Faint Two-Track On The Oregon Trail

Today's post comes from Salsa sponsored rider Kurt Refsnider. It seemed an especially appropriate post as later today he begins the Tour Divide race from Banff, Alberta, Canada to Antelope Wells, New Mexico, USA. We wish Kurt, his lady Caroline, and all the rest of the riders taking part, the best of luck. -Kid

Late one night a few weeks ago, I stared at my computer, flipping back and forth between views of topographic maps and aerial photos, squinting to make out faint two-tracks. They showed up on the topos, but I wanted to make sure that they actually existed on the ground. Some did. Some didn’t. I also panned back and forth along a benign looking river, trying to find a place that seemed suitable for fording. I settled on one of the fords used by pioneers on the Oregon and California Trails. They probably picked the safest spots, right?

Planning for bikepacking trips in remote new territory is always exciting. So many possibilities, so much to explore, and yet one can only cover so many miles in a day. The planning for this particular trip was a bit hasty, done late the night before our departure. I uploaded four tracks onto my GPS – one that might get us to where we wanted to go, another that would bypass the potentially problematic river crossing, and one that would bypass a possible private property issue on the bypass. The other track was the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route that we’d follow to complete the loop.

Caroline and I will both be racing the Tour Divide, which begins this morning (June 10th, 2011 – ed.) in Banff, Alberta, Canada. We’ve done some exciting bikepacking trips in the months leading up to it, but the one that left the biggest impression on me was this particular trip to the remote and desolate landscape of central Wyoming.

I was struck by the stark beauty of the Great Divide Basin when I raced the Divide in 2009, and I’ve been wanting to get back there ever since. We planned a route that would take us through the low mountains that form the northern rim of the Basin, distant from any civilization, and as far as I could tell from the maps I had to work with, rather devoid of any frequently traveled routes.

Once our tires were rolling, I felt like my jaw was dangling open the entire time. I couldn’t get over the vastness of the landscape, the distances we could see, the turbulent atmosphere steadily whipping up mildly threatening clouds, and the fact that we rode for a day and a half into an ear-numbing 30mph wind almost entirely on faint two-track. I think that wind was the only reason my jaw wasn’t really hanging wide open.

Late the first afternoon, we found ourselves on the Oregon Trail. Caroline and I joked about the old Oregon Trail computer game we had both played in elementary school as antelope danced about us in all directions. Retracing this route, I quickly gained a better appreciation for the bravery, resourcefulness, and foolhardiness of these pioneer families. Small monuments and cemeteries marked the locations where the less fortunate travelers were laid to rest, left behind as the remainder of their party still had hundreds upon hundreds of miles to travel to the next settlement.

Shortly before nightfall, we arrived at the Sweetwater River Canyon and descended a bumpy trail into its depths. The golden sunlight spread a beautiful glow through the narrow valley, and I was startled to see trees at the bottom. We hadn’t seen trees in many hours, but the river had created its own oasis. A bumpy descent brought us to the water’s edge. An uncomfortable nervousness came upon me as I saw how fast and high it was flowing. Steep banks and a rocky bottom made this a rather difficult place to cross, but there was nowhere else in the area that seemed any better. I should have realized that the river should have changed dramatically in the 150 years since the wagon trains crossed here. We tried in vain to find a safe way across, but crossing through waist-deep water on slippery boulders with loaded bikes just seemed like a bad idea.

A warm fire dried off my shoes as I looked at the map and tried to figure out a way to salvage the trip without having to retrace our route. In the end, we reconnected with the Oregon Trail at the other end of the canyon and followed it west for a few more hours through granite knobs, across the last snow drifts stubbornly holding on from the winter, and eventually popped out on a dirt road. After 140 miles of headwind, we turned our backs to it, grinned, and sailed under the hot afternoon sun back toward the lone mountain on the eastern horizon.

We didn’t come close to completing the loop I had hoped we’d be able to follow, but I left feeling a far stronger connection to the history of an area than I have in quite some time. Now I’d like to pull out a map of the Oregon Trail and see how much of it would still be possible to follow by bike. But that’s an adventure for another summer, as the rest of this one is already booked!

This post filed under topics: Bikepacking El Mariachi Kurt Refsnider Overnighter Ride The Divide Sponsored Riders Tour Divide Ultra Racing

Share this post:

Kurt Refsnider

Kurt Refsnider

After growing up in Minnesota, I’ve been lured away by the rugged charm of the mountainous west. I relish every opportunity I find to spend a day (or days) on the bike, linking together unknown trails and forgotten routes through deserted country, enjoying the simplicity and unpredictability. When driven to race, I am growing ever fonder of pushing the limits of endurance and sanity. [url=http://www.krefs.blogspot.com]http://www.krefs.blogspot.com[/url]


No avatar image

Chad | June 15th, 2011

Wilderness draws me so strongly, envy runs through my viens.

Commenting is not available in this channel entry.