The Inaugural 2021 Oregon Timber Trail Grand Depart: Fire Detours, Pies (of Cow), and Mosquito Blankets only Scratch the Surface…
In 2018, my friend Miles Arbour and I decided to take on the relatively new Oregon Timber Trail together and document much of our experience through various social media. Miles ended up writing a stellar article on bikepacking.com, and I made a few videos to document our experience as well.
After completing our ride, I knew I would eventually be back to tackle the OTT again. For one, Miles and I had to miss almost the entire Fremont Tier due to some mishaps with his bike showing up fashionably late to our Klamath Falls rendezvous. Plus, I wanted to ride the route without the additional weight of drone and GoPro gear.
As summer of 2021 approached and I was looking at rides/races I wanted to do, Gabe Amadeus clued me into the possibility of the Oregon Timber Trail having a Grand Depart this year, and I immediately began scheming whether I could fit this into my summer plans. With a few dropped races and some flexibility from my partner, the Timber Trail Grand Depart was added to our summer calendar and the reality of my first multi-day mountain bike race materialized.
With fires becoming more and more destructive in Oregon each year, it was disappointing but not surprising to hear from some of the race organizers about a month before the Grand Depart that the entire Hood Tier – the last 200+ miles of the route – would not be open for the Grand Depart because of the devastating fires of 2019. While this was expected, fires would play a very active role in the Grand Depart this year and actually shut down many other sections of trail as the race got under way.
The Night Before
Trish and I headed out Friday for Lakeview, Oregon, the gathering place for all OTT riders before heading to the start line near Lily Lake. The Oregon Timber Trail board orchestrated a wonderful (and free) evening meal, catered by the mayor of Lakeview. It was a pretty special opportunity to meet many of the riders planning to embark the next morning, check out people’s setups, and find out what everyone’s goals were for the upcoming days and weeks. While many of us were there to ride as fast as we could, many others planned to ride at a touring speed, and the Grand Depart was an opportunity to build community along the way.
Trish and I ate in Lakeview and then headed out with our friend Nat stowed away in the van to Lily Lake that night, where we set up camp, did final checks of our bikes, and got settled in for what would be our last really solid night of sleep for a while.
The next morning was a bit of a blur as Nat and I teetered between feeling prepared and rushing with last minute rememberings, and other riders started rolling in around 7am. The goal was an 8am start time but the OG visionary for the route – Gabe Amadeus – had a worthwhile intro to the route that made for a fashionably on-time departure of around 8:30am. From the north side of Lily Lake we all awkwardly rolled out and hiked along an off-camber spur trail that led towards the official start of the OTT. People were in high spirits as the Grand Depart was under way, and once we hit the gravel climb that is the official starting point – around 9am – the Grand Depart and race were officially on.
OTT Day 1: Lily Lake to the Chewaucan River
Fires were the main topic of conversation for everyone in the Grand Depart, particularly the Bootleg fire about 14 miles from the trail that had doubled in size two nights before the Grand Depart, and then doubled in size again the night before. It was still a ways from the start of the route, but the smoke and ash were allegedly pretty bad up in the Winter Rim area of the route near Paisley, which is about 100 miles in.
I’ve had to ride through smoky conditions before and it’s not much fun, so my goal was to push through the Fremont Tier as quickly as possible and hopefully get through Paisley and beyond before the Bootleg fire crept any closer to the trail – easier said than done.
Regardless, I like to stick to goals and started out pretty aggressively on the first climb of the route, dropping all the riders but my buddy Nat, who I knew was going to be one of the faster riders in the bunch and who pulled ahead of me and out of sight.
Downed trees littered the first 15 miles of the ‘trail,’ and I repeatedly found myself lost after these tree detours because of how primitive the trail was. I had hoped to hold a 5mph average throughout the race counting rest stops, sleep, breaks, everything. But I did not account for so much time being spent simply wandering around in the woods looking at my GPS and hoping I would see some semblance of a trail. So the average continued to drop as I followed three simple steps:
- Ride 100-300 feet
- Stop to hike through downed trees
- Stare disbelievingly at the GPS that says I’m on the trail and hike back and forth for a few minutes until I actually find it
Things did eventually get a little better that first day as far as trail visibility, and I even eventually caught back up to Nat who was struggling with the upper 90’s heat a bit more than me. We rode together for a few hours until a long pavement and gravel section, where I slowly pulled away. That would end up being my last sighting of any of the racers for the remainder of my ride.
The heat was no joke that first day and really slowed my overall pace down as well, but I would rather ride slow than overheat and blow my entire race on the first day, so slow and steady was the name of the game and, even riding slow, I definitely had moments of nausea where I forced food down fully expecting it to come right back up. Fortunately, the nausea stayed in my stomach and I was able to keep calories down at a somewhat regular interval that first day.
First Night Epiphanies
As light faded and I went into night mode with my helmet headlamp on, it became immediately apparent that I made a pretty huge mistake with my light setup: my helmet light was only 200 lumens and not even close to bright enough for me to see safely at a regular riding speed. I had almost no depth perception with my light and had to keep speeds painfully slow as darkness enveloped my ride. Night riding was a huge part of my riding strategy and this was a bummer, but there was nothing for me to do but carry on at a snail’s pace, and that I did until about 1am.
It’s Snowing! Ash…
I have no idea what the last 10 miles of riding looked like to the Chewaucan river, other than that I was riding through what looked like a huge open meadow and through what looked like a very light snow. Unfortunately, the snow was, in fact, ash from the Bootleg fire. Since my lighting was so bad I couldn’t wear my low-light sunglasses and instead had to endure particles of ash embedding themselves in my eyes every few minutes, forcing me into an involuntary bout of butterfly blinks and curses at the uncaring night.
It was not a pleasant end to my ride but I carried on through the ash, over downed trees and disappearing trail, and past three sets of eyes at one moment that looked more startled than me as they all bolted up from their resting place to look at me in unison before scampering away through the meadow. I have no idea what they were, but if they spoke any English, they knew that I was a ‘big mean alpha male who is much stronger and bigger than them.’ For a little guy, I talk a pretty big talk when it comes to nature.
Chewaucan River Paradise
Finally. FINALLY I made it to a bridge that crossed over the Chewaucan River. It was even more sweet because unbeknownst to my shoddy route recon, there was even a vault toilet and some small campsites nearby. SCORE!
I began my quick nightly ritual of wet wipes, bivy setup, water resupply, and clothing cleanup (gotta get that salt buildup off the shammy or things get… sliced) in the river before settling into my bivy for a three hour snooze.
Day 2: Chewaucan River to Antler Horse Camp
After an abrasive 4am wakeup call, I packed up and headed out for day 2 of my ride. I thought that I would surely be able to push farther on day 2 than I did on day 1, since downed trees and lost trails were going to become a thing of the past as I continued my way north. WRONG.
What started as a pleasant climb up some newly developed trail slowly turned into an interminable cow path, complete with rutted out sandy trails and cows… so many cows.
Human vs. Nature with a Predictable Ending
Spoiler alert: the cows got the better of me. I admit it. I attempted a lot of verbal reasoning with cows over the next 10-15 miles, but the cows just wouldn’t listen. As I slowly climbed up what was probably an average 3% grade cow path, a growing number of cows kept getting spooked ahead of me and, unfortunately, their escape path was the same purple Garmin line that I was following every time. For miles. And miles. And more miles.
When 30 cows are trotting on a trail ahead of you, all of the dust that gets kick up causes a few things happen:
- You get dirty
- You lose visibility
- Your throat dries up
- The trail deteriorates under the weight of the cows
- You accidentally run over a bunch of fresh cow shit you can’t see from the dust and curse their names
Like I said, after over an hour of chasing cows up this path, I tried so many things. I tried reasoning with them, yelling at them, spooking them and then surging past, but even if they briefly left the trail running into the expansive open space on either side, they inevitably came careening back onto the trail where we got to start everything over.
And yes, in case you were wondering. I’m embarrassed that I wasn’t able to outrun a bunch of cows on my mountain bike.
Winter Rim: Rock Gardens with a view
Eventually, there was a gate and I again verbalized to the wilderness my thankfulness to finally be rid of my cow nemeses.
As the cows disappeared, however, so did the trail, and the next hour of riding was spent doing a lot of what I did on day 1. Fortunately, another gate led to another transition that I quickly figured out was the infamous Winter Rim, an expansive bit of singletrack that meanders its way along a plateau overlooking the town of Summer Lake and its giant namesake.
Most of my focus over the next few hours went into clearing rock garden after rock garden but every once in a while, a view would metaphorically slap me in the face and I would stop for just a moment to take it all in. While it’s not exactly my favorite kind of riding, this section definitely has some visual appeal.
One thing that riding 3mph over rock gardens for 15 miles does not aid in is making up ground towards your next water source. I had not filled up on water since the Chewaucan River and, while I technically had 4.5 liters of carrying capacity, that technicality disappeared on the first day when one of my water bottles punctured on a rock. That was a real curve ball I hadn’t anticipated.
The puncture was small and I still found it worthwhile filling up the bottle, but it definitely lost about a third of its contents before I finished it off, and after getting through most of Winter Rim and hitting some trails with a bit more speed, my water situation was dire. Looking at the map, I still had over 15 miles to the next possible water spot and at my current pace, that would be at least three hours away. My 500mL of remaining water was going to have to be stretched thin.
I rode off trail to a little bird observatory hoping for some water canisters at a little outbuilding on the map but came up with nothing. I’ll be honest. This was probably the low point of the ride for me. I was pretty stressed out about my water situation and the stress was affecting my mood, my appetite, and my motivation.
Of course, I didn’t realize how much my water woes were affecting me until a somewhat incredible occurrence: a trail angel had left a huge container of water with a note to the local forest rangers thanking them for their work. There were probably 3 liters of water left in the tank: WOWZA! Major score!
The water definitely had little green floaties growing in it, but nothing my little water filter couldn’t handle. I took about 2 liters of the 3 remaining and left the last bit for Nat or whoever came down the trail next. And after stocking up and drinking close to my fill of water, my mood and motivation skyrocketed.
Fremont Tier Highlights: Hager and Yamsay Mountain
With water and food in my belly, nothing could get me down. I rode at a much higher clip for the next few hours until the first of two big climbs: Hager Mountain. I had no idea how much fun Hager Mountain would be, but after climbing for an hour+, I was rewarded with one of the most enjoyable flowy downhills of the entire OTT. Hager Mountain is definitely worth the ride up.
I rode slightly off trail to Silver Creek Marsh Campground to throw away two days worth of trash and fill up on water before tackling Yamsay Mountain. I had heard bad things about this climb, and with my lighting situation as it was, I knew that I would have to ride really cautiously if it was at all technical.
There was nothing to worry about. The climb was totally rideable and actually pretty pleasant as far as 3,000+ foot climbs go. However, about halfway up I came to another vault toilet oasis at Antler Horse Camp and decided to call it a bit early. Since it was only about 10pm, I decided I would sleep for 4 hours and then take off around 2am for some early morning riding. It was a snug fit in this economy sized bathroom, but the bike and bivy all fit as I rolled through the night routine and then drifted off to sleep.
Day 3: Antler Horse Camp to Middle of Nowhere Middle Fork Trail
I pushed my way up and over the top of Yamsay Mountain just as the sun found an opening through the mountains and it was sans headlamp that I grinned my way through the sandy whoops of the Yamsay Mountain descent. Eventually the trail turns into gravel and it was on this thousands-of-feet descent that I was actually kind of chilly for the first time. But I didn’t complain.
I had just enough food to make it to my first resupply of the route: Chemult. This was my first opportunity to see where the other riders were at this point in the ride and I was pleasantly surprised to see that my closest competition was still Nat, who was about 40 miles back. That felt like a pretty solid lead. Another rider was about 15-20 miles behind him – Liz Sampey – but it was basically us three at this point.
What I didn’t know was that almost all of the riders behind us three had been forced to detour around Winter Rim straight to Chemult and would all be arriving by vehicle in Chemult later that afternoon. I hope these riders are able to make it out to Oregon again and complete the OTT in its entirety in the next couple years.
For me personally, I couldn’t believe how long it had taken to ride a measly 200 miles, so after a relatively quick resupply, Subway, and a quick MacGyver fix for my headlamp setup (velcro solves everything), I took off from Chemult around mid-day with the lofty goal of reaching Oakridge. It was a big push, but if I could just make it through the very technical Middle Fork Trail before dark, I could limp my way along the final 20 miles of gravel to Oakridge with my crappy headlamp and maybe even get a motel. Talk about motivation.
‘What do you think of my mosquito blanket?’ said the crazed OTT rider to no one
As I rolled away from Chemult and towards the Crescent Lake and Timpanogas Lake Trails, I remembered camping at Timpanogas Lake back in 2018 with Miles and getting eaten alive by mosquitos. After rolling through the long gravel and dirt road connectors to this trail network, my memory proved accurate as I stopped for my first water resupply: the mosquitos were nightmarish. And they only got worse the further into this segment I rode.
At one point, I rolled up to a deep creek crossing with no bridge and decided to hike 50 feet down trail to a log crossing. As soon as I stopped, I was covered in a blanket of mosquitos and the sensation was smothering. Mouth closed in fear of inhaling 10s of mosquitos, the little suicide bugs swarmed every uncovered orifice in a desperate attempt to drown me: up the nose, under my sunglasses, down my ears, they went for it all. I slowly and awkwardly crossed the log and thought to myself, ‘I think this is what it must feel like to slowly go insane… !!!!!’
There were thankfully very few of these kinds of water crossings, but the downed tree phenomenon reared its ugly head again and with every stop I was bombarded by my mosquito groupies buzzing in a swarm to keep up with me – they were my biggest fans.
Middle Fork Trail: a Mountain Biker’s Paradise
Unfortunately, I’m not actually a good mountain biker, and after filling up on water at Timpanogas Lake as quickly as possible, I hopped onto Middle Fork knowing that if Nat made up ground on me, this was the where he would do it.
I haven’t known Nat very long, but I would consider us kindred spirits in many ways and I have gotten to know his riding style quite well in the few rides we have done together. He is a downhill specialist and can absolutely destroy trails like the Middle Fork. I, on the other hand, rely on the nontechnical trails and dirt/gravel/pavement connectors to make up time on riders.
The Middle Fork for me, is a bit too much.
I slowly made my way through the first 15 miles of this almost exclusively downhill trail, but it was slow going and I was not nearly as far as I had hoped to be as the light began to fade.
Once the headlamp had to be utilized, my riding got downright dangerous. I could not see obstacles in the trail and had a number of near falls as a result. I’m glad I’ve ridden the trail before because after arriving at the only legitimate climb on the trail, I made the choice to call it early rather than continue my super slow and dangerous night ride over this technical climb and descent. Instead, I found a little campsite just off of a road spur, washed all my clothes in the river, and bedded down early for what would be my longest sleep of the entire ride: 5 hours! That would have me riding right around first light.
It was no motel, but at least I would wake up to clean-ish clothes. I set the alarm for 4am and drifted off to sleep.
Day 4: Middle Fork to North Waldo Lake Campground
I awoke to a still very damp shammy and jersey from the washing the night before and opted to wear my extra clothes instead: my riding tights and vest. While I had grown somewhat feral over the last 3 days of riding, I knew that I would be arriving in Oakridge mid-morning and did not want to look like… well, a guy wearing riding tights and a vest.
So after clearing the remainder of Middle Fork and getting to the last 20 mile section of gravel before Oakridge, I pulled out the now dry riding clothes and swapped back to more suitable attire.
Whenever I’m rolling into a resupply point, I try my best to have a solid mental checklist ready to go so that I don’t spend too much time loitering in the creature comforts of domesticity. As I turned onto the main drag of Oakridge, I immediately rolled into the Oakridge Bike Shop for a quick brake pads swap and while they worked I headed to Ray’s Market for a food resupply.
Also worthy of note on my resupplies: I don’t calorie count. Should I calorie count? DEFINITELY. But I don’t. There. I said it.
Instead, I do a visual guesstimate of just how much food I can fit in my bike and then shove all the extra in my jersey pockets. Hasn’t failed met yet!
Hanging with my people at the Oakridge Bike Shop
The Oakridge bike shop deserves a gold star for what they bring to their small community. As soon as I walked in, they all greeted me by name (they’d been following along on the tracker) and once I came back with my coffee and 2nd breakfast, it was like I was among old friends.
One of the shopworkers owned the same MTB as me and the shop plans to start stocking Why Cycles bikes, so it was fun to talk about why it’s such an awesome bike for bikepacking, and the mechanic working on my bike was as thorough as any mechanic in Portland. I was really impressed.
Having already spent over an hour in Oakridge, it was time for me to pack the bike and move on. After a quick picture with the mechanic who worked on my bike, I was off.
Bunchgrass Trail Revisited
Sometimes when you come back to a trail after a years’ long hiatus, you have a totally different experience on it. Bunchgrass was not that trail – it was just as primitive and challenging as I remembered. It starts as a long 10 mile gravel climb, which I love. I use these gravel climbs to take care of myself. I reapplied sunscreen, ate two breakfast burritos and threw one into the woods for the bears after realizing they had eggs and cheese in them, and generally tried to take it easy knowing that Bunchgrass the trail is a toughy.
I also had replaced my broken water bottle in Oakridge but decided to bring one less liter than my max capacity because one of the shop workers said that he stashed water at this one specific location that I couldn’t miss and was telling all the riders. I totally missed it.
Once down the trail a ways, it was clear that I would once again have to ration out my water as I began the 30-minute hike-a-bike section that the Bunchgrass trail is known for.
Dotwatchers and mosquito slayers on the Trail
Before I continue, a quick key term defined.
DOTWATCHERS: people who follow bikepacking racers’ progress by monitoring their tracking device’s ‘dot’ on a tracking website. These ‘dots’ show up with the person’s name, what mileage they are at in the race, and provide a visual for where they are in relation to the other riders.
Back to water.
This water rationing scenario was different from the Fremont Tier because I knew exactly where my next water supply was. As soon as I began a gravel descent towards Fuji Mountain, there was a small lake where I would be able to filter some water. Sure enough, the descent began and about a mile into it, the turnoff to the lake materialized ahead of me.
What I didn’t expect were two ladies cheering me on by name at the junction. It just goes to show that you never know where dotwatchers will show up. Both of these ladies were doing the OTT together and feeling pretty beat after finishing up the Bunchgrass trail (which is totally justified), and it was a real bucket-filler to talk with them as I filtered water out of the lake.
And what made the visit even more enjoyable was that the entire time I filtered water, one of the ladies – Brenna – swatted the swarms of mosquitos off my body while I filtered. The mosquitos were BAD and it was really nice of her.
After 15 minutes of water resupply and conversation, it was time to continue on. These ladies were the first people I had seen on-trail the entire trip, and it was a huge morale boost to know that I was not completely alone on the trail, even though it had felt like it up to this point.
Fuji Mountain and Chill
After another brief climb heading towards Waldo Lake, riders of the OTT are treated to a delightful 8-ish mile downhill called Fuji Mountain that rivals Hager and Yamsay. It was 45 minutes of absolute bliss. Following the descent were a few pretty major downed tree scrambles and mosquito escapes before I arrived at Waldo Lake. The first few miles of riding at Waldo Lake are a bit technical, but eventually it mellows out to smooth, flowy singletrack all the way to North Waldo Lake campground.
I got through the majority of technical riding before dark, which was nice, and then it was time for me to do my slow night time slog thanks to my headlight research negligence. I knew I still had hours of riding left before North Waldo Lake Campground, my chosen sleep destination for the night, so for the first time the entire trip, I pulled out the headphones and listened to an audiobook.
It’s amazing how a something as simple as storytelling can re-energize the body and mind. Instead of being frustrated about how slow I had to go, I allowed my mind to fully immerse itself in the book, and the miles and hours ticked away.
I arrived at North Waldo Lake Campground around 1:30am and quickly knocked out my nightly rituals before going to sleep. It was the first populated campsite I had stayed in the entire trip and I was suddenly and painfully aware of my uber-loud i9 hubs, grizzled and dirty body, and self-consciously worried about whether camp hosts would come kick me out as a ruffian.
But all of the tents and RVs stayed dark despite my buzzy, stinky entrance into the camp and I happily set the alarm for a 3.5 hour snooze.
Day 5: North Waldo Lake to Sisters
In Oakridge I had been a bit alarmed at how close Nat had gotten to me. When I left Oakridge I only had about a 20 mile lead on him, half of what I had in Chemult. I had turned my phone off Airplane mode as I rode around Waldo to see if I had reception anywhere in there and, sure enough, texts and notifications started pinging on the north side of the lake, so I pulled up Trackleaders to see where he was. Nat ended up sleeping that night at the same lake the ladies I met were at, so I still had a 25-30 mile lead going into Day 5.
That being said, I wanted to push it to Sisters as quickly as possible as I heard new fires had popped up on course: one right near Sisters and one just south of Detroit, the town where we were supposed to be finishing up the Grand Depart.
I’m not going to pretend like my body was perfectly adapting to the long days and general wear and tear of the OTT. My toes had gone numb shortly after Chemult, and my grip strength was completely gone. I could hardly down shift or get my Boa shoe tighteners undone at this point.
As for chafing, nothing was too concerning, but chafing was happening. Now you know.
Once I had reception again near Lava Lake Campground, the reality of the fires also became clear. I called the race director once I had reception and he said that it sounded like the fire near Detroit was going to close down the Crescent Mountain and Pyramid trail network, my favorite descents of the entire OTT. Bummer.
If that area was indeed closed, the farthest we could ride was about 35 miles past Sisters to a set of lakes out in the boonies. Having ridden that area, I knew that with one exception, the riding was pretty mediocre and mostly a thru-way to the awesome Crescent/Pyramid riding that was now closed.
Sisters or Bust
After thinking it through at my next water resupply and calling my partner, Trish, it made the most sense to me to just call it in Sisters. I would miss out on 35 additional miles of riding, but riding mediocre trails to the middle of nowhere for Trish to pick me up felt kind of silly.
I texted the race director to let him know my plan and then did some mileage math. It was mid-day. I had about 60 miles to Sisters. If I was able to push it for the last 60 miles and average around 7mph, I would roll into Sisters around 8 or 9pm. A worthy goal – SISTERS OR BUST!
Before leaving Lava Lake Campground, I did a final check of Nat’s location. I had pushed my lead back to about 40 miles, which felt like a solid buffer for these last 60 miles. Barring disaster, I would be able to roll into Sisters ahead of the rest. That had been my goal, but with so many riders, such a long distance, adverse conditions, and potentially disastrous mechanicals and mishaps, you just never know what could go down.
RACE. Reflect. Ride. Repeat.
I’m sure that there are hundreds of incredible OTT novellas the riders of this inaugural OTT Grand Depart could share. I would love to hear them all. These experiences are transformative and traumatic and grueling and blissful all at once. But most of all they are fleeting. I like to try and get pen to paper quickly so I have a written catalog of events to look back at – a verbal scrapbook.
Once I crested the final climb of the route and had the ripper gravel descent to Peterson’s Ridge – a flowy singletrack trail that rolls you into Sisters – I was feeling giddy to finish and see my partner, Trish. I couldn’t wait to share with her fragmented bits of my experience and try to make sense of it all.
I knew though, that as soon as I began the retelling of the tale, the narrative of my experience would take on a meaning of its own, separate from the experience itself on the trail. Because words don’t do justice to a ride like the Oregon Timber Trail. The highs and lows, the frustrations and jubilations, it all is raw and real until you try to explain it. But the sooner you get pen to paper the better, and this retelling is about as close I can get.
It was muddled thoughts around my experience over the last five days that would distract me from the present moment of those last miles on the trail. I would get lost in a reverie of reflection and then snap out of it and think, ‘Ben, you need to average 7mph and you’re putzing again. HOP TO IT!’ This pattern of RACE!, reflect, ride (slow) and then snap back to the present was on repeat and accompanied me all the way to the ‘finish line’ in Sisters.
Riding the OTT
With fires becoming more and more severe in Oregon, I don’t know what the future holds for the OTT, but my hope is that it provides riders with an authentic backcountry experience for years to come. Having ridden the Colorado Trail in 2017, I would say that as it continues to develop and grow, the OTT can easily be considered one of the three major MTB-specific bikepacking routes in the US: The Colorado Trail and Arizona Trail being the other two. I am so excited for the future of the OTT and can’t wait to tackle the OTT in future Grand Departs. If you’re considering the OTT as a summer destination ride, get to planning. It’s definitely worth it!