What follows is the story of Charley and Katie’s Dark Divide 300 attempt during August of 2021. Words by Charley, photos by Charley and Katie. Thanks to both of you for your reflections on the route.
My train pulled into Olympia around 10am. I saw Katie, who had been waiting since getting off her train from Seattle, and grabbed my bags that I would soon strap to my bike. Our plan was to ride from Olympia to Portland on the 300 mile, unvetted Dark Divide route, in three days as a way to train for our upcoming bikepacking races. We zoomed on pavement 50 miles to Eatonville, the pavement helping make up for my train’s late arrival. Sandwiches, chips, and caffeine served as our fuel for the next 50 miles, which we knew would be harder than the first. In the next 25 miles, we had to climb steep gravel roads before we got to sleep. We gave thanks to this rare overcast day in August for keeping the heat at bay.
Coming out of Elbe Hills, we skipped the short detour to Ashford, opting to fill our water from a spigot at the church off the National Park Highway before continuing to climb. The sun set as we reached the high-point for the day, and we turned on our lights before descending. Flying down the mountain, we avoided giant toads that had come out to extract the last of the day’s heat out of the road, before finding a place to camp around mile 97. We prepared cold, roadside tortillas for dinner before stretching out in our sleeping bags, Katie in her bivy while I slept underneath the stars.
By 6am, we were eager to roll 15 miles down the mountain within the hour to Randle where we would get coffee and a second breakfast. Our paved forest road quickly turned into a mound of dirt and down trees. We lugged our packed bikes over piles of trees stacked so high, we were unsure how far we were from the ground. Forward motion towards caffeine was the only option in our minds and we did not stop to look at our maps or consider a reroute. After the trees, our path turned into a steep, sandy descent down to a boulder filled stream. I watched as Katie carefully shuffled down, alternating between shifting her bike down below her, then lowering her body to meet with her bike again. As I shifted my body slightly from where I was perched atop the sandy ledge, a basketball sized boulder began to fall down towards Katie. Upon hearing my warning cry, she had just enough time to move herself out of the boulder’s path. The boulder hit her steel top tube with a thud, denting the frame. We were both so grateful that the boulder did not crush her body or bike. After a couple of hours navigating through the washout, we were reunited with our paved road.
Our arrival in Randle came closer to lunchtime. We decided, over a long overdue cup of coffee, to cut out the singletrack section between Randle and Trout Lake in order to make it 100 miles for the day with a planned lunch stop at the top of our 30 mile climb. I quickly lost sight of Katie after we started climbing and decided to stop for lunch. I imagined Katie at the top wondering if I got a mechanical or heat stroke, so I flagged down one of the many cars scooting up the road with ease to tell her I was good, just hungry. I finally found Katie at the summit biking in circles to dodge horse flies, and together we flew down on pavement to Trout Lake, where we got a second lunch at the Bear Creek Cafe and were greeted by heat nearing 100 degrees. I got a hamburger, Katie got a salad, and we both got huckleberry lemonade. After resupplying at the grocery store amongst the through hikers, we set off for Panther Creek. We climbed through the Indian Heaven Wilderness at the golden hour, enjoying a few huckleberries along the way. It was dark by the time we arrived at Panther Creek, and we picked a site nestled between car campers, surrounded by the sound of generators humming and children up past their bedtimes. I fell asleep immediately after putting in earplugs.
Knowing we had 40 miles to ride before we could get coffee at the Chelatchie General Store, made it hard to get out of our bedrolls at 5am. We started the morning with our biggest climb of the day. My tired legs were glad to be getting this out of the way. We had the road to ourselves due to a washout we would pass partway down our descent on Forest Road 42. At every sign we passed warning about the washout, Katie promised I would laugh when we got to it. At the top of the climb, we came to a fork in the road. We could stay on Forest Road 42, a section that Katie had ridden and knew was passable, or follow the route onto Forest Road 37. The unknown road looked promising, so we decided to take it. This ended up being my favorite section of the whole route with incredible views and only a few sections that were too rocky to ride. Katie was right, I did laugh at the washout as I thought about riding through the short eroded section between where the gravel road turns into pavement.
We had coffee with our lunch at the general store in Chelatchie. After lunch, we filled up our bottles with half ice, half water to prepare for our last gravel climb through the Yacolt Burn State Forest. We set off hoping to finish the climb before the hottest part of the day. Although much shorter than the first, this climb felt longer with the heat and increased exposure. I took breaks at every patch of shade I passed. When I reached the summit, I found Katie waiting for me in a patch of shade. Reaching the top of this climb signified the home stretch in my mind. We only had 30 miles left, all on pavement. I would be home in no time, washing off the heat from this 100 degree day along with three days worth of dirt in a cold shower. We descended to Fern Prairie just in time to fill up our bottles with ice before they shut off the soda fountain for repairs. We did laps around the market; unable to decide if we wanted anything besides the extra time in the air conditioning. As we crossed the I-205 bridge, we talked about what we planned to eat when we finished. When we reached Portland, we parted ways with a big hug. Katie set off to find Thai food to enjoy in her air conditioned hotel while I sought a burger to eat in front of my box fan. I’d never felt so strong and tired in my life.