I push my bicycle past a concrete barrier that prevents four-wheeler access to the South Fork of the Umatilla River, strap on a backpack that holds a water bottle and a peanut butter sandwich, and begin the upriver journey to Thomas Creek. A pair of belted kingfishers chatter past. Dried stalks of mullein weed and ox-eye daisies line the ditch. I think back to when I was 14 years old, pedaling my fat tire bicycle up a county road, fishing rod in one hand, and a brace of trout on my mind.
The road alongside the South Fork has been closed since the record-breaking 2020 flood. Blocked from access is the stretch of river where I hooked and lost a giant (or so it seemed) steelhead on a Boy Scout camping trip, the steep ravine where my high school buddies rolled a jeep and survived to joke about it, and the boulder-lined pool where a lady angler showed off a 14-inch rainbow on a sleety morning when I couldn’t coax a single trout to rise to my fly.
I’m pedaling an e-bike that cost more than a VW Beetle when I was in high school. E-bikes come in all sizes, prices, and for a wide range of applications: commuters that fold up for transport, cruisers for tooling around the neighborhood, trail-riders, fat tires, tandems, and even tricycles. Most come with lithium-ion rechargeable batteries that make pedaling easy.
My ten-speed “Ridge Rider” has disc brakes, a suspension fork, pedal assist, and a throttle. According to the 90-page owner’s manual, battery life is good for 28 to 56 miles, depending on the terrain and amount of power assist and throttle used. A long-range battery is important because I want to trek from our cabin up the South Fork to Runkel Junction during the spring mushroom season. Today serves as a test for the first 3 miles or unknown part of the trip. If successful, I’ll no longer be stuck with a 150-mile roundtrip commute via Highway 204.
“You need cycling shorts and a jersey,” an avid road biker friend said when he found out I purchased the spendy bike.
“Camo attire seems more appropriate for where I plan to travel,” I replied.
A rock-lined pushup barrier looms ahead, followed by 50 yards of fractured basalt. Both obstacles require I dismount and push my 54-pound bike down the road. It’s a smooth ride up to 12 mph until I reach a major washout at Mile 0.8 on the odometer. An impassable 20-foot-high bank causes me to backtrack and haul my bike over a hundred yards of flood-damaged cobble and boulders.
Water striders and tiny trout dart for cover at the approach of my shadow. I stop to turn over rocks and explore tiny stonefly larvae, pebble cases of caddisfly, and the backwards scoot of crayfish. The splash of a rising trout causes me to put my fly rod together and cast to a small pool where I catch a four-inch fish.
I find return route along the shoreline where massive tree roots protect an eroded bank and push my way through parched snowberry, sprawling blackberry vines, and fallen Ponderosa pine branches to once again reach the road. A startled black beer runs from the brush and disappears upslope. I stop to walk my bike over downed timber that blocks the road, loose sand that causes a spin-out, and a boulder-strewn section where an exposed culvert is plugged with debris. A diluted sense of adventure pulls me onward.
Mile 1.8 poses the most formidable barrier yet: a washout that requires I cross the river twice before returning to the road. The buzzing flight of a yellow-wing grasshopper reminds of the drag on my fly reel, but trout are no longer on my mind.
I avoid downed timber and potholes for a half mile or so before yet another washout. A narrow animal trail on the high side hints of passage. Halfway along, I slip on loose rock and slide part-way down the bank. Bike wheels spin when I grab the throttle for support, but the frame does not follow me downslope. I navigate the remainder of the trail without further mishap before stopping to stem the flow of blood from a gash in my ankle.
The one-track dirt road elevates and bends away from the river. Queen Anne’s lace and purple aster in full bloom crowd the shade. A cool breeze refreshes my spirit when I throttle up to 10 mph. The pop of bicycle tires on loose gravel is joined by the wingbeat of a flushed grouse and the rumble of a passenger jet passing overhead.
I check the time: two hours to Mile 2.8 and an intact bridge that crosses the South Fork a stone’s throw upstream of where Thomas Creek adds flow. A woman camping there tells me she traveled down from Runkel Junction. “You look like you took the hard way,” she says.
The good news is I achieved my goal without breaking an ankle or getting a flat tire. The bad news is I must battle the same obstacles to get back to my truck. Pausing at the middle river crossing this time, I take a state of nature plunge in a deep pool surrounded by exposed basalt that looms above my head. While I relax in 64 F degree water, two small trout and a sculpin emerge from deep crevices between algae-covered rocks. A small school of longnose dace gather to nibble on my ankles.
The Kiwanis camp is a welcome sight when I return at mid-afternoon. The downstream trek is more efficient because I don’t cast for tiny trout and I spend less time searching for safe routes around the three washouts. A final check of the bicycle battery shows 26% depleted.
The much-anticipated trip to Thomas Creek proved to be more of an endurance test than a treat to my senses. However, I did learn my e-bike had enough battery power to make the journey up the South Fork to Runkel Junction and back. Unfortunately, fording the river would be impossible at the higher flows that occur during the spring mushroom season, effectively squashing yet another one of my pipe dreams.