“The Dark Divide 300 is a challenging mixed-terrain cycling route that traverses the expansive ancestral lands of the Squaxin Island Tribe, Nisqually Tribe of Indians, Cowlitz Indian Tribe, and Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde, through what is known commonly as the southern Cascade Mountain Range in Washington State, which is encapsulated in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest.”
-Ben Everett, route creator
In June of 2022, a group set out to pre-ride the course of the planned Dark Divide 300 bikepacking race. Their efforts and experience across that terrain have been documented in the recently released short film The Dark Divide by Mercator Films.
Below, an account of the pre-ride by one of the riders:
I grew up in a small town on the rocky coast of Maine, and visited Washington state for the first time in 1999 for a family reunion. In addition to spending time with relatives in Olympia, my parents made it a point to bring my brother and I on a short day hike from the Paradise lodge up onto the melting late summer snowpack. At that time, we called the largest mountain Rainier but I now know that this peak is Tahoma, named by the people who lived here first and live here to this day. I returned in 2015 and again visited family, and again took a day hike, this time further east, gazing upon the largest peak of the range from a saddle near the junction of Naches and Cayuse passes.
In the years since then, I’ve been lucky enough to continue exploring this zone from the saddle of my camp-kit laden bicycle on various multi-day adventures. Bikepacking has become a great source of joy to me as I develop my strength and skill, build close friendships, and connect directly with the forests, rivers, and peaks of this amazing topography.
This summer I had the good fortune to be invited to complete recon of a route called The Dark Divide 300, developed by Evergreen Gravel Racing in Olympia. Some of the terrain was familiar, a good portion of it promised to be difficult, and the entirety connected a region of deeply historic cultural and geological history. We were invited to ride the route as a group, and also to enter into a conversation with each other and ourselves about the Indigenous history of the land, and our recreation amidst the trees, rivers, and rocks that surround us.
Our success in completing this route safely hinged entirely on our ability to work together as a group. I’ve ridden my fair share of mileage with fine people, but the crew that approached this challenge brought an amazing tapestry of experience, humor, kindness, and strong legs that kept me grounded through some tough times.
The first day of planned riding brought eastward out from the coastal fog of Olympia towards the Cascadian foothills. Our first highpoint came and went, and spirits were high as the sun crept towards its apex. We took our shoes off to wade through the swiftly flowing Cott Creek, and then began the second burly climb of the day.
Just like the jar of natural peanut butter in Ben’s third bottle cage, separation occurred. The High Rock viewpoint became a nap spot as we waited for the party to re-gather, before sliding down some shady snowed-in dirt roads, and bombing down into Packwood as the sun slipped below the ridgeline high above.
John O’Brien, featured in the film, kindly offered us space on his property to camp for the evening. He greeted us late that night with a roaring fire, cold clean water, and a dizzying view of midsummer stars as conversations lulled and our eyes slammed shut.
Our second day held the crux we’d discussed ad nauseum for several months. Higher than average snowpack had not succumbed to summer temperatures, and our route crossed directly through an area of potentially feet-deep snow. The base of the climb arrived soon enough, despite a later-than-planned departure from Mr. O’Brien’s hospitality. Perhaps we knew deep down the ordeal that awaited us.
We climbed several thousand feet up from the river bank, on dusty and hot grades. I soaked my cap many times in the meager creeks, cooling myself and feeling the sweat drip out of every pore. Birdsong, the crunch of my tires across the soil, and my own labored breathing fell into a loose rhythm. Despite the effort of climbing this heavy bike, I remembered to look up, and out, and stare at the hundreds, thousands, millions of trees, leaves, and beetles that teemed on all sides. Summer in the high country creates a buzz that cannot be matched. A brief rest at the top before plunging onto the Sunrise Trail which would connect us to Juniper Ridge, Jumbo Peak, and the Dark Divide Roadless Area. Once again, separation occurred. We quickly became strung out, despite the slow pace imposed upon us by conditions: Deeply rutted moto trails filled with last winters snow, thawed and hardened every day, creating a puzzle-like section of pushing, sliding, cursing, pedaling, climbing, and staring at the dwindling water in our bottles. Why had we come out here? How could we make it through 15 more miles of this? We began to unravel at this point, but the day was far from over.
At four in the afternoon, we re-gathered as a group, at the saddle on the northeast side of Jumbo Peak. Bruised, fatigued, thirsty, and sunburnt, we ate an entire box of fig newtons and considered our options. Time slowed. Would months of planning end in a hasty retreat back the way we came? We would still have to climb up and over Babyshoe Pass to stay on pace and reach our support vehicle to confirm that we were okay. At one point, we all agreed that turning back was the safest and most secure option. Each voice spoke, shared their aches and pains, willingness to continue, and fears about the unknown conditions ahead. Another pause. Just the wind and the sun now, no water or birdsong to provide soundtrack. Our hearts beating loudly at our exposed and committed position. We weren’t in danger, but we needed to move. I don’t remember exactly how, but someone suggested we continue on, and no voice opposed. If I had been there alone it would not have been an easy call. But our mutual trust buoyed the spirit, and ignited the spark that had brought us all together in the first place. We would ascend to the unknown.
We were rewarded for our courage with the most surreal, stunning mountain panorama I have ever experienced. It felt otherworldly to stand in the middle of the distant towering volcanoes of Tahoma, Wy’east, Loowit, and Pahto. On maps today, you would see this named as Rainier, Adams, St. Helens, and Hood, but I encourage you to learn their first names. We were there. The intensity and remoteness of the terrain begged the question of how many others had been here before us. In this century and the previous, numerous hikers. But what about in the times before then? I encourage you to read and research to gain more knowledge about this history. It lives today through the descendants of the first people to live in this amazing place, in libraries, and on the internet. You’ll be surprised by what you may learn about your own locality, names of a nearby town or river through some intentional reading of Indigenous place history.
We descended from the high point, back to the shaded snowy trails that would characterize the next 5 hours. Once again the rubber band would stretch, but did not snap. Preston and Ben were moving at a slower pace, and vocalized that if they needed to spend the night on the mountain, they were okay with it. We agreed to wait at the bottom, and return upwards in the morning if they had not yet arrived. This was a strange weight to carry as we traversed and descended back to the relative safety of the Lewis River Road, pavement, and a nearby campsite. We collected ourselves briefly in the darkness, reflecting on the effort, and wondering where our two friends were, and in what state. At this moment we assumed that they were hours behind us, or had stopped for the night.
Miraculously, from between the trees, two lights emerged. They returned to us. There were tears and cries of joy. We completed the final moves of the day, and slept near a river at a campsite just large enough to accommodate everyone. Ben Rainbow and I stayed up, still twitchy with adrenaline and dried everyone’s socks by the fire. When it finally arrived, sleep was deep and uninterrupted.
Day three embodied the spirit of our trip. We took stock of our ordeal the previous day, and re-routed to Goose Lake for a cold water reset. The high mountain snow, transformed through heat and gravity became our playplace for an hour or so. We were bonded in the difficulty of the day prior and celebrated the strength of the group to have pushed well outside of our individual comfort zones. That night, we camped early, made a fire, and ate heartily.
The morning of day four, we reviewed the map of the remaining distance and broke camp. Coffee, cold water, dry bibs, and back into the forest. We climbed back up and out from the eastern side of the range, and felt the new air of the lands to the west. It was refreshing in the afternoon heat, and drew to mind the immensity of the ecology around us. The forest was alive around us in 360 degrees, but we could only perceive as much as our senses could reach. Out of sight and earshot, life blossomed, decayed, dripped, and sprouted as it had for tens of thousands of years. Old growth got another day older. Riverstones became one day smoother. Mycelium grew another day more deeply entwined with the roots.
At some point we emerged from the forest one last time and were plunged back into the peri-urban sprawl of Vancouver, WA and Portland, OR, two centers of human habitation that sit on opposing sides of the mighty Columbia River. This is another great opportunity, dear reader, to consider the history of those place names. Before long, we were on the bright green bike lanes of downtown Portland, and soon again after that, eating a meal together that hadn’t emerged from our framebags. The ride had reached its end. It wasn’t until months later when we viewed the film that the adventure finally felt complete. The words of John O’Brien and Kris Peters brought back fragmented memories of conversation and sensation. The path behind us opened again, and came alive through storytelling. I will be forever grateful to my friends who rode with such strength and mindfulness, and to the filmmakers for capturing it so elegantly.
For updates on racing the Dark Divide 300 in the summer of 2023, follow @evergreen_gravel_racing on Instagram.
Photos by Sierra Jessup, Ben Everett