BC Epic 1000 mountain bike race

 

 

BC Epic 8

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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

 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.

Nelson_Downtown2l

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.

BC Epic 2

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.

Broadwood.jpg

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.

BC Epic 3

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.

BC Epic 1

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

 

 

 

 

 

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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)

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The early spring flowers were amazing.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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/29244371

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.

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.

Birthday 12

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.

Birthday 13

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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).

Birthday 16

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

But not before one more meal.

Birthday 17

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

My bike spontaneously posed for a picture.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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

 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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).

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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/

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.

 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Pat arrives shortly with scones and becomes our podium photographer.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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

JWT 2016 59

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.