Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Day 2: Over the North Cascades Highway

Monday morning our first floor motel room at the 3 Rivers Inn in Sedro-Woolley (Sauk, Cascade and the Skagit, in case you were wondering) was just a few feet from the tour vehicles which made prepping and loading for the departure quite simple. I was eager to get going as soon as we were allowed to stow our bags in the "motel trailer" which would carry them forward to Winthrop, WA. PACTours sets it up so nobody leaves before a designated time by having a rule that you need to personally present your bag to be stowed, and that is only possible after the trailer door opens at the prescribed time which varies from day to day depending mostly on how many miles we are going to ride - naturally more miles means an earlier departure. My eagerness had two founts: avoid the heat and get a head start the mountain section where I'm comparatively slow.  The motel trailer opened at 6:30: Paul, me and fellow tourist Grant were on the road by 6:33, out in front of everyone else.

The Skagit River valley is surprisingly gradual and long. We weren't "hammering it" (riding hard) but we still made good time over the first 50 miles which brings you to the foot of the climb, averaging around 18MPH. It was cool - in the mid 50's - so I for one felt good. We were caught by Giselle at the first rest top and this short video will give a taste what it's like to ride in a group where one benefits from being "pulled" by the person in front (thank you Paul!)

The North Cascades Highway follows the Skagit River in its climb towards Canada which is punctuated by three dams. Since the dams (evidently) are best placed in narrow gorges, the road never actually climbs up to where the dam meets the mountain, instead it climbs quite a bit higher onto a shoulder above the gorge then eventually descends to the level of the lake behind the dam. Probably if I were driving a car this observation would go unnoticed, but when you are powering yourself up the dam hill you notice the "extra" work that is demanded of you.

The lower Skagit valley:

Riverside riding - those mountains are a ways back
Then not so far back

The road won't have anywhere to go but up soon...

The road tilts up and I say bye-bye to Paul and Grant who are unable to climb at my pace. It being so slow that is.

We get a view of the first lake from a steel bride over a creek...
which has a see-through deck

and a nice waterfall on the other side

 The payoff for that "extra" work is being able to take a break with a small descent which gives you a chance to stop pushing those pedals for a minute or two.

The middle dam, Diablo Lake, is crossed by a bridge where I stopped to take this pictures. The road grade went up considerably on the other side of the bridge and for the first time my legs started to feel the strain.

Diablo lake looking downstream (above) and upstream (below)

If you pedal for a while, perhaps a long while, you see Ross Lake (the third) below you

One of the road's engineering marvels:

Why they call them the Cascades:

The lunch stop was at the foot of a south-to-north tributary running into Ross Lake. By now the morning coolness was long gone and sitting on a rock in the shade eating a wrap comprised of leftovers from the Saturday night meal brought to mind this bit from Calvin Trillin:
  "The remarkable thing about my mother is that for thirty years
    she served us nothing but leftovers. The original meal has never
    been found."

As the temperature ran into the 80's fairly strong North wind developed which was blowing toward the pass, right up the road. So with 15 miles of climbing remaining I braced myself to face the long stretches where you can see where you'll be in five or even 10 minutes. 

The slow pace gives time to appreciate the sights like this cool bank of ferns

 and this rock fall.

This part of the road wasn't all that steep, a 5% - 6% grade, and the tailwind made it feel more like 4%, but heading directly south at high noon enhanced the heat. At the start I noticed my shadow directly in line with my bike wheel, but by the time I reached Rainey Pass the old helmet sundail record the passing of more than an hour. About three quarters the way up, I turned a bend to behold God's road sign, "this way UP"

After crossing the devide and dropping into a Lake Chelan tributary for a mile or two, you are faced with another long-view potentially interminable climb at 7%+.

 Deal with that, turn the corner, "But wait! there's more!"

and finally, which I reached about a half hour after Paul had gone through.

The remaining 30 miles to Winthrop was reputed to be half downhill and half flat, but that nice tailwind up the west-side valley manifested as a strong headwind on the eastern side.  (Its hard to know where all the air was going since it seemed to be in a hurry to get to the top of the mountain from both sides.)

As I struggled along against the hot headwind I saw two figures ahead on heavily laden touring bicycles so decided to slow down and chat both for my sake and theirs since they had the same headwind and were going to spend a lot more time in it as they weren't going much more than 10MPH.  They turned out to be a young German couple (Daniel and Claudia) who had starting their ride with a leg from Iran to Thailand! The second phase was a cycling trip through the US National Parks some time last year or early this year they flew to San Francisco then rode to Yosemite, Grand Canyon, Grand Tetons, Glacer, Waterton Lakes (in Canada) and had just completed North Cascades National Park. They were planning on continuing south to Rainier, Crater Lake then Redwoods National Park. My point? No matter how crazy you think you are, there is someone out there who is crazier.

This has got to be one of the peak days of the tour in terms of natural beauty. I'm imagining there won't be so much cause to stop and take pictures in many of the days ahead.  Arriving in Winthrop, we made our way to the Virgina Resort Hotel

where not much besides eating, washing and sleeping took place in a room overlooking the Methow River. Compare the arid context of this Eastern Washington river compared to the Skagit in the West.

Alas, this writing had to wait for a day, so now I'm running a day behind.


  1. Dam, that looks like fun! 😀 So Paul still unable to climb at your speed ... nothing new. And by the way we are eating leftover too.

  2. Also this blog is too cool. We are all reading it (in WNC) and enjoying it now but you and your grandkids will treasure it for years. So don’t get behind. Maybe add highlights and fill in later if you are too spent to type in the evenings. Or dictate your day to an audio recording. Just my $.02.

  3. Glad you had better weather over the North Cascades than we had in 2016. Keep on just taking it one day at a time, and enjoying each unique segment. Ride your own pace. Often the fast dudes will be getting into a van because they burned themselves out pushing it too hard.