Touring Pandora: Adventure bicycling in the Cascades of Oregon
Special to the Aspen Times Weekly
Aspen, CO Colorado
CASCADES, Ore. – There exists a wild world of intense natural beauty, a place where the trees reach to the heavens and snag the clouds, where the rivers run clear and cold and are legend for fly fishermen, where ferns canopy the forest floor, where moss-covered springs seep down verdant cliff faces and anoint the green Earth.
This is a mythic, idealized world, a place some might call Pandora, the fictive planet in the film “Avatar.” But I know it exists. I drank it in with my eyes. I tasted it in the savory tartness of huckleberries and the sugary sweetness of blackberries. I measured its mountains and valleys in every pedal stroke on my bicycle. In my memory it shimmers, dreamlike, a chimera of nature’s grandest cathedral.
It is the Cacades of Oregon and within, Crater Lake.
A high point was when we looked down upon the impossible magnificence of Crater Lake. Here, the superlatives ran out. The three of us simply gazed at the deep blue depths filling the ancient caldera and felt the same wonder that William Gladstone Steel must have felt. Steel first saw the lake in 1885 and was so moved he vowed to preserve it from commercial exploitation, leading the way to its dedication as a national park in 1902.
Geologically, Crater Lake is young, a mere 7,700 years old. It was born of the tremendous, explosive eruption of Mount Mazama, whose spew covered six US states and two Canadian provinces with six inches of volcanic ash. The ensuing collapse of the caldera left a deep caldron that gradually filled with rain and snowmelt, making Crater Lake the deepest lake in the U.S. at almost 2,000 feet. Last winter, park rangers gauged over 50 feet of snowfall there, attesting to the moist Pacific climate of much of this region.
Crater Lake was a sideshow as we pedaled our fully loaded mountain bikes on a self-supported tour toward our greatest challenge – the North Umpqua Trail. Staging out of Medford, Ore., our first day was spent climbing into the Cascades to the top of Huckleberry Mountain, named for the ubiquitous berries that flavored our oatmeal the next morning.
Our trio included MT, a Basalt architect who brought carefully prepackaged provisions of rice, pancake batter and couscous, a flask of organic gin, and a strange smelling homemade salve he applied to aching body parts. MT also carried a portable espresso maker that hissed and sizzled on the camp stove like a mini Mt. Mazama, erupting streams of jet black coffee into our waiting cups as our morning ritual.
Along for comic relief was Charlie, a friend of 35 years, who practices law where he lives in La Grande, Oregon. He amused us ad nauseum with Tom Lehrer ditties sung at full volume, though no encore was ever asked. Funnier still was his Third World touring gear, jerry rigged with zip ties, which, to our chagrin, disintegrated en route.
I was along simply to record the mishaps of three eccentric pedal heads as we adventured through a primordial geography of resplendent charm.
In the vicinity of Crater Lake, we encountered hikers on the Pacific Crest Trail, most of whom justifiably puffed up their chests when describing four months on the PCT, walking from Mexico to Canada. Their retread boots and tattered backpacks spoke to the many rigors that put rapturous looks on their sunburned faces, the same looks you see on penitentes dragging themselves through thorny briars on the road to divine salvation.
“What do you miss most from your months on the trail?” I asked a slender young woman who took an interest in our bicycles. “Oh, I miss shopping for food at a real grocery store with my boyfriend. I dream about that,” she sighed. “I miss cooking and washing dishes at home. I miss sleeping in a bed. I miss taking a hot shower. I miss …” She drifted off in a recitation of longings as we discreetly drifted off beyond earshot.
From Crater Lake, we soared down a long, swooping descent across the Pumice Desert to Diamond Lake, whose exquisite deep blue waters framed Mt. Thielsen, a fang of a peak jutting into clear blue skies. We camped on the lakeside at a hiker/biker campsite, drank cold beers, and felt the pacifying effects of bike touring ease through us like an IV of morphine.
The next morning a blissful bike trail around the lake through towering pines so enchanted us that we continued on a somewhat less defined trail leading through the dark forest toward Lemolo Lake. This proved a navigational error as the trail grew fainter and fainter the deeper we penetrated the woods. Soon deadfall crossed our path like giant pickup stix. It was hours before we emerged, worn and wiser for heaving our hundred-pound bikes over tree trunks and through tangled snags.
Lunch at the folksy, family-run Lemolo Lake Resort was our reward, a place that sells fishing tackle and coonskin caps. (We bought some of each.) Burgers and fries steeled us for yet another trail, the most challenging 13 miles of the 50-mile long North Umpqua Trail, which soon had us thrashing through a wild and remote river canyon. Called the “Dread and Terror” section for the namesake ridge it contours, the trail skirts drop-offs at ever turn, some over 100 feet straight down to the boiling whitewater of the North Umpqua River.
It was late afternoon when we steered our cumbersome bikes (imagine pedaling full-dress Harleys) along this technical single-track, riding for an hour before deciding to camp at the only spot wide enough for a couple of tents. As we surveyed the site, I accidentally stepped on a yellow jacket nest burrowed in the ground. Instantly we were swarmed and stung repeatedly, bringing on an impromptu performance of the bee sting boogie, a spasmodic choreography that brought us to the edge of the river.
“Nature just spanked us,” mused Michael, rubbing a rising welt that festered days later into an unsightly rash. Fortunately, none of us reacted violently to the stings, but we made careful observance for hives at all future stops, usually by sending Charlie blundering into the undergrowth as a decoy.
Because of the yellow jackets, we had no choice but to ride on in the gloaming. Just before dark we reached a footbridge that was barely wide enough for our tents. We staked them down with rocks and literally slept on the river, the clatter of shifting boulders and the roar of hydraulics making for a restive night. At one point in the darkness I awoke to the sobering thought that this bridge, though an opportune campsite, might also be a favored bear crossing. If it had been, this report might never have been written.
The next morning dawned cool, clear and serene. Huckleberries again spiked our oats with gushes of flavor. A strong dose of coffee got us moving, and we spent the rest of the day riding, pushing and lifting along one of the most incredibly beautiful trails I have every seen.
At regular intervals, springs bedecked cliff faces with thick moss blankets of neon green. Waterfalls poured from the mountainside with cool mist and ice water for our bottles. Forests of ferns fanned out their fronds in cool, dark shade and with amazing symmetry. Instead of “Dread and Terror,” I dubbed this trail “Bliss and Euphoria,” so majestic was the mega flora of tall trees and lush verdure. “I have fallen in love with this country,” I wistfully confided to my chums. It was everything I could do to keep my eyes on the twisting, narrow trail instead of rubbernecking the scenery.
With disciplined focus and occasional repairs to twisted bike racks, flattened tires and failing panniers, we arrived by sheer luck at the celebrated North Umpqua Hot Springs. Here, in nature’s splendor, naked soakers found respite in half a dozen pools terraced upon a steep hillside above the roaring river. The air was redolent with the incense of burning herb blended with the sweet perfume of Western red cedars and the vapor of the springs. Euphoria!
I shared a pool with “Nikki,” a friendly and unabashed young blonde from Bristol, England who was bike touring with another comely blonde. I recognized they were cyclists immediately by the shape of their quads. Nikki stretched out in the pool said they had started from Vancouver, BC, and were exploring the redwood forests, beaches, mountains, and nude hot springs of Oregon.. “It’s all so open, here, so free,” she marveled in her “Faulty Towers” accent. Indeed.
Moving from pool to pool to test the water – and to meet and greet other friendly bathers – I landed in the hottest pool, at 108-degrees, which melted me like butter. After an hour, I oozed back to our camp on the river where, over a dinner of couscous and tuna (compliments of MT), we watched a swarm of bats issue from a cave and dart through the gloom after flying insects.
Riding the next day was like floating on velvet as we effortlessly coasted down the valley on smooth asphalt. Traffic was light and our moods were joyous as we stopped occasionally to gorge on wild blackberries. We were headed to a sumptuous feast that night at the Riverside Restaurant with Michael’s wife, Jan, and several of her fishing cronies, who were spending the week flailing the water for steelhead salmon.
Couscous and tuna with draughts of organic gin are fine for a bike camp, but fine wine, dressy appetizers, and the multiple courses of a gourmet dinner were absorbed that evening by our famished bodies with the full flush of gustatory elation. When the last wine bottle was drained, we said good-bye to our friends and they sent us off to our camp on the river provisioned with a freshly baked blackberry pie. Half the pie was devoured at breakfast while the other half lasted until that night. Talk of your delights on the trail! Fresh blackberry pie is the bomb.
From the North Umpqua valley we rode over several high ridges as we sought to close the loop of an amazing tour. On the way, we stopped to see the “World’s Tallest White Pine,” a magnificent tree that bore a strange scar around its circumference. A ranger, who happened by, explained that a nutcase with a chainsaw had tried to girdle the tree, apparently without success. I labeled the offender an “aboreopath” and hugged the pine mightily as comfort from the follies of crazed sawyers.
We settled for our last night amid tall pines at South Umpqua Falls where we watched a pair of coeds in bikinis riding a slide of mossy rock that launched them into a deep pool. The water was fine, so we joined them in a cold dunk that revived us from our day in the saddle and added significantly to the salinity of the Umpqua River system.
Our final day was the toughest day of all as we pedaled over ever higher ridges. We followed narrow country lanes, empty of cars, meandering through overarching trees that shaded us from a warming sun. Birds were singing, squirrels were chirping, and we were panting. Up and down we went, feeling the deep fatigue that comes from consecutive days of hard touring.
With relief we topped our final pass and gazed over endless timbered ridges stretching toward the murky horizon where, out there to the west, lay the mighty Pacific Ocean. With all its deep lakes, tall trees, bee stings and saddle sores, the ride had been heroic and gratifying. We will long hold it as a rich treasure from the magical world of Pandora.
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Denver has moved to safer-at-home Level 3 status, which is one step away from a full-fledged lockdown.