Friday, December 15, 2017

Gravel Bikepacking the Pacific NW

Mountains bring out the crazy
Natasha and I are pretty lazy trip planners. There, I said it. With summer fast winding down and a vacation plan still not materialized because we were too busy binging on Netflix, we finally threw a dart at our resident globe to decide where to go. After patching up and re-inflating aforementioned globe, our dart pointed us to Seattle.

Not a bad place to go indeed! But of course, there had to be bikes involved somehow. Cycling there was a bit out of the question given the fact that we both have jobs and I occasionally raise a child, so instead we decided to do some form of cycling from Seattle.

Natasha went to work on her google earth/ridewithgps/crystal ball route planning and managed to come up with a pretty awesome gravel/dirt/cow pasture/singletrack route that would take us from Seattle to Portland with significant deviations to visit Mt. Rainier, Adams, Hood, and all the climbing in between. All fully loaded and self-supported on gravel backroads and with little service along the way. Masochist, this one…

So off we went to Dulles airport one bright early August morning to meet the nicest Southwest check-in clerk who insisted on charging for only one bike because our second box was kinda small and she really didn’t think it was a bike. Who were we to argue? The flight itself was uneventful and soon we touched down on the left coast.

Day 0: Seattle
Seattle is such a cool town and as a coffee lover I was looking forward to it. Neither of us had spent much time there before, so we dropped off our boxes at the hotel and went for a stroll. Actually what we really wanted to do was visit the REI mothership because (a) it’s the REI mothership; and (b) we needed to buy some freeze-dried meals for the trip.

We walked past several cool cafes and made our way to REI, which lived up to its billing. The new DC REI can eat its heart out – Seattle is the place to go! After loading up on an assortment of linguine, tagliatelle, and mashed potatoes (all infused with meat and cheese), we came back to the hotel to assemble our rigs for the next day’s early start. Getting all the parts on right with a small unwieldy multitool requires an abundance of skill, patience, and bourbon. Lots of bourbon.

This is how all tours start: bike assembly
Dinner followed and with bellies full we headed over to my friend Becky’s house for some rooftop drinks and catching up. Very glad to see her and grateful she hasn’t lost her affinity for fuzzy blankets, which were much appreciated on a chilly evening! 

After getting some pretty awesome recs for breakfast the next day, we headed back to the most uncomfortable bed in the universe for a night of sandwiched sleeping. Trust me there was no other way!

Day 1: Seattle to Rainier National Park
So it began. Well sort of. Day 1 of our super-mega-awesomely-cool bikepacking adventure began with a train ride. A local commuter train to the town of Puyallup to be precise (say that name quickly five times!). The reason was simple; there was no point trying to ride through metro Seattle in morning rush hour and getting in a bad mood before the vacation even started. So we bypassed most of that traffic mess and commuted down to where the riding gets good.

Starting out from Seattle
 And speaking of good, the breakfast was pretty friggin good at the recommended local coffee shop! After sufficient caffeination we set off on our bikes towards Mt. Rainier, which you could see from town center. Most of the early riding was on a paved bike path and we fiddled a bit with our bikes to alleviate a few niggles and got used to all the weight we were carrying – full camping, cooking, and sleeping gear, along with food and water rations. Turns out we didn’t need to carry all that food from Seattle as there are small shops all along the route. But after a few days, ramen, cheese sticks, and peperami/jerky pale in comparison to gourmet mashed potatoes and freshly cooked Italian pasta. Plus I was trying to get down to race weight before CX season so was happy to carry extra shit. Eating oodles of cheesy pasta and creamy potatoes didn’t help with that goal but you pick your battles.

This stuff is good! She's not bad either
Soon, the bike path gave way to a logging truck super highway with a non-existent shoulder. This was quite unexpected and a result of some faulty beta. I’m convinced the truckers were deliberately making close passes at full speed to scare the bajeezus out of us, and they succeeded. After less than an hour on that road, we turned off on a side route which would have us climb some unforgiving amounts of gravel and then descend on babyhead rocks. But anything was better than the trucker highway!

Not long after we turned off, a slowly rolling SUV approached us from behind. The guy at the wheel drove past Natasha and then rolled down his window next to me and leaned over. I was half expecting a gun to be pointed at me but as the saying goes, never judge a book by its cover. Turns out the dude was a former avid cyclist – back in the day (waaayy back in the day) he bikepacked all across Asia including China, Thailand, Laos, et al. Simply amazing!

He insisted that the way we were going was unsustainable and offered to give us a ride in his truck to the T-junction where the big rigs turn off. So we threw our bikes in the back and buckled up for some very interesting recollections of remote biking across Asia in the 60s, sleeping in backyards, and other fun shenanigans. Such a cool guy.

After a million thank yous, we said our good byes and continued on a much calmer road towards Mt. Rainier National Forest. In between we stopped at this most unique outdoor museum/display of recycled metal art which was quite incredible.

Soon we arrived in the town of Ashford where we picked up a few more supplies from the gas station store and then made our way to grab the last camping spot at a remote and beautiful campground in the outskirts of the national forest. After a hearty meal cooked on our jetboil, some lively music on the i-device, and some much appreciated adult beverages, we bundled up in our cozy super-compact tent for a restful night’s sleep.

Day 2: Up Paradise and Down to Packwood
Breakfast every morning on this trip was oatmeal, nuts, and some fruit – pretty solid ride fuel. And of course, coffee for me! Waking up this morning, the first thing we felt was cold… extremely cold. We bundled up in all our clothes, packed up, and started pedaling uphill. Very shortly we were warm and the morning became infinitely more enjoyable.

This view will make anyone's morning
We stayed off the main road most of the way up to Paradise (Mt. Rainier’s base camp of sorts), and instead took a significantly less travelled parallel country road which was gorgeous and offered tremendous views of the mountain. Riding alone through the forest in the morning mist is quite the experience. Soon though we joined up with the main road for the last few miles up to the top. Here, we met up with a group of cyclists out of Seattle who were on a group ride. Funny there weren’t more cyclists out – with such great roads here and a weekend day, we were expecting a long line of bikes going up and down the mountain. Instead, we were treated to just this group and a triathlete climbing at 2 mph tucked aggressively in her aero bars. I bet she’d breathe better and climb faster if she just sat up. Sigh. Triathletes…

 We made steady progress towards the summit, stopping on more than one occasion to take in the sweeping views and snap pictures. Surprisingly the cars were pretty orderly but maybe that early in the morning you only get the outdoor enthusiasts driving up with the tourist herd still in bed.

Rainier in its full glory
Paradise is quite the opposite of paradise. Basically a modern resort with a ginormous cafeteria, a sprawling hotel, and several other luxuries. Well, maybe it fits someone’s view of paradise but surely not ours. I remember coming here about ten years ago when I climbed Rainier – our choice back then was to go up the Disappointment Cleaver route from here or drive around to the other side of the mountain and climb up the significantly less traversed Emmons Glacier. Of course, we drove around all the while wondering who the heck names a route disappointment cleaver!

Back to this trip, we stopped at the top to refuel with lunch before the fast plunge down the other side. Fast it was indeed, except the downhill included some long stretches of uphill too. Nevertheless we persevered and rolled into the town of Packwood and found plenty of space available at the local friendly staffed campground.

Summit nap

After setting up camp we ran into this awesome Swiss couple who were on a bike tour from Alaska to Argentina -- living life at the speed of a cyclist allows such unexpected yet memorable encounters! These guys had quite the setup, but I suppose its ok to bring some luxuries along when you’re on such a long trip – in their case a coffee grinder and espresso kettle (heck yeah!), a laptop to keep updating their blog (too bad its all in German), and a luxurious tent with multiple temperature rated sleeping bags each. We ended up walking to town with them to grab burgers from a local joint, exchanging ride stories and route plans. They were particularly thrilled to have someone else to talk to other than each other!

Day 3: Climb to Lake Takhlakh
Next morning, it was time to get away from civilization again. We said our good byes to the Swiss and soon after leaving Packwood we turned off the main road to start the long haul on gravel to Lake Takhlakh. The first section was fairly steep but mostly just really dusty. There were plenty of cars coming down the road, presumably heading back to Seattle after the weekend and blowing dust all over us in their wake. 

Lunch spot
Gravel roads are never gentle grade, invariably you end up grinding up 15+% grades for long stretches. With heavy bags and 3 days of water loaded on our bikes, it was slow going. But we weren’t out for any strava KOMs so life was good. After a leisurely lunch at a pretty isolated Adams Fork campground, we turned up some really remote singletrack which had some stretches of heavy sand. Our bikes were sinking right in so it was tough going. Soon the sand gave way to rocks and a pretty gnarly climb, which we huffed and puffed up. 

Natasha began to question whether we were on the right track, especially since it was clear that nobody had been on these roads for a while, but my triple-backed GPS navigation confirmed we were headed the right way. As an aside, we learned the hard way in Colombia last year not to take navigation in the backcountry lightly. On this trip, we brought GPS routes loaded on garmins and phones as well as backup topo maps and a manual compass. My dynamo hub ensured endless juice for charging but even here we brought two backup power banks just in case. We were prepared to live off the grid for a while if necessary!

Just as we were beginning to relish our complete isolation, two small sedans appeared out of nowhere. Who in their right mind would drive down this road, so I hailed them down. Sure enough they were lost and in rental cars, one of which was already on its spare donut thanks to an earlier puncture. I think we saved those folks some major anguish as we urged them to turn around, which they eventually did. Of course they were relying on google maps to navigate back to Seattle, but as experience has taught us well google maps is as reliable as a monkey on crack in the remote backcountry (and even in some not-so-remote areas).

At this point we were almost to the Lake Takhalakh campground, which boasted unhindered views of Mt. Adams, a pristine lake to swim in, and plenty of blackberry bushes. Only issue was there were no blackberries left on those bushes. I blame all the kids at the campsite, those darn rascals ate em all! We did manage to find a few hidden here and there but overall a major let down. After a refreshing (though frigid) swim in the lake which Natasha totally chickened out on, we prepared a nice meal on the stove and bundled up for another cold night in the mountains.

Mt. Adams!

Setting up camp

Day 4: Down to the Hood River
Today was quite the adventure. Leaving Rainier and Adams behind, we descended fast and hard down into Trout Lake where we enjoyed the most delicious huckleberry pancakes and milkshakes at a gem of a restaurant run out of a gas station. This most certainly made up for missing out on the blackberries… man, that milkshake was something fierce! Unfortunately, we couldn’t hang around long because we had a long ride ahead if we were to make it to Hood river before dark.

Refilling water

Its remarkable how the terrain and temperature fluctuates so much within a few miles. The national forest and cool temperatures very quickly gave way to desert-like dry environs and blazing heat! We were cooking under the sun and it didn’t help that the major climb of the day was under construction with fresh chunky gravel being laid as we were riding up.

Just then, another SUV drove by so I hailed the driver down to ask how long the section would last. Turns out it was going to be like this for several miles, all uphill no less and under the hot sun at its peak. Perhaps sensing my angst, the guy kindly offered us a lift and I immediately perked up. For some reason, which I’ll file away in the vast “Calderwood False Confidence” drawer, Natasha insisted that we’ll be fine on our own. I suppose my best disbelief-cum-scowl face had some effect because the guy ended up giving us a lift. About 30 minutes later and several hundreds of meters higher, we hopped off the truck onto more forgiving pavement. Surely, we would have been on that road for hours on our own walking up our bikes!

But the day wasn’t done. The sun was still on a mission and the roads were still pointed up. We were also running dangerously low on water despite carrying extra rations. Just as we were almost completely out of water, we rode past an agricultural pipe which was leaking at one of the joints. Ice cold ground water, heaven!
It was very hot!

Notice the different landscape

Rejuvenated we continued onto one of the best descents of the trip. The well paved and wide road along with heavy bikes saw us screaming down at speeds nearing 50 mph. Once we hit ground level, we could have just stayed on the main road that would have taken us to Hood river but of course we opted for Natasha’s "scenic" route instead. The scenic route started off like that but soon turned into a hiking trail. Mountain bikes maybe, but laden cross bikes with no suspension was begging for a mechanical. So we turned around and backtracked to the road, but did stop and cool down in the river first.

Navigating and find water!

Our long day finally ended in the town of Lyle at the banks of the Hood River. It was such a welcome sight after a long and tiring day in the saddle. The Lyle hotel is quite a find in this sleepy strip town but while they had rooms available, their restaurant was closed that evening. I suppose all restaurants on the strip collude to ensure no one gets food every now and then as the rest of them were closed as well!

By this time, we were both starving and Natasha especially wasn’t shy about expressing her fondness for the situation, or for me for that matter. Ultimately, we had to raid the local 7-11 equivalent and bought some ramen and chorizo, which we cooked up on our jetboil in the hotel backyard. Turned out fairly decent but we would have scarfed down anything at that point.

The final remarkable thing about the day was that the owner of the hotel used to be into cycling himself, in fact according to him he was Greg Lemond’s soigneur at the Tour de France back in the day! I would have loved to sit and chat more but was so tired that I probably fell asleep before my head hit the pillow. Funny how lugging 40+lbs up mountainous roads for 70+ miles in stifling heat can completely drain you! 

Day 5: Hot Climb to Hood Forest and Knebal Springs Campground
After a grueling day yesterday, we took our time getting going this morning. We made our way across the Hood river to the Dalles and stopped at yet another awesome coffee shop for breakfast and caffeine. With packed lunch sandwiches in our bags, we set off on the long climb up to Mt. Hood National Forest. I guess the general takeaway from this trip is that we like climbing!

This was probably one of the hottest days on record in the area and we were climbing up this exposed, rocky, gravely road with barely any tree cover. Kid you not, the temperature was well above 100 degrees F, probably a lot higher under the sun -- we were cooking! Never before have I had to stop every 5 minutes going from tree to tree or tree to shrub, basically stopping under anything that could provide some shade and momentary relief from the sun. All modesty aside we would have happily stripped naked, but then likely would have sunburn on our asses to deal with.

Hot hot hot!
Water was the other concern. We weren’t sure if the campground up top had any running water and had heard mixed beta about it (even though it has "Spring" in its name?!). So we weren’t taking any chances and brought along 4 extra liters in addition to our full bottles. Problem was that we were going through our liquid reserves quite rapidly, so we stopped at a disgusting duck pond to refill water – that was the only option! Iodine tablets did their job and after 30 minutes we had more water to drink. Didn’t taste great but at least we weren’t going to suffer from dehydration or turn into ducks for that matter.

Eventually we made it to the national forest and the protection of trees; what a welcome relief! We stopped for lunch here and eventually made our way to Knebal Springs Campground. Turns out there is running water at the campground that feeds into a horse trough so we carried all that extra for no reason. Well better safe than sorry! The location and campsite were amazing, in the middle of pristine nature and with fantastic views all around. We could also see Mt. Hood through the trees in the moonlight and it was breathtaking.

Trees finally!
Shady lunch spot

Day 6: Circumnavigating Mt. Hood
Next morning we got our first clear view of Mt Hood within 5 mins of setting off from camp. We enjoyed a really fast and fun descent into the town of Parkdale, stopping every few minutes to take more pictures of the stunning landscape. Staring at majestic mountains never gets old!

Mt. Hood

After an early lunch we stopped to restock food supplies at the local market and set off again, content that we had enough food and water to last us a couple days. Turns out this part of the ride had multiple springs and other water sources along the way so all we needed was some purification tablets and life was good.

What wasn’t particularly nice was the steepness of the road climbing out of Parkdale. With heavy bikes and road gearing, we were both struggling to turn the pedals over, all the while wishing for a bigger cassette. Despite the pain, we were rewarded with unrivaled views of Hood and its surrounds. The road itself was incredibly scenic, cutting through the mountain side, down to the valley and up again, in the middle of trees, streams, and creeks… it was all breathtakingly beautiful. Whats more, we had the road entirely to ourselves. We continued to be surprised that there was not a single cyclist out on this fantastic road. NW folks, get your priorities straight and go ride your damn bikes!

Objects are steeper than they appear!

Eventually we dropped down into a second valley and turned into a strong headwind. It was the middle of the afternoon and we’d just passed a gushing creek, so decided to setup camp in a small clearing nearby. Turns out our wild camping spot wasn’t that far from a make-shift campsite of sorts, which I discovered the next morning, but we were pretty happy with our site. This is the beauty of being self-sufficient. You can travel worry free knowing you have food, water, and shelter and can bed down pretty much anywhere you want. Taking advantage of our isolation, we both stripped naked in the creek to wash ourselves and our clothes and then cooked a nice ramen, cheese, peperami, and mashed potato dinner before settling into our sleeping bags for the night.

Setting up camp

Not a shabby spot
Day 7: Over Lolo Pass and Down to Mt Hood Village
Next morning, we packed up and continued on the road which soon turned to gravel and zig zagged its way up towards Lolo Pass. This is where the Pacific Crest Trail crosses the road and we discovered a whole crew of hikers and a trail angel who had driven up from town with donuts, coffee, and other treats to hand out to tired and hungry hikers. He was kind enough to offer us some, which we happily accepted – trail magic indeed tastes like magic!

What a view!

On top of Lolo Pass

Trail Magic
The other cool thing about getting up to Lolo Pass was that the climbing was done. What followed was yet another zippy descent down into Mt Hood Village and a stopover for lunch. Here we reassessed our riding plans and despite Natasha’s insistence that we go for another loop around Mt. Hood for kicks, I managed to convince her that it wouldn’t be possible to do that in a day and get back to Portland in time for our flight. Eventually, after some huffing and puffing, she relented and we decided to find a campsite nearby and head back into Portland the next day.

Descent off Lolo pass

And find a campsite we did, right next to Salmon river in fact, with our tent pitched within a few meters of the water and – you guessed it – fantastic views of the mountain! We also stopped at a grocery store to buy more food and I decided we’d make a gourmet meal on the campstove for our last night out. We ended up cooking pesto pasta with lemon chicken and feta cheese, all of which turned out fantastic!

Soaking in the sun

Day 8: Final Push to Portland
This was supposed to be an easy day they said. Its all downhill, they said. Liars! All of them, liars!

Turns out we had two options for getting back to Portland, (a) take the super highway straight down but then get buzzed by ginormous logging trucks every few seconds; or (b) take the old parkway road that runs about parallel but with significantly less traffic. Clearly, we chose option b. What wasn’t advertised was that option b involved climbing almost all the way back up to the where we were the day before. Man, was I in a bad mood that day. I don’t mind climbing, in fact I relish it. But that day I was expecting things to be easy and we were just getting hit by hill after hill so I was pretty grumpy.

Still a looonnggg way to go
Eventually though, we made it into Portland and to our air bnb. After I’d cooled off a bit in the shower, we ate dinner at this amazing Persian restaurant in the neighborhood and visited a couple of cool bike shops who were happy to throw bike boxes our way.

Exhausted and in bad mood

Day 9: Portland Food Coma
Final day of our trip was about getting some logistics taken care of (packing bikes and booking a taxi for next morning) and then just wandering the streets of Portland and eating everything in sight. Donuts, ice cream, street food, you name it and we ate it! Met up with an old friend Kendra for a nice dinner and called curtains on a short but delightful vacation.

Exploring Portland on city bikes as ours were in boxes
As a helpful side benefit, we both gained some valuable fitness for the upcoming cyclocross season. Also, the trip helped us optimize gear selection for future adventures – we now know which items we absolutely need for bikepacking (mostly just bourbon), which we brought but never used, and where we can make changes to reduce weight and/or volume. All valuable stuff for next summer when we tackle some extended bikepacking through Central Asia.

So long mountains, see you soon!