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.


Anonymous said...

Great write up and pics!

Shawn said...

Great story Pat! I can't wait to research this trip more! -Shawn

tomas said...

Why did they remove the bridge over Cow Creek, but left so many others (even the one over I-90, for instance)?

jno62 said...

Agreed on the wrap up. do you mention the southern detour in your main write up?

I'm getting psyched to try this trip.

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