Bikepacking for Beginners Clinic and Ride Recap

Post by Jocelyn Gaudi

Back in January, while still deep in winter hibernation, the team was approached by Nicole Davenport, Program Manager for the Bicycle Transportation Alliance (BTA), our local cycling advocacy group. Among being a heroine in many pro-bike ways, Nicole leads the Women Bike program at BTA. The program is still young, less than a year old, but has already established itself as a valuable resource for women who ride in Portland. The group has a very active Facebook page and serves as a great venue for women-only conversation and Q&A on a wide range of cycling related topics. Wanting to expand beyond the city commuting scene, Nicole asked us if we would be interested in hosting a beginner friendly bikepacking ride in coordination with the group. We jumped at the chance to engage with a new audience and spread the joy of bikepacking! So we picked out a weekend for the ride and a date for a pre-ride clinic and got to planning.

It's been so exciting to watch the rise in interest and participation in bikepacking over the past year, especially among women. If our Bikepacking for Beginners clinic is any indication, the trend will continue into 2016 - we had twenty five riders came out for our presentation! The crowd was a balance of women and men, ranging in age from mid-20s to late 60s. They very attentively sat through a handful of slides covering the basics to get out on for your first trip and asked thoughtful questions about a lot of stuff - it was a productive conversation for everyone in the room! Our heartfelt thanks to the Mountain Shop for hosting the clinic and to Base Camp Brewery for the cold snacks. 

Photo by Inga Beck

Photo by Inga Beck

The next two weeks were a flurry of emails to work out details for the Bikepacking for Beginners ride. We had a total of 13 riders confirmed to join for the trip! The group was a great mix of experienced and first-time bikepackers - and everyone was super excited to ride together. The Team had selected the Deschutes River Trail for this trip. The trail is wonderful - beginner friendly, an easily navigable out-and-back, very little elevation change, and all in an awe inspiring canyon with a gorgeous river winding through. PLUS we lucked out and timed the adventure perfectly with the April full moon! 

Early Saturday morning, the crew met in Portland to carpool eastbound into the Columbia River Gorge. The low hanging grey clouds that they had woke to broke as they cruised past Hood River and the day was suddenly bright and blue. The caravan exited the highway and pulled into the gravel lot at the entrance of the Deschutes River State Park. I met them there after having spent Friday night out for a solo overnighter and reserved a nice large campsite for the group about 6 miles up the trail. We took over the lot as bikes, bags, and gear were pulled out from the vehicles to be readied for the ride. 

Beginners take note: perfecting your on-bike organization is one of the most challenging aspects to bikepacking. There's a moment in your pre-ride prep that sees you standing in the middle of a pile of gear - clothing, kitchen, tent - and you have zero confidence that everything will fit in your bike bags. But then, as you slowly start to pack it all away, you discover a few things: 1) those bags fit more than you expect and 2) that luxury item you hoped to bring (towel, paperback novel, speaker, etc...) will be probably be staying behind. One of the great aspects of the Deschutes River Trail is that it's equally welcoming to a traditional touring set up (with a rear rack with panniers) as it is to bikepacking specific bags - we had both styles well represented among our group. The gals going out for their first time asked a lot of great questions - we'll write up an additional post with some packing pointers soon. Once Kim and I had confirmed that everyone was ready to roll out, we gathered at the trailhead for a group photo. Then we turned toward the trail, looking up river, and pedaled off on our overnight adventure. 

As we settled into our fully loaded bikes on the unpaved trail, the group spread out a bit over the first four miles. The trails wraps along, hugging the side of the canyon wall and occasionally challenging novice off-road riders with some chunky rock sections, but everyone was riding along really well. The mighty Deschutes flowed gentle by on our right hand side and the air was fragrant with the spring growth of desert sage. It was a beautiful scene but I spent a lot of time looking down at the dirt, on the watch for rattlesnakes. I had been warned by two riders leaving the trail last night that they had seen a dozen or so snakes on the trail in the heat of the day. I hadn't seen any during my time on the trail yet, but I thought odds were high that someone in our group would very likely see one as the sun and temperature rose during the day. I had 1) re-read the section on treating snake bites in my first aid manual and 2) warned the group at the start of the ride that we might encounter a rattlesnake and how to avoid being bitten (be vigilant and when you see a snake, give it space/leave it alone) to prepare for the eventual encounter(s). It wasn't until mile marker five that Catherine gave a little yelp and yelled "SNAKE!" The few of us were riding close beside her quickly steered away, but just kept pedaling, and we were all quickly away from the reptile. Whew! 

We were traveling along at a pretty mellow pace and arrived at our primitive campsite after a two hour ride. The site offered easy river access, a well established fire ring and a BLM style vault toilet. The toilet was a welcome surprise for the first-timers who had been preparing to dig cat holes! We spread out along the riverside and set up our temporary homes, keeping ever mindful of the potential to see another snake in the tall grass. The wind had picked up too - it was blowing in rough gusts up river and making tent set up a considerable challenge. More than once, a tent was pulled free from it's stakes in the lose, sandy soil and went tumbling as it's owner went running after it. After we fished Allison's tent out of mess of riverside bushes, a few of us threw some big rocks into the corners of our tent for a stronger foundation. 

Camp was well established and we had lots of daylight hours left, so we decided to take the afternoon to keep riding the trail out to the old Harris Homestead. We grabbed our lunches and got back on bikes, now much lighter without our camping gear. An abandoned boxcar made a great spot for a lunch stop, so we made ourselves comfortable on the wooden floor and passed around potato chips, hunks of cheese and a box of wine to wash it down with. For entertainment, we watched a bald eagle and red tail hawk riding thermals over the river. The air was thick with heat, but we saddled up again for the few miles ride to the Homestead site. The Harris Homestead was built at the turn of the last century by pioneer settlers who worked the riverside land for many years - their dilapidated farmhouse, garden and overgrown orchard provides an interesting and slightly creepy look back in time. 

We had reached our turnaround point, but no one seemed particularly eager to turn back into the head wind for the ride home to camp. So our group lazed a bit by the trailside under the shade of trees. We also took the chance to test ride each other's bikes and it was fun to watch the ladies riding back and forth with huge smiles on their faces.

When our shadows grew a bit more slanted, we saddled up on our own bikes and began the ride down river. Despite the stiff breeze we were riding into, the group made a good time keeping in casual paceline. We saw a lone deer bound away from us, heading up the canyonside. Back at camp, we spent a few quiet moments soaking our feet in the cool river water before we busied ourselves with camp chores: changing clothes, purifying water and gathering a bit of volunteer wood to help get a fire going. I had pulled a trailer in with a couple bundles of firewood to assure we were able to enjoy a nice campfire that night - a luxury not always available when bikepacking, but one I was willing to pull some extra weight for! The sun fell behind the canyon wall and the day faded to a darker shade of blue. Clouds were moving in quickly too, but we kept hopeful that we would see the full moon rise. Dinner was cooked, box wine was drank and we sat happy and laughing with the fire keeping our faces warm. Slowly, we said our goodnights and made our way into our tents. 

It rained a bit overnight and added to the soundtrack of the river - natural white noise that I sleep so well too. When the day dawned, I allowed myself to snooze and enjoy the morning bird songs. But the day warmed up quickly and motivated me out of my sleeping bag. Bridget, the Amandas and Megan were already up - the rest of us slowly joined them for breakfast, sharing notes on #coffeeoutside prep and tasty oatmeal additions.

We leisurely broke down camp, appreciating the quiet of the canyon and in no rush to return to the city. When everyone was ready, we took off together down river and took in the opposite view from our ride yesterday. The ride out of the Deschutes always passes by so quickly so we stopped for a bit at the halfway point, snacking and laughing.  

A few more uneventful snake sightings later, we were all back at the cars, unpacking bags and loading up bikes for the drive home.  We celebrated with a tasty lunch and a pint of beer at Rivertap Brewery in The Dalles as the group chatted about what the next bikepacking adventure would be. No doubt about it - this trip was a huge success for the whole group. A big thank you to Nicole Davenport for her huge help organizing the trip and congrats to all of the riders: Stacey Stromberg, Megan Horst, Inga Beck, Amanda Ryman, Laura Klement, Kelsey Cardwell, Amanda Judkins, Brigid Gormley, Allison Marie, Catherine Reynolds and Kim Danielson.  

Post-ride notes: Turns out those snakes weren't rattlesnakes - I questioned if they were when I noted they were missing the telltale rattle at the end of their tail! After a bit of research, I'm pretty sure they were Pacific Gopher Snakes. No doubt there are rattlesnakes out in that canyon though - so keep your eyes open when you ride there.