Friday, June 17, 2016

Willamette Valley Scenic Bikeway tour


(copyright 2016 paula joy welter, all rights reserved)

Wow, I am turning 65 this year!  I haven’t pedaled out on a bike tour since 2014 — when I got my butt kicked by a group of memorable Oregon cyclists, some of whom were in their 70’s and 80’s!  (I was the turtle, throughout my ride with them.)  

So what if I'm almost 65!  During the first week of June, 2016, newly retired and ready to "refire," I embarked on a short-lived but rewarding fully-loaded self-supported bicycle tour on the Willamette Valley Scenic Bikeway.  

A Sacramento friend, Jeane (66) agreed to join me. This was Jeane’s very first bicycle touring effort, and she was excited.  The last bicycle tour I did was in 2014, so I too was looking forward to a pedaling adventure.  Picture me, 5’8”, sturdy build, thanks to Dutch ancestry…towering above Jeane, several inches shorter and decidedly petite — so much so that she has a hard time finding a bike to ride that is a good fit for her half-pint size.  

We researched the route and printed out the routeslips and maps provided at:  
We found the turn-by-turns posted here accurate and easy to follow — at least, as far as we pedaled. 

Some background:  

Jeane and I regularly do recreational cycling in Sacramento, CA on the beloved American River Parkway’s bicycle trail, typically pedaling 12-20 miles per ride.  Sacramento is flat!  We decided to try the Willamette Valley Scenic Bikeway (“WVSB” from here on out) because it is advertised as relatively flat for most of it’s 134-mile length.  

Neither of us is a competitive-driven cyclist, and we wanted to do a tour that was mellow and relaxing, rather than daunting and exhausting.  We both agreed that 20-25 miles a day, max, would be a distance to aim on, especially being Jeane’s first tour.  

On the few tours I’ve done in the past (starting in my mid-50’s), the most I biked in one day was 40 miles, when touring.   For me, that was a long day. I like to stop and enjoy the sights along the way, and I love to take photos of what catches my eye’s interest.  Hurrying through the miles is the antithesis of why I like to ride a bicycle, especially when exploring new places!  Happily, Jeane feels the same way.

On to the tour itself: 

“Be prepared,” something I learned as a Brownie, is the game plan, when packing for a bicycle tour.  I had provided Jeane a list of essentials to help prepare her for camping and biking comfortably in fair weather.  She did a good job of acquiring lightweight equipment, based on my suggestions.  

Me on "Amelia," my 2006 Bike Friday New World Tourist

Jeane on her 2014 Bike Friday 

We both own Bike Fridays — and they are great little workhorses when it comes to carrying gear — easy to handle, easy to transport, since the fold into a suitcase!  Mine is a New World Tourist model, and Jeane has a newer Bike Friday — with a Gates carbon belt system, no less.  

DAY 1:  I was already visiting my son’s family in Portland.  Jeane drove up from Sacramento to meet me.  My son then drove us from Portland down to Champoeg State Park, so we could camp the night before we started pedaling.  Once there, arriving in the late afternoon, we each pitched a tent in Champoeg SP’s hiker/biker camping area.  

Sweet dreams at Champoeg State Park, bikes locked together and under cover!

Panniers to load onto bikes in the morning

We were impressed with the fact that there was plenty of shade, thanks to several tall trees in that part of the park.  Even more impressive, wonder of wonders, this hiker/biker camp is outfitted with a set of stainless steel lockers, including electric outlets in each locker!   Cyclists can recharge their electronics in a secure way!  Brilliant!  There were picnic tables, a fire pit, and grass on which to pitch the tents.  All this for $5.  Oh….and hot showers a quick walk away!  Yes!

We were nervous about the timing of our tour coinciding with a nasty heat wave in Portland.  I was shocked to see a forecast of 98 degrees on Day 1, 100 degrees on Day 2,  99 degrees on Day 3…and mid to high 90’s for several days beyond that.  What????  We thought we were escaping the infamous Sacramento summer heat for milder weather!!!  AAAAHHHHH!   

In Sacramento, we only cycle in the early mornings, back to our homes by noon, since the summer heat gets brutal, after that.  We knew we were in for some early rising to beat this heat to reach each day’s planned destination. 

Some other bike tourists pedaled in and set up tents in the biker/hiker campground.  Pleasant, all of them.  They had bike 40-50 miles, that day — or more!  

After a simple dinner of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches on whole-grain bread, and fruit and nuts, we turned in once it got dark.  In the morning, we awoke at 6 a.m., packed up, and were pedaling by 7:30 a.m.  

DAY 2:  Woohoo, we were on our way!  We were unsure of which direction to turn, once we reached the exit of Champoeg State Park, but then we saw the soon-to-become-familiar WVSB signage pointing us on our way.  (The route is well posted with these signs at each turning juncture.)  

The WVSB puts cyclists on quiet back roads that travel through beautiful, bucolic farmlands.  It felt wonderful to be pedaling along with the road pretty much to ourselves, admiring the crops and the meticulously landscaped yards of the farmhouses along the way.  The air was perfect, that early in the morning.  Not too cold, not too hot — yet!   

 A river covered in algae made a strangely beautiful sight!  

Hopyards are common along the WVSB route.

The few cars or trucks that passed us were extra considerate, consistently giving us a wider berth than most Californian drivers, when passing us.  It helped that we were visible, due to the bright colors of our panniers.  We had about 19 miles to pedal to arrive at our next night’s camping spot, Mission Willamette State Park.  We took our time, knowing we’d get there easily before noon and the upcoming heat.  

I had read comments online about Mission Willamette State Park’s biker/hiker camp being preferable to Champoeg.  We were disappointed when we arrived, though, and neither of us felt that it compared to Champoeg in amenities or in how it was situated.  

As we rolled into the park and then into the hiker/biker camping area, we quickly realized why it fell short of our expectations:  a)  very little shade, since most of the trees were not overbranching; b) no showers!!!  What???  That’s the first thing cyclists dream about once they’re reached the end of a day’s pedaling, and more especially in this very hot weather!  c) no bathrooms conveniently nearby, though available about a 5-to-6-minute walk away.  d)  mostly brown grass that hadn’t been mowed for a while, and therefore not comfortable for camping purposes; 3) poison oak warning signs.  

Each campsite did have a fire pit, a weathered picnic table, and a metal bike rack on which to secure our bikes.  We were the only bike campers there — until later in the evening, when two experienced bike tourists rolled in.  We enjoyed talking with them.  

One of them was on the committee that helps plan out the scenic bikeways in Oregon.  We asked him some questions about our future routing.  We were planning to bike to Salem the next day and get a motel that night, since it was going to be hot again. Then we wanted to bike to another hiker/biker campsite that is newly available in the small town of Independence, named River View Park.  We were told by one of these two men that that park, being new, doesn’t have shade!  We started rethinking our reality, about then.  

We slept peacefully that night, since this hiker/biker camp area feels quite removed from the other campsites in Mission Willamette State Park.  I enjoyed looking up at the stars, sans rainfly on my Big Agnes three-pound Fly Creek UL3 tent.  

Jeane told me in the morning that the ranger came by her tent about 9 pm to inform her that we could stay the next night in the park for free.  I slept through that moment…  We both think that this offer was made because the state park appeared to be mostly empty.  The heat must have dissuaded campers from using it.

We had already decided, however, to wake up at 5 a.m. and quietly pack up so as not to disturb our two other bike touring campmates. Again, we found ourselves pedaling down beautiful country roads in the cooler morning air, heading for Salem, which was only about 13 miles away.  This was to be our shortest day, we figured. 

We pedaled past hopyards and vineyards and cherry orchards — and best of all, flower farms!  Some fields were in full bloom, as my photos document.  The green, verdant valley of farms seems to stretch forever.  We stopped now and then to rehydrate and eat some healthy snacks.  

For those who appreciate:  At one point, just when we were wondering if we’d each have to find a discreet spot off the road to tinkle…lo and behold, we found a bicycle tourist’s dream come true — a porta potty!!!  (see photo)  Yes!  A new house was under construction, and it was set up for the workers’ use, evidently.  It was quite decent, all things considered!  (One of the challenges of bicycle touring is finding bathrooms along roads that are out in the middle of nowhere, between towns.  Just sayin’…)

Life works out!  A "real" pitstop!

At one point, we laid my tent’s footprint out on a shaded area in a grassy field and I stretched out to rest for 10-15 minutes, no one else in sight.  

The country roads took us gradually through the outskirts of Keizer and then into the small town’s commerce area.  We stopped there to get some breakfast food at a market, and then continued on to Salem.  

Eventually, we started rolling through well-established older residential neighborhoods in Salem. A friendly woman offered help, noticing we were pulled over and mulling over our map to determine where the best proximity of motels might be, once we reached Salem proper.  She was very helpful with ideas.  We thanked her and pedaled further, until voila, we reached Oregon's State Capitol!  Note our fully loaded bikes, tents laid out to dry on top of panniers; morning dew, even in a heat wave, happens!

Paula and Jeane in front of the State Capitol in Salem, OR

It was starting to get hot, by then, and we wanted to find a motel before it got hotter, so we pedaled another couple miles towards Howard Johnson.  

We had considered the Travelodge motel, but the reviews on Trip Advisor were pathetic, so we decided Howard Johnson was a better choice, at $75 a night.  There wasn’t much under that, in choices that sounded decent.  We decided to book TWO nights at the motel.  We were hoping to bike next to Corvalis, but we didn’t want to camp in the ongoing heat at River View Park if there was no shade!  NOT!!!!  

We arrived at Howard Johnson and when we entered the lobby, the two Chinese clerks behind the desk happened to be watching the BMX play-off competition on the big-screen TV that lit up the lobby.  They were very cordial to us, though we must have looked pretty funky, loaded down with all our gear (see photo), our bike helmets, and just a bit sweaty!  They turned out to be what I call “bike angels”!!!  Though check-in wasn’t until 2 pm, they allowed us to check in 3 hours early, scurrying to coordinate readying a room. Sweet!!!!

Soon we were in a nice cool room, two double beds, a TV, and…. HOT SHOWERS!  And yes, a laundry room!  

Bikes make a handy "drying rack" for undies, once laundry washed!

Simple pleasures are doubly so, even after only two days of bike touring.  Everything is put in fine perspective when you are used to getting by with just what you have in four bike panniers.  Once we unpacked and each showered and relaxed for a while, we locked our bikes together, and then walked a couple blocks down the road to Sparky’s Taphouse for some pizza and cold beer!  More simple pleasures!  

Once we returned to our motel, I emailed a “bike angel” I know in Corvalis a status update. 

Some history about him:  Skip had “appeared” out of nowhere, it seemed, on my very first bike tour, in 2010.  I had biked from Eugene to Corvalis on that tour, and he and his wife, Kelly, had given me a night’s safe haven at that time.  We’ve kept in touch ever since, via email.  

Skip and Kelly are, seriously, two of the NICEST people I’ve ever met!  They are passionate about touring by bicycle.  They’ve crossed the country, ridden in Canada, etc., etc.  Skip figures he’s pedaled 33,000 miles!!!  (Drill down to read more about that adventure and my meeting up with them then.)  

Skip, our bike angel tour guide through Silver Falls State Park!

A few weeks before I headed up to the NW to do this tour, I had let Skip and Kelly know we’d be pedaling in their area again.  They then invited us to stay with them again, promising us a good meal and comaraderie for a night.  So… in the update I emailed from the motel, I informed them that we’d decided NOT to bike further due to the heat.  Salem and Corvalis are 35 miles apart.  We had decided that the thought of no shade at the River View Park campground, the next day’s stopping point enroute to Corvalis, had killed our ambition to do any more biking.  The heat wave had not abated!!!  We had, we decided, just picked the wrong week to be pedaling through it each day!  

This is the best part of what bike touring is all about:  Random acts of kindness extended to people on the bikes — us!!!  Skip came up with a Plan B:  He offered to drive the 35 miles to Salem in his Jeep to then drive us to Silver Falls State Park for an easy hike in shade.  

A meadow view along the drive to Silver Falls State Park

This would enable us to view a beautiful waterfall, even walking behind the water’s cascade! 

Then Skip proposed we eat a simple lunch at his house, after which he would drive us to the top of Mary’s Peak, 4,000 feet up, and thus a cooler reality.  He promised a spectacular 360-degree view of the coastal range, the ocean beyond that, and the Willamette Valley, all from the top of that peak!  

After that, we could have dinner with him and Kelly and their daughter, at their home.  Then he would drive us back to the motel for our second night’s stay there.  Then we could have my son drive down to pick us up in Salem, tour over!  How could we say no to such an offer?  We got to do all of the above, and saw some gorgeous landscapes!  Definitely a highlight of our short-lived tour!  

Skip also dragged out at least five of his bicycles, each one more eclectic and interesting than the next, demonstrating how each one works!  One is basically a rowing machine, but on two wheels, and you “pedal” it by rowing it!!!

The bike he and his wife rode across the country on is a tandem but unusually so, since the second passenger rides at the very front in a semi-recumbent seat.  They actually pulled a trailer so their cockapoo could accompany them on this grand adventure.  The bike and the trailer measure out to 13 feet in length!  What a sight they must have made, rolling down the roads, gear, trailer, and the two of them on one bike!  

My son was another bike angel, rescuing us the next day.  Soon we were back in Portland, laughing about and sharing our pedaling adventure.  Even two or three days of bike touring is a memory worth smiling about for years after it is over.  That’s what I love about bicycle touring:  it’s an EXPERIENCE, moment by moment, and the challenges make it all the more memorable, looking back.  

Here’s to another one, down the road! Back to researching the multitude of choices, since the road is never-ending! 

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