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number 23 $8.95 US $9.95 CAN






PACK LIGHT AND HIT THE TRAIL Display until April 1, 2012




Words and Images by T. Herb Belrose

Decked from head to toe in hardhats, backpacks and boots, we left downtown Portland on the morning commuter train. The other passengers were en route to their corporate desks in the thicket of Oregon’s high-tech Silicon Forest. We were headed straight for the woods. We felt like travelers from another era next to the business suits, but our lowkey garb was betrayed by the packed out, hydraulic-lined, fattest of the fat tire bikes crammed into the cyclist’s section of the train car.


Our destination was an abandoned mountainous passage called the Port of Tillamook Bay Railroad: a set of steel rails that zigzag over the Coast Range through an area called the Tillamook Burn and into the rocky Oregon coast. In 2007, a chain of oceanic cyclones called the Great Coastal Gale slammed the Northwest. The storms caused unprecedented flooding and landslides, damaged power grids with hurricane-force winds and snapped in half the Klootchy Creek Giant, a 700-year-old coastal Sitka spruce that was formerly the largest of its species in the world. After the floodwaters subsided, the railroad’s infrastructure was irreparable. Off the commuter train and officially on the road, my touring partner, Allan, and I stopped at a coffee shop in the sleepy town of Hillsboro to organize our packs. Our Salsa Mukluks, with their sensationally exaggerated tires, were our only hope for absorbing the racket that would be inflicted on us while pedaling on railroad ties for three days. These peculiar bicycles, we discovered, were a beacon for conversation. We explained their purpose, merits and the unusual ride ahead of us to nearly every curious passerby. The route had some legal complications that we disregarded while planning our trip. The Port of Tillamook Bay was never going to use the railroad again, but being on their property was still unlawful. Outside the coffee shop, a small group of gawkers gathered around our bikes, including two detectives leaving the courthouse. They examined our big-wheeled steeds and, under the weight of their professional scrutiny, we spilled the beans about riding on the railroad. A detective lifted up his walkie-talkie and said to the dispatcher, “I’m outside the courthouse talking with these young studs that are thinking about biking the old railroad tracks to Tillamook.” Our cover was blown. I wondered if I would have good enough cell reception in the forest to call my lawyer. Well aware of our shortcomings in both legal and personal judgment, they soon agreed to rally for Allan and I ride Mukluks past a stand of fireweed, lady fern and thimbleberry. We started in the our cause. Willamette Valley, rode up to the crest of the Coast Range and down into the Salmonberry River One of the gumshoes handed us his card and said that watershed. we could probably talk our way out of trouble with the boulder fields and bridges where the trestles disappeared in the deluge railroad police. “Besides,” he told us, “you should be more worried leaving only the metal track overhanging the river. about the bears.” In the tiny town of Timber, we turned from the asphalt onto Concerned but not shaken, Allan and I pedaled the blue highways railroad tracks. This journey was nearly two years in the making. We and county byways toward the railroad. A truck with a well-stocked had compiled information from topo maps, news articles, chat rooms, gun rack on the rear window skidded to a stop beside us on a logging railroad building contractors, books and local rumors. We were only a road. The driver probably hit the brakes out of instinct when he saw mere 30 miles from the most populated city in Oregon yet we were now our large tires, which were becoming more irresistible as we traveled entering an isolated and unknown corridor. A few hundred feet down deeper into rural America. We explained the giant tires and the the tracks we met a svelte black lab stud we affectionately named Tank. railroad adventure. Not knowing what else to say, he offered up some We continued together on our bumpy way. local discouragement. “That line is totally impassable,” he said. “May Dating to the expedition of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, as well just turn around now.” the history of Oregon is rich with tales of booms and busts, great We arrived at the Tillamook Railroad spur in the early afternoon victories and stunning defeats. Out in logging country, the view from without any firearms or pepper spray. We knew very little about the tarpaper shacks and trailer homes is of mountainsides stripped clean of conditions of the track, the 80 damaged bridges and 10 caved-in trees. Despite all of the early prospects of reaping Oregon’s bounty, a lot mountain tunnels along its route. We did not know if this route from of people have been left in the poor house. the valley over the range to the coast was passable with or without It wasn’t always that way. The frontier west was the destination bikes. We had heard rumors about giant log piles, muddy washouts, for new riches and economic salvation. It was where manifest destiny 40

fulfilled the promise of endless extractable resources to the early settlers of the territory. They found forests thick with game and timber, and waterways so chock full of salmon one could “walk across the river on their backs.” The prevailing notion was that these stocks would replenish themselves faster than they could be taken. The Tillamook Railroad was one of the many optimistic, industrialist pioneer visions. It was a bullish short line project cut, chiseled and dynamited through mountains by the Pacific Railway & Navigation Company. The line was designed to haul the endless harvest of trees back to the sawmills and to bring seed and feed to the dairies of Tillamook, a perpetual cycle that promised prosperity to generations through steam power, elbow grease and profit in the timber and milk markets. Despite these good intentions, the railroad was never profitable and several companies passed along the title. When the Great Coastal Gale damaged the line, the Port shuttered it with a whisper. There was no use pouring more money into a dead horse. Its demise had started 74 years earlier, when a few reckless loggers ignited the legendary fires that burned down the prized forests. On a hot August day in 1933, a dry wind blew the valley’s heat east across the temperate rainforests of the Oregon Coast Range. Nervous fire watchmen contemplated the tinderbox of dry duff, snags and pine needles beneath the spindly legs of their wooden towers. The humidity dropped to rock bottom. A young messenger ran through a logging outfit near Gales Creek with an order from the governor to stop work. His message was not well received by the gritty wage earners toiling in the trough of the Depression. The boss looked at his men and told them to quit for the day after pulling up “just one more log.” The steel cable of the steam donkey snapped taut and dragged a Douglas fir wider than a man is tall toward the landing. Its bark skidded across another felled tree and a puff of smoke rose from the parched earth. The crew pelted the ground with shovels and wet burlap bags while A locomotive geared to push a load of log cars is stranded forever on the Port of Tillamook Bay the breeze scattered glowing cinders throughout the oldRailroad in Timber, Ore. This was where we met Tank. We would soon regret feeding him cheese. growth woods. Ten days later, while improvised fire crews tried to control the to fell and move these ancient monoliths with axe, crosscut saw and ox blaze, the wind whipped the flames from the crowns of trees into a teams. The process of logging was quickly modernized, but the industry hurricane of fire 1,500 feet tall. A mushroom cloud billowed 40,000 feet was soon burdened with a long series of environmental and political into the atmosphere, darkened the summer day and showered ash and setbacks starting with the National Park Service, Bureau of Land forest debris on ships 500 miles out to sea. When the smoke cleared, the Management restrictions and, more recently, the protection of habitat for largest tract of virgin timber in the lower 48 was a blackened moon of the northern spotted owl and other endangered species. charcoal christened the Tillamook Burn. After the inferno of 1933, the workers in coastal timber country The Oregon Coast Range is in a low, mossy geographic zone. continued to test the burn cycles of the forest. A fire in 1939 was started This 66 million year old volcanic chain is the eroded granddaddy of by a logging crew, and then the same thing happened in 1945. During its famous neighbor, the Cascades. The Cascades contain the postcard a heat wave in 1951, things hit rock bottom when a logger scaled a tree factories Mount Hood, Mount Shasta, Crater Lake, Mount Rainier and with a stick of dynamite to blow off the top for a spar tree. (Spar trees the infamous powder keg Mount Saint Helens. were used to fasten the pulley for the high cable that pulled the logs While the Coast Range lacks the Cascade’s panoramic drama, it before the invention of the portable metal tower.) The explosion started makes up for it in sheer biomass. Aided by 120 inches of rainfall a year, another forest fire. low elevation and a fertile loam, a Douglas fir seed dropped on the Coast The burned lands were no longer tucked away in the backcountry; Range can grow from the size of a peanut into a 250-foot tall giant in they were visible to the public from the highways and their homes. 100 years. This feat would require 200 years in the drier Cascades. These so-called six-year-jinx fires pulled logging from the backwoods The early forest workers of the Pacific Northwest at first struggled and into the face of citizens. Correspondents reported from the front 41

The railroad biking method requires a lot of quick thinking and fancy footwork. We opted for boots and flat pedals over cleats. We probably pushed, pulled and carried our bikes for 1/3 or more of the ride.

lines of the war against fire on the front page of newspapers. The drought and heat could no longer be blamed. The flames became the sign of man. Over the 18 years that blazes crisscrossed the Coastal Mountains, millions of Douglas fir, western red cedar, white fir, western hemlock and Sitka spruce were killed on an area covering four counties and 360,000 acres of land. It was a careless exchange of trees, wildlife and ecosystems for an empire of dust. These events forever changed the future of American forests. Back on the railroad, we bounced down the tracks like two Oompa Loompas and scrambled to get our bikes over the debris. Our new friend, Tank, followed us for a few miles before disappearing into the thicket. We were not making good time through the burn. Our route covered about 75 miles of highway, logging roads and railroad line. We had planned on the trip taking three days. We also figured that if things went smoothly, and the railroad grade was clean and fast enough, we could cover the entire distance in a day and half. Our hopes of making it to the coast in a timely manner were dashed by the stands of alder saplings and bramble covering the tracks. In the four years since the gale, a head-high understory overwhelmed the railroad for nearly the entire line. We used our bikes like rams to push through the vegetation. The combination of the jerky ride, the branches whipping us in the arms and legs, and the spider webs covering our faces made for an exhausting yet comical journey. As we covered more miles, the canyon walls became steeper, and the damage to the railroad 42

appeared worse and worse. Reality set in after a few more hours of sweating, swearing and shouldering our packed-out bikes up, down, over and under the damaged washouts. Every hundred yards of pedal-powered bushwhacking and cyclocross style snag hopping yielded a washed-out section of track covered with uprooted trees, mud and mossy boulders. We started taking the panniers off, running them ahead and then returning for the bikes. Our original plan was to try and ride across some of the wrecked sections of track. We imagined ourselves roller-coastering up and down the washouts and fallen bridges like the heroes of manufactured bike trails in magazines. Standing face to face with these industrial monstrosities, we found it imperative to stay as far away as possible from the thousands of unstable tons of warped steel, concrete, riprap and wood. We made arduous portages up the mountainsides to avoid 100-foot drops where only the track hung over the precipice. We pushed our bikes over the rocky riverbed and scrambled up and down the eroding embankments. Like many of the other expeditions that I have dreamed up, the reality on the ground was that this was dangerous and backbreaking work. To make matters worse, the tracks were covered with bear scat. These were not old, decaying stockpiles of bear droppings. These were fresh, aromatic reminders of active Ursus americanus every 100 or so feet. We were traveling on the tail end of the fall steelhead run on the Salmonberry River, the tributary that the railroad followed toward the

We saw hundreds of washouts along the way. The only thing holding up the track here is the metal culvert underneath it.

Pacific Ocean. Black bears, because of their dark fur, feed on salmonids at night to avoid detection. We set up camp in an old logging ditch surrounded by stumps and short logs. As Allan and I started to cook up some dinner we heard a commotion in the woods. I grabbed my knife and we stood together as the ruckus in the brush came rumbling and whipping toward us. I looked at the boiling pot of tomatoes and sardines on the camp stove and realized that this meal, while innocent and delicious, was pure bear bait. I prepared for an old-fashioned mauling. A skinny baby bear emerged from a bush and came running our way in the twilight. “That’s not a bear!” shouted Allan, “That’s Tank!” The frothing beast sprinted toward us. We hugged him, congratulated his success and patted his fat, dumb head. Tank had tracked us for the entire 15 miles of railroad bushwhacking that day. The jubilation of having another companion on our expedition evaporated when we realized that we now had another mouth to feed. We looked at our meager pot of stew, packs of dehydrated soup, Honey Stingers and a small brick of Tillamook cheddar. We looked at big old Tank and he looked at the cheese. It was determined that we had a dilemma. We decided that, at the very least, Tank could help protect us from bears at night. He seemed like a loyal chap. He had, after all, desired our companionship enough to follow us for an entire day. That evening, as the rain started to tap the ground, we bedded down in our tent. We set Tank outside the flap with instructions to be a good boy and attack

anything that moved no matter how savage, poisonous or deadly. Hours later I felt something nudge me. In my slumber, I swatted at the creature through the wall of the tent. The prodding got more and more intense. I could see Tank’s silhouette in the flashes of moonlight between the clouds. I fell back asleep. From my slumber I was startled awake when the tent caved in. It was not because of a storm or a fallen tree branch; Tank was standing right on top of me. At this juncture I changed Tank’s name to Steve. Knowing the ways of the Buddha, Saint Francis of Assisi and the Dog Whisperer, I opened my heart to this present moment and opened the zipper of the tent to let in Steve. It was cold out and he had had no dinner this evening. The least he deserved was a warm place to sleep. The old, wet fleabag flopped down on top of me. He gnawed at the scabs on his butt, scratched his infested body, licked himself compulsively and made a mockery of my good intentions. As the morning approached, my tired, frustrated heart hardened. With ice in my veins, I opened the flap and forcibly ejected Steve back into the rain. We found him curled up in a pile of sawdust the next morning. He ran toward us and nuzzled his head against my leg. Steve was cute with sawdust stuck all over him, but he was also a problem. This was the last section of track with road access before we entered the wilds. There was no way we were bringing him with us. If we turned around and brought him back to where we found him near Timber, it would mean the end of our trip. Allan, Steve and I sat on the ground and stared at one another. We 43

looked at the muddy paw prints all over the tent. We didn’t have it in us to try and beat him back into retreat. Steve was in our care now. We were all feeling very somber, except for Steve, when out of nowhere a giant Ford F350 King Ranch edition diesel truck came tearing toward us. A man in skinny jeans, boots and a flannel jacket jumped out and, apparently not expecting anyone to be out here in the middle of nowhere at 6 a.m., looked at us and froze. “Is this your dog?” I asked him rhetorically. “Um… no,” he said. “Do you mind if I cut firewood here?” We showed him the exaggerated wheels on our bikes, told him about the railroad ride, and asked him to please, please, please return Steve to Timber. He understood the language of giant tires and was soon willing to help. In an absurd moment of luck, I chanced upon a dog collar in a creek near the camp while getting water. We lashed Steve to his bumper, described where to drop him (by the abandoned couch under the old tree next to the closed liquor store) and headed onward unimpeded. Our weekend joyride turned into a desperate scramble to make miles and find a path through the encroaching bush. I had the sensation that the flora was growing right before our eyes and that any second we would ride into a green abyss with no way out ahead or behind us. The only parts of track not covered in vegetation were the sections that went through the unstable, blackened tunnels. Some of the tunnels had entire trees stuffed into their mouths by floodwaters and dirt and rock piled up to their ceilings from cave-ins. The abyss, it turned out, was part of the miracle of our journey. After the last of the burn’s historic fires was extinguished, a restoration plan was enacted to turn the smoldering wasteland back into a forest. There was no blueprint or guide for how to fix the problem of a missing forest, and no one had ever before attempted to rehabilitate a devastated natural area. This was an early epiphany in the worldview of nature, and it tipped the scales from the industrial-based crusade for resource extraction to the controversial bureaucracy of federal resource management. The legislature amended Oregon’s constitution to allow threequarters of one percent of the assessed value of the state to be used for replanting the burn. This equated to about $10.5 million in 1948. Through a slow and arduous legal process, private landowners deeded their holdings in the burn back to the county governments in exchange for tax vouchers. Access roads were built, fire crews were equipped and trained, and firebreaks were carved into the landscape. Dead timber was salvage logged off of the slopes to turn one last buck and clean the burn’s slate. The project, conceived by the government, was to create a giant tree farm aimed at restoring the area’s “natural wealth producing status.” On the ground, they built a state penitentiary in the burn where prisoners worked building roads and planting seedlings. Helicopters and airplanes dropped 36 tons of Douglas fir seeds. For 25 years, volunteers, forestry technicians, logging contractors, hunters, felons, youth groups and school children planted 72 million two-year-old seedlings from a strong, fast-growing, “genetically superior” strain of Douglas fir nicknamed the Super Tree. The tale of the burn had many twists until 1973, when Gov. Tom McCall assembled the lands from the surrounding counties and designated the burn area the Tillamook State Forest. He placed the lands forever in the trust of the people of Oregon. This bold move secured the old Republican’s legacy as the premier defender of the state’s forests, beaches and rivers. In a mere 25 years, the freshly planted tree farm became a tree refuge. As we continued to pedal, push, heave and swat our way through 44

Inset Left: Allan contemplates the logjam and riprap hike-a-bike to muddy hillside to shaky metal ladder portage transition. A breathtaking mess hanging by a thread of metal track. We considered riding across this ... then we carried our bikes up the mountainside and took the long way around.


During a storm, a landslide on a clearcut slope clogged a tributary of the Salmonberry and created a temporary lake. Then the dam broke, and a wall of water tore downstream and wiped out the road bridge.

the ruined tracks of the canyon we didn’t have much time to ponder our surroundings. We knew that human hands had planted the mountainsides above us. Had we not been clawing for our lives we could have stopped and asked ourselves, “Is this empire of Super Trees a wilderness or a laboratory? Does planting trees where trees were not growing before create a forest? Was this nature, or a glorified field of corn? And is there a difference either way?” It all depends on your perspective. To the forest scientist, the burn is a laboratory. It was the first of its kind. The experimental methods of reforestation developed and evolved here. The studies and gathered data continue to revolutionize forestry. Foresters now know that you must plant different species of trees and other plants to maintain a healthy ecosystem. They also know that a healthy forest is not a uniform structure, it is a mosaic of different ages, species, densities and states of carbon life. To the logger, the Tillamook Forest is a field of corn, ripe for the harvest. It is the mortgage payment and the food that will cover the table every evening. It will build new schools, homes and roads. It is the place to hunt and fish and take the children camping for their first time. The forest will grow back after the harvest, they will tell you, just look at the burn. A forest ecosystem is a response to a million different variables. It is a place no more predictable than the weather, where fire is a typical part of the life cycle. Under management regimes, parts of it must be preserved and other parts must be clearcut to compensate for the suppression of wildfires. That is the catch 22. The forest is a mosaic and the saw is the machine that sews it together. I am still undecided. I wince at the sight of the shredded mountainsides of the American West. I wish that there were better ways to satisfy the demands of the free market with the products of 46

our planet. It is easy to point fingers at the loggers you see working the hillsides. The corporate timber CEOs and shareholders are hidden from public scrutiny by their lawyers and lobbyists. The loggers are just the pawns on the ground in their high-dollar game. The Tillamook Burn is not a perfect example of redemption. It cannot be restored to what it was before the settlers arrived. There is no archive, no way to know what was growing and living there even 100 years ago. Even if we knew, the ecosystems could not be controlled well enough to reproduce the past. Nature is too complicated, too fickle and fragile. Habitats take millions of years to evolve, balance and stabilize. They vanish in minutes. After three days of fighting our way through the burn, we forded a river where the flood had torn out a highway bridge and felt the sweet roll of bike wheels on pavement. The constant shock and vibration broke racks, panniers and water bottle cages clean off of our bikes, yet we didn’t get a single flat tire. We were worse than saddle sore and hungry as we pedaled the 15 miles of winding highway toward the Pacific Ocean and, most importantly, a convenience store. We did not look back misty eyed at the railroad tracks. We were the first and probably the last party to ride bicycles down this unpredictable path. Next year, I think that the logger’s warning from our first day will be applicable. If those alders get any thicker, it will be impassable without a Husqvarna chainsaw mounted to the front fork. In my head, the forest of Super Trees looks like a plantation, or a line of soldiers parading before a battle. In reality, the burn looks just like any other forest, except that the trees are kind of short and there is too much brush and bramble. It’s not a perfect place, but I would prefer this makeshift “wilderness” over an empty, blackened skyline any day.

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Filmmakers Mike Dion and Hunter Weeks take advantage of low tide as they roll south toward Homer, Alaska during the filming of Reveal The Path – Photo by Kid BIke shown – Mukluk Ti with Revelate Designs frame bag


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Riding the Burn Cycle  

Riding the Burn Cycle by T. Herb Belrose

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