I’m standing in a fine Japanese garden, and I’m looking at a volcano—an exotic combination. I didn’t have to go too far. This is neither Tokyo nor Mount Fuji. I’m in Portland, OR. Toward the east, the snow capped peak of Mount Hood is clearly visible behind the skyline of the very green city. The mountain is close, but I’m heading a different direction—straight north.
One and a half miles is quite a distance for a river crossing, but yes, this is the width of the largest river in North America that reaches the Pacific. Along with its impressive geography, the Columbia River also has some political importance. It was once considered as a possible border between the U.S. and Canada, but history went a different way. The river now divides Oregon from Washington for about 300 miles. Crossing into the state via I-205 is no problem these days, but not long ago the Columbia was a significant barrier. Ships also had a hard time navigating its waters, but it has since been tamed by 14 large dams along the main section and about 400 in the entire system.
Motorcycle & Gear
2012 KTM 990 Adventure
Into the Cascades
I leave the interstate as soon as it takes me into Washington. There are much nicer alternatives. And there is a spectacular goal sticking out of the Cascade Mountain Range—Mount St. Helens. The roads leading there are as untamed as this mountain still is. As I take off from civilization, Highway 503 brings me through green pastures along Lake Merwin and Yale Lake to Cougar, a pretty little village. These days it is hard to imagine that on May 18, 1980, the place was buried under several inches of ash. Mount St. Helens (11 miles north) had erupted. All inhabitants in Cougar were evacuated before everything went dark so no lives were lost here, but there are some exhibits beside the general store that give witness to the catastrophe. Today the dangers (like running out of petrol) are much smaller and rather avoidable. Heading north toward Mount St. Helens, I have about 100 miles (and a visit to Spirit Lake at the foot of the crater) before there is another chance to get gas or any kind of provisions.
Laid-back Cougar is the perfect venue to have an extended rest, and not only because of the nice lady in the general store. For the first time, I experience the typical Washington amenity, an espresso hut. You can find them all over the state on the roadsides, and they’re equipped for “drive through.” Usually it is a very small wooden building manned by one person. The cappuccino is excellent, and I need every available bit of energy for what lies ahead.
On Shaky Ground at Mount St. Helens
Outside Cougar, the lively route winds along Swift Reservoir before it turns onto the paved forest service road 25 where the course gets even more exciting. Large dips in the asphalt make it apparent to me that I am entering a very volatile piece of our planet. The ground is obviously moving all the time, as is the suspension of the KTM. Every inch of suspension travel is used, although I take it easy. Up on the saddle, I turn toward Spirit Lake, the heart of the National Volcanic Monument at Mount St. Helens. The whole time, I curl through untouched forest. After a right hand turn, the landscape changes abruptly. No trees obstruct the panorama anymore. In 1980, most of them were kinked by the force of the eruption. Some of the trunks are still standing as a witness of the disaster. Along a ridge, I spot Mount Adams and Mount Hood and end up above Spirit Lake with an outlook of the beheaded mountain. During the eruption, Mount St. Helens lost 1200 feet; most of the cone plunged into Spirit Lake. Judging by a photo on display, it looks like this place must have been like paradise. Cabins and lodges with scenes of the snowy summit were nestled along the 12-mile shore. People swam and canoed in the clear waters. Today thousands of dead trees line the shore of Sprit Lake. Its level rose about 200 feet when the peak melted and ended up in the lake. It still is very impressive, just in a different way. To look into the crater from Windy Ridge Viewpoint is overwhelming. Smoke is rising, and clouds gather above the mountain. This is worth the 10-minute hike and every bumpy mile it took to get here.
After a long downhill through the lush green forest, I end up in the Cowlitz River Valley. Randle, the first settlement in 100 miles, doesn’t offer enough to draw my attention. I keep going upstream. Packwood, just 16 miles farther, is a different matter. I immediately like the place—an espresso hut to start with. Some old wooden buildings and a general store with a great view of Mount Rainier (at 14,411 feet, Washington’s highest volcano) grant Packwood a cozy small-town feeling. This shall be my home for the night, although competition is tough. A little farther, I find a place on my map called “Paradise,” but as I have been searching for it for so long, it can wait until the morning. Even then, I’m in no rush to get there because another interestingly named destination catches my eye—Sunrise. First Sunrise, then Paradise—that’s the perfect order on a perfect morning with clear skies. Especially since some of the most beautiful motorcycling roads connect both places. They are located on almost opposite flanks of Mount Rainier, Sunrise on the northeast and Paradise on the south.