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Last week I got an up-close look at one of the country’s most scenic bikeways. My guide was Jeanette Kloos, President of the Friends of the Historic Columbia River Highway, a new group that is working to restore and reconnect the highway to its previous glory.
Originially completed in 1922, the Historic Columbia River Highway is a marvel of road engineering. Referred to as a “poem in stone,” it stretches from Troutdale east to the Dalles, snaking high and low along the Columbia River Gorge. It was the first road in the U.S. to be built specifically as a scenic highway it’s now officially recognized as a National Scenic Byway and listed on the National Registry of Historic Places.
In the past century, the highway has been outmoded by Highway 84 and many parts of it are either impassable or in major disrepair. The dream of Kloos and the other Friends is to find the estimated $50 million it will take to realize their vision.
“It’s not going to be easy. This is a large project…typically historic highway renovations are on a much smaller scale. But we’ve got some expensive things to do, like build new crossings under I-84.”
Kloos knows the highway better than anyone. Back in 1986 she worked for the Oregon Department of Transportation as a scenic highway coordinator and was asked to develop an environmental impact plan for the Historic Columbia River Highway. What she thought would be a part-time, six-month project ended up lasting her entire career. She retired from ODOT last year and is now committed to seeing her vision for the highway completed.
Last week, Kloos and I, joined by Friends volunteer Ed Lewis, rode a 4.6 mile section of the highway that was re-opened back in 2000. We rode from just east of Hood River to Mosier along a perfectly paved path that is closed to motor vehicles (except antique cars, which are permitted by special permit a few times a year).
The completion of this section was a huge step forward, but there hasn’t been much activity since,
“We’re looking to get things going again. The opening of the Hood River to Mosier section got lots of great attention (NPR and the LA Times covered it)…but that was seven years ago.”
As we pedaled along, it was clear that Kloos has a lot of pride in this highway. We rode at a conversational pace, taking in the songbirds and the smells of spring. Perched high atop the Gorge, we couldn’t even hear the rumble of traffic on I-84 and it became just a small feature of fabulously expansive views.
“Will we finish by 2016? I hope so. I’m a dreamer…and it’s nice that I’m not the only one with the dream.”
Riding through the Mosier Twin Tunnels was an experience I won’t soon forget. As we approached, Kloos pointed out the rock catchment that was built to protect trail users from falling boulders. It can withstand 1,000,000 foot pounds of pressure, or a 5,000 lb rock doing a 200 foot free-fall.
As we approached the eastern terminus of the trail near Mosier, Kloos pointed out how some folks use the trail to commute and run errands in Hood River. There was something very pleasing to me about an old highway that is now only open to non-motorized traffic. “You’ve heard of rails-to-trails? Well this is road-to-trails,” Kloos said with a laugh.
On our way back to the trail head, Kloos stopped several times to remove twigs and other debris from the trail. From trail clean-up to more serious fund-raising and grant-writing, Kloos realizes the complete restoration of the highway is a monumental task,
“We certainly have a lot of work to do to make this happen. We’ve partnered with ODOT, Oregon State Parks, Cycle Oregon, and I’m busy giving talks to various groups and trying to spread the word. Will we finish by 2016? I hope so. I’m a dreamer…and it’s nice that I’m not the only one with the dream.”
Last October, she and a few other bigwigs gave U.S. Congressman Peter DeFazio an up-close look at the highway. It was a savvy move. When you’re looking for $50 million you need friends in high places.
If all goes as planned, Kloos and her supporters will completely re-connect and restore the Historic Columbia River Highway from the Dalles to Troutdale by 2016. That date would mark the centennial of the opening of the highway and would be a fitting end to Kloos’s 30-year involvement with the project.
Tomorrow, Kloos will throw a coming-out party of sorts when she hosts the first-ever Gorge Ride. The out and back route will be fully supported and will cover 38.5 miles of “world-class scenery” along the Columbia River Gorge.
Check out the Friends of the Historic Columbia River Highway website if you’d like to get involved with this project, or contribute to the effort.