The call of crystal-blue waters has been on hold for far too long.
Story and Photos by Greg Nicholls
The sun casts a shadow through the blinds in my bedroom window. It’s just after 5 a.m. on Friday and my wife, Lori, is peacefully asleep next to me; there was no need to set an alarm, as I knew I’d be wide awake with anticipation.
Cool air washes across my face as the garage door opens, bringing my companion for the next eight days into view; my BMW R1200GS has been prepped and loaded, ready to go!
The idea for this trip was 17 years in the making, starting with a print hanging on the wall in a co-worker’s office that inspired my desire to visit Crater Lake, Oregon, a dormant volcano full of pure blue water sitting at 1,883 metres above sea level. I knew I would get there one day, and today was the beginning of the journey.
This inspired trip was an easy sell to three of my best friends. The thought of being on the open road as a group and venturing into unfamiliar territory was exciting, to say the least. We had all talked the talk, now it was time to “ride the ride”.
Leaving our wives and children in Delta, B.C., for an eight-day trip was bittersweet. They were happy for us to go on the adventure, but there was an air of concern regarding the almost 3,000 km road trip, and the risks associated with such a journey. It led to many stressful conversations and silly arguments in the days and weeks prior to leaving.
With all the proper life and travel insurance in place, we rolled out of the driveway and headed toward the Canada–U.S. border. All we could think about was the adventures that lay ahead and the memories we would make as we left trace amounts of rubber on the road behind us.
Tim and Tom left a couple of hours ahead of Darren and me, as there were some last-minute items Tom wanted stateside before taking the journey. Both Darren and I have Nexus cards to get through the border lines faster; good thing too, as the Toronto Blue Jays fans were making an early dash to see them play the Seattle Mariners, and the resulting 45- to 60-minute border-crossing lineup was thankfully slashed to five minutes with our trusted traveller passes.
We came together for the first time as a group in Concrete, Washington, just off Highway 20 – a city that was created years earlier to supply concrete to a number of hydroelectric dams upriver that still power Seattle today.
Diablo Dam, located northeast of Seattle, is a fantastic art deco-looking structure with incredible public accessibility. The high water from our past winter’s dump of snow had begun to melt with torrential rain and record heat, making for spectacular spillover shots of this breathtaking architectural marvel.
The winding mountain roads of Hwy 20 took us to a cool elevation of 1,699 metres, where we met some snow pellets near to and beyond the peak – fortunately, this did not result in an early-June snow accumulation. Adding to that, Tim miscalculated his bike’s range and ran out of fuel, only to be saved by good foresight with a small gas can we’d brought for just such an occasion.
Shortly after warming up in lower elevations, we stopped for lunch in the Wild West town of Winthrop. We came to discover that this was going to be the first of many “theme” towns along our route, designed to make travelling to these small towns adventures of their own.
Pausing in the Schoolhouse Brewery, we enjoyed a flight of craft beers from local breweries. This would become a regular pastime on our trip: enough to taste, but not enough to hamper our ability to safely execute our journey.
Leavenworth was where we settled down for our first night. This unique town is modelled on a Bavarian village – even the Starbucks logo was modified to reflect the fonts you would expect to see in Bavaria.
Canyon Road, Route 821 along the Yakima River, just north of Yakima was another one of our highlights. This stretch of road provided such an adrenalin rush that I found myself screaming with joy in my helmet as the twists and turns unfolded in the beautiful canyon. We all agreed that we could repeatedly ride this section until collapsing from exhaustion with smiles stretching 180 degrees across our faces.
Thousands of wind turbines kept our attention, mesmerizing us, as we wound our way out of Washington and into Oregon.
The Columbia River Gorge in Oregon greeted us with thrashing winds that are unique to this part of the state; people come from all over to wind and kite surf “the Gorge,” and while we would have liked to see them having fun, it was all we could do to keep our bikes on the road as Mother Nature tested our determination to press on.
Soon after, we came to realize that the State of Oregon is enthusiastically gathering donations along the highways and sideways, being led by its law enforcement professionals. Some 10 mph over the speed limit entitled you to a silver donation of US$160, while 39 mph over ensured that you were a platinum sponsor, with a US$435 contribution to the cause.
The good news is that since Darren and I both had – and could produce – a driver’s abstract with more than five years ticket-free, my donation was reduced from US$160 to a US$40 online traffic safety course, and my buddy’s was generously reduced to US$235. These savings are earmarked for some fine single malt scotch in the near future.
Happily leaving our charitable experiences behind, and now rededicated to maintaining a legal(ish) pace, we took the advice of some friendly locals that led us to old Hwy 30. Riding the moderately twisty roads and tunnels adjacent to and just south of Interstate 84 reinvigorated us with spectacular sights along the Columbia River, including massive hydroelectric dams, locks and waterfalls.
Mount Hood in northern Oregon was kind enough to come out from behind a blanket of puffy white clouds to greet us as we passed by more spectacular winding mountain highways. We’d planned on driving to Bend via Detroit Lake; however, the road between there and Hood River wouldn’t have been very accommodating to the 50 per cent of our contingent without knobby tires, so we detoured through Warm Springs and Madras.
If you, like me, have never driven into an unexpected valley, take a trip down Hwy 26 and you will be in for a real treat. I call it the “Mini Grand Canyon” – one minute we’re driving across what looks like the longest, straightest and most boring desert road, the next minute we’re descending into a vast valley with beautiful rock walls, exposed for our enjoyment by Shitike Creek and many thousands of years’ worth of erosion. Coming out of the valley and landing back on the desert road caused me to do a double take in my rear-view mirror and flip my head around, as everything that I’d just driven through for the past 20 minutes instantly disappeared from view without a trace.
Bend (or Bender, as we now call it) is famous for its selection of some of the tastiest craft beer I think you’ll find on the planet; we remember most of this stop, but it did take us longer to get going in the morning (afternoon).
After passing through the intimidating lava fields in La Pine, which looked as if they wanted to jump off the side of the road and punch you, we stopped for gas, again, thanks to Tim’s bike, which had almost as small a capacity as Darren’s bladder. Fully fuelled, we headed off on our preset course – and what turned out to be our next detour.
Although we had one destination in mind for the night, a wise traveller in Chemult who went out of his way to stop by to talk to us about our trip, enlightened us to a detour into the mountains that revealed a hidden gem at an elevation of 1,555 metres: Diamond Lake Resort. While it was misty when we arrived the previous night, the morning presented a beautiful lake and surrounding mountains. If it had been just a smidge clearer, we would have seen Crater Lake in the distance.
Thinking that our long days on the bikes so far, plus poor food and hydration choices, was causing us to feel out of shape, it was in fact (or so we tell ourselves) the thin air at that elevation that had us out of breath, and made walking 60 metres feel as if we’d run the same distance at a sprint.
Before setting out for Crater Lake, we were advised that both the north entrance to the park and the Rim Drive we were so looking forward to were closed – and for no other reason than 4.5 metres of snow on the roads. Yes, in June! So over the mountains and through the woods we went, making our way to the south entrance, where we were all witness to…