[Note: Continuing our holiday series of Bike Intelligencer’s past Classic Epics, we hearken back to a memorable triptych in 2003 covering Mt. St. Helens, Oregon’s McKenzie River Trail and the North Umpqua River Trail.]
After a rest day in Seattle it was time to hit the road for Mount St. Helens. I hadn’t explored this area much beyond the standard BBTC [Note: Now Evergreen Mountain Bike Alliance] routes, Ape Canyon, Plains of Abraham, Smith Creek and the Lewis River treks. And to be candid, I hadn’t really wanted to. It always seemed to me too remote to be worth the 3 to 4 hour drive, even before you hit the dirt roads and feeder routes. If you’re gonna go, it’s best to plan a 3-dayer at least.
Preston had not done his usual bang-up sales job on Juniper Creek, and there’d been quite a fall-off from the original signed-up crew. Typically Preston dryly understates the brutality factor with throwaways like, you might want to bring an extra water bottle, and there may be some climbing. Oh and don’t forget the sunscreen. Translated, this means: You will enter multi-stage dehydration unless you have adequate water; you will carry your bike up loose rocky embankments for a mile or more; you will arrive home with with full-bore melanoma unless you wear sun protection.
For the Juniper Ridge epic, though, Preston was being downright portentous. There was something about water filters… and being in shape for an 8-hour ride … and “more than average” elevation gain.
Translated: We were all going to die!
I checked the map and was somewhat relieved. That duration over that short a distance meant an average speed of around 3 mph. Heck, you can walk that fast. As it turned out, maybe not.
I probably wouldn’t have done Juniper if Armando hadn’t been signed up. He’d had his new bike for nearly a month now, and I was looking forward to swapping with him for a quick spin on the heavy metal. Plus Armando is always fun to ride with, constantly whining and making excuses while ripping and shredding far ahead of the peloton. The campsite was deserted when I got there, although Preston’s preferred slot was already taken up with his RV, followed soon after by Paul Diesner. While we did some exploring, Preston rolled up. Later Igor showed, although none of us knew it till the following morning. When Igor drove up without Armando, mumbling some apologia about missed phone calls and dropped emails, I wasn’t ready to give up. I figured Armando was already at the trailhead, jumping around in that funny spring-loaded way of his, rattling off some nonsense about what kept us so long.
Juniper Ridge starts as an hour-long shuttle over 26 miles, nearly half of which is washboard dirt road. I took Preston, Paul and Igor up in Moby Dick, Preston keeping his mouth shut despite secretly wondering (I’m sure) exactly how slow this dude could actually drive. But I have to baby the van. It’s got low clearance and 2WD and isn’t happy on dirt. Hey, we were gonna get there. Anything more would be icing the cake.
We pulled into Council Lake, up around 4,200 feet, where there were screaming kids and mini-vans and lots of bikes — with kickstands. But no Armando. I’m thinking, oh God, he left without us. And we’ll never catch him. Preston was less sanguine. He was calling Armando a no-show, saying Armando had a blister on his little finger and was going to ride St. Ed’s instead.
We scampered up the fire road around 650 feet elevation gain, then jumped onto a pleasant albeit unremarkable high-country alpine trail. It was showing signs of moto fatigue but generally rideable. Preston biffed on a downhill section and offered a long explanation for the welt below his eye, but let’s face it. Preston goes over the bars for manifold reasons, all of which boil down to one thing: Too much speed.
We were moving at a pretty good clip. Then we hit Dark Meadow, a spooky-beautiful cavity with the ride’s only real creek crossing (and water stop if you’re so inclined). I ran my muddy bike wheels through the creek and Igor burst into a series of Russian expletives, saying he had to fill his water bottle there. I was thankful merely to get a jump on him, although it lasted all of 2.5 minutes. Like a camel, I was telling myself. Just make sure you finish.
Then we started climbing to Jumbo Peak, elev. 5801, and from this point on the ride along the ridge was, for me at least, largely a hike. After a truly evil ravine push we topped out, Igor exclaiming “This is BEST part of ride!” while hopping around on his bare feet looking for wild strawberries. It really was a mindbender: Four volcanic peaks (Hood, Adams, Rainier, St. Helens) in an incomparable all-points-of-the-compass view. After sitting on jagged rocks atop Miller and Jolly to get 360s, it felt weird to top out on a flat field of green. But if you really want to feel like you’re kissing the clouds, Juniper is the ride to do.
I was starting to doubt if Armando had made the ride. Surely he would have waited for us here, if anywhere. And I hadn’t seen any bike tire tracks worthy of an Ellsworth Dare. Could it be true, I wondered. Had Armando bailed on us? The prospect was truly disheartening. Heat, bugs, dust, and now, no Armando.
Then things got hard.
From Jumbo we dived down a rocky, dust-powdered zigzag, then began the slog up to Sunrise Peak, elev. 5892. Here was where I really got to hurting. I was hyperventilating, getting dizzy spells and losing my balance. I had to sit three times. Preston having put the fear of God in me, I had toted nearly 300 oz. of water along (a 130 oz bladder, another 100 oz bladder, a 1.5 liter bottle). Normally hydrating keeps my legs churning. In this case, nothing seemed to be working. By now a constant dark cloud of bugs swarmed me at every juncture. I’d been swatting them away but was too tired even for that. Every once in awhile I felt one bite, but I barely cared.
At the top of Sunrise, Igor cheerfully allowed that the trail followed the ridge to Juniper Peak, elev. 5611, and then we’d be cruising down. The next thing we knew we were rocking and rolling down a total corkscrew, a steep, dusty, switchbacked plunge where the motos had turned much of the trail into tractionless scree. Halfway down, having lost touch with everyone, I wondered if I was hallucinating and stopped to check the map. There seemed to be no turnoffs or other departure points. I guessed I was still on the right route. I had no choice.
Finally the trail dropped into a small meadow with a pond of sorts — nothing deep enough to swim in or clear enough to drink out of. WTF, I asked Igor. I thought you said it followed the ridge. “Oh, I forgot about this section,” he said. Of course, Igor wasn’t the ride leader either, so shoot me. It was at this point that Preston noted he seldom provides expectations about the trail ahead because it’s so easy to forget exactly what’s there. Then again, if it’s a Preston ride, you probably don’t want to know anyway.
Another torturous climb, again undetectable on the contour map, and finally we were at Juniper Peak. As hammered as we were, the two Pauls discussed a fire-road drop to save us time and energy. But first we had to do a 3-mile section of singletrack to the fire road.
Whoa! What a revelation! This, yes this, was the best part of the ride! Classic rambling, shunting and thrashing downhill singletrack, and the first time on the ride that I really got any speed up. By the intersection with the road both Pauls were refreshed and ready to do the final drop down Tongue Mountain Trail. There’s still a climb, around 500 feet, and the switchbacks are pretty gnarly going down. Plus the setting sun produced a strobe effect on the ferns and underbrush lining the trail, so you couldn’t always see where you were going. But it hardly mattered. The trailhead, food, drink and salvation lay just 6.2 miles down.
As many epics as I’ve done, in a dozen states over a dozen years, Juniper ranks with the toughest. I was wasted but glad, because I knew I’d need the verts for the North Umpqua ramalamadingdong the day after next. Juniper has everything – killer views, varied terrain, monster climbs, exposed ridges, swoopy singletrack. There’s a tad too much hiking in proportion to overall mileage, but you know at the end you’ve achieved a life event. A great ride, yes. Only one thing could have made it a better ride: the hyperkinetic presence of Armando and his new bike. I promised myself not to relent on my journalistic investigative skills till I had determined why El Malo had stayed home. [Note: Never did.]
Preston had talked about doing a Tumwater Canyon Death March the next day, and I was tempted to go along just to see how far I could get on an out-and-back. But the Umpqua was calling, so I begged off, driving out to I-5 and down to Eugene. I got in mid-afternoon feeling better than I would have expected. Umpqua wasn’t till Tuesday and this was only Sunday. Already I was starting to itch to get back on the pedals. Now where was that map of the McKenzie River Trail?
Juniper Ridge: Elev. 4620. Elapsed time (for me, the last guy in by a fair bit) 8:45. Deduct an hour for the other guys.