Saturday, April 30, 2011

Motorcycling the Columbia River Gorge

The Columbia River is the  largest river in the Pacific Northwest of  North America. ( It's historically famous for many reasons, one of which was the Lewis and Clark Expedition.  It was also contemplated earlier as a possible North West Passage.
When I personally was thankful to see it's Pacific mouth I was racing a hurricane.  The sand bar at the front of the Columbia River dictates passage at high tide.  I crossed at low tide in frightening seas.  I had the unforgettable experience of my keel smacking the bottom and bouncing back. If the boat had twisted rather than bounced I might not be here.  I'd apprised the coast guard of my decision to risk crossing rather than head out  to open sea to hopefully sit out the hurricane.
The US Coast Guard were there for me that day as I discussed the pros and cons of my plans and asked if I was missing anything.  I'd not slept  and been in riotous winds and seas so I appreciated immensely the gentleman at the other end of the radio saying, "That pretty much sums up your position.  If you choose to cross we'll keep an eye on you from shore."  The decision was mine but it was reassuring to know that if the boat floundered, the cat , the dog and I went into the brink, we'd probably be rescued as the survival suits and lifejackets would keep us afloat though we lost the boat.
Motorcycling,  there are no survival suits. Just leather and armour.  I didn't have the dog or cat with me. The cat is definitely not enamoured by motorcycle. The noise alone bothers her.  The dog is young. I'm building him up gently to motorcycling in pleasant conditions.  He's a fairweather motorcyclist already. So far so good. The Gorge might well have put him off to motorcycling all together.
The Columbia is called the windy river.  The wind was 25 knots (30 mph about) or more from west.  I came down from Goldendale on the 97 so got the cross winds before turning at the Columbia River to take the wind on my nose.  The 84 four lane free way runs along the  Oregon border. The Washington  2 lane 14 runs along Washington northern side.  I'd heard the northern route was more picturesque.
The Dalles was certainly scenic. Great open vistas of where the ice age rivers must have filled the valley and cut  this great swath of rock and shale canyon.  Rolling hills of green were broken by jagged jutting edges of bare rock.  The white capped river opened below me where countless windsurfers were actually enjoying the wind.
There was no coast guard to notify.  No soft landing. I was on my own. The trouble with motorcyling is everyone takes it for granted.  The bandits do it. The police do it.  Kids do it.  Old men like me do it.  You can spot us heading into places like the Gorge where only the intrepid would dare to go.  Or adolescents or midlife men with grey hair and potted bellies and big new Harley Davidsons with plates from foreign countries. The locals know these waters and the winds.  I suspect there are times when the gorge is just another glorious winding road. They actually have a weather channel 511 you can call to hear the 'wind conditions'.
My favourite motorcycle nagazine is Mojo. There's a girl who writes a great column about motorcycling.  She described the wind in the Gorge. I'd forgotten about her esquisite description until I was there. I remembered what she said about speed. You have to keep your speed up to counteract the force of the wind.  By trial and error I learned there was a window where I had control with the curves and balanced against the wind.  It was around 90 km or 60 mph.  Lower and I was fighting more , higher I was fighting more. I actually fell in behind these serious local big HOG motorcyclists with the the 'look', high handlebars and leather jackets saying "Vancouver Chapter of ....." a gang whose name I couldn't see.  They drove with grace like the Eagles that were hovering and gliding in the wind just above the road in places riding the wind.
I found the sweet spot.  It was somewhere between terror and bliss but I found it at times. There in the sunshine of the Gorge I felt  freedom.
I'd been told to watch my speed in the towns.  The police are watching for motorcyclists high on wind.  You'd be a fool to be high on anything else on that ride.  Bingen and White Salmon River were a sweet towns but I didn't stop. The sun was on my side and I was afraid the storm clouds above that had dropped a sprinkle of rain a few times already might any moment open up and ratchet  the whole experience up a notch above my comfort zone.
At the Bridge of the Gods I drove across the metal mesh cordoroy that feels so icky on a bike, paid the $.50 toll and was then on the 84.  The ride suddenly became prosaic like the scenery after the exhilerating experience of the northern side.  Contented I rode into Portland really appreciating the 870 lb weight of the Electra Glide.  I'd been lifted and set down 3 feet to the side once in windy conditions on my light weight Buell.  The Electra Glide was made for cruising.
As usual when life is most exciting there's no time or place for stopping for the best pictures. The best images remain those stored in memories.  Motorcycling the Columbia River Gorge like crossing the mouth of the Columbia River ahead of the hurricane will ever be stored in my best of memories file.
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