On the oregon trail
The Oregon Backcountry Discovery Route
by Harry Callahan
Earlier this year, I was presented with the opportunity to participate in a 7-day, 900 mile off-road adventure ride through the eastern Oregon wilderness. This ride would travel south from Walla Walla, Washington along the route known as the Oregon Backcountry Discovery Route. Officially, the Oregon Backcountry Discovery Route, or OBCDR as it is commonly referred to, doesn’t exist. All but three official trail markers were removed from the route in 2001 by the Oregon Department of Parks and Recreation. However, the Oregon Off Highway Vehicle Association http://www.oohva.org/ does sell paper maps and GPS maps for each section of the route. Navigating the OBCDR requires using a system of trails, U.S. Forest Service Roads, paved highways, and sometimes, just good luck.
“I’m not interested in riding dirt,” I told my buddy Greg as he sat in my driveway on his fully-loaded BMW 800 GS. “My Hayabusa shoots fire out the tailpipes and carves highways with precision, I’m certainly not interested in dirt bikes!” That was my conversation a little over a year ago. A short five months after I uttered those words, a 2001 Honda XR650L was in my garage and a 900-mile off-road journey through the Oregon backcountry was on my mind.
The plan involved a six-month window in which I was to prepare my XR and learn to ride dirt in time to join three others on the Oregon Backcountry Discovery Route. The trip would start in Walla Walla on September 29th, and travel through forest and desert down to California, and back up to Lakeview, Oregon by October 5th; a full seven days of hard riding.
Stock is never acceptable to me, so much to my wife’s chagrin, I obsessively modified my Honda prior to the trip. I installed Race Tech valves and fork springs, a Factory Pro Jet kit, UNI foam filter, DG slip on muffler, a IMS 4 gallon fuel tank, XR’s Only foot pegs, Moose Racing handlebars, Acerbis hand guards, a Shorai lithium battery (converted to fit under the seat), Wolfman Enduro luggage, a 14/48 gearing conversion driven by an new RK chain, and a set of Dunlop 606 off-road tires. Now I was ready.
The day of truth came, and with no more than 500 dirt miles under my belt, I loaded my bike into the truck for the long journey from Chico to Walla Walla. “Hey Scott, they knew you were coming,” Greg said as he pointed out the marquee in front of the Walla Walla Best Western, it read “Welcome Sausage Fest.” I had arrived! My enthusiasm turned quickly to debauchery, and hotel partying ensued. Bottles in the pool area, backflips into the shallow end, and as usual, I forgot my fucking Gatorade, so when I woke up at 5am, I had a pounding hangover that would haunt me through the day.
Our route was carefully planned and each of us was carrying a GPS. One of the guys was using AccuTerra, a GPS application on his iPhone. If you own an iPhone, the AccuTerra app is worth purchasing. A great feature of this program is that it provides statistics including average speed, minimum and maximum elevation, and times. It also allows the user to photograph as they travel and then saves the photos as part of the track. The track can then be uploaded to Google Maps or viewed on the AccuTerra website. It goes without saying the combined effort of each rider using his GPS would prove extremely helpful, as we did lose our direction several times during the trip.
The ride consisted of two BMW GS motorcycles (one 1200 and one 800) and two Honda XR650L’s. Our group set out and by the end of Day 3, we had ridden 392 miles with a average speed of 20 miles per hour. During this time we experienced high-speed fire roads and a fair amount of semi-technical trail riding. Even though the route was slow and tedious at times, my XR was a pleasure to ride.
It was Day 1 and we were about halfway through the day’s trip when we hit a great paved road that I would love to ride on my sport bike. It had great banked turns and I was happily flying along. My friend was behind me on his XR doing the same. I hit this straight section and noticed out of the corner of my eye, a blur coming toward me. I focused and realized it was a deer! My friend behind me saw the deer running toward my back wheel, but right before he hit me, the deer tried to stop but tumbled into the air instead. I couldn’t see my buddy behind me so I turned around and checked. He was standing over the convulsing deer, it had broken it’s neck. Regretfully, he had to shoot it.
After that sobering event, we continued through forest roads with dry weather and lots of dust. The dust got everywhere and it’s fair to say the 15 years I spent smoking were nothing compared to the dust I inhaled those four days. Camping at Olive Lake, Crane Creek, Seneca, and Delinment Lake made up the first four days’ destinations. Nightly bathing involved a 50 degree lake and good old Dr. Bronner’s organic castile soap.
On the morning of Day 4, we departed Crane Creek campsite for our first river crossing of the trip. I was extremely nervous as I had never crossed a river on a motorcycle before. As it turned out, I had nothing to worry about. The water level was lower than I had expected and after some creative balancing of handlebars and foot pegs I made it to the other side. Our ride continued into Seneca where we encountered the world famous and not so friendly Bear Cat Lodge. This lodge is advertised as catering to off-road enthusiasts, but we certainly experienced the opposite treatment and pushed on. By the end of the day we arrived at Delintment Lake and had covered 134 miles.
The best part of Day 5 was crossing through the 11,000 acre Christmas Valley Sand Dunes. The Hondas blasted through the sand at full throttle, but the heavier BMWs had more difficulty, making it through the dunes on rider skill. I had heard the negative hype about this leg of the journey, stories of sandy terrain scattered with hidden rocks, crashed motorcycles and severely injured riders. The part about the rocks and sand proved to be true. Miles and miles of desert sand, packed dirt and rocks ranging in size and jagged shape. I nearly busted my ankle when my foot got jammed against large rock, but my Sidi Adventure boots saved my foot and I forged on. The day ended at the Lakeside Terrace Motel in Christmas Valley, clean rooms and a shower were just the ticket after days of freezing cold baths in various lakes and creeks.
On Day 6 we got our first taste of bad weather. We stopped at Fremont Peak (elev. 7200’) for photos and an amazing view of Summer Valley below. Light snow started at about 6,500 feet as we sat waiting roadside for a repair to an ailing BMW in our group. There’s German engineering for you, I was glad I had a Honda. We left the mountains just as a cold, wet storm was heading inland and arrived at our destination, the Summer Lake Hot Spring Resort. The resort has a laid back commune type atmosphere and private hot tubs fed by natural hot springs. Our cabin even had it’s own private hot spring located right behind it. A word of warning, hit this place with an open mind friends, or don’t go out after 9 pm unless you want to see naked hippies.
On Day 7, I woke up and saw that the mountains were covered in snow. We waved goodbye to the friendly hippies and headed back up the mountain. This was our longest travel day and we covered some of the highest elevations on Government Harvey Road and back to Fremont Peak where we were surprised to find twelve inches of fresh snow on the ground. Hunters and loggers had stomped a pretty good path for us, but we soon became lost in the endless maze of forest roads. Our motorcycles started plowing the snow at 7,500 feet. We herded cattle, got lost, got sideways, found dead ends, and found out how difficult riding a motorcycle in foot-deep snow can be. Despite these obstacles, we managed to cover 153 miles on that last day. Frozen and exhausted we had made it to our final destination: Lakeview, Oregon. We were physically beat, low on fuel, and even lower on Crown Royal, but our bikes seemed no worse for the wear. We loaded the motorcycles onto the truck and started our long drive home.