[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’ Juniper Ridge, Oregon’s McKenzie River Trail and, further south, Oregon’s North Umpqua River Trail.]
Finally the big day was imminent. After getting back to the Smith River reservoir on the McKenzie Trail I drove back to Eugene, sat in rush hour outside of Springfield, called Mire to apologize in advance for being late, and motored down to Roseburg to find the BBTC Three relaxing in the 98-degree shade outside the Bureau of Land Management headquarters. We caravanned upriver to the Susan Creek campground and found the next-to-last spot, cramming all three vehicles into one space.
Doing the full North Umpqua trail, 70 or so miles in a single day, requires a sound body, an unstable mind and a loathed shuttle. At 5 a.m. Tuesday morning Mire tapped on my window (I sleep in the van) and it was time to roll. I had pretty much packed everything the night before and was thankful for one thing: The great white whale was staying put. We would shuttle up in Peter’s 4-by, then Anthony and Mire would run him back up at the end of the day.
To complete the full ride in daylight we would have to average 7 miles an hour, which seemed doable albeit rushed. “Dude,” Preston had told me before departure, “It’s a river trail! Do it in 2 days!” For Preston anything shy of a couple of hours of hike-a-bike is a river trail, but he had a point. Just because a ride is doable doesn’t mean it should be done.
Still, it seemed worth a try. Something to tell our grandkids about. Assuming we got that far. To having grandkids, that is.
We got up to the Kelsay Valley trailhead around 8-ish and headed off. There’s something like 5,000 feet of elevation loss on the trail from head to foot, but as Nic had warned us, a 50-foot contour line can hide a lot of climbing. As with most river trails, this one was going up and down almost from the get-go. You know: plunge 100 feet, climb 85, plunge 200, climb 150. Sure you’re losing elevation. As well as energy, leg strength, peace of mind, you name it.
Within 10 minutes of the start I felt something fly into the neck of my jersey and smack me in the chest. Before I could stop, blam! Bee sting! I stopped and looked for my Ledum Palustre but then remembered I’d left it in the car. Minus points for preparation. Still, the sting wasn’t that bad, and I rode on.
Not as fast as the others, though. The polite way of describing my riding was that I hadn’t found my rhythm. Translated: My climbing sucked. Peter was way off the front. Mire and Anthony were cruising past me on the risers. I even fell once, lifting the Burner’s front end so high I rolled backward into the bushes. Plus I was acting as the group’s bug trap. I got bit by some hardshell winged carnivorous insect — not a bee but like a wasp with long deltoid carpenter-ant wings — and later swallowed something, choking while I tried to maintain contact with Anthony’s dust. Ye gods, it was going to be a long haul.
The North Umpqua is divided into multi-mile sections for point of reference and difficulty rating. The further down you go, generally the gentler it gets. But the relentless dipping and climbing continues. At one point we caught up with Gonzz the Nature Boy, cooling his rumpqua in the river. After three hours, we were just completing the aptly named Dread and Terror section, 13 miles long and rated “Difficult” (grades 15 to 20 percent, up to 30 percent, on rough surface 12 inches wide) but with spectacular falls and viewpoints along the way. Not exactly a torrid pace but hey, it was early.
It was time for a soak in the Umpqua Hot Springs, reachable by crossing a wooden bridge and climbing by foot (except for Peter, who rode most of it) a quarter of a mile to a sun-drenched perch above the river. At 108 degrees, the hot springs would’ve been hot in a snowstorm. In 100-degree exposed sunshine they threatened to parboil. Although we’d encountered not a soul so far on the ride, the springs were practically overrun. A guy and three gals had taken the lower tub, and another couple had the upper. The latter soon abandoned, though, leaving it to us. Mire took off her shoes and soaked her feet, exclaiming every five seconds in a manner that it was hot, really hot, yowch was it hot. I decided to do the Full Monty test and was pleasantly surprised. It felt really good…for all of 180 seconds. Then my face turned purple, my eyes rolled to the back of my head, I started to hyperventilate. So much for the soothing balm of full submersion. It was time to move on.
The quartet in the lower, roofed tub graciously offered it up, saying they’d been there half an hour already. But we had to keep on sked. It did occur to Anthony and me to wonder about their 1-on-3 versus our 3-on-1. Leave it to a BBTC ride to get the proportion exactly backwards, although as I’m sure Anthony knows Mire is worth any other 3. Later I thought, wow, it had happened once again. The Three Sisters for the second time in two days.
Peter had repaired down to the river and gone swimmin’ once again, and Mire, ever mindful of the day’s progression, warned us that if we had any hope of completing this godforsaken enterprise we needed to get going and spend an average of just 10 minutes per hour in any stationary format. I thanked her and we cruised back off, leaving Gonzz to play catchup. Maybe the hot springs had rejuvenated me like the books say, but finally I began to get my legs. The old bones were rolling. The risers were starting to feel doable and I felt on top of the tech sections for the first time on the ride. I felt like I was in a flashback to my callow youth of double centuries and triathlons. The road legs were back, baby!
At the same time, Anthony’s drive train was making a horrific popping sound in the smaller gears. I was worried he’d snap his chain like a stick of licorice — Anthony had been middle-ringing sections I’d had trouble climbing in my granny — but instead it was the sheer torque of The Baby Bull on his cluster that was causing the racket. Peter soon caught us and took off the front, but this time I was able to keep up. Gonzz’s penchant for stop and go was catching up to him. The next time he pulled up, I decided to keep on going. My problem is that waiting produces too much lactic acid and puts the big hurt on me for the next climb. And you know when you start feeling good you can’t afford to let it pass.
As it happened, this segment of the ride, Deer Leap, was to my mind the best from an mtb purist standpoint. Rated “Difficult,” 9.6 miles long, it climbed high, high and higher above the river through alpine conifers. At one point there was a rocky view outcropping. The river was so far below you couldn’t see it. And curiously, smoke was peeling up the gorge. Somewhere there was a danged fire!
It was getting hotter, incredibly enough, and water was starting to be an issue. I’d packed 200 ounces but was running low on the 130-oz. Platypus Big Zip bladder. I topped out on a golden-grained ridge that felt oven-blasted, so hot I could feel my temples thrombulating against my helmet lining. From there the trail began to drop somewhat, and I finally came upon a wonderful pool below a footbridge, where I quickly scrambled down some rocks to take my second dip of the day.
Wow, what a difference only 50 degrees makes…who knew?
I figured the gang would catch up to me during my interlude, but no sign of anyone. I came to a road crossing and decided to wait. I ate my lunch, two oranges and bananas, and scanned the map for the next available water station.
It took 35 minutes for Peter to show, and he had bad news. Anthony’s two small cogs were toast, bent beyond usability. I imagine Anthony simply brute-forced them on one of the interminable risers, but whatever the case, pushing tall gears had taken a toll. Anthony and Mire were packing it in. Their plan was to take the dirt road out to the highway and cruise back down to their car, meeting us at the lower trailhead for the shuttle back to camp and up to Peter’s truck.
I looked at my watch. It was 3 p.m. A successful conclusion to our epic looked in doubt. Gonzz and I would have to pick up the pace and hope the terrain became more forgiving if we were to make it back by dark. Unlike Art, I can’t ride singletrack in pitch black. Unlike Art, mere mortals also can’t.
We did all right through the next section, aided in part by a stop at Soda Springs Dam Reservoir. A woman with a terrier came out and greeted us as Peter snapped shots of a fish tank. We asked if she had some water to spare and she graciously brought out a gallon of spring water, filling my 1.5 liter and half of Peter’s bladder. What might the temperature be, we inquired. She pulled a thermostat off the porch of her trailer and we looked. It read 102. Now that was all it took: We suddenly felt quite refreshed.
By the next leg — Marsters, rated “Moderate” — things were getting grim. My legs still felt good but Gonzz was spacing out even more than when he’s bushy-tail fresh. Something else was bugging us. Marsters was rated at 3.6 miles, but by our calculations it felt more like 5 to 6. Neither of us had odometers, but there was some disconnect. It’s possible our brains were burnt, and certainly our initiative was. At any rate, our pace was slowing when by dint of terrain and elevation loss it should have been picking up.
At the end of Marsters you dump out onto the highway for 4 miles, due to forest-fire blockage from 2002. It was on the highway that I started to ponder our next move. Most of the time Peter can fry my bacon, but he was falling back even on pavement. Either we were going to have to get a miracle second wind, or forget our grand ambitions.
Just then I saw Mire and Anthony’s Subaru and knew all was right with the world. They’d managed to make radio contact with Gonzz, who was calling it quits. From that point, around 25 miles from the trail’s lower end, they could simply shuttle Peter back up to his truck at the top, while I continued on.
At this point I had one of those terrible decisions all mtb-ers face from time to time. Do I throw myself at the wall and see what cracks? Or do I bail? I did some rough calculations and figured that only a monster pace would get me back to camp by dark. Otherwise Anthony and Mire would have to come back down from the campground and pick me up, or I’d have to ride the highway in the dark about 8 miles up road.
Reason prevailed, partly because I’d promised my wife that I’d be riding with others. (Did I keep that promise on any of these epics? Please don’t ever say anything.) If I zoned out and hurt myself or got lost or whatever, my biking privileges would likely be revoked for the duration. To say nothing of inconveniencing the BBTC Three and the BLM. So I slapped the chain onto the Big Ring and tooled back on pavement in a 46-11/14. If you keep that gear at a steady 90 rpm, all old roadies know, you’ll make pretty good time. I was back to camp, about 18 miles down the highway, in around an hour.
As I write these words, I get a sinking regret that says, hey, I should’ve gone for it. But I’m also sitting on saddle sores as big as salami slices, still oozing – well, bleeding if you want to know the truth. I’d worn the wrong shorts, the kind with the fabric liner instead of the old real-chamois Pearl Izumis, and had paid the price. You sit on real chamois and even though it gets wet and slimy with your sweat, it’s slick. You don’t get the saddle sores. My butt felt like a brillo pad, and doing more riverside rollers would hardly have improved its condition.
Plus there were all the other sanity factors.
[Note: Today, six years later, I wish I’d gone for it!]
Later as we swapped war stories around the campground table, we made a vow to return to North Umpqua for another try. Camp in the middle, do a 2-dayer like Preston told us from the get-go, and enjoy the thing for all it’s worth. Umpqua is not just a human trial but one of the most magically transformative mtb rides you can do. We saw no one else, not a soul, on the trail. It’s underappreciated, underused and unrivaled.
While that’s a great plan, I’d also like to try again for a one-dayer, forgoing the rest stops and photo ops. Then I can die a happy man.
[Note: Never did. But there’s always next year!]
North Umpqua elevation (as far as I rode): 5,110 feet. Elapsed time: 10 hours.
Canticle of Epics totals (5 riding days): Elev. 27,060 feet (average 5,412, or a little more than a mile, per day). Elapsed time: 36 hrs, 5 minutes (average 7 hrs, 13 minutes per day).