Astoria, a port town at the mouth of the Columbia river in Oregon is the official start point for the Transamerica bike route and the beginning of my four month bike packing trip from the west coast to the east coast. Astoria is perhaps most famous for being the setting for the 1985 film 'The Goonies'.
I had been building up to taking on this trip for over a year; I was supposed to set off early in the summer of 2016, but missed the opportunity due to an unfortunate accident which left me with a badly broken elbow.
Fortunately this left me with a lot more time to prepare, research and refine my pack list. And in early April of 2017 I finally flew out to Portland Oregon, where I spent the next few days adjusting to the time difference and taking in the sights before heading out to the coast to begin my ride.
On the day I arrived in Astoria I was fortunate to be blessed with some uncharacteristically excellent weather to get things started. It would be one of few such days over the next week that the sun would grace me with her warm and comforting presence. It is not uncommon in western Oregon to experience multiple days of heavy and unrelenting rain.
It was definitely kind of sureal but equally exciting to finally be here, to be setting off knowing I was going to be on the road for the next 4 months. Aside from basic preparation, I chose to do very little research before actually beginning and so I was set to see everything for the first time; retaining the surprise and wonder of many incredible sites and landscapes. I was thrilled at the prospect of having very little idea of what lay ahead, or what I would encounter along the way.
Little did I know how soon I would be met with such an encounter:
Just a few hours into my first day of riding and no more than 30metres ahead of me a dark figure emerged from the tree line; I was for a split second perplexed as to what this large animal could be before my mind eventually engaged itself reminding me of where I was, and that the figure up ahead was not as I first thought, a large dog but a black bear; he glanced briefly in my direction acknowledging my presence. I stopped, my heart now racing, watching as the bear proceeded to casually meander across the road ahead of me. Once out of site, I cautiously began cycling again, past where the creature had been, and choosing to sing a reassuring yet nervous rendition of ‘Ain't No Sunshine’ by Bill Withers.
The rarity of this sighting soon became apparent in the surprised reactions I received over the following week. Black bears in particular are generally more timid in nature than their grizzly cousins, and are rarely seen. This brief sighting served as an unforgettable start to my journey. It was to be the first of many encounters that I would have with the native wildlife, and initially, a somewhat anxiety inducing experience for my confidence camping on the coast.
As I progressed with my journey I was able to learn a lot more about these magnificent creatures and their behaviour. I grew more confident with more knowledge and gradually became comfortable with camping and riding through their territory. This would be one of only two sightings I would have of the illusive black bear, and I felt very fortunate to have had the pleasure of seeing one.
A MILDY MOIST AND MOODY AFFAIR
Weathered on the Pacific
One of the major attractions to this area is undoubtedly the scenery. The Pacific coasts beaches rise to coastal mountains at the very edge of the sea; creating a uniquely dramatic and visually stunning landscape. This area can often be characterised by overcast skies, fog and it's proneness to precipitation. The climate here is largely influenced by the ocean; warm moist air traveling east from the Pacific comes into contact with the coastal range where it is forced to rise, cool, and condensate, which in turn produces heavy rainfall.
Riding down the coast my eyes were in constant awe, every climb, every turn opened up a new and breathtaking vista; it was a never ending onslaught of visual pleasure. The surrounding forests wet and glossy majestically towered above me against a backdrop of atmospheric grey hues. I felt very insignificant within this landscape.
With no shortage of moisture, the central Pacific's forests are amongst the most productive in the world. They are lush and full of luxuriant growth, drenched in a plethora of moss and lichen's. Here you will find Western Hemlock, Cedar, and in the drier areas: Douglas Fir (the US's top industrial tree). On the forest floor you will find an abundance of ferns and herbs as well as the distinctively bright: yellow skunk cabbage. Aptly named for its scent when its leaves begin to decay.
LEWIS AND CLARK
'the corps of discovery'
Travelling in this part of the country it would be difficult to avoid the names of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark and their legendary expedition into the then, largely uncharted north west. If you are unfamiliar with their journey, which I was before travelling through this section:
The Lewis and Clark expedition: 'The corps of discovery' set out in 1804 tasked with finding a route by water to the Pacific. They were to face a healthy dose of hardship, encounter a multitude of Indian tribes, new species, and new lands of plentiful grandeur. The expedition began in St Louis and travelled to the mouth of the Columbia river where they spent a wet winter near what is now Astoria, before returning east with their findings.
For more information visit: National Geographic for a digestible account of their journey.
RIDING DOWN THE COAST
Despite the weathers best attempts at dampening my spirits I had a thoroughly enjoyable, all be it moist ride down the Oregon coastline. Travelling south there are few road options and the majority of the riding is to be found on the main highway: 101. There are of course many opportunities to momentarily escape this road and I made sure to capitalise on every opportunity to do so. This, as you can imagine is where the best riding is to be found. All the joys of this incredible scenery without 40 tons worth of precariously laden trees hurtling past you at 50mph.
It is generally advised that cyclists be very cautious riding this stretch of highway in the summer months. Both recreational vehicles and logging trucks frequent this route and pose considerable hazard to the cyclist. In the U.S. you don't even need an additional license to drive a 30ft RV towing a car... Something to think about.
Riding in the rain is something I'm used to. I would even go as far as to say that I'm quite fond of it. Unlike fair weather riding, I find it to be a considerably more stimulating experience, and I often liken it to a cold shower or jumping into a cold lake or river. It fires up the sensory receptors creating a fully immersive and intoxicating experience. Providing of course, that I find myself adequately equipped for the conditions. When in such climates I carry my trusty Gortex jacket and shorts. These have been tried and tested through many winters (and summers) in the UK.
My hands and feet however, were not so lucky as to be garnished with such luxuries. My shoes in particular would often find themselves being involuntarily filled with a days worth of spare hydration; should I have needed it, which I didn't. You can probably imagine the odour that soon ensued after repeated days in this damp state.
As I've already mentioned the area is prone to fog. I had my lights on most of the time during this section. Setting off in early April I was met with more rain than in the summer or autumn months but, this meant that the traffic was considerably more manageable. Aside from the unavoidable, I found the road surface and shoulders to be smooth and adequate for the majority of the time. Some of the climbs can be long over the coastal headlands but all remain at steady grades.
I found there to be no shortage of ideal camping options along the coast both in sites and not on sites. The nature of the elevated terrain and an abundance of trees provide plenty of opportunity for the wild camper. You'll also find a lot of the less touristic beaches to be adequately sheltered and safely out of view.
For the most part, the weather provided me with less than ideal conditions for camping. While I have a positive approach to riding in the rain, I am slightly less enthused when I'm reduced to spending prolonged periods sheltering in the confines of a small damp tent. Luckily however, the weather did offer the occasional break and whenever possible, I found myself under the stars. Cape Lookout state park and a stealth camp near Pacific City were my favourite spots along the coast. I enjoyed sunsets at both, but awoke to yet another day of heavy rain at Cape lookout, complete with an overnight moat surrounding my tent.
With every cloud there is usually a silver lining and this was 'warm showers'.
'Warm showers' is a cyclist only app whereby the hosts offer what they can to the travelling cyclist: be it shelter, a place to camp, food, and of course; a warm shower.
I was initially a little nervous about using the app, but once I realised they weren't all serial killers, with dungeons in the basement I thoroughly enjoyed meeting and spending time with my hosts. It was an incredible introduction to a very special experience. The kindness and generosity I received was nothing short of inspiring, and something that made a big impression on me. I found the company and conversation provided by my hosts to be invaluable to me as a solo traveller. Especially when most of your social contact occurs during the exchange of money, making brief comment about the weather, what your doing, and the oh so familiar, 'rather you than me' 'good luck!'
Much of the state parks and campgrounds offer a reduced camp fee for Hiker/Bikers. Six dollars was usually the going rate. These sites are often more primitive and separate from the regular sites where you can park your RV or car. Note: not all are as idyllic as the coastal gem you see above.
Note: When travelling in a wet climate it is important to spend some time drying out your tent. After all, this is your home away from home, and at times it will be your only refuge. Yes, this does take some time and impede progress but it is essential for reducing the chances of mildew. Climbing into a wet tent at the end of the day is no fun at all!
ROUTES ALONG THE PACIFIC COAST
Fancy a trip to this stunning part of the world?
Of course the coast is easily accessible by car, and this is great if your pressed for time, but if your looking for a fuller more memorable experience then here are two routes that should get those adventure juices pumping:
The Pacific coast bike route - 1857miles of rugged coastline from Vancouver BC to Imperial Beach CA. On this route you can have the full coastal experience or just ride a section like I did. The maps are available to purchase individually from Adventure cycling. 60 days works out an average of around 30 miles per day.
The Oregon coast hiking trail - Stretching for 425 miles along the Oregon coastline from the mouth of the Columbia river to the Californian border. Again, this too can be done in sections. A 30 day pace would equate to 14miles per day.