For our vacation, we the Fahrner family rode from our door in Portland up into the Cascade mountains along the Clackamas river, camped one night along the way, then spent four nights at Breitenbush Hot Springs. We rode home in one day. 193 total bike miles, 12,000′ of climbing, with a camping load and our 6-year old son in a child seat. This was an unforgettably wonderful experience for all of us: 4 days of total relaxation at the springs book-ended by 3 days and a night of bike camping.
We first visited Breitenbush last autumn, taking a Zipcar. The stay was far too short; we resolved to return. Breitenbush Hot Springs is an amazing place, a worker-owned cooperative on a beautiful site in ancient forest. The soaking pools are clothing-optional (mostly none). The food is organic vegetarian, no alcohol or caffeine. It’s off the grid: they generate their own electricity from the river and operate year-round on geothermal heat. They even run their own code-compliant sewage system for 190 people. There is no phone service apart from the office, no cell coverage: forget internet, radio or TV. Beside soaking, eating, and lounging about (I napped a lot), the hiking really can’t be beat, and there are usually new-agey kinds of workshops taking place for those so inclined. That’s not us, but I did indulge my inner hippie by slathering naked self head-to-toe in sulfurous volcanic mud, letting it bake on in the sun, and washing off in the c-c-c-cold swift river. Perfect!
We approached the idea of riding there tentatively, because though we ride every day, it has been some years since we’ve camped or even put more than 35 miles in a day on bikes as a family, much less nearly 200 heavily laden with lots of climbing mostly in mountain wilderness, beyond all services including cell phone signals. How would our son handle days straight sitting in his seat? But between the waste of parking a shared car at Breitenbush all week, our wanting to get some long-form biking in, and the need for blog fodder, well, we had to try it. Plus, we’ve needed to put in some extended test miles on new production elements of Stokemonkey, our elusive electric assist system specific to longtails, and this sounded like a good challenge.
It had never been entirely clear to me at what range Stokemonkey would become more burden than help. For utility hops of a few dozen miles or less in steep places like San Francisco or Seattle, it’s a no-brainer, but could we make the charge last this many miles in these mountains, with these loads, and still have Stokemonkey, with its weight and displacement costs, be a net advantage? I’m happy to report that we could. And that son is a champ in the seat for long hours, even offering back rubs. We’ll travel this way again.
We rode out about 18 miles along the Springwater Trail to join this route near Gresham, shared by Matt Picio at Bikely, complete with excellent cue sheet:
I figured out the total miles, then divided by the number of watt-hours we’d be packing in the batteries on each bike to come up with a per-mile power allowance of about 8 watt hours. It takes a lot of discipline not to open the throttle every time you get a little tired, but keeping under the allowance would assure that we’d have enough juice left to help with the tough climbing on the second day as shown in the elevation profile above. In practice, this meant using the assist only uphill and for the odd acceleration from a start, at least on the more climb-intensive outward leg. Coming home we could be more liberal with the assist.
Though each bike weighed nearly 150 pounds with cargo, 2 large NiMH battery packs each, passenger and all, we maintained an average speed of 11.7 MPH over the 193 miles, working no harder uphill than on the flats. Downhill, that extra weight is all gravy, which allowed us to ride home in a single easy 96-mile day. The bikes handled beautifully with all the weight; they are designed to.
Of course, riding lighter bikes with lesser loads and no motor assistance is entirely feasible, and preferable from a simplicity point of view. It would also be slower and rather grueling on the steeper, longer inclines. For that matter, we could have hiked there and home if we had so much leisure. For us, for this trip, motor assistance made the difference between practical and appealing, and not.
In all, we used 1642 watt hours of assist each, so 3284 total over 193 miles, or 17 watt hours per mile for the 3 of us together. (Our capacity was half that; we recharged from Breitenbush’s small hydroelectric service.) Now, a single gallon of gasoline packs about 37,500 watt hours. So, if you come up with a car that gets 2,206 MPG with 3 occupants and camping gear in the mountains, you’ll have matched the energy efficiency of our quiet, cool-running, simple little human-electric hybrid system, now patented.
Packing was a bit stressful. I come from the minimalist school of camping, where you remove the staples from the teabags after discarding the 4 layers of extraneous packaging, and then decide that loose tea would be better yet, and conclude finally that you can do without tea for a few days. I shaved my head to sidestep that whole shampoo and comb quagmire. My wife, on the other hand, thinks nothing of packing a few books, four changes of clothing for five days, giant towels, etc. We compromised, sort of: if it fit on the bikes after the batteries, tools, charger, first-aid, water stowage, and other basics, I was fine with it. We’ll pack less next time. I packed some trash bags so in the worst case we could stash useless items in the woods at a marked spot for retrieval at a later date, including batteries if it came to that.
The ride up was pleasant after Estacada, if uneventful, and just plain uneventful before that. Having son narrating in his tireless way kept us entertained even passing through the town of Boring, Oregon.
We camped at Riverside Campground, at mile 60-something the first night. This is the site of the last readily potable water along the route. We slept in two Hennessy hammocks, which I’d long been curious about as compact comfortable alternatives to a tent. Need to fine-tune the bottom insulation strategy for the cold dawn hours or colder seasons, but we’re sold. The sound of the rushing river lulled us quickly to deep sleep.
The second day’s climbing was more intense, or we were sore, or both, but the weather was great and the scenery fantastic. It culminated at mile 18 in a wall of a climb to the pass that we dreaded to imagine hitting without Stokemonkey. The pass came sooner than expected, with a breathtaking view of Mt. Jefferson clad in glacier, and we then bombed down to Breitenbush with some euphoric whoops. I ran out my charge to a splutter along the loose gravel road just a mile or so from our destination.
We parked our bikes at the door of our cabin, which led to quite a lot of curious loitering by other visitors to the springs. But we learned quickly to stop telling people that we had biked there with child from Portland because it stopped conversations cold, as either a greener-than-thou affront or just too freaky. “Who drove the support vehicle?” A Dutch family we met there on the last day found out as we were leaving. They were incredulous. I admit that made me proud: Dutch people think we’re hardcore. At the same time, I wish more people understood that biking needn’t be some kind of enviro-martyr stunt, sport, fundraising strategy either personal or institutional, etc.
Homeward was mostly downhill, after the initial very sharp climb back up to the pass. The first couple hours after the pass were the nicest riding I’ve enjoyed in many years, with perfect light and warmth and a bike heavy enough to hold its momentum up nearly all the little rises after letting loose up to around 35 MPH on the longer descents. We whistled and sang in gratitude.
Our mood took a big hit at Austin Hot Springs, which is right alongside the road. We thought we’d lunch there and maybe take a dip where the hot vents mingle with the cold river water. We rolled up to the river’s edge, between trucks, and beheld a sickening spectacle: trash, trash everywhere. Brawndo cans and Doritos bags, used tampons and condoms, excrement-smeared toilet paper, giant bean cans, inflatable water toys, cassette tape fluttering, cigarette butts and beer bottles, some broken. Green trees sawed down and dragged halfway into fire rings. And there in the clear water, some yahoos had submerged a large roll of carpet and weighted it with rocks so bathers could avoid coming in contact with the riverbed. It was a crying Indian moment. Anger and shame drove us back to the road.
The Breitenbush community states that its primary purpose is to protect the springs and the land around them. Instantly, in view of the fate of Austin, we felt a wave of gratitude for that mission accomplished. I thought of some of the remarks I’d come across about Breitenbush being expensive or exclusive, or a bit precious, and I murmured “well thank god!”
Clouds rolled in low and it began to rain lightly. For the first hour or so it came down at a rate about equal to evaporation in our wool and peached nylon pants, but after a few more hours we were quite wet, though warm from exertion. My body proved an astonishingly effective rain shield for our son, even in his denim jeans. Beyond cell range, without radio we couldn’t guess whether these showers were going to blow past or compel us to set up a hasty camp. We had no raingear save those trash bags. We changed into dry wool and pressed on, just as the showers luckily subsided for a few more hours, catching us again only 15 miles from home on the Springwater.
Both bikes acquitted themselves flawlessly, with zero trouble save a flat due to a heavy staple; we patched in place. We rode my 2003 Xtravois longtail, and a 2007 prototype of the Surly Big Dummy longtail. The Surly’s running a Shimano Nexus 8 gearhub with roller brake, the same robust setup as on all the Dutch bikes we sell. Xtravois has a Rohloff gearhub. Schwalbe Big Apple tires on both, 24″ on the Surly. Both bikes have been “dutchified” to produce effective seat tube angles below 70 degrees, with short stems, swept bars, and sprung broad Brooks B67 saddles. I don’t think I’ll ever ride long distance any other way willingly, assisted or not. The only bicycle-specific items of clothing we brought were helmets.