bike rambles

From 2014: Rambling ’round the margins in Cathedral Park

NOTE: Blog Housekeeping! This post for a ramble I did on August 20, 2014 has sat in my Drafts folder for almost five years! Guess I wanted to add more. But I feel that this one is a pretty good one as is, so it should see the light of day. Also, there’s a few pics of my Bridgestone XO-3, which I stupidly sold a couple months later. Enjoy!

These few weeks have been “in between” weeks in terms of bike adventuring. I had my Sound and Islands mini-tour the weekend previous, and next weekend (Labor Day weekend) will have a multi-day trip out to the coast at Cape Lookout and back. So I wasn’t chomping at the bit to have a camping trip during my days off this week, nor did I feel the need for a real big bike adventure. Besides, I have stuff I need to get done.

But midway through the second day of my “weekend”, Wednesday August 20th, I realized that I hadn’t left the house since in quite a bit. It was simply too nice out to stay indoors all day: after a summer of consistently hot days (mid 80’s to mid 90’s F), it was only 75F, a relief. And while I don’t hibernate during the wet and cool winter months, it’s much more of a pleasure to be outdoors when it’s nice out, and there’s not that much more summer left. So I loaded up the bike and pointed northwestward into North Portland and decided to ramble my way up to St. Johns.

I’ve rambled up towards St. Johns many a time in my 13 years of living in Portland, so my ramble route, while it meanders and incorporates rough stuff, is familiar territory by now. The ultimate goal was to make my way to Cathedral Park, the grassy slopes directly underneath the St. Johns Bridge. The park has quite the view of the Willamette River and the forested West Hills. To get there I took N. Crawford St. a “back street” that descends from the blufftop area (where most of North Portland is) down to the river. Crawford is mostly an unimproved street, and after about a block of descent the pavement abruptly ends and the area takes an Appalachian (sans mountains) feel, with its small shack-like houses and empty overgrown lots.

This area, the bluffside where Cathedral Park* meets the river, has always fascinated me. Portland’s street grid loses steam here, and peters out. What would be paved roads in other neighborhoods become dirt tracks, or in some cases, a right-of-way that never was a road. And yeah, all those empty lots! While some of it is explained by geography (steep slopes aren’t great to build on), there is still plenty of empty space on flatter land that could support houses. As housing prices climb and more four-story apartment buildings/condos get built in the central city, I’m surprised that there is so much good land out here that still lies fallow. Land that probably never had houses on it.

N Crawford and Mohawk.
N Crawford and Mohawk.

I’ve passed by this collection of empty lots on N Crawford at the intersection of Mohawk countless times on my rambles down this way, but on this day I actually stopped to take notice of it. Right here is a collection of empty lots, seven to be exact, and also the right of way of where N Mohawk would be if it continued south. I checked portlandmaps.com and it looks like half of the lots are owned by the city, the other by a couple different landlords. While nothing has probably happened here in a long time, the lots are mown (presumably by the city.) A guardrail near the trees is where North Mohawk would end if it continued on this block. And by the trees is a path that leads down towards the Union Pacific railroad tracks. Since I never gave much notice to these lots, this is the first time I noticed the path. So I decided to hit the path.

The path was rough but well worn, though one bit was steep enough down that I opted to walk. It passed through a riparian forest of cottonwood and alder with a little undergrowth. Soon I was at track level and on a remnant of a service road that paralleled the tracks. The path ended abruptly where the hillside got too steep, so I crossed the lightly used tracks to another path on the other side.

This path (or network of paths) was on the river side of things, and rolled up and down over little sand hills covered with invasive brush like Scots Broom. Soon I was on a small bluff overlooking the Willamette itself. Beneath the bluff is a small sandy beach with evidence of bonfires and a view of the Burlington Northern Bridge 5.1.

I kept on making my way down into this marginal world, in the direction of the Burlington Northern Bridge. I was amazed that in all my years of exploring the margins of Portland, I had not been here yet. And it didn’t look like that many people come down here, either. While this area is not public (all the no trespassing signs around made sure I knew it), it is out of the way enough for people hang out down here without getting bothered by the authorities. I would figure that these marginal no-mans-lands would be frequented by the usual suspects: drinkers and campers. There was heavy evidence of drinking (broken bottles)** and litter where people would hang out. But surprisingly I didn’t see any real evidence of people living down here. I’m sure there are a few, but it’s nothing like riding down the OMSI/Springwater Trail system in SE, where there are several encampments located barely a couple feet from the trail itself. Maybe it’s because this area is far enough off the beaten path that the campers haven’t tried this area yet, yet not far enough off the beaten path that an encampment can batten down for the long run without interference (like the camp that I saw off of NE Marine Drive in October.)

I rolled on for maybe another half-mile until I came to familiar territory: Pirate’s Cove. A small cove abutting the railway embankment leading to the Burlington Northern Bridge, it got its name*** from the derelict, beached barge (a.k.a. the “Pirate Ship”) that used to be located down here. No barge anymore, but there were a few boats moored right off the beach, most likely people who live on the water who don’t want to pay moorage fees. (A different type of pirate, I suppose.) On the land is an old concrete foundation, maybe part of the factory complex down here that produced creosote. On the other side of the BNSF tracks (the ones leading to the bridge, which cross the UP tracks at a right angle) is the cleared land, off limits because of toxins in the soil, waiting for mitigation.

*To alleviate confusion: Cathedral Park is the park that lies under the St. Johns Bridge, so named because or the gothic look of the suspension bridge’s tower and supports. The neighborhood surrounding it has also taken its name, though historically and culturally it’s part of St. Johns.

**No flats. Thank you, Schwalbe tires.

***To note: this is what I and some other people call this cove. As far as I can tell, this cove doesn’t have an official name.

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