Day Eight: Bicycling from Lake Crescent to Sequim
Everyone we spoke to on our trip was amazed at the stretch of good weather we were enjoying. This morning would mark the 4th straight day of sunshine; an unheard of bit of luck for a region that is typically locked in a wet weather pattern this time of year.
After our usual breakfast of oatmeal and fruit, we loaded up the bikes and headed east on the North Shore Road. This was the route our new friend at the café had recommended the day before. He had assured us that in a few miles the road would hook up with the bike path and the rest of the trip would be a delight. “My dad did it plenty a times, a walk in the park.”
The North Shore Road started out nicely enough. The surface was paved and well maintained. Since it was technically a dead end, at least for motorized vehicles, we didn’t see another car the whole way.
It was a beautiful morning and we were riding through an amazing setting. To our right was Lake Crescent, to our left the heavily wooded forest climbed up to a ridge. I’d read the night before that Lake Crescent was 12 miles long with a depth of 625 feet. The shore, if that’s what you can call it, drops off very steeply. The lake has a very low nitrogen content which retards the growth of algae, so the water is clear as glass. You can see down the steep embankment many feet below the water. Boulders and huge logs are visible 20 even 30 feet below the crystalline surface. It’s beautiful and a little eerie at the same time.
We were congratulating ourselves on our wisdom in choosing this route as we pedaled along through serene surroundings. After a few miles, the pavement began to break up in places. After a few more miles the road turned to gravel. We weren’t worried, though. Our bikes have wide tires and riding on gravel or dirt is not a problem. We were even thinking it was a nice break from concrete and asphalt.
As we continued, the road narrowed, the surface became rockier and we found we had to slow to a crawl to maneuver around the many potholes and rocks. In a couple of places, we had to dismount and push our bikes up steep hills. Still, we were confident that the bad conditions were only temporary and that once we reached the bike trail things would improve.
After a mile more of this rough going, the road quit completely at a turnaround. There was a hiking trail picking up where the road left off and we stopped to consider our options. “You think that’s the bike trail?” I asked Mike.
Mike had his map out and was studying it intently. “It looks like it on the map,” he said, “but I don’t know.” He looked toward the forest. “I think it’s up there somewhere,” he said, pointing with a gloved hand. “Maybe this trail hooks up with it.”
I checked my odometer. We’d come about 5 miles in the last hour. Slow going compared to our usual 10 mile an hour pace. Doubling back over all that bad road didn’t appeal to either of us, so we elected to give the trail a try. “What could possibly go wrong?” Mike said, smiling.
The trail was pretty good. The surface was thick with soft mulch, which made for a nice smooth ride. And it was wide enough, though our panniers would often brush against trees and undergrowth as we passed through the narrower sections. Still we were able to keep up a 3 or 4 mile an hour pace and the novelty of riding along a hiking trail had a certain bent appeal. “Hey, this is fun,” I called back. “Kinda weird, but fun!”
We rode on another mile, then, the trail took a steep upward tack. Above and to the right I could see what looked like a level roadbed. The bike trail, I’d heard, followed the path of an abandoned railroad, so I was understandably excited at the thought of finally finding the fabled route. The trail surface was soft and wet there and I had to stand and pedal hard to make it. Covering the 20 or so feet of upgrade, I found myself riding along what surely looked line an old railroad right of way, but it was unpaved and there was no sign of a formal bicycle trail.
We stopped to reconnoiter.
“I don’t know,” I said, “I’m wondering if we’re off track.”
Mike shared my skepticism. He stood straddling his bike. He scratched his head. “This doesn’t look like what I thought it would be.” He took off his helmet and looked around. “But, we’ve come over halfway, and if it doesn’t get any worse than this, then maybe we should just keep going. What do you think?”
He was right about the path. It was wider here and the surface, while not ideal for bikes like ours, was passable. It’d be slow going, but as long as we could keep up the pace of the past hour, we’d be ok. “I say we go for it,” I said, trying to sound confident. “What’s another six miles?”
Having made up our minds, we remounted our bikes and set off down the trail. I kept looking for bicycle tracks, but there were none I could see. There was the occasional wild animal print, though.
The path held up for a while, but after another 45 minutes we found ourselves in deep forest. The trail, which was now merely a narrow cut in the steep hillside, had degenerated to almost nothing, even disappearing in places.
The author on the ‘bike trail’ around Lake Crescent.
The forest closed in around and above us, filtering the mid day sun and creating a sense of vague foreboding. Trees, hanging heavy with moss, crowded in close, huge boulders, covered, too, with the same deep green growth as the trees, jumbled together amid the numerous rockslides. Oversized ferns, swaying gently in a weird synchronized rhythm from the light breeze coming up off the lake, performed a haunting dance. The trail now wound its way through this dark fairytale landscape disappearing around a big house-sized rock that jutted out like the prow of a ship from the hillside.
The setting was darkly beautiful and the thought of JRR Tolkein’s Mordor came to mind.
Riding was now out of the question. There was nothing for it but to push. I carry about 65 pounds of gear on my bike. The bike itself is heavy, tipping the scale at over 40 pounds. Riding this behemoth is hard work enough but pushing it is backbreaking labor. It’s unwieldy, the panniers stick out and seem to get caught on everything they come in contact with. It’s hard to steer, too. I carry a lot of weight on the front rack so I have to muscle it around to get it to go the direction I want. Pushing it’s no fun on an open road and almost impossible in the close quarters of the overgrown forest in which we now found ourselves.
But, having little choice, we soldiered on.
At one point, the ‘trail’ exited the forest and dipped down close to the lake. From this relatively clear spot, we could see where the lake takes a turn to the south and forms the shape that gives it its name. Off in the far distance we could see nothing but more forest. “Man, I don’t know,” I said, wiping sweat from my brow. “I don’t see an end to this thing. I think that guy at the café was full of it. I don’t think there is a bike trail.”
“I gave up on that notion a mile back,” Mike said, “I think this is as good as it’s gonna get.” He had the map out again and pointed to a spot. “Looks like we’re right about here, where the lake takes a turn.” He held his hand up to cut the sun and gazed up-lake. “According to the map the road shouldn’t be too much farther.
“I’m thinking we should go back,” I said, “There’s no telling what’s up ahead.”
Mike gave me a look. “I’m not going back over that,” he said, jerking his head back down the trail. “We’re in this thing all the way, like it or not.”
“The fat is in the fire,” I quipped.
I pondered our situation. If we turned around, it meant hours of struggle over lost ground. I was tired and thinking of a couple of spots back there I wasn’t sure I could manage. It would be a long way and by the time we got back on Highway 101, it’d be afternoon and we’d have lost more than half a day. I looked up-lake. There had to be a road up there somewhere. The only question was how far?
“Okay,” I said, “we push on.”
Soon, we rounded a cluster of boulders and were met with an amazing site. There in front of us we saw what at first appeared to be a gigantic cave. Upon closer inspection, we discovered that it was actually an old railroad tunnel that had been blasted out of a rock buttress jutting into the lake. The roof had collapsed at some time in the past, trees, undergrowth and boulders blocked the entrance making it impassable, so a detour had been trodden to skirt the tunnel and looked to lead out along the edge of the buttress.
Mike said he was going to take a break so I decided to forge ahead and wait for him at an opportune point. I followed the detour trail a few dozen feet, ascending up and out of the forest onto a path cut from the living rock. To the left the buttress rose a couple of hundred feet to a wooded ridge, to the right, 50 feet below was the lake. The path was comfortable enough, wide so that walking along, pushing the bike was relatively safe and secure. The path followed the contour of the buttress and wound away out of sight as it curved around the rock ahead.
Rounding the corner, I found that the much of the trail had been obliterated by a small rockslide. Barely room for the bike’s tires on what remained of the narrow catwalk, I scrambled over the loose rockslide while maneuvering the bike from above on uneven and uncertain footing. It took only a few tense seconds, but seemed a lot longer and once I was back on the trail I breathed a sigh of relief. I glanced down at the lake below. I hope there aren’t any more like that, I thought.
The trail narrowed as I went. Some sections resembled a ledge more than a path and I was forced to turn and shuffle sideways. As I rounded the next corner I pulled up short. The trail disappeared in a steep rock steppe! Jesus, I whispered under my breath.
If I couldn’t get my bike up that steppe, I’d have to go back the way I came. I gripped the handlebars a little tighter. Since there was no room to turn around, I’d have to try to back this unwieldy bastard down around the corner and past that rockslide. If I stumbled or fell, or lost my nerve, my bike, and maybe I, too, would tumble into the lake.
It looked like the bike trip might end right here.
Mike negotiates the catwalk below the rock steppe.
I carefully shuffled around in front of my bike and worked my way up to the foot of the steppe. It sloped back up the cliff at an angle of about 50 degrees for twenty feet and terminated in what looked like a nice wide path. I scampered up and in a few minutes I was on top. I could see where the trail completed its circumnavigation of the buttress and wound its way through the woods in much the same manner as it had before the tunnel detour. Compared to the ledge I’d just come from it looked like a little piece of heaven. If I could just get my bike up here.
I scrambled down and reached my bike. Pushing it to the bottom of the steppe, I began pulling it up the rock. I gave a pull. It moved a few inches then rocked back to its original position. This was going to be harder than I thought. I took a breath and really put my back into it. Now the front wheel was up on the rock. I held it there, inched my foot up the steppe and dragged the bike a little farther along. It came reluctantly and after ten minutes of struggle I had it halfway up.
My muscles ached, I was tired and pouring sweat and I was only halfway up. After a short rest, I backed up the rock a foot or two and repositioned for another go. I leaned over, pulled on the handlebars and the bike moved up a few inches. I started to shift my stance for better footing but instead lost my balance and slipped. In a flash, I was down and sliding off the steppe. I lost my grip on the bike and it clattered down the rock.
Then as suddenly as it began it was over. I looked around. Miraculously, instead of plummeting into the lake, the bike had stopped itself. The front pannier had hung up on a rock and it had come to rest a few feet below where I clung.
I lay there panting. After a while, I got up and went down to the bike. Aside from a few new scratches, it looked to be in good shape, and after a half-hour of very slow and careful work, it and I stood safely at the top.
When Mike showed up at the bottom of the steppe we got his bike up without incident. A few hours later, when we stopped for lunch at a little store, we ran into the forest ranger. “I saw you guys coming out of the trail,” he smiled. “I’ve hiked that thing a hundred times, I don’t know how you got those beasts through.” He indicated our loaded-down bikes. “Mountain bikers love it, but I’ve never heard of a road bike making it.”
“The only thing that would have made it better,” I said, “is if it had been raining.”
We covered 45 miles that day, nine of them on the wooded trail. By the time we reached the small town of Sequim, we were beat. We stopped at a Mexican restaurant and had a huge dinner and then, instead of riding the 5 miles to the state park, opted for a night’s rest in a local motel.
I fell into bed but was too tired to sleep. I watched some TV and finally drifted off during a re-run of Barnaby Jones; the episode where Buddy Ebsen goes undercover as a swinger to bust a ring of diamond thieves.
During the night I was awakened by the sound of rain outside my door. I rolled over and pretended I hadn’t heard a thing.
To be continued...