The Clark Family Cabins are a great place to camp, with a family of pet bunnies and cabins across the way that are outlined in white Christmas lights. Jim and Sarah realized with a shock that they stayed here 15 years ago shortly after they pulled in.
Day 1 of the ride took us from Bay View State Park, on the east shore of Puget Sound, through the delta of the Skagit River and then along its banks to the foothills of the Cascade Mountains. Before we rode, we met Martha Bray, Conservation Director at the Skagit Land Trust, near one of their projects on Fidalgo Bay. I made a video of Martha describing some of the group’s work, which is available online at http://www.c2c4conservation.org. Then we made a second video on the mud flat near the State Park (it was low tide). We dipped our tires in the Pacific (in spirit at least), and then we were off.
We rode east along farm roads through rich agricultural land. The father of all that soil, Mount Baker, loomed at 10,000 feet in the eastern distance. After about seven miles we passed over Interstate Five, and then went along more farm roads. The scenery changed ; suddenly there were tall hills to the north and south of us. It was about 70 degrees and sunny and so beautiful that (l-r) Bill, Jim, and I took turns making whoops and exclamations and all those things you do when you can’t put something wonderful into words. Jim and I have been tallking about making this ride for two years, and all day I was having trouble processing the fact that it is finally underway.
We took a break at a simple little park in Sedro-Wooley, an ag town, with a small group of mommies and kids and dogs standing at attention near the monkey bars. Then I had a flat tire. It took a while to fix – it wasn’t a simple problem – but we did fix it, and the reward was a 30-mile cruise along the south bank of the Skagit River. What a road.
The Skagit is greenish and fast-flowing and so cold that your feet hurt just a few seconds after you put them in it. It is largely glacial meltwater from Mount Baker, which happens to be an active volcano. Loren Ihle, an old friend I visited the day before, told me that every few hundred years Baker lets off a huge jet of super-heated gas that flash-melts a great deal of the glacier. The water courses downhill and picks up mud and rocks and boulders and becomes what is called a “lahar,” a wall of mud several dozen feet high moving about 60 miles an hour. That’s where all the great soil comes from. Oh course, a lot of people have moved into the area since the last lahar, but that’s life in the American West.
We rode for several hours along the Skagit, watching as the hills closed in on ether side and got taller, and every so often there would be a glimpse of something craggy and snow-capped in the distance. We did not climb very much – that starts tomorrow, and on Thursday we will climb about 4,000 feet. I think the best words to describe our attitude toward Thursday are “confident, yet respectful.”
At the town of Concrete (hometown of author Tobias Wolff and the setting of his great memoir, This Boy’s Life) we met Washington State Route 20, also known as the Northern Cascades Scenic Highway, which will be our route for the next 400 miles, give or take a few. Concrete is a worn-out looking place; the concrete plant has closed. We got laughed at by a drunk couple sitting in front of a bar called “The Hub” that was blaring Lynyrd Skynrd at 4pm on a Tuesday afternoon. Fair enough.
In a flash we were back into the feast of scenery and, 15 miles later, the day was over. Tomorrow we start the Cascades in earnest. -Brad
7am Aug. 13: Kenny Cuthbert
Day 2 began at Clark’s Family Cabins on Washington State Route 20, just west of Marblemount. Until 1972 the highway ended here and this stretch of the Cascades was fairly roadless; in 1972, the North Cascades Scenic Highway was completed amid much fanfare. Concrete still celebrates “Cascade Days,” a festival thought up to promote the road, even thought the road skipped the downtown. I woke up at first light. I wandered over to Tootsie’s, the restaurant attached to the cabins, and found it booming. Sitting alone at a two-seater was an old man with Native American eyes and a U.S. Navy baseball cap. We got into an easy conversation while I waited for a take-out order of sticky buns, the local specialty.
Kenny Cuthbert had an oversized coffee mug that was obviously all his. He had the look of someone who comes into Tootsie’s every morning and orders the same thing. His grandfather came into this country from Scotland, he says. I’m guessing his grandmother was the Indian. Before the highway went through, there was a dirt road up to the power plant that turned into goop whenever it rained; there was also a rail line to the plant, which is how everybody got there. Above the plant there were trails blazed by Indians and trappers and not much else. “There were people in this valley who never learned to drive,” he said. “I knew a fellow who lived in a cabin up the hill, and he’d walk into Marblemount every so often with a sack lashed to his back to get supplies, and that was it. He didn’t see the point of a car.” Another guy Kenny remembers got so mad at his old Model A when it wouldn’t start that he beat it to pieces with a big stick, right in his front yard.
Kenny smiles when he hears that we’re planning to ride over Washington Pass tomorrow. “Careful on the way down,” he says. “Guys on bikes used to wear parachutes on the downgrade. If their brakes failed, they’d pop the chute and coast to a stop. It’s a big down.”
We could have talked all day, and eaten a lot of delicious food too, but the buns came and I had to get back to the crew. I said goodbye with regret to this ambassador from the days before low-fat yogurt sprinkled with high-fiber cereal. As I stood up, the waitress brought Kenny two biscuits covered with sausage gravy and a melon slice garnish. She refilled his coffee. “Bye now,” he said. “Hope you get there.”
7/13, 2pm: The Skagit Drowned
Day 2 was a short day – only 30 miles or so, and pretty flat. Our stops are limited to where the campgrounds are. We rode through Marblemount, which has been catering to tourists since 1885, and before long we got to the power plant. The Skagit is a big river. It rises in British Columbia and drains a huge watershed of wet country, so by the time it’s done it contributes 20 percent of all the fresh water entering Puget Sound. In 1918, the City of Seattle damned it for hydroelectricity. It provided more than 100 percent of the city’s electrical needs for many years; these days, it accounts for about 25 percent. That’s a lot of carbon credits. Unfortunately, it also makes two huge dead lakes in the middle of some of the most unbelievable mountain scenery in the lower 48, and it has walloped the native salmon population.. This “green living” stuff is awfully complicated.
There are many wild stories about the things people went through to dam the river, string the lines, and flip the switch. I bought a book, “North Cascades Highway” by Joann Roe, that promises lots of entertaining reading. We arrived at the Colonial Creek Campground, which was big and packed and not very nice, and had a swell meal cooked by Sara and her sister Catherine (Jim and Bill did the dishes). We were kind of anxious because the weather was getting hot, and we had to climb 4,500 feet over 33 miles in the morning and then do the big down and another 20 miles after that in the afternoon. We resolved to go to bed early, which we did, and then some jerk in the space next to us got out his guitar and started singing Eagles tunes. Wilderness it weren’t.
Day 3: Up and Down
We were rolling at 6:35 am. Progress was steady, traffic was light, and the Cascades were sublime. After we got above the drowned river, we got to ride next to a delightful wild stream, Granite Creek, as the road rose steadily before us. Those Western highway engineers were artists with dynamite. The pitch never got too steep, and we only stopped briefly every hour for more water and food. At 10 am, Catherine drove up with more water – I went through nine bottles by the end of the day. By noon we were at the top (Jim at Washington Pass, middle), and we made a short video in which Jim screams, “We feel GREAT!”
Then we started a seven-mile long 7% downgrade that was like a ski run from the top of Vail. It was just as thrilling and just as dangerous – you wanted to let it rip, but above 30 miles per hour you realize just how easy it would be to go over the side or how far you’d skid if you went down, so you hit the brakes.
We descended from 5400 feet at the top of the pass to an elevation of about 1,000 feet when the road finally leveled out. It got hotter as we continued down, until at the end it was truly furnace-like. I do mean exactly that. It felt as though you had your face next to the vent of a forced hot air furnace, and all that dry, hot air was blowing on you constantly. There were zero clouds. The hills were burnt brown, like Eastern California. We rode past large irrigated alfalfa fields, stopped at a charming grocery store for rich hippies in Mazama, and then panted our way down a beautiful stretch of asphalt called Goat Creek Road (below).
After 90 beautiful but extremely hot minutes, we pulled into our destination for the night, the town of Winthrop. It is both the regional center and a major sink for tourist dollars, and everyone on main street seems happy and well-fed. Earlier that day we had seen cops in soldier uniforms massing at the side of the road in a couple of places. Perhaps the military dump truck loaded with marijuana plants that we saw at the gas station that evening was their day’s work (below). Although the cop guarding the haul was very nice, he wouldn’t say.
I woke up feeling slightly pummeled after three days of riding, and the open oven- door heat of Thursday afternoon. What will the next 3-4 days of 100º’s be like? A bit of bad luck to have caught a near record heat wave in this NE corner of Washington. We could drive out of this heat wave in a half-day. We will instead pedal through it over four.
The Methow Conservancy’s front door is bicycle length off Main St. in Winthrop Wa. I dropped in and had a conversation with the Director Jason Paulsen and Emily, who directs membership. Their focus is on the 1,000,000 acre Methow River Watershed, and a capital campaign of twenty times as many dollars. I was more than impressed. I was also more than just a little smelly, and it was very obvious who the elephant in the store was. A retreat to our camp at the local KOA was necessary.
Sara and her sister Catherine have been herding the gear, shopping, and cooking while we have been riding. The five of us are having some good times punctuated with laughter around the dinner table. But the effort to keep everyone fed and bedded is not slight. It has been full-time job with a few pauses to adsorb this scenery and culture. We took in both last night at a riverside outside deck at the Schoolhouse Brewery.
It is now 6AM, the boys are breaking down their tents and I need to serve coffee. The saddle awaits.
“All night long I stand there and watch sheets of plywood go by. It is the most boring job I’ve ever had,” he said. I had just woken up. We were talking in the men’s washroom at Margie’s RV Park. He was in the shower. I never saw anything but the top of his head. “I had a welding job in Wenatchee and I thought I didn’t like that so I quit it, but I shouldn’t have,” he said. “Now I’m thinking about going down to the tri-cities, or maybe Eugene.”
“What will you do there?”
“I don’t know. Just get a job I guess.”
Why does the Western U.S. have the nation’s highest rates of suicide and divorce? You can glimpse the answer at Margie’s and other RV parks that have turned into semi-permanent lodging for low-paid workers. There are a lot of drifters in the West, and they aren’t nearly as sexy as Clint Eastwood. They are unloved and unfocused. Their lives are hard, and it’s easy for them to get liquor, drugs, and guns. We woke up at 4:30 am when a large truck parked next to a nearby trailer roared to life and its owner left for work. Several more residents had left by 6:45am, when we pulled out for the day’s ride. How fortunate I am to be doing this, I thought, instead of watching plywood all night.
We rode north up a slight incline in the Okanogan Valley called the Wagonroad Coulee. It was 15 miles to the town of Tonasket. Then we’d turn right and head east, into the Kettle River Range, with a 3,000-foot climb over 22 miles to Wauconda Pass. The trick was gong to be getting to the top before it got too hot, without pushing too hard. Then we’d lose 2,000 feet and end the ride in Republic, 60 miles further along.
We rode fast and easily on the coulee in the beautiful early light. The sun had just topped the large upthrust granite slabs at the eastern end of the valley. Dew was evaporating off the sagebrush, producing one of my all-time favorite smells, and every so often a meadowlark would cut loose from his perch on a fencepost. A “Coulee” is a small hill inside a valley, and every time we topped one of them we would see a new vista. My wife Tania, who is the best travel companion I’ve ever known, loves traveling through western scenery because, she says, each slowly revealed vista is like walking into a new room. I have already seen dozens of things I want to show her, and we haven’t even been riding for a week.
We hit Tonasket at 8:10 am and paused at a convenience store long enough to re-fuel ourselves, then headed up the pass. It was maybe 80 degrees. Bonaparte Creek was running just to the right of the road. It was small but noisy, and after a steep beginning things leveled out for a while. The western slope of the Kettle River Range is wide-open country and the trees don’t begin until around 3,000 feet. I saw lots of abandoned or questionable ranch buildings, their boards turning to fuzz in the heat. I saw a tin man and woman decorating someone’s gate. I remembered what some writer, maybe Nathaniel West or Raymond Carver, had said: that western hills covered with grass looked like the backside of a recumbent woman. Annie Mountain rose to the south. There are a lot of lonely guys in these parts, ma’am.
Two miles from the top, very hot and low on water, we reached the Wauconda Store and Café. If you look up the word “oasis” in the dictionary, there’s probably a picture of the Wauconda Store next to the definition. Although there wasn’t another building in sight, the store was obviously a community center. Wauconda started as a gold rush town in 1896 and proved enough ore to keep miners employed for several decades, by which time the ranchers had come in. “Yesterday we took in $1,100, which was fantastic,” said Brenda Wahner, who works at the café and lives alone in a trailer nearby while she’s building her house. “In the winter, the locals keep us going It’s cold here, but not like Duluth.”
Brenda and Jim talked about growing up in Minnesota. She poured me two huge glasses of iced tea and made Bill a grade-a chocolate milkshake. We signed the register they keep for cyclists, Several cross-country riders pass by every week during the season, and this summer the cyclists they had seen were raising money for cancer, animal rescue, and Jesus in addition to the Land Trust. Take your pick!
After struggling up the last two miles to Wauconda Pass, we had another flying descent through trees and back to the brown-grass hills, with the wind in out faces getting hotter as we continued down. At the end we were in Republic, the seat of Perry County, and we found another green shady spot in a public campground at the county fairgrounds. Republic is a big enough place to have a library with a wireless router, so we spent the afternoon online. After a shower and a fine steak dinner, dusk came and we went straight to bed. We’re facing another 3,000 foot climb tomorrow
Al Craig was a serious man who owned a beat-up hat. He was a physician and exercise physiologist who specialized in helping swimmers, and his travels took him all over the world. He also owned a house and forest near Jim and Sara’s house in Canadice. “He was a different person out there,” says Sara. “He would put on a flannel shirt and his straw hat and become a woodsman. It was part of what we loved about him.”
Al’s property became the first conservation easement the Land Trust held in the western part of the Finger Lakes. He made another major donation that made it possible for the Land Trust to buy the Wesley Hill Preserve. He knew about the bike ride and supported it. But Al passed away suddenly in February, so his family decided to make a challenge grant for the ride in his memory. “He died too quickly, and we never got to say goodbye to him,” said Sara. “So we’re taking him along in spirit.”
We have climbed five 3,000-foot mountain passes in the last four days. Today we climbed Sherman Pass, which at 5,500 feet is the highest in the state, and it’s our last big climb for a while. It felt like a big day for us, so I put Al’s hat in my bike bag. We started climbing immediately at 7am; it was 16 miles and 3,300 feet to the top. The forecast was for another day of afternoon temperatures above 100 degrees, so we shortened our route to end at the Columbia River around noon.
The eastern part of the Kettle River Range is wetter, so there were lodgepole pines and tamarack lining the canyon, horsehair ferns along the road, and the lively sound of O’Brien Creek just below us. It was a Sunday morning road, with virtually no traffic. We climbed fast and within two hours we could see the top, but our surroundings had also changed; instead of large trees, there were vast fields of dead standing timber and young trees growing below them. We puzzled over what this could be until we passed an overlook commemorating the White Mountain Fire of August 1988.
Lightning started a fire on this slope that eventually burned 21,000 acres. More than 3,000 firefighters worked for 24 days to bring it under control. The kiosk explaining the fire had this quote from US Forest Service crew boss Karen Soenke: “The wind changed direction that evening and our fire grew and began burning in the canopy. Half of our crew was separated from us. We only had radio contact to inform them that we had returned to the safety zone. We deployed our shelters and waited it out.” The heat became so intense that granite boulders in the fire zone cracked apart.
The fire destroyed thousands of acres of lodgepole pines. But the trees are well-adapted to fire, so their cones open and release seeds when heated to 113 degrees. Twenty years later those seedlings are eight feet tall, with their dead ancestors still standing above them. Stands of larch trees were more likely to survive because they have thicker bark and replace their leaves every year, Today they run in dark streaks along the slope below the overlook. The dead snags have become prime habitat for birds like the mountain bluebird and Lewis’ woodpecker. The fire had an impact on public policy, too. Since it ended, the Forest Service has stopped fighting all fires in favor of holding “controlled burns” that simulate the natural fire cycle, or just letting some fires go.
Several miles later we were at the top. Bruce Sanford, a guy from Nova Scotia who dreams of going cross-country on a bike some day, took our picture (note Al’s hat). Then it was down and down again, the biggest down so far, but the grade was almost perfectly engineered so we didn’t have to use our brakes more than occasionally. We just steered and cruised at 30 miles an hour; it felt like piloting a plane. Near the bottom I glimpsed the Columbia River through the trees. I had never seen it before. It is really, really big.
We reached the Columbia at Kettle Falls. At that point it is a 150-mile-long lake behind the Grand Coulee Dam; we were near the northern end of the lake, which is named for Franklin D. Roosevelt. We rode four miles north to an RV park near the drowned part of the Kettle River, which branches off to the east of the Columbia, and the heat closed in on us like a fist.
I floated in the cool water of Lake FDR and thought about how different it is to be an environmental advocate when you live out here. In New York, you can set aside millions of acres in the Adirondacks and prohibit all tree-cutting, damming, or other human activity. You can poke out your chest and brag about how you’re passionately devoted to the “forever wild” clause in New York’s state constitution. You can afford to write off all that water. In the west, if you didn’t dam the rivers, no one would be able to eat or drink. Nature in the west has been re-plumbed so our civilization can exist there.
The librarian in Ione warned me that a cold front would come in around midnight, and so it did. There were gusts of wind, light rain, and blessed relief. The dawn came up cloudy with a fresh wind from the south. We had 76 miles to go but it was flat, and without the heat and the climbs of past days it seemed almost easy.
If yesterday’s ride was like the Western Adirondacks, today’s ride was a bit like the shoreline of two Adirondack lakes – one that hasn’t been discovered by rich jerks yet, and one that has. LeClerk Road runs along the east bank of the drowned Pend Oreille River. It feels like a road that would get a lot of traffic on weekends when people are at their lake homes, but on a Tuesday morning it was empty. Herons fished on the shore and raptors watched for their breakfast as we rode past. Our mountain-toned legs ate up the road, and we did 30 miles in the first two hours. The houses were mostly older, small, and tucked away in the vast scenery. Across the river, cars screamed along State Route 20, ignoring it all.
Around 9am we entered the Kalispel Indian Reservation. The contrast was dramatic. Where we had been riding past ranchettes and old farms, at the border the land opened up and an open field of 440 acres stretched down to the shore. A sign explained that it was a wildlife mitigation project, paid for by the Bonneville Power Authority and managed by the tribe, to compensate for the loss of habitat caused by the construction of Albeni Falls Dam. The tribe is managing the land for geese, mallard, muskrat, deer, eagle, yellow warbler, and black-capped chickadee. A few miles up the road we got a quick overview of the Kalispel’s ambitious plans for the environmental restoration of their ancestral lands from Deane Osterman, the tribe’s Director of Natural Resources (see separate post).
Deane had to run to a tribal council meeting so we pushed on, using the “peloton” technique to compensate for a headwind. A peloton is when riders fan out in a vertical line, like geese, and take turns being in front. The lead rider breaks the wind so the ones behind him can rest. We got our average speed up from 12 miles per hour to 17 miles per hour this way, according to Jim’s handlebar calculator of speed, distance, temperature, and other things. He consults this constantly. I’m glad he does, so I don’t have to.
Past the Kalispel lands the ride turned back into cattle and alfalfa farms, with the water in the distance to the right. Deane had explained just how much damage the dams have done to the river, but a tourist wouldn’t know that. It still is beautiful. We rode into Newport-Old Town at noon, ate lunch and drank hot coffee at a Safeway supermarket cafe, met up with Sara and Catherine, and after a jolly time we headed into Idaho. Washington had been our route for eight days and about 400 miles, or one-tenth of the entire trip.
We crossed the Pend Oreille and rode eastward along its south bank. Once again, the Adventure Cycling folks had clued us into a beautiful rural road that skipped the congested highway. We had 27 miles to go to our destination, Round Lake State Park near Sandpoint. The scenery improved. In fact, it became tremendous. It wouldn’t have surprised me to see Robert Redford waving to us from the roadside. Unfortunately, Californians seem to have discovered the Idaho Panhandle. We saw lots of signs for subdivisions with ridiculous names. One was named “Willow Shores” but was covered with pine trees. What was really depressing was the asking prices. Second-home McMansions, those colossal monuments to bloated ego, seem destined for this place. I hope the housing bust lasts long enough for the locals to organize a land trust.
Circular rolls of golden fresh-baled hay were scattered through fields like game pieces. Behind them were stately mountains we didn’t have to climb. Along one stretch was a series of hacking platforms occupied by nesting pairs of ospreys. This was the longest ride of the trip so far, and for the last few miles the three of us were very tired, but tomorrow is a rest day. Round Lake was cold, the showers were hot, and Sara filled our bellies with bratwurst.