke Creek Road intersects the ridgetop Beacon Road.  The race route climbs abruptly up Parke Creek from the Kittias flatlands.  The roads ahead are a jumbled maze of unmarked intersections and road names appear haphazardly on the outdated maps so follow my track here to get oriented:

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Baby heads embedded in basalt clay are the normal riding surface in this country except when it gets wet and then it is baby heads and slime.  Like the off-road drivers who use this area mainly during hunting season, I weave widely to avoid the lingering mud swamps and the worst of the bumps.

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Starting from an elevation of 3600 feet, the road straddles the ridge 7.4 miles for a 1200-foot climb through meadows and scattered pine.  To the west is Mt. Rainier and its vanguard of snow-bound peaks.  To the east are the steep and treeless canyons dropping off into the Columbia River.  Empty space, empty mind.

A right turn at mile 7.4 takes me onto an even bumpier road.  The snowpack starts.  This is a winter snow machine route so the snow is firm enough to walk on without sinking in much but not firm enough to ride my fat bike.  I begin the walk not knowing how much of this was ahead.  My hope is that once I got off the northeast aspect the two feet of snow would disappear.

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After a mile I reach the power line corridor where the snow is mostly gone from the road.  A modest climb following the power lines leads to a broad plateau, recently melted but already showing its colors.

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Several hundred elk warily watch me,  the two-wheeled predator passing by.  The treeless power line corridor provides early browse for them.  They look unusually skinny for this time of year and probably suffered from the long and snowbound winter.

A potential Airbnb rental with a delectable view to the east sits on the edge of the corridor.  It comes with an outside refrigerator.

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The race route intersects Brewton Road 10.9 miles into my ride.  Ahead, along the race route, is the 2300-foot plunge down to Tarpiscan, only to be followed by a 1100-foot climb up to Colockum Road.  Following Brewton Road to the west negates all that grief so I check out this as an alternative race route.  The road follows the contours nicely and has a relatively smooth gravel surface.

But snow conditions go south quickly.

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I walk along at a sub-2 mph-pace enjoying the stroll and four miles later I intersect Colockum Road, the main ridge route between Kittias and Wenatchee.  But it too is snowed in and so I walk another half mile down Colockum Road.  Finally free of snow, I begin the steep bumpy descent and take frequent photo breaks to rest my battered hands and arms.  The big tires and front shock aren’t doing their stuff.

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In the distance I catch a glimpse of the Rock Island Grade, a 4.6 mile ribbon of gravel road rising steeply from the east bank of the Columbia River.  This is the race route out of Wenatchee.

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I intersect the race route where it intersects Colockum Road and decide to ride the race route backwards the 6.4 miles to where I left it at Brewton Road.  First the 1100 foot descent and then the 2300 foot climb following the power lines.

High tension power line corridors consume a consider amount of land. At a width of 650 feet that is 7900 acres per 100 miles of power line. They buzz imperceptibly and often go unnoticed because they are high overhead.  The towers gleam in the sunlight and provide contrasting angles to otherwise non-linear landscape.

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Tarpiscan Creek is the first of four stream crossings and has the most flow.  Obviously too large to ride through, I resign myself to wet feet.  I position myself upstream of the bike and start across.  The big balloon tires turn it into a rubber raft and now I’m in a tug of war with the stream.  I refuse to give up my bike and inch the front end to the far shore while the rear end wags back and forth in the current.  After a few minutes I win bigly.

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The steep chunky climb, often through razor sharp cobbles, continues for five miles and gives me time to re-think about my choice of bike for the upcoming race.  A majority of the route is smooth surfaces and my rigid Bandersnatch with a 3-inch-wide tire in front and 2.4 in back is the logical choice.  But the 20 miles through the Colockum wildlife refuge is going to feel unbearably harsh on that bike.  And then there are those bumpy bits of the John Wayne Trail further east of the Columbia River.  The full suspension bike with 3 inch tires instead? I would need to transfer the aero bars to it and that would be quite the sight.  I have a week to decide.

After three more stream crossings (two successful ride-throughs and one bobbled) I get to Brewston Road and ponder continuing south along the powerline corridor as an alternative to going back through the snow for a half hour of walking.  From my vantage point only a few hundred feet of snow blocks the corridor road so the choice is easy.

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It proves delightful with great views to the west once I reach the top.  Prancing elk outperform me as I plod by.  I intersect Caribou Road and take the one mile jog to the east back to the race route.  Wouldn’t this be the better route for the race, Troy?

Now, the most important part of the day — finding that perfect camping spot.  It must have good water and a pleasant setting.  Firewood would be a plus.  Eventually, I come across a spring feeding into a pond infested with lusty frogs.  They, along with a pair of courting owls, complete the ambience.  I settle in and watch a half moon arc to the west. The campfire is just something to stare into since the night is so warm.  Spring has finally arrived.

I’m awaked early by a cacophony of birds and halfway through my second cup of coffee decide on an exploration through unknown terrain, this time to the east.  Here is what I settle on:

Brushy Ridge Bump Ride

Brushy Road starts out mild enough.  Darting in and out of small drainages on the contour, the early flowers alternate with patches of snow.

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After five miles I leave behind the forest and my smooth road.  A rough double track leads east along the ridge defining the north edge of the Brushy Creek drainage. Ridgetop roads in this country typically are a hard scrabble of broken basalt chunks with little soil holding them together.  The high winds blow the soil away.  The dry climate retards rock weathering.

Even the ATVs mostly avoid this route.  Just me, the elk, wind turbines to the south, and the open sky.

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The route steepens further and the rock ledges become walk-downs.  The combination of a loaded bike, tire-slashing rocks, and the fact that no one knows where I am should I need help, nudges me towards the cautious end of my risk scale.  The walking just means more pictures to take.

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I take the final dive into Brushy Creek canyon, 2500 feet lower than where I had started. Blooming apple trees in the stream bottom go back to a previous century when someone thought this land could be homesteaded.  Only bits of metal and the orchard remain.

The road out of the canyon to the south rim is steep, chunky, and rutted.  More reasons to walk and empty my mind.

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The grove of pines where I left the car comes all too soon and I’m left with the disillusioning drive east on Interstate 90, a world where I don’t always fit in.  A stop at the Love’s Truck Stop in Ritzville does further damage to my senses.

But I’ll be back soon to bump along the byways of the Colockum.

Checking in With Reality

The Quilomene Wildlife Refuge is an expanse of Washington state land north and west of where Interstate 90 crosses the Columbia River.  This is my favorite bikepacking destination in the Pacific Northwest and also serves as a transition between winter and spring biking.  The window of favorable conditions is short though.

I try to time my first spring trip to coincide with the flowers in full bloom at the lower elevations, which is usually early April, and then aim for two more trips as spring marches up the slopes to the 3600-foot-high ridgeline.  All this occurs within six weeks and then the extended dry period sets in and turns the refuge into a desiccated and sepia landscape.

Troy and I met in Vantage at the service station with the faulty gas pump #3 that will spew gasoline into the air if you don’t remove the nozzle in time. The bathroom too is marginally functional but for $10 you can park a car in their lot for the night and have peace of mind that it will not be molested.

Troy is the mastermind behind the Cross-Washington Mountain Bike Route, a course across the state that follows mostly gravel roads, dirt roads, and rail-trails. You can ride it at any time from spring to late fall. Start in La Push at the beach and finish at the Idaho border near Tekoa. Or do it in the other direction if you like strong headwinds.

http://crosswashington.weebly.com/grand-depart.html

Those who want to start the route with others will show up in La Push on May 14 for an inaugural grand depart. Some will be racing, others will be touring. No support is provided. Each rider is responsible for their own navigation, safety, and pace.

Only Troy has ridden the entire route and that was last May when the snowpack was meager and spring turned hot early.  This year the snow is deep and persistent and that creates a problem with the May start.  The route reaches high into the snow country between Cle Elum and Wenatchee and the snow this year is still 3 to 4 feet deep.  It looks like this:

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So, our trip this weekend is partly to continue training for the upcoming race and enjoy the scenery but also to scout out a low route which bypasses the snow.  Both of us have ridden this low route previously but reality bends with memories and we need a check. Should we actually send others into the Quilomene and expect an equal number to exit happily on the Wenatchee side?

A steep initial climb on a cobbly double-track leads to the first rise and then a swoopy drop to Whiskey Dick Creek, back to the elevation of the Columbia River.

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Sadly, few flowers have yet emerged.  Spring seems to be three weeks late this year.  A few early adopters somehow endure the frosty mornings.

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I balk at the first stream crossing and pretend a quick snack, thereby getting Troy to go first and test the water depth.  He scrambles up the other side and I follow.

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The extended climb up to Jackknife Ridge is a bugger.  Steep and bumpy chews up an hour.  I take ample pictures of Troy walking the unrideable pitches because he is a stronger rider than I and the visuals make me feel better about myself.

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We get up to the exposed ridge and tack straight into the wind, which is pushing 30 to 40 mph.  The noise is disorientating and I find myself tense from the battering.  More than once I careen off into the sagebrush where the birds are flitting from the lee side of one bush to another.  It doesn’t pay to have a high profile in this country.

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We get to Army Road and begin the 2000-foot descent to where Quilomene Creek enters the Columbia River.  Army Road is an abandoned relic from the past.  Steep and chunky, it defies comfort or speed.

The destination is worth the 22 miles of today’s effort though.  The spit at Quilomene Bay sports sand dunes and steep cliffs with pigeon holes (and pigeons to go in the holes).

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Quilomene Creek is swollen and crossing it would probably be a thigh deep wade.  In addition, the exceedingly steep track out of Brushy Creek is just beyond that and the high winds would be waiting for us on the next ridge. So we declare it the the end of the day and camp in the lee side of dense trees next to the stream.

A campfire provides comfort from the cold and prompts an honest evaluation of discomfort.  Our efforts for the day got us only a third of the distance between the southern and northern boundaries of the Quilomene.  More rough ground, some even rougher than what we just did, lies ahead.  And then there is the question about how to get around a short section of private land that is signed no trespassing.

Except for this jaunt through the Quilomene, the route from the coast to Idaho is typically smoother surfaces and people will be inclined to bring bikes more adapted for gravel grinding. The Quilomene isn’t gravel grinding.  My full suspension bike barely makes the cut.  Yes, we conclude, it would be cruel and unusual to send people on this route.

Another option for the Cross-Washington Mountain Bike Route is to trek over Colockum Pass from Kittias to the Columbia River south of Wenatchee.  It has one serious challenge. A walk in the snow this mid-May is guaranteed for part of the 38 miles since the pass is over 5000 feet in elevation.  If the snow is melted up to an elevation of 4500 feet then that means 9 miles of walking and 4 miles if the snow level is 5000 feet.

Colockum route

The gauge near Colockum Pass currently indicates 38 inches of snow.  How fast will that snow melt in seven weeks?  Typically it is gone by the 10th of May but this year the snow water equivalent has yet to nudge downward.  Multiply SWE (snow water equivalent) by 2.5 to get snow depth.

Trough snow

https://www.nrcs.usda.gov/wps/portal/nrcs/detail/or/snow/products/?cid=nrcs142p2_046235

The next morning instead of backtracking yesterday’s route we choose the 3000-foot climb to the top of the ridge.  The 10 miles up Army Road to the wind farm starts pleasant but turns nasty once we get high enough to catch the wind.  Again, 30 to 40 mph headwinds.  Our pace?  Not much more than 3 mph.  The wind turbines are spitting out electrons with a vengeance as our power meters sputter.

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Finally, in a grove of pine trees at the top of the ridge we find shelter.  And so have a half dozen cows.  Only they are dead and in various stages of being consumed by predators. Presumably, they froze to death early last winter after being abandoned by their owners. Or else, they played hard to get during the roundup and paid the price.

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Snow drifts span the road as we head south through the wind farm and we ride into the adjacent forest on random paths to get around them.  Our elevation is 3600 feet.  The wind turbines buzz as we tack into a quartering wind.

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We arrive at the visitor’s center for the Wild Horse wind farm and warm ourselves with coffee.  Next, we head down the long pavement glissade back to Vantage.  No pedaling needed.  Just gravity and tailwind.

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Back at the cars we agree that the trip had all the elements of a proper mountain bike adventure: chunky surface, steep grades, bad food, cold, and extreme wind.  But we should definitely not route the Cross-Washington Mountain Bike Race through the Quilomene.  Instead, we should focus the race on other discomforts.  I reckon I’ll need to rummage through the basement and find my snowshoes.

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Kootenay Gravel Grinder

As self-supported and unofficial bikepacking events go, this race took minimal to a new level. A web site gave a start date and route track. A Facebook page provided a way for those who were interested to organize themselves.  That was about it.

A last minute flurry of posts suggested that some riders were starting in Fernie and others in Cranbrook. Furthermore, some were starting on Friday and others on Saturday and the start time varied from 6 to 7 AM. I wasn’t interested in lining up at the start line with only the company of myself so I joined a discussion thread of three others who felt the same.

We show up at the Aquatic Center in Fernie on Saturday at 7 AM and proclaim ourselves a group of starters.

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Megan and Amy are excited to meet each other because few women do these sort of events. Tony is the third rider and has arrived with Amy from Bozeman, Montana. Megan is from Canmore, Alberta.  I look around and am now certain that I will be clinching the 60+ age bracket.

 

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The race route starting in Fernie divides into three sections.  First, the mountains to the southeast;  next, the rolling hills of the Kootenay River valley to the south and southwest; and finally, the rugged mountains to the northwest.  The route is five hundred kilometers and has 5600 m of climbing.  And despite the title, is known to have a scarcity of gravel surface.

I had ridden the southeast mountains and a bit of the rolling country to the south but none of us have much idea about what the entire route is about.  But we share two goals; finish as fast as we can and have fun doing it.

Total route copy

Fresh legs and storytelling get us up the 660-meter climb to the first pass without much notice.  I notice the fast pace but figure that things will settle down after a few hours. I don’t want to fall back because I find I really like being with them. I usually ride alone – not out of choice but because the community of endurance mountain bike riders is kind of scarce in my neck of the woods.  Or perhaps in most people’s woods.

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We drop into the mining area of Corbin with its stark and massive mountaintop coal removal, duck into the neglected road to the south, and climb to Flathead Pass.  The road doesn’t look like it has been graded since three out of four us were born.

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South of the pass the road gets even more ragged and we bump along for miles at a slow pace.  Sometimes, we just give in to walking.

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Few people live in the Flathead basin since the border crossing to the south was closed in the 1990s.  Mainly, it is the domain of a sparse band of weekend warriors bumping about aimlessly on ATVs. So, we are surprised to come across a couple who were just out for a morning stroll on their bikes.  They have a summer cabin up the way and a main house in Nelson.

We are only 75 km into our ride and aiming for two more high passes and the halfway point of the route – they are on their way back to the cabin for a cooked lunch and a nap. Being them is looking better than being us.  But we press on.

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The 2500-meter peaks bordering the Flathead give us views that make the miles go down easy.  And now we have real gravel to grind on.

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The Flathead is known for its healthy black and grizzly bear population.  Lesser known, is the tech-savvy sasquatch community.  That is a laptop computer, right?

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We start the climb up to Cabin Pass and notice that Tony has fallen off the back.  I’m hoping it is just a temporary thing since he has been such good company.  Amy drops back to talk with him about a contingency plan for the remainder of the race and then sprints back to us.

We reach 1700 meters and then start the long descent to the Wigwam River.  The horizon turns fuzzy and we realize that our day of comfortable weather is coming to an end.  We get drenched for an half hour.  This is a blow to me because I had a goal of getting through an entire year without riding in the rain.  Living in a dry part of the state and judiciously selecting the time of day to ride each day had kept me dry.  Now, my feet are wet and the clock is reset.

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We recoup at the bridge and the sun emerges.  Our food bags get lighter.  Amy and Megan still haven’t run out of things to talk about, even after 150 km of hard riding.  Their enthusiasm keeps me motivated to match their pace.

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The road system in the Wigwam basin doesn’t connect with roads to the west except via a 1.5 km section of trail.  It is a rude sort of trail – excessively steep and unmaintained. We push, carry, and grind our bikes up the hill.

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We then get back to pedalling and top out at Galton Pass, the highest point of the day.  A drop of 1000 meters into the dusk gets us to the highway but not in time for the Grassmere store to be open.  No ice cream for the likes of us.

The route takes us through forested rolling hills as we follow the pink route line on the GPS. Our lights don’t reveal much to each side of the gravel roads so we turn when the GPS dictates. The night is getting long and we haven’t yet quite reached the halfway point. Not that conquering the entire first half of the route the first day is particularly important.

The conversation falls off and we drift along void of thoughts other than finding a suitable place to halt.  I mention riding on an abandoned road in Kikomun Provincial Park during the BC Epic 1000 race last month and we make that our destination.  We ride around the locked gate at midnight and sleep in the road, 240 contorted kilometers from Fernie.

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We haven’t yet talked much about the racing aspects of this race.  We’ve ridden all day together at a pace that seems ambitious for each of us.  Yet we are still together.  And then, again without much coordination, we get up at 5 AM, pack our bikes in silence, and ride off shoulder to shoulder into the cold.

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The high mountains to the north are purplish blue in the dawn, as is the water of Koocanusa Reservoir.  We ride over the bridge and lament that the marina is closed and so our access to coffee and ice cream.  Our food resupply is 60 km down the road in Cranbrook.  We stop in a sunny spot and dig deep into our food bags but aren’t finding much to get excited about.

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We descend into Cranbrook and head for the TH. Tim Horton’s is Canada’s response to the blandness of McDonalds.  Tim is everywhere in Canada and the menu has a consistently high calorie to dollar ratio.  We anticipate no other food stops until the finish line so I order four egg/sausage/cheese muffin sandwiches and a cinnamon roll, or about 2500 calories.  All for $14.

The route heads through dips and rises created by the glaciers that once originated in the high peaks to the north.  North is our destination and we try to guess which of the impossibly steep valleys ahead is our route.

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We cross the Kootenay River for the last time at Fort Steele and start climbing up Wildhorse River canyon.  Peaks of the Hughes Range, some 2500 meters high, rim the valley.  The lower slopes of the valley were once aggressively logged and mined but the condition of the beat up main road suggests that everyone eventually gave up on that thought.  We share the road with a few weekend four-wheeler recreationists but eventually it becomes too rough for even them.  Pretty rough for us too.

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Not to waste time, Megan combines hike-a-biking with eating a Tim Horton’s sandwich.

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The more we climb the better the views.

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We flop over to the north side of 1950-meter Wildhorse Pass and find more fantastic high peaks ahead. And the same egregious conditions of other abandoned logging roads in this region.  We bump down the hill and I find my mood also heading downward.  The heat, the jostling, my failure to stay hydrated is taking a toll.  I drop back for an hour to nurse my wounds.  Even when the route turns onto a proper road with a smooth surface I’m short on enthusiasm.

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We reunite at a bridge and I get enough water and Tim Horton’s miracle sandwiches in me to make a difference.  The smooth road along Whiteswan Lake and the cooling temperature all work in my favor.  I’m again a happy camper.

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We begin the 650-meter climb up Blackfoot Creek at dusk.  Blackfoot Creek and its border guards, the Van Nostrand Range to the west and Quinn Range to the east, don’t tolerate logging roads much.  Avalanches off the 3000-meter peaks take out chunks of the road and bury them with rocks and trees.  The stream eats at the road where it gets too close and spits it out downstream.  We walk the sections that have washed out and try to keep our feet dry for the cold night ahead.  We end up with very wet feet.

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A patch of wild raspberries short of the pass catches our attention and we plop down for a minute of picking and plotting.  None of us want to spend a second night out so we think of how to get through the next 70 km without falling asleep at the wheel or ending up as bear food.  Amy and Megan are still finding lots to talk about so that solves two problems. The talking seems to keep them alert and I find their talk entertaining.  Hard to fall asleep with that going on.  The talking also alerts the bears that we are around.

They get their bear spray in a place easy to reach and we head off into the darkness – to my right is Amy yelling, “hey bear” and to my left is Megan yelling the same.  It is too dark to take pictures so we ride non-stop and fast down the hill.

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Some of the rocks in the road start moving and I close my eyes to erase the hallucination.  I open them and again see moving rocks.  Only they are hopping.  And the rocks, in focus, are actually frogs.  We weave in and out of frogs with the intention of sparing their lives but there are dozens of them.  A few rabbits join the fray and dart just ahead of our wheels. We were expecting bears but we may, in the end, be felled by these frogs and rabbits. Entering an active logging operation, it all stops.

We leave the Bull River behind and one more pass separates us from Fernie.  It is already midnight.  With Sulphur Creek raging below we head up a neglected road plastered to the steep canyon walls.  Like magic, a second wind takes hold and I’m feeling strong like I did the first hour of the first day.  My fuzzy brain interprets this as elation.

We stop at the pass and the temperature is crazy cold.  Amy has been hauling around a heavy down jacket and hasn’t yet used it.  She says she doesn’t need it for the descent so I offer to get it down the hill for her.  I’m bundled up and ready to fly.

The final 15 km becomes a dream sequence of moonlight, motion, and sound.  For two days my thoughts were focussed on getting to the finish line in the shortest amount of time. Now, I want the race to continue with the finish line always moving ahead to the next mountain range.

We enter Fernie at 2:30 AM and roll through a deserted downtown and pull into the Aquatic Center parking lot.  No cheering crowd greets us.  We try to get our tired brains around how to take a victory picture but end up with this:

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Our official time is 43 hours and 30 minutes.  We jointly took first place in our start group. There were no second or third placers.  Oh, and Tony was victorious in his own way.  He battled a terrible case of saddle sores but made it to Galton Pass the first night.  He got back to Fernie on his own the next day by riding a paved route.

We started as strangers and ended as racer friends.  What could be a better finish than that?

 

BC Epic 1000 mountain bike race

 

 

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My last multi-day bikepacking race was three years ago and I now have the jitters as we line up at the start for a photo. Steady riding throughout the winter and spring of this year has left me with some base level of fitness.  And a few multi-day trips in the spring at fast touring speed has given me some mental preparation. But now I have deep doubts.

That slight discomfort in my beleaguered left knee – impending failure or simply stiffness?   That shortness of breath on steep hills the day before – muscle atrophy or a bit of over-training.

The race is the inaugural BC Epic 1000, one of those mountain bike events you rarely hear about because it is unsponsored, self-supported, and only loosely organized.  Someone throws out a route (along with a GPS track), a time to show up at the start line, and off you go. Fourteen of us showed up for the BC Epic 1000.  1000 is the race distance.  In kilometers.

A liked the theme of this route from the start.  It follows mainly trails converted out of abandoned railroad grades across southern British Columbia, starting from Merritt and ending in Fernie.  It is convoluted in its course because southern British Columbia has convoluted geography.  The old railroads were constructed to tie east with west and the mountain ranges and deep glacial valleys trend north to south.  It was an epic effort by the railroad construction crews working against the grain.  Now, with the ghostly tunnels and trestles as reminders, it was our epic.

Here is a map of the route:

BC Epic 1000 route

The race was organized by Lennard of Kamloops.  He did more than the minimum to make it go smoothly and be a social success.  In fact, a handful of us stayed at his house the night before the start, ate pizza, and swapped stories.  Marilie cooked us an expansive breakfast as their odd scotty dog swept the dining room floor with its belly.  And, finally, it was time.  A few generous Kamloopian mountain bike fanatics shuttled us off to Merritt.

BC Epic 7

Lennard delivers some last minute encouragement and a reminder we are on our own.  No one has ridden this route in its entirety.  Lots of unknown unknowns to trip us up.

We start off on paved roads through a lush valley of pastures and forest and wouldn’t you know it, I’m off the back of the pack after only a half hour.  I settle in for the long haul and think about not getting lost and how to peddle for 18 hours or more a day without collapsing in a heap.  I have 5 to 6 days in mind for this race.

I get lost transitioning from the road to the rail trail but find the ATV track after doing my 5 minute rest.  My grand strategy is to ride an hour and then spend 5 minutes doing chores.  The chore break will force me to stretch, get weight off of pressure points, and keep me from neglecting the obvious like drinking, eating, and peeing.  I’ve also allocated a 15 minute break for gathering up food late morning and another in early evening.  I figure a few additional short breaks of the unanticipated type will also intrude into pedaling time.

I’m only to happy for a break after the first hour on the Kettle Valley Rail Trail.  ATV riders have rototilled the gravel surface into dips and humps.  Coarse gravel litters the surface. Fortunately, the day is early and most of the ATV crowd are still nursing their Friday night hangovers.  We have the trail mostly to ourselves.

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After going over the first pass and into an area of extended wetlands, I catch up with Sam and we ride for awhile.  I notice he is more relaxed than me, even though, as he says, this is his first multi-day race.  He is on a full-suspension bike and I have a rigid frame and fork – of course he is more relaxed.  I’m suffering from the bumps and fall back after a while in order to find relief from the jostling.  I’m thinking I brought the wrong bike.

I see Sam alongside the trail with a front wheel in his hand.  Sharp metal buried in the trail has ripped a large chunk out of his tire.  The hole is bigger than his thumb, which is now slathered with sealant.  I’ve never tried to boot a hole that big.  I offer encouragement and better luck.  I scour the trail ahead for metal bits as I ride off.

Princeton is 112 km into the race and I arrive about noon.  I do a quick Subway stop and order the highest calorie foot-long on the menu board.  I’m out of there within my 15 minute allotment.  I like Princeton – compact, clean, and unpretentious. Riding out of town, grassland and flowers replace the morning’s tunnel of trees.  I run into Peter and we start the 500 meters of elevation gain to the next pass.

Cows are crossing the path and we wait for the traffic jam to clear.  A couple of guys on horses and a border collie with OCD make short work of getting cows from right pasture to left.  We start to thread our way through the green mine field left behind by the cows but I’m blocked again, this time by one of the horses.  A guy in a tan cowboy hat reaches down and says, “take this bag of fudge; I have plenty at home”. I smile a thanks and think that if this is a typical Canadian thing then I’m applying for immigration as soon as I get home.

I follow the Kettle Valley Rail Trail as it drops at a lazy gradient towards the south end of Okanagan Lake.  A mountain lion steps out in front of me and stops.  I’m downwind and he looking away from me, not realizing that he has company.  My tires crunch and he leaps off the trail and is out of sight in one bound.  I wish I had legs like that.

First stop once leaving the woods is Summerland.  It an elevated valley above the lake with a patchwork of orchards and fine houses.  The ripe cherries taunt me but I decide not to steal.

The sun drops below the horizon as I roll into Penticton, British Columbia’s take on Waikiki.  I’m immediately entrained in a bumper-to-bumper parade of hot rods and drunks.  The banner across the entrance to the city park along the lake shoreline indicates that I have arrived just in time for the annual Peach City Beach Cruise. Lucky me.

Beach Cruise

Image borrowed off the internet

I scurry through the east end of town looking for food but find mostly sit-down restaurants and liquor stores.  I stop at a pizza place and they make me a medium.  I ask for it in a plastic bag to go and try to explain that I’ll be eating it down the road but am on a bike. Puzzled, the server hands me a pizza in a box.  I dig out a ziplock bag in my pack and stuff the oozing mess into it.

The rail trail out of town climbs through vineyards and expensive houses.  I want to get far away from the noise in order to sleep.  I ride into the darkness and find a picnic bench set up on the foundation of an old water tower, the kind that once provided water to the steam locomotives.  I call it a day at 235 km.  The stars blink faintly as I lay in my sleeping bag with my plastic bag, slowly squeezing pizza into my mouth.

I get up before dawn and start stuffing my stuff into their designated stuff sacks. Someone whizzes by in the dark.  I can’t make out who it is.  The numerous tire tracks in the trail indicate that I’m not among the frontrunners.

The trail climbs and winds through Rock Oven Regional Park which has a collection of stone and rock ovens built between 1911 and 1915 by immigrant workers who constructed the Kettle Valley Railway. The rock ovens served as ovens to bake bread and feed the workers.  No fresh bread for me – just leftover pizza.  The climb continues at maximum railroad gradient which is about 2.5 percent for the trains of that era.

Troy sneaks up behind me as I lean nearly asleep on the aero bars.  I’m surprised to find him behind rather than ahead of me.  He explains that he hasn’t been able to eat much during the last 24 hours because of nausea. He looks like he is struggling but then pulls ahead.

The air is cold and damp as I peak out near Chute Lake.  The heavy rains just previous to the weekend had soaked the place and the mosquitoes are hungry.  It was a good choice not to ride long into the night and end up here to sleep.  But now I get to deal with the puddles.  Miles and miles of puddles.  The worst span the trail and my feet get soaked at the bottom of each rotation as I muddle through.  Evil thoughts of the idiots on ATVs who created these deep puddles flood my mind.  What I really need is coffee.

I look up and it is Troy heading back down the hill.  He has weighed his option of continuing on to Grand Forks with going back to Kamloops before his body imploded.  He probably picked the wise option but I was sorry to see him out of the race.

And then the sun comes out and I enter Myra-Belleview Provincial Park. No more puddles and the surface is smooth.  The 12 km of railroad grade through Myra Canyon turns spectacular.  Over a dozen trestles and tunnels were needed to get the railroad through this deep canyon.   It is now a tourist attraction.  A truck with trailer pulls into the parking lot with a dozen bikes to rent to the Sunday visitors.  I continue on and again find myself muddling with puddles near Hydraulic Lake.

myra-canyon-park

Image borrowed off the internet.

Back to tree tunnels for a few more hours and then I detour out to the Beaverdell store. And then exit the store with over a pound of chocolate chip ice cream balanced on a sugar cone.  Heaven comes to those who wait.  The two liter bottle of Coke also feeds my high and I’m back spinning on the trail.

I approach a concrete barrier designed to keep the ATVs off the trail.  It is the only one I’ve seen that appears to be working.  I start to thread my way through the gap and then realize at the last moment that the space is narrower than my bars.  I hit the ground hard – butt plant on one rock, shoulder on another, and head grind against yet another. I moan and prop myself up slowly.  The damage assessment indicates only a bruise on the one buttock, the skin missing from shoulder is dispensable, and the helmet has prevented any threat to a future modeling career.  But the pain in my rib – how did that happen?

I  get back on my horse and keep on riding.

The trail drops down to the Kettle River and there begins the trail of a hundred gates.  Now traversing agricultural land, a gate greets me at each property line.  And it is no longer a gravel path but a hummocky thread through the tall grass.  It is late in the afternoon and I’m getting tired.  My rib hurts.

I fuel up at the town of Midway, which has not much more than a convenience store.  But also here is where the Kettle Valley Rail Trail turns into the Columbia and Western Rail Trail.  The later is more recent which means that the outhouses aren’t yet shot up to hell and the surface is smooth gravel once again.  And the interpretative signs are actually quite good.

Up the canyon a way comes Greenwood.  The smelter at the edge of town is now silent and I assume the mines are also vacated.  The jobs are long gone but the people remain.  It reminds me of towns in Oregon after the timber companies have cut all the trees that could pay their way to the sawmill and then moved on.  The remnant population the companies leave behind somehow makes it in spite of the lack of jobs.

Further up the canyon a handwritten sign carefully explains that because people have left the gate open too many times and the llamas got out, she has decided to lock it with a padlock.  So there.  The note also indicates that you could either climb over the gate or ride a detour on the highway.  Not to be deprived a llama sighting, I continue down the trail. Sure enough, llamas.  In fact, so many llamas that it qualifies as llama hoarding.  No wonder they had bolted through the open gate; the grass is grazed to the dirt line.

llamas glendeven

Image borrowed off the internet.

I wince as I throw my bike over the high gate.  Llamas race around me and I try to remember what I know about llama trampling.  I can’t think of anything so I ride through the poo ignoring my companions and wince again as I throw my bike over the gate at the far end of the property.   I continue the ride to the pass at Eholt, where the route turns familiar.

Three weeks previous, I had ridden a section of the race route; just to know what I was getting myself into.  It turned out to be quite a good trip.  From Christina Lake I rode the rail trail to Castlegar, although with a bypass around the long Bulldog Tunnel.  The tunnel suffered a partial collapse the week previous and I had told Lennard that I would check out the official detour.  The detour turned out to be a real pain.  From Castlegar, I continued on the race route to the town of Trail and then headed up the hill on a rail trail to Rossland. And then it was up and over two high passes on the little used Old Rossland Cascade Highway to get back to Christina Lake.  An out-and-back day trip west from Christina Lake on the last day had gotten me as far as this pass at Eholt.

I head off down the hill into the dusk with the aim of finding a dry spot void of mosquitoes.  I approach a tunnel entrance and a herd of bighorn sheep tumble out. Apparently, bighorn sheep like to sleep in tunnels. Later, I pass a sign nailed to a tree that promises a goat sighting but now I was more interested in sleep than wildlife.

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I enter a section where the railroad grade has been blasted from the face of a high cliff. The site is dry and the rocks radiate heat after the warm day.  I decide that 243 kilometers is good for day two.  I lay out my sleeping bag, negotiate a position where my rib doesn’t hurt, and descend into three hours of deep, wonderful sleep.

I get up before dawn and bump on down the trail towards Grand Forks.  I liked Grand Forks when I went through a few weeks ago.  Good coffee, a farmers market, and friendly people. But now I enter in early morning and all that is open is the convenience store.  The attendant is chasing a deer away from the front door with a broom, which would seem odd if I had already had my coffee.  But, I hadn’t and it didn’t.

The 25 kilometers from Grand Forks to Christina Lake are without effort.  Flat and smooth, the trail follows the Kettle River through forests and farmland, crosses the river at the rapids, and then a final time heading into Christina Lake.

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From my previous visit, I had pegged Christina Lake as a low rent tourist and retirement town.  The coffee shop was good though.  And the scenery mighty fine.  Gladstone Provincial Park wraps around the north half of the lake and much further beyond that.

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I settle into the extended climb to the next pass.  The rock faces, trestles, and tunnels keep the morning interesting.  So do the flowers.

 

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The climb tops out at the old Farron siding site and then begins a long, fast descent down to the Bulldog tunnel.

The Bulldog tunnel is over 900 meters long.  As Lennard said at the beginning of the race, “the tunnel is officially closed because of the collapsed timbers at the east portal and the detour is the official route, but those who choose to use the tunnel won’t be relegated”. I see tire tracks heading into the tunnel entrance and I follow.

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Emerging from the tunnel, I follow the trail, now perched high above Upper Arrow Lake (which is the dammed Columbia River), through lush cedar forest.  It abruptly ends at the Castlegar pulp mill.

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I endure a bit of pavement riding into town, where I top off on water and Coke.  Monster diesel pickups, a majority black, rumble through town, providing further evidence that this is a mill town.

The route abandons its railroad heritage at Castlegar and heads off to the east bank of the Columbia River.  The next stop is the town of Trail but getting there along the east bank is a maze.  An interesting maze.  Paved and dirt roads eventually lead to a trail  etched into steep slopes above the river.  Minimally maintained, the trail pitches abruptly up and down.  The trail begs to be ridden but bucks me off whenever I dare relax.  Knowing that my car is far away in Kimberley and that I have no plan B to get to my car if I were to be injured, I take it easy and walk a lot.

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Civilization comes abruptly at the outskirts of Trail.  Nice houses on the east side of the river face against the huge Trail smelter on the west bank.  It growls. It menaces. It pollutes.  It provides jobs.

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I don’t need to stop in Trail for food but when I pass the Safeway I see Allen outside the store with bandages in his hand.  He looks a bit beat up.  He tells me about falling and leaving some skin behind.  His right brake lever looks wonky from the fall.  Moreover, his saddle sores are at crisis stage.  He is heading across the river to a motel where he says Franck is holed up and trying to recover from some injuries.  Allens says that he will patch himself up and then decide what to do next.

The highway out of Trail is hot and noisy and I settle in for the long grind up to Salmo. Fortunately, it is all smooth pavement so my rib is no longer being jarred.  Darkness sets in as I reach Salmo and I need to decide whether to stop or ride on.  Salmo has only a Subway and a convenience store for food at this hour so I hit them up before they close. The route north out of Salmo to Nelson is a railroad grade converted to trail.  It follows a river and, from what I can tell coming into Salmo, the trail will be wet from recent rains with lots of mosquitos.  I argue against getting a motel room and lose.

Only 205 km for the day but some of those were hard-earned, I reason.  And I am finally clean.

My start in the morning gets delayed until dawn – such is the danger of motel rooms when racing.  The morning is surprisingly cool and I cycle with all my clothes on through the mist-laden vegetation.  Over the pass, past Cottonwood Lake, and I’m dropping down to Nelson.

I had heard that Nelson is British Columbia’s trendiest small town so I am counting on a good cup of coffee.  Rolling through the old part of town I find what I need – a coffee shop even Northwest Portland would approve of.  I could live in a place like this.  If they would have me.  If I could learn how to be hip.

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Image borrowed off the internet

I stumble around the edge of town trying to find a grocery store and end up wasting time. The route ahead involves catching a ferry across Kootenay Lake and I don’t want to nearly miss one and then have to wait an extra hour.  I scoot along the 30 km of pavement to Balfour only to see the ferry pulling out of the dock.  I sit down on a bench and sort through my bags for all the things that have been missing the last three days.

After an hour, I ride onto the ferry and they direct me to park next to the two motorcycle guys.  I guess they think we have something in common.  Motorcycle guy #1 pulls out a selfie stick, attaches his smart phone, smoothes out his helmet hair, and spends the next 15 minutes taking pictures of himself and his $50,000 bike with the mountains as a backdrop.  I retreat to the back of the ferry where the gulls hang out.

The dizzy activity surrounding Nelson is lost once I roll off the ferry and onto the east shore of Kootenay Lake.  A hilly paved road takes me to Gray Creek and the start of the steepest part of the race.  For 17 km a dirt road climbs 1500 m to a pass and then, just as abruptly, falls off the back side to the St. Marys River drainage.  I remind myself that riding uphill is the same as riding flat ground only at a lower gear.  But when I put my bike in the lowest gear it isn’t feeling much like that at all.

The race is starting to take a toll.  My legs won’t relax and the sustained effort is causing my legs to cramp.  Nothing seems fluid as I start into the third hour of climbing.  I begin to walk the pitches greater than 15 percent.  The scenery is a welcome distraction.  Snow-covered peaks crowd me on both sides as I get closer to the pass.  And suddenly, no more up.

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I rummage in the food bag for something special to celebrate the occasion and find only the usual.  Oh well, all the downhill coming up will be sweet, I tell myself.  I head down the hill and it isn’t sweet.  A deranged grader operator has recently taken to the road and rearranged the boulders and dirt into rib-jarring patterns.  I descend slowly watching all that potential energy getting eaten up by the brake pads.  I ride another hour before the surface becomes smooth enough to ride fast.

I see few people on this road but towards dusk a pickup with a horse trailer passes me in a rush.  My heart thumps when I see the side door swing wide open as he takes the next turn. That unlatched metal door would have swung into my head if he had not been passing me on a straight section of road.  I follow the river eastward towards Kimberley dreaming of a world with no motor vehicles.

Before the race I got to see some of Kimberley as I waited for Allen to get off work.  Allen lives in Kimberley and we shared a ride to Kamloops to start the race.  Kimberley was once a mining town that turned ski town and is again looking for new inspiration.  I think they are off to a good start.  The walking mall in the old downtown section is being remodeled and is starting to look more like Nelson and less like faux Bavaria.  And any place with a farmers’ market has a rosy future.

Street Scene August 2014(1)

Image borrowed from the internet

The race route winds through a large area of community forest owned by the town of Kimberley.  I start up a dirt track through the forest and debate whether to pull up there underneath a tree and call it a day.  My legs are fried after the brutal descent and my bruised rib isn’t happy.  The tingling in the bottom of my feet is something new.

I promise myself at least a few hours of inactivity and find a position that doesn’t hurt my rib.  I sleep for only two hours and am wake at 2 AM.  I start packing and am excited by the prospect of finishing up.  As I remember from the notes, it should be an easy day.

I can’t get the track to the GPS to appear on the screen and I’m unsure of the route.  I continue down the dirt track and find most intersections have a “Great Trail” indicator and settle on following them. The Great Trail is a route across Canada that is roughly the race route that we are following.  It is uniquely Canadian to have created this trail system across their country. And uniquely great in my mind.

The Great Trail

I roll into Kimberley about 3 AM and find the start of the paved rail trail that connects Kimberley to Cranbrook.  I head into the darkness at a fast downhill clip.  Dawn illuminates the high Rocky Mountain peaks to the east and the St. Mary River to the southwest.  These are free miles.  No effort involved.

I swoop into Cranbrook and spot my new favorite Canadian fast food joint – Tim Hortons! More good tasting calories than a biker could hope for.  I get a bag of breakfast egg muffin thingys, coffee, and a pile of pastries.  I’m in and out in 15 minutes.

The last piece of rail trail of the race is the Isadore Canyon Trail leading northeast out of Cranbrook.  I hop on board.  Leaving the short piece of Isadore Canyon Trail, the route wanders about on gravel roads, paved roads, and dirt.  It roughly follows the Kootenay River valley.

Rolling hills along pavement meld into a dirt road along the west shore of Koocanusa Reservoir.  The dam on the Kootenay River that creates this reservoir is far downstream near Libby, Montana and backs up water far into Canada.  120 km of grand, flowing river turned into flaccid, turquoise backwater.  I wonder what Canada got out of the deal?

Koocanusa

Image borrowed from the internet

A bridge across the reservoir takes me through the surprisingly pleasant Kikomun Creek Provincial Park.  Here, the dense stands of trees – a relic of decades of fire suppression – have been beat back with chain saws and the land nurtured to grow brush and flowers.  It is the vegetation favored by bighorn sheep, elk, and deer.

The brush is my undoing though.  The GPS track leads me along a well-defined skid trail and then leads off into the brush.  I look for Lennard’s tracks to help me out.  I had been following his tire tracks for several days so I not only know what pattern to look for but, now, they are the only ones on the route.  I guess I’m in second place.  Now, how did that happen?

His tire tracks lead off one direction and then return.  I decide that the GPS track is wrong and that Lennard was also making it up as he went.  I make up something too and I end up at a lake with a swimming beach.  I thread my way among the beer bellies and too-white-skin of the beach crowd.  I try to appear inconspicuous.  I stop and zoom out on the GPS and find that I’m way off track.  I head south in search of a trail that would intersect that pink line on the display.  I eventually find myself back on the route – underneath the power lines – and realize that the GPS track was correct after all.  If I had just walked my bike through the brush 45 minutes ago following the GPS I would be well on my way.  So it goes.

The route finally decides that its southeast meanderings are getting old and takes a turn northward, towards Fernie, and the finish line.  I cross the Elk River at Elko expecting an easy coast into Fernie.  But the chunky ATV track up around the south slope of Mt. Broadwood is slow and hot.  Nevertheless, the scenery is fantastic. The path meanders along a high bench at the base of the mountains through prime winter range for bighorn sheep and elk.

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Image borrowed from the internet

I find a spring and give myself a good dousing.  I now realize that another pass is between me and Fernie and I settle in for the grind.  Chunky road gives way to smooth gravel and I begin the long drop into town.

A green pickup approaches and skids to a halt.  It is Doug, a mountain biker from Fernie. He greets me by name and explains that he had been stalking me and the others via the internet using our Spot tracks.  He offer me a Coke is immediately my best friend.  He explains to me that he is off to intercept Franck in the same manner, which is the first time I realize that Franck is close behind me.  So, time to get moving and act like I’m a racer rather than a tourist.

A coal train rumbles along the edge of town and blocks my progress for five minutes and I look behind for Franck.  I swoop into town, up to the finely restored City Hall building, and the finish line.  And there is Lennard and a dozen others cheering.  Their enthusiasm nearly brings me to tears.

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After the obligatory picture we hang out waiting for Franck.  The audience grows.  When he rolls in I count six nations represented among finished riders and supporters –  France, Namibia, South Africa, Australia, Canada, and the United States.  It pains me to realize that Canada welcomes diversity and my country is going in the opposite direction.

Franck rolls in with fist clenched in the air and takes a lap around the building.  The crowd roars.

I’m hustled off to Peter and Wendy’s  for a much-needed shower and then we return to City Hall to see Allen come in.  And now the women’s mountain bike club are among the cheerleaders, having delayed the start of their Wednesday evening group ride to see the ragged racers stumble in.  Allen is standing on his pedals as he rolls into the parking lot, a sign that his saddle sores are still raging.  But he is smiling.

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Dusk settles in and Athena takes charge of Allen and me.  She wrangles up two large pizzas, folds us into the van, and then tells us to start eating.  We drive off towards Kimberley in a daze. Arriving at Athena and Allen’s house, they offer me a bed for the night so I don’t have to drive home that night.

Why do we do it?  Why trade five days (4 days 7 hours 32 minutes in my case) of loafing around home for a lot of discomfort?  Certainly, it is more than proving to ourselves that we aren’t dead yet.

I like to think that the appeal is that it is a tightly wrapped and intense package of the physical, spiritual, and social.  And I really need that from time to time.

Exploring my physical upper limits to exertion is exciting and unexpected.  I can do much more than I think I can when shoved into a race setting.  The extreme exertion alters my brain chemistry and floods my body with intense feeling.  And I really do want to be in this world feeling to the fullest.

Also, the pursuit of the race, especially in a place as beautiful as southern British Columbia, feeds my soul.  The pace is fast and some details go by in a blur, but the rapid fire images of mountains, water, and wildlife gives me hope for the natural world.  Not all has been lost in this conquest of nature over the last two centuries.  And that is especially true in Canada.

Finally, in spite of the inherent solitude of the multi-day mountain biker in a sparse field of racers, I find the social aspects of these events to be powerful.  We meet as strangers and finish as friends.  We become part of a secret society that no one else can fully understand – the tribe who experienced the inaugural BC Epic 1000.

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Western Portion of the John Wayne Trail

Great journeys on a bike often begin with humdrum shuttles to the start. Only, this time, the shuttle was interesting.  Marilyn and Mike offered to pick me up in Vantage along the Columbia River and whisk me across the Cascade Mountains via Interstate 90, thereby getting me close to Rattlesnake Lake where the John Wayne Trail begins.  They went out of their way to do this and I’m extremely grateful.

Marilyn and Mike have toured on bikes for a long while and had done pieces of the John Wayne Trail.  Soon, they will be starting their first thru ride of the trail.

Our time in the truck gives me the opportunity to ask about their rides of the western portion of the trail and they learned more about my recent ride of the eastern portion. Even trade on that account. Actually, my gain since they are such interesting people on many fronts. Marilyn is the architect behind the web site for Friends of the John Wayne Trail and both are advocates of the efforts to keep the trail alive and funded.

Friends of the John Wayne Trail

We pull off the highway short of North Bend and into the parking lot of a golf course for unloading.  I remember this area being Weyerhaeuser timberland when growing up in Tacoma as a kid.  Now, it is fast becoming suburbia Seattle.

It is mid-afternoon and I ride on paved roads a mile to the south in order to pick up the Snoqualmie Valley Trail. Like the John Wayne Trail, it is an old railroad bed converted to gravel trail.

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I glide through a tunnel of large maple and fir trees with the South Fork Snoqualmie River to the left.  For the 6 miles to Rattlesnake Lake the trail snakes through 80-year-old forest.

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The two trails connect at the Cedar River Watershed Education Center, a facility created by the City of Seattle at Rattlesnake Lake as a gathering place to “connect people with the source of their water”. Tastefully constructed and landscaped overall, my favorite feature is the set of African drums being played by water dropping off the roof of a covered walkway.

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I head up the gradual grade of the John Wayne Trail and am surrounded by forests touched by an abundance of rain.  Moss grows where humans don’t scuff it away.  Today, May 10, the weather is perfect.  The smooth gravel is dry and fast.  A few day bikers are out but being mid-week I mostly have the trail to myself.

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The terrain to the side is steep and the railroad architects in 1910 resorted to deep cuts through rock and elaborate trestles to plaster the railbed to the land.

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The high Cascades are soon in view and the snowpack is sparse after an April of record high temperatures. This is good in one sense in that the trail east of Hyak will be without snow and the two-mile-long tunnel underneath the crest of the Cascade Mountains will be open and free of ice.

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Water gushes down the many steep draws alongside the trail and helps drown out the persistent hum of Interstate 90 in the valley bottom to the north.  The only other distraction is the line of utility poles overhead. Nearly all of the John Wayne Trail west of the Columbia River is used as an utility corridor. I hope that State Parks is receiving revenue from this use of public land and that the money is being spent for improvements to parks.

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The high peaks close in and then the route changes abruptly at the base of a steep mountain face.  The Snoqualmie tunnel burrows beneath the mountain for 2.3 miles and pops out on the east side of the Cascade Mountains at Hyak.  I mount a light on my helmet and head off into the darkness.  Water drips from the ceiling and puddles on the ground. The air is surprisingly cold. Imaginary bears walk towards me, unseen in the beam of my puny light.

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The east end of the tunnel has a large parking lot and a fancy set of restrooms. The area is mostly deserted. I look around for water but the faucets in the restrooms are too low in the sink to accommodate my water bottles. Surprisingly, one of the restrooms has a shower but the sprinkler head doesn’t spit out enough flow for filling water bottles. Only enough to soak my feet. Instead, I find a nearby spring and fill up.

Keechelus Lake is just east of Hyak and the trail follows its western shoreline.  The snow has just melted but trilliums already line the trail.

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State Parks has built four backcountry campgrounds along the trail from Rattlesnake Lake to Lake Easton. For $12 per night you get a picnic table, a graveled level spot for a tent, and a tastefully painted outhouse, complete with confusing grammar on what the toilet seats are capable of doing.

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I pass on the established campgrounds and ride eastward into the dusk.

I see a bicyclist in the distance.  She is on a regular touring bicycle and bumping along the gravel surface in what seems to me considerable discomfort on the skinny tires. She assures me with a smile that she is enjoying her ride.  She is the  only other cyclist I encounter who is out for anything other than a day ride.  I don’t inquire too much about her destination for the night because I know that women have to deal with safety issues that old guys like me can pretty much disregard.  It is profoundly unfair to women.

I continue on and find myself a wide spot along the Yakima River to call home for the night.

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This puts me a few miles west of Cle Elum and within easy striking distance of a proper coffee shop for the morning.

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The old railroad station at South Cle Elum has been lovingly restored by volunteers and supported by various funding sources.  The large brick building next to the station was the electrical power facility for the early trains.  Yes, the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific Railroad actually used electric engines along some of the route from Chicago to Tacoma.

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I detour to the north a few miles to Cle Elum and find a coffee shop with decor and atmosphere to match my historic-minded mood. The coffee is much better than what the railroad construction laborers probably had as they hacked their way through the mountains with pick axes and dynamite. The 60 miles I had ridden so far was easy effort in comparison to what they endured.

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A few miles east of Cle Elum the trail dives under Interstate 90 and leaves it (and its noise) behind.  The trail follows a more confined reach of the Yakima River free of much human influence. For next 12 miles the surrounding conifer forests above and the corridor of riparian hardwoods below sing in tune.

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This section has a couple of tunnels. I start through the first tunnel confident that the light at the end is sufficient to get me through. But it is false light. Halfway through I can’t see anything that might have fallen from the ceiling or the bears curled up for a morning nap. I fumble for my headlamp.

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Exiting from the canyon, the Yakima River spreads out widely and much of its flow is diverted for crops.  The crops are relatively low value and the water is wastefully applied through flood irrigation.  The Yakima is an important salmon and steelhead river and it pains me to see its water wasted in such a fashion.  Nevertheless, the old railroad towns of Thorp, Ellensburg, and Kittitas would barely exist today without the farming.

I cross the Yakima River for the last time and head towards Ellensburg.  Now the railroad grade is straight and bordered by wetlands created by the flood irrigation.

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I weave through Ellensburg with a goal of finding the Iron Horse Brewery.  Iron Horse is the actual name used for the John Wayne Trail west of the Columbia River.  It is the Iron Horse State Park and the John Wayne Trail threads through its corridor.  Clear?

It is only mid-morning so the brewery and pub is closed.  Bad timing.

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I ride through the historic section of Ellensburg and it is tastefully restored and dense with businesses.  This is a college town so it has a feeling of diversity.  I hear that the university has a program in craft beer making.  Maybe it is time for me to consider a second career.

Thorp passess by without me noticing and I enter Kittitas.  Here, the railroad station is painted the colors of the restrooms along the trail (that is a good thing).  But the station is in dire need of repair.

The park around the station has a sprinkler faucet and so I fill up for the arid section to the east.

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Leaving the valley behind, the trail climbs up the high ridge that separates the Yakima and Columbia Rivers.  Firmly in the rain shadow of the Cascade Mountains and above the elevation of the highest irrigation canals, the land turns starkly arid.

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The railroad grade crosses what is now Interstate 90 on a high steel trestle that has been closed down by State Parks.  I decide against the official bypass of the trestle, a paved road on the south side of Interstate 90, and continue to the north approach to the trestle.  I walk my bike along the base of the fill of the approach and hit a dirt road at the bottom and follow it to the east.  It rises and hits an irrigation ditch and then drops down to a paved public road.  Just before the paved road, I pass through a new gate with a No Trespassing sign posted by the irrigation company.  Well, maybe not the cleanest detour, legally speaking.

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The Yakima Firing Range is just south of the trestle and the trail continues through this federal ownership all the way to the Columbia River.  The rolling hills are not grazed anymore and the military doesn’t seem to be disturbing the land much with explosions and such.

The late spring wildflowers and sage are intoxicating.  This is an important winter grazing area for the thousands of elk that inhabit the Firing Range and the State wildlife management areas north of Interstate 90.

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The surface of the trail between the trestle and Boylston Tunnel turns out to be a dud though.  An army of horseback riders had recently rototilled the sandy surface.  It is rough and slow.

The tunnel is officially closed and so I take the bypass road which has been graded with rough rock.  More slow going.  But once I crest the divide the trail is smooth; the horses must have turned around at the tunnel.

Now, all downhill and smooth sailing to the Columbia River.

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I enter the section of the Firing Range which burned two years ago and the skin of the hills changes texture.  Gone are the sagebrush and brush along the streams.  The elk I see seem uneasy with their lack of hiding cover.  The only people I see out here are a couple of women in a pickup truck.  I guess by the environmental  consulting sign on the side of their rig that they have been tasked with monitoring the post-fire changes in vegetation.

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My 2000-foot drop in elevation to the Columbia River ends all too soon.  The Saddle Mountains rise sharply to the right.  Many years ago the Columbia River breached a notch in the mountains and it now flows through Sentinel Gap rather than detouring widely east along the mountain range.

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The town of Vantage, and more importantly, my car is still nine miles to the north so I get on the paved road along the Columbia River and am pushed by a tailwind for the last leg of my journey.

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My car is parked behind the Texaco station.  Ten dollars a night gets you the peace of mind that your parked car won’t be clouted while away.  Just as important, the convenience store at the Texaco station has ice cream sandwiches and Coke.  Bicycling food at its best.

So, 124 miles in 24 hours.  Here is the GPS track for my route:

Western portion JWT

The western portion of the John Wayne Trail is a much different experience than is the eastern portion.

The surface is smoother and the creature comforts more common on the western portion. Water and food are less of a concern.  Also, goatheads are absent and opening and closing gates a non-issue.  The route is well-signed except through Ellensburg and there are no bypasses to figure out other than around the Interstate 90 trestle.

The changes in topography and vegetation from the western mountains clad with rain forest to the arid hills along the Columbia River provide plenty of contrast in the western portion.  The eastern portion is mostly arid and the spatial changes are more subtle. Shade is scarce.

The John Wayne Trail is perhaps best done as two trips separated by about 4 to 6 weeks. The eastern portion is at its prime in late April and the western portion in late May or early June.

 

Bikepacking Hells Canyon 2014

“I believe much trouble would be saved if we opened our hearts more.”

– Chief Joseph (Hinmatóoyalahtq’it)

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Two years ago I lived near Joseph, Oregon, a place where spring comes late and the high mountain snow doesn’t melt out until early July.  Fortunately, Hells Canyon is to the east. At a river elevation of 900 feet, early season warmth and flowers are nearby.  Getting there from the Oregon side is a challenge though.

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A paved road extending northeast from Joseph, passing through Imnaha, and then a bit further gets you to the start of a dirt road that winds down the lower Imnaha River canyon and eventually to Dug Bar along the Snake River.  But this is the only direct access to the bottom of Hells Canyon.  If the weather is wet, if the road hasn’t yet been patched together after the winter has done its damage, getting down (and back up) the dirt road can be difficult.

And the end of this road has limited bikepacking opportunities.  Upstream of Dug Bar is designated Wilderness so no bikes.  A rideable trail peels off just before the Cow Creek bridge and follows the Imnaha River to its confluence with the Snake River and is a real treat.  You can follow a faint trail further along the Snake River but that shortly ends in sheer cliffs.

I had heard stories about old trails that once tied the upper portions of Hells Canyon north of Joseph to the Imnaha River confluence.  But the high point was over 5000 feet in elevation and it was only mid-April.  I knew that the Forest Service hadn’t maintained trails in Hells Canyon for decades but the aerial photographs seemed to show some kind of route.  What the hell, I just picked a three-day window with perfect weather and took my chances.

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The best bikepacking trips are ones that start at and end at your back door and this was one.  I rode down the hill to town and ordered a preventative hot chocolate at Arrowhead Chocolates.

I headed out of town past Chief Joseph Mountain and then north up the road through Zumwalt Prairie, past the Nature Conservancy property with its prancing elk, and rode gravel among hawks who were busy giving the ground squirrels a hard time.

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Here, the going was easy – smooth, rolling hills, and roads to myself.

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Favorable conditions continued as I crossed into the National Forest and climbed a bit further to the high point, which was Buckhorn Lookout.  From there I could see the terrain I would be traveling through.  It looked something less than easy.

I had come across only scattered patches of snow getting up to the lookout but when I headed down Cherry Creek Road to the north I realized that I wasn’t going to get off easy. Winter had left its mark — I began walking my bike through the snow.

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Two miles later I had scrubbed off enough elevation that the dirt surface of the road was exposed and the rest of the downhill along Cherry Creek was fast and furious.  At an elevation of 2500 feet the road abruptly ends at the old Cherry Creek Ranch.  An unmaintained ATV track crosses the creek and continues on for two miles to the northeast, ending at a ridge overlooking the inner gorge of Hells Canyon.  Here, I was hoping to pick up a trail that took me to the confluence of Idaho’s two greatest rivers — the Snake and the Salmon.

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Hells Canyon is two formations: the terrain above 2400 feet in elevation is layered basalt and has eroded into moderate slopes interspersed with sheer bluffs.  The elk move easily through this terrain along interconnecting benches.  The old hiking trail system also follows these benches.  The terrain below 2400 feet in elevation is basement geology and those rocks contain the minerals that attracted miners a century ago.  Here, it is overwhelmingly steep with the only flat areas being near the Snake River.

Between the river and I were those cliffs and it would have been a tough walk with a bike. And since I would be coming back to where I was standing anyway, I just leaned my bike against a rock, grabbed the gear I would need for the night, and started walking.

The old trail to the bottom was hard to find and so I wandered around the edge of the break for a long while.  Finally, I spotted the remnants of a trail prism snaking down a rocky spine and committed to the plunge.  At the bottom, I hiked across the broad bench next to the river that doubles as a primitive airstrip and camped on a gravel bar where the Salmon River eases into the Snake River without much fanfare.

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The early spring flowers were amazing.

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The next morning, after a peaceful sleep, I gathered up my bags I started back up the hill in search of my bike.

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Reunited, I rode down the ATV track to Cherry Creek Ranch and then back up the dirt road towards Buckhorn Lookout.  Halfway along that leg, about where Old Man Creek enters Cherry Creek, a Forest Service map shows a trail that climbs steeply to a ridge, drops down to Knight Creek, and then contours over to Eureka Creek.  A trail down Eureka Creek would then spit me out at the confluence of the Snake and Imnaha Rivers.  Simple.

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The trail turned out to be a challenge to follow through the grass.  Riding was rarely possible because of the steep inclines and rocky surface.  Nevertheless, it was one of the most scenics places I’ve ever taken my bike for a walk.

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Riding downhill to Knight Creek was difficult too and so I got to walk more.  I should have brought the full suspension bike rather than a hardtail.

But some of the trail was just sweet for riding.

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These slopes are far removed from the road hunters that circle the canyon rim and the jet boat hunters that buzz along at river level so the wildlife is abundant.

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I got in a few more miles of riding before reaching Eureka Creek and then the difficulties started.  Recent fire had scorched the vegetation along Eureka Creek and that just riled up the species you don’t want growing next to a trail, such as hawthorn and poison ivy.  I react strongly to poison ivy so I stopped to put on all my clothes as protection and started thrashing through the brush.  But it was all over in a mile and I was back at the Snake River.  Here, was my second place to spend the night.

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Magpies flirted around me the next morning as I rode the six miles of Imnaha River trail.

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When I reached the trailhead at the Imnaha River Road I came across a couple from Moscow, Idaho, who were lingering over their morning coffee.  I stopped to talk and they plied me with coffee and hiking advice.  I steered them away from Eureka Creek.  I had a long day ahead so I started up the bumpy road along the river.  It just might be the most scenic road in all of northeast Oregon.

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The ride was made even better when I passed a small tree with a plastic bag dangling from a limb overhanging the road.  The Moscow couple had left me with a bag of food and a note saying, “Ride hard!”  I must have looked hungry back at the trailhead.  And I was.  I seem to underestimate my need for food on these trips.

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By noon I had reached the Imnaha Tavern, an outpost for hamburgers and wolf opinions, still 30 miles removed from Joseph.

The isolation of the last two days had its worked magic at opening up my heart.  I felt it close down some as I rode the pavement to Joseph.  The occasional RV and flatbed truck roared past my ear and created dissonance.  In retrospect, I should have turned onto Camp Creek Road 1.2 miles west of Imnaha and followed it up to Zumwalt Prairie and eased back into civilization along that scenic route.

So, 116 miles.  Here is a GPS track of my route, minus the hike down to the confluence of the Salmon River:  https://ridewithgps.com/routes/13374778

I know why Chief Joseph was so reluctant to give up this land to white people.  It was a generous land full of spirit and grace.  You can still find those remnants in Hells Canyon if you are willing to walk (and ride) for it.