Thursday, August 25, 2011

Three friends ramble to the coast

A little past 9 am, I roll up to Pioneer Square in downtown Portland to find my pals Luke and Ollie already waiting. Fifteen minutes later we wheel our loaded bikes onto the MAX train and officially kick off our first tour together. It would be my first multi-night tour and my first tour with a group, having only done a few solo overnights in the past. I watch Luke and Ollie's huge bikes nearly drag the floor as they swing on the bike hooks. Luke toe straps his old Trek to the handrail to reign it in. I think we must be nearing some record for average bike tour height or something. I'm not used to being the runt at 6 feet on my 63cm frame, but Luke and Ollie are both several inches taller with bikes to match!

Our plans are simple and vague--just right for a late summer ramble. Randonneur Ollie will lead us through Yamhill County wine country and over the Coast Range on Nestucca River Road from Carlton to Beaver. Nestucca seems to be one of the least-used routes from Portland to the coast and promises a few miles of gravel and nice camping options. We'll camp somewhere past the summit, and then ride together to Sand Lake Road near the coast. Ollie will head south to meet family near Lincoln City, and Luke and I have a vague plan of looping north to Cape Lookout and home.

About an hour later the train arrives in Hillsboro, saving us a climb over the West Hills and a winding route through the suburbs that I can never get quite right. Luke, who wrenches at a bike shop, demonstrates cobblers' children syndrome for us by installing a new chain (that he'd had me pick up, his shop was out) at the train station. He'd bartered for the old Trek 720 and built it up in the space of a few days. The trip would be his shakedown cruise. At 10:25a, we were back on the road.

Three tall bikes in the Gumwall Gang

After a few miles on the wide-shouldered TV highway, Ollie leads us south through a maze of small roads. For Luke and I, it will be all new ground from here. Subdivisions give way to farm fields, and pretty soon we're on skinny roads with no hint that Portland's just 25 miles behind us. With mountains in the distance, we roll easily past fields of wheat, corn, blueberries, and possibly hops, and we speculate on many others. We pass my digital camera around and try some riding shots. I'm trying out a belt holster for my little digicam, and it works well. Riding solo there isn't much reason to shoot from the bike, but in a group there are always captive subjects around--if you can keep up with them!

Gorgeous roads south of Forest Grove

A charming lady in a BMW rolls down her window to chastise us, "Single file!", though at that point we were bunched up in a left turn lane while she was turning right at a tee. I guess she'd seen us from a ways back. I'm always amazed at how cyclers bring out the mothering instinct in everyone. "Where's your helmet?" "It's too cold to be riding!" "Your child should be strapped in!" "Single file!" I can't imagine these same people leaning out the window to yell at other motorists: "No texting!" "Mind the speed limits!" "That child should be in a car seat!"

Me on Romulus

Ah well, we leave the silly encounter behind the first rolling hills of the day. Without really saying anything, we all sort of roll to a stop in a perfectly shaded little grove and lean our bikes against a barbed wire fence. It's wonderful to be free of the background hum of the city. It's so quiet we can hear the skinny-tired whir of an approaching road biker out for a training ride from far down the road. We take a minute to look over each other's loads and bikes, as bikies do, and then we head out from our little grove and on to Yamhill.

The Yamhill General Store is a treat. It feels like it's been in continuous operation for a century at least. There are layers of stock that look as though what doesn't sell just gets pushed to the back and into corners. The oldest stock just gets relabeled as antiques! I down a V8 and grab a bag of Fritos, thinking we're about to hit the day's big climb. We linger just a little, then pedal out of town along the highway.

A neat thing about bike touring, I'm beginning to learn, is that it leaves time to linger a little. On a day ride, one really only has half the day to spend before turning the bars back toward home. On an overnight, I always seem to be racing darkness to my camp spot. Without the usual constraints, there's time to have a little fun and launch a scheme or two. One of our schemes is to find a decent bottle of Yamhill County wine to carry over the mountain to camp. Ollie leads us down a dirt lane to a "winemakers' studio" which lives up to its name. That is, we don't understand what goes on here at all. The bottles don't have prices, and the separate price list we're handed doesn't look promising, so we enjoy the cool stone building a few minutes and hit the road again.

Still on the hunt for the elusive $20 Oregon red, we pull off of the main drag in Carlton, and Ollie ducks in to a tasting room to do some reconnaissance. While Luke and I are noticing that
everything that once was is now a tasting room--movie theaters, banks, the train station, a grain mill--a similarly out of place dude yells from across the street, "Joe?!?" As he heads across the street toward us, I recognize cyclotourist extraordinaire and friend Arne from Portland! Arne's gal Lyndi soon joins us and introductions are made all around. It turns out they're in Carlton looking for a bottle of wine to take up Nestucca River Road! Portland can seem a very small place sometimes. Joining forces, we soon find a couple of bottles for the evening ahead. Our trio decides to linger and eat lunch in Carlton, but we promise to check in at Arne and Lyndi's camp if we don't catch them on the climb.

I grab a coke to supplement my PBJ and fritos, and Luke and Ollie get sandwiches from a little deli. We eat and top off our bottles, and then point the bars toward the hills. Soon we're on Nestucca River Road, spinning up the first false climbs of the foothills. After a few ups and downs, we start a gradual climb up a beautiful, narrow valley. We see Arne and Lyndi up ahead, stopped on the roadside deciding whether they really want to do some "extra credit" climbing on a smaller road parallel to Nestucca. Arne is on a recumbent with BOB trailer behind, a new setup for him.

Recumbent & B.O.B. trailer

Having only seen a car or two to this point, the five of us hadn't tried too hard to get fully clear of the road when we stopped. So, when the vintage white Ford pickup swerves around us and stops quickly in the middle of the road ahead, we all brace for the lecture to come. Afterwards, we would each admit to making a mental list of what the spry, white-haired farmer who hopped down from the cab was likely to say. As he starts in with "You young people..." I cringe a little. Suffice to say not one of us was ready for the rest of his speech, "You young people who are able to travel this way, well I think it's great! I'll park my pickup at the end of our driveway about three miles up, and you all stop by and fill your bottles before the BIG climb." Bacteria-free water from 500 feet down, on account of his wife, he goes on to say. As he pulls off we all look at each other a little dumbfounded, laugh, and agree we surely must have picked the right road! Ollie, Luke and I have full bottles and decide to pass on the kind fellow's offer, but Arne and Lyndi would stop off and not be disappointed.

The road finally tips up for good and treats us to a picture perfect climb. Four miles at 7% takes us slowly to the top with stops for blackberry picking and a few photos. Luke has packed along an old Russian Lubitel medium format film camera in addition to my little digicam. I miss the ritual of shooting film and the delayed gratification of prints. It's fun to try our hand with Luke's camera. I don't have high hopes for my shots!


The day has warmed up enough that it's a relief to hit the shady stretches between Oregon's famed clear cuts. I take my helmet off as we ride and strap it to the tent pile on my front rack. I had been a little worried about keeping up on the climb, and I definitely spend the most time of anyone hanging off the back, but I'm able to hold on and whoop my way over the top with the other two.

Climbing through the trees

The descent seems to have been designed by cyclers. Cool shade, the Nestucca River on the left, smooth pavement, and curves that sweep just enough to challenge but not so much that we even have to touch the brakes often. This is about as good as it gets on a bike. We stop off at Dovre campground, our friends' planned destination, and leave a note for them. Luke and Ollie decide to swap bikes for a bit. Ollie's Kogswell is unusual, with steering geometry designed to carry most of the weight up front.

Soon we hit the promised gravel section, and our moderately wide 700x32 tires keep us rolling pretty well. On this quiet gravel road on the coast side of the mountains, it's beginning to get chilly, and Pioneer Square in Portland seems like a distant memory. We check out our free campsite option, Elk Bend, but it feels cramped and buggy, so we decide to roll on to Alder Glen. The light is just beginning to fade when Ollie flats, and suddenly the promise of warm food and a campfire starts to sound very nice indeed. Tube changed, we quickly reach the site and claim a spot in the very back next to the river and our own private waterfall.

Camp cooking

Luke and I pitch our tents, and Ollie--traveling light--spreads out his bedroll. The woolens come out, and we set to the task of dinner. I quickly realize another big advantage of touring with others--much better meals! Between the three of us, we had packed a real feast. Seasoned as it was by the miles in our legs and a day of fresh air, the food and wine disappear quickly. Firewood is gathered and before long we're passing a flask and stories around a roaring fire.

In the morning we eat a quick breakfast and break camp as the day warms quickly. We've left ourselves nearly 20 miles of gradual descent down to Beaver and the junction with 101. The miles pass too quickly, and soon we're at a Shell station downing "breakfast" pizza and chocolate milk to fuel the day. From here, we have to ride a short, unpleasant stretch of 101 to get to Sandlake Rd, which will take us to the ocean. From there, Ollie is heading south past Lincoln City to join his family on the coast, and Luke and I are planning to camp to the north at Cape Lookout on our way to Tillamook. We decide to pedal south with Ollie as far as Pacific City where the brewery promises beer and warm food.

Once we hit Sandlake Rd, the riding is peaceful again, although a bit busier than Nestucca River Rd had been. It also kept the beach just out of sight for a comically long time. Eventually, we reached the ocean. Mission accomplished!

Ollie and the Pacific

At Pelican Brewery, we grab a spot on the beachfront deck and loiter over some mean clam chowder and decent beer. We chat with a couple of guys en route from Seattle to San Francisco on classy bikes. Reluctantly, we leave our perch and roll off in our respective directions. Luke and I stop at perhaps the coast's tiniest grocery store and pack off some beer for camp.

We turn up Cape Lookout Rd and stop to check out the dunes at the "RA", once a military test site and now a dune buggy free for all. We hit the bottom of the climb on a crystal clear, hot summer day. A few miles later, we crest in a cloud of fog, shivering in all of our wool layers. Such is summer on the Oregon Coast. The chilly descent is refreshing but has us talking about hot chocolate instead of beer when we reach the campground at Cape Lookout. The hiker/biker camp there has apparently won awards, and well-deserved!

Luke near the top of the Cape Lookout climb

After tucking our tents into dense old forest near the beach, we meet up with Arne and Lyndi again just a few sites away! We share a fire and tell stories from the road. Nursing the fire well into night, we enjoy the stars and company before finally calling it a day. The next morning, Luke and I have an easy pedal into Tillamook, eat a second breakfast, and put our bikes on the bus back to Portland.

We had considered biking back over Hwy 6, but after such perfect roads, we weren't that excited to share the hot road with all the summer beach traffic. The bus ride was quick, and we were back in Portland by early afternoon. It was shaping up to be the hottest day of the year in the city, and I could only shake my head as I pedaled the few miles home, thinking of chilly descents, campfires and hot chocolate only the day before.

More photos here.

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