On one Saturday every May, thousands of Central Oregon residents gather as they have for 40 years to do what they love best — participate in a variety of sports.
During four frenzied hours, they ski, bicycle, paddle and run to the finish line of the annual U.S. Bank Pole Pedal Paddle race, which in the high desert city of Bend holds more cachet than a berth on the Olympic team.
“I won ‘PPP’ three times and went to the Olympics three times (for cross-country skiing in the 1980s), and I’m way more famous in Bend for winning ‘PPP,’” said Dan Simoneau — now nordic director for the Mount Bachelor Sports Education Foundation, which stages the event.
The race begins just below the summit of 9,065-foot Mount Bachelor, 22 miles southwest of Bend on the crest of the Cascade Range, and finishes at Les Schwab Amphitheater on the banks of the Deschutes River. Winners are inevitably Olympic-caliber athletes. But this is more than a race. It’s a community festival.
For every athlete who tackles the course solo, there are hundreds of others who team with friends and turn it into a relay. There are men’s, women’s and coed groups, divided by age intervals, and even a category for company teams. Many competitors dress as if it’s Halloween, and everyone looks forward to the beer garden at the finish line.
Bend does, after all, boast more craft breweries than any other town of its size (85,000) in the world. There are 27 in all, nearly one for every 3,000 people.
Pole Pedal Paddle is just one day in a year, but it’s symbolic of every other day on the 12-month calendar: Outdoor recreation plays a major role in the lives of those who reside here, as well as for throngs of vacationers.
“We’re the only place I know that can offer four seasons of world-class recreation, all in the same day,” said Steve Porino, a broadcast journalist for NBC and Universal Sports and a Bend resident.
Geography plays a huge role. Flanking the Deschutes, a Columbia River tributary, the city sits at 3,500 feet elevation between the volcanic Cascades —summits swathed in snow, slopes covered with Ponderosa pine forests — and the juniper-and-sage badlands of the Great Basin. Annual precipitation is only about 12 inches, with fewer than 24 inches of winter snow. Average temperatures range from the 30s in winter to the low 80s in summer.
Along with recreation, this mild climate lends itself to booming cultural scene. Visitors who come to play can immerse themselves in fine music, film, art and more.
“Bend is widely regarded as the premier outdoor playground of the United States,” said Visit Bend president Doug La Placa.
Boosted by a new whitewater park scheduled for completion in 2016, aficionados of rafting, kayaking and especially stand-up paddling (SUP) are enraptured by opportunities on their doorstep.
On any given afternoon, you can stand on the footbridge that crosses the Deschutes in the heart of Bend’s Old Mill District and watch paddlers of every persuasion make their ways down the river. During the dog days of summer, they are joined by scores of “floaters” — and sometimes, yes, their dogs — who beat the heat on a variety of rubber rafts, inner tubes, air mattresses and other vessels.
The new city project, called the Colorado Dam Safe Passage, incorporates a central whitewater play area with a riparian corridor and a channel through which boaters and floaters can safely travel without portaging around a once-hazardous dam. The central whitewater area is being developed by the Bend Paddle Trail Alliance, with computer-controlled features to alter wave patterns.
Scores of bicycles ply the roads of Bend. For many residents, it’s a preferred means of commuting to and from jobs, as designated bicycle lanes are well marked throughout the city. On July 4, bikes actually paralyze downtown traffic, as thousands of two-wheeled vehicles jam the streets in the unsanctioned but annual “Freedom Ride.”
That event precedes, by three weeks, the five-day Cascade Cycling Classic, an elite professional stage race that has attracted most of North America’s top cyclists and teams during its run of more than 30 years. It is highlighted by a twilight criterion, a fast-paced loop through downtown streets that is Bend’s No. 1 spectator event of the year.
Bend is also a center for mountain biking, with a network of 277 miles of well-maintained single-track trails an easy ride from the center of town. Mount Bachelor now has a lift-served bike park for downhill runs. There’s plenty of year-round road-biking terrain in the region. And cyclo-cross, an all-terrain bicycle race that is growing in popularity, has twice held national championships in Bend.
For those who like the idea of bicycling without a lot of exertion, Bend also has electric bikes. “It’s so fun to see our customers light up with smiles, as they rediscover the joy of riding a bike,” said Kevin Rea, owner of Let It Ride!, which stocks Pedego bikes.
Feet on the Ground
For those who prefer recreation with their feet on the ground, Bend has plenty of that. There are 5k and 10k “fun runs” almost weekly from spring through fall, along with a couple of half-marathons, marathons and triathlons. Heading the list — and featuring each one of those different races — is the late-June Pacific Crest Sports Festival in Sunriver, a resort village 15 miles south of Bend.
The Pacific Crest Trail, recently made famous in the movie “Wild,” starring Reese Witherspoon, extends through the Cascades’ Three Sisters Wilderness south of McKenzie Pass, just 40 miles west of Bend. It is the highlight of a region that has no shortage of great trails for day hikers and long-distance backpackers.
For outdoors lovers who prefer to go up, straight up, Smith Rock State Park satisfies every desire. Located 30 miles north of Bend on a crook in the Crooked River, this venue is renowned as the birthplace of sport climbing in the United States. More than 1,800 separate routes engage rock climbers as they ascend cliffs that tower 500-plus feet above the river.
In golf, one doesn’t often risk life and limb, but don’t tell a diehard player that the game is any less challenging. There are more than two dozen golf courses within a half hour’s drive of Bend, including those designed by famed golfers Jack Nicklaus (Pronghorn), Bob Cupp (Crosswater at Sunriver) and Peter Jacobsen (Brasada Canyons).
Perhaps none is more innovative than Tetherow, whose links are the creation of resident Scottish course designer David McLay Kidd. It was here that surfing legend Laird Hamilton introduced his GolfBoard to the Pacific Northwest in late 2013, an invention that he hopes will speed up and revolutionize the game of golf.
Honored last year as “best new product” by the Professional Golfers Association, the device is an evolving adaptation of an electric skateboard, steered by weight shifting but sufficiently balanced to carry a full golf bag on front. “We’ve found that the distraction (of boarding) takes golfers out of their heads and improves their golf game,” Hamilton said. “We all want a change of perspective in a familiar environment.”
So successfully has it been received in Oregon, and at some 200 courses around North America and Europe, that GolfBoard Inc. has established world headquarters in Bend.
Long before Bend became a destination of renown for golf, bicycling or stand-up paddling, the former logging village was a winter-sports town. Mount Bachelor (then Bachelor Butte) ski resort opened in 1958 with a pomalift and two rope tows. Today it has grown to become the largest alpine resort in the Cascades.
Ten chairlifts serve Bachelor, and another is under construction. From the summit of the dormant volcano, skiers and snowboarders can descend in any direction, with a vertical drop of 3,365 feet. The area claims nearly 3,700 acres of skiable terrain. And although 2014-15 was a bad season for snowfall (only about 17 feet), a record 55 feet fell just four years earlier, and the annual average is 38 feet.
Bachelor is a hub for other winter activities, too. It has 56km of nordic skiing trails (with a separate rental center), snowshoeing and even dog sledding. Several other snow parks in the resort’s vicinity serve additional trail networks along with snowmobile riders. Backcountry terrain in the Three Sisters Wilderness is readily accessible. At least half a dozen sporting-goods stores in Bend offer rentals, sales and information.
Broadcaster Porino, a veteran of World Cup skiing and major cycling events who could live anywhere, is sold on Bend.
“Bend offers my perfect day in a way no other place does,” he said. “At heart, I’m a skier. In spring, I can rise with the sun, chase it around the circumference of a volcano for that perfect corn snow, and knock off by noon. By the time I hit town, I’m going to bump into spring or summer weather. If it’s only mid-50s, I’ll mountain bike. In the 70s, I’ll road ride and fish down on the middle Deschutes. Between steelhead and trout, we have great fishing all four seasons.”
Most appealing to him, Porino said, is that “it really isn’t a resort town. There’s a sense of permanence. Kids have grandparents here. I’ve lived in, and traveled to, countless recreation-rich resort towns where authentic local spots are few and far between. They’re everywhere in Bend. We’re an island of civilization in a sea of open space and recreation.”