Today's Guest Blogger is adventurer Steve Graepel. Enjoy! -Kid
It’s said that the Inuit have over 100 words for snow. Eight hours into our first day on the Oregon Coast and we were quickly racking up our own synonyms for sand…some of them even family-friendly. Experienced with this sort of junket, I anticipated the wind, rain, water crossings, cliffed-out seawalls, and even the notorious coastal scrub. Still, I somehow overlooked the continually giving goodness of sand.
Watching the water chew at the shoreline, I could quickly surmise if I'd be pushing or pedaling my Mukluk. The steeper the beach, the coarser the shingle, the less it would support. So when the beach finally reclined into solid ground, Dave buried his nose to his stem and rode hell bent on making up time. Too euphoric to notice, he zipped right past the 30-foot whale carcass, deflated and tanning under the salty sun to our right.
“Dave! How did you miss this!” I called him back.
I dropped the bike and grabbed the camera. One of my pastimes is documenting trailside carnage. Snapping the perimeter, I saw the tail’s peduncle wrapped with a rogue fishing line. The yearling had clearly drowned from the weight of the cord. We mounted our fatbikes and continued north on our coastal highway.
Cycling the Oregon Coast is a common summer pursuit; on average, 5,000 cyclists put rubber to Highway 101 each year. But pedaling on the beaches…it turned off even my usual suspects. “The coast is rocky. It’s got a lot seacliffs, and multiple water hazards with choked-out exits”. Still, I was confident that the 100-mile section between Port Orford and Florence would be an ideal ‘wilderness’ fatbike route with long stretches of beach set far back from the highway. We packed up for a late summer/early fall trip.
With the change in seasons comes a shift in the coastal winds; fall’s low-pressure systems flip the prevailing winds from the north to the south. This influenced our choice to start south, out of Port Orford. Thirty miles later, this gamble paid dividends as we sat upright in the saddle with arms stretched wide to catch the aft winds. We effortlessly carved wide arcing lines through Bandon’s sentinel sea stacks as beachcombers pointed fingers and cat-called at our monster-truck bikes.
One of the perks of traveling within cell range was that we continually had three bars. Google Maps indicated a trail splintered off the beach north of Bandon, allowing us to circumnavigate Cape Argo, the second and most prominent seacliff along our route. The trail climbed to 600 feet inside a mile where we came face-to-face with the inside of a gated community. While discussing the merits of going over versus around, the keeper of the gate greeted us with a “How did you manage to find yourselves inside our gated community?” Putting on our graduate school faces, we cleaned up our discussion, negotiated our extraction, and quickly pressed onto the second leg of the trip: the South Slough Estuary.
The South Slough braids from its boggy headwaters to the Coos River through a network of channels, tidal and freshwater wetlands. Of historical importance, it was established as the nation’s first reserve under the federal Coastal Zone Management Act of 1972—one of 28 such reserves dedicated to the research and stewardship of regions where rivers meet the sea. And in our case, it was a steep introduction into the nuances of bikerafting (packrafting with bikes onboard).
We dropped our bloated boats onto Winchester Creek, which was little more than a muddy smear, and pulled the loads until incoming tides lifted them off the bog floor. To save weight, I swapped out the six-pound Alpacka raft for a two-pound Klymit LWD raft (designed for flat water backpacking traverses…not necessarily for bikerafting exploration). Slightly more robust than a kiddie pool, the LWD flexed with every ripple which inspired Dave to dub it the ‘Magic Carpet’.
Paddling the boats was a taxing effort; if we focused on the immediate water, it would seem we were making great progress against surface debris. But the peripheral gaze showed the shore eked past us as we paddled against the tide and into the headwind.
The estuary opened into a bay, revealing hints of civilization. Three hours later we finally reached the mouth of the slough, though at high tide. The largest bay between Seattle and San Francisco, Coos Bay is a working bay frequented by large sea-going traffic. That, and a fortified respect for the outgoing tides, encouraged us to pedal the bikes 15 miles to the bridge rather than wrestle with fate. We navigated a folding maze of dune trails to the beach by following the sound of the crashing surf.
The beach between Coos Bay and the Umpqua was of lesser riding quality than what we experienced adjacent to Bandon. But then again, while we were on the water the weather had shifted from poor to better. Riding into a 10-15 mph headwind forced us to earn our afternoon miles. At the end of the second day, we had traveled 50 miles by bike and raft. The final leg would bring us across the Umpqua and on beach paralleling the Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area. Objective hazards behind us, we felt confident the route was ‘in the bag’.
The following morning Dave and I paused speechless as we watched waves crest the 20-foot jetty headwall, preserving the mouth of the Umpqua at Winchester Bay. Considered Oregon’s big wave spot, its posted dangers warned us of its “Rips, Undertows, and Sharks”. We rode inland a to a protected pier where we unfurled our boats for our final big paddle.
The Umpqua is one of four Oregon maritime rivers that flow from sources on the east side of the Cascades. It also hosts one of the premier summer steelhead runs in Oregon, if not the entire West. My immediate concern was not the powerful tide, nor the two-plus foot swells, but being run down by an angler—hopped up on steelhead-fever—racing to find their spot in the hog line. So I strapped my pad around my torso and launched with “Lets stay close on this one…”
Together, we paddled out past the pier and into the river channel. Finally synchronized with an incoming tide, we fully understood the power of the ocean. We paddled merely to course correct our line into the rolling waves; the current did the rest of the work. At one point we came within 15 or so feet of an anchored boat. Exchanging glances, the occupants watched in disbelief as we paddled by with bikes strapped to our bows.
We carried our energy from the Umpqua into the final stretch of beach, assured by many it would be a perfectly rideable conclusion to the trek. But nothing comes easy on the Oregon Coast. We pedaled out from behind the north jetty and into a stiff headwind, where the rising tide pushed us off the beach’s wrack line and into the dry berm. We found occasional relief in a sporadic cement of shattered gaper clamshells bound with flotsam. But for the most part the sand was a horror show: too loose to pedal and damn hard work to push. And as we got closer to town, we found ourselves competing for ground next to weekend warrior’s hot-dogging the loose stuff on their ORV’s.
But if we learned anything, the conditions change as sure as the tides. We made one final push on the bike and pedaled en echelon to the south jetty ORV staging area where we met our ride back to Port Orford.
The Oregon Coast is one of those places that haunts you long after you are home. I’m still pouring sand out of my kit and airing my pack of its “ocean-fresh” scent…that is peculiarly similar to composting crab shells and seaweed.
Is it a classic? Maybe.
Is it doable? Definitely.
Would I do it again? Absolutely!
About The Guest Blogger: Steve Graepel is an art director, medical illustrator, husband, father of two, and a thief—stealing any free time he finds to explore his backyard in the greater Pacific Northwest.
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