Summer 2017 – So hot right now. Or maybe its all ‘Lit’, that word is trending… right?
In the most literal sense, it’s lit. Everything on fire and it’s making it hard to breathe.
We were hiking/contemplating bathroom-inducing mountain ascents in Rogers Pass when the smoke rolled in mid-July. They say to make the most of what you have, where you are. But being completely mobile and preferring to not inhale copious amounts of smoke during high output activities, I decided to head west to try to escape it.
Unfortunately, the reprieve of the west coast didn’t last long. Winds stagnated and fires erupting just north of Pemberton left the entire whistler valley socked in. You could barely see the Chief from downtown Squamish.
Sitting in the adventure centre, examining the smoke map, contemplating which direction to go. Far North, or South? It just so happened that the highway was closed in the northerly direction, due to fires. No opportunity for indecision here… hit the road, Jack!
Eyes wide at the idea of some fresh air, I sent for the border. The plan? not really sure. Head east through Washington’s north cascades park for starters, and drive until the smoke clears…
“Welcome to the American Alps”, greets the sign as you entered the national park. I chuckled a little bit… mountaineering in Washington? Come onnn. That’s some kind of tourist catch phrase, yeah?
Nope, you’re wrong. As I later learned, Washington has every type of mountain activity spanning each of the seasons. World class Trad, sport, crack climbing. Skiing, so much skiing. Endless trails to run, hike, and bike, including stunning sections of the PCT. Aye, this is a place I will have to revisit, many times.
About an hour or two into my drive, the sky started to open up. Good god, I’ve never missed the blue sky so much. It was time to stretch the legs and get some of that clean air in the lungs – Heather & Maple pass loop offered a great opportunity to do so.
Feeling grounded and relaxed, I set off to a little town of Mazama, specifically the Mazama Store, which had been recommended to me by a wonderful father/daughter duo on the trail. And they were on point, talk about a cool little spot to stop, grab a beer or coffee, and stay awhile in their outdoor picnic area. Campground vibes and friendly people enjoying their R&R after a day’s adventures in the mountains – my kind of place.
Evening came shortly thereafter and the night was spent at a great little pullout along the river. What comes after? Well, Morning. But the first moments of consciousness indicated that it was not going to be a very pleasant one. My throat felt seared, and the eyes were begging to return to their shut state. As the situation sunk, in the heart sank, too. Smoke was thicker than i’ve ever seen due to more fires erupting on the east side of the Cascades… it was time to hit the road, A/C & Recirc enabled.
Driving through Winthrop, Twisp, I felt hurried. Which was exactly the opposite thing I was trying to achieve: Travel without deadlines or urgency. Apparently, there was epic ridgeline mountain biking to be had all along the east sides of the Cascades, but all I was doing was periodically checking my speedometer. Fifty five? Add half, and an extra ten. It didn’t come with imperial measurements – Mercedes quiet revolt against the Trump administration.
Highways closed, travel advisory signs lit up at each major junction, fire operations set up in empty fields just outside of very small towns, firefighters outnumbering the populous itself.
I had been encouraged to check out the Enchantments, a revered alpine hike in the area. But the permit waitlist for this 28 kilometre (2,000 vertical metre) three day hike was about a year. What happens when impatience and ambition meet? You run it in a day. The hard way. Just, because.
Do yourself a favour and run the loop in the counter-clockwise direction. You’ll enjoy getting the bulk of the elevation gain (Asgard pass) out of the way fairly early in the day, and finish up with a beautiful full-stride finish towards [TK:Sun Valley], about 7km of gentle descent to bring you back to the parking lot. There is a net difference between the two lots of about 400 metres. My logic was that elevation gain is easier on the joints than elevation loss, which I still believe, but the nature of the trail, especially the Asgard section, should make this a one way trek. Don’t make the same mistake I did.
Post swim and stretch session on the Icicle river, it was time to leave the ol’ bavarianesque tourist trap behind (Leavenworth). Tonights goal was to get just outside of town and find a nice forestry service pullout to spend the evening. Within 90 minutes of heading south on the 97… I was parked and fast asleep.
Emerging from the foothills and into the prairie, the situation began to improve. Nearly a full month had passed with some level of smoke exposure. And today would be the first day (of several) with nothing obstructing the heavens but clouds.
The road continued south towards the Columbia River Gorge. The slower, more scenic route along the north side complimented my lack of urgency in “getting somewhere” today. Approaching White Salmon/Hood River, trails begin to populate the region, and I couldn’t help myself to not get the bike out and spin the legs for a while – great recovery to yesterdays greatly strenuous mountain adventure.
Two words: beautifully fun. With Mt. Hood in the background, windswept grass in the fore, and handfuls of waterborne kiters somewhere in the middle, the Syncline trails offer copious amounts of type 1 fun. Easy, scenic climb, and a good variety of ways to get down. First up, “Hidden” starts with a fast flowy section, switchbacking the grassy hills of the gorge, and then mixes it up with some technical, steep, rocky sections. Beautiful to start, Fuuuun at the finish. Round two, the name “Little Moab” gives unsubtle suggestion to this fun ridgeline descent with a good mix of dirt and rock, drops and ride arounds, to be taken as fast or as slow as you’d like.
Wrapping up the ride, a buddy had suggested that there is some legendary forestry sides in the Mt Hood region, and with hunger building and daylight slowly fading away, I set off, and an hour later…
It was a rad night. Cooking up a storm, Vegan Queso & Raspberry crumble in the oven, while being persistently distracted by what lies beyond the tinted glass and sheet metal. Am I really here right now? You can… just drive up? Shouldn’t an experience like this cost several thousand dollars per night? Would anyone have a problem with me living in this exact spot for 6 months of the year?
The follow morning was a crisp eight degrees and the perfect temperature to grind out Surveyors Ridge loop: a 40 km ridge ride with about 1800m of vertical climbing. While the trail itself isn’t particularly challenging, but there are some exciting sections and awe inspiring views as you continuously pop in and out of the trees.
Heading south – high on fresh air, low on electrolytes, my muscles ached. It was a good time to be getting some rest, accommodated by the hospitality of some great friends in Bend, OR.
My host, Dakota, suggested we check out the Mackenzie River Trail, just west of Bend, along with the Olallie-O’leary; another epic ridge traverse. We had fun on the Mackenzie – full of pizza and short on daylight, we rode, and then sketchily made our way back to the trailhead in the pitch dark.
The traverse was a little less simple…
As we approached the forestry road turnoff, a roadblock appeared. “The roads closed due to fires nearby” The man said. Dakota and I exchange some glances, “how about we go contemplate our plans over here?”, moving out of out of earshot of our new friend…
We had the same idea. Start trekking through the bush and ride it anyways. We felt (mostly) sure that the fires were well beyond our riding destination, plus who likes to obey authority?
Realizing that none of my muscles had fully recovered from the previous week of going hard, I wasn’t having a great time. It was a long day, with only my exceedingly fit and speedy compatriot to compare myself to. Comparing between avocados for ripeness at the store is one thing… but comparing yourself to other people is never good!
On our return trip to Bend, the fire situation started to get real. As the sun lowered, the smoke rose. Sisters, the town just northwest of Bend, would be later evacuated due to the increasing danger in the area.
A few restful days passed. Exploring Bend and gaining a better sense of the community. Could this be a place to call home in the future? Deep thinking required on that point. We watched the eclipse from a park just west of Redmond, a pretty incredible feat. People travelling from all of the world, booked years in advance at great expense. How lucky was I to be here?
With the main event passed, it was time to carry on. Unfortunately, the fires in the region had worsened and smoke became thicker and thicker, and the notion of mountain biking Southern Oregon and Northern California became less and less appealing. It was time to change things up and head for the coast.
There is a stark contrast between flowing down a mountain on a bike, and dropping down the face of a wave. Rubber and centrifugal inertia, dust and smoke, high output, demanding of endurance. The cold ocean, seemingly mystic force of waves pushing vertically, idle period between sets, upper body fluidity – all so refreshing.
Driving on hard sand, warm sunshine, quaint beachfront towns – the journey up the 101 was a delight. Favourite surfing destination was definitely the bay at Oswald state park, a nicely sheltered spot, often delivering a nice offshore breeze. Ecola state park hosts an incredible viewpoint of Cannon beach, and the more desolate ocean-going rocks to the North. I ventured out one evening to capture the sunset, but enjoyed much more…
The miles of coastal life slowly ticked away as I continued north. Westerly winds picked up and pushed much of the smoke further inland and created an enticing opportunity – Visit Mt. St. Helens and Mt. Rainer on the journey to the border.
As it turns out, you can drive nearly next to the crater (from the north) on a paved road. If theres one thing that has struck me on this trip is the ease of access into, what otherwise would be backcountry, beautiful places in the United States. With parking front row at Windy Ridge, the show began…
I’ve never quite seen stars like this before. The lights of Portland behind St Helens giving it a sort of ambient glow, not bright enough to take away from the stars, but present enough to add a sense of locality. Calmness amongst a commercial wonder.
Stuart Creek/Ape Canyon offer an intermediate bike loop that skirts the east side of St. Helens, a fun XC ride, but with the location making it one to remember. Memory won’t shake on this one though, due to the events to come…
As the kilometres racked up and the slow grind of a climb came to an end, a busy intersection appeared, a bottleneck. Where the trail narrows, the exposure becomes significant – a seventy degree sandy scree chute bumped with loose rock.
The trio ahead of me spun their pedals, when the woman at the front of the pack came to a stall.
My heart sank as I glimpsed her riding jersey just beyond the crest, a point where you might be able to arrest yourself – I watched her accelerate.
Dropping the bike, gaining a view from the flank. I was so relieved to see her perched. about twenty feet down, bracing arms and legs on two rocks where the chute narrows. Right above where it it goes from a chute to a cliff, beyond which point rescue would not have helped.
We got her out, but not before each new bystander was introduced to the situation. Heroic at heart and at the eyes, each one eager go down and save the woman, oblivious to the surrounding scree and rock to be sent down on the victim.
After some calm, careful instruction, a bit of parachute cord, and patience, she was fine aside from a few medium sized rocks to the helmet, scrapes and what would become bruises.
I finished the ride.. with caution.
Packing up the car, I couldn’t help but notice the comings and goings at the end of the road. Five cars in the morning turned to fifty. People sitting in idling, air conditioned cars. Getting out and taking three minutes to glance around – a seemingly unfair exchange with the roundtrip drive being three hours. Why would you do that to yourself? It’s Saturday at one in the afternoon. Where else do you really need to be?
Collecting myself, I continued on. A friend suggested that the Sunrise entrance to Rainer offered a spectacular perspective of the mountain. I think the quality of your friends could be determined by the quality of their recommendations… Aliza makes the the great category.
Having captured the beauty of a day ending at St. Helens, I thought it would be great to experience the opposite at Rainer.
4:30 AM came quickly, and shortly thereafter I ventured off to the Second Burrows, a six mile round-trip hike to the west. The closest you can get to Mt. Rainer without actually being on it.
Wanting to test my fear of crowds, Seattle came next. Days of rest, exploring, tasting new cuisine (Turkish food is amazing). It feels great to be back in the city as an observer, without the stresses a participant.
It seems fitting that at the end of the tour I discovered all the other amazing destinations and adventures to be had in Washington. A really wonderful guy named Chris put me up at his place in Bellingham and shared a few snippets from his last twenty years of being a resident – feeling no urge to go anywhere else. “You have everything here” He remarked, as he rattled of the various outdoor pursuits like ingredients from a nutritionally charge smoothie. The trails in Bellingham were great and well worth a revisit… and when imagining the summer/winter combo, maybe even to relocate!
As I reflect on this short journey, a few themes develop:
- Smoke sucks, but everything is impermanent. The situation was totally fine in Squamish when I started running into issues in Oregon, expecting a better situation can lead to dissapointment.
- Feelings often shouldn’t drive action. Everyone ‘jumping to action’ could have ended badly with the mountain biking incident. Step back and use that rational processing power before taking action.
- Where you are is often right where you need to be. This seems contradictory with travel, but let me explain. So many times I found myself saying “I’ll stretch when I get to the right spot”, “I’ll make some supper when I have a nice view.”, “I’ll get my book out and read when find a nice place to do so”. Finding myself tight, hungry, and intellectually unstimulated – I started realizing that the where you were mattered less and less, especially when your attention is should be focused on the current task (Yoga, Cooking, Reading etc). Keep in mind that Van life, or any form of long term travel, requires an adjustment period.
- Rest is an important part of the training program. I biked too much. I don’t think I’ve ever had the opportunity to ride so much, or thought that it could hurt you. Like all things… some moderation is necessary.
You should definitely go to Washington and Oregon (and wherever else you’re longing), budget a little more time than you think you need, and try to see it all for the first time… like you’d never come across this article 😉
Thank you for being here.