Mountain town metamorphosis

Bike trails have helped boost the economy in Oakridge and Westfir

By John Gottberg Anderson / For The Bulletin

WESTFIR — Eric Staley vividly remembers the day in 1985 when the Pope & Talbot lumber mill closed down in Oakridge. More than 1,000 people, including his father, were instantly out of work.

“I remember seeing the look in my dad's eyes,” said Staley. “Having the rug pulled out from under him, after all those years he gave to the company ... It was hard.”

One year earlier, the Hines Lumber Co. in nearby Westfir had also permanently closed. When Pope & Talbot shut its doors, the neighboring towns — their joint population barely 4,000 — practically boarded up their windows and rolled up the sidewalks.

That was a generation ago. Offspring of men who made their living in the forests, young people like Staley and Benjamin Beamer, graduated from Oakridge High School and headed west to the Willamette Valley. They earned their degrees, found jobs in the larger towns and returned to Oakridge to visit, but not to live.

Not initially, that is. Beamer, now 45, has maintained at least part-time residence in Oakridge for two decades; he has helped to inspire a reshaped economy that now leans on outdoor recreation — especially mountain biking — instead of logs and plywood. Staley, 41, came full circle just eight months ago, when the Bend engineer-turned-entrepreneur bought an old bed-and-breakfast inn that once had been the main office for Hines Lumber.

“Oakridge has come through a metamorphosis,” said Beamer, chairman of a recreation organization called the Greater Oakridge Area Trail Stewards, or GOATS. “Coming back from where it was before, it has become something completely different.

“In the past, you wouldn't have seen a lot of the businesses you see now — the bicycle shops, the brewpub. And that's OK. Oakridge has a lot to offer. It's beautiful, and I can work and play right here. There's a reason I'm still here.”

Westfir Lodge

Staley had never worked in the hospitality industry before he bought the Westfir Lodge. A college track-and-field athlete, he earned degrees in psychology and business, took a job with Hewlett-Packard in Corvallis, then worked in quality control for a Bend engineering firm. But he frequently returned to Oakridge to visit his parents and about five years ago began studying that market for real estate.

“I saw a spark when the brewpub opened,” he said.

That was in 2009, when brewer/owner Ted Sobel established Brewers Union Local 180 as a “public house” on East First Street, in a district generously called Old Town. Even today, there isn't so much as a sign to persuade Eugene-bound motorists to detour a half-mile off state Highway 58, the main drag through Oakridge, for a pint of cask-aged, British-style ale.

But the family-friendly pub flourished, seeing much of its business from winter skiers and summer mountain bikers drawn to hundreds of miles of single-track trail in the surrounding hills and river valleys. And when Staley learned that its owners of 22 years were putting the Westfir Lodge up for auction, he sat up and took notice.

With a bid of $140,000, he became the owner in December. And he was immediately enchanted by what he calls “a gem of the Oakridge-Westfir area.”

About 98 miles southwest of Bend via U.S. Highway 97 and Crescent, Oakridge was an early-20th-century railroad hub that, following World War II, evolved into a lumber center along with the company village of Westfir, only four miles west. Oregon's longest covered bridge, the 180-foot-long Office Bridge across the North Fork of the Middle Fork of the Willamette River, remains a prominent landmark at the south end of the Aufderheide National Scenic Byway.

Staley's lodge, surrounded by a lush garden, stands opposite the bridge. “The building is a museum,” he said. “It's definitely inspirational. More than anything I've ever done, I think of it as a canvas that I can shape as I want.”

The previous owners had left it with a Victorian ambience. “I decided to minimize the pink color palette and the doilies,” Staley said. “I wanted to make it more a place where the lumberjacks had once come. So I let the house talk. I listened to its stories about the rivers, the trains, the local players. And I asked myself, how can it best serve the community? As a hotel? A restaurant?

“Ultimately, this is an economic redevelopment project. And I love that part of it.”

Nancy Lochrie is the resident manager and cook. Oakridge-area locals rave about her gourmet meals, served morning, noon and night from Wednesday to Sunday. Her staff help to maintain nine guest rooms — five of them with private baths — and an artsy decor that includes a solar-powered bicycle-sprocket chandelier in a spacious common room.

“We'll be more refined next year,” Staley promised. “We're just getting the systems in place and implementing them. That will result in better service and more polish.”

Mountain GOATS

“The Westfir Lodge is definitely filling a niche,” said Beamer. “And by next year, I think you'll see several other new places pop up.”

The son of a forest ranger, Beamer left Oakridge with his family when he was in junior high. But he returned as a college student to work for the U.S. Forest Service himself. “I found myself going back and forth between Oakridge and Eugene,” he said. “And at the time, I was able to buy a three-bedroom, two-bath home in Oakridge for about the rental price of my off-campus apartment.”

An avid mountain biker since the mid-1990s, Beamer got more thoroughly involved in 2008, when a grant from the Rivers, Trails and Conservation Assistance Program of the National Parks Service enabled Oakridge and Westfir to plan and develop a system of trails.

“We looked at how we could tie Forest Service trails into the community,” Beamer said. “We were able to pull people together and talk a lot about our vision for the community.” And that was a stimulus, he said, for what has become the region's biggest recreational draw.

In 2009, the volunteer trail-building team became GOATS, which partnered with the International Mountain Bicycling Association as one of its five pioneer chapters; four years later, the number has grown to 130. The organization's role, Beamer said, is maintaining existing trails — “24-inch ribbons of dirt through the mountains,” he called them — and actively building new trails and trailheads.

As a result, Oakridge and Westfir are now surrounded “by about 500 miles of trails, including 350 miles specific to mountain bikes,” said Beamer, and he's seen that system change the way the towns identify themselves.

“I've been around here long enough to see the changes in the community, from the timber industry going away and creating a real estate vacuum, to where it is today,” he said. “For a lot of years, people had a view of Oakridge as a down-and-out community. I'm not blind; we still have a long way to go. But I see mountain biking as a piece of the puzzle.”

Estimating that every bike carried on every car is worth $100 to the local economy, Beamer said the recreation “has really changed the community in a positive way, internally as well as externally.”

“It's good to be 'something,'” he said. “There's a lot of difference between being known as 'a former timber town' and being recognized as a mountain bike destination.”

At the Mercantile

Oakridge's mountain-biking hub, I quickly learned, is Willamette Mountain Mercantile. Owner McKenzie Bowerman has relocated to Coburg, near Eugene, but a dedicated staff continues to sell and rent bicycles and accessories to avid bicyclists from around the world.

On my recent visit to the Mercantile, I was greeted by Erika Coyer, who together with her husband, Norm Coyer, owns the upscale Double Diamond Lodge on Hills Creek Reservoir, five miles southeast of Oakridge. She sold me a fine, weatherproof trail map detailing every trail in the region, and shared more knowledge of the best trails to ride.

Coyer directed me to get in touch with Randy Dreiling, director of the Oakridge-Westfir Chamber of Commerce and owner of Mountain Bike Oregon and the Oregon Adventures, which operates a recreational shuttle service.

Dreiling, 45, is as hard-core a mountain biker as you're likely to find: “I have old pictures of me when I was 3 and 4 years old, on a tricycle with a bucket on my head,” he said.

Dreiling has been in Oakridge since 2002. “I had looked at doing what I'm doing now in the early '90s,” he said, “but the time wasn't right. It was a different vibe then, with the mills having recently closed. I waited it out, and today, 99 percent of the people here love mountain bikers, or at least are just neutral.”

And the economic effect? “I always say it's not the end-all and be-all, but it clearly has an impact,” Dreiling said. “If (mountain biking) wasn't there, there would be a lot fewer jobs in the summer.

“We have a ski resort nearby (Willamette Pass), but most people are from Eugene and they just pass through. The same is true of hunting and fishing seasons. The biking season is more spread out, and we have so many trails, people sometimes come to Oakridge and stay a week.”

Beamer and Dreiling are well-known in the national mountain-biking community. Both appeared in a widely circulated 2011 documentary movie, “Pedal-Driven,” and Beamer has testified before Congress on behalf of mountain bikers.

“We're a small town with small-town charm,” said Beamer, “and there are lots of friendly people to show bikers the right direction. And if you go to the Mountain Mercantile, there is always somebody willing to point things out and make suggestions for rides.”

Where to ride

I asked both Beamer and Dreiling to recommend local rides. Both men cautioned me that the Oakridge-area terrain is not as “beginner-friendly” as the Bend area's. “Our country is a bit steeper than Bend, and more exposed,” Beamer explained.

“We're working on some more beginner trails,” he said. “but most are intermediate and advanced. I find the trails in Bend to be faster and longer than ours in Oakridge, so that a good 20-mile ride there is equal to a 10-mile ride here.”

“There's a lot more climbing in Oakridge, even if you start by taking a shuttle to a trailhead,” Dreiling said. “In other words, you're earning it.”

Best known of the area's routes may be the Alpine Trail, beginning 15 miles north of Westfir off the Aufderheide Highway.

My trail map describes it as a “big kahuna” of Oakridge bike trails, “a one-way trail with over 3,000 feet of descending on hard-packed, banked corner, huge tree, big view, near perfect single-track.”

“It's what a lot of people come to ride,” said Beamer. “But it's probably not my favorite. Others are equal or better.”

A longer, full day's ride is the Middle Fork Trail, which descends 2,100 feet in 40 miles, following the Middle Fork of the Willamette River from its source at Timpanogas Lake southwest of Crescent Lake. Dreiling's Oregon Adventures takes reservations for shuttle service: “The price is good,” said Beamer, “and the shuttle might help you extend your ride by a couple of hours.”

Beamer said his favorite ride is the 23 miles around 5,400-foot-high Waldo Lake, considered to be one of the purest lakes in the world. “It's a very unique backcountry experience,” he said. “There are not a lot of places where you can ride along the crest of the Cascades, through subalpine forest at the edge of wilderness.”

And while that trail can be challenging for beginners, Beamer said, “it's something a beginner can achieve. Pace yourself, make sure you have plenty of food and water, and give yourself the day.”

Road cyclists are not excluded from the Oakridge fraternity; indeed, the 60-mile Aufderheide Scenic Byway, linking the Willamette Pass (state Highway 58) and McKenzie Pass (state Highway 126) highways, is a favorite of those who prefer paved surfaces.

If you go

Information

• Oakridge/Westfir Chamber of Commerce. 46375 State Highway 58, Oakridge; 541-782-4146, www.oakridgechamber.com

• Travel Lane County. 754 Olive St., Eugene; 541-484-5307, www.eugenecascadescoast.org

Lodging

• Best Western Oakridge Inn. 47433 State Highway 58, Oakridge; 541-782-2212, 800-937-8376, www.bestwestern.com. Rates from $106

• Bluewolf Motel. 47465 State Highway 58, Oakridge; 541-782-5884, www.bluewolfmotel.com. Rates from $45

• Double Diamond Lodge. 49945 Kitson Springs Road, Oakridge; 541-782-5800, www.2diamondlodge.com. Rates from $130

• Oakridge Lodge & Guest House. 48175 E. First St., Oakridge; 541-782-4000, www.oakridge-lodge.com. Rates from $98.10 (private room), $43.60 (dormitory bunk).

• 72 Oaks Bed & Breakfast. 47863 State Highway 58, Oakridge; 541-782-1137, www.72oaks.com. Rates from $85

• The Westfir Lodge. 47365 First St., Westfir; 541-782-3103, www.westfirlodge.com. Rates from $75

Dining

• Big Mountain Pizza & Chicken. 47527 State Highway 58, Oakridge; 541-782-9520. Lunch and dinner daily. Budget to moderate

• Brewers Union Local 180. 48329 E. First St., Oakridge; 541-782-2024, www.brewersunion.com. Lunch and dinner, Thursday to Monday. Budget

• Lee's Gourmet Garden. 47670 State Highway 58, Oakridge; 541-782-2155. Lunch and dinner, Tuesday to Sunday. Budget

• Lion Mountain Bakery. 48273 E. First St., Oakridge; 541-782-5797. Breakfast and lunch, Wednesday to Sunday. Budget

Attractions

• Greater Oakridge Area Trail Stewards (GOATS). P.O. Box 584, Oakridge, OR 97463; www.oakridgegoats.org

• Oregon Adventures. 47921 State Highway 58, Oakridge; 541-968-5397, www.oregon-adventures.com

• Willamette Mountain Mercantile. 48080 State Highway 58, Oakridge; 541-782-1800, www.oakridgebikeshop.com

Expenses

Gas, Bend to Oakridge-Westfir, 204 miles (round-trip) at $3.80/gallon: $31.01

Lodging (two nights, with breakfast), Westfir Lodge: $170

Dinner, Westfir Lodge: $35

Trail map purchase, Willamette Mountain Mercantile: $12

Lunch, Lion Mountain Bakery: $10

Dinner, Brewers Union Local 180: $24

TOTAL: $282.01

Next week: North Cascades National Park, Wash.

Brewers Union Local 180

If Oakridge has an unofficial community center, it is Brewers Union Local 180, which this week is celebrating its five-year anniversary.

When owner and brewer Ted Sobel, a 22-year Oakridge resident, established the pub in 2009, it was out of his love for the pub tradition of the British Isles.

“Most small towns in England have at least one pub,” he said, “so I thought I would give it a try here.” And he went out of his way to make it a “public house” in every sense of the term, right down to a paperback library, and a miniature pool table and games for children.

“A public house is primarily a social center and meeting place,” Sobel said. “Food and drink is not the focus (in the United Kingdom). I have tried to get as close as possible to the British and Irish concept, living within the restrictions of the state.”

To that end, the Brewers Union offers rarely seen cask-conditioned ales, which Sobel described as “the traditional drink of Britain.”

“I went over there several times to learn the art,” he said. “Cask ales are living products, naturally carbonated by residual sugars and yeast in the cask, (so) the carbonation level is softer. They are served at cellar temperature, which is between 50 and 55 degrees.” The comparative warmth, Sobel said, brings out more subtle flavors than in keg beer. What's more, the percentage of alcohol is lower, “usually between 3.5 and 4.5 percent, since they are meant to be consumed in quantity during an evening's session.”

But Sobel is realistic: “I knew that the pub couldn't live off the locals,” he said.

“I wouldn't have opened the pub if it weren't for outdoor recreation. I had been watching the upward swing of mountain biking in Oakridge and figured there would be enough traffic in the summer months to keep the place going.

“In the winter, Willamette Pass brings us skiers. During the offseason, spring and fall, we don't fare so well, so we shut down to just five days a week. It's very much a seasonal business.”

— John Gottberg Anderson