Northwest by Norton: A Short Ride the Long Way
By Robert Smith
The International Norton Owners Association offers an enamel pin for those riding a Norton 1,000 miles or more to its annual rally. But the 2003 rally in Lumby, British Columbia, was only 250 miles from my home base in Vancouver. What to do?
A group of us from the West Coast British Motorcycle Club decided we could qualify by going the long way round — via Washington state, Oregon, Idaho… and Polson, Montana, to collect fellow Nortoneer Carmine “Maggie” Mowbray.
We were all riding 850 Commandos: Steve and I were on our 1974 Mark IIs, while Ian, Geoff and Maggie rode electric-start Mark IIIs.
The North Cascades Highway (SR 20) is rated the No. 1 motorcycling road in the state by Destination Highways. Heading east from Burlington, Washington, before crossing Diablo Dam into the Cascades, SR 20 swept us along the mountainsides, throwing a succession of delicious turns as we spun toward Washington Pass. Dense cedar and fir gave way to scrubby pines as we skimmed the snow line at the 5,500-foot summit and started our steady descent of the gentler eastern slopes.
Lunch was in the faux-western town of Winthrop — all boardwalks and livery stables — at the Duck Brand Hotel for their signature smoked duck quesadilla: delicious! We cruised across open farmland, turning south on US 97 down to the Columbia River at Pateros. Leaving Washington’s narrow coastal strip behind (the only year-round green part of the “Evergreen State”), we followed the Columbia south into the Okanogan Valley. Hot, dry winds blowing up from the Sonoran Desert toast the parched ground here and sear the nostrils, while the broad, slow-moving Columbia River irrigates the region’s vast fruit orchards.
At Sunnyslope we turned west, and followed US 2 back into the Cascades to the fantasy town of Leavenworth, a chocolate-box “Bavarian” village of cuckoo clocks and cowbells. From there, we turned south again on US 97 and raced broad curves over Blewett Pass into Ellensburg. At the KOA campground, we parked between motor homes, sheltering from a blustery wind, and assessed the day’s mechanical issues. Ian’s Mark III was running rich, so we opened the Amal carbs and dropped the needles one notch. Steve had a noisy tappet, so we pulled the rocker cover and found the valve clearance way too wide. No one remembered feeler gauges, so we guesstimated the setting.
South from Ellensburg is the Yakima Canyon Road, SR 821. We raced over its sublime series of sweepers, tracking the meandering Yakima River. At Yakima, we turned west again on US 12, then climbed back through the Cascades on SR 410, finding a delirious succession of bends near the snow-lined summit of 5,500-foot Chinook Pass, Mount Rainier’s conical, snow-capped peak jumping out at us as we cleared the pass.
The Cascades are essentially a string of volcanoes running from Canada to California. Sixty-four miles south of Rainier is what remains of Mount St. Helens. In 1980, volcanologists were blindsided when half the mountain simply blew away, taking out 230 square miles of forest. Now, the bald, lopsided crater overlooks a bleak valley of stripped, sun-bleached trunks laid out like giant matchsticks.
National Forest Road 25 skirts Mount St. Helens National Park on the west side, providing access to amazing viewpoints. My Roadster holds 3.2 U.S. gallons of fuel, giving a range of 120 miles. Gassing up in Randle before heading south on FR 25, I had just enough fuel to get to Wind River just north of Carson, Washington, on the Columbia River, including the viewpoint detour. In 2003, NF 25 had just been repaved with fresh tarmac, and for over 100 miles or so we swooped along the narrow two-laner through dense forest, in a wild succession of bends. I pushed the handlebars ever closer to the road, grinding the kickstand. Just 3 miles before Wind River, my engine spluttered on its last bit of fuel, and I limped into a one-gas-pump store.
Riding any distance on old bikes, paranoia becomes your companion. I strained to hear imagined engine noises, felt for changes in vibration and watched for leaks. Potential problems stalked my thoughts. Was that a bearing? Piston slap? A tappet? No — just my tires on the steel-mesh deck as we crossed the Columbia into Oregon on U.S. 197 and The Dalles Bridge.
It was 6:30 on a July evening, and still 102 degrees Fahrenheit when we rode into The Dalles, Oregon. Snagged in traffic, we crawled through the lumber town, boiling inside our leathers, engines pinging, clutches dragging. We were committed to camping, but the air-conditioned Budget Motel beckoned, and only inertia prevented me from pulling in. “There’s camping in Dufur, 10 miles up the road,” Geoff said. “I asked in the Safeway.”
I remember thinking, “What does Safeway know about camping?” But we continued south from the Columbia on US 197 anyway, climbing through golden wheat fields. By Dufur, the air was tolerably cool, and we swung into a faded trailer park of plastic trellis and kitschy garden ornaments. A cheery 60-something woman in a Kawasaki golf cart arrived to size us up. “If you’re camping, you’ll be better off in the city park,” she said. “I’ll show you.”
This was too bizarre. A city park? Four Norton Commandos trailing a golf cart through an Oregon hick town? But the park was a gem: lush grass, a pool, fire pits and picnic tables! A tingling shower, sub sandwiches, a couple of Sierra Nevada ales, and all was right with the world.
After Dufur, Northern Oregon was a riding treat. The rolling grassland was sliced with ravines and chasms, while bluffs and buttes soared in stark relief, and grain silos dotted the landscape. We passed through Maupin, a colorful white water-rafting town nestled on the Deschutes River, and then veered east on US 97 to the near-ghost town of Shaniko (population 25), which was trying to re-invent itself as a living museum with board-front stores, a bank, post office — and a jail on wheels!
SR 218 south from Shaniko to Antelope amazed us, where we cut east to SR 19, also known as the John Day Highway. The road twists through the John Day Fossil Beds before careening across open prairie. Day is a big name in these parts. A member of the 1811 John Jacob Astor party (that went on to establish Fort Astoria on the Oregon coast), Day was kidnapped by Indians, stripped of his clothes and abandoned in the Oregon wilderness. He was eventually rescued at the Umatilla River, but died a year later.
Our next stop was in tiny Ukiah on SR 244 for gas, where Daniel Vincent of Dan’s Ukiah Service supervised our fueling. (Oregon law prohibited gassing your own vehicle.) Dan, formerly a cop in Alaska, was shot in the hip during a bank heist and now walks with a cane. Ukiah’s only two gas stations sat opposite each other at the town’s only intersection, and Dan’s gas was 10 cents cheaper. Dan was not only unpopular with his roadside competition, but told us that he was also in trouble with Oregon’s environmental department for refusing to leak test his underground tanks: homemade signs on his lot angrily denounced government overspending and bureaucracy.
Heading east on SR 244 to SR 82, we camped in a beautiful forest site in Minam by the rushing Big Canyon Creek. Surveying our bikes, Ian’s speedometer had died and he’d burned a liter of oil during the day. Steve found gearbox oil contaminating his clutch, causing it to slip. Geoff’s rear tire had worn right out, and he owned up that it was the original fitment — 28 years old! A couple of cold ones and fire-grilled steaks beside the churning creek made the day complete.
The next morning, in crisp sunshine under an indigo sky, we cruised east on SR 82 across the corn-gold Wallowa Valley, destination Hell’s Canyon. The road to the rim switch backs through the trees along narrow terraces, with hairpin turns at each end. Though 2,200 feet deeper than Grand Canyon, Hell’s Canyon lacks its spectacular view. Instead of sheer walls, the ground gently rolls away, and the grandeur of the Snake River, 8,000 feet below, was hidden from us. We thundered down the narrow forest roads into the Canyon and the tiny town of Oxbow, Idaho, exhausts burbling hypnotically on the overrun.
Heading south down SR 71 in the Snake River’s deep chasm, fresh, smooth tarmac rounded the steep cliffs lining Brownlee Reservoir. Blind twists clung to each outcrop with a sheer drop on the other side, causing heart-in-mouth moments as we strafed the canyon-side curves. At Cambridge, we joined US 95 north to Riggins, where Idaho’s Salmon River tumbles out of the Sawtooth Range to join the crashing Snake. US 95 climbs over a big bridge to White Bird Hill, where Nez Perce Chief White Bird and his band battled the U.S. Army in 1877, But instead we turned on to Old White Bird Hill Road, a narrow tarmac strip that snaked across the hill in a series of switchbacks.
Our next stopover was a disappointment — a rundown RV park in Kooskia, Idaho. The toilet was a Porta-Potty and the shower was a bare, unventilated plywood stall. But the Kooskia Café made up for it the next morning with outstanding chicken fried steak and eggs. Both Ian and Geoff desperately needed rear tires, so we planned to cruise bike stores in Missoula, Montana. First, though, we tracked the foaming Lochsa River, heading east along US 12 to Lolo Pass: “Winding Road Next 77 Miles,” the sign said. After twisting over the pass, US 12 spat us out on to US 93 into the truck traffic going north to Missoula.
Nineteen-inch rear motorcycle tires are not easy to find, and none turned up in Missoula — until Triumph dealer Mike Tingley called in some favors and drummed up a couple of old-stock Dunlops. We fitted these at our next stop, Maggie’s lakefront home in Polson, Montana. From there, we aimed our Nortons towards Lake Koocanusa, where we crossed a new steel bridge before rattling over a narrow, winding forest road of frost-heaved tarmac to the tiny town of Yaak and its notorious biker destination, the World Famous Dirty Shame Saloon.
Heading west from Yaak on SR 508 back toward Idaho was a delightful romp, though the road’s sweeping turns included the odd patch of gravel to keep us awake. Maggie’s bike was smoking badly, burning oil and using way more gas than it should. Then the engine quit just as we rolled into Moyie Springs, Idaho, after crossing the border on US 2. Pushing the bike into the gas station, we found the mufflers were loose, but that clearly wasn’t the issue. Checking further, we discovered the oil tank was empty, so we added a liter. “It was OK this morning,” Maggie said. And it seemed OK again when the bike restarted after a gas fill.
Crossing the border at Porthill, Idaho, on SR 1, we trekked back into Canada on BC 21 to BC 3A, the best motorcycling road in the province according to Destination Highways. The twisting two-laner weaves along the shore of Kootenay Lake to Crawford Bay, where we boarded the MV Osprey 2000 to Balfour and rode north on BC 31 to Ainsworth Hot Springs, B.C.
At our campsite, we spent the evening tinkering with Maggie’s bike, but the next day the problems came to a head when the left carburetor fell off! A stud had gone missing and the nuts had unwound, so we made a temporary repair using vise grips to hold everything in place.
The following day we hit BC 31A, a serpentine strip that swings from Kaslo west through Kokanee Glacier Provincial Park and down into New Denver on Slocan Lake. From there, we rode BC 6 to the Needles Ferry across Arrow Lake, continuing on BC 6 to Lumby and the rally. My odometer showed we had ridden 1,924 miles since leaving home.
Fortunately, we had five days to fix Maggie’s bike before having to hit the road again. Budweiser provided shims to snug up the mufflers, and the carbs were remounted and re-jetted, thanks to the parts vendors at the rally, and Maggie’s Mark III was pronounced fit.
The rally was a wild success, drawing over 300 participants and more than 200 Nortons. After six days in the saddle, I passed on the organized rides, and spent my time wandering the campsite, chatting with riders from New York, Quebec, California, meeting old friends and making new ones. Too soon it was time to return to Vancouver, just 290 miles — an easy day’s ride.
This year provides an opportunity to repeat the challenge. The 2018 INOA Tall Timber Rally runs from July 16-19, 2018, at Grays Harbor County Fairgrounds in beautiful Elma, Washington, just 200 miles south of Vancouver, B.C. Maybe I’ll ride there the long way round… MC
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