After the trip to Stub Stewart with Emee to Stub Stewart in February, I was jonesin’ for another trip, this time with a tent. While there were good bouts of weather in March, I was occupied with other things when they hit. So when a two day stretch of particularly good weather hit in early April, I was ready.
But where to go? I went over the list of close-by options:
- Oxbow is the closest spot. But it’s not cheap ($25 plus reservation fee) and oof, that hill getting out of the Sandy River valley…
- Ainsworth in the Gorge is always nice. But I had spent over a week in the Gorge at the end of March, and I am going out there in June as part of a Pedalpalooza ride (you should join me if you can!)
- Stub Stewart? I had just gone. I’ll save a return for later summer.
- Battle Ground Lake in Clark County, Washington is a fave, but I just haven’t felt the drive to cross the Columbia River just yet.
- Milo McIver is open for the season, but after going there last year I’m in no hurry to get back.
- Barton isn’t open for the season yet, and it underwhelmed me the one time I went.
So that left me with one option: Champoeg. Since 2009, I’ve been there four times, each time three years apart. (I was planning on going last year, which would have been three years since the previous time.) It’s just about 40 miles by bike from Portland, so you’d think it would be an obvious choice. It is not. As part of another adventure (as it was with my 2009 and 2012) it’s serviceable. But as a standalone destination? From my 2015 trip report, possibly my definitive statement on the campground:
…it’s not a particularly exciting camping destination, nor are any of the routes getting to or from there particularly great.
Why is it not exciting? The park was mostly established for historic reasons–Champoeg was the first site of Oregon’s territorial government. It’s a parcel of land along the banks of the Willamette. There’s a few walking paths through the riparian forests, but no real “hikes”. It’s known for the campground and for disc golf. (It’s a thing for the state parks department to put disc golf courses in unexciting parks.) As for the ride: Believe me, I’ve tried to find “the good route” to Champoeg. There’s always some crap to get through. But what if it was less about the campground and more about the ride? What about a way to cut out the crap? Would that make the camping experience better?
While Portland is solidly in the “mid-size major American city” camp, it has a diversity of transit options usually only seen in larger towns. Of course we have buses, pretty much any place that can call itself a “city” has something. But we’ve got light rail, a streetcar, and a friggin aerial tram. We don’t have a heavy rail system a la NYC subway or Chicago L, nor do we have a ferry (yet). But we do have commuter rail! And though the Westside Express Service (WES) has been around since 2009, I have never ridden it. Shocker! Well, it’s because it goes between Beaverton and Wilsonville only during the weekday commute hours–there’s never been a reason. Until now. Wilsonville is pretty close to Champoeg. just about 11 miles by bike if one dares to cross the Boone Bridge (I-5, and yes, it is legal to do so.) There are ways to avoid that bridge, but they add on ten miles to find another Willamette River crossing. But there’s a bus that travels from the Wilsonville WES station across the Boone Bridge. I can get dropped off after crossing the bridge.
And that is what I did on Wednesday April 6. I left my house a little after 3 PM and spent the next three hours on transit. The bus dropped me off near Canby Airport at the intersection of Airport and Arndt Road. Arndt Road east of here towards Canby is one of the “crap” sections of the ride, but west of here it quiets down pretty quickly. The 6 1/2 mile ride to Champoeg went by fast, and I got to the campground before 7. I was expecting to be alone in the hiker/biker site, since it’s a weeknight in April, but nope! Anna (who I didn’t know) also decided to ride out to enjoy the night outdoors. It was a good evening, though there was a visit by raccoons to Anna’s site (thankfully Champoeg has food storage lockers.)
The sleep, however, was not that great. Even though the day was mild, hitting the upper 60’s F, the temps dropped to almost freezing overnight. My Nemo sleeping bag is rated 30F/-1C, which means when the ambient temperature gets close to that, you’ll survive, but not exactly be comfortable. I was using a liner and sleeping in a bivy sack vs. tent, all things that increase the warmth, but that wasn’t enough. I should probably consider getting another bag, a 20F/-6C bag for times like this. I’ve just resisted owning two sleeping bags, and warmer bags are just bulkier. I used to have a North Face Cat’s Meow bag (rated at 20F) for a couple years. It was great for the cold, but too warm and too big the rest of the time. Oh well. It’s definitely something to think about for later this year. 1
I awoke at 7:30 am, just as the sun was starting to warm up the campground. I’d see a dramatic change in temperature on this Thursday in April: the high would top off at 78F/25C, forty-three degrees Fahrenheit warmer than the low of 35F/2C. It would be the warmest day of the year so far, a preview of summer. Despite having every intention of “getting on the road” earlier, I didn’t leave camp until almost 11 am. 2
There were many ways I could have gone back. I could have simply repeated the way I came, though I’d have to wait until afternoon to catch the WES train. I could have ridden back via Oregon City or via the west side of the Chehalem Range to catch the MAX in Hillsboro, ways I used in my 2015 trip. I could have also ridden eastward to catch a bus from Aurora to Oregon City, an option that seems pretty recent. 3
But I decided to go for the gusto: I would ride south along the Willamette Valley Scenic Bikeway (WVSB) to Salem, where I would take Amtrak home.
During last year’s Willamette Valley bike tour, I had initially planned that my final day would be a ride along the WVSB from Salem to Champoeg. But after three days of riding longer distances than planned (especially after a year of sedentary living), I was worn out, so I just took Amtrak home from Salem. So I’d be “completing” the tour with today’s ride.
The Willamette Valley Scenic Bikeway route from Champoeg to Salem is a perfectly fine ride, mostly sticking to low(er) traffic backroads through farmland. Even though this area is populated, there is an amazing dearth of services here. I didn’t see a store until I reached the Salem suburb of Keizer. I didn’t take a real break until I reached Willamette Mission State Park, 20 miles in. The warm temps, lack of shade, and a bit of dehydration, combined with the lousy sleep I got the night before, meant I got pretty knackered on this ride. There were a couple points that I almost “hit the wall”. And even though I estimated the ride to be 30 miles, in reality it was 40.
I limped into Salem at about 3 PM. I rolled over to one of my favorite spots for food and libations, 4 Xicha Brewing. Despite no longer being a big soda drinker, Mexican Coke in an ice-filled glass was so good. After fortifications, I rolled over to the Salem Amtrak station, where I caught the 5:41 PM train (508, the Cascades) home.
Despite the crap sleep and getting worn out on Thursday, it was a good bike overnight. Stay tuned for Part Two, where I share my reflections on this trip…
1 Typing this, I remember that I just bought a “camping blanket”. I was intending to use this for warmer weather camping, but this could work as an extra layer for cold camping…
2 My campmate Anna was still there when I left. She also got cold overnight.
3 After so many years of practically no transit options in this area, it’s nice to see that service has improved.
4 After decades of avoiding Salem, it’s interesting to know that I now have “favorite spots”.