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A dangerously beautiful ride

Safety still an issue for cyclists and drivers sharing the road on the scenic Historic Columbia River Highway


Doyle Dillon was 16 miles into his bike ride heading east along the Sandy River on the Historic Columbia River Highway when I saw him pull off the road into a parking lot and I stopped to talk to him.

by: OUTLOOK PHOTO: CARI HACHMANN - Doyle Dillon said the Historic Columbia River Highway is some of the best cycling around.Decked in bike gear with a helmet, sunglasses, spandex, clip-in shoes and fitness mentality, Dillon, 56, said he is headed up to Crown Point State Park in Corbett, and if he has enough “gas in the tank,” he will continue down to Multnomah Falls for a more than 45-mile trip.

“This is some of the best riding around,” said Dillon, who considers himself an avid cyclist when not working his day-job as a loan officer in Portland.

The narrow two-lane road winds you along the banks of the Sandy River, up through the farms, fields and tree-shaded countryside of Springdale and Corbett, right to the edge of some of the most breathtaking views of the Columbia Gorge, until spiraling back down the boulder-jagged ledges on the other side.

Rather than riding the shoulder of Interstate 84, more cyclists seeking challenging rides and epic views are taking the historic highway—built in 1922 as the nation’s first scenic highway.

But the ride is as beautiful as it is dangerous.

by: OUTLOOK PHOTO: CARI HACHMANN - Patterned after the Axenstrasse in Swizerland, the 73-mile Historic Columbia River Highway runs from Troutdale to the Dalles.As more cyclists share the historic highway, there is a movement to ensure the ride is safe and enjoyable for everybody who uses it— cars, trucks, cyclists, walkers, hikers.

“We’ve got to figure out how to co-exist,” said Kevin Price at a recent public meeting in Corbett.

Price is the Portland and Metro district manager for Oregon Parks and Recreation, one of the many agencies involved with restoring sections of the historic highway since 1987.

Turf war

Historically, cyclists riding through Corbett have been a challenge for local residents.

Many Corbett residents own bikes themselves and agree the road is shared and safety should be prioritized.

Other locals share a different attitude toward cyclists, one that involves the word “hate.”

As one Corbett citizen said, it is brought on a minority of “rogue” bicyclists who ride with a disregard of traffic laws.

In the early 1990s, Corbett farmers weren’t used to seeing hardcore cyclists from Portland flaunting spandex and mashing through town on the narrow roads, shared by logging trucks and other cars.

At one point the feud between frustrated locals and out-of-town cyclists became so furious, residents were scattering black tacks on the road to sabotage cyclists’ tires.

“It was pretty controversial,” said Peter Finley Fry, a Corbett resident who at the time served on the Multnomah County Planning Commission, the group tasked with resolving the “bike issue” on county-maintained roads east of the Sandy River. (The Oregon Department of Transportation dealt with cyclists on state routes.)

With safety at risk, town hall meetings were held and a compromise was sought.

In 1992, the county designated bike routes on certain Corbett roads in their East Sandy River Rural Area bikeway plan. The plan also suggested bike routes be re-paved and widened by at least four feet to allow enough space for bicycle use.

A bike task force made up of citizens from the Northeast Multnomah County Community Association also made recommendations to the county, which said not to include Corbett area roads in the bikeway plan until a majority of the community decided to adopt the plan.

“There were people who didn’t want bikes at all, and cyclists who wanted it all,” Fry said.

Town hall meetings were packed with Corbett residents concerned that allowing bikes to come through would cause more problems, like obstructing traffic and trespassing on private property.

According to public documents, the county did adopt the bikeways routes without the community’s vote. It is outlined on a map in the East Sandy River Rural Area plan available on the county’s website.

But the widening of county roads to create a 4-foot apron for bikes never happened, said Fry, who has moved on to become a planning consultant in Portland.

Safety risk

Bicycles on the Historic Columbia River Highway are still an issue.

The topic came up last week at a community meeting in Corbett when Heidi Beierle from the Gresham Area Chamber of Commerce asked for input for a bike tourism project in East Multnomah County, funded by a grant the chamber received.

Beierle, project coordinator, said the goal would be to make the region more hospitable for bikes via route information, bike lanes, signage, maps and other services helpful to cyclists.

The woman was met with a spectrum of opinions from local law enforcement and Oregon state park representatives to Corbett residents who have been mulling over the issue for years.

“It’s been a problem for a long time,” said Corbett resident Kathie Freund at a Community Association’s meeting.

Cyclists ride sometimes three and four abreast on the highway with no bike paths, she said.

At the same time, a lot of cars are coming through.

“There is no place for the cyclists to go, and cars can’t go around,” Freund said.

In describing the riding conditions on the historic highway, Dillon said it’s getting better. Cyclists and drivers are becoming more aware of each other, he said.

“But it’s still a defensive sport.”

On the scenic highway and back country roads, there is little paved shoulder, or more often than not, none at all.

Dillon usually rides on the solid white divider line, “At least there’s something there,” he said.

But if gravel or a branch is blocking what little shoulder there is, he’s forced into the roadway, which can be dangerous.

“You always have to be on the defense,” he said. “You can’t assume people see you or care about seeing you.”

Dillon said he’s had some close calls sharing the roads with cars in past, but none recently.

Why can’t we be friends?

The danger for cyclists also comes from drivers who are unaware of cyclists, Dillon said.

And, he added, “Some people out in the country don’t like (cyclists) riding on their roads and slowing them down,” he said.

In the end, Dillon said, “We just have to get along.”

Freund of Corbett agrees.

She said it’s been a learning process, but attitudes are changing.

Drivers are becoming more aware of cyclists, and cyclists of drivers, she said.

“We have to cooperate with each other,” Freund said.

And for those who don’t, they don’t have much choice.

“The cows have already left the barn,” Price said. “Bikes are coming. And they have just as much right to the highway as motor vehicles.”

This week ODOT announced the final link of a 34-mile scenic bike ride from Troutdale to Cascade Locks will soon open permanently for cyclists riding on the Historic Columbia River Highway.

The 1.6-mile segment of the Historic Columbia River Highway State Trail between John B. Yeon State Park and Moffet Creek also will be available to walkers, hikers and people in wheelchairs.

The new trail will be open to the public during its dedication ceremony Saturday, Sept. 14-15, but will close again until Oct. 31 while final repairs are made.

The last segment of the trail, which cost the Oregon Department of Transportation $8.1 million to complete, connects 26 miles of the Columbia River Historic Highway and 6.5 miles of the state trail.

Ultimately, ODOT hopes to extend the trail to Hood River, but at this point, no funding is available.

Shared involvement

Corbett resident Glenn Putnam said bicyclists should be more proactive in working with the city. It becomes a problem he said, when bike clubs don’t warn the city about an event and 500 bikes roll through town on a Sunday morning, surprising residents and disrupting traffic.

“There needs to be better communication between bikers and the community,” Putnam said.

He cites the Oregon Bicycling Racing Association as an example of a club that “tries hard to work with the city.”

The association has started a $250 scholarship, matched by the Northeast Multnomah County Community Association, for a Corbett High School senior to use for college.

Twenty years after seeing the bike plan he worked on for the county get shelved, Fry hopes to see it come to life.

“The blueprint is there,” he said. “It then becomes a priority for the county to spend money. To a large degree, money is spent to fix a squeaky wheel. Unfortunately, often the squeaky wheel is someone getting killed.”

Beirele is hosting community workshops Nov. 13-14 for Gresham and Columbia Gorge area residents who would like to get involved with or give feedback about bike tourism in East Multnomah County.

For more information about the workshops, visit www.GreshamChamber.org/BicycleTourism.



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