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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.