A month or two back, my mom approached me with an event, in June, she had read about that she said was right up my alley. Although my June was swamped, I was intrigued and started looking into it. She was not wrong. The event is called Ride the Willapa and it kicks off in Chehalis, WA, which is about 30 miles south of Olympia. This was the fourth annual ride for this event. It is 31 miles from one end to the other, and I knew I had to be part of it. It's advertised as "an all-ages and all-levels leisurely-paced bike ride on the Willapa Hills Trail", which is Washington state's newest rails to trails project. I quickly cleared my calendar for June 22 and 23rd.
My biggest concern for this ride involved the surface. There are wonderful pictures on the website, http://ridethewillapa.com/, but many of them showed a dirt or gravel surface. I was willing to ride on some unpaved surfaces, but I needed more information. I reached out to Chris Brewer, the ride coordinator for this event and asked him to give me a rundown on the trail surface. He responded quickly and thoroughly letting me know that the first five and a half miles were paved, but after that it was going to be an off-road experience. He explained that after the paved section, I would encounter 7 1/2 miles of really nice compact gravel, followed by 5 miles of slightly more loose gravel. That would take me to mile 18. Miles 18 – 22 would be deeper gravel, but hopefully the many riders in front of me would pack it down. The 9 miles past that are used by equestrians and he could not confirm that they would be doable by me. After going over all the information that Chris Brewer provided, I decided I had to give it a try and go the furthest distance I'd ever traveled on a non-paved surface.
I knew my mom was on board, but I needed at least one more person for support on this undertaking. My delightful girlfriend Celina was my first choice, she was quick to agree. We rented a hotel the night before, charged the batteries, and prepared ourselves for what was bound to be a beautiful ride.
We managed to get a few winks before heading off to the trailhead around 9 AM on Saturday morning. We were thrilled to see people of all ages heading off on the trail as we pulled up. Lots of children on bikes, parents pulling trailers with young tykes in them, and some older folks who were ready to put some serious miles on their bikes. I was the only wheelchair. We quickly unloaded and prepared ourselves for the day to come. While doing this, we were approached by a couple who follow my story and got a lot of encouragement which only motivated us more to undergo this challenge. After registering, we got our helmet numbers, used the facilities, and steeled our resolve for the day ahead.
As Chris promised, the first 5 miles were smooth and spectacular. We traversed farmland, seeing lots of cattle, old barns, and beautiful bridges. Some of the transitions from the pavement to the bridges were a little jolting, but totally doable. We crossed beautiful rivers, heard eagles overhead, and saw verdant understory beneath towering maples. The last 100 yards of this first section ended up being the most difficult, some thick gravel with a very uneven surface. We then crossed the highway, did a brief stop at the first aid station, and spent the rest of the day on dirt or gravel.
I was a bit nervous on what the bumps would do to my chair and body, my worries were eased after traveling a quarter mile on this new surface. It was very hard packed with a bit of leaf litter that further softened the ride. We crossed a few more rivers and soon came into a marshier biome. Scrub Jays flitted across the path, red-winged blackbirds and white crowned sparrows were heard all around us, and a headwind started to pick up. We enjoyed the exceptional scenery and conversed with other riders as they passed. We were charmed by the kiddos riding by us using good trail etiquette and announcing their presence, "on the left".
The terrain changed again, and we found ourselves in more of an oak woodland with the occasional wildflowers and woodpeckers drumming away. We were now traveling along a river on our left and the sounds of moving water added more charm to the ride. However, the wind was still at our face, and I was starting to feel a bit cold. We pulled off, took my temperature and realized I was down to 94.5°. Living in the Pacific Northwest and loving the outdoors as much as I do, my temperature drops somewhat frequently, but this was lower than I prefer. We looked at the map and realized we had a couple miles until the next aid station where there was access to a road. We put the hammer down and continued to our next stop where I could send my mom for the van so I could sit inside with the heater to get my core temperature up. Celina and I amused ourselves watching the various people out enjoying the ride, and being outdoors. It took about an hour and a half to get me close to 97°, but the weather had warmed, and the wind had died down. We decided to push on.
Since we had the van, we decided my mom would drive 5 miles up to the next aid station and then start riding back towards us so she could experience more of the trail. Celina and I powered on by ourselves, enjoying the now quieter, less trafficked trail since we were at the back of the pack. My temperature and spirits were higher, the trail was still smooth, and we got to ride side-by-side enjoying the day. After a couple miles of this, the trail left the river and got into a more prairie like setting. More barns in the distance, meadowlarks singing their song, and unfortunately, deeper gravel. I kept it at full speed to ensure I wouldn't get stuck, but it had gotten bumpy and noisy from my tires rolling through this deep stuff. We finally made it to the third aid station, mile 15, met up with my mom and discussed what to do from there. We could get in the van, call it a day, or we could try to keep pushing through this deeper gravel. We spoke with the people at the aid station and they told us about a bluegrass band and a beer garden about 5 miles up and we knew we had to make it at least that far. Celina was game, my mom drove off in the van to the next spot, and our adventure continued.
Those last 5 miles had a myriad of terrain and even more deep gravel. It was taking a toll on my battery, so we switched to the backup and I did my best to keep the chair on the trail. I was fishtailing all over at this point, and I will admit that I spun out a couple times. However, with bluegrass and cold beer in our future, we were well motivated. We came across some minor elevation change that brought us to a nice overlook of the river, the brambles and shrubs made a tunnel out of the trail. The surface had become more weedy and was becoming less developed with every mile. My shoulders were aching from the bumps, the chair was rattling more than usual, my concern was growing, and I was getting thirsty for a beer. Then we finally came to a lovely creamery, which had booths, lots of campers, a bluegrass band, and the beer we had ridden so far to enjoy. We had come 20 miles and decided to call it a day.
There were 11 more miles that we could've explored, however, being heavily used by equestrians, having lots more gravel, and increased elevation change, my body nor my chair were ready for that. So instead, we sat around a table enjoying the pot of gold at the end of this rainbow. We had seen some beautiful sites, been charmed by the variety of ages using the trail and shown that a power wheelchair could traverse the majority of this event. We were all delighted by the day and got a lot of praise from other riders and event volunteers. We had shown that this event was not just for all ages, but also for a variety of abilities. It was a ride to remember and I plan to be there again next year, hopefully I have demonstrated that chairs can enjoy this event and in 2020 I won't be the only wheelchair user Riding the Willapa.