Northwest Passage: Portland to Jackson, Summer 2010

To tour the Northwest is to witness the broad hand of the federal government over two centuries and the standard of living that hand created.

Along my bike route, from the Oregon coast near the mouth of the Columbia to the river’s headwaters in the Grand Tetons, I was constantly informed of that history. Jefferson commissioned Lewis and Clark to explore and claim the Northwest Passage before his Louisiana Purchase. The Perce Nez reservation in Idaho is a legacy of slaughtering and hemming in American Indians. Gold dredging led to the founding of Virginia City and statehood for Montana, and today a copper strip mine lines the horizon at Butte. The dams of the Columbia Basin converted desert to vast tracts of food production and lit homes and businesses for millions. Other great public works – such as the nation’s first scenic road, the Columbia River Highway, and first national park, Yellowstone – have enabled tourists to enjoy nature up close while hardly stepping out of their SUVs.

The idea for my route began as the Pacific link for a series of bike rides across the country, east to Washington. In 2009 I rode over three mountain ranges from Salt Lake City to Boulder. This summer I was to start in Portland, where Laurie has old friends, and perhaps ride to Salt Lake. But my gaze shifted north to Jackson, Wyoming, allowing me to ride through Yellowstone and by the Tetons, which I had last glimpsed from a car window as a child.

Click here for my Flickr site

Part 1. The Mighty Columbia

The Columbia dominated the first days of the ride.

After a visit to cold, windy and overcast Cannon Beach, Oregon, Laurie and our friend Traci dropped me 22 miles east of the ocean on US 26 for a 45-mile shake-out ride back to the west side of Portland. I climbed the last five miles to the summit of the Pacific Coast Range, taking in a view of St. Helens before zooming toward Portland on tailwinds.

After mounting my panniers on the last Sunday in June, I launched – first a climb over the mountain west of the Willamette River, then across Portland and the valley that ends at Troutdale, where the Columbia Gorge, created when the river sliced the volcanic Cascade Range that includes Hood, St. Helens and Rainier, begins to rise. Both sides of the Columbia accommodate cyclists; I chose the Oregon side to sense the score of waterfalls that tumble off the palisade. The Columbia River Highway, running 74 miles from Troutdale to The Dalles, climbs steadily to a vista at Crown Point before plunging into the forest. Down by the river, I stopped at the endlessly photographed Multnomah Falls and climbed the trail (in my SPD mountain shoes) to the top, 620 feet above the pool – it is the second highest year-round waterfall in the country.

The forests and waterfalls of the gorge give way to arid hills and fruit orchards – cherries, apples, grapes – fed by irrigation. The old highway, constructed between 1913 and 1922, has been chopped up. Bike paths follow the original route in some stretches; others run the shoulder of I-84 along the river, and back roads up and down the mountains. The original highway climaxes at Rowena Crest, a dramatic plain 800 feet above the river, beyond which lie the Rowena Loops, an engineering feat that slopes back down. Day 1 ended on the Oregon side of The Dalles Dam.

I began Day 2 by crossing US 197 just below the dam, and then riding nearly a hundred miles in view of the Columbia on a hot, cloudless day, before crossing back into Oregon. The best I can report is that the tailwind was unceasing. The worst is that I encountered a single minimart on that highway – no town to speak of, no gas station, no grocery. My map indicated a grocery and restaurant at Roosevelt. There was no grocery, and the restaurant was closed. So I went a mile back up the road to West Roosevelt – at 8 mph compared to 24 eastbound – to plant myself in the minimart for a lunch of juice, canned bean dip, Fritos and an orange. Fifty miles later, the extraordinarily ordinary Desert River Inn on the featureless east side of Umatilla was most welcome.

Riding that long ribbon on Washington Rte 14, I thought about water. For the first five days of the trip, I spent nearly all of it next to the tributaries of the Columbia, whose basin holds 400 dams, most built and rebuilt by the federal government in the 20th century, and the most significant of them during the New Deal to tame flooding, provide irrigation, and electrify the Northwest. Without the dams – like Bonneville, which I stopped to gape at – modern life in seven states and British Columbia would be defined differently. This was especially evident on Rte 14, where the sagebrush and brown grasses were occasionally offset by the greenest orchards. I imagined some determined farmer our of a Michener novel, rolling back the desert – with subsidized water.

Riding overland through eastern Washington (yet still propelled by the winds from the gorge), I saw vast hillsides turned to waves of grain (not yet amber), legumes, and more orchards, thanks to those dams and networks of canals and pumping stations.  The dams are an environmental catastrophe, inarguably for the salmon runs. I’m no fan of economically distorting subsidies, nor of monocultural food production, especially wheat, which I’ve banned from my diet. But if you’ve built your livelihood on this government-constructed model intended to feed the world (and boost exports), who pays to move to an alternative?

Part 2. Lewis and Clark

The Voyage of Discovery mostly followed rivers, and between the Pacific and the Bitterroots, I mostly followed the Voyage of Discovery. The Columbia and the scenic highway so overwhelm tourist cues that the Discovery route fades to background save for the small highway signs featuring Lewis and Clark in silhouette. But once I left the great river for US 12, the history book reopened: trails, parks, cities and businesses are named after them.

The road undulated with the hills to Walla Walla, where I had adjustments at the Bicycle Barn, as mechanic Reggie waved off charges, “We take care of travelers.” For the next hundred miles, with an overnight stop in Dayton as the guest of Warmshowers hosts Genie and Fred, I was largely alone in the foothills of the Blue Mountains, which peak at Alpowa Summit (elevation 2785), a broad, flat ridge, and then slope down to the Snake. The Discovery party passed nearby – up the Walla Walla and the Touchet rivers and over Alpowa on their return, near the Snake that had taken them west.

At Lewiston, Idaho, across the Snake from Clarkston, Washington, I continued on US 12 along the Clearwater. The highway and river run through the Perce Nez Reservation. When Lewis and Clark met the tribe on both westward and eastward journeys, Perce Nez territory covered 69,000 square miles between the Bitterroots and the Blue Mountains along the Snake, Clearwater and Salmon. The Perce Nez supplied the party with food, horses and guides. To repay their charity, the U.S. Army in 1877 thwarted Chief Joseph’s march toward Canada and herded the tribe onto the reservation, marking the end of the Indian Wars. Making amends, authorities later named a Montana pass of the Continental Divide after the chief.

I finished the fourth day at Orofino on the Clearwater, and resumed the trek on what would be a spectacular day. At my lunch stop in Lowell, the Lochsa meets the Selway to form the Clearwater. In 1968 Congress passed the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, halting plans to dam the Lochsa (which in the Nez Perce language means “rough waters”). Only six years before that, US 12 between Lewiston and Missoula was completed, allowing passage over Lolo Pass. The highway runs parallel to the Lewis and Clark’s “lost trail,” so named because they couldn’t find the ancient Perce Nez path close by. On the steady, 65-mile incline along the banks to Powell Junction, there is no structure save wooden footbridges across the river and a Forest Service ranger station built in the 1920s, when rangers packed in supplies by mule and horse. The headquarters, stables, canteen and workshops have been a museum since the 1970s.

Lochsa Lodge at Powell Junction was a sublime spot, with small cabins arranged around a restaurant, lounge and camp store. Having arrived after 11 hours on the road, I would have little waking time to enjoy it. The next morning, I was awakened by the cozy sound of rain on my cabin roof.

Day 6 would be short, but it started with a 13-mile climb to Lolo Pass, at 5,235 feet. Already tired, I didn’t dare stop to photograph the steepest five-mile ribbon to the top, conscious of the pain in my quads that would accompany restarting the engine. But after changing into dry clothes at the visitor center, I enjoyed the downhill to Lolo and on to Missoula.

The plan was to make a quick visit to the bike-tourist Mecca, Adventure Cycling Association headquarters, rest overnight with my Warmshowers host, Ethel, and then push south on US 93 to Sula, followed the next day by an attack on Chief Joseph Pass and two more 7,000-ft peaks over 127 miles. What had I been thinking? After 600 miles in six days, I needed a break. Missoula was a wonderful place to spend a Saturday: temperatures in the 60s, friendly people at the three farmers markets (including a massage therapist who crushed me in the afternoon), the University of Montana campus, any of eight bike shops (serving 57,000 residents) to check out, and a chance to cook dinner for Ethel. I created a patch for my itinerary that would get me back on track to meet my plane in Jackson on Thursday.

Part 3. Riding the Divide

Sunday morning, Ethel drove me to the Greyhound station for a two-hour ride to Butte, from which my amended route took me over the Divide at Pipestone Pass (elevation 6,472). From there, I encountered my first demoralizing headwind along the Jefferson River, a tributary of the Missouri on which Lewis and Clark temporarily lost each other heading west.

The valley, where I stopped overnight at Twin Bridges (on the Beaverhead, upriver from the Jefferson), is typical western Montana: broad, flat valleys with far-spaced ranches set against towering mountains. The road runs straight for miles. It was easy to spot my next mountain pass, 20 or 30 miles away – or at least imagine I could.

Early on Day 9, I arrived at Alder Gulch, scene of a story that played all over the West in the 19th century. Gold was discovered on the creek in 1863, drawing another rush and leading to the settlement of Nevada City and contiguous Virginia City, which in 1864 became the first capital of the Montana Territory. The urges of liberty and community clashed: banditry countered by vigilantism, Confederate sympathizers rubbed Unionists. Mining interests dominated ranching and farming until 1875, when Virginia City’s moment passed by, as did the route of the Northern Pacific Railroad, and the territorial capital was moved to Helena. Today Nevada City is an open-air museum, and Virginia City is a National Historic Landmark. Alder Gulch, however, remains devastated by the dredging that continued into the 1940s. One might tsk-tsk the greed of the mining companies, but a highway marker points blame elsewhere: “The gold mined by the dredges financed Harvard University in the early 20th century.”

East of Virginia City is the four-mile climb to the pass over the Tobacco Root Mountains and descent into the Madison Valley, which at its base to the north meets the Jefferson to form the Missouri. US 287 runs up the valley beside the river, until both cut through a pass in the Madison Range, and east toward Yellowstone. At the west end of the pass lies Quake Lake, formed by a 7.5 earthquake and landslide in 1959 that killed 28 people when the rising waters of the Madison flooded a campground overnight. Trunks of dead trees swamped by the flood stand in the lake 51 years later. Upstream is Hebgen Lake, created by a man-made dam in 1914, that rises to the edge of Yellowstone. I will return to camp on the creek between the two lakes, but my destination was the tourist base at West Yellowstone.

The next morning, with temperatures in the 40s, I rode east into the park, beside the Madison and its spectacular tributaries, up to a source of the Mississippi: Old Faithful, which lies above a series of basins with geysers of varying ages and types spewing, bubbling and steaming from the magma below. At Goose Lake, flows from the geyser kill everything around it and cover the ground in salts. From there I followed bike trails to the edge of Old Faithful. On cue, a buffalo, tamed by long coexistence with us, wandered in front of my viewfinder just as the geyser was to blow.

Last year Ken Burns explained how Yellowstone became our first national park. But I’m sure one of the inspirations for its borders is its caldera, the collapsed volcano that is the circle in the square. The Yellowstone supervolcano has exploded and collapsed three times in 2 million years, most recently 70,000 years ago. Yellowstone’s unique typography owes to the fault lines that run through the region, having created Quake Lake in our time and countless wonders over the eons.

The park also contains a piece of the Continental Divide, crossing my route on the south end of the Grand Loop Road twice, at 8,262 and 8,391 feet, with a five-mile dip in between. I got a lot of thumbs up from passing motorists as I made my way toward my last night on the road, at Grant Village on Yellowstone Lake.

My final day was an 88-mile cruise from my fourth crossing of the Divide (unnoticeable save for a sign marking its elevation of 7,988) and through Grand Teton. The park is one long photo op, with changing perspectives on the snow-clad range above Lake Jackson, a naturally occurring body that is the headwaters of the Snake. I choose as the iconic photo of my trek my steed in front of the Tetons and the glistening lake – waters that flow back to my start, 950 biked miles behind me. The pebble beach at Colter Bay was a sublime spot for a bagged lunch.

The closer I got to Jackson, the more deliberate was my pace. I would arrive at the home of Warmshowers hosts Chuck and Karen soon enough, with a long evening ahead of dismantling and packing my bike in the suitcase I had expressed ahead of me, and preparing to don street clothes for the first time in 12 days. In the morning, Karen would deliver me to my flight, which would transport me across the rest of the country in six hours.

Here’s my Flickr page.

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3 Responses to Northwest Passage: Portland to Jackson, Summer 2010

  1. Kelly says:

    Sounds (and looks) just amazing, I would love to do something like this!

    • David Shilton says:

      Bennett, I loved reading your blog and viewing the terrific photos. I’m so glad you appreciated the history of the Northwest as you passed through all of this beautiful country. It’s a part of the country that I love, though I have never seen it by bicycle – it was nice to be able to experience that way through your eyes. See you at church, David S

  2. Pingback: Happy Second Birthday, CoMo! | Ruminations on Rambling

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