Have you followed this whole journey from the beginning? Follow this link to find all the episodes of our North American Cycle Tour – 2019.
Tuesday 25th June: Kettle Falls to Republic (Washington, USA): 71kms
Ride Time: 5hrs 45mins / Ave Speed: 7.66mph
I had been anticipating this day since I first came across the Adventure Cycling Association (ACA) and read a particular blog on Crazy Guy On A Bike. I had been transfixed by the pictures of mountain lakes and the descriptions of the climbs. I showed Shazz, and she agreed that it would be a challenge worth the effort. I had found the ACA maps and their Northern Tier Route across America, which also joined up the Going to the Sun Road, another gem of a find that I had read about. It was too good to be true somehow, but here we were, about to head up into this wonderland of a place and attempt the biggest challenge of our cycle-touring careers.
We set off at 6.20 am, heading west out of town and down a very long hill leading to a bridge that crossed the Columbia River at Franklin D Roosevelt Lake. We got off the bikes to see if there was a pedestrian footpath across, but there wasn’t. We’d have to ride across side-by-side to ensure the numerous trucks didn’t try to overtake us on the bridge. We waited for a break in the traffic and made our run. Fortunately, the bridge is only about 200m long, and we were soon across and onto the Sherman Pass Scenic Byway.
We stopped off to the side of the road at the intersection of the 2 and the 395, if for nothing else but to gather our wits before climbing. It looked pretty steep, and I was trying not to think about how we’d cycle 36 km on a gradient like this. Like before, I told myself we’d have to do it a bit at a time. We’d given ourselves enough time. It would just come down to perseverance.
We both looked at each other, took a deep breath, and pushed on up, trying to do a kilometer at a time. This quickly got revised to about five or six hundred meters. The dreaded logging trucks were roaring past us. How can they go so fast uphill? Their screaming engines couldn’t be ignored as they were coming both ways. They were frightening. The shoulder came and went. It especially liked to disappear on blind bends, many of which existed. Finding a place to pull over safely became difficult, and you could tell that drivers didn’t really appreciate us being there.
Luckily for us, after about ten kilometers, the road began to flatten out a bit. It still climbed upwards but was no longer as steep as the first section. Our legs had become accustomed to the incline now, and we could do a kilometer again without having to rest.
As the day wore on, we were aware of the fact that we’d have to make our water last. We’d carried extra water, but the day had been warm and now we’d have to watch our consumption carefully if we were to reach the top unaided.
The last 24kms had gotten steeper. No more were there level sections to rest the legs and have some recovery. It just seemed to rise endlessly. Our legs were becoming stressed by now, and we stopped more often. The road was winding more as it climbed higher and got steeper. Water was now a problem. We estimated we had about five kilometers to the pass but were virtually out of water.
Another couple rode up behind us. They had appeared out of nowhere and were stronger than us. Both from Seattle, the guy reckoned we had another seven kilometers to the top. We looked at each other surprised. Even another two kilometers seemed impossible at this gradient. They quickly rode out of sight as we pushed on and up. Our legs were burning, and we would constantly pick out a spot further up to stop and recover.
Shazz was dropping back, but we had to do this together. She was mentally and physically hurting, but I knew she’d never give up. She never does. This alone had me worried. Would she keep pushing until she dropped? Maybe. But if we kept inching along, we’d somehow make it. I kept telling myself that we’d be laughing about this tomorrow. I also knew that if we could conquer this pass, we should also be able to summit the rest of them, although I now had some growing concerns about the Loup Loup pass, which was meant to be even steeper.
We finally reached the entrance to Sherman Overlook and the Fire Service campground just below the pass. I got Shazz to wait in the shade while I cycled up to the toilet block in search of water. A guy in a campervan informed me that the toilet block had no water. I was gutted. My throat was parched and dry, and he could see I was dehydrated and weak. Without further adieu, he went to his camper and returned with a bottle of water which I almost inhaled. I told him my wife was waiting for me and out of water. No worries, he took my empty water bottles and promptly began filling them.
A lady, by herself in her car, also saw our problem and quickly came over with another water bottle. I went and got Shazz and brought her up to the parking lot where the others were, and they filled her bottles as well. We had been rescued and fortunate that we stopped when we did. They told us the pass was another mile or so up the road, but there was no water there either.
Later, after a rest, Shellee, one of the Fire Service Rangers, appeared and came over for a chat. She told us the water spigot at the campground (further down the hill) was broken and that no water was available there either. What a ball-up! We would need to let other cyclists know about this as they would probably be relying on the water up here as well. She also informed us that we were in for a storm shortly! Are you kidding me!!!
We stayed for an hour before attempting the rest of the climb to the pass. It was difficult to get back on the bikes. Our legs were still like jelly. Starting back up the hill was draining. Knowing we only had about a mile to go was the only thing that kept us pushing along.
Finally, exhausted, we rounded a bend and saw the road flatten. We had made it! There was a large pullout on the side of the road with a signboard with the elevation. We stood at 5,575 feet (1,699m) and celebrated with a couple of photos in front of the sign. We couldn’t have known how hard it would be until we actually did it, but therein lies the adventure!
We knew we couldn’t hang around for too long, though, as the skies clouded and darkened. Washington is America’s wettest state. A warm current running up the west coast meets cold air and causes rain clouds to travel inland and over the Rockies. But only the western slopes of the mountains get rained on, while the eastern slopes get next to nothing. Hence, the eastern side is much drier and scrubbier than the western side. We could see this as soon as we began to make our way down. Deep valleys were covered in thick forest that stretched as far as the eye could see, and the smell of rain permeated the cold air around us.
Loaded up again with plenty of water, we began the rapid downhill descent, hoping to make it to the tiny highland hamlet of Republic before the storm. Thunder and lightning growled above us, but the rain held off for now. Three miles down the mountain, the skies opened up on us. It began to get very cold very quickly. Our wrists began to ache under the constant strain of applying the brakes. There’s only so fast you can go downhill on a loaded bike without letting it get away from you.
From the top down, passing cars waved at us and honked their horns. They all clearly understood what we had just done. This was a tremendous boost for us and made us forget (for a while) just how cold and miserable we were about to become!
Astonishingly, about halfway down, we met another two cyclists grinding their way up the steep, endless slope in the rain. Moss and Jim had stayed in Republic overnight at a Warmshowers host, the exact same Warmshowers hosts (Boyd and Diane) we’d be staying at tonight! They warned us that Boyd loved a chat and that we shouldn’t mention mining. Being from a mining town, we looked at each other in amusement. We’d have to skirt around the subject and lead the conversation away from it.
About five kilometers from town, we pulled into a Cenex service station to escape the rain. We were both cold and wet and needed something warm inside us to thaw out. We found a small cubicle and ordered some soup to warm us up. We were both happy to wait another 45 minutes for the rain to stop before heading off again.
On the edge of town, we had a choice of ways to go. Both involved another big hill to climb, and one had a bridge that may or may not have a shoulder. While we stood there studying Google Maps, a pickup truck pulled over beside us, and a big fellow stuck out his head and asked if we were staying with Warmshowers tonight. It was Boyd, and he looked like a miner! He began directing us up the hill when his mate John, who was driving, asked if we wanted to throw the bikes in the back of the pickup, seeing they were heading to Boyd’s place anyway.
Shazz and I looked at each other. It was a no-brainer! We had had enough of hills for one day. And just as well, Boyd lived on the very top of a giant hill overlooking the town. It probably would have killed us trying to cycle up there.
Diane, Boyd’s wife, was home when we arrived. After introducing us to their impressive view, she showed us our downstairs bedrooms. There was a toilet and shower attached. It was a grand reward for all our efforts today.
Later, we all went into town to eat Mexican and had a couple of beers. It had been a long, eventful day, and we were now extremely shattered but thankful to be lying in a warm, dry bed tonight.
Wednesday 26 June: Rest Day in Republic
Still tired and washed out from yesterday’s trials, and with a weather warning of storms over our next climb, Wauconda Pass, we elected to have a rest day here in Republic. Diane had told us that Wauconda Pass had had snow and hail on it last night and that we were due for rain here today. She suggested we stay another night, and we immediately agreed. It was also a chance to see the town, so it worked out well for us.
Boyd dropped us in town, and we found the Knotty Pine Cafe for lunch. The guys we met on the mountain also spent an extra night here and recommended the cafe. Walking off lunch, we went around to the Stone Rose Museum, a display of all the interesting minerals found in these parts, and were told about their fossil dig just up the road. Shazz wasn’t keen on looking for fossils, but I am an avid fan. So, I headed up there alone and met a few women earnestly chipping away on what looked like slate. They had found several small pieces with fossilized plants and were pretty excited. I didn’t bother paying the $USD15 fossickers fee, so I left them to their toil and went and found Shazz once more.
By now, it was mid-afternoon, so we crossed over the road to the Republic Brewing Company. It was situated in what had once been the local fire station and now took up half of the existing space. We stuck around for a couple of beers before Boyd showed up and surprised us. So, we bought him a beer, and then he drove us home.
Boyd had also been the local Fire Chief in these parts, as well as running his own mining operation where he doubled up as the Safety Officer. He’s certainly a nice guy and will do anything for you, but we got to hear all about it in a continuous string of dialogue that we never got to feature in. The positive side to the story was we got to eat Boyd’s Halibut that he’d caught in Alaska and some fresh asparagus. Otherwise, we’d have been eating from the local service station, so we were pretty happy!
Still more big hills to go. The next one features in High and Dry: cycling from Republic to Okanagan.