Trans-Cascadia: Sweat Equity
Words by: Chris Shalbot // Photos by: Dylan VanWeelden Earlier this year, late July to be more exact, during one of the long hot dry spells we had here in the Northwest, I joined 7 other fellow employees in what turned out to be a trip far more intense than I think any of us bargained for. We were headed south towards Oakridge, OR for some trailbuilding for Trans-Cascadia, a four day backcountry bike race.
A late night of packing and getting caught up on emails, knowing I was going to be off the grid was followed by a 4:30am wakeup the following morning. I was quickly loaded up and ready to roll. The excitement of what lie ahead got me moving and any tiredness that remained was cured by a coffee stand that opened at 5. With an almond milk chai now in my cup holder I was on the way to Jon Kennedy, our bike buyer’s house. I was the first to arrive and moved my bike into his truck bed and my Black Hole Duffle and tent into his camper trailer, with Won and Kevin not far behind. Bikes. Water. Food. Gear. I thought we were quickly loaded up. In reality we didn’t pull out of Jon’s alley until 6:15 and the sun was had already started to crack over the Cascades. It was to be the just the four of us on the early morning drive. The rest of the crew, Joe, Nick, Max and Pope would be down sometime later that evening.
We were headed south to Oregon, to a small, almost-forgotten campground in the Willamette National Forest, somewhere between Oakridge and McKenzie River. But first Jon had a meeting with Dakine in Hood River. We looked at next year’s line of bike apparel and packs, toured their offices (they had expanded since my last visit), grabbed some gear for the trip and then some lunch. We felt bad leaving without riding Post Canyon but the lure of exploring the backroads down to Oakridge was calling. We cruised southbound out of Hood River and made a quick detour to Government Camp after Won and I decided we wanted Cobra Dogs, a must when in the vicinity of Gov’y during the summer. After many June and July days on the Palmer Snowfield, Cobra Dogs becomes more nostalgia than anything else. Two Brattlesnake Brats with Cobra Sauce and we were back on the road.
We strayed from the main highways from there, taking winding back roads the rest of the way. With no real obligations until morning we wanted to savor the drive. Stopping for snacks at the few small towns we passed, well worth the added time to the drive, we pulled in just before dark. We got our basecamp for the next few days set up, started a campfire and ripped some hot laps around on the bikes to get our daily fix in before the other half of our crew showed up. Nearly fifteen hours door to door, it was a full day broken up by scenic views, good food and constant laughs. The drive came to represented everything we would experience the next 3 days working in the woods helping to clear Grasshopper Mountain Trail for the upcoming Trans-Cascadia race, that is everything except for the brutal heat and the physical exhaustion of trail work.
In the morning we were met by the rest of the people in our work party. Nick, Alex, Tommy and Peter from Shimano, who put on the event, Dylan our photographer, Kevin the Forest Service ranger in charge of the area and Derek the Oakridge trail boss that lives out of his truck during the summers and puts in more time digging trail than I probably do riding. We were obviously the greenhorns in the group but our enthusiasm made up for it, and possibly got us into to some trouble at the same time. We went over the day’s plan, packed up lunches, loaded bikes, tools and gear into the vans and trucks. We ambled down the maze of dusty logging road to a trailhead that would connect us about halfway in on Grasshopper. We set out pedaling with heavier than normal packs full of calories, extra water and packable Trail Boss tools. The trail wandered through meadows before increasing in grade and we were soon walking, pushing our bikes up to the summit some 1000 ft. above for the next 40 minutes. It was the first time the wind was taken out of or sails but definitely not the last. We eventually topped out on the ridge line meadow to uninhibited views of southern Oregon. It was then when we got a true sense of how remote we were. At the top we pounded some water and Clif Shotbloks. The goal of day one was pretty simple, break into 3 groups and leapfrog down the trail cutting out logs and doing some light tread work. Grasshopper is one of those long lost trails, I later learned it had been eight or nine years since anyone had been out there with a chainsaw to do clear it, and without the efforts by Trans-Cascadia to incorporate it into the race it was very well could have been another nine of years before it really got prioritized, if ever.
We moved slowly, hampered by the 80-degree heat at 5500 feet. By lunch we had maybe gone about 3 of the 8 miles of trail we needed to clear. We were tired, almost out of food and water. Kevin was vomiting. Spirits were kept up by the occasional section of trail that we could pedal. Another hour later we had summited the last climb and it was all downhill back to camp. We sat at the top gathered our bearings before dropping in. Before we could around the corner came Matthew Slaven. He had made the drive from Portland that afternoon to meet us and and help out the rest of the trip. While waiting for us back at camp he decided he would get a quick ride in. He kept climbing thinking he would turn around but the lure of exploring ahead kept at him. Sure enough there we were. It’s part of the fun of venturing to a new zone, you never know what’s around the next corner. We hooted and hollered our way down, trying to play it semi safe we found it hard not to open it up and ride the trail like we knew what was next. It sounded like most people went down at least once, I know I did. I clipped the edge of a stump while leaning into a corner. I didn’t see it coming, caught the very end of my handlebar, luckily my hand just missed it, and before I knew it I was on the ground covered in dust. Out of all of us, Joe suffered the worst but walked away unscathed when he found himself careening into a massive root ball hole filled with rocks left by a fallen old growth. Shaken a bit Joe carried on only to get a flat another 5 minutes down the trail. We got back to camp around 7pm, started fire for Kevin’s dinner plans. Pulled-pork sandwiches were on the nights menu, they were delicious and hard to resist. After getting a sample of the work we were up for the following day I helped myself to seconds and thirds. We were all tired, and beat down after day one, but the sense of accomplishment trumped everything and the consensus was that this was the best volunteer trip imaginable.
I’ve never really been one to sleep in while camping, something to do with the fresh air and using all the possible daylight to explore. I awoke on day two to the comfort of my bag and sleeping pad holding me hostage. My sentiments were shared by rest of the group. We dragged our heels a bit but by 7:15 we had a fire going and energy levels were gaining steam once coffee was served. To save time in the mornings, Joe pre-made about 60 breakfast burritos wrapped them in tin foil and through them in our Yeti cooler. A little time over the morning campfire and voila, they were ready to eat. The team went through our daily allotment quickly. We were on to packing lunches and tools. Day two’s plan seemed much the same but this time we were more privy to what we were up against. We opted to leave the bikes at camp. They were more of a burden than anything the previous day, and leaving bikes meant leaving bike gear which translated to more room in the pack for food and water. We filled our bags with supplies, food, water. I threw in additional water bottle for good measure. We broke into two groups. Jon, Nick and I went with group A to the start of Grasshopper and work back to the access trail we came in on the day before. Max, Joe, Won, Pope, Kevin and Slaven stayed back at camp and worked to clean up that long final decent and fill in what became dubbed “Joe’s Hole”.
The approach from the beginning of Grasshopper is a long slow climb, and like the previous day it had more than its fair share of downed logs. We spent what seemed like hours clearing the trail of overgrown grass and the sections logs left behind by the chainsaws ahead, sometimes not seeing the chainsaw for 30 minutes, only to be reminded they were ahead by the occasional, distinct sound of their 2 stroke motor off in the distance. Humbled by the GPS at how much further we had to go, lunch and water breaks were taken while hiking between sections free of work to keep us moving. We were on a mission to get to the junction and complete the day’s goal. Covered in dust and sweat, sore and tired, we finished by 5pm walking across the meadow with tools and chainsaws over our shoulders before descending down to the trucks parked below. Back at camp the creek became a popular early evening destination. We stayed in as long as we could bare, the cold pools of spring water served to rejuvenate us as we soaked our bones and washed away the mud. At the campfire Kevin was back to being backcountry chef while Won was tending to the aftermath of an angry beehive and the unsolicited swollen eye that came with its encounter. Eventually the campfire had heated up the chicken and bowls of quinoa, black beans and corn were served. We sat around the flame joking, drinking Raddlers and Rainiers well into the night. Laughing and hanging with friends new and old, we continued to claim it as the best volunteer trip ever.
6AM came early. We had to pack up camp before we hit the trail on day 3 so we could make the trek home and ideally be in our own beds by midnight. The plan was to head back through the section of trail we tackled on day one. Now that it was clear we could see which sections were actually rideable. The big objective was to fix the last meadow where the trail had become a deep rut from snowmelt run off. We would pull out our Trail Boss tools and take down the edges, using the dirt to back fill the channel and create drains so our work would last beyond next winter’s melt. The approach was longer than I think any of us remembered taking nearly three hours to get there. The long days before had taken their toll. Just getting to the section we were needing to work on was a chore. I think it was at that point it dawned on me how intense, rugged and raw the Trans-Cascadia race would be. The landscape was special, from open meadows to 2nd generation old- growths to barren trees scathed by fire a few summers prior. I was glad I was there and that others would soon be too. Once done, we packed up our tools with a sense of pride. One that comes from knowing that others will now get the opportunity to experience Grasshopper, during the race or for many years to come, which ultimately is the driving force behind the Trans-Cascadia race. We ripped down the final decent to camp said our goodbyes before loading up for the 7-hour push home.
Race update: During the Trans-Cascadia event, sections of the Grasshopper Mountain Trail that we worked on were scheduled to be raced, but after a medical evacuation earlier in the day that resulted in an extended course hold. the call was made to cut it from the race because not everyone had the chance to ride it. Words like “remote” and “out-there” were common descriptives among those who got to experience the 14 miles of backcountry trail. Needless to say we’re excited that some people got to race it and even more excited that the trail is now rideable again and part of the expanding trail network in the greater Oakridge area. We wish Nick Hardin and his collarbone a quick recovery and hope that maybe next year the race organizers keep Grasshopper in the list of trails to be raced.