Oregon coast brings bikers back for more

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After 26 years, riders relive a scenic trek through U.S. Northwest

YAKIMA, Washington —We were eyeing the ominous black clouds on the horizon from a gas bar in Yakima, Wash., when a deputy sheriff sauntered over to our bikes.

"Where ya headed?" he inquired.

We pointed west where bolts of lightning now split the sky. "The Cascades."

"I just got a call on the radio from Rimrock Lake," he said, referring to one of the communities on our route. "They’re getting golf-ball-sized hail."

After riding all day through blistering heat, casting envious glances at locals tubing along the adjacent Yakima River, we weren’t expecting this. We had picked a likely camping spot on the other side of the Cascades, but it now looked as if we weren’t going to get that far. We couldn’t decide what to do next.

A couple of brave hearts wanted to make a run for the pass. There were no obvious routes around the approaching storm. The deputy offered some wise advice.

"Why don’t you wait it out here?"

I was all for that. "Let’s get a bite to eat," I suggested.

About a half-hour later, the storm hit as I was digging into potato pancakes and smoked ham at Shari’s Restaurant. We watched from our table as pea-sized hail stones pinged off our bikes in the parking lot.

By the time we finished the key lime pie, the sun was shining again and we were ready to hit the road. The pavement was already drying when we pointed our bikes toward the mountain range.

This motorcycle trek to the scenic Oregon coast was something of a reprise for us. Three of us had made the ride before in 1984 when we were skinny and still had all our hair, but we had been brought back for this redux by a fourth rider who hadn’t done it before.

I looked around at the assembled bikers and joked: "You have to be at least 50 to go on this ride." Most people our age were camping in motorhomes and giant fifth-wheel trailers, or staying in five-star resorts, but here were we still riding in the wind, rain and snow and still sleeping on the ground. Would we ever grow up?

The last time I had made this journey, I was riding a 1983 Honda Shadow — which I had jokingly called my Hardly Davidson — and carried my fiancee on the back. I was 27 at the time.

My fiancee, now my wife of 25 years, declined an invitation to be part of the adventure this time. Five thousand kilometres on the back of the Honda was enough. The narrow rear seat of my Harley-Davidson Sportster didn’t look very appealing to her.

As I packed for the trip the night before we headed out, I couldn’t get over how the two of us managed to pack clothes, sleeping bags, tent and air mattress along with a coffee pot, lantern, single-burner propane stove and bottle of propane on that Honda. How did we do it?

When I finished packing for this trip, I left behind two boxes of supplies I had hoped to bring. I didn’t have the room. A lot had changed since the last trip and a lot of equipment was more compact — so why did my bike look like a pack mule?

Technology did, however, make planning the trek easier. With computers, the Internet and Google, we managed to plan a route and co-ordinate our packing fairly easily, despite the fact we resided in three communities separated by hundreds of kilometres. Three of us would meet in Calgary, and we planned to hook up with the fourth in British Columbia. The advent of cellphones made that rendezvous easier.

We were, however, more concerned about crossing the U.S. border than we were in 1984 when it was a mere formality. The 9/11 tragedy had changed all that. We had to dismount our bikes, remove our helmets and produce passports.

Border officials poked and prodded at our gear, but mostly they chuckled over how much we were carrying.

"What’s this? A gas barbecue?" inquired one of the female officers. "You’ve got to be kidding. Where’s the propane tank?"

We had chosen our route based on previous trips through the northwestern states, but as long as one stays off the major roads, it’s difficult to go wrong. All roads here lead to heaven for motorcycle riders. Our route south of Salmo, B.C., was like a roller-coaster to the border, and the winding road south of the 49th parallel was an even greater joy.

At Tiger, Washington, we turned west toward Kettle Falls, where we would cross the Columbia River for the first of several times on this journey. At the falls, we chatted with groups of American bikers who confirmed we had chosen a fantastic route.

"But it’s going to be hot."

"Hotter than this?" we asked, sweating in 30-plus C heat.

"Oh, yeah!" they replied.

Riding into the southern end of the Okanagan Valley was like riding into a blast furnace. The heat sapped our energy, and all we wanted to do was find some shade and pitch our tents.

A clerk in a supermarket drew us a map to a campground near Omak that was like an oasis in the desert. We thought it was paradise until vendors from a farmers market descended upon us just after dawn. It was a bit of an inconvenience, but we had wanted to get on the road early anyway before it got too hot.

We appreciated the relative coolness of the Cascades the next night, and it was even cooler when we hit the coast at noon, 3-1/2 days after starting from Calgary. It was cloudy with temperatures around the mid-50s F (about 13 C), but it wasn’t raining. As we wheeled through Raymond, Wash., self-proclaimed oyster capital of the world, and crossed the 6.5-kilometre Astoria-Megler Bridge over the Columbia into Oregon, we discovered traffic would be a larger issue.

I remembered Highway 101 being congested in 1984, so it should not have been a surprise that it was even busier 26 years later. Long caravans of cars snaked behind slow-moving motorhomes that were driven by white-haired seniors who appeared to believe they owned the road.

We spent our first night on the coast in a packed Oregon state park called Nehalem, lucking into a spot as a result of a last-minute cancellation. Back in the day, we sought privacy and seclusion. These days, we just wanted to be close to the washrooms.

We opened a nice Merlot to go with our barbecue pork loin and went down to the beach to watch a spectacular sunset. Our partying was much subdued from the days of yore. Two of our foursome didn’t drink anymore. It was all we could do to keep them from crawling into their tents at 9 p.m.

But the passage of time has made setting up camp easier.

There was no pumping up air mattresses manually. I brought a self-inflating pad this trip, and one of my comrades had a battery-powered air mattress pump and an electronic device to help reduce his snoring. Our tangle of cords around the electricity pole at our campsite included camera battery chargers, iPod chargers, cellphone chargers, speakers for the iPod and even a motorcycle GPS.

On days when we didn’t have electricity, we plugged our most-needed appliances into a cigarette lighter on one of the fully-dressed touring bikes.

The Oregon coast stretches about 585 kilometres from the Columbia River at the northern tip to a town called Harbor, just north of the California border. The route is heavily treed and dotted with about 30 tiny communities. The largest towns are North Bend and Coos Bay, which sport a combined population of about 30,000. There are magnificent ocean vistas every few kilometres when the trees give way to spectacular views from the cliffs.

The coastline is dotted with about a dozen lighthouses. We visited one at Yaquina Head, north of Newport, on our way to Florence, where we camped for the night in a sheltered inland campsite to get out of the wind. The signage at the camp warned there had been a bear spotted in the area and told us what to do if a tsunami, but fortunately we saw neither.

The slow and tedious ride down to Coos Bay in heavy traffic had some members of the gang wanting to turn back, but we persevered to Brandon, the traffic lightened and the scenery improved. When we pulled over at Lincoln City to snap some photos of scenic Siletz Bay, we were given a crash course in clam digging by a local hermit who said he lived in a cave nearby. He offered a raw purple varnish clam for tasting, and I was volunteered to swallow the ocean treat.

The hermit tipped us off to a scenic side road, and it offered a pleasant diversion from the traffic. We almost had the winding, forested road along the edge of the coastal cliffs to ourselves. We stopped several times to take in the spectacular views and pose for numerous photos. But too quickly we were back on 101. The traffic eased further past Port Orford and we really began to enjoy ourselves, opening the throttles of our bikes and letting the engines sing and our tires dance on the pavement.

As we rode into Crescent City, California, the sun was starting its slow descent. We loaded up with groceries, and after being turned away from an overcrowded KOA, we found a relatively secluded and inexpensive municipal campground under the massive redwoods. The next day we turned our bikes eastward and roared down the Redwood Highway through twisty canyons, racing a gushing river down into a gorge and eventually into Grant’s Pass. It was a breathtaking, early-morning ride through sun and shadows, but riding into some of the switchbacks was both exhilarating and terrifying because we rode out of some of them blind.

We worked our way northeast toward Crater Lake, a volcanic cauldron that forms the deepest lake in the U.S. at nearly 600 metres deep. It’s one of the clearest lakes in the world — a lake so blue it doesn’t look true.

We rolled through flat farmland, following the doubtful signage to Cove Palisades State Park, an oasis in a flat, dry land. We stopped for gas and breakfast at Culver, Oregon, a town of about 1,300 in Jefferson County. At Beetle Bailey’s cafe, next to a "video and bait" shop, locals tipped us to a great ride north up Highway 197, on smooth blacktop through a vista of canyons and tabletop mountains to the Columbia River. We crossed to the north side of the river and followed the quiet Lewis and Clark trail east.

It got hotter and hotter, and by the time we hit Walla Walla, Wash., the mercury was pushing 100 F (38 C). All we wanted was shade. We had got separated late in the day when two of us took an exit that the pair following missed.

Rather than stop, they kept riding nearly all the way to Walla while the pair that had exited sat in an air-conditioned McDonald’s restaurant, calling and texting to no avail. The motoring pair eventually stopped to check their messages and we arranged a rendezvous just outside Walla Walla. By that time, tempers were short and the heat was sucking the life out of us, so we found some shade in an RV park close to the washrooms and settled down.

The run up to the border the next day was another warm one, but we got off to an early start. We were still riding in shirt sleeves when we pulled into Yahk and huddled at a gas station to decide whether to quit for the night or ride on to Cranbrook.

"What the hell," someone said. "It’s less than an hour’s ride."

We weren’t five minutes down the road when we heard the first clap of thunder and saw lightning illuminate the sky. The wind began to roar through the pass, buffeting us with throaty blasts and threatening to blow us off the road. Dust and debris whipped across the highway, but we held on tight to our handlebars, and with noses pressed against our windscreens, we rode on. We literally raced the rain into Cranbrook, stopping under the shelter of a gas bar roof overhang just as sheets of rain began to drench the pavement.

We decided unanimously to forego camping and check into a hotel room. Scouts were dispatched to pick appropriate and affordable lodgings. The Lazy Bear Lodge on the main drag sported a sign that indicated it "loved" bikers, and by the time we arrived, dozens were hastily pushing their machines under cover and feverishly unloading them. The sky was a ghastly green, and word was spread that severe weather was on the way. We braced for a beating, but by the time we settled into our rooms, the worst of the storm had blown by.

We hit the road again after breakfast, heading for Radium on the last day of our trek. Once there, we planned to scatter to our separate homes. But Mother Nature had one last trick up her sleeve, and we rode warily the first hour through dense fog. We rode as fast as we safely could to avoid being run over by vehicles from behind. Eventually, the skies cleared and after a final coffee break in Radium, we said our goodbyes.

Over the next few days, we would moan about our aching bones and various other pains before turning back to the Internet to begin plotting the next ride.

Organizations: Cascades, Google

Geographic location: California, Oregon, YAKIMA, Washington Rimrock Lake Yakima River Columbia River Calgary British Columbia U.S. Salmo Washington Kettle Falls Okanagan Valley Walla Walla, Wash. Coos Bay Omak Raymond Cranbrook North Bend Newport Florence Lincoln City Siletz Bay Port Orford Crescent City Crater Lake Cove Palisades State Park Jefferson County Lewis and Clark Yahk

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