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.

 

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Birthday Bluster

Sixty years ago I blustered into the world with lots of screaming and yelling.  This weekend, 60 years later to the week, the world blustered me.

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Pat asked what I  wanted for my birthday and I told her that camping along the Columbia River at Ginkgo Petrified Forest State Park would fit the bill.  Just relaxing, biking, eating, and talking.

The weather so far in April had been nearly perfect; warm, sunny, and calm. I tried to ignore the forecasted change in the weather and, in fact, the first four hours of Friday afternoon was continued April bliss.  But by late afternoon the bliss had turned blustery. Wind strong out of the west would have turned biking into a crawl so instead we went hiking in search of wildflowers. The we included Janet, Joe C., Sal, Deb, Alicia, Joe Z., Pat, and the old guy.  Pat is the one being attacked by the pink hat.

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We hiked just long enough to justify eating dinner.  Abuse was heaped upon me about the excessive length of the hike, the velocity of the wind, and the flimsiness of the wind screen.  They spent the evening telling lies about me.  Truthfully.

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Photo by Janet

We retreated early to our respective cars, trucks, or vans and listened to the wind and were lulled gently to sleep.  The wind gusts were no more than 46 mph according to the Vantage weather station.  The morning lull in the wind failed to lull and so I leaned on the wisdom imparted by 60 years of living and strategically moved the party to the lee of the bath house at the picnic area. The sun cleared the cloud bank and we ate waffles and drank coffee until we were satiated.

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I had no takers on bicycling so we made a collective effort to get off the picnic bench and hike again, this time to see petrified ginkgo!  Here are my friends discerning the difference between something and a hole in the ground.

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And here is ginkgo, which does not appear particularly different than the other species of fossilized trees.  But it is the only genera from 15 million years ago that does not have a current counterpart in North America (so says Janet).  I was excited.

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We found a place out of the wind by lingering in the lee side of the natural history museum.  We pondered the age of the relics (on the far right).

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Alicia and Joe Z. were the first deserters, leaving before the morning hike.  Sal and Deb fled south by afternoon, probably anticipating yet another hike coming up.  Or a reptile attack.

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But not before one more meal.

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The fat bikes had sat upon the top of the car swaying in the wind and begging for exercise so Joe C. and I got them saddled and rode them until they were all lathered up.  We rode the chunky jeep trail past Hells Kitchen, skirting the rattlesnake at the old concrete tank, and stopped to stare where the trail got insanely steep.   Deterred, we turned around and, with a ripping tailwind, rumbled back fast with a lot of bumping and smiling.

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The remaining four of us fit in the van for dinner so we sat there and listened to wind.  And did the same in the morning over coffee because, you know, that wind just wouldn’t quit.

I’ve long thought that I shouldn’t worry when teased about my past and current behavior.  It is when the teasing stops that you know that people have moved on and lost interest.  It is by this yardstick that I know that I was accepted and embraced this last weekend.  Thanks all you fun hogs for being in my life.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Escure Ranch

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Cold weather descended on us this week following a spectacular weekend.  With a fresh burst of sunshine on Saturday I knew where I wanted to ride.  I threw the bike on the car and drove an hour southwest of Spokane to Escure Ranch.  The ranch was bought by BLM in 1999 and is 13,000 acres of rock, wildlife, and open space.  Tens of thousands of years ago the Missoula Floods scoured this land deeply.  Rock Creek now threads the chasm, flowing north to south.

Here is a map for reference:

http://www.blm.gov/or/resources/recreation/site_info.php?siteid=271

Escure Ranch is bounded by the John Wayne Trail to the north and the Columbia Plateau Trail to the west.  Both are linear State Parks that were once railway lines.  The Columbia Plateau Trail, originally the Spokane, Portland, and Seattle Railway and built in 1913, goes from Spokane to Pasco (150 miles).  The John Wayne Trail, originally the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific Railroad, was built in 1909 and ties the western foothills of the Cascade Mountains near North Bend to the Idaho border near Tekoa (285 miles).  They intersect at the northwest corner of Escure Ranch.

Having already ridden the eastern portion of the John Wayne Trail, I wanted to also tackle the Columbia Plateau Trail sometime this spring.  Only a few people have biked the entire Columbia Plateau Trail, mainly because half of its length is surfaced with railroad ballast.  This angular basalt, two to four inches in diameter, is rough on the body.  Also, it eats bike tires.  Most ride the ballast with fat bikes.  But even with wide, squishy tires, the ballast can rattle and shake.  Maybe my full suspension bike with tires three inches wide would be an improvement.  Today was a test.

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I parked at the information kiosk at Revere Ranch, (also a historic ranch), which is now a state wildlife refuge.  I headed west on the John Wayne Trail remembering that this was my favorite section when Martin and I traversed through just a week ago.  I was able to find our tire prints in some of the drying mud puddles.

The Missoula Floods scraped away most of the soil in this region, leaving no opportunity for the land to later be turned into wheat fields.

 

Five miles later, I reached the bridge for the Columbia Plateau Trail that spans the excavated prism of the John Wayne Trail.

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The American Bridge Company, founded in 1900, builds bridges even today.  They build them to last.

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And so, I tacked south, trading smooth for rough gravel.

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The bike was rideable on the ballast.  I cruised along about 10 mph without much rattling. Having had ridden about 16 miles of this ballast on a fat bike just south of Martin Road, I concluded that the two types of bike were comparable in their comfort (or discomfort).  For the next five miles I bumped along the ballast and swapped howdys with the deer.

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Camas were making a show of it in the wetter depressions.  I wonder if these patches of camas were relics from the days when native Americans could call this place home? Camas bulbs were their potatoes and mule deer their pot roast.

More than a century of overgrazing has left its mark on the vegetative community.  Gone are most of the sagebrush, bunch grasses, and flowers. Now, except for the steeper slopes, exotic grasses are the mainstay.  And the overgrazing continues under BLM management.

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I turned left on Calloway Road to trace out the southern leg of Escure Ranch.  The gravel was smooth and traffic non-existent.  After 2.5 miles, I turned left again onto the track that accesses an old ranch compound, now the haunt of barn owls.

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Before leaving home, I had traced a GPS route from aerial photographs that showed a faint jeep track snaking to the east and then north. Following it would allow me to loop back to the car.  For the first quarter mile that little arrow in the GPS display directed me through bumpy boulders and grass.  Not a jeep track in sight.  Long practiced in the art of wandering around until eventually bumping into something, I eventually found a faint set of double tracks and was on my way.

The track dropped into canyons. The deer scattered.  The hawks screamed.  The cows chewed.

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My bike spontaneously posed for a picture.

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I came across a lake that I thought the most beautiful part of the ranch.  It was pleading, camp here for the night.

Heading north, at mile 17, I reached the farm complex that was occupied just prior to the BLM buying the ranch.  It is boarded up now and the buildings are strangely clad in sheet metal.  Who would side their house with sheet metal in a place where summer temperatures commonly exceed 100 degrees?

I followed a jeep track up the hill to the northwest and was back on top of the higher plateau with Rock Creek to the east.  This was smoother track than what I had just gone through.  I came across two people on horses, the first I had seen all day, and we did the awkward horsey bikey dance.  The horses pretend that my bike is a fearsome enemy to be bolted at or away from and I pretend that I am not a fearsome enemy and don’t wish to be stomped on. I stop and talk. Disaster is averted.

I reach Wall Lake, which is the largest lake on the property.  Here is a picture of the south end, the nicer end, when Pat and I rode there on the tandem about three weeks ago.

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The north end is cowed out and is just a lot of mud.

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My loop took me north just short of the John Wayne Trail.  I took a jeep track to the east that eventually drops down to Rock Creek and crosses on an old concrete bridge.  The bridge would be great shade on a hot day and the deep pool at the base of the falls a fine place to swim.

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The jeep track ties into Jordan Knott Road, on which I turned left and rode the last two miles back to the car on smooth gravel.  Twenty nine miles total.

Here is the GPS track of my route:

https://ridewithgps.com/routes/13130393

Escure Ranch had started as a sheep ranch in the 1930s.  Then, as now, the nearest town was 20 miles away.   The railroad was likely their tie to civilization and a way to get their sheep to market.  A grain silo near the northeast corner of the ranch still stands next to the railroad grade.

The people are now gone, save for the occasional visitor such as me.  If it were not for the cows, the land could take a rest and breath.

 

Late March in the Quilomene

 

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I first bikepacked in the Quilomene last March and fell hard from the start. Fell in love, that is. The Q reminds me of Hells Canyon in far northeast Oregon where I had lived previously.  Hells Canyon was so close yet often inaccessible in the spring due to snow at the top of the rim or the single road to the bottom being mudded out. The Q starts at 700 feet in elevation next to the Columbia River just north of Interstate 90 at Vantage and is always open for business.

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Next to the river, flowers start appearing in late March and over two months the flower season creeps up the hill to the 3000-foot-high main ridge that bounds the Q to the west. There, dozens of wind turbines spike the sky.  Giant white trees in a mostly treeless landscape. Within a month the flowers down low desiccate and only the stream bottoms are green.  Summer hits fast and hard.

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The flowers are the draw for me, especially in the first section. Here, the land is State Park which hasn’t been grazed by cows for many decades.

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The Q is a state wildlife management area for elk, mule deer, and bighorn sheep.  Public ownership extends for miles. It is important winter range and so the four-wheelers are kept out until April 2.  I have two wheels therefore I own the place today (March 31).

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I start at an unmarked white gate off of Recreation Drive after parking at the little-used Rocky Coulee Campground 0.5 miles further down the road. The campground has proven to be a safe place to park a car, although I wouldn’t park there if the Gorge Amphitheatre, (just across the river) is having a concert. I hear that the crowds are rowdy and large.

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The first three miles is a grinding climb up an unmaintained jeep track with chunky rock. I am loaded for three days out and so the pace is slow but this gives me time to check out flowers.  The full suspension mountain bike with tires 3 inches in width keeps me rubber side down.  The engine is sputtering though.  I hadn’t felt well since getting out of bed.

Spring Cayuse Creek at 6.3 miles into the ride is an oasis of cottonwood and willow trees. A spring feeding into a horse trough is as good as it gets for clean water out here.  I drop down to Whiskey Dick Creek at mile 8.2 and am back at the Columbia River.  It is the curse of traversing south-north in this country.  The canyons run west to east so my route is against the grain.

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I turn up Whiskey Creek not because it is the smartest route but because Martin has included a traverse up the stream in the loop for the April 30 Washington Endurance Series ride and I have never ridden this 3 miles of the loop.

(Look here:  https://evergreenes.wordpress.com/whiskey-dick/)

The stream bottom is overgrown, boggy, snakey, and pocked with poison ivy — just something that Martin would throw into an already difficult and interesting ride.  Martin likes to keep it interesting.

The spring has been wet and so I get off the bike a number of times to find a way through the bogs without getting my feet wet, which is a pointless goal since it is very warm for late March.  I lose the old jeep track among the maze of elk highways and just make up a route at times.  Two miles later I fail to notice that Martin’s route veers from the stream bottom to the north slope (my GPS wasn’t turned on, so there) and end up walking a large boggy area and around two rotting elk that hadn’t made it through the tough winter.  Yep, always good to filter stream water here.

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I intersect a jeep track at mile 12.2 and this contours around to the north and eventually ties into the Army Road at mile 24.8. Contour implies a slack grade but nothing about this 12 miles is slack.  It is deeply rutted double-track that dives steeply in and out of creeks with colorful pioneer names — Hartman, Rollinger, Bryant, North Fork Whiskey Dick, Jackknife, and Skookumchuck. Orchard trees and derelict farm dwellings hint at some tough homesteading.

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And I finally get wet feet as I stall in the mud and tip over crossing Jackknife Creek.

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I come over a rise and a dozen bull elk are casually feeding.  I am downwind and close enough to see that about half have already shed their antlers.  Their winter hair hangs in patches and their winter diet of sagebrush has left them skinny.  They have until fall to pull it together and impress the ladies.  They are among the 600 elk I see during the three days.

Ridgetop riding is a blast in the Q.  The views are expansive, the flowers stunted by the wind, and the road surfaces somewhat smoother.

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The Army Road takes me downhill to where Quilomene Creek flows into the Columbia River.  It is magic down there — but first five miles of steep chunk to endure.

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The road ends at the creek but my aim is to spend the night on the sand dune next to the river and so I hike my bike along a skinny path for a half mile.  Camping on the sand dune only works if the wind isn’t blowing and for this rare evening it is still.

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After riding alone for 30 miles I am delighted to stumble across Wilson.  We talk late into the night. Pleasant, but with an inflated ego.

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Two bighorn sheep scramble around on the cliffs above and pigeons pop in and out of the hollows of the shear basalt.  A golden eagle strafes the pigeon colony hoping to catch one on the fly.

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I wake up to warmth and sunshine.  This is the one of the most pleasant mornings ever. Real coffee would make it even better.  Instead, I shake a packet of Starbuck crystals into my mouth and chase it with water.

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I begin a leisurely (hah!) 15-mile climb up the Army Road to the main ridge at the north end of the wind farm.  Just before starting this trip I had heard from Pat S. that he, along with Ward and Randy, were car camping for the night at the main ridge and then biking further north up the main ridge for a day ride on Saturday.  Yes, riding buddies!

I get to the hunters camp before them and am out of water so I ride 6 miles south along the smooth Beacon Ridge Road to the wind farm visitors center where I know from last year they also have free coffee for rabble such as me.  The building is perched on a high point with Mt. Rainer to the west, Mission Ridge to the north, and the Columbia River to the east.  I watch as the cheerful staff try to figure what to do with a van of Japanese tourists who walk in speaking their own language and not much else.  Lots of pointing.

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Back at the camp, Ward, Randy, and Pat drive up with their rigs packed full of creature comforts.  Soon the site is littered with a gas grill, chairs, tables, tents, and coolers.  I had left Wilson back at the river and my 20 pounds of kit doesn’t include much to offer up.  I accept their generous offerings of beer and food.  The firewood they bring comes in handy as the night cools but I’m left wondering why we are up on the ridge when we could be camping down low in warmth.

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We get going at the crack of 10:00 after eating Pat’s famous blueberry pancakes and head up the rutted dirt road.  We wind in and out of pine trees.  The intermingled meadows will need to wait another month before the flowers emerge.  They are on fat bikes and so when we reach the snow line they just keep on going.  My skinny tires don’t do so well.

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The snow is softening fast and so after a while even they are walking the deeper patches. We turn around after six miles and head back down the hill, grinning and falling.  Good to be a kid again.

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We pack the camp and Randy gives me a ride to the visitors center so that I can ride the pavement back to my car in Vantage.  But before that, we hash over all the other Q rides we could possibly fit in before the summer heat.  Some may even happen.

The wind is blasting hard as I load bags onto my bike and point it downhill.  I tack through the curves as the side winds try to upend me.  At the highway the route turns due east and now I have a tailwind.  I let it push me down the hill faster than I’ve ever gone on a mountain bike.

So, 66 miles in total.  But those are Q miles.  Multiply by two when thinking about biking this tough country.  April and early May are the best times, although the last week in March can be particularly satisfying since the roads are closed.  Even later, I’ve not encountered many people.

Here is a digitized track of my route:  https://ridewithgps.com/routes/13107913.  There are so many other routes to explore out there.  The maps of the area are terribly outdated so use aerial photos to plan your trip.

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So it goes.

 

 

Eastern Portion of the John Wayne Trail

“… nothing so liberalizes a man and expands the kindly instincts that nature put in him as travel and contact with many kinds of people.”  – Mark Twain.

JWT 2016 58

Choosing traveling companions is an art.  And especially when bikepacking where the miles ahead are uncertain.  Will they be flexible when conditions are rough, will they laugh at my jokes, will they know how to take care of themselves, will they get up and be ready to ride at a decent hour?

Choosing well is sometimes just getting lucky.  And I got lucky with Martin.  We hadn’t even met before — I had signed up for an endurance mountain bike event that he is organizing for April 30 in Vantage and we were chatting on-line about other trips we were wanting to do this spring.  We both wanted to fit in a trip of the eastern John Wayne Trail so decided to do it together.  With generous help on the shuttling from Pat (my partner) we were ready to bump eastward by mid-morning on Friday, April 8.

The John Wayne Trail is an odd route made even odder by recent secret attempts to give away this State Park to adjacent landowners.  The guilty southeast Washington legislators failed and now a dedicated group of Trail supporters are rallying around efforts to get better funding for improvements and to address some of the concerns of adjacent landowners. Here is a good place to find out more about that effort: http://www.friendsofjohnwaynepioneertrail.org/

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The John Wayne Trail is the old Milwaukee Road Railroad bed that was acquired by the State of Washington in the early 1980’s when the company went bankrupt.  It winds across the center of the state, once linking  Seattle to the Idaho border near Tekoa.  The section of the John Wayne Trail west of the Columbia River is nicely developed by State Parks and its western terminus is Rattlesnake Lake in the western foothills of the Cascade Mountains. However, the section east of the Columbia River is without amenities and the sometimes rugged gravel surface suffers three decades of neglect.

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Our first hill is a push up the embankment from the sad community of Beverly, past gang graffiti and broken glass.  It was probably once a railroad town of some importance. The smooth gravel of this first section takes us through mostly public land.  It is surprisingly lush with small ponds, wetlands, and the turbid Crab Creek.  Saddle Mountain ridge looms to the south.  Given three more weeks the flowers and leaves should be in full swing.

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Last year’s dry reeds each side of the trail hides a special treat for those who like wildlife that rattles.  We abruptly straddle a rattlesnake sprawled across the trail and then listen to its cousins rattle away as we go by patches of dense reeds.  Fortunately, the railbed is free of those reeds in most places.   And the gravel is so smooth.

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Just short of the house cluster that was once Smyrna we hit a patch of goatheads that puncture our tires in dozens of spots.  We had prior warning of the goatheads and our tubeless tires with sealant work as intended.  Hiss and seal.  Initially, Martin’s tires do more hissing than sealing but nothing that a few pumps of air can’t remedy.

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The trail is not continuous east of the Columbia River.  Just 16 miles into the trip a bypass of 46 mile is required.  This is because the tracks are still intact and being used in the Othello area.  State Park maps suggest a detour along paved highways but we have a better idea. Once we leave the trail, we head north through the sagebrush and agriculture fields on gravel and paved back roads.  Our aim is the Columbia National Wildlife Refuge.  The refuge is a large area of scablands that is home to sandhill cranes and other waterfowl. The agricultural land is not without some charm too.

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Orchards and vineyards pop up among the irrigated wheat and alfalfa.  We run into a guy on a motorcycle who stops and talks mountain biking with us.  It turns out he is one of only four in all of Adams County who race mountain bikes.  And we had just passed his dairy.

The scablands of the widlife refuge and surrounding area are a result of the Missoula Floods which scoured large swaths of central and eastern Washington leaving behind exposed rock, often pocked with depressions that hold water in the spring.  It is good to be a duck in this country.

 

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There was water for us too.  The wildlife refuge headquarters has drinking water if the gate is open.  Look for the frost free faucet near the fueling area across from the visitors center. By this time the temperature has risen into the 80’s, which is unusual for early April, and I am nursing a bad headache from the heat.  The bumpy gravel roads through the refuge get my head thumping even harder.  Once we exit the refuge to the north a paved road with wide shoulder takes us into Warden, just in time for an early dinner.

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English is not the first language of many people who live in Warden.  The primary industries are farming and food processing.  The Las 3 Amigas has Mexican food and if your head isn’t splitting and robbed you of your appetite, it is really good (so says Martin). I just suck on a bottle of Coke and stuff my food in a plastic bag for later that night. By the time we leave the restaurant the air has cooled and I am feeling better.  We sail into the endless sagebrush and chatter of the meadowlarks.  Also, some sounds of tire hissing as we hit another patch of goatheads.

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It is a land of straight trail and subdued geology.  Walking around windrows of tumbleweeds and opening and closing gates breaks up the routine.

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Our first day ends after 74 miles.  We find an ideal spot on the trail away from road noise, trains, and farm houses just as the sun drops below the horizon.  With the help of Martin’s phone app we identify the various planets popping out.  The moon was new so the stars and planets have the sky to themselves.

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We pack as the sun rises and wonder about our chances of finding real coffee in Lind, just an hour down the trail.  Jim’s Market does not disappoint.  In fact, much about Lind is charming (and healthful).  We come away from Jim’s fully loaded down with food and water for the next stretch.

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The trail east of Lind to Ralston delivers even more sagebrush and dryland wheat.  Relics of grander times litter the railroad corridor.  Mostly, it is just plain peaceful.

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Ralston has a memorial park with a faucet.  I guess you could camp there too if you were tolerant of the traffic on the adjacent paved road.  The faucet is turned off but a friendly neighbor walks over and offers water from her kitchen.  Usually, the park faucet is on before May 1, she says.

Eastward, the Cow Creek chasm is missing its trestle and lack of cooperation by the adjacent landowner requires a lengthy bypass to the north.  State Park maps indicate a detour to Ritzville along busy paved roads with no shoulder so instead we pioneer one along smooth gravel roads that is shorter, more scenic (as scenic as wheat fields can be), and free of traffic.  It dumps us out at Marengo where the trail starts up again.  The local wheat silo provides the only shade within a very large radius.  The temperature has climbed into the high 70’s.

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Eastward is the most isolated section of the John Wayne Trail.  It climbs through rocky terrain leaving the wheat fields behind and into the sculptured scablands.  The Columbia Plateau Trail, another rails-to-trail route that is a State park, passes overhead on a bridge dated 1916.  We begin the gradual descent into the Rock Creek drainage.

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About 0.4 miles past the Columbia Plateau Trail bridge we jump off the trail onto a jeep track and follow it through the Escure Ranch, a BLM ownership that is open to recreational use.  It is a welcome change to the monotonous railroad grade — flowing, hilly, and a waterfall to boot.

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It would have been an ideal place to camp but for us it is only mid-day.  Instead, we exit the ranch onto Jordan Knott Road and head back to the John Wayne Trail.  The next reach of trail takes us through the Revere Ranch, an ownership managed for wildlife by Washington.  Quite ducky.

A new development over landowner restriction on a section of trail just west of Ewan that is privately owned sends us off on another bypass, this one a loop to the south.  We turn onto Texas Lake Road and follow it through the scablands via Cayuse Lake Road and Cherry Creek Road. Here, of any place during the trip, we see the most wildlife.  And the roads are the smoothest gravel.  Cars are as rare as armadillos.

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We drop into Ewan with water on our minds.  So far we have been successful at not having to drink treated water from the polluted streams and lakes.  The Nazarene Church has a faucet on the side of the building facing the street so we help ourselves, just as that Nazarene of fame would have probably wanted us to.

Now, we face a critical decision.  The most scenic section of the John Trail follows the rugged cliffs next to Rock Lake east out of Ewan. Officially, a mile of that section is off limits because of private ownership.  I, along with countless others, have ridden that stretch in the past with no repercussions.  The private section isn’t even signed with no trespassing signs.  The tunnels, trestles, and rock bluffs are amazing.

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Do we poach the trail or head out onto the gravel road bypass to the south?  I don’t do a very good job of communicating the options to Martin and we just end up doing the bypass out of default.  And the bypass was a bust — hilly, steep, wheat-infested, and dusty from giant tractors tilling the adjacent fields.

We finally drop down into Pine Creek at dusk and start looking for a place on the trail to sleep.  The trail follows scenic Pine Creek but cow shit, adjacent homes, backyard dumps (what is going on in Malden with the garbage?), and noisy roads keep us searching.  Martin turns on his light and we ride into the night.  After a 103-mile-day we are ready to call it good and indeed we find a good spot.  Peaceful and among rock bluffs and trees.

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The frost on my sleeping bag and cold toes wake me early.  We fumble around in the cold trying to get our kit together.  It is hard to believe that I was struggling with the heat only a day and a half before.

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The trail winds through gentle terrain along a stream as we approach Rosalia.  Nothing is open on a Sunday morning in Rosalia so we hop back on the trail and ride the trestle out of town, stomachs growling.

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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe scenery out of Rosalia is varied and pleasant, a mix of the new and the old.  Missing trestles give us abrupt descents and climbs.  Marshy areas keep us wary.  We cruise into Tekoa intent on finding good greasy food.  And we find it at the Feeding Station.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAfter a leisurely breakfast, we have 45 minutes to complete the last short stretch to the Idaho border where Pat is planning to meet us at 12:30.  This takes us through more wheat but this time peppered by aspen and pine trees adjacent to the trail.  Moose sign tells us we are getting close to Idaho.  Martin sails into Idaho and doesn’t stop.  Only a battered sign lets you know the ride is over.  The railroad grade continues eastward only without an official designation or public ownership.  I chase him down and we call it a finish.  210 miles in 50 hours.  We settle down in the shade.

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Pat arrives shortly with scones and becomes our podium photographer.

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And Martin lets me know what he feels about me taking him on that Rock Lake bypass.

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I don’t think that the John Wayne Trail east of the Columbia River will ever become a hugely popular ride for mountain bikers.  Not like the Great Divide Route that follows the Rocky Mountains from Mexico north through Canada.  And not like the Arizona Trail that extends from Mexico to Utah.  The John Wayne Trail is subtle, seasonal, and (at least for now) pocked by bypasses.  Some of the bypasses such as the one we took through the Columbia National Wildlife Refuge and Escure Ranch add to its charm.  Others are detractors.

The land adjacent to the John Wayne Trail is often abused, be it from overgrazing, intensive agriculture, or backyard garbage dumps.  In close up, most of it is not pristine. Grinding away for hours on a gravel surface is not the kind of mountain biking some people enjoy.

But the John Wayne Trail offers an abundance of empty space and grand landscapes, with only the sound of meadowlarks or ducks.  The people we met were friendly and unpretentious.  It is my kind of space.

Martin proved to be an enjoyable and capable riding partner.  I thoroughly appreciated his company.  Maybe we have another joint ride in our future.

Here is a link to the GPS track of the route we took: https://ridewithgps.com/users/132288 

Permits are required to use the trail (long, stupid story) so go here to learn how to get those permits:  http://www.friendsofjohnwaynepioneertrail.org/maps.html.  Lots of other good information too.

And remember to fill your tubes or tires with sealant.

So it goes.