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Naomi  The Biking Life

 by: Naomi Bloom  6/1/2009

On the Trail of the Sierra Cascades

Bil Paul is not the kind of cyclist you expect to find hammering at the front of the pack or bragging about his latest on-bike exploits. It seemed to me that, whenever he joined the same club rides as I did, he was the epitome of the casual rider. So imagine my surprise when I read in the Bike Bits e-letter from Adventure Cycling Association that their "man in the field Bil Paul" had completed research for the new Sierra Cascades Bicycle Route. My immediate reaction: How many Bil (with one -l-) Pauls could there be?

Then I remembered. Like me, Bil had published his own guide for touring cyclists. Only his was a biggie: "The Pacific Crest Bicycle Trail," chronicling a route from the Canadian border to Tecate, California -- now out of print and out of date.

No wonder Adventure Cycling wanted him to do the research. He is, quite frankly, the unrivaled expert on the route. OR Lake"This incredible new inland trail traces the Pacific Crest from Sumas, Washington, to Tecate," claimed Bike Bits. Along the way it offers "fabulous scenery, a host of great communities, and a string of major national parks and monuments... ."

All of which Bil covered last summer in his Prius, toting laptop, GPS equipment and camping gear. In all, he drove nearly 5,000 miles in 28 days. ACA reimbursed him for expenses, and Bil managed to save them a bundle in gas costs with his hybrid.

Bil's devotion to bike touring and mapping got started in the late '70s, when he put together a cross-country (south to north) route following the Mississippi River from New Orleans to La Crosse, WI. He self-published the result, "Crossing the U.S.A. the Short Way: Bicycling a Mississippi River Route."

In 1980 he started researching a route along the Sierra Nevada as close as possible to the Pacific Crest Hiking Trail. He rode 95% of the route "in one fell swoop" and produced another touring guide, "Bicycling California's Spine: Touring the Length of the Sierra Nevada." Sales were good enough to allow him to expand the route from Canada to Baja.

"Each summer I would take off for a 'nine-day week' of research touring with my biking companion and friend, Patrick Wickman, and we would cover as much ground as we could, heading further south each year." (Bil and Patrick had quite a few adventures; look for those stories in a future column.)

The final route covered 2,500 miles and crossed the Pacific Crest Hiking Trail 27 times over mostly lesser-traveled paved roads, with a few unpaved roads. It route went through six national parks (North Cascades, Crater Lake, Lassen, Yosemite, Kings Canyon and Sequoia). PCB Book Published by Marcus Libkind of Bittersweet Press in Livermore, a copy of "The Pacific Crest Bicycle Trail accompanied Bil last summer.

"Also, now that the route was published, each summer I began to take groups of touring cyclists along the Pacific Crest Bicycle Tail for a week at a time, for free."

Meanwhile, after being unable to get the book reprinted, Bil approached Adventure Cycling about adopting and mapping the Pacific Crest Bicycle Trail, like they had with other long-distance routes. No interest -- until about four years ago when ACA executive director Jim Sayer, whom Bil met when he passed through Truckee, resurrected the concept. "I was pretty darn pleased and honored," Bil told me. Renamed the Sierra Cascades Bicycle Route, Bil's Sierra Crest route has morphed into an all-paved itinerary from the Canadian border at Sumas, WA to the Mexican border at Tecate.

"Adventure Cycling maps have a great reputation around the world for catering specifically to touring cyclists," says Bil. "They provide the info [we] need, on tough paper that can stand wear, tear and water on the road. And AC route researchers have to record the exact specific information that AC cartographers need."

On the Road

"In my case, I was to be the first AC route researcher to use a whole new system of recording info for them," says Bil. "It involved using a spreadsheet on a laptop in a vehicle, and a handheld GPS system to record frequent waypoints along the route, also listed on the spreadsheet. They figured that if a 64-year-old guy like me could use the system, anyone could.

"I built a little table that fit over the passenger seat in the Prius, so that I could just lean to my right and use the laptop computer that sat on it, or use the GPS unit that also sat there."

Bil's foray began at Tecate last summer. At first he struggled with the system, finding it slow and complex to use. "I was recording things like campgrounds and how far they were off the route, libraries (for Internet access), stores, a sampling of motels and hotels, locations of towns, public service telephone numbers (police, medical, etc.), mileage points, road numbers, county lines, historical points of interest, bicycle shops, food stores and more. Oh yes, and besides the computer entries, I was also making some handwritten notes on large map atlases. Once in a while I had to hand-draw a map of a complicated intersection.

Laptop in car"Downloading the waypoints every few days into the computer was tricky and I needed to take great care to not lose them. I also had my own consumer car-mounted GPS system along, which greatly aided in my being able to find motels, libraries, campgrounds, etc. in cities along the way."

He worked seven days a week (with only one day off halfway through the trip). The days were long, normally from 7:00 am to 5:00 or 6:00 pm. He'd camp out two nights, then take a break with a night at a motel. It was already July, but he found many campgrounds that were nearly empty. "People tend to congregate at the most popular places, such as Lake Tahoe," he theorized, not off the beaten path.

"I didn't meet any touring cyclists along the way in the whole of California, except in the Lake Tahoe area. But once in Oregon and Washington, I met a fair number and got their pictures, learned where they were headed, and told them what I was doing."

Once in awhile he'd run into a pretty run-down campground. Would it be worth listing them? Only list them if they were the only choice for quite a few miles, he decided. And he'd ask motels if they wanted to be listed as a place for touring cyclists to stay. Most were delighted to be included, "but a few dour types said no, and I honored that." There were also some RV-oriented campgrounds who said no to touring cyclists' tents.

Finally, he detoured to chart a connector route between Sumas and Bellingham, WA, so that the Sierra Cascades route would connect with the Pacific Coast Bicycle Route as well as Amtrak and an airport.

No Shortage of Attractions

Bil thinks variety is one of the major draws of the Sierra Cascades Route (other than the number of national parks). Riding north to south, you'd start in the mountains and dense forests of northern Washington before plunging to the drylands east of the Cascades. You'd ride along the Columbia River Gorge, down the isolated Yakima River Canyon, then back again into forest, passing by Mt. St. Helens. In Oregon you'd pedal through hops fields and up and around magnificent Mt. Hood. Next is Ashland, with its Shakespeare festival and other cultural pursuits. Grassy plains would connect you to the Sierra Nevada range at Mt. Lassen. Then it's along the Sierra spine to Lake Tahoe, and along the eastern front range to Yosemite, where you'd cross to the western front. Keep heading south to the windmills of Tehachapi and, leaving the Sierra Nevada, down across the sparse, high desert to Lancaster, to climb again to the mountains around Los Angeles and San Bernardino. Eventually, you'd drop into arid, hilly country to Tecate.

"I hope that touring cyclists take to this new route and approve of the route choices I made," says Bil. "I will be interested to see who sets the record for traveling from Sumas to Tecate in the shortest time. I welcome any suggestions to improve the route after the initial maps are published."

That will be soon. "Watch for the maps to become available sometime in the winter 2009-2010," predicts Adventure Cycling routes and mapping director Carla Majernik. Or you can get a spectacular preview in early September on Adventure Cycling's Sierra Sampler tour. This week-long supported trip will go from Truckee and Lake Tahoe to Hope Valley, over Monitor Pass to Mono Lake and Mammoth.

As for Bil, he has other plans. "Now that this odyssey is over for me, I plan to continue riding Adventure Cycling's Great Divide Route along the continental divide. So far, I've ridden with others from Banff to Grand Teton National Park -- and I want to continue on the route to Mexico. One week each year!"

And he's already begun to ride and research yet another north-south route in California connecting all the historic Spanish missions. "This would create an entirely new theme for me to follow," he claims. "History!"

Naomi can be reached at naomibloom@earthlink.net

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