Thursday, July 19, 2012

From the Cascades to the Sierras via Hwy. 49

After my 430-mile trek on July 4 from Lewiston, Idaho to Sisters, Ore., I was a little slow to get up on Thursday, July 5. My faithful Wee-Strom needed was overdue for an oil change, so I stopped in Bend -- first at a McDonald's for breakfast and then at a Suzuki dealership for three quarts of synthetic 10W40 and a fresh oil filter.

Thus fortified, I headed south on US 97 toward California. We'd avoided freeways and flat, straight roads as much as we could, but this stretch turned out to be the worst so far on this trip. Nevada's deserts might be boring, but US 97 was utterly depressing despite its route through Deschutes and Winema National Forests and proximity to Crater Lake National Park. Except for a few small patches, the woodlands on both sides of the road were logged, leaving stumps and discarded branches, deformed older trees and scrawny new growth but removing all the prime, mature trees.

Things didn't improve much when I arrived at Klamath Falls, which sounded like an interesting and potentially scenic spot but turned out to be featureless, flat and drab. There are no falls at Klamath Falls, but as I left the area, Mount Shasta appeared on the horizon. What a sight!

For some reason, I only saw these signs in Oregon. While this advice is alien to us who live in Hawaii, the need for it does reflect poorly on the intelligence of Beaver State drivers. The logged-out scenery in the background was depressingly ubiquitous virtually all the dreary way from Bend to Mt. Shasta.
Omitting the boring ride from Bend down US 97 through Klamath Falls to Mt. Shasta, Calif. (A), this was my route: First to Hat Creek (B); then Graeagle (C); Downieville (D); Auburn (E), where I spent the night; Placerville (F) and Big Tree State Park outside Arnold and near Angel's Camp (G).
Rising from the dreary flats of Klamath Falls, where the elevation is 4,099 feet and there are actually no waterfalls, Mt. Shasta rises dramatically to 14,179 feet and is a joy to behold from as far away as 150 miles. A stratovolcano, Shasta is the second highest peak in the Cascade Range (Rainier at 14,411 feet is the highest), has seven glaciers and last erupted in 1786.
While Hawaii's anti-billboard law is perceived as overly fussy by some, there is something sacrilegious about slapping advertising on a sight as grand as Shasta.

I found a KOA campground in Mt. Shasta City, pitched my tent among giant Douglas fir trees and set about with my oil change. I had an audience of five kids from the next campsite. The oldest was to be in second grade come September; the youngest was perhaps four. I provided their entertainment for about two hours, since I'd packed an oil filter wrench but not a 3/8-inch ratchet handle to turn it. 

I struck out when I asked at the camp office if any of the maintenance guys were around who might have a ratchet, but noticed they had some large hose clamps -- probably for RV liquid waste systems. I figured I could McGuyver the problem: I'd tighten the hose clamp around the spin-off filter and then bash the screw on the clamp with my hatchet to loosen the filter.

Of course, the hose clamp broke after I'd bashed it twice and the filter was still to tight to twist off by hand. So, I had to resort to the traditional solution, which was poking holes in the filter with a screwdriver and twisting it off while spewing dirty oil all over. This was a hit with the kids.

After cleaning up, I went to town and picked up an order of chicken in black bean sauce from a Chinese restaurant, washed it down with some red wine and hit the sack. 
Friday morning, I stopped for breakfast southeast of Mt. Shasta on Hwy. 89 in McCloud and admired these two pristine hot rods -- California car culture art objects. 
Another view of Shasta from along the road to Hat Creek, a tiny town dependent on hunting and fishing .
Shasta can be seen from this overlook near Hat Creek ...
... as can Mount Lassen, the southernmost active volcano in the Cascade Range, which last erupted in May 1915. Lasses and Mount St. Helens are the only two volcanoes in the continental U.S. that have erupted since 1900.

The story of Mount Lassen's eruption was a new one for me. Although, like St. Helen's, its explosive eruption blew the top off the mountain and unleashed a lahar -- a wall of water, mud and ash -- that flowed four miles into Hat Creek, flooding the valley and destroying six houses, it didn't kill anyone. Few people inhabited the valley in 1915, and not many more do today. 

More than 140 miles by road from Shasta at Lake Almanor, the snow-covered peak was still clearly visible.

After filling up at Old Station -- the only gasoline available within 60 miles -- I took Hwy. 44 toward Susanville before turning south to Westwood, Clear Creek and Lake Almanor. There, I took Hwy. 89 south through Crescent Mills and Quincy to Graeagle, a pleasant resort town that was packed with holiday travelers, including a BMW rider who was parked in the shade near the gasoline station.

We had a chat and he told me he'd just ridden up from Sacramento taking Hwy. 49 from Auburn. "That last 30 miles was the best motorcycle ride I've ever had," he said. "Perfect, brand-new asphalt, winding through the hills."

Needless to say, I struck out for Hwy. 49 and soon had my first view of the Sierra Nevadas.
The granite Sierra Nevada mountain range begins at the Susan River in the north, seen here from Gold Lake, and runs south to the Tehachapi Pass near Bakersfield. The name "Sierra" comes from the Spanish for "jagged mountain range," which in turn comes from the Latin "serra," which means "saw." "Nevada" comes from the Spanish "nevado" for "snowy."
Downieville was a welcome stop after 30 miles of newly paved, curvy asphalt on Hwy. 49 from Graeagle. A BMW rider I met in Graeagle said it was the best motorcycle road he'd ever ridden. Apparently, he hadn't been to Rattlesnake Grade, although the scenery along Hwy. 49 might have topped the Rattlesnake's. It was the kind of afternoon when folks just sat in the shade outside the grocery store to talk story.
The Pacific Coast Highway has its charms, but Calif. 49 -- the Golden Chain Highway, named after the 49ers of the 1849 California gold rush -- is in the same category: great motorcycle road. Connecting the mining towns of the Sierra Nevada from Vinton to Oakhurst, passing by Yosemite National Park along the way.
This perfectly restored Jaguar XKE roadster enjoyed a shady parking spot in Downieville. If I had to choose an alternative vehicle for Hwy. 49, it would do nicely. 

South of Downieville, the fresh asphalt ended, but the ride through Grass Valley to Auburn was still a pleasant end to a great ride through parts of Northern California I'd never visited before. By the time I arrived in Auburn, I was too tuckered to camp, found a motel for the night and picked up dinner at the Wienerschnitzel restaurant next-door. 

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Taking the Rattlesnake around to Bend

The Fourth of July dawned bright and clear. Daniel and I packed up, crossed the Snake River to Clarkston and turned south along the river through Hell's Gate to Asotin, Wash., looking for a gas station to fill up. Then, in a repeat of yesterday's twisty descent into Lewiston, we climbed out of the Snake River Canyon and headed south.

Neither of us knew about the Rattlesnake Grade, a 13-mile stretch of twisties descending to the Grande Ronde River. It's 110 curves rival the Smoky Mountain's often-crowded Tail of the Dragon, but the Rattlesnake is a long way from any major population centers and we had it virtually all to ourselves.

As we wound our way along the Rattlesnake with me in the lead, I rounded a corner in a forested area as a cougar dropped gracefully off the slope to my left into the middle of the road. I was only about 50 yards away and it was unmistakeably a mountain lion. As soon as I spotted him I asked myself if I really wanted to stop, but he took one look at me and, in a bound, was over the guardrail on the down-slope side.

Rattlesnake Grade, Washington Hwy. 129, 13 miles and 110 curves of motorcycle fun, took us from Lewiston, Idaho and Clarkston, Wash. into Oregon.
We rode down the grade from northeast to southwest. This satellite photo shows the route. A cougar jumped into the road 50 yards in front of me in Fields Spring State Park, the forested area at top right. Before I could decide whether it would be wise to stop, it jumped over the guardrail on the downhill side and was gone.
Daniel and I had a blast on Rattlesnake Grade and then stopped for breakfast at Boggan's Oasis on the Grande Ronde River at the bottom of the hill.
Entering Oregon, Wash. 129 becomes Ore. 3 and climbs to overlook Joseph Canyon, named for Chief Joseph, whose Wallowa band of the nomadic Nez Perce people once wintered in its shelter.
The town of Enterprise, Ore. was celebrating the Fourth of July with a downtown big flea market. We stopped to browse, but continued on to Elgin, where we stopped for a delicious lunch of fish and chips at Sig's Restaurant.

During lunch, Daniel and I both called home. Dan said his wife wasn't feeling well and thought he should cut the trip short -- heading straight back to Las Vegas and a plane home rather than exploring the Sierras with me. We'd had a couple of trying days -- enduring rain in Coeur d'Alene and strong crosswinds from there to Lewiston -- and a short, two-day ride to Las Vegas was enough for him. On the other hand, I'd promised myself to make it over the Tioga Pass from Yosemite to Death Valley. So, we decided to split up.

My goal, then, was to head west to Bend, Ore. and then turn south toward California.
West of Baker City, Ore. are Strawberry Mountain, the state's 27th highest, and a giant Conestoga wagon set up by the local tourism agency. Actual Conestoga wagons, which were common on the Oregon Trail, averaged about 18 feet long, 11 feet tall and four feet wide.
US 26, the Ochoco Highway -- my route to Bend -- cuts right through the dramatic Picture Gorge, part of the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument, following Rock Creek, a tributary of the John Day River, which flows into the Columbia.
From Picture Gorge, I had another 100 miles to go to spend the night at a gentrified former KOA campground near Bend. The campground was actually in Sisters, Ore., named for these three volcanoes (U.S. Geological Survey photo), and it was the most expensive camping on this year's trip -- $64 per night for a tent -- but I'd ridden more than 300 miles and needed to rest. Adding insult, the tent had to be pitched on the asphalt RV pull-in, not on the manicured grass. I bought oil and a filter at the Suzuki dealership in Bend on my way out of town.
It was a long day. Beginning in Lewiston (A), I rode the Rattlesnake Grade to Enterprise (B), headed west to La Grande (C), south to Baker City (D), turning west again through Picture Gorge, and camped in Sisters, just north of Bend (E).

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Wet weather, wine, dams and more dams

The night of June 29 passed uneventfully, with the noise of the swollen North Thompson River lulling us to sleep. Saturday morning, David and I had breakfast at an A&W in Valemount, which served surprisingly tasty food and good coffee. Daniel arrived as we were finishing and told us not to wait -- he'd catch up in Clearwater, about 150 miles south.

The weather finally turned on us and the run to Clearwater was a wet one, although the scenery was spectacular with clouds and mists filling the valleys and hanging on the mountainsides.

By the time we arrived in Clearwater, it was nearly time for lunch and we tried another truck-stop A&W restaurant with equalloy pleasant results. Again, Daniel arrived as we were finishing up and joined us for the next leg south to Kamloops.

Our original plan was to go east to Salmon Arm and then southeast to Kaslo and Kootenay Lake, with a couple of ferry rides thrown in for fun. Unfortunately, eastern British Columbia was seriously socked in with rain and floods -- hence the detour to Kamloops, where we Daniel found us a tired but well-equipped $75 motel room.

David decided he'd head off on his own in the morning to visit friends in Spokane, but took advantage of our dry room to sack out on the floor on his Thermarest. First, however, he had to mop up the floor because the little fridge in the well-equipped room decided to defrost itself.

Daniel volunteered to forage for dinner and returned with $75-worth of Chinese food, which ended up being breakfast, too.

David left us at Kamlopps (A) and rode straight to Spokane to visit friends, while Daniel and I took a slower pace and a longer route through Kelowna (B) and the Osoyoos wine region (C), stopping for the night at a state park at Bridgeport, Wash. (D). Next day, we visited the Grand Coulee Dam (E) and stopped at a KOA campgrund on Couer d'Alene Lake in Idaho (F). After a wet and stormy night, we surrendered to a strong crosswind when we left Couer d'Alene and only made it to Lewiston, Idaho (G), camping and drying out at Hells Gate State Park on the Snake River.
Send a hungry man out to forage for dinner and you might end up with $75 worth of Chinese take-out. It was great for dinner and still good for breakfast the next morning.
The weather reports for southeastern British Columbia weren't good there was heavy rain and flooding ovefrnight, but we tried turning east out of Kelowna anyway, hoping the front had passed. Unfortunately, it hadn't and after we encountered increasingly heavy rain and this rockslide, we decided to turn back and go directly south through Osoyoos to the U.S. border.

Sunday morning, July 1, Canada Day, we bid David aloha, packed up and headed south to Vernon and Kewlona. The weather was soft and sunny, there was no traffic and the road was scenic. We stopped at a small town cafe for coffee and cinnamon buns fresh from the oven.

The weather held up through Vernon and, although the reports for eastern B.C. hadn't improved, it was so warm and sunny in Kewlona, we decided to turn east again.

Not five miles up the road, however, we'd gained more than 1,000 feet in elevation, lost 15 or 20 degrees in temperature and got wetter and wetter from the rain. We passed a house next to a river that had been engulfed, with several feet of water rushing over what had been the front and back yards.

A mile further, a car coming from the opposite direction flashed its lights and the driver waved at us out his window. We rounded the next turn cautiously and found a rock slide covering the right-hand lane.

While we didn't mind adventure finding us, we decided not to seek it out and turned back to Kewlona and then south to the border through wine country.
Mission Creek had overflowed its banks a few miles east of Kelowna, flooding this home.
Back in the sunny Okanagan Valley, we stopped at the Noble Ridge winery -- one of many in the region.  
We shared a chilled bottle of Noble Ridge pinot grigio and an assortment of cheeses, olives and prosciutto.
Approaching the U.S. border, we had to cool our heels for about an hour at a gas station/cafe while a squall went through and rain cooled the Canada Day afternoon.
Sunday night, we stopped in Bridgeport, Wash. at a park next to the Chief Joseph Dam on the Columbia River. The dam is the second largest producer of hydroelectric power in the U.S. Our sleep was interrupted by the sound of fireworks set off by local farm workers who kept blasting away until 4 a.m.
Monday morning, we visited the Grand Coulee Dam, the largest producer of hydroelectric power in the nation, which is just 40 miles upstream from Chief Joseph Dam.
Built between 1938 and 1942, Grand Coulee is the largest concrete structure in the world and the legacy of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, after whom the lake created by the dam is named.

After lunch in Grand Coulee, we rode to Couer d'Alene, Idaho and camped in a KOA on the lake. That evening and overnight, a series of thunderstorms tested the water repellancy of my tent and I awoke Tuesday to find several puddles under my air mattress. We packed up our soggy gear and set off for the south hoping to get close to Bend, Ore., but a strong crosswind wore us down and we decided to stop at Lewiston, Idaho, where David and I had camped last year.
Lewiston is on the Snake River, which carved a deep gorge in the high prairie. While US 95 takes a more-or-less direct route into the city, the old highway still twists and turns its way down to the river. We took the old road. That's Lewiston, Idaho on the left and Clarkston, Wash. on the right.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Jasper means ice, bears and breathtaking vistas

After two nights camping at Banff's Tunnel Mountain campground, we convened at McDonald's on Banff Avenue, checked our email and ate breakfast before leaving for Lake Louise and Jasper National Park -- the northernmost goal of our 2012 motorcycle adventure.

The weather was sketchy and we were spattered with rain before we passed Lake Louise. Although sunny skies would have made riding easier, the dramatic skies, low clouds, mist and showers actually enhanced the scenery.

Columbia Ice Field was a highlight, as were the bears. The roads were mostly empty, but every hour or two we'd encounter a cluster of cars and campers parked on the shoulder -- a sure sign of bear.

After lunch at Subway in the town of Jasper, we headed out of the park, endured more than an hour of construction back up where workers were repairing a washout, and camped next to a swollen river at Valemount, B.C. The sound of the rushing water lulled us to sleep and drowned out the snoring.

Jasper National Park was the northernmost destination in this year's journey.
The road through Jasper mostly tracks through valleys with rocky peaks looming on both sides.
Newly risen from hibernation, this slender grizzly was chomping on fresh green grass and wildflowers next to the highway. 
The less than perfect weather added drama to the scenery.
A cluster of vehicles parked on the side of the road was a sure sign there was a bear.
This young black bear was too busy eating to pay much attention to humans.
The Columbia Ice Field, a glacier, flowed within yards of the road.
David, Daniel and the Columbia glacier.
A late snow melt coupled with weeks of rainy weather caused problems like the washout that backed up traffic for at least a mile in both directions when we left Jasper for our campground in Valemount.
Our swing through Canada began in Butte (A). We crossed the border in Rooseville (B), spent two nights in Banff (C), visited the bears and glaciers in Jasper (D), camped in Valemount (E) and took refuge from the rain in a motel in Kamloops (F).

Sunday, July 1, 2012

A freemanff in Banff, unfettered and alive

There was some concern whether Daniel would be able to cross the Canadian border because, although he'd registered his bike in Hawaii, he'd neglected to bring the Hawaii license plates with him. So, his Buell, which he bought used in Billings last summer, still had a "Montana Permanent" license plate.

Luckily, the nice young woman at the Canadian port of entry either didn't notice or didn't pursue the license plate issue and only looked at our passports.

David was a few hours behind us, having decided to get a new rear tire before leaving Butte. We agreed he'd meet us at the campground in Banff, where I'd reserved a site back in April.

Once over the border, we stopped for lunch at Canal Flats, BC, where the restaurant exterior was discouraging but the food turned out to be great. Dan had fish and chips and I had a cup of cream of broccoli soup and a chicken quesadilla before we continued north to Kootenay and Banff national parks.

A gaggle of big horn sheep greeted us just inside the gate of Kootenay National Park.
Flanman gets his first good view of the Canadian Rocky Mountains.
The roads through Kootenay National Park aren't challenging, but the scenery is gorgeous.
The town of Banff is snuggled between giant slabs of granite.
Banff Springs Hotel -- now managed by Fairmont hotels -- is the city's man-made landmark.
Not to be outdone by New York's Central Park, Banff features horse-drawn carriages. When the driver saw me skooch down to take this photo, he told the horse to perk up his ears. In the visitor business, you want to put your best ears forward.
Banff's mountains seem to jut right out of the downtown grid -- no foothills. A surprising number of visitors are Asian -- perhaps the majority.
This little sight-seer was taking a break on Banff Avenue.
Some people just hate to leave behind any transportation options.
David and Daniel take a break in downtown Banff, where we frequented McDonalds for the free wi-fi, bathrooms and cheap eats. 
Two girls pose in front of Banff's downtown waterfall. The water in all the rivers we saw was on or past the brink of flooding.
This MGA 1600 Mark II parked at the waterfall was as ageless and stylish as the Banff Springs Hotel.
The Sulfur Mountain gondolas carry skiers up the hill in the winter and sightseers in the summer from just outside downtown Banff.
Unfortunately, the cost of a ride up and down the hill on the gondola, $33.95 plus tax, was a little too rich for my blood.
Sightseeing isn't a job for wimps.
Our campsite backed up to a prairie dog village and the little guys were up checking us out. They also let us get close enough to take their pictures. 
The campground was called Tunnel Mountain, a name awarded by early railroad surveyors who thought they'd have to drill a tunnel through it. Subsequently, the railroad found a way around the hill, but the name stuck.
The municipal golf course in Banff, open to the public, offers spectacular views. It's a little hard to carry clubs on a motorcycle trip, unfortunately,