Saturday, March 19, 2011

Working The Plan

Next year (2012), I turn 50. For the last two or three months, I've been kicking around ideas for a bikey "event" to mark the milestone. I want it to be something fairly epic and hopefully very special - something that will be a worthy celebration of the first half century of my life and create the kind of memories that I will want to dwell in when I am eventually senile. And because of that, I'm starting the planning now. What I have in mind is not something I can just throw together a coupla months in advance.

The planning phase I'm in right now I guess would still technically be considered brainstorming, in which I'm allowing myself all kinds of freedom to consider vastly different versions of this "event".  But I've become captivated enough by one particular idea that I've gone down the path far enough to start intersecting with the crossroads of reality.  And that idea is a week-long, fat bike, cross-state tour on the John Wayne Pioneer Trail, which is the railbed of the former Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific Railroad.

I've been aware of this trail for a while now, and while I'd heard bits and pieces about different sections, I didn't know very much about it in terms of it's viability as a cross-state bike tour route.  I'd known that much of it is remote and desolate, and that was part of the appeal.  It would be cool to have a riding partner to experience this trip with, but Patty made it immediately clear that it sure as hell wasn't gonna be her, and it's pretty unlikely, given the type of trip and the time and equipment requirements, that anyone else would emerge.  But I was also okay with the thought of going solo - you know, time alone in the middle of nowhere, to ponder where you've been the past 50 and where you're headed, amidst the man against nature backdrop, all that kinda krap.  I joke, but I'm serious.  A half-century retreat.  So I had created a tough, challenging and yet rather romantic version of it in my head.

Over the past weeks, I've been doing online research as time allows.  I ordered a beat-up copy of the book "Washington's Rail Trails" by Fred Wert, for $2.87 on Amazon.  Little by little, I've been piecing together a little more accurate and real picture. And then I hit the mother lode -  a review on this page at TrailLink.com  from user 'Beloh' who rode pretty much the entire route, from west to east, in October of last year:

We rode this trail (on mountain bikes with BoB trailers) starting in Seattle by by riding the Burke-Gilman Trail to the Sammish River Trail to the Tolt Pipeline Trail to the Snoqualmie Valley Trail which connects to the John Wayne trail/Iron Horse State Park. The 1st day was 70 miles to the Alice Creek backcountry campground. The 2nd day went as far as Cle Elum, and the 3rd day went to Wanupum State Park on the Columbia. The old rail road trestle across the Columbia is gated off so we then crossed on the I-90 bridge at Vantage WA (VERY DANGEROUS) and picked up the trail at Beverly, WA ending day 4 in Othello, WA. Day 5 was from Othello to Ritzville and Day 6 was Ritzville to Lamont, WA.

I would have given this trail a higher rating but, because of tunnel closures, there are some long detours required. The 1st is a steep, miserable climb up to Snoqualmie Pass on I-90: there is a wide shoulder but it is busy and noisy and climbs 700' in about 2 miles. You can rejoin the trail at Hyak for a few miles but you get sent back to I-90 near Cabin Creek and ride it all the way to Lake Easton State Park. The trail, when you can get on it is good, mostly gravel. Also, after you leave the Snoqualmie Pass area there are no places to camp except at Wanupum State Park and an ORV park near Beverly, even hotels get scarce. This makes for some long days.

The trail officially begins at Rattle Snake Lake near North Bend, WA. It is in good condition, gravel and dirt, and climbs steadily all the way to Snoqualmie Pass. There are 2 nice state park campsites at Alice Creek and Carter Creek ($5/night, vault toilets, no water but streams are nearby.) Unfortunately, the tunnel at Snoqualmie Pass is closed so riding I-90 is the only way over. There are a couple more campsites along Kecheelus Lake, east of the Pass

After Cle Elum, more signs try to direct you to another long road ride (but not on I-90 this time) but the tunnels are open so don't take the detour. This section is along the Yakima river and is probably the prettiest section of the ride, well worth a day trip.

The next detour is after Ellensburg at Kittitas around a derelict trestle. This is about 3 miles with some climbing but the roads are lightly traveled. This ends at the Yakima Army Base where you self register to ride across. (Just the idea of riding through a military firing range is too cool.) The trail on the west side of the Boylston Tunnel is very soft with lots of horse traffic so the riding is slow. The tunnel itself is open although the army has recently put in some concrete barriers to keep vehicles out of it. East of the tunnel you begin a fantastic 15 mile descent to the Columbia River. The trail is still soft but not as bad as on the west side because of fewer horses.

Camping at Wanupum State Park was decent but expensive ($28 - no hiker/biker sites.) The next morning we crossed the I-90 bridge at Vantage, probably the most dangerous part of the ride. The bridge is 2 lanes each direction and absolutely no shoulder. Traffic was light and the cars/trucks gave us plenty of room but it is uphill for 1/2 mile; a bad place to get a flat. Unfortunately there is no other way across. After this it is an easy ride to Beverly to rejoin the trail.

The rest of this trail requires you to get permits in advance. Depending on which section you plan to ride you get them from either WA State DNR or WA State Parks. They will also send you info on closed sections and detour routes. Be sure to ask for gate lock combinations.

Next you get about 14 miles on beautiful trail, including unexpected crossings of Lower Crab Creek. Right before you go back on the road you ride through the tiny town (no services) of Smyrna. This section is filled with goat-head thorns. If you don't know about these thorns do some research and plan accordingly; Slime tubes don't even slow them down. Also watch out for electric fences (but that's another story.) Once you've fixed you're flat tires it is an easy, but long road ride into Othello.

After Othello there is another 10 miles on road to Warden, WA where you pick up the trail again. The trail starts getting rougher here, with larger ballast so the going is slow. The is no water along this section so fill up at Warden. It is a long ride to Lind WA where another trestle is out. We left the trail and rode US 395 to Ritzville because it was getting dark. The trail continues after Lind for another 15 miles and then you detour to Ritzville (10 miles) to avoid a missing bridge over Cow Creek.

Leaving Ritzville you ride the roads for about 10 miles to get back on the trail. Even rougher conditions now, big tires and low pressure are the only way to get by. We rode as far as the Columbia Plateau Trail and headed north to our pickup point in Lamont, WA.
The parts of the trail in Eastern WA are fairly isolated so be prepared to get yourself out of any trouble you get into. We encountered no other trail users after Ellensburg and cell phone coverage is spotty. Water is scarce, bring a filter and/or treatment tablets; you'll be drinking from streams in cow country. Even in late September then sun was hot and there was minimal shade. Rattle snakes are around and those goat-head thorns will ruin your day.

I was initially crushed.  All the closed tunnels, all the missing trestles.  I-90 detours.  Blech.  Reconciling your dreams with reality can be a total bitch.

And so I pretty much wrote it off, but not totally, and as the days have progressed, I've re-aligned my expectations a bit.  Which I suppose might be the key to enjoying this trip.  Maybe all the detours are just part of the bigger challenge.  Maybe I just really wanna do it, no matter what, and I'm just going through the head games necessary to do get there.  Not sure.  Pictures like these constantly haunt me, though.

What I do know is that I'm still motivated to spend time doing research, and that I'm really enjoying it.  This is an old WA road map that's been sacrified to the cause.  The blue line is the route from the ID-WA state line near Tekoa to the intersection of the Columbia River at Beverly . . .


This Gazette has been a tremendous resource as it shows the actual route as a dotted line, and in a very detailed scale.  Which I have subsequently traced with the blue highliter to make it look like a river.  If I go, no matter what high-tech navigational aids I have along, these pages are getting ripped out and coming along . . .


Time will tell. If I do move forward with this plan, I'll need a fat bike this year, in order to allow myself some time to get going on the equipment end of things and pre-ride some of the different sections.  And to figure out things like how to steer clear of rattlesnakes and what to do if I was to actually get bit out in the middle of nowhere, by myself.

Other ideas include:
  • a multi-day tour through the Idaho Panhandle National Forest
  • a trip with my bike to Portland via Amtrak followed by a couple of days banging around in that bike-friendly city, followed by a tour home along an interesting route
  • a multi-mode (bus, train, plane, bike) multi-town/city tour with a folder
These seem a bit pale in comparison to the JWT X-WA idea.  At the moment.

11 comments:

alex wetmore said...

John did that ride as his first multi-day tour.

Larry and I did a cross-state tour in 2002 or so that was really cool. You go over SR20 at first, but then cut south and go through the Colville Indian Rez. I bet there is an even neater possibility that would do a lot of that section on logging roads.

John Speare said...

Here are some pics and a light write-up of the trip Alex refers to. We started at Rattlesnake, and went to Othello, where we bailed off the trail and took roads to Spokane.

You may be able to cross the Columbia at the Wanapum dam if you hit it during weekday-work hours and you give them a head's up. That was an option back in 2003, but we landed there on a weekend and a local dude took us over the I-90 bridge. I'd never ride that bridge under any circumstances myself.

But, I think your "reset expectations" plan is the way to go. This could be a really fun trip.

Though Alex's HW 20/dirt road hybrid would rule too.

Traditional Bike Club Curmudgeon said...

Three of us rode the Rattle Snake Lake to Cle Elum portion through the now closed Snoqualmie Tunnel four or five years ago (just a bit over 50 miles as I recall).

It was a great ride and the was one of my coolest ever cycling experiences.

Good luck with your adventure.

P.S. We were well over 50.

Pat S said...

Thanks, guys, for the info and ideas.

Alex, I'll have to give your SR20/logging road idea some consideration. One advantage is that I wouldn't need (or want) a fat bike; I could do it with an existing bike.

John, good to know about the dam. I will have to check into that possibility as I am not even a little excited about the prospect of crossing the vantage bridge.

Nate said...

I crossed the Vantage last summer. I got there early AM, which may have helped. The grade on the bridge is downhill from East to West, but there is no shoulder. I stopped just before crossing and timed a traffic gap. Taylor has crossed West to East, btw on the Cannonball ride.

Time it right, and Vantage is only the 2nd scariest Columbia crossing. (Astoria's narrow high bridge is uncontested, imho.) Also, East to West the freeway does a sharp corner onto the bridge, and most semis are still engine braking from the long grade. There is a long sight line, dress bright and you will be seen. Ride like hell and don't stop to take pictures.

Per several sources, including another bike tourer who went to see the dam, the dam doesn't allow crossing anymore. He had to go back to cross at Vantage. But, check. I'd ride the Vantage again, but only if I couldn't avoid it. But, there are not many choices there. Bring an inflatable raft?

Bryan B. said...

Hm. I see a Salsa Fargo in your future. Perhaps your birthday present?

Nate said...

Is one week optimistic? I think that would be unpleasantly pushing the eastside portion. Lucas and I did an unloaded day ride which took longer than we thought with the rough surface and the locked gates.

Lots of fun though, its a great idea.

Pat S said...

Nate, that's great info on the crossing. I'll definitely check into the dam, just to rule out the option. I'll let you know what I find out. If I had to do vantage, I'd definitely do it early in the morning.

I'm probably optimistic on the schedule. I suspect there's gonna be some hike-a-bike and some areas of pretty slow going. I would like to think I can average 8 mph, and ride 6 hrs a day. So that's 50 miles/day x 6 days = 300 miles. I would take a week off work, so that would give me 9 days, minus one day to travel back from Seattle. The two extra days would be cushion for getting lost/backtracking, unplanned detours, etc. I think I need to do some loaded day trips to test the 50 mile/day theory.

Bryan, I'm thinking more along the lines of a Salsa Mukluk. A lot of the eastern portion of the trail is railbed ballast - 1-1/4" type stuff.

Bryan B said...

Wow. See, I've never been out as far as that part of the trail. Most of my associates who go out that way are Backcountry Horsemen.

Great excuse to buy a Mukluk, though! (and really, who doesn't want one?)

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