Issue Thirteen


An Oregon Traverse from Sea to Sky

WORDS & PHOTOS x Jason Fitzgibbon

4 October 2016
Part One


Changing laws

Whether you’ve been made aware or not, there has been a recent and significant push within American politics – including bills posed by state senators in Idaho, Alaska, and Utah, to name a few – toward the privatization of federal public lands. Essentially, bills are being written that would surrender the jurisdiction of millions upon millions of acres of federal lands and federally managed roads to individual states. Strategically injected into these bills is language that would allow states the ability to auction off or sell the obtained federal land to interested private industry, of which there are many. Furthermore, some aspects of these bills actually allow interested parties to circumnavigate environmental law, namely for the purposes of conducting unregulated timber harvest, mineral resource extraction, or grazing in the interests of maximizing profits.

Both saddened and terrified by these recent political developments, my good friend Octave and I felt compelled to enjoy and document a small (yet massive!) slice of such federal land in Oregon. We set out to traverse five National Forests from the coast to the state’s eastern border with Idaho. We loaded up Octave’s hearty FJ62 Landcruiser with our cameras, surfboards, fly rods, bikes, and beer, and set off on a maze of empty forest roads. We wanted to see as much of Oregon’s public land as was feasible, while stopping regularly along the way to sample waves on the windswept coast, tacky trails amongst towering pines, wild trout from wild streams, and to sleep under clear skies teeming with sparkling stars.

Part Two

The Coast

Suislaw National Forest

After a much later-than-expected start to our trip we pulled up to the Oregon coast under a moonless, midnight sky. The sound of the waves, the tangible weight of the salt on damp air, and the brisk breeze through contorted spruce and fir welcomed us wholeheartedly. We pitching our camp promptly amidst the ferns and the muted calls of boreal owls urged us into a very deep night’s sleep.

We awoke to the soothing sounds of crashing waves and perched hundreds of feet above the rugged coast below we could already see the trees along the rocky shoreline swaying with the strength of the onshore breeze. A reluctant gaze out upon the water revealed a choppy and churning medium – definitely not the ideal conditions for paddling out.

Soon enough we suited up and paddled out, hell, we came here to get a surf in. The waves were shitty, man, were they shitty, and the wind swell required us to duck dive the frigid waves at a rate that never allowed our brain freeze to thaw once it had set in. But damn was the place beautiful; with towering evergreens plunging down dark and rocky cliffs to the sea, and with not another soul as far as the eye could gaze, all of our suffering soon gave way to an overwhelming feeling of intense appreciation. Between blinding fits of brain-wrenching brain freeze, we cast agreeable glances back and forth to one another; freezing our asses of in that icy water was the perfect way to kick off our trip.

With nothing more than a few frigid waves under our belts, we made the short trip back up the dirt road to camp, to thaw out and grab a bite. Our camp was settled at the uphill end of a forest road a few hundred vertical feet above the coast. Blockaded by a large felled fir, the opposing side of the road had had the chance to whittle down to a narrow ribbon of loamy, windy soil, meandering its way into the dense coastal forest. Eagerly, we readied our bikes and donned our gear, and departed for our second activity of our first day.

What had begun as an unassuming stretch of undulating singletrack, turned ever upwards, becoming steeper and steeper as it traversed the southerly wall of a steep canyon. After several miles of pedaling and hiking, with the sun becoming low in the sky, we decided to flip things around and head down. Peppered with polished roots, stomach-flipping drops, and the kinds of grippy corners that beg you to dip your bars deeper and deeper into each turn, we could not help but think that we had somehow stumbled upon a local favorite, and yet we still wondered; were all the trails out here this good? After some twenty minutes of stoke-fueled bliss, we rolled right back into camp, amazed at what we had just found, and beyond thirsty for a cold beer. With the sun setting over churning seas, we toasted some locally brewed IPAs to a killer kick-off to our trip.

Part Three

Western Oregon

Willamette National Forest

After a day’s worth of travel from the coast, we finally crawled down the dirt road that would lead to our camp for the 2nd night. Over rocks and roots the Landcruiser swayed to and fray, at times barely squeezing between the monstrous trunks of old-growth ponderosa pine and Douglas fir. The trees were tall here, so tall and old in fact, that the canopy was somewhat punctuated, allowing slightly more light to slip through where trees had fallen, than the dense and verdant roof that shaded us along the coast. Suddenly however the road opened up to reveal a flat, open area, and the faint glimmer of sun on a deep and swirling body of water – we had found our camp along the headwaters of the Willamette River.

With the allure of new and promising water too strong to resist, we hastily rigged up our rods and made some casts. Octave was into a small coastal rainbow before I knew it, and not long after I had landed one as well. As bald eagles and ospreys made their regular appearance overhead we posed that the river must hold more fish than the miniscule juveniles we were bringing to hand. Sure enough, as the afternoon sun dipped below the ridge to the west and the glare on the water subsided, we spotted the dark and slowly writhing silhouettes of five adult Chinook salmon. Nearing or surpassing three feet in length, it was evident that each of these fish had paid their dues over years spent at sea and had rightfully earned their keep as the ‘king’ of the river.

With a few small to moderately sized fish brought to hand, and given our chance to observe one of the largest and most respected anadromous fish of the Pacific North-West, we knocked back a beer and happily crawled into our sleeping bags.

Part Four

Central Oregon

Cascade Mountains and Malheur National Forest

The next day we awoke early to cross Oregon’s most notable and recognizable mountains; the charismatic Cascades. Within a couple hours of departing our camp we ascended through the dense montane forest of western Oregon and into an open sub-alpine forest of stunted mountain hemlock, which for the first time, permitted views of the many iconic peaks of the Cascade Range. Projecting upward from black, basaltic soils with unrivaled prominence, the snow-capped peaks of dormant and active volcanoes guided us eastward.

Later, as we plummeted down the eastern slopes of the Cascades, the dense, lush temperate forests of the west were replaced by the open, and arid mixed pine forests and Great Basin scrub of Central Oregon. Damp, muddy, and rooty roads soon gave way to dusty and rocky, and the soft brush of trailside ferns and cedar against the side panels of the car became instantly replaced with the witchy screech of weathered juniper and rabbit brush. The red-tailed hawk – the airborne tyrant of arid lands – soared high on thermals above, and coyotes and pronghorn antelope bounded through aromatic fields of sagebrush; the unmistakable scent wafting on the warm summer air.

Once again, our trajectory trended upward, and slowly we transitioned from the sprawling scrubland and into a mixed, airy forest of ponderosa, western juniper, and pinyon pine. We ascended on forest roads for hours, crossing rivers and streams, wrenching felled trees from our path, and constantly soaking up the expansive views of the rolling and mountainous Malheur National forest. We arrived at camp – yet another secluded riverside post – and once again our nightly tradition ensued; readying our bikes and gear for another day of fun, under a star-studded sky with delicious beer fueling an endless banter of how truly amazing this place was.

With the bright arrival of the central Oregon morning sun we work with an overwhelming sense of excitement and urgency. We packed our rods and mounted our bikes to suss out the very reason we sought this specific spot to camp; a relatively unheard-of stretch of bike-legal singletrack that undulates along this wild headwaters stream for over sixteen miles through one of Oregon’s most remote and completely road-less regions. The water, which hosts a suite of native fish species including Great Basin redband trout, mountain whitefish, and the grand and elusive bull trout, surely carried its own appeal, but coming into this we were unsure of how well-maintained and rideable the trail actually was. Within less than a mile from camp we couldn’t believe what we had stumbled across.

We navigated a raw and rugged singletrack as it wound its way up and down the forested walls of the rocky canyon, at times skirting along the high water line of the river, the fishy pools and runs tempting you to stop while the silty corners and chaussy rock gardens begged for you to keep things moving. For the better part of the day riding won out, as our momentum carried us downstream, eager and anxious to enjoy as much of the trail as possible. With the early afternoon heat and hunger rapidly setting in, we turned things around and decided to stop and fish some of the better water we had seen. Spot after spot after spot, we broke out our rods and caught fish after fish, at a rate that suggested these native redbands had likely never seen a fly before. Elated, we sauntered back to camp at dusk, as bats and nighthawks began to fill the graying sky, and kicked off our nightly tradition of beer/stoke-fueled conversation once more.

Part Five

Eastern Oregon

Wallowa-Whitman National Forest

We were on the road once more, continuing onto the last leg of our eastward journey toward the jagged alpine peaks and ridgelines that hug Oregon’s eastern border. As we approached the mountain range we were astounded at the sheer magnitude of the place; towering monoliths punched through the tree line and jutted toward the sky, their bare, cracked and eroded peaks standing testament to the rigorous and dynamic climes of the high altitude environs. With little to no warning, the forest road we had chosen for our approach turned immediately upward, its creators having apparently obtained their engineering degrees prior to the advent of switchbacks.

As we crested the final push toward one of the tallest alpine ridgelines of eastern Oregon’s Wallowa-Whitman National Forest, the views opened up on both sides to reveal an awe-inspiring level of topographical relief. For as far as one could see, bare peaks, jagged ridgelines, forested valleys, and lush meadows danced off toward the horizon in either direction. Save the meager excuse for a forest road (goat path) that we came in on and the occasional and distant murmur of a passing jetliner, no signs of human influence could be seen or heard up here. A warm breeze hushed through the stiff branches of mountain hemlock and white pine, dwarfed by the alpine’s prolonged and harsh winter conditions, while the busy cacophony of a family of Clark’s nutcrackers provided us our only company.

In compliance with the ongoing and mandatory theme of our trip, our camp lay bisected by yet another relatively unknown but absolutely killer trail. Spurring northward and southward from our post, it traversed the high altitude ridgeline of this rugged mountain range for over twenty miles, encountering numerous alpine lakes, wild fish, and incomprehensible vistas in nearly every direction.

The sun was welcomed the next morning we downed our coffee and donned our gear, and embarked early for a full day of riding, exploring, and hopefully, a midday break or two for some productive fishing. The trail dove sharply downhill from our camp, plunging through a sea of volley-ball sized rocks, however almost as quickly we were downshifting and heading uphill. As we approached some of the tallest peaks in the range, the bench-cut trail as either side of the trail trended toward vertical; the upslope side hanging overhead at times, and the downslope side vanishing from view completely, leaving only thin air and the crowns of pine and hemlock visible hundreds of feet directly below. It was truly epic (and for once, truly deserving of that descriptor).

Eventually the exposure lessened, and we descended toward a distant paleo-glacial bowl. Nestled below a saddle in the range, the ancient depression now cradled an alluring body of shimmering teal water that once was a shifting and sliding mass of ice. As we and our bikes careened between boulders and stunted trees, and threaded ourselves through the final steep and chunky switchbacks toward the lake, we could see the faint, concentric rings of fish rising to the surface.

Having made it to the lake in one piece, and with the fish still rising, we hurriedly pieced our rods together and without even removing our helmets, we laid out some casts. Within minutes, a vibrantly colored male alpine brook trout was brought to hand, and within moments, another, and another. For a couple of hours we stayed, absorbing the magnitude of the place, and enjoying it all to ourselves, and a pair of mountain goats navigating the cliffs high above the lake. Excited to ride yet reluctant to leave, we eventually packed up and clipped in for the short climb back to the ridge.

Occupied by the technicality of the climb up from the lake the ascent to the ridgeline seemed to be over as fast as it had begun. With the majority of the trip back to camp now downhill, and with the sun lying low above the peaks to the west, we were setting ourselves up for the ultimate golden hour shred session to wrap up our trip, and we were stoked! Showered in golden light and fed by a seemingly limitless supply of gravity, mile after mile of solid, pristine backcountry singletrack blazed by us, and before we knew it we were back at camp. A plethora of smiles, high fives, and beers immediately ensued, as we lazed in our hammocks, watching the sun set on the final day of our trip.

Part Six

Our Land

Let's keep it that way

With the trip now behind us, and with the memories still vivid in our minds, it has become blatantly obvious how important these experiences and these landscapes truly are. Not only do our national forests and federal lands provide home and refuge for a suite of plant and animal species that would otherwise vanish under the heavy-handed impacts of man, these places offer us the opportunity to find ourselves, to break free from the concrete jungle, and to learn about, appreciate, and respect the natural environment, an irreplaceable resource which we as humans inextricably depend upon (despite the many who refuse to believe so).

So I ask you, what type of world would we live in if there were no sagebrush steppe left for the antelope to roam, if our pine forests were felled before they could grow old, if streams never made it to the sea, if the “weekend getaway” was a revered story of the past? At this moment, many of these places are still ours, accessible for our enjoyment; to ride, to hike, to fish, to camp, to appreciate. Let’s do our best to make sure these places aren’t only there now, for us to remember later.

To find out what you can do to protect America’s treasured public lands, visit this link. Read about the ongoing political plight to turn over our public lands to private interests, and if you have time, please sign the petition to voice your opposition.

The End
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