I spent a long time this winter staring at my bikes in the basement. Most of them are capable of taking me and my camping gear thousands of miles from here. Yet all 19 of them, excluding the rain bikes, sat there, idle, waiting to get dirty. Also during this time I put the idea of riding to the coast off-road into the heads of anybody willing to consider doing the trip with me. The first thing to do was a reconnaissance ride to check out the trails and my equipment.
The Surly Travelers-Check would be the weapon of choice. With Arkel Dolphin front bags and Revelate Designs (formerly named Epic Designs) frame and seat bags, it easily carried all my crap with expansion room for food and beer. Aside from commuting, this new bike was going on it's first real test.
It's April 15th, 2010 and the skies have cleared for a couple days, giving the green light for a 24-hour solo overnight. Finally, I left my house on a loaded bike around 11:15 a.m. towards the SW downtown Portland lightrail station. Making a mental note for the next trip when I won't be solo, there is a bar across the street from the lightrail station, nice way to start things off. I hung my bike inside the train and sat there for 50 minutes while it took me to the prestigious western suburb called Hillsboro.
From there, I pedaled through Hillsboro, Cornelius and Forest Grove on mostly bike-laned roads. After Forest Grove it turned to Hwy.8 towards Gales Creek, which would be the last sign of much civilization before entering the deep woods. There wasn't a shoulder and there was just a wee bit of dirt along the highway, so the logging trucks along this 6-mile stretch weren't to be taken lightly. I opted for a hilly, yet scenic side route that cut off about 2 miles of Hwy 8. Mental note, there are two wineries along the way.
Arriving in Gales Creek, I was hoping to stock up at the general store, but it was closed. Fortunately, the Gales Creek Tavern was open. I sat at the bar, a cozy log cabin type of place with lumberjack shit on the walls, a pool table and shuffleboard. The menu had pizzas and sammiches. Awesome. 10 minutes after sitting down, a young female cyclist sits down at the bar near me who had just ridden there from Forest Grove for a beer. Rad. We talked for a bit, got each other to drink more than we'd planned, then discovered the horseshoe pit out back. That was also around the time some lady at the bar bought a full round of drinks. A few games of horseshoes in the sun, 5 beers and a sammich later, I was filling up on water, hugging my new friend goodbye and heading west on the dirt straight from the tavern.
It was a great beer-buzz-on-the-bike moment, for about 15 minutes. Then I started up, and up, and up. The Old Wilson road that looked like a straight shot to my final destination of Browns Camp was nothing short of an exhausting maze of gravel. I pushed my bike up hills and coasted the wrong way down others. I would estimate for every road listed on my gigantic 3.5' x 3.5' Tillamook Forest map, there were actually about 6 roads not listed, so getting lost was easy. My phone GPS worked for about an hour, then I was out of cell signal range. At times, I'd be bombing down a dirt road, only to realize I was going the wrong way. So a 1-minute descent would turn 180 degrees into a 12-minute push-a-bike. No worries though, I was self sufficient and the weather was killer.
The push-a-bike then pedal-a-bike went on for hours and I knew I was nearing Browns Camp. At the top of the steepest and longest uphill section of push-a-bike, I encountered some local kids on ATVs. They pointed the way to Browns Camp, even though they couldn't point to the road on my map that we were standing on. Like I said, for every road marked on the map, there were actually 6 roads. Next time I'll bring my magic 8-ball.
I followed the power lines that led just north of Browns Camp and punctured the front tire as the sun was getting low. It was obvious I wouldn't make it to camp for the night. So I set up the tent in a clear cutting, one of many in the gigantic tree farm that is western Oregon. Fortunately, I had enough water to make dinner and get me through the night, but I had to conserve. I boiled half water and one of the two cans of Hamms beer that'd I hauled from the tavern into my pot and made Pad See Yew soup. Boiling the diluted beer got rid of some of the alcohol, which for me at the time, was a good thing. Dinner down, sun down, Nick down.
I slept in my new superlight Mont-Bell Super Stretch 40 degree down bag for the first time and it rocked. Even though there was frost on my bike in the morning, I'd slept a full 8 hours and even unzipped from being a bit warm halfway through the night. When I woke up, I knew I needed to find water. Making the rookie mistake of not bringing water purification tablets, luckily I had brought enough methyl alcohol for the stove to boil some water until sterile from a nearby stream. Boiled it, made oatmeal, tea and poured the rest into my water bottle that contained my last 2 ounces of water.
The sunrise was pretty sweet, a few clouds floating through the aligned rows of Douglas Fir trees and the only sounds were from the birds. It was a slow breakfast and tear down. Taking a shit while squatting from an old-growth tree stump was a first for me. During that blissful moment, I wondered what the landscape would've looked like prior to the industrious logging era.
I wanted to finish the trek to Browns Camp to get water and link the entire ride for future trips. So I rolled downhill after contemplating my directions about 5 times, then discovered I was literally 1 minute from the Browns Camp ATV trails and 15 minutes from the campground. I found the water pump, filled up, took a photo of the ATV trail map from the placard and rolled away, somewhat satisfied that I reached my destination.
It sounded like a good idea to find a different road home that might have been a little smoother, flatter and with less unmarked intersecting roads. If the trees could've laughed at that thought, it would've been deafening. I was back to navigating, pulling out the map every two miles and using my compass as the sun rose higher in the sky. Using as many nearby geological references to direct me, at least I knew I was going the correct general direction. But for half the time, I didn't even know what road I was on.
There was one crucial point where I missed a left turn that put me on a 9-mile road heading East-South-East instead of East-North-East. I was on my way to Hagg Lake, like it or not. At the 4.5 mile mark of the 9-mile road, it pointed down and got steep. Had I been on a full suspension bike with gnarly tires, it would've been a blast. But I was on 700 x 42mm semi-slicks and my bike was 55-pounds (sans water and beer), so it was a little sketchy. I pinch flatted again like the day before, fixed it, pumped both tires up a bit higher and rolled down, down, and down.
The first house at the 2-mile marker was a welcome sign of civilization and I knew Hagg Lake was coming soon. Finally reaching the bottom of the hill and seeing the lake, I estimated that 4.5 mile descent dropped me a couple thousand feet. Heading in the other direction, that might have been a 3-4 hour push. Making another mental note for the next time we go to Browns Camp. In case anybody suggests we head that route, at least we'll know what to expect.
Hagg Lake has a mountain bike trail around it, but my body wasn't having any of that, so the seal chip shoulder on the road was good enough for me. I spotted a bald eagle, then rolled into a general store for some shitty recovery food. Burger, Coke and pack of Chips Ahoy. I finally had cell coverage and called my wife, Karla, to tell her I wasn't dead.
The roll to Forest Grove-Cornelius-Hillsboro had a very welcoming slight tailwind. By the time I got to the light rail station, I was fully cooked, like a burnt hockey puck burger left on the grill too long. The light rail ticket was the best $2.00 I had spent in a long time.
Once in the Portland city limits again, I rolled home, ate, took a bath, had dinner, flaked out on the Filmed By Bike Festival and was sleeping before the 11:00 p.m. show we had tickets for even started.
To summarize, the full trek to the coast is going to take a quite a few reconnaissance rides, sourcing more detailed maps, and I wouldn't even consider doing it without the a real GPS. Despite this initial little test ride actually turning into a serious ass kicker, I know riding all the way to the coast is possible and it will be awesome. Everyone who is considering the trip should join me on these reconnaissance rides until we're confident we're all ready for the real deal. Actually, I'm guessing the reconnaissance rides might even weed a few people out of the full coastal adventure.
With this experience, I'd recommend mountain bikes over cross bikes. While the Travelers-Check felt awesome loaded down on the bumpy roads, the tires weren't big enough. With a load, there was just no way to prevent pinch flats on the 700 x 42mm tires and it was a bit too sketchy going down some of the loose gravel descents. Next time, the Surly Karate Monkey with 29" wheels will get it's turn.
I really liked the set up of my bike with a Revelate frame bag, a seat bag and a rack with front panniers. The entire bike felt weight balanced, which was nice when ripping down the loose gravel roads. I also didn't have rear pannier bags in the way of my legs when hiking the bike up the gravel roads. I'll play around with using my Revelate Designs handlebar-mounted roll bag to save some weight, but it'll be hard to beat the ease of packing the spacious Arkel front pannier bags.
Bags vs B.O.B. trailer-
Frame and seat bags like the rack-free Revelate Designs bags are the definitely the lightest way to go. I highly recommend them, assuming your other gear is compact enough to fit inside them.
Pannier bags would be fine if you know they can handle the bouncing. My Arkel Dolphin bags did awesome on the front. As wonderful as my Ortlieb bags are for commuting and road touring, without extra tie downs, they would have come loose from the rack and would have been rattling all over the place. Also, having optional high-mounting points on the rack for the front bags would've been nice. I tore a hole through my front bag on a big rock. D'oh. Fortunately, it's easily fixable.
A B.O.B. trailer travels very well off-road, it is easy to pack, it takes some of the load off your bike/wheels/tires, and is easy to attach/detach, but my B.O.B. Ibex trailer weighs 18 pounds. Adding this extra weight wouldn't normally be such a big deal, but with the amount of push-a-bikes I did to get up steep gravel hills, it's smart to go as light as possible. Also, the Portland light rail train doesn't allow trailers on board, so we'd be doing the entire hilly suburban leg of the trip by bike.
Make sure the shoes you wear are good for walking and hiking up loose gravel hills. I wore my comfy and trusty 11-year old Sidi shoes and they were not so great for walking. Even though I had the advantage of being clipped into the pedals while cycling, I spent a long time thinking about how nice my lightweight hiking shoes would have been during the push-a-bikes.
The other stuff-
We should go as light as we can. There are steep climbs, push-a-bikes and occasional lifting of the bike through obstacles to get through damaged road sections. My Travelers-Check weighed 55 pounds without water and beer. Before I do this with a group, we'll go through a gear list beforehand so we're not being redundant with heavy things we can share, like stoves and tools. Good ideas might include an ultralight down bag instead of a synthetic bag, ultralight tent instead the car-camping 4-man tent, compact inflatable mattress instead of a foam roll, whiskey instead of beer, etc.
I can't wait for the next one, whenever that is. Until then, I'll be mapping more routes and shopping for a GPS.