June 16

It had been a wind snapping, tent flapping night as the strong north winds persisted throughout the night. Rain had accompanied the wind, along with chilly temperatures. It was not raining as we woke up, but proceeded to start up again just before I began to roll up my tent.

A now sealed mine shaft in the Snake River canyon

The narrow Snake River canyon opened up past Riggins. In a few places we passed mine shaft openings in the hills. A sign above one claimed a significant bounty once extracted from its depths.

 

 

Minus the wind, this would have been a pleasant ride to the town of White Bird. But the rain, narrow shoulder and too frequent truck passings made it a chore.

Just before White Bird, we turned off onto the “Old Highway 95”. It was a quiet, peaceful road that gave me the sense I was sneaking into town through the back door.

With a population of just over 100 people, White Bird seemed to be a one lane town. Just as we pulled next to the only restaurant/bar in town, the rain fell harder. Lunch, we decided, was indoors.

The Sportsman’s Bar & Restaurant was a “is-what-it-is” kind of place. Bar in the front (with patrons watching old westerns on TV) and the restaurant in the back. In between those two areas was the kitchen, office space and stock room. The decor on the walls ranged from a sketch of John Wayne to a photograph of a 1950s Daytona Beach motorcycle rider. The floor was a patchwork of old and new(er) tile.

Pure vegetarians would have taken one look at the menu and gone out and eaten in the rain. I gave up abstention from red meat for an hour and ate a hamburger.

White Bird is at the base of what was to be our biggest climb to date, a roughly 2500 foot (close to 1/2 mile) gain in elevation. So it wasn’t surprising that the cook/owner had some advice to dispense about the climb. “It will take you 3 hours to do it.” “Most people do it fresh in the morning.” “Stay high on the turns in the switchbacks, you’ll work less going up.”

Leaving dry cover we pedaled down a peopleless street into some grassland to begin our long ascent. The restaurant’s outside thermometer read in the low 50s.

White Bird battlefield. The Nez Perce hid in the foreground, watching the Cavalry approach over the ridge.

To me, quiet, steady rain dampens not only the ground, but also noise, creating a calm, muted environment to pedal in. In this state of being we came across the White Bird Battlefield a mile out of town. We stopped and looked up a grassy, sloping ridge where the first skirmish of the Nez Perce War of 1877 took place. The serene setting, a gray, overcast day, silent only for the sounds of birds, made me imagine what might have been the calm and the tension before the fight.

 

 

Lewis and Clark first met the Nez Perce on their 1805 journey west. By the mid-1800s, more and more white people moved into Nez Perce lands seeking furs and farms. Seeking to avoid conflict, the Nez Perce agreed to give up half of their lands, which as that point totaled nearly 15 million acres. Then, they discovery of gold in the area attraced more settlers and the Nez Perce agreed to give up even more of their lands. Some Nez Perce grew tired of this ongoing loss of land and resisted an ultimatum to move onto a reservation. The US government sent troops to force compliance with the ultimatum. It was at White Bird where the Calvary and the natives first met. Upon seeing the troops the Nez Perce raised a white flag and approached, yet a calvary volunteer fired a shot, thus beginning in a 4 month war. The Nez Perce won this first battle, but were eventually overrun by the army. Some escaped to Canada, but most surrendered and were sent to live in what now is Oklahoma.

The map showed the climb as a series of swiggles, and as we moved on I could see the path of ascent. White guard rails marked each turn in the switchback. Far off to the left I could see the path of the main highway that had been cut into the side of the mountain. Our road was to join it for the last mile of the ascent. At the point we were starting our climb, it had already risen high above the town–I had a long way to go.

Other than the occasional drone of trucks climbing the main highway, my climb was peaceful and serene. There was no traffic on this road, so I could bike right down the middle. The birds continued singing their melodic songs.

I kept climbing, and kept seeing more switchbacks above me. As I headed up the westward leg of the switchback, cold winds chilled me and slowed progress. Turning the corner and heading east, pedaling became easier and warmer.

I merged back into the main highway and achingly moved up the final portion of the climb. “White Bird Hill,” the sign at the summit read. Seemed like a mountain to me, I thought.

Our route had us taking an equally quiet road on the way down. Mark didn’t have the map, so I decided to wait for him so he didn’t miss the turnoff.

During my climb I had lost sight of Mark, so I figured it would be awhile before he made the summit. Realizing I would begin to lose the body heat generated by the climb, I put extra layers of clothes on and tried to shelter myself from the wind as best I could.

I must have been a sorry sight–a lone cyclist standing in an empty pulloff at the top of a chilly summit. A minivan pulled off the road turned my way and stopped. “Are you OK?” asked the woman after rolling down her window. “Yes, I’m just waiting for my friend to come up the pass.” “I just came up the pass and I didn’t see him,” she replied. “We’re coming up the old road,” I answered. “That’s good. Are you going down the old road?” she queried. I nodded yes. “My husband and I live in the first subdivision 4 miles down the road. Let us know if you have any problems.” I thanked her and she drove away.

I kept looking down the road for the tiny splash of yellow which would signify Mark edging near the summit. More time passed. Another car entered the pulloff and swung around to meet me. Another woman with the same questions and concerns, except this time I did not seem to convince her when I said I thought Mark was doing fine. “I live in the ranch just below the pass.” she offered. I can check the switchbacks for him before I head home.” Her concerned looks compelled me to authorize the search.

This caring woman did indeed go out of her way to find Mark, told him I was waiting above, and gave him some encouragement that he was nearly done.

Already cold from the wait, I mentally prepared for the coast down, knowing that I would not pedal/generate body heat until the bottom. Despite my chill, I could not help but stop one more time and gaze at the beautiful valley we had just climbed up.

I had that chilled-to-the-bone feeling as I headed down. I tried to find a happy medium between not traveling too fast and generating a cold wind and getting to the bottom as fast as I could. I began dropping through a forest defined by subtle shades of green. Then a vista opened up to a broad valley below. At the bottom of the descent I was relieved to begin pedaling again, put my head down and focused on the town 4 miles away. We checked into the first motel we saw and got the last room available.

 

The serene gloom from White Bird Hill

As I rode higher I would look back at the path and view I had taken. To the left were hills of subtle shades of green. Back in the distance beyond White Bird, dark clouds were brooding over the mountains behind it. 

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June 15

Today we pedaled as if on a ladder. Our elevation profile looked like a series of steps, first going up, then coming down. In the morning, we continued following the Weiser River, now running through stands of tall pines. As the rode wound through the forest, views of the river would come and go, but you could always hear it. The constant sound of rushing water is soothing.

Beauty in the sky

Of course, we were not the only ones on the road.  As a matter of safety, I had to be attentive to the vehicles that were overtaking us. But I also noticed a pattern–most of what passed me was carrying, towing or hauling some kind of load. Bikes or boats on the rooftop, log trailers, dogs in pickup beds. Most outrageous to me was a full-sized bus pulling a pickup truck that had a motorcycle loaded onto it. They were prepared for anything.

I also became aware that what often caused me to stop and take a picture was an S or a V. S scenes were gentle curves in the roads or rivers. V scenes were canyon or valley walls sliding toward each other down to the ground.

A soothing S scene

Ss evoke adventure. You don’t know what you will see around the next bend. They draw you in as if you were blindfolded and someone had their hands on both of your shoulders and was directing your movement. Hurtling downhill on S curves make you feel like you are swooping down like a bird.

Vs are dramatic. Vs make it very clear where they want you to look–down into a canyon, or up to a mountain peak. We will see what I think of the I roads of the Great Plains states.

A visual V view

A visual V view

After lunch in New Meadows, we began following the Little Salmon River. We were in a wide, picturesque valley–a S river quietly snaking through green wetlands and blue pools of water. Then we crossed a bridge and the river fell into a whole new personality. It began rushing and raging, dropping quickly into a narrow canyon. We followed right next it for the rest of the day. A stiff headwind also met us on our descent and turned a joyride into work.

Today’s destination was Riggins, Idaho. A few miles out of town, it looked as if people had gathered for a parade. All along the road, cars and trucks were parked bumper to bumper. People with fishing poles and big nets were intently focused on the river.

After we made town and found our campground, we learned more about all the hoopla. This was the time for the annual Chinook Salmon run. The salmon were making their way upriver from the ocean to spawn. They don’t eat during this time, said our camp neighbor/fisherman, and lose half of their body weight making the journey.

A new type of mixed drink?

There were precise regulations around salmon fishing in Idaho. If you caught a fish, you could only keep it if it was hooked by the mouth. If it had a clipped tail, you could keep it as well, since these fish were raised in a hatchery. Fish with unclipped tails were wild salmon, and had to be returned to the water. Exempt from all these rules were the native peoples. They were allowed to catch fish with long poled nets.

Getting to this story about salmon fishing was a story in itself. We pulled into the only place in town that offered tent camping and was confronted with a jumble of RVs and posted instructions that this was a self-serve operation. We finally located where the tent sites were, but none seemed to be open, or numbered. A fellow strode up and said, “Jim’s not here. Just pitch your tent where there’s a space and you’ll be OK.” Learning from another resident that Jim was in Boise and hadn’t been seen all day, we decided to stake our claim (and tents). We never did see Jim.

By this time the headwind had turned into a howling gale. I didn’t think I could light the flame on my camping stove, so we walked into town to have dinner.

Our Riggins encampment. Numbered campsites meant nothing here.

Climbing doubts

June 20, 2010

June 14

“Leave extra time for the steep 7 mile climb out of the canyon,” counseled the Adventure Cycling map. Mark and I had already completed some significant climbs, but seeing these cautionary words in print brought new doubts into my mind. How well and often could I do these climbs? My best reference point was 21 years ago on our honeymoon bike trip through the Rockies. I did fine back then, but doctors and fitness experts state you start to lose muscle mass beginning at age 40. Exercise can slow the rate of loss, but by how much, I thought? In building my bike for this trip I had tried to compensate for any loss by adding lower gearing.

About a mile after leaving the campground, we turned east away from the canyon and began the ascent. As is the matter of course, the road paralleled a stream bed heading down toward the canyon.

Although it was only mid-morning, the sun was already hot. I had packed an extra water bottle in preparation for the heat and the climb. The grade uphill was consistent. My legs were spinning at a relatively fast, but low power rate. After awhile it became obvious–this climb was not about high energy or high power, but energy management. Patience and persistence would get me up to the pass.

Climb a 1000 feet or so and here's what you get.

Turning your pedals at the same rate for a long time would seem to be a good thing to do, but in my experience, variety matters. It seems less taxing on my legs and arms when I have to vary my pedaling effort and position on my handlebars. There is probably a physiological explanation for this.

When faced with this situation, and few options to change how I pedal, I just take a break. Stopping for a few minutes to rest my legs and eat a snack is very helpful. Stopping for too long, on the other hand, is not. Lactic acid, a waste product of your body’s energy production, builds up in your muscles and you will feel what is described as a “burn” in your muscles when you start moving again.

Sunflowers are always a joyful thing to see

After an hour or so of pedaling I came upon a road construction crew. “You’re more than halfway up now,” the flagman told me. I was surprised at what he said, because I thought I was fairly close to the top. “Only a mile or so to the top,” yelled the second flagman, confirming my initial calculations.

At a horseshoe bend I crossed the creek I had been following and knew from my map that indeed the crest was near. I had climbed out of the starkness of Hell’s Canyon into a green mountain meadow.

After lunch we curved around the flat Weiser River valley and began a gradual ascent to the north. Wild sunflowers began appearing near the roadside, adding yellow to the mix of browns and greens we had been used to seeing.

Is this for the benefit of the cow or the dog?

We ended our day in Council, Idaho, home of some annual porcupine races (who picks them up if they go off course?). As in Baker City, our RV park had long-term tenants–seasonal Forest Service workers and others. It became clear that such living arrangements were part of the norm here in the West.

We had seen rain clouds on the horizon during the afternoon, and near sunset it became apparent we were to be rained on. However, before we retreated into our tents, we were treated to dramatic clouds, sun-dappled rain, and an Idaho rainbow.

Natural drama

Injecting color into the hills

June 13
We awoke to another welcoming morning. It was finally beginning to feel like summer.

Along with showing the route to take, my TransAmerica maps also show an elevation profile. Think of the route view as a bird’s eye view and the elevation profile as an ant’s view. This profile shows the ups and downs you take along the route. Our elevation profile for this morning looked like a sharp pencil point. Just as your finger hurts when you touch the pencil tip, this “up” on the map was painful to our legs.

They should place these signs at the bottom of hills as well.

The climb was a series of long switchbacks. Normally, I can make most climbs with one low gear to spare. This time I had to switch into my lowest gear early in the climb. Needing two breaks to rest my legs from the effort, I reached the top and learned why it was a struggle. The road was built with a 7% grade.

The reward for this work was a fun downhill. No wind and little traffic to contend with helped me physically and mentally recover from the climb. We spun into the town of Halfway (halfway to what, we never found out), then set off for Hell’s Canyon. Even in this area, which is normally pretty dry, recent heavy rains caused damaging floods. Bridges were knocked out, and we could see the remains of trees and other brush that was washed down canyon walls to the roadbed.

We stopped for lunch at a creek and crossed paths with a westbound rider. He was cycling 100 miles a day and was very excited to be near the end of his trip, much like the Oregon Trail pioneers. Mark and I wondered if he had enjoyed the journey or was only focused on getting to his goal.

A dry looking plant in a dry environment

Hell's Canyon dam. Above the waterline, this dam was about 3-4 stories tall.

The day grew warm, bordering on hot, as we pumped over a steep hill and into Hell’s Canyon. The Canyon was cut by the Snake River, dammed here in several places to make a deep, placid reservoir for boaters. It is claimed that it is the deepest gorge in the U.S. An old historical photo we saw gave evidence to that–much steeper canyon walls than we saw.

About 3:30 that afternoon we hit a milestone–we had cycled the width of Oregon and were now entering Idaho.

After a few more miles we made camp at a riverside park. Our campsite overlooked the river and canyon. We had arrived early enough to first enjoy the shade, watch the birds and see the sun set on the hills. Interestingly, as the sun set and the air cooled, a cool wind arose. Most times it gets calmer at sunset.

From this riverside campsite we watched the hills slowly dissolve into darkness.

June 12
Given our less than desirable accommodations, we decided to skip our rest day and move on. Just out of Baker City we made a stop at the Oregon Trail Interpretive Center. It is sited here because it contains a well-preserved portion of the original trail.

But first we again had to content with the elements. The center was on top of a 370 foot hill and the access road faced into the same headwind we contended with yesterday. We began pedaling up the hill, got exhausted, and continued by pushing our bikes up the majority of the incline.

One of the first views of the “Oregon Territory” that an Oregon Trail traveler might have had. The original ruts are in the lower left of the photo.

This site marked the 1600 mile point on the 2000 mile Oregon Trail journey. Here, the travelers caught their first site of Oregon and one of the lush valleys they had dreamed about.

Thirteen miles of the Oregon Trail ruts are visible in this area. Ezra Meeker, who first made the journey in 1853, retraced his route 50 years later, erecting monuments to commemorate and preserve the history of the Oregon Trail.

One in ten people who started the journey died along the way. Despite that, it is estimated that over 200,000 people took the trail over the course of 20+ years in the mid to late 1800s. Our fifteen minutes of hardship pushing our bikes uphill made me more deeply appreciate what these travelers overcame day after day for months.

The wind launched us swiftly down the hill from the Center into dry, sagebrush land. At one bend in the road, crosswinds hit me again as I sped downhill. I had to almost come to a stop to prevent myself from being blown over.

Heading east from Baker City we gained an appreciation of what Oregon Trail travelers endured.

After that drama, we traveled as if we had sails. The wind was at our backs as we descended through the narrow and curvy Powder River canyon.

While we were stopped by the roadside for a snack break, three cyclists pulled up next to us. They were the self-named 3-2-1 crew–three generations of a family traveling on two bikes with one goal: to travel across the country. The riders ranged from a 60+ year old grandfather to his 9 year-old grandson. They had an RV as a support vehicle, so were covering more distance per day than we were.

The green hills of this Powder River valley were a welcome change from the bleak terrain we crossed earlier in the day.

After one last, long climb and final view of the Powder River, we rolled into the town of Richmond for the night. Motorcyclists kidded us about our choice of cycle, and invited us to go to the local bar with them. We were content with an early evening, warm temperatures, and great scenery at our campsite.

June 11

Morning in Prairie City was a mix of sun and clouds. It was not raining, but given our past few days’ experience, we were expecting it to come at any moment. This campground had a pavilion, so we pulled all of our tents and gear underneath to keep it dry just in case. Surprisingly to us, it never rained.

You know when you've reached the top.

Crossing this one was as easy at the berry cobbler (pie) we had for lunch.

Our plan today was to cross three passes, Dixie, Tipton and Sumpter, to get back on schedule. Yesterday evening, a motorcyclist in camp was commenting that Dixie Pass was to be challenging. It was the highest of the three.

To our delight, the climb was even and gradual, with only a slightly steeper grade near the summit. Despite it being cloudy with a cool wind, I got very heated up during the climb. By the time Mark met me at the top, all the body heat I had generated climbing disappeared and I was beginning to get cold.

In preparation for the long descent, I put on three layers of clothing on my trunk, and donned gloves.  That wasn’t enough. It was one of the chilliest descents I have experienced. Once again though, at the bottom of the climb, there was a cafe. It was time to be indoors having a hot lunch.

It had briefly rained while we were inside, but as we left to climb the second pass, the sun came out. Upon reaching Tipton Pass, I realized something had changed after coming down from Dixie. Along with it being warmer and sunny, the air was also now drier–I didn’t sweat like I had going up the first pass.

Mark is quicker on descents. I’m faster on climbs. I want to connect back up with Mark before zooming down the other side of a mountain, so I usually have some time to poke around at the top of a pass.

Pine tree bark. The world is also interesting and beautiful up close.

On these three passes, even though we were high up, there really wasn’t much of a view down. We were still below the tree line, an elevation beyond which only few plants grow. Looking at the forest here, I was impressed by the big, rough texture of the ponderosa pine tree bark. Contrasting that were the tiny strawberry plants poking out of the ground.

Finally, in coming down from Sumpter Pass, we got an impressive view of the Elkhorn Ridge–a string of snowcapped mountains topped by an 8900 foot peak. They seemed to create their own little weather system. They had a cap of clouds on them, whereas the whole rest of the sky was blue and cloudless.

Curiously, no sign marked Sumpter Pass. Instead, we were treated to this view on the way down.

Feeling good after crossing these three passes, we decided to ride all the way to Baker City, which was another 20 miles away. We were generally going downhill now, following the Powder River into a broad valley. However, as we swung north for the final 10 mile leg into town, we met a fierce headwind/crosswind. Some of the gusts pushed me sideways a bit.

About 8 p.m. we finally made it into town. All during the day we had been passed by scores of motorcyclists. We now discovered they had come to converge in Baker City for a weekend motorcycle rally–“Like a mini-Sturgis, without all the craziness,” the campsite owner told us.

Being tired, we had headed for the closest camping option on the map. It ended up being a “Quoth the raven…” place, as my father-in-law labels places he never wants to return to. The campsites were behind a motel on gravelly sites. Mark convinced the owner to let us pitch our tents on some grass behind the building. While being more suitable for tents, it also sheltered us from the fierce wind.

Our Baker City campsite. There are times you just have to lay your head down when you can.

We had a late dinner and shower and by the time it neared midnight, the wind was finally subsiding. I was returning from my shower, ready to head to bed, when I was hailed by a guy sitting on the steps of a camping trailer. He was a part-time cook at two different restaurants in two different towns. He had just finished his work shift and was interested in talking. He asked questions about our bikes and told me about how tastes differed between the two towns/restaurants. One set of townspeople liked chicken, the other set would only eat beef. He made tamales on the side and was willing to sell them to us for breakfast. Thinking later about how his home was in a small trailer in this scruffy backlot, I felt sad for him.

Just holding the line

June 16, 2010

June 10

Today's rain made us keep our heads down and focused forward.

Today was a gray and rainy day. We were treated to wave after wave of rain showers, all topped with a cold tailwind. Luckily, the riding itself wasn’t very demanding. We were still following the John Day River, so the terrain was relatively flat.

Usually we plan to eat lunch in some town along the road. Most have a city park with a picnic area that makes the stop pleasant. The town of John Day offered that to us, but the cold wind and rain waves made us opt to sit on the sidewalk in front of the town swimming pool so that we were sheltered from the wind.

We had the first significant mountain passes ahead of us. There were 3 climbs to 5000+ foot passes in the span of about 30 miles. Our plan was to cross one today, and leave the last two for tomorrow. We arrived in Prairie City at the base of the first climb in the late afternoon. After debating the pros and cons of staying or climbing, we decided to tackle all three tomorrow, hoping for better weather conditions.

That evening we were joined at the campground by David, a 20-something guy riding from Seattle to Denver to get married. He was traveling with much less gear than we were: having no rain gear, one pair of shoes and his tent in a basket on the front of his bike. That approach seemed to have some advantages. He was covering twice the distance per day that we were–but he was also 25 years younger.