September 11, 2012
Across the sun-drenched country, as far as the eye can see in the river-valley lowlands between the mountains, live armies of clones—millions and millions of fruit trees, each almost identical to every other nearby tree of its kind. These are the orchards of California’s Central Valley, fruit basket of America and one of the most fertile and wealthy agricultural regions in the world. Peaches, walnuts, almonds, pistachios, grapes and many more fruits are harvested here for eight months of the year—but what this productive region has in sheer volume it largely lacks in diversity. For just several varieties of each species constitute the bulk of the state’s produce market, and the Central Valley’s fruit orchards are, to use that dirty word of the agricultural cognoscenti, vast and unapologetic monocultures.
But tucked away on the western edge of this great valley is a small but glittering treasure—a farm containing almost a planet’s worth of biodiversity. Many have likened it to a Noah’s Ark of the world’s tree fruits, while those attuned to the vernacular of plant genetics call the site, located in Winters, California, a germplasm repository. Operated by the federal government with American tax dollars, Wolfskill Experimental Orchard includes more than 6,000 types of plants. Thousands of grape varieties, with two specimens of each vine, grow on the premises, as do hundreds of varieties each of walnuts, olives, peaches and almonds. Mulberries are grown here, too, and kiwis, and plums, and persimmons, and pistachios. And perhaps best of all, the Wolfskill Experimental Orchard is a public resource. Seeing the site by appointment, tasting fruit harvested by the staff and requesting wood for propagation are all welcomed.
And perhaps best of all, the Wolfskill Experimental Orchard is open to the public. Seeing the site, tasting the fruit and borrowing wood for propagation are all welcomed.
The best time to visit this remarkable farm is during one of the site’s annual tasting events. Most recently, Wolfskill’s managers hosted the always popular Fig Day. This annual September gathering draws farmers, hobbyists and general fig lovers from around California and even the country to taste across a spectrum of unusual figs, hear several short lectures on the various species grown at the Wolfskill property and tour the orchard itself. Howard Garrison, Wolfskill’s orchard manager and one of the chief fig experts in the state, had assembled a tasting table of sliced and diced figs of several varieties. Among them were the Calimyrna, the large and popular yellow-skinned fig imported from Turkey in the 1800s; the absurdly beautiful supermodel of the species—the Panache, or tiger-striped, fig; the fudgy-fleshed Santa Cruz Dark; the highly regarded Black Madeira; and the elegantly stemmed Pied de Boeuf (means “cow-foot” fig in French). Garrison also served platters of large green Excel figs wrapped with bacon and, for the vegetarians, just stuffed with goat cheese. Finally, Garrison delivered a brief talk on figs, their history and their botany. Among the scores of guests, one had brought with him a shoebox containing several show-and-tell figs of the most bizarre sort anyone present had seen. Harvested from a single, decades-old tree in Ventura County, this mystery fig, with its extremely elongated stem, delicate skin and honey-like flesh, baffled every geneticist, collector, farmer and hobbyist who had a close look. It was also a giant, with at least one fig from the tree weighing more than half a pound.
Fig Day 2012 also included an adjacent grape display and discussion arranged by Wolfskill’s grape horticulturalist, Bernie Prins. Prins had selected a half dozen of the 3,600-plus grape types in the orchard—almost all of them ripe and ready. Selections included the Kyoho grape, a Japanese giant about the size of a golf ball with a black skin; a golden brown, elongated hybrid grape that tasted faintly of chocolate and melon; and the show-stealing Black Hamburg, a musky, perfumey grape as shiny as obsidian.
A variety of tasting events are held at Wolfskill each year, and those who gag at the thought of figs (many people do) may take interest instead in the November persimmon and pomegranate tasting, the January kiwi tasting and the June mulberry and peach tasting. Visit their website to inquire about directions and the calendar of events—and if you go, don’t forget some cash for the donation pot.
But Wolfskill Experimental Orchard is not simply a venue for fruit-tasting events. The site is a public resource. John Preece, a USDA horticulturalist and researcher, told the small crowd before the tasting, “What we do here is preserve heirloom plants so they don’t go extinct, and then we make them available to anyone in the world who requests [wood for grafting or propagating] free of charge.” Farmers and gardeners may also submit online requests for wood cuttings by variety.
And John Baum, a member of the California Rare Fruit Growers, also took a moment to speak to the fig and grape tasters. “When you get home today, write to your congressmen and senators and tell them to support these operations,” Baum said. “Because there are people who think these collections should be run by private industries, and if industries controlled them, they would bulldoze up all the trees, because all they want are the market varieties.”
Which would leave us in a world of mostly black mission and brown Turkey figs—two industry staples of California. We might lose the huge and decadent black Zidi fig; the almost seedless, jelly-fleshed Mary Lane fig; the favorite cold-weather fig of Northwest gardeners, the green-skinned Desert King; and that supermodel of them all, the Panache.
Other fruit tastings:
Olives. A variety of events occur year-round in California.
Citrus. January, at UC Riverside.
Cherimoyas. February, at UC Irvine.
Strawberries. March, at UC Irvine.
Avocados. August, at UC Irvine.
Apples. Not an official tasting, but the USDA, which manages a huge apple collection in Geneva, New York, will be offering an open field day on September 22, where several apple varieties may be tasted.
What other tastings did we miss? Tell us about them in the comment box below.
The United States government has compiled a tremendous range of the existing diversity in many of the world’s cultivated food plant species—almost comprehensive, but not quite. That is, many varieties (or “genetic material,” as collectors often refer to their quarry) remain undiscovered in faraway places and uncollected. This means that the most exotic, most wonderful fruit tasting of all may be the one you host yourself while traveling. Want pomegranates? Go to Montenegro or Albania, where mountainsides are covered with wild pomegranates. Want grapes? Hike through the vine-draped forests of formerly Soviet Georgia. Want mangoes? The jungles of Borneo are thick with untasted varieties. Want figs? Try cycling through Greece, the Balkans or Turkey, one eye ever on the roadside.
September 6, 2012
While Oregon’s craft beer market may be nearly saturated with foamy brew, which flows from nearly 60 brewpubs in Portland alone, breweries in Northern California are fewer and farther between—with just enough beer taps to sate one’s thirst and spark interest but far enough apart that one arrives at the next one thirsty for another pint—especially travelers on bicycles. North Coast towns with breweries include Eureka, Ukiah, Blue Lake, Fort Bragg, Boonville, Healdsburg, Sonoma and Petaluma, and here are several worth pedaling for.
North Coast Brewing Company, Fort Bragg. In a dark cellar at North Coast Brewing Company, the beer bottles endured the slow crawl of time. Years plodded by, the Chinook salmon industry crashed, whales migrated past going north, then south, then north again, and one American president replaced the next—until finally, on a recent afternoon in August, five aged bottles of Old Stock Ale saw daylight. I was lucky enough to be there, along with the brewery’s owner, Mark Ruedrich, and the company’s two brewers, Patrick Broderick and Ken Kelley, for a very special event: a vertical tasting. In a vertical, the drinkers taste multiple bottles of progressively older vintages of the same beer (or wine) in order to observe how the beverage grows and matures (or, if it happens to be the case, deteriorates) through the years. We started with the 2012 Old Stock Ale, and we noted the 12-percent alcohol beer’s bright and fresh youth, with its sharp and brassy scents of prunes and sherry. Then we stepped back three years and found in the 2009 bottle a fudgier, thicker version of the last. Next, we re-entered the George W. Bush era and tasted the 2007. The sharp, vibrant esters of the beer’s younger days had softened into something bittersweet, with distinct notes of marmalade. We dug deeper still into the strata of the years, back to 2005. The beer was a shade darker now and with a slight tartness of acidity in the rich layers of flavor. Now, think back: Where were you in 2003? I was just entering a long and homeless stint of trekking through Baja California, when I could live on a dollar a day but didn’t know a pilsner from a porter—and when Ruedrich and his brewers were just putting caps on the fourth vintage of Old Stock Ale. Opened nine years later, the beer gave off a heavy, bready smell thickened with notes of molasses and whiskey. In the mouth, it was soft and creamy. And we went back further still, into another era of modern society—when the Fort Bragg salmon industry was still afloat, and when people everywhere could still walk through airport security with their shoes on and, no doubt, with a bottle of wine in their carry-on. And with just the slightest hiss of escaping gas, the 2001 Old Stock came open—a creamy, thick, velvety beer of time-reduced carbonation but still delicious and alive. “Is there a point where this beer peaks?” I asked. “We haven’t seen it yet,” Ruedrich said of the Old Stock, which was first released in 2000. Want to have your own private vertical tasting of Old Stock Ale? Aged cases of this remarkable beer will soon be for sale, Ruedrich promises. Watch the North Coast Brewing Company’s website.
Anderson Valley Brewing Company, Boonville. It doesn’t take a master’s in chemistry to taste and ponder beer—but at Anderson Valley Brewing Company’s tasting room, in Boonville at the junction of highways 128 and 253, it helps a person to know a bit of the local dialect called Boontling. A local tongue mostly forgotten, Boontling is more like a form of slang than a language and supposedly was born in the hop fields among women and children workers seeking to entertain themselves with a quirky set of alternative vocabulary. Today, a few old-timers in this quiet wine- and apple-growing region supposedly can still break into fluent Boontling. Listen closely on your next visit and you might hear someone say “Bahl hornin’,” which means “Good drinkin’” or ”Cheers!” And wine in Boontling is “seep,” bear is “leeber,” coffee is “zeese,” payphone is “bucky walter” and beer is “steinber.” To crowd your way in to a tight space is to “ab”—possibly a reference to the tide pool crevices out at the coast jam-packed with abalone. But to be realistic, Boontling is not likely to be heard anywhere outside of the brewery’s tasting room, where the chalkboard menu is scrawled with the bizarre lettering of beers named in Boontling. Examples include the Hop Ottin’ IPA, the Poleeko Pale Ale and the Barney Flats Oatmeal Stout —that one named after the Boontling name for Hendy Woods, the local state redwood park (with a nice $5 campsite for cyclists). The tasting room is open 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily, and until 7 on Fridays, and offers a delicious selection of beers unavailable by the bottle. The sour stout and the bourbon-barrel aged stout, for example, are each creative renditions of the oatmeal stout—and of which two five-ounce taster glasses gave me the fuel and courage to leave the valley via the rigorous and uphill Highway 253.
Lagunitas Brewing Company, Petaluma. Lagunitas is the brewery that fights for its right to party. Federal regulators have multiple times figuratively frisked this charismatic and often irreverent beer company just north of San Francisco for various suspected infractions, and for use of questionable language on bottle labels. Today, several beers in the brewery’s lineup are references to such incidents. The Censored Rich Copper Ale, for instance, was first introduced in 2002 under a slightly edgy title that was rejected by federal product labeling authorities. So the brewery’s owner, Tony Magee, simply slapped the word “censored” over the original bottle label and resubmitted it. The label was approved. And another high-alcohol, malty brown ale was brewed after a 2005 incident in which false accusations of illegal activity in the brewery led law enforcement officials in disguise to crash an after-hours employee party. “We felt pretty insulted for that, like we had been sucker-punched in the jaw,” Tony Magee explained to me recently. And so he and his brewers released a bitter and aggressive beer to commemorate the occasion, and they named it Undercover Investigation Shut-Down Ale, with the shrugging subtitle of “Whatever. We’re still here.” And where is “here,” you may ask, if you’re hoping for a draft pour of these and other brawny Lagunitas ales—like the Brown Shugga’, the Cappuccino Stout and the Hairy Eyeball? As posted on the sign in front of the brewery, Lagunitas Brewing Company can be found at “1280 N. McDowell Boulevard Petaluma, Calif. USofA, Earth, Sol, Local Group, Virgo Super Cluster, Space.”
More North Coast Breweries Worth a Pint:
And this just in from the White House: President Obama, with the assistance of local homebrewing experts, has made a beer. The White House Honey Brown Ale is believed to be the first beer brewed on the presidential property, though George Washington reportedly dabbled in off-site distilling, and Thomas Jefferson made wine. After Obama and his colleagues drank the Honey Brown, they were inspired enough to plod onward into the homebrewing frontier, where—like America in some ways—anything is possible. And so they brewed a Honey Porter and a Honey Blonde (which sounds kind of boring to me, but at least we taxpayers didn’t cough up for it; Obama did, from his own pocket). The honey, according to the White House’s website, comes from an on-premises beehive. And while Obama may have pitched the beer yeast, I will venture to guess he left the beehive raid to an expert.
September 4, 2012
Cycling the West Coast is easy, whether you’re riding from Canada to Mexico or just Portland to San Francisco. There is not a tricky turn in a thousand miles, little chance of getting lost, virtually no risk of running out of food and always a secure place to sleep in the next state park campground, which awaits between 40 and 80 miles ahead and usually features a designated hiker/biker site at $5 a person. These campsites are often crammed with cyclists, many of them Japanese or German or Australian tourists, and many carrying one of a handful of guidebooks that describe almost every foot, vertical and horizontal, of the way. But is this world-renowned cycling route as awesome as it is popular? Perhaps the route is so popular only because it’s an obvious no-brainer—a one-way path without danger or adventure. Yes, there are tall redwoods and scenic views that draw tourists—and the north-to-south tailwind often blows like a dream. Still, I’ve made an effort to add some spice to this predictable and popular route by getting off it—and here are a few of the finest backroads that will take you into the California North Coast’s wilder corners, and through strange little communities that time and tourism forgot.
Mattole Road. Cyclists seeking peace, relief and respite after hundreds of miles of the harrowing traffic and multiple lanes of Highway 101 have an excellent opportunity to do so just south of Eureka, in Ferndale. This tiny village (can we say “village” outside of Europe?) consists of elaborate and esteemed Victorian architecture—but what you’re interested in now is the little paved road that exits via the back side of town and enters the rugged wilderness to the south: the Mattole Road. Those cyclists familiar with this long and winding sliver of asphalt will shiver at the name, but innocents like you and me may happily begin up (and I do mean up) it with not enough water or food. The road starts with a skyward ascent of about 1,800 feet. A few grumbling, dented pickup trucks and the odd glossy rental car are the only traffic to speak of, and you will be blissfully alone here. About 40 miles in you will find a county campground, though get a late start and you may have to improvise a bed place. When dusk was upon me, just six miles in, I asked permission at a ranch house to sleep in the pasture. Southward, the road continues, dropping to the beach before zigzagging back into the hills again, past communities like Cape Town and Petrolia. Several crossings and three-way intersections could draw you off track if you haven’t got a detailed map. One can cut the ride short by turning east onto the Bear River Ridge Road, which leads down to Rio Dell on Highway 101. Or in another scenario, you might wind up in Shelter Cove—a dreamy salmon fishing hamlet just north of the Lost Coast wilderness, itself a popular backpacking destination and among the few places in the state where you’re likely to find bear tracks on the beach. Assuming you skip Shelter Cove, the Mattole Road covers about 75 miles from Ferndale back to Highway 101 (and smack onto the “Avenue of the Giants” redwood corridor), plus about 9,000 feet of climbing—a tremendous ascent by any standards. To explore this area with full support and good company, consider joining the Tour of the Unknown Coast, an annual Mother’s Day ride that makes the painfully arduous Ferndale-to-Ferndale loop.
Orr Springs-Comptche Road. Connecting Highway 1 at the smart and expensive seaside town of Mendocino and the 101 corridor at Ukiah, a hot and grimy valley town of pickup trucks and strip malls, this winding, narrow road climbs 4,500 vertical feet from whichever direction you approach it and leads through some of Mendocino County’s most thrilling country. I pedaled this road from Ukiah westward and immediately started on a 2,000-foot climb straight up along an exposed road in the blazing sun. After several miles along a ridge top, the road drops into a canyon, where signs pointing into the woods to Orr Hot Springs may sound like the worst idea in the world when it’s 90 degrees in the shade. Deeper into the mountains and the thick forest, past wooden shacks, trailer shanties and old apple orchards, the country and culture feel as lost and forgotten as parts of Appalachia. Deep in these woods I encountered an ad hoc farmers market by the road, consisting of two tables and a small collection of local hill folk wearing homemade shawls and selling eggs, tomatoes, tamales and goat cheese. They told me this was the “Far East Comptche” farmers market (“We’re technically part of Ukiah, but we don’t like to use that word here,” they joked), held every Thursday from 4 to 7 p.m. Which reminded me of the time: It was 6—two hours from nightfall and 25 miles still to go to reach the Russian Gulch State Park campground. I raced on, up more steep grades and past more rural settlements unmarked on the most detailed maps. It was dusk when I hit the coast, and I still marvel that participants in the annual Mendocino Monster Century ride from Ukiah to Mendocino and back again—a 96-mile, one-day ride with 9,200 feet of climbing. Once through was plenty for me—not to say that this wasn’t one of the finest Northern California bicycling adventures I’ve had.
Highway 128. This route covers the Anderson Valley corridor, drained by the Navarro River and dense with apple orchards, vineyards and a few remaining stands of old-growth redwood trees. Though a highway itself, 128 is far quieter than the coast route or the 101 freeway, and there is a selection of road options that turn north or south off 128, if you really want to see the backwoods. Try Flynn Creek Road, Highway 253, the Philo-Greenwood Road, Mountain View Road or Mountain House Road—each a recipe for backcountry trailblazing through some of California’s roughest and most scenic terrain. If you stay on 128, you may wish to camp at Hendy Woods State Park—and don’t miss the Apple Farm, a self-serve fruit stand just across the bridge from the park entrance. Cold juice can be had by the glass out of the refrigerator ($1.50 for about a 12-ounce fill)—but if you want a bottle of cider, you’ll have to track down a person, as the hard stuff is kept locked indoors.
Other Roads Less Traveled
Stewarts Point Road. Supposedly one of the hardest bike rides in California, the Stewarts Point Road cuts inland from Highway 1 near Fort Ross and eventually drops you into the sophisticated wine country of the Alexander Valley, on Skaggs Springs Road. The cycling books don’t recommend this ride—but sporting cyclists with a taste for hills and adventures always do.
Highway 162. I’ve admired this one for years on my maps. From just north of Willits, Highway 162 goes eastward, through the cozy little community of Covelo and the Round Valley Indian Reservation. The road continues east, into the high mountains and no man’s land of the Mendocino National Forest and over the 5,006-foot Mendocino Pass before, eventually, allowing gravity to have its way and draw you down into the Central Valley—probably not the choicest place to be in the blazing heat of summer.
Alderpoint Road. This may be a hard route to drag yourself up. It takes you out of the cool and spectacular Avenue of the Giants and into the searing hot oak-and-madrone highland wilderness to the east. By the looks of my maps, you won’t find gas stations, or espresso houses, or wi-fi, or natural foods stores up here. Bring plenty of water—and good luck finding a place to sleep.
Know any other wild backroads worth recommending—in California or elsewhere?
August 31, 2012
Now, after more than 50 years of absence, the animals are staging a comeback. They have established themselves in the eastern quarters of the state and are subsisting on local elk and deer herds–and, as might be expected, the occasional cow and sheep. Also quite predictably, the return to Oregon of one of the world’s most maligned and persecuted predators has Oregonians passionately polarized on the matter, with many people fully in support and others adamantly opposed to the animals’ reappearance. Livestock ranchers have led the campaign to stop the return, which is occurring naturally–although only as a result of the 1995 reintroduction of Canadian gray wolves to the Yellowstone National Park region, in Wyoming, Montana and Idaho. Those animals have thrived and flourished, and experts expect that the same could happen in Oregon.
The first wolf to return to Oregon in modern times entered the state from Idaho in 1999. The animal, known as B-45F to researchers, was trapped and sent home to Idaho by wildlife officials, however. Subsequently, two other wolves were hit and killed by cars in Oregon, and one was shot by a poacher, according to Sean Stevens, executive director of the wildlife and natural space advocacy group Oregon Wild, who recently spoke with me by telephone. But in 2007, an animal wearing a remote tracking collar and named B-300 by researchers, who had tranquilized and handled it in Idaho, entered Oregon. Here, it put down roots, and in the summer of 2009, officials with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife confirmed the presence of three adult wolves and three pups in Wallowa County–the first wolf pack in Oregon in about six decades.
Now, at least 30 wolves in five packs live in Oregon, according to Michelle Dennehy, communications officer with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.
“We want confirmation of two pups for an adult pair before we consider it a
pack breeding pair,” she said. “By now, all five packs have produced multiple pups.”
Dennehy says that the Department of Fish and Wildlife has confirmed 54 head of Oregon livestock killed by wolves as of July, with most kills being cattle, a few sheep and one a goat. Several wolves have been legally killed, she said, as a result of habitual depredations on livestock, and Dennehy says that the state of Oregon, along with Defenders of Wildlife, have joined resources to reimburse farmers who have suffered losses. The state’s Department of Agriculture has allocated a reimbursement fund, too.
Even before the first modern-times wolf moved permanently into Oregon, officials foresaw the potential for the species’ return and the problems the wolves might cause. And so the Oregon Wolf Conservation and Management Plan [PDF] was enacted in 2005 by the state of Oregon with the intention of readying the state and its people for the presence once again of the gray wolf. The wolf plan outlines just how to respond to wolves that prey upon livestock and at what point Oregon wolves might be removed from the state’s endangered species list as their numbers grow, among other issues of question. Ranchers, hunters, hikers, conservationists, government land managers and other stakeholders took part in developing the wolf plan, Dennehy said.
According to Stevens at Oregon Wild, roughly 1,000 wolves could probably live in Oregon’s vast wild spaces, mostly in the arid eastern half of the state. Ranchers of cows and sheep are hardly thrilled at the idea, however. They have already helped write and introduce multiple legislative efforts to block the wolves’ return–one a proposal that, had it become law, would have allowed a person to shoot a wolf onsite if he or she deemed the animal to be a threat.
It would have also done something else controversial. “It would have taken the management of an endangered species out of the hands of government and given it to private citizens,” Stevens said.
It was the Oregon Cattlemen’s Association that introduced that proposed law. This year, the same group introduced another effort to rid the state of wolves–a piece of legislation calling for a state of emergency in eastern Oregon because of the wolves’ presence. Both proposals were rejected by lawmakers.
More than 1 million cows live in the state, according to Stevens. In 2010, he says, 55,000 of those cows died prior to entering the slaughterhouse of disease, nasty weather and other non-wolf causes.
But Rod Childers, the Oregon Cattlemen’s Association’s Wolf Committee Chairman, says that ranchers are suffering far greater financial losses because of wolves than have been conveyed to most media. Childers, who raises cattle in Wallowa County, says that for every dead cow or sheep confirmed as a victim of wolves, several more wolf kills go unconfirmed, due either to inconclusive evidence or the entire lack of a carcass. That is, some animals simply go missing–and they’re doing so at about double the rate that they once did. Childers says he is certain that the wolves are involved.
“Because nothing’s changed but the wolves,” he explained. “We’ve always had cougars, bears, coyotes. But now wolves are here, and our losses are up.”
Childers says that in Wallowa County, 26 head of cattle have been confirmed as killed by wolves. But 86 other animals have disappeared–almost certainly, he says, killed by wolves.
And the reimbursement plan is not a fair deal, Childers says, because it only provides payment for confirmed wolf depredations. Childers also points out a more subtle loss that he and other ranchers are enduring: Their animals have been returning from their high country summer pastures thinner than they once did–a result, he explains, of being continually harassed and attacked by wolves. Such underweight animals bring ranchers less profits than properly fattened cows might.
“But that’s not accounted for in the wolf plan,” he says.
While tempers flare and the occasional bullet flies at a wolf, the biggest wild canine is still expanding its range. Now, as officials and others expect continued growth in the wolf population, another question arises: How far will the wolf go? In fact, one wolf, a collared animal named OR-7, became the first wolf to go west of the Cascades since the bounty days—and eventually entered California. The animal has been nicknamed “Journey,” and the California Department of Fish and Game is tracking and publicizing the animal’s approximate whereabouts via the Internet.
The wolf situation in Oregon is extraordinary because the animals are coming back on their own–a rare example of a large predator actually expanding its range instead of, as is the more common pattern, diminishing ever closer to extinction. Moreover, the fact that their swelling population has spilled into Oregon’s more vacant regions indicates that, aside from a few conflicts with livestock, there may be room for the animals.
Today, wolf tourism could be a new draw for visitors to wolf country. Oregon Wild has led tours to eastern Oregon each of the past three years to show groups of about 10 people the state’s wolf habitat—and to meet the ranchers who believe their livelihoods may be imperiled by the animals. Check the organization’s website to learn more.
Size matters. Some wolf opponents are arguing that the wolves now recolonizing Oregon are larger than those wiped out last century. If true, this would be more than just interesting. It would also mean that the animals need more food and are more capable of taking down large head of livestock. While it may be true that the wolves of Oregon today are of different genetic roots than those that inhabited the state in the past, scientists and experts have denied that they are substantially larger.
What do you think? If wolves want back in to Oregon and California, should we welcome them?
August 29, 2012
Between Portland and San Francisco lie thousands of miles of zigzagging routes across a complete spectrum of landscapes. To get home to San Francisco, I considered traveling east and south over the high desert and scrub country of Oregon’s Deschutes, Lake and Harney counties and from there into California’s volcanic northeast. I also gave thought to weaving my way south through the Cascades. Another option was to travel the length of the Willamette Valley, home to much of Oregon’s wine country, then over the high plains around Ashland and Weed and south further, past Mount Shasta, and into the Sacramento Valley. But I succumbed to the allure of the obvious: the coastal Highway 101 route, through rainforest and redwoods, and as beautiful as it is popular. I camped a night at Willamette Mission State Park for the standard $5 bicycle fee, had a quick peek at the college town of Corvallis, pedaled over the coastal mountain range via Highway 20, slept in the Eddyville pasture of a Baptist family who sent me off with a prayer in the morning, and then hit the famous coast where the ride began. Here are the highlights—good, bad and ugly.
Newport. John Maier rides his bicycle across the Yaquina Bay Bridge almost every morning. Some days he turns right at the south end to hunt porcini mushrooms among the pine trees on the sand dunes. At least once, he rode all the way to the California border during the annual Amgen People’s Coast Classic, a charity ride against arthritis. But most days, Maier turns left and rolls down into the parking lot of Rogue Ales‘ headquarters, where he has been brewing the well-known beers since 1989. Rogue is a pillar of the community in Newport—possibly the finest, coolest community on the Oregon coast. Rogue has a brewpub on the north side of the bay, on the thriving, colorful wharf, while the main brewery and a distillery operate in South Beach. Every local is familiar with the brewery, and Rogue’s presence seems as deep and permanent as the salty wind that sweeps in off the Pacific. Last year, when a local surfer named Bobby Gumm was attacked by a great white shark just outside the harbor, it was Rogue that stepped forward and replaced the uninjured man’s board, from which the shark had taken a trophy-sized bite. Other locals know the brewery simply for its beer, which can be as quirky and eccentric as the funky, artsy, salty town itself. Maier makes a regular beer brewed with chipotle peppers and recently produced a batch infused with bacon. A beer tried once but abandoned was made with garlic, and another one-off was a cilantro ale. Visitors to Newport can’t—and shouldn’t—miss this brewery, whose warehouse stature and giant beer silos are easily seen from the bridge as one travels south. Staple beers are the Dead Guy Ale, the Old Crustacean Barleywine, the Shakespeare Stout and an ever-evolving line of IPAs made with unusual hop varieties. As Maier said to me during a quick pint together at the South Beach pub, “Label something an IPA, and people will buy it.” So prove him wrong and order the Double Chocolate Stout.
Coos Bay and North Bend. Coos Bay greets a southbound touring cyclist with a rude sneer: the Conde B. McCullough Bridge. Narrow, long, gusty and busy with lumber trucks and autos, the bridge should be crossed on the sidewalk unless you don’t care to live to see the town, which would be understandable. Coos Bay has a reputation as an indifferent old mill town, rough and salty, with a calloused, blue-collar populace marginally interested in welcoming tourists. And it isn’t hip, cool or edgy like Newport. But accept the steely gray of the bay-side machinery and paper mill, and look a bit further, you’ll find some charm. Just after the bridge, a right turn lands you in a picnic park and playground, complete with all the basics of a much-needed rest stop, like soft green grass, tall trees for shade, pullup bars and barbecue grills. Further into town, along Broadway Avenue, are a movie theater, antique shops, a yarn store for locals to knit their fishing beanies and winter mittens, coffee shops, a sushi restaurant, a fantastic, shadowy, dust-layered wine cellar and a grim-looking gun store. But best of all is the Coos Head Food Co-Op on the west side of the street, an essential stopoff point for southbound cyclists running low on rations of nutritional yeast, $3 avocados and wheat germ. Indeed, I will grant that Coos Bay was good to me; its quaint Americana charm feels poignantly delightful, like a gritty scene from American Graffiti. But it grew old after a few blocks, and by the time I reached end of the main strip, I only wanted out of this town. Perfect, because by then Coos Bay was behind me as I rode the never-ending, screaming tailwind south.
Gold Beach. “Welcome to Gold Beach,” reads the sign as one crosses the bridge over the Rogue River and enters this thriving little hub of resorts and outdoors gear shops. But Gold Beach is the town that the Kim family of San Francisco never reached on November 25, 2006, when they started on a midnight drive west across the coastal mountains from Grants Pass and got snowbound in the high country of the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest. James Kim, 35, made a heroic attempt to seek help for his family and walked for days downstream, though he didn’t get far. After his wife and two daughters were rescued, Kim’s body was eventually found just a mile as the crow flies from the car. He was also only a mile from the Black Bar Lodge, which was closed at the time but full of food and supplies. I considered pedaling up the small highway that leads into the rugged terrain that Kim attempted to traverse in the dead of winter, on foot, but I thought better of the plan after speaking with a local man outside a grocery store. He said, ”Bring plenty of water and food. But if you want a real adventure, it’s a great area to go.” The wind was howling southward, and the path of least resistance was, well, irresistible; I flew south 25 miles with almost no effort, arriving at Harris Beach State Park campground after dark.
It was at this campsite, just north of Brookings, that I met, among a dozen other cycle tourists, a lanky vegetarian hippie named Tim with dreadlocks down to his waist and riding a rusty single-speed bike with two purse-sized saddlebags on the rear. He told me his next immediate destination was Ashland, Oregon—an uphill, inland ride of more than 100 miles from Crescent City on Highway 199. Tim explained that Ashland, a known hippie hotspot and counterculture destination, is home to one of the most abundant, glorious natural foods grocery stores in the West. I was tempted and even went away to study my map before I came to my senses: I reasoned that granola, coconut oil soaps and bulk bins of sprouted grains could be found almost anywhere; 300-foot-tall redwoods cannot. I continued south, along the California North Coast. Stay tuned for more.
Other Oregon Coast highlights: Oceana Natural Foods Cooperative in Newport; Bike Newport Oregon in Newport, a shop that caters to cycle tourists with a lounge, sofas, showers, Internet access and a foosball table; Bullards Beach State Park campground, where mushroom hunting is legal in season; Mother’s Natural Grocery in Bandon by the Se; Oregon Wine Cellars Etc in Coos Bay; entertaining anti-Obama political banners posted along the road; Wednesday and Saturday farmers market in Brookings; migrating whales visible from shore for those who take the time to stop; bottomless bounties of enormous roadside blackberries; a northwind that virtually never stops (read as, ”Don’t try pedaling San Diego to Seattle”).