Day 10 - The Dales OR to Portland OR (89 miles)
Today was a day I had been looking forward to for some time. I was going to cycle along the "Historic Columbia River Highway". This was listed on my map as "one of the highlights" of the trip, and they didn't exaggerate.
"On starting the surveys," wrote the highway's engineer Samuel C. Lancaster, "our first business was to find the beauty spots or those points where the most beautiful things along the line might be seen in the best advantage, and if possible, to locate the road in such a way as to reach them". They were resoundingly successful. In 1913 it was the first modern highway built in the Pacific Northwest. It was also the first scenic highway ever built in the USA. Even after all the development and the building of the interstate, parts of the original exist and it is still spectacular.
It was a good call crashing at the hotel the night before as it was going to be yet another scorching day. It was already very hot at 08:00 when I left the hotel, and with a few steep climbs ahead of me I made sure that I was well hydrated.
I cycled past The Dales Dam which was a very impressive structure. At one point there were major rapids here, but that of course had been obliterated by the dam. In fact Clark described the river near here as "agitated, gut Swelling, boiling & whorling in every direction". One couldn't be further from today's reality.
This was a popular spot for salmon fishing in times past. I saw photographs of Indians with spears standing on the rocks spearing the fish as they came upriver. But no more. Salmon were central to the economic system of the Indians, and in fact one of the arguments in favour of destroying the existing dams lies in the fact that through their impact on the salmon they are in violation of the treaties with the Indians.
Travelling west through The Dales Highway 30 ran parallel to the Interstate, further inland from the river. It was a very rustic cycle, with pine clad hills to the side of me. I met another cyclist -- Mick -- who was doing a trans-American trip. He had started a week earlier in Tacoma WA and cycled south and was now heading east. Unemployed, he had no final destination in mind. He told me that he had never done anything like this before and was daunted at the prospects, but felt that he needed a goal to motivate him having lost his job in IT some time ago and not been able to replace it. He was towing a trailer which had an unusual mechanism for connecting to the bike. I said it looked a bit dangerous and he concurred, showing me a gash on the back of his leg where he had come into contact with it. When it comes to trailers the 'BOB' is by far the most wisely designed, and by the look of it robust.
The road began to climb and I soon found myself on some very steep sections. A couple of people on racing bicycles zoomed past on a downward run, but they didn't even acknowledge me. I guess I wasn't wearing fancy enough clothing in bright colours or riding a sufficiently flash bicycle. The road continued to climb and there was a series of tight switchbacks which would have been fun to take on a downward run. I was hoping to find the same on the other side.
At the top there was a fine masonry viewing platform overlooking the river. As you can see from the photo below, which really doesn't do it justice, the view was spectacular.
Shortly past this point I met two women who were out for a ride. We cycled together for the next 10 miles. They lived in Hood River and had cycled up here (about 25 miles) as part of a regular exercise programme. One of them taught some form of aerobic exercise which I had never heard of before (she was amazed as it was apparently all the rage in the USA) while the other was unemployed. I had come to learn that there was a major problem with unemployment in Oregon and Washington.
They were riding very expensive Canondale bicycles and I commented that I had seen quite a few people on flash bicycles. They told me that Hood River was a very sports oriented place and people took their cycling, wind surfing, kayaking, etc. very seriously. One lamented how she had loaned her bike to someone for the Seattle to Portland ride and that it just wasn't riding the same. I could empathise. When you spend a lot of time on a bicycle you become acutely aware of how it feels and even a slight change something such as the height of the seat becomes noticable.
We went off my route as they took me down a back road to Mosier. This was one of those experiences where 'momentum is your friend' as Mosier was at river level so I had a great downward run on an empty road. In Mosier they took me along to where the Columbia Highway had been turned into a 'State Trail', open to non-motorised transport you can imagine. The trail was very popular and there was a constant flow of people along its length. After cyclists, mothers with prams were the next most common user, followed by roller bladers and even one hyper-fit looking individual doing cross-country skiing on wheels. I don't know how else to describe it.
Unusual for a trail, there were tunnels along it. These were quite narrow as they were built to only take a Model T Ford. When the trail was built they were refurbished, and in places lined with concrete, but one could still see remnants of the original masonry work. There were openings which gave amazing views down to the river below.
It was such an absolute pleasure cycling this 7 mile trail that I can't describe it. The absence of motorised traffic is so special that in itself makes trails fun. Adding to this the amazing scenery, it really was a very special ride. But like all good things it came to an end too soon, and I found myself in Hood River, the wind surfing capital of the USA.
Hood River came across as a town similar to places like Breckenridge in Colorado or Whitefish in Montana. There were lots of nice looking cafes, many, many sporting goods shops, and a sporting air about the place which was different to every other town I had been in on this trip. It was also somewhat hilly with lots of traffic, so not a great place from a cyclists point of view. I didn't feel inclined to stay so I cycled through town, only stopping for an ice cream. It was another very hot day.
From Hood River it was unfortunately back on the Interstate for about 10 miles. Having been spoiled with the traffic free trail, I now had to suffer through high speed traffic at very close quarters. Unfortunately, there was no other way west. At the first opportunity the route went off the Interstate onto a side road. Normally I would have appreciated this, but not today. It was probably the hottest day of my trip and this route took me for 7 miles up a steep hill and then down the other side, where I passed under the Interstate again. Perhaps it was the heat which made it seem excessively difficult, but I would have rather put up with a few more miles of the relatively flat Interstate than have a senseless climb like this.
At Cascade Locks I stopped for lunch. They made me a very refreshing crushed ice drink which I could easily have had two of, but decided to show a modicum of restraint. During lunch I chatted with a fellow who was a keen sailor, and was therefore very up with the play on New Zealand. He said that it was unfortunate that New Zealand lost the America's cup, but since the team that won it for the Swiss were mainly New Zealanders, we shouldn't be too disconsolate. He had even spent 6 months living there while a boat was being finished which he sailed to the USA for the owner. That seemed to be his job, taking boats to different places for their owners. Not too bad a life, although I wouldn't know how to cope with being on a boat for extended periods. I would miss my bicycling.
The trail reappeared for a short section after Cascade Locks. In some sections it hugged the cliff side (see below). I was glad that I was on a bicycle so that I could regularly stop and enjoy the view. It always seems to be much more of a hassle when in a car. At one point the trail ended and I needed to lug my bicycle up a 3 story stairwell. They had fortunately installed grooves for the wheels which made it a bit easier, but one really notices the weight of a fully laden touring bicycle at times like these.
After another short stint on the Interstate I bid farewell and enjoyed 22 miles cycling down the original alignment of the Historic Columbia Highway. Unlike the trail, this was open to traffic, but as it was so scenic most people drove at low, cyclist friendly speeds. Then again, after the Interstate almost anything would seem like a slow speed.
The only way of describing the cycle is by saying that it is in the top 10 list of beautiful rides anywhere. One is treated with a variety of natural beauty, from tree lined roads to rugged cliffs towing above you. There are waterfalls, dells, and a number of places with stunning scenery. The photos below give a taste of it, but they don't do it justice.
The summit of the road is at a place called 'Vista House' where one can see up (and down) the Columbia River. Incredible. As I laboured to the top a number of tourists shook their heads at me in dismay. Obviously not their idea of a holiday. In the second photo below you can see an example of the stone masonry that was common throughout the highway. It was apparently done by Italian immigrants who were brought in for that specific task.
At the top I met up with three cyclists who were riding the highway as a training exercise. One of them was getting ready for the World Triathlon Championships which were to be held in New Zealand later in 2003. He asked me a barrage of questions about New Zealand which I did my best to answer. All four of us went into the tourist information trailer to refill our water bottles, and partake of their air conditioning. I found it particularly interesting as they had photographs of the construction of the road. Very impressive engineering feat, especially when one sees the rudimentary technology that they had available to do the work.
Further along from Vista House I stopped at a lookout and took the photo below looking up river. The Historic Columbia Highway really is one of the most amazing roads anywhere.
At this point I was at the crest and so from here it was downhill to Troutdale. It is a great sadness that what takes so long to get up, takes such a short time to go down. Still, it was a fun ride along a winding, tree lined road. Towards the end it followed the river and there were many people swimming and playing in the water. It was Friday evening and I thought what a great way to end the week, particularly on a hot evening like this.
Skirting Troutdale I headed down towards the river. I was passed by two unfriendly cyclists who didn't even say hello (fancy clothes on fancy racing bikes again). I was getting quite tired and hungry so had a break by the side of the road and ate an energy bar. I reflected how little one needs in life to be satisfied ... especially after I had spent a fantastic day cycling through amazing nature.
The road to Portland follows 'Marine Drive', which, as the name suggests, followed the river. I was fascinated to see whole communities of 'house boats', but they really weren't boats. It was as if they had taken a regular house and built it on a floating dock. The kind of place that the guy stayed in the film 'Sleepless in Seattle'. But there were dozens of them together, each with its own unique design. I wondered what happens during floods, or when the wood rots. Must look into that some day.
Since I was hot and tired I was looking forward to a shower and a cool hotel room. Unfortunately, when I got to Portland I found that most of them near the airport, which was just off my route, were full. At the fourth one they offered to call around which I was most grateful for and they found me a very flash room, at a flash price. However, I was stonkered by this time so I gladly cycled over and paid up. After a Subway sandwich for dinner I had a very deep and refreshing sleep.
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