BAKER CITY, ORE., JULY 12-15–Every event has its own personality. Some folks are out there working hard to raise money for a charity or a club member in need, while others just want a quick jaunt down to the local watering hole and then back home to see if they can win that blue ribbon for this year’s chili cook-off. Looking for that right mix of amazing curves and camaraderie is not always easy to find—that is, unless you sign up for the Hells Canyon Rally in historic Baker City, Oregon.
The journey is the ride, and nothing could be truer than heading out Interstate 84 in the early hours of the morning. Just getting to Baker City is a long, hot journey. Despite the calendar saying it was July, thunderstorms and even snow are not unheard of in this remote part of the state in the summer. With that in mind, I donned my chaps, packed the rain gear and headed out to see what kind of curves await the riders on paths that retrace the Oregon Trail.
Once off the Gorge the ride turned hot and dry heading into historic Pendleton. Stopping for a quick bite and a quest for the home of Pendleton Whisky, this rider was set straight by the cute gal behind the counter of the Hamley Steakhouse. “Urban legend,” she states. “It’s Canadian.” Damn, really? Apparently the gal could read my mind, and she went on to say, “We make our own small-batch wheat whiskey.” Using local wheat, the small distillery keeps it real. Hamley’s has been making all things awesome for horsemen since 1883. Serious horsemen are akin to the owners of a Twin Cam steed—we don’t want cheap—and Hamley’s only makes and offers up top-quality goods. Given their reputation, how could I pass up the chance to experience the “real deal”? With my souvenir in hand, the Dyna hit the road, climbing into the mountains and racing the ominous thunderheads.
Pulling into downtown Baker City, it was obvious the light rain was having no impact on the positive street vibe. The Hells Canyon Rally, now in its 14th year, has made significant strides since it was little more than two young guys and their friends riding the back roads of eastern Oregon. Main Street, lined with block after block of bikes, defiantly set the tone for this hopping event, and the roar of arriving machines never dulled down. Heading towards the signup booth I spied local cheerleaders soaping down dirty hogs after a long day’s ride. Checking in, I found this donation-only wash was hoping to raise enough funds to outfit the squad at no cost to the hard-working parents of this small town.
Event coordinators Steve and Eric Folkestad were getting riders through the lines quickly, and their support staff (a.k.a. the family) answered route and event questions while hawking a fine array of T-shirts and ride pins to eager participants. Although the bike events were not until Saturday evening, posturing and posing was already taking place, including the sweet custom chrome-lined vendor row, and the Harley Girls sponsored by High Desert Harley-Davidson from Boise, Idaho, who provided top-notch eye candy and helpful tips on purchasing one of the many sweet rides for sale. With more than 900 preregistered bikes and 300 walk-ups on Friday, it’s a good thing this venue offers nine different “formal” routes and an unlimited opportunity to just create your own kick-ass ride.
Always a supporter of the event behind the scenes, local brewer Tyler Brown took a step into the light this year and opened the doors of his expanded digs at the Baker City Brewing Company. Across the way from Barely Brown Brewery, this state-of-the-art brewhouse offered up award-winning craft brews, burgers and homemade salads to weary riders. It was quickly apparent this venue was a hit; event staff had the chance to mingle with the crowd, riders caught up with friends made over the years and, most importantly, the low-key vibe allowed old and new friends to get out those maps and plot and plan the best route for Saturday’s ride. Asking just about every rider noshing on burgers and brats, “What’s your favorite ride?” the universal response was, “All of them!” With that sentiment, another round of rich Double IPAs cooked up by the up-and-coming brewmeister, Eli, were ordered and the plotting continued as darkness fell in the small town of Baker City.
Given the remoteness of the venue, lodging is limited to basically two options—a high-priced hotel or camping at the high school. For three nights it’s just 30 bucks out on the grass, but here standard amenities include hot showers onsite. You don’t have to be around the Folkestads for more than about five minutes to get the memo on who is going to benefit from the more than 1,500 riders pulling into town—the moolah goes straight to Baker.
I have to admit that throwing myself down on the ground after more than 400 miles of riding doesn’t sound that great—cheap, yes; but comfy, no. That is, until I find out that my 30 bucks goes straight to the high school. Oregon is not known for its generous tax base, and throwing cash to keep Baker High outfitted for the kids in the community is a no-brainer. On top of that, this is where the party is. Pitch your tent, pony up with that smooth, smoky beverage secured a few hours ago and soon you are whiling the evening hours away with a like-minded group of dedicated riders.
This is my first pony ride at the Hells Canyon Rally so I thought it was fitting to make my way out to the Hells Canyon Dam. Leaving Baker heading east on 86, the first thing you notice is that the road is in damn good shape. Federal dollars, thanks to Historic Byway designation, keep conditions top notch in this picturesque and historic canyon. Soon riders pass the Oregon Trail Interpretive Museum, where you can still see the deep ruts etched into the land from wagons more than 150 years ago. Continuing on, we soon cross into Idaho parallel to the Snake River. Throngs of riders pull to the side to enjoy that wind-in-your-hair freedom Idaho allows, strapping their helmets to the back of their bikes. Once crossing into Idaho, the curves intensify and the looky-loo days are over. Every bit of printed material for this event says ride within your limits—there is zero room for error. If you lose control, you’re either in the ditch or in the drink. So gearing down, my riding partner and I settled on a lower speed allowing us to weave smoothly for the next 11 miles out to the dam. The dam was first opened in 1967 when life was, shall we say, a little slower. Now, Homeland Security is carefully monitoring the road so bikes can no longer stop to enjoy the view from the top of the 330-foot spillway. You can, however, continue over the dam and take the very steep, tight turns down to the bottom of the dam for a chance to take a break and get that important “I was here” photo. A note of caution: The road is steep and has a hairpin turn that allows you to land on a small, informal rest stop. Plan your parking prior to hitting the stop; it’s on a tight apex and the possibility of dropping your bike is high.
Photos clicked, bikers were soon heading back to civilization in need of a welcome respite from the hot sun, and the good folks at Scotty’s Outdoor Supply had us covered with premium petrol, chili dogs the size of a small mountain goat and nice, cold brews to wet your whistle on this 95-degree day. A little people watching and rehydration, and it’s time to get back to town to participate in the evening’s festivities.
We arrived just as the bike show and vendor row were in full swing. Recalling the calls of a “carny” from your favorite childhood carnival, I was compelled to check out a poorly marked booth raffling tickets to win a gun. Only in Oregon, I thought. As my carny was describing the awesome pistol up for grabs, I asked him what the fundraiser was for. “Oh, oops,” he replied, still focused on the details of the Glock. “We are Bikers Fighting Cancer.” Started in 2002, this group of over 60 riders from Washington and Oregon focus on providing financial assistance to kids fighting cancer, as well as their families. One hundred percent of all money raised goes right to 12 families currently being supported by these silent heroes. Moments later, Blue Mountain Chapter President Bonez announced over the P.A. intimate details regarding that Glock. Turns out it was donated by Tanner Davis’s mom. Tanner was well known to the club, as his family has benefited from their hard work and dedication. Bonez went on to say that Tanner recently lost his battle—he was just 16. Not a dry eye was in the house, and the 20s were flying for the last round of tickets to support such a worthy cause.
Miss Oregon, Nichole Mead, was on hand to announce results of the bike show, public service awards to our Patriot Guard Riders and to hand out top-notch trophies. For the bike show, People’s Choice went to Bill Gilliland from Waldport. It took him two years to build his bike, but his efforts did not go unnoticed by the crowd. No detail was spared in restoring his 1948 Indian Chief with a customized sidecar. Public service awards were given to Patriot Guard Riders Santa, Lonnie and Shane (who was not on hand so the beautiful Miss Oregon stepped in to accept on his behalf). Heartfelt cheers went out to the guardsmen as they were publicly recognized for their tireless commitment to supporting our fallen heroes.
As the event wound down it was clear this ride was more than advertised. The official motto for the rally is, “If you don’t have fun here, give up!” Fun was easily found thanks to the feel-good vibe set by Steve and Eric. The duo changed the event to July and, for the first time in four years, there were no major rainstorms! Hell, how can you not have fun when riding under blue skies, sunshine and bone-dry conditions? More impressive than 188 curves in just 14 short miles was the overwhelming generosity of the riders supporting the local community. The red carpet is rolled out for the riders, making it easy to support the good people of Baker. Mark your calendars for July 10–14, 2014, because the Hells Canyon Rally is the embodiment of the trifecta: The rides are unbelievable, the townsfolk will treat you like family and all the while you are supporting the kids of Baker City.