Monday, May 20, 2013

Ride Report - Old Mckenzie Hwy (5.5.13)

Every year for a week or two in the late spring/early summer, the Old McKenzie Hwy is plowed, but the gate remains closed to vehicles. This provides an amazing opportunity for bicycles and pedestrians, allowing paved passage to McKenzie Pass (and beyond) without automotive traffic – this is especially enticing to road cyclists, who’ll have an open road on the amazing descent back down to the bottom. Every year I tell myself that I’m going to do this ride, but something always comes up (usually kayaking plans). Then, as soon as I see everyone’s photos from the ride, I kick myself for missing it yet again. Finally, this year I decided to make it a priority and got it done! After a boat and BBQ on The Miracle Mile the day before (which was awesome), I was ready to mix it up and saddle back up on my road bike, which happened to have two flat tires from lack of use. Emily, who had already ridden Old Mac the day before (from the McKenzie River Ranger Station to Sisters and back; ~80 miles) had agreed to ride to the summit and back with me. I was pretty glad she had already done the ride, since I figured she’d be more likely to allow me a leisurely pace, taking photos and getting my out of shape ass up the hill. Since we were struggling a little bit to get out of bed, we were only able to muster a late morning start, which was kinda nice – Although, I was hoping that the unseasonably high temps (near 90 degrees!) weren’t going to beat me down.

Most folks do this ride as an out-and-back to Dee Wright Observatory, starting at various locations between the Ranger Station and the closed gate. We had decided to start right in the middle of the two, about a mile below White Branch Youth Camp, which would give us the most bang for the buck on the sweet downhill! Apparently the wind was pretty bad the day before, especially when you leveled out at the lava flows, where there’s only sparse vegetation to act as a wind block – therefore, I was glad when Emily mentioned that the wind didn’t seem as bad on this day. The temps were also quite pleasant at around 75 degrees, but we knew it would also be cool up top, so we made sure to pack some extra layers. I had expected there to be a lot of other riders doing the trek as well, and sure enough many passed by as we were getting geared up. Before long we were in the saddle and got started with the climb.

For the first couple of miles I tried to keep up with Emily’s pace, but it soon became apparent that I would be doing a lot of solo riding. Eventually, we worked out a system where she rides for a while before turning around and heading back to ride with me for a bit. You would think that this would be demoralizing, but I actually didn’t mind since I knew I was out of riding shape and I also wanted to stop and take photos at some of the views – okay, maybe it is a tad demoralizing…

Early mountain views

Emily, getting into a groove

After 5 or so miles we reached the closed road gate, where we took a quick break to scarf down a snack. As we continued to climb, road bikers were headed back down in the opposite direction, most in a fully tucked position with a great deal of speed.

Not to bikes!

A biker from another group heading back down

The climb itself was a perfect grade and the road surface was nice and smooth, and there were quite a few banked corners which I knew were going to be a blast to rail on the way down. Before long, snow started to dot the landscape and the first couple of views presented themselves, as it opened up toward the Three Sisters. The higher we climbed the taller the snow banks along the road became, dramatically cooling off the ambient temperature. At about the 10 mile mark, the road started to level off and straighten out a bit. It was somewhere in this section that Emily informed me that a lake had formed in the middle of the road, (from the melting snow banks) and was fast approaching. When we got there, all sorts of people were hanging out, some of which were taking off their shoes & socks to make the crossing. Emily had a strategy worked out in her head for keeping her feet as dry as possible. Basically, coasting the first bit with her feet off the pedals and then ratcheting one of the pedals to keep it above the water. Although it sounded reasonable enough in theory, I was pretty convinced that my feet were going to be soaked by the time I reached the other side, which really didn’t bother me that much. I will say that it was entertaining to watch Emily’s approach, but since I was taking photos I really couldn’t see how well it had worked. It didn't seem like anyone else who was sitting around was eager to make the voyage, so I packed up my camera and decided to give it a go. From dry land, and the following photos, it didn’t look all that deep, but this would soon change once I was in the thick of it. Basically, the water came up over the chain rings, and my futile attempt to stay dry went out the window, at which point I resolved myself to soggy shoes and hooked into the pedals. As it turned out, Emily was fairly successful in her attempt, with her shoes much less saturated than mine…

One of the views on the way up

The snow starting to pile up

Emily, with her dry feet technique

In the thick of it
Not too far past the road lake, the trees parted and the surrounds opened up into a giant lava field, mainly from the flow of Belknap Crater to our north. Wanting to take some photos with my newly purchased wide-angle lens, I leaned my bike against the snow bank and climbed the opposing one to get into a position for a few shots. The ground was a mixture of snow and small lava hills, and a few small shrubby trees mixed in for good measure. After setting up for a few at one location I moved on to the next for a few more. It was at some point during this time that I broke through the snow and fell into a well that ended up being about 7’ deep. To be honest, it was a little scary and it took me a few moments to process what had just happened & how I was going to get out. Luckily I was able to kick some foot holds into the snow as well as use the lava rock to get myself above ground. It probably goes without saying that I was a little more cautious on my trek back toward the road, where I was acquainted with my trusty steed and an un-amused companion.

Lots of riders out!

Belknap Crater

Happy to see the road after my death defying adventure!

As we traveled along the Belknap Crater lava flow, the view to the south eventually opened up and the Sisters presented themselves in full glory; well, at least North & Middle did, South was hidden somewhere behind them. Although I’ve seen these volcanic peaks many times before, I’m always in awe at the sight of them, especially at such a close distance and with such an expansive view. Not much past here, Mt. Washington made an appearance, to our north. If you assumed I spent quite a bit of time in this section shooting photos, you’d be correct, much to Emily’s chagrin.

Getting close!

Looking out toward The Sisters

North & Middle Sister, from the road

Mount Washington

Another mile or so down the road, both a restroom (quite convenient) and the Dee Wright Observatory came into view, marking what would be our turnaround point. Emily didn’t have much desire to check out the observatory, so she hung out and relaxed in the sun while I played tourist. The observatory itself is not one of those fancy ones with a giant telescope, but rather an open building made from lava rock by the CCC, with Dee Wright as the foreman. While walking up the stairs that wrap around the structure, the first thing you come to is a room with windows that look out onto the many peaks that dot the lunar landscape. What’s really cool is the name plates at each of the window openings indicating which landmark you’re looking at.

The summit!

Dee Wright Observatory

Dee Wright welcomes you

Climbing the stairs that wrap the observatory

A room with a view

Let's see what's inside

Looking out onto Mt Jefferson

After spending a few minutes in the room, I continued up the stairs to the top platform, where a bronze azimuth is placed, also helping you identify the surrounding peaks while you enjoy a 360 degree unobstructed view – it's really quite impressive! Once I had taken in the view I started back down, but made one last stop at the information boards, which give some historical/geological information about the area, including the construction of the observatory.

Looking south, toward The Sisters, from the top of the observatory

Looking south, toward Washington & Jefferson

The information boards

When I got back to where Em was relaxing, I scarfed down a quick sandwich and made a quick pit stop before we starting back down the hill. Since I had already taken most of the photos I wanted to on the way up, and I didn’t really want to interrupt the sweet descent, so we didn’t slow down/stop much on this part of the ride. I will say the road lake seemed like it had gotten deeper. I actually made the mistake of trying to ride through really fast, which not only resulted in soaked feet, but also my entire backside… The downhill was pretty amazing, with a nice steady grade, smooth surface, banked turns and best of all, no cars! I knew that the downhill was going to take much less time than going up, but it still felt it went way too fast, and I was certainly left wanting more at the bottom. At the car, we dug into our snacks and changed into our street clothes. Before heading home, we stopped at Takotas, just down the road, for a late lunch.

Em poses for one last summit photo

The author

Emily rails one of the many sweet turns on the way down
This ride rocks, and should be on anyone’s list who knows how to ride a bicycle! Whether you ride it as a hammerhead or as a scenic rider, you won’t be disappointed. Personally it’s the best road ride I’ve ever done; however, I don’t do a lot of this sport and much prefer placing my two tires on dirt singletrack. The trick with this ride is catching it during the small window of opportunity when the road is clear but still closed to vehicles. A couple pieces of advice if you choose to do this ride- 1) if it’s sunny bring/wear plenty of sunscreen, and 2) bring an extra layer of clothing for hanging out at the summit.

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