The Outback Sizzler
-photos and words by Tim Clark
Well, sadly the Oregon Outback Sizzler (Summer Edition) is merely an image in the clip-on rearview mirror. There is much to share, but since the Oregon Outback is the “most documented bikepacking trip”, I’ll focus on the unique mid-summer aspects of our trip. We certainly had a few scenarios in July that would not have presented themselves in May.
We were a crew of three and the trip being our first bikepacking. We all had many years of backpacking experience, much of it with ultralight gear so we had some transferable skills. However… I have never had to spend so much time preparing for a trip! We all remarked how the last week was painfully tedious laying out gear visually, making sticky notes of missing items and making countless trips to REI to complete the list (fortunately for me REI is only several blocks away). I would say the top factor for successful packing was volume. Something could be light as all-get-out, but if it didn’t fit in the seat bag it stayed home (hello new sleeping bag). Yep Donnie, you warned us!
Packing was a chore, but by far our biggest concern for this trip was WATER and electrolytes. With anticipated temps in the 90’s and the looming Red Soup stretch well in mind, having enough water weighed heavy (so to speak). Our resolve was to not dry camp. This required figuring out how to temporarily expand our H20 carrying capacity to 7L for our 90 mile waterless stretch. More on that to follow.
Day one welcomed us gently with 80 degree temps, mild wind and slightly damp conditions from recent rains. It could’ve been May! We enjoyed the ride, opening and closing gates all the way to Sprague River. It was here we saw an ominous plume of smoke on our horizon. As we rolled through tiny Sprague River it was abnormally a-buzz with people who were evacuating homes and ranches within – you guessed it – the Beatty area where the OC&E travels through. This forest fire was a game-changer!
With the help of Sprague Store Dave and his pipe we were able to smoke out an alternative route, adding only ten miles to our day. We rolled northwestward towards Lone Pine (with some gravel) and eventually turned east on Williamson River Road hoping to find a “crik” we could camp by. Though almost dusk we decided to grind out the twenty miles to Headwaters of the River Campground, hoping and praying for water, given we each had a bottle of water remaining – at best! We pulled in at dark finding beautiful, sweet and ice cold water tumbling out of a basalt crack. Phew!
Day two we awoke to sunrise with a spring-filled pond near our campsite. Alone we sipped our coffee enjoying this memorable place. Once packed we continued east on gravel for 12 miles to connect with NF 27 resuming our scheduled route. The plan was to end the day in Silver Lake but not before a stop at the Cowboy Dinner Tree. Here we chatted with Jamie the owner. For 45 minutes our conversation meandered, enjoying an exchange on such topics as ecology, Paiute indians, cattle drives and the Sierra Club. It’s always about the people you meet. Filled with warm conversation and food, we coasted into Silver Lake hoping for a restful night’s sleep in the community park. However, our hopes were quickly burst by the proboscis of swarming mosquitos. Before we could even steady our bike and body, we learned we were next on the menu; hellish hordes of blood-thirsty mosquitoes attacked.
The onslaught was worse than anything we have encountered, even in the Sierra. Staying here, we’d perish from hypervolemia or from slapping ourselves silly. No go. We set out to find a bar and hide out until night fall. At the only open Café on the far east end of town, the nice girl at the counter pleasantly informed us that their skeeters never sleep. Arrgh! Fortunately, a trail angel, disguised as a grizzled truck driver with a limp, grunted that we could stay at the hotel. Hotel? Where? Well, the one next to the store, of course, at the west end of town.
We rode several hundred feet to a small cinder block building with four doors where each room was adorned by a cheap aluminum framed window, and as accurately described by the trucker, right adjacent to the store. We walked toward a glowing pink neon OFFICE sign, and after a couple of knuckle raps on the screen door, a lady with short blue-grey hair, red terry cloth robe and used-to-be-white fuzzy slippers opened the door and confirmed she had two rooms, but with the caveat that there was no air-conditioning. Thirty-six dollars cash put walls between us and the wretched mosquitoes. Well kind of. Every time anyone went outside they brought in about fifty insects, which we would have to relentlessly hunt down with the complimentary fly swatter, leaving a bloody splatter trail on every wall surface. We were not their first victims, and by morning, which came too quickly, the room had a Helter Skelter look about it.
Day three found us up with the trucks at 5 am. This was the day to tackle the 110 miles through the Fort Rock/Cabin Lake/Crooked River to Prineville stretch. To prepare we bungee’d three bladders each to our bikes with an average of seven liters per bike. These were gerry-rigged somewhat and I had concerns that my set up would start to slide or sag once we hit washboard. Setting off with not a small amount of angst, and nourished with a few slices of leftover steak, we prepared our minds for a long hot day in the saddle, come what may.
The ride through Fort Rock was sleepy and pleasant. In the empty streets of the town we were greeted only by the rising sun. We braced ourselves for the infamous “red road of attrition” at mile 36. However, at mile 30 (Cabin Lake) we hit very fresh red pumice. This was not part of the plan! For six miles we slogged through it. Of course we also hit the fifteen miles of the original soupy section a few miles after. Though it was a tad more compact since May, it was still slow-going.
We crested the range at mid-day and surprisingly we weren’t too hot. A blessed monsoon weather condition created cloud cover and knocked the temperature back at least ten degrees. This was a huge relief. The descent into the desert was warm but not too bad. While taking a breather under a large juniper, State Trooper Scott pulled up to check on us. Supposedly we stood out in the stark landscape. We got to chatting and learned that Scott, though stationed in Prineville, was quite the waterman. Anything done in a kayak is okay with him. Even sturgeon fishing which was quite interesting to hear about. Water runs in his blood it seems: his dad was one of the original Santa Monica surf bums, living on the beach and surfing in the 1950’s. It’s all about the people you meet!
The descent and climb to Crooked River and the descent into Prineville were uneventful and quite temperate with the cloud cover still holding. Because of this, at Prineville Reservoir we dumped 2.5 liters of water reserve to save weight. We were fortunate, this stretch could have easily been ten degrees warmer demanding the use of our full water supply. After 12 hours in the saddle (13.5 on the road) and a moving average of 10 miles an hour, we decided to find a hotel and reset our rigs and bodies from the long haul of a day. No shame in that.
Day four we had a lazy morning in Prineville. Our only goal was to spin the twenty miles to Smith Rock. Here we found a great site in the climbers bivouac area. Two poached chairs later, we spent the evening telling stories at the edge of the canyon overlooking the rocks and enjoying the many shooting stars. Great night.
Day five we set out from Terrebone to our final destination Bend. We hit gravel 9 miles west of Terrebone. Using a 15 mile system of north/south gravel roads we made our way down to Tumalo. Half of the gravel was oiled and smooth, the remainder cut through a ATV area which made it sandy and loose, but fun. Pavement brought us to the beginning of the Deschutes River Trail giving us a happy and satisfying dirt ending that nicely punctuated the conclusion of our adventure.