Trails and Tribulations: The Oregon Timber Trail

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To say Miles and Ben’s Oregon Timber Trail trip had its setbacks would be a serious understatement. Lost bikes, heat stroke, unfavourable air quality, and major mechanicals resulted in a truly unforgettable adventure. Despite these bouts of misfortune, the heartwarming glow of humanity proved itself over and over. Read Miles’ ride report and find out what went wrong… and what strangers did to make things right again.

“All we ask is that you pass it on.” I never would have expected to hear this phrase so many times during my time bikepacking the Oregon Timber Trail earlier this year. I approach multi-day trips expecting setbacks, and try to have some kind of contingency plan in place, but some complications are unexpected, often requiring assistance from outsiders. What made this particular bikepacking trip so memorable for me was how often complete strangers offered so much, asking for nothing in return, in an effort to keep Ben and I on track for a sub-15-day finish.

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Hello, Oregon. Goodbye, Bike.

I can’t be completely certain, but I think I could see my plane – the same plane I’d walked off of before – take off for its return trip to Salt Lake City, my bike still sitting in what should have been an emptied cargo area. My airline then decided to send my bike and the rest of my bikepacking gear on a Pacific Northwestern plane tour, making several stops along the way in various cities, before finally arriving back in Medford two days later. At 11:30 pm that evening, after the courier driver had successfully delivered my weathered looking bike box, Ben and I got going on a late night motel bike build.

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Thankfully, Jason Goodman at Swift Industries had packed up my bike with the utmost care, so it arrived unblemished and was ready to ride after only a few minor tweaks. The young man working the motel front desk was also kind enough to let us pack up some of the free continental breakfast the night before, in preparation for an early depart. Shortly thereafter, both Ben and I were catching what little time we had left to sleep, with the expectation of unseasonably warm temperatures and plenty of forest fire smoke to contend with.

Due to my bike’s delayed arrival, we opted to take the Klamath Falls detour, which then turned into riding the Oregon Outback Route after discovering some trail closures around Silver Creek Marsh and Yamsay Mountain within the Fremont Tier of the route. Exhausted and dealing with the effects of heat stroke, I rolled excitedly into Chemult on day two looking forward to a big meal – make that two big meals – and a much-needed resupply. During the first of our stops in town, we started chatting with a local fireman who recommended we camp for free in the forested area just north of the fire station. With no reason to do otherwise, we fell asleep in sight of the Chemult Fire Station and within earshot of roaring highway traffic. Glamorous, I know.

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Acclimatization

I remember Skyler Des Roches sending me a warning message (one that I obviously didn’t take to seriously) about my need to acclimatize to the Oregon heat, and to not go too hard on my first few days. Well, I paid for that one, but after some good food and rest in Chemult, I was feeling ready to finally get onto some singletrack. I’m sure Ben was a bit relieved to see me adapting as well, as our adventure was just getting started and what lay ahead would certainly not be a walk in the park.

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So began the Willamette Tier and our first taste of singletrack along the Windy Lakes Trail leading to Summit Lake and the white-knuckled descent along steep and sandy switchbacks heading down to Timpanogas Campground, our home for the night. At this point, I was expecting to run into another group of bikepackers, as we had been spotting tire tracks all over the place. Instead, we found only a few families car camping and too many mosquitoes for our liking.

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What looked to be a fairly consistent descent from Timpanogas Lake to Oakridge turned into a strenuous ride along Middle-Fork Trail, which ate up a good chunk of our day, until Hills Creek Reservoir. Once there, we averaged around 10 mph along the gravel forest service road that leads almost right into Oakridge, an important resupply spot for riders continuing the Willamette Tier and on into the Deschutes Tier. At this point, we were almost halfway through our modified version of the Oregon Timber Trail, but with some of the more remote riding still ahead of us, the most celebration we could muster was a few beers and two separate dinners at Brewers Union in Oakridge. I’d never had bangers and mash before that point, but it seemed like the right decision in the moment.

Bunchgrass & Busted Bits

I should mention that up until this point Ben’s bike had been making some awful noises. Liv from Willamette Mountain Mercantile in Oakridge best described the noise as “a bag of nails being tossed around over and over.” It sounded like either an incredibly worn out rear hub or bottom bracket, but we landed on the conclusion that it was actually just a worn out chainring mixing with the carbon cranks to create one bad sounding bike. Still, Ben kept pedaling and the bike kept on crunching, all the way to Hood River, in fact. It wasn’t until after we tackled the infamous ascent of Bunchgrass Ridge and arrived at Waldo Lake that I noticed my rear shifter cable was holding on by a single strand of cable. And, for some reason we forgot to pack a spare cable between the two of us. Afraid to shift gears, I hopped on a gravel side road detour to Cultus Lake where I hoped to find someone with a bike, spare shifter cable, or worst case scenario, a ride to the nearest bike shop.

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As it turned out, we bumped into Gabriel Amadeus, Executive Director of the Oregon Timber Trail, at Cultus Lake Resort. He quickly offered up his shifter cable to us. Unfortunately, after unnecessarily struggling to replace the rear cable, I found my shifter to be malfunctioning in ways that I decided to be a few steps beyond my abilities to remedy, and we turned to the Cultus Lake day-use area boaters for support. I approached the first boat I saw leaving the lake and asked what direction they were heading. Before I could explain the situation, I was told to load up my bike into the back of their truck, someone handed me a beer, and we were on our way towards Bachelor Mountain Ski Resort and Bike Park.

As luck would have it, I picked the absolute kindest and most giving group of friends I have ever encountered on a bikepacking trip, and perhaps ever. Firstly, Mike (the owner of the truck and boat) called up his friend Richard who also went completely out of his way to meet us in Bend and would ultimately be responsible for rebuilding my defunct shifter and getting my bike back to me. Then, Mike’s close friends, who were also in the truck, set me up with a place to sleep in their house, a shower, and provided me with meals during my unplanned departure from the route. To top things off, Mike covered all expenses related to the hiccup and then wrapped things up with a shuttle to Sisters to reconnect with Ben. All he asked was for me to pass it on when I was able to, and with a firm handshake, Mike was gone.

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Ho Hos and Ding Dongs

I can’t forget to mention that Ben continued on route from Cultus Lake, camping once along the way before eventually meeting me in Sisters. With my unexpected rest day and a great evening in Sisters, Ben and I set off along the Santiam Wagon Road, up and over Crescent Mountain, before a surprisingly enjoyable descent into our most remote camp spot on the route, Shedd Camp. Assuming most Oregon Timber Trail riders spend a night in Sisters, Shedd Camp will likely be seeing a lot of use of in the next few years. Being one of the most primitive campsites on route, it will be interesting to see how the area changes. There are flatish areas for tents and a flowing stream for drinking and bathing. Unless we wanted to push up another climb to Tule Lake, it made for a great wilderness camping opportunity.

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After several back-to-back climbs and descents heading north from Shedd Camp, we made the decision to go a few miles off route into Idahna to take advantage of the small market thath just happened to coincide with one of our hottest days on the OTT. To give you an idea of what Idahna is all about, the 2010 population was just 134, and the Idahna Country Store is surely the most visited business in the area. It was a pleasant surprise to find the store owners incredibly aware and actually fairly well-versed with the Oregon Timber Trail, and a route-specific logbook for bikepackers to share their stories and perhaps some tips of what’s to come.

I remember consuming a hot dog, ice cream sandwich, and a vanilla Coke, but there must have been more. I had an intense craving for sweets and baked goods, which really isn’t any different than a normal day for me, and made the mistake of buying a few Ding Dongs and Ho Hos. Both of them are Twinkie-style treats, and they all melted within minutes of entering the heat wave outside. Both Ben and I made the usual breakfast and dinner purchases, typically involving canned chilli, Pop-Tarts, instant oatmeal, and frozen burritos when available.

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Back into the heat, energized by Ding Dongs and Ho Hos, we tackled a sweltering 2,800-foot climb up to the McCoy snowmobile shelter, followed by one of the most enjoyable gravel descents of the entire trip down to Breitenbush Campground and the nearby hot springs. Be forewarned, the Breitenbush Hot Springs require a reservation for day-use, and are often fully booked up on weekends, so plan ahead if possible. Or, bike right by in the morning thinking that you have a resupply shortly after and that you and your riding partner will be just fine with the dwindling amount of food in your frame bags.

Unfortunately, as we learned, there is no resupply shortly after. We were left regretting our sporadic purchases in Idahna, and we were both running on fumes as we arrived at the North Arm Campground at Timothy Lake. After an awkward stroll around the campground begging for food, we scored an invitation for dinner later that night, a few granola bars, two buns, canned meat, beans, and some fruit. After a fantastic dinner with a friendly family, we returned to our campsite to find yet another camper who heard of “some hungry cyclists nearby” from a gentleman who had already given up some food earlier. After fried rice and another invitation to visit their campsite for puff pastry pie, our bellies were full and our faith in humanity was restored. There were about half a dozen good folks at Timothy Lake who gave up what they could, took nothing in return, and just wanted us to pass it on when we could. I was starting to see a trend.

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We’re Not Done Yet

It’s funny how much our emotions and attitude can change during and after a particularly challenging bikepacking trip, especially when compared to how we felt during the planning stages. I never seem to take elevation profiles on digital route maps seriously, or perhaps I just choose to ignore them completely. In any case, the Oregon Timber Trail is packed full of sizeable climbs, and although we only had around 90 miles left in our trip, it wasn’t over yet. Both Ben and I were ready for a big meal, maybe a shower, and although we were definitely enjoying ourselves out there, the countless breweries in Hood River sounded pretty good to us at this point.

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After some more remote riding, including the ridge west of Lookout Mountain on the doorstep to Mount Hood, we made our last sizeable descent down into the Upper Hood River Valley and the small town of Parkdale. More importantly, this is where we found Solera Brewing, as recommended by more than a few Oregon locals. With the day’s sweat and dirt still covering most of our bodies, we sat down for burritos and beers. Parkdale is a great spot to end up before the final day on the Oregon Timber Trail, not only because of the burritos, but also because the town is quiet, easy to zip around on bike, and it leaves a shorter final day, which means more time to spend lounging on the banks of the Columbia River Gorge in Hood River.

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After tackling such an incredible route, the climb out of Parkdale and the technical singletrack descent into Hood River all seemed so trivial. I couldn’t help but wonder if the riders out in the local trail system saw us and said, “Hey, they must be finishing an epic ride along the Oregon Timber Trail!” or perhaps something along the lines of, “What’s all that stuff on their bikes and what’s that noise coming from that guy’s drivetrain?” Living a life surrounded by bikepacking, it’s easy to forget that not everyone out there, including diehard mountain bikers, is familiar with bikepacking or the routes that may exist right in their backyards. I think it’s crucial for those who do know to help spread the word, and introduce as many people as possible to the concept of merging backpacking and mountain biking. In most cases, the folks you explain it to will be just as stoked as you are.

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Pass It On

It’s safe to say that our Oregon Timber Trail trip didn’t go as Ben and I envisioned it. Dealing with the stresses of lost baggage, accompanied by awful air quality fueled by a particularly active forest fire season, put an early damper on what should have been an exciting first few days. It took me some extra time to shake off that mentality, and if it wasn’t for the selfless individuals who were so eager to lend a hand, our goal to finish within 15 days would have been derailed even further.

I’ll end this with a massive shoutout, on behalf of our growing bikepacking community, to all of the people out there who have offered their time, food, or words of encouragement to those who needed it. It’s appreciated more than you know, and you can rest assured knowing we will be passing it on.

For a detailed look at Miles and Ben’s bikes and packlists, check out this article.

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