Thursday, August 24, 2017

Roads & Non-Roads in the Umatilla National Forest

Unplugged in the no-phone paradise of northeastern Oregon, you must remember how else to do things. You have to adjust your dependencies. For example, you can't text-you haven't been able to for days-so instead leave a note on a car in the middle of nowhere communicating to the other members of your party where they can find you in several hours.

One of our dependencies had slowly shifted over three days away from Google and toward a North Fork John Day Forest Service Oregon 2013 map, our one beacon of knowledge in a land that reduces smart phones to thin cameras. This was our guide and our god as we rode off into the high desert wilderness on an August day in the upper 90s.

But even our Forest Service-issued map could not be trusted.

I don't often ponder the existentialism of inanimate objects, but in only the loosest sense could what we bicycled on be called a road"They utilize me, therefore I am" or something..

My gravel-inclined companion and I scoured our regional map to find a less-than-paved day ride accessible from the Drift Fence campground near Ukiah, OR. We latched onto a recommendation from the park ranger that incorporated the gravel connector road 55 and thought it could link up with something called Bridge Creek Road, which according to our Forest Service map legend, is signaled to be a "Native Surface Road-Suitable for Passenger Car Travel".

Bridge Creek Road (in yellow)
After a breaking down camp and determining a loose plan with our amazing, car-owning friend, two of us rolled out of camp down about 3.5 miles of pleasantly smooth chip seal on road 52 across a few cattle guards to our gravel turnoff on Bridge Creek Road.

Since I live in the city center of Seattle, gravel roads are relatively difficult to get to excepting some concerted effort and planning (see: other writings), but everyone who loves it knows the feeling of hitting loose earth. Your senses jump to engagement. The hum of pavement becomes an uneven, syncopated hiss, hands sense the texture beneath as much as the tires, edging and climbing around surface imperfections a thousand times per second, and eyes scan to optimize the way forward over ever-changing consistencies. After 60 miles of road riding in search of a total eclipse (read: total lobotomy) from the two days prior, it was a sweet sensation to once again enter the unpaved.

Bridge Creek Road was "rideable!" as became our catchword for the day when faced with myriad potentially unrideable scenarios. It rolled down into one of a thousand canyons in this region and became very questionably rideable as it descended toward Bridge Creek. Large stones littered the trail, and we unashamedly walked a few sections before a water refill at the creek bed.

We met only one person on this ride; he rode down to the creek bed about five minutes after us on what in my memory seemed a lot like a moped. He was wearing a trucker hat, a checkered shirt, and jeans. His name was Colby, his father's name is Steve, and everybody around knows him and them. Our small talk immediately turned to yesterday. "Well, we were moving cattle all day, so yeah, I saw it." The two of us were still mentally unpacking one of the most thrilling minute twenty seconds of our existence, but I appreciated his nonchalance: events like this, while neat, are less pressing than the day's tasks. He had lost an iPhone yesterday, it turned out, and was out to investigate.

"Where are you two headed?" We mentioned riding Bridge Creek Road south to link up with 55, and he nodded, wished us well, and subsequently disappeared for five minutes while we continued to filter water from the creek. He returned triumphant, iPhone in hand, and puttered off the way he (and we) had come.

We climbed out of the valley on the rough but rideable(!) road to reach another high desert prairie much like the last. This is where we crossed gate number one, which read Please keep gate closed, which is definitely not the same as No Trespassing or This is not a useful road for much longer.

Here we saw a maybe coyote or fox or wolf dart across the field, enjoyed the mild sunshine of the morning, and cruised across a wide, accommodating plateau between two valleys. It was some of the purest riding of the day, feeding our sense of accomplishment with each rolling hill crested and each new horizon revealed. It could not last, though, and so it was we arrived at a second gate, beyond which the road looked distinctly underutilized. This gate, unlike the first, bore no message whatsoever except that of a padlock and chain. Convinced of our direction and, upon reflection, by the lack of concern from Colby in our earlier conversation, we found a low section in the barbed wire and hopped the fence onto the next section of (here's where words become difficult) road.

It's one of my favorite parts of exploring unknown areas by unmaintained roads: finding out you could get through, that there was a way. The thought of turning around cast enough shame to keep us motivated.. also that the damn map has it outlined and classified as a road "Suitable for Passenger Car Travel". The next section was rideable although a bit of a mixed bag. It took us directly south for several miles before descending into the canyon that is home to the John Day River. I don't recall exactly when it began, but at some point on the descent, the rocks that lie beneath the road's grassy bed became severe enough that we walked fifty yards down to the next gate.

This gate was much more rudimentary-no swinging hinge this time. Three pieces of wood with barbed wire run between them and a wire hook held this section of fence up as a gate of sorts across our path. On the other side was what only a very imaginative person would call a road. A Jeep road, perhaps? Maybe a horse and cart road at one time, but the kind of path that hadn't seen human travel in decades. I'll offer this: it was level and wide enough for a vehicle of some kind. Although rock falls over the years had made it impossible to traverse for even the gnarliest of human vehicles, it was definitively a place by which one could reasonably reach another place, namely, the John Day River, which we noticed soon lie far below us on the canyon floor.

Ceci est une road
"Not rideable!" But really we didn't even waste our energy on this thing. Not at 1500' above a canyon, not with boulders and an impossible-to-predict riding surface beneath the overgrowth. The view was staggering but very quickly became uninteresting as we started to realize that the path ahead was going to resemble this all the way from 4000 to 2500 feet where the river lie. Then there were the omens of doom: three carcasses, all headless, lie in our path. Did they also see the river and think "Oh hooray, I'm saved. I just have to follow this clearly marked road on this map and I'll-- Oh wait, this isn't a road! Noooooooo.." *Dead*

The going was rough, but the view was tremendous. The valley and its river were visible, so there was hope amidst the twisting ankles and rocks as unforgiving as chunks of concrete.

It was fully Type 2 Fun in spite of our protests since we were relatively convinced that we were still on the right.. um, road. It wound around one hill, then the next, strafed along one ledge, then into some bushes, then across a narrow creek where there may have once been a bridge. Finally, we reached some more definitive signs the road was, in fact, closed. Good to know! Three or four felled trees lie across the path and two large, overgrown dirt berms had been erected to keep cars out. We passed through our final gate and out onto 55 with the rushing river now filling our ears. To our amazement, there is still a road sign for this travesty.

RIP road 5500050. You're dead.
But guys, the John Day River was a faaaaabulous treat. We waded out to a few large rocks for lunch and gave our feet a break. Above us was our next climb up 55, but for now it could wait. Since we didn't get a thrilling gravel descent as reward for our hard work, we chose relaxation and calorie intake to satisfy.

55 was an amazing road.. before it got stupid difficult. But that first part! It was freshly graded, had a mild incline, some decline, and took us above the river for amazing views of the valley and all the tremendous campsites along the way. We both agreed: next time we're staying by the river.

But then it got hard. 2500' of gain over eight miles hard. Stopping to rest in the limited shade every half-mile hard. It was merciless as the sun, but it wasn't the worst thing we'd done that day, so even though we suffered, cursed, and sweat ourselves dry, at least we were riding our bikes.

Cattle guard!
Our ride back to camp was cake: 4 miles of downhill on our old friend 52. We thought our third member of the party would be waiting for us there, but instead she had stuck a note to the car: "Hey boys! Come find me in Ukiah!"

Ukiah is not a hard place to find someone; it's about five blocks deep and ten long with one main street containing the inn, the bar, the ranger station, and the park, and she was at the park. We packed up our three bikes in the very specific geometry that allowed them to fit, and set rolling on four wheels for home with many more roads and non to be unveiled.

I'm glad Colby didn't tell us the road wouldn't link up, that it would dissolve into barely traversable wilderness. The most memorable rides are the ones that, while the start and end were defined, required some improvisation and maybe a bit of stubbornness to push through a middle that might be less than rideable. Even if maps can't be trusted, our instincts held up!

1 comment:

Chad said...

Will you please make it a towards-the-end-of-the-year resolution to write here more? I like it.