John's Gravel Tour: Bikepacking Seattle to Portland, Day One

The evening after getting back from the painfully beautiful Blanca Lake, I headed over late to John's to meet up with all these lovely folks I knew from the internet. Member of the Seattle Randonneurs, bike camping enthusiast, and guy-with-enough-space-for-all-these-out-of-towners-to-crash, he had a route heading out the next morning for Portland that I was lucky enough to join. I had hoped for gravel, dirt, climbing, and all the solitude that comes along with this kind of adventure. Turns out, once again I was biting off more than I could chew.

The route started with a bit of Seattle points of interest. Riding under interstates and past Boeing facilities, John rattled off so much information about a city I'm only starting to get to know. The coolest part was how many other Seattle riders came out to join us for this first day, and pleasant conversation passed the time on pavement as suburbs turned to small towns, which eventually turned to our lunch spot.

After simple lunches and bike maintenance, half the group turned back for Seattle while we headed up towards the mountains. Maybe the beers accompanying our lunch were mixing well with the group's general excitement, but the first big river brought an opportunity for hijinks. Matt didn't hesitate to enjoy a mid-day swim in the no-doubt freezing waters. The hill climbs that followed would dry him off, and our pace was still a chipper one as the pavement became overwhelmed by forest on both sides, slowly growing narrower until finally turning to gravel. Things were about to get good.

Showing off my piss-poor climbing skills, the first tough grade had me fall off the back of the pack, but they were kind enough to wait just before the crest of a large climb. I think it was just understood, since the feeling of going down the other side is so special. Truth be told, it probably also had something to do with the two camo'd-out men drinking beers beside a large truck with equally-camo'd-out guns we came across. The other guys took turns firing the crazy weapons, which the owners found amusing when not busy chucking their empty bottles into the woods. It was one of those situations where it's wise to not ruffle any feathers, and I was glad when we moved on. There was still a long, winding descent through the woods to roast, after all.

There's something specific about flying down a long, gravel road. The combination of trying to get as much speed possible out of heavy bikes on rough, unstable surface is unqiue- special, really, and has that amazing feeling of floating, flying, and occasionally soaring if a bump in the road's washboard-surface is big enough. It was something we could all go down, flipping our self-preservation switches to off, and then smile to one another over afterward. I coaxed them into letting me be the first one down to photograph as the boyish excitement shined through the eyes of the men's tensed expressions. Either that, or they knew that smiling wouldn't look cool in the photos and played the part. Whatever sincerity there was or wasn't, actual expressions of suffering were about to come.

So, it turns out the road that made an integral part of the route fell victim to a landslide at some point. The forest was quick to start growing back up through the fresh soil, and quick recon showed we were only 800ft or so away from getting back to gravel. A little bushwhacking in the middle of a 110-mile day shouldn't be too bad, after all, so we marched in. The brush quickly turned thorny. Fallen trees were slick with dew and moss, and it slowly turned into a comedy of errors just to get our heavy bikes through the thicket and one steep, muddy stream-crossing.

Of course, we made it out the other side. Mountain views greeted us and we descended back to pavement and what civilization there was out on the border of Mount Rainier National Park. Unfortunately, the night beat us into the park and with navigation dead we pedaled in blind, with one bike's front tire losing air fast, unable to find the actual campsite. Instead, some picnic benches would be good enough, and everyone ate dinner fast- myself included. I wasn't sure if I was in a rush to end the day or start the next.

The day's work showed up in the most obvious place you'd expect on cyclists- our legs. You can check out what our route was here, and while you can follow along with the story here, check out these guys' instagrams to see more choice moments from our adventure through the Pacific Northwest.

John, the experienced local and our leader, whose bike had full fenders and kept him quite tidy.

Mark, winning the heavy bike contest on his loaded Rivendell, arriving in Seattle from Winnipeg with his Nikon DF and who hopefully never got any wounds worse than the one here.

Graham, also from Winnipeg, who didn't see why a little thing like a flat tire should keep him from sprinting through the pitch-black woods.

Matt, a last-minute addition coming from Australia, who flies up and down every road he sees and whose username is a bit of an understatement.

And of course me, though I do enough self-promotion that I'll spare y'all the redundant links. Not quite sure how I ended up far dirtier than anyone else that day, but I'm glad Mark was quick to pick up how to use my camera and get the über-macho flesh wound before things coagulated.

So with everyone introduced, follow along here for the rest of our adventure as we push through gravel all the way to Portland.