Six hundred miles north (and a little to the east), the cool rains of British Columbia fall through the mountains, coalescing as the headwaters of the Great Columbia River. From there, the river flows north, then far south to the Oregon-Washington border, where it turns abruptly westward and makes its way, vast and constant, to the Pacific Ocean.
We had made our own meandering journey through Oregon to meet the river, taking a northbound coastal route past a stunning jostle of state parks and lighthouses and a long, inland detour to fossil collecting and the Painted Hills of dry eastern Oregon. Traveling northward once again in the second week of June, we met the river at the Columbia River Gorge, where the wide, gray expanse of water spread out along a path carved by ice age floods through ancient lava, and flanked by the resulting tall cliffs that in some places were steep enough to make us think twice about approaching the edge too closely.
We traveled Interstate 84, a modern highway with a first class view of the river, right at the water’s edge. At some spots, however, we could access the original highway, designed by Samuel Hill in the early 1900’s to mirror and highlight the wild, winding beauty of the river. Though mostly drivable as a scenic byway, sections of this Historic Columbia River Highway were now restored as wide, paved bicycle paths (did we say how much we love Oregon?) which reward those who choose to take it all in at pedal speed: arboreally-lined vistas seen through original white picket fencing, countless waterfalls and stone bridge pull-outs high above the river.
The river holds appeal to river rider, ambler, biker, day hiker, and camper alike, and as we came closer to Portland we began to question where we would camp for the night. Turning to our beloved state park guide to find a campsite, we came across Viento State Park at a convenient distance from all the sites we hoped to explore over a couple of days.
Prized more for its location than its intrinsic beauty, the Oregon guidebook warned that the campsite at Viento sits right next to an active railway line for the Union Pacific Railroad. But there were advantages to being near civilization: internet reception, those elusive, beloved bars of service that meant we could look up reviews and get the scoop on the best campsites spots. We determined that the campgrounds were in fact split in two, one part much farther from the railway. Arriving early afternoon, we had our pick of spots and found a delightful little corner next to a classic babbling brook. What a find, and a perfect launch point for our river time.
We set up trailer, camp chairs, and pop-up tent to declare the spot ours for the night, paid a delightfully reasonable camping fee of $17, detached the little trailer from the truck, and hit the road.
Our afternoon’s agenda: Mosier Twin Tunnels and a Thai food dinner in Hood River.
The Twin Tunnels between Mosier and Hood River were built over the original highway, back during a time when the Model T ruled the road. At just 17 feet across, the tunnels were plenty wide for two of those vintage vehicles to pass in opposite directions. Over time as cars got bigger, so did the tunnels (widened to 20 feet) – but not big enough. Accidents began to happen and eventually the tunnels were designated as single lane. But lines of cars waiting to enter meant passengers were subjected to the dangers of falling rock, and the old highway had to go. Now, some 70 years later, the tunnels are once again open to thin transportation, the bicycle. We passed through in comfort, though with two bikes side by side and Katie between us, even we felt the squeeze.
Just after parking our truck and pulling out the bikes, we’d met up with the State Park ranger who had offered us back the $5 parking fee we’d paid (this was one of the small handful of day use parks in Oregon with a charge – the vast majority are free) as we’d already paid for our nearby campsite, and on return from our ride we stopped to shoot the breeze with our friendly camp host who was doing his rounds. All that kindness and joy must have overwhelmed us, because on putting the bikes back in the truck we forgot Colin’s front wheel – until we felt the thump-bump as we ran over it with the truck. Oops.
Nothing to be done about it then but to find a bike shop in town in the morning. For now, we drove into Hood River, a riverside town of San Francisco-like hills and outdoorsy-focused shops, cafés, and residents. We had our sights set on Thai House restaurant , one of a couple of Thai restaurants that came highly recommended, and for the first time since leaving Denver, we gorged ourselves on Pad Thai, Panang curry, and Thai spring roll. Laying on the table next to us sat a real estate magazine, and we looked with real interest. As we drove back to our campsite and marveled at the sunset reflecting off the water, we wondered… a fantastic little river town, Thai food, the beautiful Columbia River, and bicycle routes fit for a Model T, what more could one want? We could see ourselves here, someday.
Deflated by our bicycle wheel dilemma but not at all sad to return to Hood River, the next morning we left the trailer at our campsite once again and drove the 7 miles back to town. It was market morning and as we passed through, we stopped to watch a dance program and buy a baguette to accompany the ever replenished stash of cheeses we kept in the trailer fridge, and which made up the bulk of so many of our lunches.
Three bike shops later and combining the wisdom of half a dozen very nice folks who worked in them, we had a full assessment – there would be no permanent fix, we’d be best to buy a new wheel, but for now they’d get us rolling if we were willing to take a risk and go slow. We had one more bike path to take in before we got to Portland: the mile-long path leading from our campsite would take us past a number of waterfalls, so back we went, packed up the little red trailer, parked in the trailhead’s day use lot (oh, beloved Oregon!), and, slow and only slightly wobbly, spent an hour amongst the falls.
One waterfall, at Starvation Creek, marked the sight of a memorable event in late December 1884, when the Pacific Express, bound for Portland, came around a bend and plowed headlong into a 25-foot snowdrift. The train was stopped dead in its tracks and the nearly 150 passengers and crew, dreaming of Christmas pud and turkey, were stranded.Right away the railroad began organizing relief efforts. Locals were hired to ski provisions to the site, including, according to one passenger, “one hog who had the misfortune of being in Hood River at the time.” Passengers were paid $3 a day to shovel snow, and the conductor even rummaged through the baggage for food, coming up with a meager feast – two quarters of beef, some mutton, and 75 jackrabbits – which the women on the train cooked over coal and wood for all to share. On Christmas Day, the residents of Cascade Locks brought beans, bacon, canned fruit, and coffee. Three weeks later on January 7th, the train steamed into Portland with a hungry but complete passenger list.
“The daily jottings… will interest some while they teach others how much can be endured when a cracker is a blessing and a potato is a luxury; when there is nothing warm among a hundred passengers except human sympathy, and nothing light but home and a tallow candle.”
– Passenger from the Pacific Express, December-January 1884
Late morning, we, too, pulled away from the spot. We had to make it to the bike shop outside of Portland before 7pm, and our journey along the Columbia was not over yet.
Next stop, the fish ladders…