Thursday, September 3, 2009

Ride Report: Mountain Passes of the Wallowa Mountain Loop, Oregon

FYI: The Wallowa loop road is currently closed due to washout from flooding! Repair is underway but is not open yet! For updates you can visit the Wallowa/Whitman National Forest web site to track repair progress and possible opening. This message thanks to an anonymous commenter below. Thanks!

(This is a joint post of DartreDame and CurioRando)

It started as a germ of an idea—as many crazy ideas do. Mary B., our friend in Joseph, Oregon, had told us that she biked to Salt Creek Summit for a ride a friend had organized for his birthday. 6100 feet up, it was a beautiful spot, just about 20 miles from Joseph. Our friend Rich told us that he had come at the Summit the other way, from Halfway to Joseph, as Day 5 of Cycle Oregon. The road from Halfway (Wallowa Mountain Loop) is only open from April to October. Running right through Hell’s Canyon Recreation Area, it is known as one of the premier scenic byways in all of America. “It kicked my butt,” said Rich to us with a proud smile, “But I did it! No sag-wagons here.”

And there it was.

The germ of an idea: Bike from Joseph to Halfway and back. We fertilized it by pulling out topo maps, tracing the route through a giant map, a route that seemed to go up, up, up, and then down, down, down…and then the same thing all over again. We added compost by researching good B&B’s in Halfway to stay overnight so we could do it over two days and wouldn’t have to carry gear. And then, the final touch—like adding a heat lamp to a growing garden. We committed. We decided we wouldn’t be too proud to hitch a ride back if we didn’t finish, but we were definitely going to give this a shot.

The details of the trip: 75 miles each way, with three summits. About 4,600+ feet of climbing out to Halfway, elevation: about 2,600 feet. And then 75 miles back, with about 6,000 feet of climbing, back into Joseph, elevation: about 4,100 feet.  Here's a great link that shows the topography and the elevation profile for the route that's too big to load into the blog:

Pedals ready?

Here’s our collage of images…

The world looks different on a bicycle. The whole way through, we didn’t see another bicycle on the road. Lots of hunters, motorhomes, SUVs, dogs, grouse, turkeys, hawks, quail, beautiful white moths, you name it, but no bikes. The views are completely different on a bicycle. You’re smaller and the grandeur around you is grander and larger. You see things you wouldn’t see in a car, and everything is far brighter.

Warm, tart, wild apples eaten right off the tree, just like it used to be for CurioRando growing up in Pennsylvania.

The road is dangerous for small critters!  The roadkill we saw included:  frogs, birds, grasshoppers, snakes (even a rattler), squirrels, rabbits. 
Vastness—big country, big hills, big plains, big valleys, BIG climbs, BIG descents. Surprises: coming to a downhill sooner than expected!  Or reaching the summit just when you thought you really needed to be done!
Patches of green stretching out in the horizon amidst brown straw.
Blue, blue skies.  Sunshine, warm on the face, hot on the arms.  Dappled light, snaking through the trees.

Lodgepole pines, some bowing, some in deep curtsy to the valley.  Ponderosa pines with pumpkin striped bark.

Snatches of flowers amidst rocky outcroppings: daisies, asters, purple thistles, some flower that’s orange on top and yellow on bottom, red and orange lichen. Small blue berries with beautiful green foliage.

Mysterious shadows on the rivers. Cooling, melodic water. Imnaha, Snake, creeks everywhere. Rushing water, eroded rocks, little waterfalls. 
Wind shuddering, whispering, chattering through the trees, whipping at us from front and too occasionally at our backs. One hard climb, it seemed like the wind was behind us for the first time, ushering us up the mountain, welcoming us to the top.

Realizing 30 mile descents are hard on the arms!

Switchbacks stacked up so that you can look straight down and see where you are going to be a couple of minutes and hundreds of feet later. Blessed switchbacks, because otherwise it would be straight up.

Always got a wave from a passing motorist if we waved first and only two cars the whole trip came a little too close for comfort. Most gave us a wide berth and it seemed like we had more respect on the mountains than we do around home.

So much more that can’t be captured in words or even pictures (and just an FYI: our pictures were taken on CurioRando’s cell phone camera to save weight so they’re not as sharp as we would like)…

Our top lessons from this trip:

1. Slow and steady wins the race. As Rich told us, there are no flats on this ride, just ups and downs. 2,000 and 3,000 foot sustained climbs over 18-30 miles was a new experience. It’s just about stamina and saving yourself. We didn’t tear up any hills. The most exertion all at once we expended was at the very end when CurioRando revved up and DartreDame drafted behind him all the way into Joseph, both of us pushing our limits for a grand finale.

2.  Love your Granny!  We used our granny gears a lot!  No shame there--they saved our knees and got us up the mountain.

3.  Carry your own water!  Campground maps and brochures lie.  According to those, there were five spots with water.  We found only one that was actually open.  Kind strangers gave us water and we were much obliged.

4.  Check your equipment.  CurioRando had two flats (the first pictured on top and the second just to the left) and discovered that his tires were completely worn through!  Just got lucky that the tire boot actually held up for the rest of the ride.
5. Trust yourself. What got us going was a belief that we might actually be able to do this, in spite of our fears and even though it was a completely new experience. CurioRando worried about his injuries, DartreDame worried about her fitness. But in the end, we trusted and we made it.

6. When in doubt, dunk. It may be tempting to ride by a little creek on a long, hot climb to get to the top. But it almost always pays to get your head wet, let water drizzle down your neck, even dunk your whole shirt in the river as DartreDame did! The whole world is better for the next half hour. This saved us on the long climbs up in the middle of the beating down heat.

7.  Talk to people you meet.  CurioRando got a great wolf story from the archery elk hunters (who were out from Coos Bay for a whole months!) who bugled in a pack of six or seven wolves.  "It's hard to believe how big a wolf is until you are 20 yards away," said one hunter.

8.  Massage.  When we got into Halfway, we had plenty of sore spots.
We gave each other massages and boy, did it help. Fresh as daisies the next day!

9. Recover and you get stronger the next day. We took Recoverite as soon as we got in, had a good night’s sleep and we actually felt stronger the next day. Knees, joints, everything seemed to work just a little more lubricated and determined than the day before.

10. Riding together strengthens our bond. We had a blast! Plain and simple. Enjoying each other’s company, supportively riding, taking in the new vistas around the corner. (And CurioRando even got DartreDame signed up to be a Randonneur now!) Maybe this isn’t always so, but it sure is our experience!