Dog on Board

It’s unsubstantiated, but I’m pretty sure that Oscar is the first dog to ride the Sisters to Smith Rock Oregon Scenic Bikeway.

Have dog, will travel.

He normally stays at a fancy dog hotel when we go somewhere he can’t, but in an effort to save some money, we decided that he could come along for our Memorial Day weekend bike tour through Sisters Country in Central Oregon.

Sisters to Smith Rock Scenic Bikeway map

The original plan was to drive to Smith Rock on Saturday, load up the bikes and ride to Sisters on the Sisters to Smith Rock Scenic Bikeway, where we would camp for the next two nights at the city-run Three Sisters Overnight Park, ride unloaded up Mckenzie Pass (which is plowed of snow but closed to motor vehicles until mid-June) on Sunday, and then bike back to Terrebonne and drive home on Monday.

We ended up driving to Sisters directly on Friday instead, because I was concerned that we wouldn’t find a place to camp on Saturday due to it being the Sisters Stampede mountain bike race weekend. (A good call; the campground was full by Saturday afternoon.) We car camped on Friday night and then drove to Terrebonne the next morning to start, biking back to Sisters without the weight of our camping gear and food.

heading to Sisters, dog in tow

Now, it turns out that Burley makes a trailer specifically for hauling dogs (Tail Wagon, $399), but we used our vintage (ergo, “hip”) 1980s era Burley trailer. The old trailer is a bit light on safety features and amenities, but it’s made of lightweight materials and comfortable enough for a little dog. We outfitted it with a closed-cell foam sleeping pad and shoved some clothes in the footbox so he had something to stand on. With a few more modifications, I can see this old trailer transformed into a pimped out pupmobile, the Cadillac Seville of Tail Wagons.

Not pimped yet, but just wait.

The first official Oregon Scenic Bikeway was designated in the mid-2000s, but the concept had been percolating in people’s minds for decades. The idea was to establish, with signage and mapping, bicycle touring routes through the most beautiful and bikable parts of the state to encourage tourism and stimulate economic development in rural Oregon. The program is a collaborative partnership between ODOT, Oregon Parks and Recreation, Cycle Oregon, and Travel Oregon. (If you’re a cyclist, take a look at the excellent Ride Oregon website for route ideas – both trail and road – and planning help. It’s a great resource!)

The Sisters to Smith Rock Scenic Bikeway was designated only a few years ago, but it’s long been a route favored by regional cyclists because of its good roads and stunning views of the Three Sisters and Smith Rock. The riding is relatively easy through rolling high desert and the traffic is light (even for Memorial Day weekend), but there aren’t shoulders and vehicles cruise along at a good clip. There are a lot of pickup trucks pulling horse trailers and campers on Lower Bridge Road; traffic was heaviest between Terrebonne and Crooked River Ranch (McCain Road / NW 43rd).

the Three Sisters from Lower Bridge Road

The public campground in Sisters has free hot showers with purchase of campsite ($15/night for non-power site; $35/night with power) and is within easy walking distance of the shops and restaurants Downtown. There is a small food market on Hood and Fir in Downtown Sisters, but you can also easily ride to Ray’s Food Place, a full-service grocery store, thanks to a brand new multi-use trail along US 20. There are a lot of great places to grab coffee or a bite to eat downtown. Some of my favorite places are: Sisters Coffee, Angeline’s Bakery and Cafe, Los Agaves, Sisters Bakery, and the Depot Cafe. There are several bike shops in town as well (Blazin’ Saddles, Eurosports).

The weather was beautiful on Friday and Saturday, with the Cascades acting like a giant sieve for the rain and gray clouds in the Valley (the clouds were piled up on the crest), but it started to rain on Saturday night and didn’t abate until eight the next morning. Bill opted to stay in camp to read and hang out with Oscar while the rest of us went to ride up Mckenzie Pass. It’s a beautiful 2,000′ climb over 15 miles to the pass and was a sweaty, enjoyable affair despite the headwind and cool air.

riding through the pondos up Mckenzie Pass

up, up, up

Windy Point (it was)

Mckenzie Pass, free of traffic

I have on 5 layers.

Only in Oregon do you have a hula-hooping pedestrian sign and a weird lava rock observatory

Dee Wright Observatory

I was the first to reach the top.

“There are no margaritas up here!” yelled a woman in cycling gear from the observatory.

“What?!” I yelled back, “That’s bullsh*t! I was told there would be hot dogs!”

“No hot dogs either!” she answered. “All I can think about is that poblano pepper soup they have a Los Agaves. And a margarita!”

I didn’t know this woman, but she seemed nice.

It was very cold at the pass, misty/sprinkling rain and hovering around 35 degrees. I had been warm cranking up the final grade, but now my sweaty clothes were starting to turn against me. I bundled up, adding another layer or two and some long-fingered gloves. My friends arrived shortly, we shot obligatory photos and congratulated ourselves, and then turned around and headed back the way we came.

Downhill! Tailwind! Zoom!

What had taken about three hours to ride up was gobbled down in 40 minutes. Exhilarating!

Yes, indeed.

Oscar welcomed us back to camp with unbridled enthusiasm.

welcome back!

I can’t say that he loved bike touring, but he always willingly jumped back into the trailer when it was time to load up. He settled into the 10 mile-an-hour pace and the constant jostling over road bumps. And, of course, he loved camping and going for walks when we weren’t riding. I’m going to spend some time making the trailer more comfortable for him: mesh windows, a sturdy platflorm base, a hole he can poke his head through to watch the world go by; a Tail Wagon with unprecedented customization.

This summer, we are going to hit the road and bring the dog on board.

Have dog, will travel.

Work and Play

“We should go check out the Corvallis waterfront,” I said to my office deskmate, Ben, as I scrolled through images of different urban waterfront projects on my computer. I was doing some research for a project and realized that I hadn’t been to downtown Corvallis in several years. It was time to revisit.

“Ok,” he said. “Should we ride our bikes?”

I looked over at him and grinned.

One week later, we left work and rode our fully-loaded bikes two blocks to Union Station to catch the 6:15 PM Amtrak Cascades train to Albany ($23, plus $5 bicycle ticket).

Albany, ho!

We mapped out a route that generally followed the Willamette Valley Scenic Bikeway and planned to visit towns and sites that sounded interesting to two urban planning nerds professionals. Part work, part play, we would ride about 125 miles over two days through one of the most beautiful and productive agricultural valleys in the Pacific Northwest. Over the course of 48 hours, we rode along sparsely traveled country roads, through small towns, into the heart of our state’s capitol, along heavily trafficed suburban strips, and back to downtown Portland. We crossed the Willamette River six times, swimming/wading in it once.

Hello, from in the Willamette River!

We used heavy rail, light rail, intercity bus, and our own legs to take us on this journey. (We wanted to take a ferry or two but they were all out of service.) We couch surfed in Albany and camped at Willamette Mission State Park ($5/person), which – within the last two years – has developed several hiker/biker camps. We frequented local restaurants (Hasty Freez, The Broken Yolk Cafe, Ovenbird Bakery, The Bankers Cup), except in Wilsonville, where that seemed impossible (Taco del Mar).

85 degrees and sunny, we made special note of splash pads and shade.

sucking up the shade at Bush's Pasture Park, Downtown Salem

We carried our own gear, each self-sufficient with our own tent, sleeping bag, mat, cook set, fuel, and food. I managed to stuff everything into a pair of Arkel XM-28 panniers (850 cu in each), with a little spare room for additional supplies.

fresh berries and craft beer, two of the many perks of cycling in the Willamette Valley in the summer

Including side trips, we rode 75 miles the first day; 50 miles the second day. The valley is essentially flat, with short climbs up minor river bluffs and occasional rolling hills. In theory, it’s all downhill (Corvallis, elevation 235 feet; Portland, elevation 40 feet). Good weather typically blows from the NNW so we had a 8 – 10 mile an hour headwind / crosswind most of the trip. This route is easier ridden from north to south, but riding north worked better with the train schedule. If you have an opportunity, do this route. It was the first designated Scenic Bikeway in Oregon, is an easy and accessible way to try out bikepacking (loaded touring), and supports the regional economy in a sustainable way. It’s also hella fun.

cruising along River Road near Salem

The Details

We handed our unloaded bikes to the Amtrak luggage handlers to hang in the baggage car and climbed aboard southbound train #507 to settle in for the 1:45 trip to Albany. Once we got rolling, we headed to the bistro car and lounge for dinner and an after-work libation.

Everyone winds down after a hard day of work in a different way

The miles rolled by quickly and we soon found ourselves walking towards our bikes at the beautifully restored historic train station in Albany, where the handlers had unloaded the bikes and leaned them on the platform railing. We reloaded the bikes and pedaled off to a friend-of-a-friend’s house a few blocks away. We took our host to ice cream at the Hasty Freez and chatted into the night around her backyard campfire, burning down sea logs and drinking the earthy Willamette Valley pinot noir we brought as a thank you.

We were up early the next morning, pedaling through the cool morning to Corvallis ten miles south, the thought of breakfast in our heads.

early morning fog and moon near Corvallis

mmm...breakfast

morning shadows at speed

It was early enough to qualify for the Early Bird Special at The Broken Yolk in downtown Corvallis, and we got a special side of smack talk from our waitress as an added bonus. After tucking into a plate of eggs and potatoes shiny with grease, we lumbered off on our bikes to check out First Street along the Willamette River.

(*start* Boring planner alert! *start*) Corvallis arguably has one of the most successful small town downtowns in the Pacific Northwest, firmly anchored by the Willamette River and a historic core, and fueled by Oregon State University and tech companies. First Street and the Riverfront Memorial Park are a fine examples of how to turn a back-of-house location into an active and lively gathering place for the community – successfully mixing public spaces and private investments. (*end* Boring planner alert! *end*)

Downtown Corvallis was awesome and we wished we could linger, but there were other urban planning wonders calling us from up the valley. Like, the EE Wilson Game Management Area!

stink eye

The EE Wilson Game Management Area (EE Wilson Wildlife Area) was once a World War II military training facility and German and Italian POW camp, called Camp Adair. It was only in operation between 1942 and 1946 and was allowed to revert back to its somewhat-natural state of braided marsh, meadows, and woods after the government was done with it. It’s operated by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife and has a couple of public education stations, including a barrio of wild birds and a kiosk on what not to do to native turtles.

Camp Adair, nee EE Wilson Game Management Area

Don't mess with the basking habitat.

observing pheasants at the EE Wilson Game Management Area

After a brief stop to do some pheasant observation in the game management area, we wended our way east and north on bucolic country roads, following signs that said “Big Black Cherries” to the small waterfront park / boat launch / cherry farm in downtown Buena Vista (considered a ghost town by some guide book authors).

"Hay!"

one of the small hills we conquered

We lounged in comfortable chairs outside the Ovenbird Bakery for over an hour on Main Street in Downtown Independence ($4 sandwich, $2 wedge of lemon cream pie, $2 espresso). The town was setting up the second phase of their enormous 4th of July celebration in the large waterfront park, the air already thick with the smell of fried stuff on a stick.

chillin' on Main Street, Independence

Downtown Independence street life

parked

We backtracked to cross the Willamette on a narrow bridge, stopping mid span to enjoy the view and watch a juvenile eagle try and catch a fish. We also saw – from our perch 50 feet in the air – a giant salmon trolling the shoreline. Prehistoric size.

It's the Willamette, dammit.

Steady on the narrow bridge sidewalk

The miles flew along beautiful River Road as we approached Salem, the state capitol. The traffic got a little hairball during the last mile, so we pulled off at the first opportunity and consulted the map to see if we could find a mellower way through town. Noticing a big patch of green a few blocks away, we wandered over to check out Bush’s Pasture Park and ended up lounging in the shade of the 100 year old Willamette white oaks.

resting in Bush's Pasture

dappled shade

We cycled away from the calm serenity of the park and into the crush of Friday afternoon traffic in downtown Salem. We made our way to Front Street and then circled back to check out the Union Street bridge, an historic railroad bridge that the city converted into a bicycle and pedestrian bridge in 2009. It provides a critical link between two popular riverfront parks and is a glorious piece of engineering. It was also really popular. Ben loved it, despite the face.

Union Bridge, Salem

We continued north along Front Street, eventually tracking into riverside residential neighborhoods in Keizer. Just as the landscape started to transition from suburbia to farmland, we pulled over at a roadside farm stand and bought some raspberries.

“Is there a convenience store around here?” we asked the young woman at the stand.

“Um, yes!” she said. “It’s just around the corner. Go down that road and then turn left. You can’t miss it.”

“Thanks!” we said, and then proceeded to go “just around the corner” 2 miles to a grocery store to stock up on some beer for the evening. The Albertsons on River Road and Lakefair has a very nice selection of 22 oz bottles of craft beer and is the last place to get groceries before the park.

riding up this hill was harder with the beer

We got to the entrance of Willamette Mission State Park and looked for signs that indicated where the campground was located.

“There’s camping here, right?” I asked Ben, who had been in charge of confirming such details.

“Uh, yeah. I think so,” he said. “I couldn’t really get the map to download so I never actually saw the campground.”

"There's camping here, right?"

Hooray!

We rolled into a secluded bicycle camping area, outfitted with picnic tables, a water spigot, and fire pits. We arrived hot, sweaty, and feeling great but pooped after 75 miles of riding.

our own little slice of heaven

First thing’s first: eat the raspberries and drink a beer.

a poor ratio

Then swim. Or wade.

wading out for a swim in the Willamette

still wading

so cool, so slimy

Then go for an educational after-dinner bike ride. (Willamette Mission ghost structure, largest Black Cottonwood in the world, cougar information.)

ghost structure of the Willamette Mission

green tunnel

Wonder where all the people are.

Hello? Anyone home?

I wish I could tell you that I had a deep and restful sleep at the Willamette Mission State Park. Alas, it was not so. In true state park fashion, I was kept awake until 3AM by a loud band of yahoos camped over in the group tent area. Par for the course with public campgrounds. I was again reminded why I prefer wilderness backpacking. Or motels.

all packed up and ready to go

My camera battery died the next morning, which is why I only have a photo of us on public transit from this point forward.

Tualatin Park-n-Ride

waiting for MAX in Beaverton

hanging out on MAX

But you can imagine the lush hop farms and wheat fields of the French Prairie, the bluffs of the Willamette River near Champoeg Park, the throngs of recreational cyclists out on a beautiful Saturday morning in the country, and the quaintness of St. Paul the weekend after the big 4th of July Rodeo, the town looking a little worn and hungover – in a good way.

You can probably also imagine the abrupt transition that is the Urban Growth Boundary – an invisible line dividing urban and rural, the harrowing ride on the shoulder of I-5 to cross the Willamette once more, the lovely and strange place that is “Downtown” Wilsonville, the lovelier and stranger place that is Villebois, and the randomly dropped bike lane between suburban cities.

I wish I could tell you that we rode every mile back to Portland. But, alas, there is a nexus between 87 degrees and suburban traffic, and that is the Tualatin Park-n-Ride. For $2.40, you can take your bike on a bus eight air-conditioned miles to the Beaverton Transit Center, hop on a light rail train for a few miles to the top of the West Hills, and ride down familiar city streets to the nearest splash pad that is not completely overwhelmed with people under three feet tall (Holliday Park, free). From there, it’s an easy ten minute ride home.

This trip was the perfect blend of work and play. We got some continuing education about some of the projects and communities in our region, and had a ton of summery Oregon fun in the process. We also got a good workout and enhanced our tan lines. Hands down, it was the best workcation I’ve ever taken.

Or, as Ben would say, “That was the best vacation I’ve taken in July, 2012.”

It is, isn't it?

Grit

When I moved to the Pacific Northwest in 1997, I brought a Trek 7000 mountain bike with me. It was aluminum and purple and had about an inch of travel in the front shock. And even though I had owned the bike for over a year before moving, it had never actually touched dirt. (Though I was getting really good at jumping city curbs.)

When I arrived in Portland, I joined up with a local mountain bike club and started riding some of the regional trails. What I lacked in skill, I made up for in enthusiasm (I was 20). But I never got any real instruction on how to work my bike on technical trails and once I advanced beyond the super chill beginner trails, I started to fall. And once I started falling, I developed a fear of falling. And once I developed a fear of falling, I lost that connection to mountain biking equaling fun.

finding the joy in mountain biking

That first Trek mountain bike was stolen my first winter in Portland. I immediately bought another bike, but I didn’t do it properly and got the wrong one, lured into early FSR technologies. There was no joy in that bike, only hard work and discomfort. I hung it up for a few years and, after a random invitation to tag along on a hut-to-hut mountain bike trip in Colorado’s San Juan mountains in 2004, I went back to the basics – a Gary Fisher hardtail with about 3 inches of front travel. My intent was to slowly work on erasing my fear of falling and find the joy in mountain biking again. I dabbled, riding here and there, but never feeling that first shot of exhilaration I felt when I first started riding.

Last summer, I borrowed my friend’s FSR Stumpjumper. Still wary of full suspension, I was skeptical. What I learned, after one short, jubilant technical ride, is that mountain bikes have really transformed in the last 10 years – particularly if you have disposable income. After a weekend away in Bend, I had reconnected. Mountain biking and I were back together, in love as never before. But the love wasn’t the same without my friend’s FSR Stumpy. The hardtail was just so…hard.

la la la...

I ended up buying a 29er FSR Stumpjumper this winter. At first, I thought I had made (another) horrible mistake. The bike felt enormous, with its gigantor wheels and man-sized frame and wide handlebars. All the bike shop people raved about 29ers and how they gobble up technical trails and are faster and smoother but, after riding a 29er demo bike for an afternoon around Phil’s, I wasn’t convinced.

“Oh, you’ll feel a difference right away!” they said.

I did not. It felt like I was steering a yacht.

It was slow to develop into a passionate love affair, but once it clicked, it clicked. After four days of riding in southern Utah, I felt like the 29er and I were made for each other. The wheels still feel circus big, but I find that I have a tremendous amount of control and comfort, particularly over technical sections of trail, which begets more confidence, which begets more fun. And more fun is good.

So now that I don’t feel like I want to hurl before every trail ride, I thought that I should probably get some formal instruction on how to actually ride a mountain bike – properly. I signed up for a Grit Clinic and spent a weekend in Bend working on the fundamentals with about 25 other women.

smiling on the inside

The two-day clinic was broken down into morning and afternoon sessions. The morning sessions consisted of three mini sessions in small groups where we did skills development drills like riding in a straight line (first on a wide fire hose and then ultimately on a wood plank between two boxes), turning at slow speed, cornering, riding uphill, braking, and other seemingly basic skills. And even though I knew how to do all of those things before the clinic, there were little tips and suggestions about my technique that I found valuable.

In the afternoon sessions, the coaches split us into groups and we went out to ride a real world trail with real world trail problems. We would ride as a group to a technical section, stop, and then study the problem. We’d talk about the best line to take, how much speed you would need, what hazards to be aware of, etc. Then, we’d all try to ride the section, all the time with a team of spotters to catch you if you started to fall. This is an incredibly effective development technique. Normally, if I got to a technical section that scared me or looked too difficult, I would dismount and walk it. With spotters, I launched myself at the problem and, 9 times out of 10, made it without falling. It was a huge confidence booster and, with people cheering for you, a little rock-starish.

Also, we learned wheelies.

yessss....