The Snap! Crackle! and Pop! of the North Fork
Caterpillars, Caterpillars...Caterpillars Everywhere
And no Tobasco at Hand
Elevation: 4,950 Feet
Summer came on stronger than the Porta-Potties at Woodstock. One day it was spring, unpredictable and unstable with glimpses of breath-taking warmth and cool breezes. The next day it was summer smackdown and all the trails opened up for mountain biking. With the long, heavy winter we still had some trails that were closed up and hiking was pretty much out because of snow. We won't be able to hike until August.
LarryB and I had been doing a lot of riding out at Phil's Trail making sure that we hit it a couple of times a week. My boys had given me a new mountain bike for Father's Day and I had been riding the hell out of it. I got the clip-in pedals on a fresh soft-tail. It all of a sudden made sense why everyone kept telling me that those pedals make all the difference in the world. All of a sudden I was able to actually climb uphill. For the first time, I was going uphill so quickly that I had to negotiate the trails. Normally, my speed was slow enough where I didn't really need to watch what I was doing too much. There is the downside to them though: you are part of the bike now, where the bike goes, you go. And in reverse, where you go, the bike will follow, even if you go over those handlebars. It trails you like a child on the hunt for the last sparkler on the Fourth of July.
We took Skyliners out of Bend, noting all the wonderful and plentiful ski resort rentals all over hills. As soon as we hopped out of town, the forest rose up on each side and took us out the tranquil drive of Skyliners Road. When we pulled into the Tumalo Creek Falls parking lot we could see there were a lot of One Mile Tourists out. These are hikers who pile out of their rack-covered cars in their brand new REI gear, some with tags still hanging off the day-hiking comfy boots, pull on the 5,000 cubic cm backpack holding a full regiment of medicines, water, food, emergency blankets, snake-bite kit, water purifier, spare clothes, rain jacket, poncho, shelter half, entrenching tool, spare socks, loads of mole skin and hiking poles. It takes them an hour of getting ready, checking maps and reader boards, paying the fees, arguing about where the hike starts, consulting hiking guides and going back to the car because they forgot the camera, then going back again because they forgot the rain cover for the backpack and lastly because they left the keys sitting on the bumper of their Subaru. They then hike up about 1/2 a mile, panting and holding their sides while bending over before saying this was a great outing, turning back and heading back to the parking lot. Load and unload times are two hours, the hike is twenty minutes.
LarryB was a bit worried that we were going to be dodging One Milers all evening which I quickly disspelled by explaining the full range of this type of hiker subspecies. The North Fork trail is supposedly the only one-way bike trail in the United States. The reason is that it really is about 4 1/2 - 5 miles of pure uphill. Coming down it with all the hikers on it is a real buzzkill when you are trying to satiate that need for speed. So you go up and come down on the other side of the creek after a bit of mountain-pine fun.
It was a steady climb, not steep but not gradual. There were a lot of little tree roots to hop and after a while it begans to take a toll on you and your lung capacity. I had done this same ride for the first time about four days before we had gone out. It had been a much cooler day, 58 F in the parking lot versus the 90 F that day, and much cooler higher up with four snow patches large enough to force me to have to walk my bike through them as there weren't even "Screw It" plough attempts from other bikes. Much to my prediction, we only met a single pair of people coming out of the forest once we extended ourselves beyond the roaming range of the One Milers. And, by the hand of God, the girl was sporting a huge, 5,000 cubic cm backpack.
There is a huge motivating factor in getting up this mountain than just the normal "Thank God, the Parking Lot!" Waiting out in the forest, hiding behind trees, bushes and reeds of grass are the legions of mosquitos waiting to pounce on anything which has flesh. They can suck a mouse dry in less than two minutes and not all of them will have a full belly. You don't want to take any time standing around because you can't stand still with the thick of them landing with their velcro feet two or three at a time behind your arms and knees where you feel them before you see them. You do this almost slow indian rain dance, lazily slapping your extremeties and occasionally smack your forehead, checking your palms for remanents of the greedy lil' bastards. You need one of those conga flyswatters and make a scourging pilgramage through the desert, flailing yourself mercilessly or else suffer at the cruel culex pipiens of the mosquito. Seriously, I think the mosquito is the most universally despised animal on the planet. We hates them, precious.
Towards the top of the major part of the climbing, you come into what has to be one of the most picturesque alpine scenes of the entire trip, or really any trip. It's perfect; emerald meadow sprinkled with lavender and small trees with splashes of light coming in from the slanting sun. It was at the least a "Get Well" card. LarryB didn't want to hold hands.
We skirted the edge of Happy Valley which drops you back towards Mount Bachelor and into Swampy Lakes. I have yet to ride out there but I think I might make a foray out into the woods a bit deeper sometime this year. We crosssed over Tumalo Creek and headed up to road 370 where we would hook up with the Mrazek Trail and finally down to Farewell Bend Trail. When I had come out a few days before, this section of the trail had fifteen to twenty trees blown across it. You couldn't ride over or under any of them and it became very time consuming to throw you and your bike around the trees to get back onto the trail. There were so many of them that I began to think I was on a hiking trail and they didn't allow bikes on it by cutting down trees to make it unpleasurable.
I started checking the ends and saw that everyone of them were torn asunder from the stump and blown across the trail. As we rolled down the trail, with me warning LarryB of all these pain in the ass trees coming up around any corner now, I started seeing fresh cut paths through the trail and narry a tree harried my riding (except a couple as obstacles). Someone, some wonderful person(s), had come up in those four days with a chain saw and cut all these up. It made the ride so much more enjoyable that I kept wanting to know who it was so I could thank them and give them a six pack of good beer. If half the riders that rode trail that year did that, he would have a year's supply of beer. Unless you happen to be El Jeffe, which is roughly a fortnights' worth of slurp.
Once in the forest away from the creek, the riding is a lot earthier with springy pine needle dust and lots of tree roots and harder terrain. The dense forest dissolves and opens up into a manzanita ridgeline high up on the Tumalo Creek valley. It is a fantastic view and can be a bit intimidating as you used to ride in a confined, tight forest and now you have this open expanse on your left and a few hundred feet drop-off on your right. The trail isn't real smooth at this point, very rocky and bumpy. The invisible gravity of open space on your right pulls you over to your side and causes you to lose your balance quite a bit, forcing you to go slower and hit each rock like you are doing a simultaneous connect-the-dot with your front and back tires each creating their own independant picture. I had a lot of fun with it the second time, but the first time made me timid and afraid I was going to drop off into that manzanita scree.
Dropping down the ridgeline you get to the last little bit of fun. A very steep descent to the very parking lot you started at which has the sharpest and loosest switchbacks I have ever been on. The first time I did this part, I didn't know about the caterpillars. The black billions of them chewing all the manzanita in site. As I flew through the thickest and tightest manzanita, the branches slapped my arms and legs ceaselessly until I was off the trail into the parking lot. When I got back to Great White, my giant sandcrawler of a vehicle, I noticed I had all these black smudges all over my shirt, legs, arms and shorts. And they were moving. HOLY SHIT!!! I did that crazy flip out electric shock flailing, trying to slap every part of my body in sheer panic mode of being swarmed by icky, unknown bugs. I calmed down quickly when I realized I was squishing all of them all over my clothes and skin. Then it was just yucky, but not grand mal seizure yucky anymore.
Remembering this part of it I graciously let LarryB take the lead and shake all of the loose caterpillars off the leaves before I came through. As I was going down, I stopped and took a couple of pictures of the scenery. In the silence of expanse, I could hear this noise. It was soft, subtle but very discernable. It sounded just like Rice Crispies cereal when you first drench it in milk. I realized it was the sound of a quattuordecillion black caterpillars having a full on manzanita orgy in the middle of the forest. I was in awe, I could actually hear them eating. It might not sound near as cool in writing as it was to witness, but it was something I hadn't ever heard before.
We made it out tired and feeling like we had a great ride on a fantastic day. This ride was a stout nine miles. In the parking lot LarryB spent a few minutes picking caterpillars out of his socks, shoes, backpack, hair, down his shirt, on his shirt and anywhere surface of his body where a proleg can hook into. I think I pulled off two.