Every year for the past decade and a half or so, the Sang-Froid Riding Club out of Portland, Oregon, embarks on a ride east to Sumpter, its annual “Goldrush Ride,” laying down rubber on some of the most unfrequented and beautiful backroads the state has to offer. MotoUSA’s contributing editor Courtney Olive is part of the SFRC and invited me along for this year’s ride. I had a 2015 Kawasaki Ninja 300 ABS in the garage (nearly the same machine Olive piloted this year, though his 2014 model benefitted from a number of aftermarket mods) so decided to head out for a weekend of travel to see how the small-bore bike would handle the near 1000-mile ride.
Bike and Rider Prep
The 2015 Ninja 300 I rode is completely stock except for a fresh set of Bridgestone Battlax Hypersport S20 EVO tires. Kawasaki had given the machine a thorough going-over prior to the trip, so mechanically the machine was dialed and ready to go.
I was expecting decent weather and planned to stake out a spot on the grass in the city park of Sumpter to serve as the night’s resting place after Saturday’s ride into town. So I got a pair of dry bags to pack my clothes, a sleeping bag and a pad. No panniers, tank bag or top case, just lashed the two bags to the pillion seat with a pair of ratchet straps covered with a bungee net to keep anything from flapping around in the wind. I packed my Chrome Industries Motor Barrage Backpack with a GoPro, handheld camera, a waterproof over jacket, a Leatherman, some zip-ties, snacks and was ready to set off.
Friday – Medford to Madras – 215 miles
The official “Goldrush” riders would leave from Portland on Saturday morning, so to forego a long day on Interstate 5 getting to the start point, I decided to head northeast through a bit of the mountain roads in my backyard to get to Highway 97. This took me up Highway 62 and 230 through the Umpqua National Forest to Mt. Thielsen, winding up through the Cascade Range. It’s a tame route, but gorgeous with numerous long, gradually sweeping corners and plenty of shade thanks to the apparently endless expanses of conifer trees. A welcome element in a region that regularly sees above 90-degree temperatures at this time of year.
Higher up into the mountains however, clouds were accumulating and the skies were turning grey. I crossed over plenty of recently dampened asphalt, but was spared the actual rain at that point.
As familiar roads gave way to new terrain, I started to feel a bit exposed, a bit underprepared on the Ninja. An excess of freedom that created an unnerving feeling, the result of too many years dependent on the four walls of a car for comfort during journeys like this. No huge suitcase packed to the brim with contingencies, just a few essentials and the will to move forward. The threat of rain obviously didn’t help, my Scorpion Covert jeans not the most waterproof item I could have chosen to wear. A rookie mistake, for sure.
The Ninja 300 was great in these conditions for the most part. Mountain roads are a breeze and it has no trouble coasting in the 55 – 60 mph range, leaving plenty to spare in the event of a need to pass. The Bridgestones provided excellent road feel, translating changes in pavement texture well through the bars and pegs. There was never a moment I lacked for grip, even when the road was damp.
Where its shortcomings in stock form arise, for touring duty at least, are in wind protection and seat comfort. I had expected more pain in my back, wrists and arms owing to the sporty design, but the ergos are actually closer to standard than sportbike. Sitting straight up was easy and comfortable, but comes with a constant dose of wind to the chest and helmet. The seat was perhaps the most troublesome though, creating a pain in the tailbone within the first few hours that would remain throughout the weekend. What ended up happening was a lot of shifting from upright position down to full tuck. This was especially true when dealing with oncoming semis, buses or other large trucks in the opposite lane. The wind blast from these autos would invariably shudder the Ninja unless I was down in the tucked position. When there though, I cut through the air like a knife. (Olive has an aftermarket seat on his Ninja, which he’ll detail more thoroughly in a forthcoming article, but it is an absolute must if you plan to tour on the 300. An upgraded windscreen would also be a welcome addition.)
Once on Hwy 97, the road straightens out significantly, dropping down to the east side of the Cascades into the Deschutes National Forest. Straight line touring is hardly anything to write home about, but I wanted to cover enough miles to be close to the meet-up spot in Maupin, Oregon, the next day. I passed on through Bend north through the agricultural lowland until reaching the small town of Madras, where I stayed for the night before covering the remaining 47 miles to Maupin on Saturday.
Saturday – Madras to Maupin to Sumpter – 296 miles (Plus 30 miles going the wrong way and back)
After a restful night at the Inn at Cross Keys Station, I was primed and ready for what would be a long day of riding. Madras is where Hwy 97 splits with Hwy 26 however, and I’d failed to notice that my route required me to go back down into town to rejoin the road to Maupin. Instead I throttled up the 26 toward Warm Springs for 15 miles before realizing the error of my ways and turning around. Not a brilliant start to the day, but at least I had time to get to the meet-up spot without holding up the show.
There were 40 to 50 riders making the trek from Portland and we all gassed up in Maupin before heading down a quiet road en route to Shaniko where we hopped onto the 218 toward Antelope. This stretch starts out as a straight shot but ends in some fabulously tight, twisting roads as you drop down into Antelope, a town best known for its association with the Rajneeshees in the early ‘80s.
We proceeded along the 218 for another 14.8 winding miles until crossing the John Day River at Clarno and passing by The Palisades, which are littered with visible fossil records from when the region was a lush, tropical forest around 44 million years ago.
This was also about the time the skies started looking ominous again, the earlier portion of the day heralded by warm, invigorating sunshine.
We followed the pristine and largely barren highway to Fossil, Oregon, where we veered onto the 19. The group was well spread at this point and I rode along Butte Creek in quiet reverie of the awesome landscape. Rain started coming down in earnest on this stretch, which headed southeast toward Kimberly, Oregon. It remained light however, and made for a pleasant, subdued jaunt to the next stop.
At Kimberly we hit the 402 to Long Creek for a late lunch, burgers and fries from a local food truck which was conveniently parked in the lot at the gas station. A little water-logged but undeterred, riders shared stories from the road so far as they filled their bellies with the well-earned meal. At this point however, there were options for those heading to Sumpter. The traditional route headed up Hwy 395 to a small road referred to as the “cattle grate” road, which brought riders back down south east to Austin, just outside Sumpter. The other choice was to head south on 395, catch Hwy 26 and take a less demanding road to the finish point. The sky was darker than it had been in the direction of the “cattle grate” road while the other option appeared to have spots of blue sky. This decision split the pack and I chose to head toward 26, hoping to dry out a bit before ending for the night.
The route passed through some gorgeous territory but was markedly less thrilling than some of the snaking roads we’d covered previously in the day. The final push toward Sumpter dashed all hopes of staying dry as well, with another system passing through which dumped even more rain. By the time I pulled into Sumpter is was about 6:30 in the evening and the skies had not let up.
I was weighing my options at this point, as most hotels within a 30-50 mile radius were already booked as a result of the Hells Canyon Motorcycle Rally a few miles over in Baker City. It was looking like a cold, wet night under the starts until a fellow rider offered me a spot on the floor of the room he wisely booked well in advance. I gratefully accepted.
The night was spent blowing off steam, enjoying the rib eye steak dinners prepared from 5 to 8 p.m. at the welcoming Elkhorn Saloon and making some new friends along the way.
Sunday – Sumpter to Mitchell -125 miles
Sunday morning was a welcome change to the previous day, the sun returned and roads dried. The bulk of the group would stay one more night in Sumpter and use Sunday for day rides in the area, and I hung around until about 11 a.m. to get a bit of the ride in before turning back toward home.
Olive took me up some of the “cattle grate” road I’d missed the day before and it was even more desolate and twisty than I’d expected. Watch out for the grates in or near the corners however, as stories from the previous night revealed that there were some close calls in the slick conditions at these points.
I said my goodbyes and looked to make as much ground as I could, facing a 380-mile ride if I wanted to get all the way home in one stint. It was back to Hwy 26 at that point to put some ground behind me, hoping at the least to make it to Bend.
The weather on the west side of the Umatilla National Forest had other plans for me however, and after powering through gusty winds that whipped across the road through John Day and Dayville, I came up on Mitchell, Oregon.
Protected from the elements as I pierced through the John Day Fossil Bed National Monument, I was feeling like I’d left the worst behind me. I got a few miles past Mitchell when the black clouds finally crossed over the hillside and a wall of rain came rushing toward me.
“Aw hell,” I thought, “Maybe I can just push through. The weather report called for scattered thunderstorms, nothing too bad. Just grin and bear it till you get past.”
I was greeted by drops as big as water balloons, the gustiest winds I’d yet experienced and rolling thunder coming closer and closer. The little Ninja was not made to handle these conditions, skittering around in the wind blasts, feeling unsure as it crossed the growing streams of water flowing across the road. I was feeling less and less sure in the worsening conditions and decided to just turn around and hunker down in Mitchell for the night.
Monday – Mitchell to Medford – 254 miles
I got up early to repack the Ninja, my pants and boots still soaking from the previous day’s downpour. After exchanging some pleasantries with other guests in the hotel and warming up with a cup of coffee, I went to gather the rest of my things and yet another bout of rain started, stalling my departure yet further.
By the time I saw a break I made for the road, and timed it well, watching the dark skies recede in the reflection of my rear view mirror.
- The roads were a bit damp, but the scenery no less beautiful.
- Had to catch a shot of the Palisades.
- Gas stop in Maupin.
- A long straight in eastern Oregon.
After getting past Bend, only a few spots of moisture disturbed what was otherwise a dry trip home. I was greeted with the pine scent of the conifers a few miles from my doorstep in ever-growing heat, feeling renewed and thankful for having made the journey, despite the difficulties along the way.
While in stock trim, the Ninja 300 may not be ideal for a long tour, it was an absolute dream when we came into the tight, twisting roads of eastern Oregon. It’s capabilities as a tourer can easily be enhanced as well, with an upgraded seat, windscreen and luggage. With those upgrades in place, I wouldn’t hesitate taking the bike out again for an even bigger adventure. Olive, in fact, did just that, leaving Sumpter Monday morning en route for Missoula, Montana. But that will be a story for another writer on another day.
As far as personal preparation goes, rain gear is now top of the list.