Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Quilomene Agony

[So just a note starting out here . . . whereas I took well over 100 photos on Day 1, I took a mere 8 on Day 2.  And those 8 were a serious chore, given what was going on.  And those 8 were all taken with my iPhone.  Sadly for you, this post will be less about looking, and more about listening.  To me talk.  My condolences, then.]

I woke up at around 2:00 am on Sunday morning due to the imperative to, umm, whiz.  As I was coming back towards that tent, I thought I felt a couple of small raindrops, but that would have been impossible - there was no rain in the forecast for Sunday.

I woke back up at around 3:00 am, due to the sound of raindrops hitting my tent.  Okay then, hard to deny it was raining.  Must be due to some weird, angry cloud rolling through.  No way this could last, given the forecast.

Four hours of fitful sleep later, it was still raining, and in fact the intensity had picked up.  Whiskey Tango Foxtrot.

Breakfast, if you could even call it that, was a highly abbreviated affair.  Over the next two hours, we'd be filtering water, attending to the long list of camp breakdown details, and packing our increasingly waterlogged gear onto our bikes, while wearing our increasingly waterlogged clothes.  In these types of conditions, and with pretty much no opportunity for shelter from the rain in our natural surroundings, we were just going to keep getting wetter and wetter.

But time duly spent, at least I was starting to get fairly packed.  The yellow bit is the raincover that came with my camera bag.  Little did I know, it's not waterproof.  It's just nylon, with no coating.  Holy hell.  I was able to keep the cameras alive, but they did get pretty damp.

Finally, at around 9:00, were were ready to roll out.  If you are doing the math at home, it had been raining for 6 hours by this time.

The climb out gains 3000 feet of elevation in 11 miles.  It's a royal bitch on a good day, and this was not a good day.

It got dramatically worse, less than 2 miles into the climb:  I looked up ahead, and Ward and Randy were off their bikes, pushing.  I was like, "what the hell?"

It would only take me a minute or two to figure out what was up.

We'd arrived upon a muddy freaking mess.  It was sticky, gooey, clingy shit, and in the pic below, my drivetrain had become completely clogged, to the point where I could not pedal the bike forward.  Period.  The only lame prescription was to stop and grab a rock off of the trail and use it as a tool to try and scrape the mud off our tires and dig out the mud from our der's with out cold fingers, and somehow keep pushing on.

I don't have any pics between this early slap in the face and the approach to the summit.  It was incredibly ugly and it was all we could do to just get through.  I don't want to be overly dramatic, but it was super soul-searching, dig-deep territory.

Staying out of the energy-sucking and unrideable mud was our major objective, and we figured out pretty quickly that the the rocks, rough as they were, were our friends.  In fact, the flow of rainwater, the stream, that was flowing down the doubletrack road we were riding was our ticket out, because it not only exposed the rocks, but helped wash the mud off of our tires and provided a constant cleansing splash onto our drivetrains.  That said, it was still anything but easy.  Many times we had to abandon the road completely because it was flat out impassable, and make our way through the adjacent scrubland.

Our group of four fragmented pretty badly and Ward and Randy were ahead, with me sort of in the middle, and Scott trailing a bit.  We were not within sight of each other, and there was no way to communicate with each other, or the outside world.  As we rose in elevation, it was getting colder and colder, and we were getting more and more gassed.  Every inch of progress was supremely strenuous. I made the decision to drop back and buddy up with Scott.  Ward and Randy were buddying up ahead.

I won't speak for anyone else, but I was so wet and so cold, that I couldn't stay warm unless I was moving and generating heat. A two or three minute stop was all I could take.  I was shaking from the chill and exertion, and it was impossible to replenish the moisture I was expelling, try as I might.  I also could not eat well, as I was not hungry and had to force food into my system.  I was also out of any kind of food that was anything but garbage.  My bad for not bringing a greater supply of edible, sustaining stuff.  My bad for not respecting the Q like I should have.

It was half push and half ride and none of it was energetic.  It was all about moving forward at whatever pace.  Just keep moving forward, though.

I really can't remember the last time I've felt this vulnerable and truly scared.  There was absolutely no place or way to bail; it pretty much came down to the decision to somehow keep moving forward or figure out a way to pitch tent or emergency bivvy and hunker down and somehow manage a way to stay warm amidst a plethora of already-soaked-and-getting-wetter-gear.  There was also an option of stashing our bikes and walking out.  We chose to keep moving forward.

A couple of thoughts that really piled onto my sense of fear and gravity of the situation were 1) what if the wind was blowing even reasonably, which is the norm for this area (and the reason they put up wind turbines here), and 2) what if we'd had a mechanical, even something as relatively simple as a flat.  I don't even want to think about either of these scenarios, even now.

6-1/2 hours, 11 miles, and 3000 vertical feet after we had started, we finally emerged from that effing hole in the earth.  It was the first time I even gave on shit about taking a pic.

There was still a hundred or two feet of climbing to be done, but we knew at this point that we were gonna make it.

A pretty damned good photo of Scott, near the top, having endured one mother of an experience . . .

Randy and Ward were waiting for us at the true summit, and had laid out some food, which we tore into.  There was cell service up here, and Ward first called his wife, and then our friends Steve and Meg in Ellensburg.  The message was that if they don't hear from us in 3-4 hours, they need to start heading our way.  Reason being, we were not "out of the woods" yet.

Remember the Day 1 pic of the road in that I told you to hold in your thoughts?  Well, it had started raining at 3am and hadn't tapered off until around 2pm, so 11 hours of pretty steady rain.  We were justifiably (as it turns out) worried about whether we would be able to drive out, even if we did make it back to our trucks.

In the end it all worked out, after due drama.  The road was a ribbon of mud and it was a white-knuckle ride all the way, with some sections where all you could do was jack the gas pedal and hope you made it through, which is why I don't have any pics, normal camera whore that I am.


Once again, I don't want to be a drama queen here, but the experience was really dramatic and I will certainly be judged as a big baby, but I can live with that.

It took me a few days to even get halfway "right", both physically and mentally.

Us guys that were out there haven't had a chance to sit down over a beer and honestly talk about what this was, and probably never will, which is sad.  That would be a cool hang.

What has come out is a few, sparse comments, that have served to shape my view of each guys' experience:

For Randy, it was a cool experience that was well within his boundaries of back-country fun.  The discomfort, for him, appears to have enhanced the experience.

For Ward, it was pretty uncomfortable.  He has a solid family structure and thoroughly enjoys his kids and grandkids and this should have been fun, not a life and death experience that potentially threatened what's important to him.

For Scott, I don't even know, because even though we rode all the way home together he is really quiet and reserved, but it had to have sucked.  His first experience in the Q, and it was a pretty big disaster.  Even though I've tried to interject the appropriate disclaimers, I can't help but feel a little responsibility for inadvertently glamorizing the place to the point where he was attracted to throwing down.  Sorry, Scott, if I gave you a bum steer.


As for me, it was a huge deal.  I have no desire to go back to that hell-hole anytime in the near future.  At this moment, I love the place, and I hate the place.  I like to think that I want to go back at some point, maybe.  But I have backed my ass way out of the 4-day trip that was in the works for a few weeks from now.  That is not happening.  I need to process all of this and do some way better planning, before I go back in.  Maybe next year.

In closing, there is this one thing about this whole experience that has emerged for me as what's most important, and that one thing is this one decision point that occurred during what was arguably the darkest moment of the whole ordeal:  In the face of some pretty dire circumstances, I had the choice of making a decision that exposed my good character or bad.  At that instance, it's not deliberate - it's who you are.

And as messed up as this whole weekend got, I am at total peace in terms of what the experience revealed to me about my character.

With all that has transpired, I feel really good in my skin, and that's a good place to be.

Yep, this is still a bike blog.  More than ever.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Quilomene Ecstasy

We'd had such a wonderful recon/beer drop day ride just two weeks ago (as in, are you kidding me . . . February?!?), and this Spring is so mild and awesome, that we decided to bump it up a notch, and do an overnighter in the Q on this fine past weekend. Yeah, it's March and all, but it's been so mellow of a Winter/Spring.  We'd been watching the weather forecast all week via multiple online channels and it was total thumbs up, across the board.  What could possibly go wrong, then.

The ridge on the western side of the Columbia River Gorge is roughly 3000 ft above the river.  In all my (limited) previous experience riding in this area, I'd never really come close to ascending to the actually ridge line.  I'd pretty much lived on the eastern flanks, and maybe climbed 2000 ft above river level, if even that.

The plan for this trip was actually to drive up the old Vantage Highway, and tuck in behind the ridge, and climb 1200 ft up to the top, and then drop 3000 ft down to the river.  What could possibly go wrong, then.

In order to execute the master plan, we'd have to drive a few miles in on Parke Creek Rd.  A road in name only.  (Hold this thought.)

We found our launch pad and set about putting our rigs together . . .

Ward's seasoned, fabled Fatback.  And notice the righteous trash bag pannier liners (hold that thought) . . .

Randy was supposed to have his new Ventana El Gordo fatbike under butt by this time, but the snafu gods were fickle and cranky in the week leading up to the trip, and so he would be making the trip on his trusty, proven, slightly skinnier steed, instead . . .

Scott was rocking his Necromancer Pugs . . .

I'd be shaking down my new Blackborow, with lots of attached gear, to kinda/sorta simulate what I thought might be my setup on the upcoming 4-day trip we were planning for the Q in early April . . .

This is the new cockpit, with ready access to the photo bag up top, and the Revelate Gas Tank bag down bottom, which holds all manner of snacks and frequently-used devices of whatever kind.  Off to the right is a Bedrock bag that I really like that is fairly water resistant and which I used to pack a zoom lense and a pair of reading glasses, which sadly, I cannot get along without, these days.  Left of stem is a Garmin Oregon GPS, with a mundane wireless bike computer mounted directly atop the stem.  The crazy looking thing just to the right of the GPS is a Joby camera tripod, for timer shots, which was used exactly once, but for a very important shot.

After hitting the road and climbing and climbing, we were ready to climb some more.  There were three route options, and all of them had pain written all over them . . .

We eventually cleaned the 1200 ft climb and rolled over the top . . .

The first part of the ascent is kind of this gradual, rolling meander along the top of the ridge.  Scenic as hell, with the wind turbines in the background, might I add.  The noise they make in communion is really mysterious and intriguing, and something I've not quite figured out yet.  All the noises in the Q are interesting, actually.

We'd soon run across a herd of elk.  Like, pretty much right in front of us.  Close enough that we split the herd up.  Off to the left and out of sight was a cautious sub-group that didn't want anything to do with getting near enough to us freaks to cross the road . . .

While were were still high up on the ridge, it just flat out made sense to stop and have a beer, and toast our bad selves for throwing down, as far as cobbling our shit together and making the time and energy commitment to drive out here into damn nowhere and ride our bikes into this lovely, God-forsaken country, and prepare to descend into the bowels of the earth, from which there was no way out but to climb back up.  In  the middle of March.  So a toast to insanity, then.  What could possibly go wrong, then.

From here, the descent began, in earnest . . .

Scott, "roughing" it . . .

While it was mostly downhill, there was a bit of uphill mixed in, for good measure . . .

What kind of self-respecting bike blogger would neglect to include a glam shot?  Not this kind, for sure . . .

Contemplation, Scott style . . .

Down we went.  (While it was supremely pleasant descending for miles, it was not lost on me that we would eventually have to scratch and claw our way back out.)

There was so much to look at on the way down . . .

Early Spring in the Q . . .

Randy flat hates it out here, but he hides his emotions well . . .

We detoured off the main (Army) road, and headed down a less traveled path deep into the Quilomene Canyon, with the intention of following the Q creek down to the Q bay . . .

Indeed, we arrived at the bottom . . .

And crossed the creek a few times . . .

Going downhill had never been so much work.  And while we weren't exactly beat to hell, we'd put in a fair bit of labor.  We were finally there, and it felt good to kick back for a minute.

We set up camp in the same old homestead orchard that we'd camped in two years ago, just before the big fire.  Ward, Randy, and others were out here last year, but this was my first time back.  Holy hell.

Here's a shot I took of the same orchard in 2013.  What a different place . . .

Despite all the black death surrounding us, there were two hearty trees down there that somehow survived the inferno and are blossoming this Spring.  A testament to the will of living things to continue to live.  Here's a pic of one.  WORD, brother tree!

Quilomene Bay is home to . . . and I shit you not . . . a SAND DUNE.  The one and only other time I was down here I was on the verge of heat stroke and couldn't eat and was just trying to hang on and had no desire whatsoever to meander down from our campsite and check out the dune.  So I didn't, and have regretted the missed opportunity ever since.

So I was not about to pass it up this time . . .

The crazy deal is, there's this rad freaking seriously legitimate sand dune at the bottom of the Q.  Holy living hell.

We climbed up it and sat down at the highest point and drank a coupla beers that we'd brought with us and high-fived ourselves again for being so awesome.  Who can get too much of that?

While we were there,  the sun was going down and it was hazy overcast and the light was getting all kinds of awesome, and so we all took some pics . . .

We were sitting directly across from the Gorge Amphiteater, on yes, THAT infamous sand bar that is legendary for the massive congregation of boats and the associated partying and drunkeness and debauchery and nakedness and all forms of wildness that may or may not exist here on concert night.  When the other fellas weren't looking, I snuck a quick kiss of the ground.

Due to the drawdown of this reservoir as the result of the repairs they are doing at Wanapum Dam, there are shoreline restrictions that we, umm, may have, uhhh, possibly, slightly violated on our way out to the dune.  I can't be sure.

But anyhoo, while we are sitting there, atop the dune, mildy partying, in plain sight, a Sheriff's boat approaches (no other watercraft is allowed on the reservoir right now, so we're pretty sure it's the Sheriff).

We were fairly sure we were in for a scolding.

He motored past us and into the bay, where we had stashed our bikes behind the dune, to hide them from the view of such authorities.  And where they were now in his plain sight.

Now we were positive we were in for a scolding.

But to our surprise, he motored back out into the reservoir, and headed upstream.

We will never really know why we weren't hassled, but our suspicion is that we appeared to be pretty harmless and weren't worth messing with.  Maybe the fact that we are kinda old works in our favor in terms of him wanting to avoid an age discrimination lawsuit.  Who really knows.

It had been a glorious day, packed with the type of magicality that fills your soul in a way that is hard to describe.  Tomorrow would maybe be a bit harder, physically, but generally more of the same.

What could possibly go wrong, then?

As we retreated to our tents to retire for the night, supremely content, little did we know that in about 6 hours, we would begin to find out.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

The Beast That Is The Q

This weekend, I met up with buddies Ward, Randy and Scott, for what was supposed to be sort of a "routine" sojourn in the Quilomene.  As if there was such a thing.

It was designed to be a single overnighter, with the primary intention of shaking down the upcoming season's bikepacking gear and rig setups, but with the only slightly less important secondary intention of stashing a few beers for a planned, upcoming, multi-day trip into the Q.

As I sit here tonight, I am so incredibly happy to be out of that place, and in my wonderful permanent shelter, back in Spokane.  Holy living hell.  We experienced the ecstasy of the Q on Saturday, and the agony of it today, and neither of those words are even a slight exaggeration.

It will take me a few days to sort out pics and thoughts and put together the story, which I am very much looking forward to trying to tell, in a way that does the trip justice.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Crossing Washington On The JWPT - Cow Creek Revisit

I had an amazing bike/social experience yesterday, and I'm positive that I don't have the literary skills to adequately describe it, so I will just have to do my best, and you will just have to live with it.

The genesis of this adventure (and yes, it is without question the March BikeEVENTure), was the disastrous Day 2 of my tour across the our great state on the John Wayne Pioneer Trail almost three years ago now.  I've needed to get back out to the Cow Creek area ever since, to finish unfinished business.  All the official maps mark this area as "closed", and optimist that I am, I've always assumed there was a way to forge through this area, although that particular, desperate Day 2 of my tour was clearly not the right time to experiment.

My partner in crime this day was Chip, and our goal was to explore the Cow Creek section of the JWPT, and figure out if there was any possibility of riding through this section, as opposed to the stupid-long detour options.  It seemed like a reasonable enough question.  Holy hell, were we in for an education.

We parked at Ralston, and headed out from there.  We'd ride about 6 miles to get to Cow Creek.  Just a couple of miles in, I had a goathead-induced flat.  Multiple punctures.  Ugg.  If goatheads were going to play any kind of a role in this day, it would be a short one, because neither of us were prepared with sealant, which is really the only way to deal with these bastards.

After a lengthy delay, we were rolling again.  This would be the last flat of the day.  Yay.  Fat flats are the worst.

 The visual rail history along the JWPT is just awesome and cannot be ignored.

Photo: Chip
 And then, there are the cows.  They don't call it Cow Creek for nothin'.

I am filthy sick these days, over my desire and willingness to get on the road with my truck and burn a bunch of time and fossil fuel in order to seek out quality riding experiences.  It's pretty inexcusable, but this maybe kind of explains the fix that I am a slave to:

Me, in all my bad-assedness.  Photo: Chip
 All the fun ends (or begins, depending upon your point of view) abruptly at Cow Creek.

Photo: Chip

The summary explanation:

There was obviously one mother of a trestle that spanned Cow Creek.  Since it's long gone, the question before us was how to traverse the valley without it.  It certainly wasn't straight over the edge.

But if we could find a way down to the main road paralleling the creek, there was that lovely bridge that would take us across and reconnect us with the JWPT.

After quite a while searching the cliff for ways down, we finally came across this ledge that enable a sketchy huck-a-bike passage.  Were we technically trespassing on private land?  Yes, but we were just kind of flying under that radar and sticking as close as possible to the public access corridor, and were we really doing any harm?  (Hold that thought.)

We did not set out on this day with the intent to trespass; on the contrary, it was our objective to explore the area via public access means.  At the bottom of the cliff, we set out on what I assumed to be a county road route, with the intention of arriving at Marengo, a town in name only, and then looping back on the JWPT and bushwhacking/hike-a-biking our way across the Cow Creek valley, and returning to Ralston on the same section of the JWPT that we had ridden out on.

My camera skills were woefully inadequate in terms of capturing this next man/animal exchange, but it has long been my experience and contention that horses dig bikes and we were approaching a couple of fiesty dudes who were obviously looking to add some excitement to their day.  Whereas cows are nervous and care only about keeping a safe distance, these fellas were looking to mix it up.  Great spirit, these guys.

Like I said, I failed bigtime at capturing the brief encounter on camera, but there were two of them and they want to play, and when you have an animal that big that is closely following you down the road in a gallop, you are nerrrr . . . vousss.  I told him to "stop", which he did, and which probably hurt his feelings.  Dumbass guy on a bike who hates fun.

All up on the day, we saw 4-5 horses, 1 coyote, 1 rabbit, and 1,378 cows.

Lots of calves, this time of year.

 Of all the cows we met on this day though, these four were out standing in their field:

 I'm not sure if I mentioned it yet, but the Blackborow is really growing on me.

Eventually we crossed the live rail line and this view was kind of a horrific reminder of the pain that we experienced on our hot and windy detour those three years ago:

Turning the other direction, though, as luck of timing would have it, a train was coming through, and that is always cause for joy and happiness and the erasure of bad memories, and of course, photo ops.

Marengo, our reconnection point with the JWPT, and brief lunch stop.  I am not sure if I have mentioned yet how much I like this bike, but I really like this bike.  Notice the glorious rays, for instance.

The scenery between Marengo and Cow Creek was typical JWPT awesome.

Here's the view of Cow Creek from the Marengo side.  That's the road that parallels Cow Creek on the other side.  (Hold that thought.)

The plunge over the edge is just as dramatic and impassable as on the other side.

The option to pass resided in the private land directly adjacent to the trail.  Would we be technically trespassing on private land?  Yes, but we would hopefully be flying under that radar and sticking as close as possible to the public access corridor, and were we really doing any harm?  (Hold that thought.)

The trip down was a bit rigorous, but workable.

I don't have any photos of what happened next, but as we were picking our way down the steep embankment, we saw an ORV cruising down the road on the other side of the creek and then watched it stop.  I don't know the subtleties of these machines, but it was generally of this type:

It sat there and we knew it was watching us.  This is really desolate country, and there is no reason it would have stopped, except to watch us.  And of course, the knots were developing in our stomachs.

It watched and watched, as we slow-poked our way over the rocks and down into the valley bottom.  And as we approached, it started moving towards us.  I stopped, just as we were entering the valley floor, and Chip followed my lead.  A respectful gesture to the approaching vehicle.  We were in between those rows of column footings, and therefore on public land at at that point, I believe.

The gentleman that was driving and his (I assume) wife were in the vehicle, along with their dog.  He had his rifle prominently displayed.  We exchanged greetings, and he identified himself as the owner of the land adjacent to the trail, after which the conversation shifted to what we were doing there and the fact that they'd watched us trespass our way down the embankment on the Marengo side, and questioned us about how were going to proceed from here, which basically exposed our intention to trespass our way up the bank on the other side, en route back to Ralston.

We didn't ask him his name and he didn't ask ours, but he made it clear that he was in total control of the situation and the outcome.  How could it be otherwise?  We were a couple of city slickers out on a Saturday, looking for some adventure, and trampling all over his personal property.  Was he being kind of anal about it?  Yes, by his own admission.  But that's his right.  While somewhat tense, at no time did the conversation become outright confrontational or adversarial, but there was absolutely zero doubt about who was in control.

Chip politely asked for permission to "trespass our way out".  There was no immediate answer.

The Owner asked if we had a permit to use the trail.  Shit.  No.  Busted again.  I know that a permit is required to use the trail, but this excursion was spur of the moment, and I'd decided to wing it.  Shit.

I did tell him that I'd ridden across the state on the JWPT and that I'd endured a pretty horrific detour around Cow Creek and had always wanted to get back out here and check it out, and thus this day ride.  That seemed to be pretty effective in terms of communicating what Chip and I were about, and not, and what we were doing out here, and what we weren't doing out here.  I totally LOVE the JWPT and I think/hope that maybe a little of this came across in the exchange, because he told us the story of how the trestle was removed, which was fascinating, and also talked to us at length about rattlesnakes, which was equally as fascinating.

In the end, he allowed us to pass back across his property, and then headed out on his ORV.  I cannot be anything other than grateful to him for taking the time to figure out who we were and what we were up to, and passing reasonable judgement.  At the same time, he made it clear that we were out of line.  Which we fully acknowledge.

Prior to this trip, I'd envisioned Cow Creek as some sort of swampy wasteland.  I naively assumed that this is why that section of the trail is closed.  Cow Creek is actually the opposite:  A lovely parcel that is owned by a passionate guy . . .

We, in the city, I think, tend to view the JWPT as a public right of way, a thorofare through who-knows-what, and who cares.  Those folks that own property across which the trail passes view it with a much different perspective, and I am really humbled to have been provided with some quite impactful insight.

Yep, that's the same rancher's track hoe, broken down in the middle of the trail.
So what's the overall takeaway?

Well first, the complexity of the relationship between the state and private landowners.  Holy hell, the folks that live in these remote areas are strong-willed.  But: They do work that not many of us would want to do, in terms of managing food resources.  Every day, In whatever harsh conditions reside.  Winter, summer.  Day, night.

As far as would I ever want to back to Cow Creek, the answer is not only no, but hell no.  It was cool to see, but that was an extremely uncomfortable encounter that has been this dark cloud in both my waking and sleeping moments ever since, and I get that it was my fault for instigating it, but OTOH, our actions and intentions were not all that horrible, and I would never willingly put myself into that same situation of being that vulnerable/powerless to that kind of control/power again.

But not that I wouldn't take the same kind of risk in the same kind of different situation, where I felt like I was trying to be respectful of the public-private boundary.  I just don't think my position is all that unreasonable, but of course, I may be way out of touch.

As far as how I would advise myself or anyone else who wants to through-travel this area as part of a JWPT tour, I can't in any good conscience advise you to do anything other than skirt the area on the state-advised northerly detour.  The southern detour routes are maybe a viable option, dependent upon your adversity to the same type of risk described herein.  I wouldn't recommend passing directly through Cow Creek, under any circumstances.