A trip to the Crater Lakes (AKA "the ride of 1,000 mistakes")
Introduction: When I first started this blog I had this grand vision of writing about all the awesome adventures I've had on my motorcycle so others might be inspired to go out and do the same. I've been more or less riding since I was 9 years old, and now that I'm in my 30s I feel I'm becoming quite the adept dualsport rider. I'd like fancy myself a bit of an adventurer. But this last weekend I got put in my place. Nature will take the unprepared and hand them their ass. I thought about glossing over the sordid bits and just talking about the amazing stuff I saw, but I think there's a lot to learn from my failure too. I can't imagine anyone looks up to me for the handful of posts I've made so far anyway, so I don't have far to fall by confessing I was caught so ill prepared on my recent trip. Hopefully everyone can do a little "do as I say, not as I do" after reading this.
My trip to Crater Lake has been on my list for a long time. Two summers ago my fiance and I wanted to go. I kept chomping at the bit to head down there and she kept wanting me to wait till we could go together. It didn't work out (the relationship, and the trip). Then last summer I had a small crew of friends really excited about going on motorcycles, but one thing led to another and it never panned out. So this year I'd decided once the weather got nice I was going to do it. Two weeks ago I received an invitation to go to a cabin with some friends near Mt. Hood but when I asked for more details I never heard anything back. Sensing a trend I thought, F*ck it, I'll go to Crater Lake. This was solidified when I received a different invitation from a friend who was going to be camping near Mt. Hood at my favorite little spot: Clear Lake. I had to work on Saturday but with a spot to stay near Mt. Hood I could get a head start on the trip if I left right after work. Friday night was spent packing and prepping. I keep most all my gear in one place so I really only had to stop by the studio to put together a tool bag, buy some food, and get everything ready to strap on the bike.
One long-ass day of work later I zipped out of town, made a quick stop at Government Camp for a small bottle of whiskey, and arrived at the campground on Clear Lake. There are apparently several Clear Lakes in Oregon. No, I haven't been to the other ones but I can unquestionably say this one is my favorite:
I had the good fortune of sharing the campsite with three charming ladies (four, if you count their sweet puppy, Dot.) We stayed up late around the fire sipping cinnamon whiskey in hot chocolate and sharing stories. The next morning during breakfast we had a couple of raindrops fall, but nothing major. It was just enough to make me realize I'd forgotten my rain gear. Fortunately I was headed to the east side of the mountains where I've never experienced much rain so I wasn't too worried.
The next after Clear Lake off of Highway 26 (headed towards Bend) will take you in to Timothy Lake, or you can veer over to check out Little Crater Lake (Ha! see? There's more than one!). It's worth the detour. There's a small parking lot at the back of the campground, and a short 250m hike back into the lake through some beautiful marshes and meadows.
The lake is amazing, and yes, very little. The water is crystalline allowing you to see every definition of the steep walls of the lake all the way to the bottom. I thought stopping here would be a very fitting warm up to seeing the much larger Crater Lake. Fact: I was right.
Back on Highway 26 I was floored at the abrupt change from lush forest to high desert nothingness. It's been many years since I've been down to Bend, and I hadn't remembered the change being so dramatic. I love the high desert though. It's beautiful in it's own right and reminds me of where I grew up.
I found an amazing little overlook en route and stopped for some photos. One thing the high desert always seems to have in spades is epic canyon lands. This particular one has a 300' cliff and signs surrounding it reminding visitors of the number of pets that have inadvertently jumped to their death here... Cheery, no? Well, the bridge was pretty sweet.
Just before rolling into La Pine I got hit with my first heavy rainfall. And I mean it was effing POURING! Every time I'm out on the bike and get caught in the rain a funny thing happens: the only other bikes I see on the road are dualsports. Are we the only ones crazy enough to be out in this garbage? (shut up, it's a rhetorical question) Props to the guy on a DR headed the other direction who made a Raise the Roof gesture at me as we passed as if to say, "Bitch, WE WET!" with a smile.
I gotta say I was having fun. I mean, I was soaked, but knew I wouldn't be this wet forever. It was only a passing raincloud and I could see lighter skies in the distance. The awesome ladies at the gas station thought I was completely bonkers though. Especially once they realized I was only wearing Carharts. I had fun explaining that my jacket was pretty much acting as a funnel to my crotch. All the same I was kind of wishing I had my rain gear.
Not too long thereafter the rain stopped and I was plenty dry by the time I pulled onto the road into Crater Lake. After chatting with the Park Ranger at the gate I found out half of the rim road was closed that day to allow for cyclists to enjoy the park unencumbered by motorists (pretty rad if you ask me). So even though there were sunny breaks in the clouds and it was fairly dry out I opted to come back the next day so I could ride the full rim. I instead opted to go set up camp near Umpqua hotsprings. I figured that now that I was right near Crater Lake I'd be able to take my time and really enjoy it.
This, was a mistake.
I had lots of daylight left when I stopped off for gas at the small station in Diamond Lake just north of Crater Lake. Then I rode into Lemolo Lake where a co-worker told me there were some pretty sweet campgrounds. A quick pass through showed me they weren't quite what I was hoping for (too many locals partying). So I opted to head on to Umpqua Hot Springs via a Forest Service road out of the North end of the lake.
There's a map at the North end of Lemolo Lake that shows the road leading over to the hot springs (you can easily access the hot springs from Highway 138, by the way, but I wanted to take the scenic route). I double checked the map and rode on. And suddenly things got good.
Like REALLY good.
I was on this amazing paved single lane road just shredding up the valley. It was smooth as could be, very well maintained, and not a soul in sight. The sun came out, and the bike was roaring. This kind of riding is what I live for. Just climbing and tearing through turns, burning up the miles, and grinning ear to ear. I knew that once I go to the hot springs I'd be able to kick back and sip some whiskey like a king.
But fate had other plans. The road turned to gravel and I descended into the bottom of the valley. I was riding along what I thought was the Umpqua River looking for signs pointing to the Hot Springs. And then I came across a sign that said "Highway 58 - 15 miles" next to a bridge that said "Middle Fork Willamette River". I was North of where I thought I was. Like REALLY North. And now I had significantly less daylight.
Ok, no big deal. A sign pointing across the bridge showed I'd be able to head due South back to Highway 138. I knew from my not-so-detailed State map that several arterials linked up 58 to 138 and were pretty straight forward. Simple North-South routes through the Umpqua National Forest. So I made the left and headed south. I cruised through the first 4-way split in the road and followed the more traveled route once I saw none of the roads were marked.
Then it started to rain.
The second intersection had a forest service road sign laying on its side. It suggested that both Roseburg (at the end of Highway 138, and Highway 58) were the same direction, and miles apart.
Ok, several problems...
1. The sign was on its side with no indication what direction it had pointed.
2. I was riding on a Sunday, and the ranger stations had been closed so I couldn't purchase a more detailed map of the area.
3. I had just come from the North (Highway 58), and I knew damn well that Roseburg is over 70 miles South of Highway 58. This sign suggested they were less than 10 miles apart.
4. I only had about an hour and a half of reliable daylight left. I hate riding at night because of the odds of broadsiding a deer, or something bigger.
I opted to head out on the southern road which appeared equally well traveled as the eastern road. All dirt/gravel rapidly turning very muddy. I rode and rode. It started raining harder. Several more intersections, still no signage. No road numbers, nothing.
Slowly the road became far more technical. There were multiple recent landslides, stream crossings, and recently felled trees. I did note that someone had done some maintenance on the road as the trees had been cut enough to allow vehicles through and most of the really large boulders had been pushed out of the way. Many decent sized boulders remained.
Eventually I came to the cold hard conclusion: I was running out of daylight. I was completely soaked. I was cold....
I was totally f*cking lost.
I pulled over, got off my bike and snapped a photo. A moment worth documenting.
It's tough to see in the photo, but it's pouring rain. And the grayness behind me is actually a steep dropoff. Roughly 1500' below me was the valley floor.
I had no idea if the road I was on would get me out of this mess, and was rapidly approaching the halfway point on my gas tank. By that I mean if I turned around soon, and perfectly retraced my steps I could make it back to the Diamond Lake Gas Station (the closest gas station) with less than 20 miles to spare.
At the next secluded spot I found I pulled over, made a quick dinner, and set up camp. I retreated to my tent to see if I could figure out where I might be on my map. I went back and forth between my map, and my phone which was picking up a GPS signal. Unfortunately I hadn't pre-loaded any maps into my phone so the blinking blue dot was in the middle of a big void. I finally convinced myself I wasn't going to deduce a damn thing, and grabbed the bottle of whiskey. This, I was glad I had. I had just enough to warm me up, shut my brain off, and fall asleep.
The next morning I got up as it started getting light out, quickly packed up my soaked gear, and resumed riding. The best I could figure was that I was headed back up the opposite side of the valley I had originally ridden down and that ultimately I'd connect with the paved road I'd been on the day before. I was steadily gaining elevation and and not too far from my camp I passed through a herd of elk. After several more miles of climbing I started encountering patches of snow, and just as I was about to hit the top of the ridge I broke out into a beautiful meadow adjacent to several large lakes. Simply breathtaking. I was at some seriously high elevation and here was this lowland scene.
4 miles later... The road ended. It ended at a trailhead of all things (WTF?)... Apparently people head all that way only to begin their trip. I was pretty sure there was nowhere else to go, but clearly if I was a hiker that'd be a different story. Hitting the dead end was actually a bit of a relief. Now I knew which way I had to go to get out. I'd ridden 10 miles since camp, and had at least 70 miles back to the place where the sign had been tipped over. And yes, it was still raining. So I focused on my riding (the last thing I needed was a flat or a mechanical) and keeping some feeling in my fingers.
Eventually I got back to the fallen sign and turned up the other road. This road didn't seem all the much more promising, but after about 5 miles I encountered another Roseburg/Highway 58 sign (progress?). A few miles beyond that I rode into the middle of a logging operation. The guys were in trying to pull some jammed cables free from their crane while further down the road a loader was rearranging fallen trees. I waited patiently for them to notice me. They got the cables free, and signaled to the guy in the loader. He stopped and waved me through. There was just enough room between the stacks of trees for me to ride through. It was tight enough that I scraped my hard-bags a couple times on the trees as I made my way through. Definitely stoked on having a motorcycle at that moment. Anything else would be stuck for hours until they cleared the road.
I rounded a few more turns and approached the sound of a chainsaw. I was coming around the corner closest to the sound of the saw there were several trees laying part way across the road. That's when I heard the saw shut off followed by the unmistakable sound of a falling tree... A tree falling right into the road. I gunned it, and made it through with the top of the tree hitting the ground about 8 feet from my bike. Active logging zones? No good, man. No good at all.
Eventually I hit a fork in the road signalling one way to highway 58, and the other to Roseburg (ah. NOW it made sense. Jerks). I continued towards Roseburg (and highway 138) because dammit I wanted to see Crater Lake! The dirt gave way to pavement, which wound up on Highway 138. Turning back East towards Crater Lake I stopped at a small roadside market in Dry Creek with a sign offering fresh coffee. I bought a hot cup of coffee and had them make me a bomb-ass breakfast sandwich and sat outside to slowly try and warm up. Just above me was a missing person's notice. Last October a man had disappeared on the same ridgeline I had been riding on.
Still completely soaked, I continued down the road and pulled back in to the station at Diamond Lake. I made use of the heater and gladly accepted more coffee to try and warm up some more before heading in to Crater Lake. The gas station attendant was good company, and I learned a lot about the area talking to him. Those high mountain lakes and meadows I had seen were apparently where the old homesteaders would take their cattle in the summers for grazing. I also learned He had been largely responsible for the conversion of a large portion of the Umpqua National Forest into protected wilderness land. Turns out he was far less fond of the logging operations than I was, which struck me as ironic given the inside of the gas station was adorned with the heads of dead animals, and the drawing of hitler beneath which read, "raise your right hand if you support gun control". Never judge a book by its cover...
Finally, and I mean FINALLY, I was headed to Crater Lake. Two years in the making and I was handing over my 5 bucks to get into the park. Sure, it wasn't the best weather, but damnit I was going to get an awesome photo of my moto in front of the scenic waters.
But as I neared the rim things weren't looking quite so scenic....
I was fully submerged in the cloud layer, effing freezing, and there was no visibility. I got my photo looking down into the crater alright:
The irony of this situation was certainly not lost on me. A very blatant reminder that the destination should be the last thing on your list of priorities. It's the journey that matters most.
I didn't ride the rim. I turned around and rode North.
My original plan was to camp one more night and head back into Portland on Tuesday morning but once I pulled back into Bend and saw there would be a break in the weather that afternoon I opted to push ahead and get back to Portland that night.
The folks at the Deschutes Brewery were great. They got me a spot by their fireplace, which they turned on for me, and kept my coffee hot while I warmed up and tried to dry off. Eventually I got back on the road and fortunately only encountered one more rain cloud near Mt. Hood before getting back into Portland.
Talking to my dad on the phone yesterday he reminded me of the first trip we took up into British Columbia. It rained damn near the whole week and a half. I was reminded of riding with garbage bags on my feet to keep them dry. Miles and miles of deep slippery mud. And yet somehow that didn't seem nearly as miserable as this one 24 hour period. I think that goes to show the value in preparedness. With all of the years, and many miles of riding I've done on the KLR, my missing rain gear coupled with a few wrong turns put me in a bad spot real quick. Glad I came out with some solid lessons learned, and wasn't another missing-person notice.
I think I'll wait till late August before heading back to Crater Lake. But I'm going back damnit.