Going to school during the summer had many nasty side effects, one of which was that I didn’t ride my mountain bike on one single trail for the entire summer. The closest I got was doing a few short track races at PIR, which, being 10 minutes by bike from home is pretty convenient. Still, last summer, I did both Mountain Bike Oregon Weekends and even managed to run off to Bend with my girlfriend. I couldn’t stomach the idea that my poor steed wouldn’t touch a trail in 09.
Luckily when I sent out a desperate call for a last minute riding buddy, Zan replied. She shuffled a few meetings around and suddenly we had a whole Friday to search out and ride that sweetest of mountain biker drugs—singletrack.
I perused my stack of little-used guide books and we narrowed the choices to either Post Canyon in Hoodriver, or Hagg Lake, just an hour west of Portland. Since we were looking for something a little more cross country, than freeride oriented, we chose Hagg Lake, and to say we weren’t disappointed would be an understatement.
As Zan was loading my bike onto her car rack, I heard her yelling out the name of a mutual friend who was just riding up to my neighbor’s house to go on a road ride with them. When we mentioned our chosen destination, her look was not very approving. “Is the trail bad,” we asked, concerned.
“No, it was just a little buggy.”
Since fall was well underway, we figured that wouldn’t be a problem.
We parked near the dam and entered the trail having no idea what we would find. The weather was as perfect as we could ask for—a picturesque fall day with full sun and a light breeze. The trail started out mellow, winding gently through a tunnel of trees. For about 90 seconds I found myself thinking, “This is nice…I could even bring Jess out here*.” Then things got interesting.
The trail started to dish out surprises—going from smooth and flowy in one second to sudden turns revealing small, but lung/leg-busting little hills that would leave you walking if you weren’t geared down and ready for them. I become more alert and more excited. My smile got bigger. Dragonflies darted in and out of my path but there wasn’t a mosquito to be found.
About 15 minutes in, we made a hard right turn into a sharpe, longish off-camber incline with enough exposure to make me rethink my attempt to ride it. It was one of the many sections we encountered that I thought might be rideable on a second pass. But such is the fun of exploring a new trail. You don’t know what’s coming so you just have to stay focused and try to react without letting your brain get in the way. When we started, I felt like I didn’t even remember how to ride over bumps, but after a little while, I started to loosen up.
The biggest surprise of the day was finding out pretty quickly that I’m a more advanced MTB rider than Zan. Zan is an Ironman and a regular racer with our team and could easily hand me my ass on the road, without even breathing heavy (which is good since she has asthma). In fact the one road ride that Jess and I took with Zan a couple of summers ago, she was recovering from a bad cold and her lungs were still pretty weak, which was the only reason we managed any semblance of keeping up.
Mountain biking seems to require just the kinds of sudden hard efforts that asthma probably doesn’t like—and hills are more challenging because you’re also navigating obstacles. We quickly fell into a routine, with me riding in front so I could keep my rhythm going and just stopping every few minutes to wait. It gave me a chance to enjoy the scenery and stop and smell—well if not the roses, then the trees.
The nice thing about riding around a lake, is that you don’t have to do a lot of way finding. For the most part when we encountered forks in the trail, we just kept turning right. We did take a few wrong turns, which ended us either at a cliff overlooking the water or in one case, a disc golf course ‘hole.’ We just counted it all as part of the adventure.
It’s a good thing there weren’t many bugs because they might have ended up in my teeth. The smiling was pretty constant and I kept suppressing the urge to shout for no reason—and sometimes I didn’t bother. I felt like Hiro after he teleported to NY for the first time.
Zan and I couldn’t figure out why no one had ever mentioned how extremely awesome the Hagg Lake trail is. Even Danielle hadn’t said anything that morning. Maybe the bugs were so bad, she had blocked out the good memories.
There seemed to be a bit of everything to be had. As we worked our way around, skinny tunnels through trees gave way to wider bits of double track along open fields, which turned into literal singe-track—divets through high grasses just big enough for our fat tires.
About two thirds of the way around, we got going after a photo stop and I got into a particularly good groove. The trail was throwing some challenging hills, but I went into the zone and powered up them. Then there would be the descent and some flowing curves. I was killing it, and I could hear Zan right behind me, which kept me motivated to go faster.
Finally the trail opened up again and I pulled to one side of a double track section, and a guy I didn’t know whooshed past, yelling “Wow, you’re in really good shape!” as he went by.
Oh crap! All that time I thought it was Zan! “I thought you were my friend!” I yelled as he pedaled away. It wasn’t long before the real Zan came pedaling up. She had heard him coming in pretty hot and pulled over right away. It’s kind of hard to look over your shoulder on the trail. It’s a good way to run into a tree. No harm done and we continued on our way.
All too soon, we could see the dam and the road going over it that meant our perfect trail was near it’s end. A short pavement stint took as back to the parking lot where we sat on a picnic bench and ate snacks. Zan introduced me to something called Primal Strips that look and taste like jerky but are vegan. You can pick gluten free or ones made without soy. They were pretty tasty and I couldn’t wait to try them out on Jess.
Two fishermen wandered over looking every inch the part except for one guy with an incongruous Livestrong bracelet. He inquired whether we had ridden around the lake, the distance and how long it took. “That’s longer than I need to ride,” was his conclusion. He saw us struggling to open up our Primal strips and kindly offered up his friend’s pocket knife, which he promised hadn’t been used on any fish. Since the knife was about 2 inches long, I figured he was telling the truth.
He was inspired to tell us about his son, who did a triathlon nearby and how he talked his girlfriend—who had never run before in her life—into doing a half-ironman. “It was a big race—they had real Ironmen from Hawaii and everything.”
Zan was quiet, and by the greatest effort of will, I refrained from bragging for her about her Ironman status. She had just showed me her new tattoo of her Ironman Canada number before we started the ride. But Zan’s not one for showing off, so I kept my mouth shut.
“Did she break up with him?” I asked the fisherman, about the girlfriend. Jess wasn’t happy with me for taking her on a 65 mile ride of all hills in the coast range. I could just imagine the reaction of someone who had never run trying to do a triathlon with little no training.
He laughed. “Well, things were tense for a while and I don’t think there was a lot of lovin’ going on.” He didn’t quite have an accent, but he drawled in a way particular to people who’s lives are slower-paced than city dwellers.
We we quiet then, going back to our respective enjoyment of what would turn out to be one of the last gorgeous days of fall.
On the drive back, we hit the inevitable traffic snarl on Hwy 26, and Zan had the brilliant idea of getting of at Sylvan and taking Skyline to Germantown Rd and over the St John’s bridge. It’s a road she’s ridden dozens of times, but had never driven. After we’d passed a few cyclist on the narrow road with more than it’s share of blind corners, she wondered aloud how they ever survived riding up there!
Of course we hit another parking lot on the road as we got to the bottom of Germantown, but it didn’t take too long to inch our way onto the bridge entrance. Zan pulled over to let a tailgating guy in an 80’s red Prelude pass by before he smashed up the bikes on the rear rack.
The whole day made me simultaneously glad I’d managed at least one MTB ride and kicking myself for not somehow squeezing in more of them over the summer. I’ll be holding onto the memory of smooth flowing trail under a bright blue sky to see me through a long winter of gray.