A full moon hangs over the inky water as the canoes slip past and send silent ripples marching toward the volcanoes looming in the distance.
“Sometimes it’s just nice to sit and float,” says Dave Huycke, an affable 63-year-old guide whom everyone calls Hiker. My fiancee, Heidi, and I dip our paddles into the warm lake and inch up next to him, letting the languid currents nudge us along in the cool air at 6,000 feet. “It’s so quiet here,” he says.
Indeed it is. But taking a moonlight paddle high in Oregon’s mountains in the middle of the night is just about the only time anything here can seem still. We are floating about 25 miles southwest of Bend, Ore., a former timber town that’s rapidly reinventing itself as one of the West’s premier hot spots for all things active.
Haven’t heard of the place? Bend, about 3 1/2 hours southeast of Portland on the sunny side of the Cascade Mountains, used to be little more than a few defunct lumber mills and a boarded-up downtown. Now more than 70,000 people live here, three times as many as in 1980, and an REI store occupies one of the old mill power plants. Outside magazine and Men’s Journal chose the town as one of the top places to live and play. Olympians, including Nordic skier Justin Wadsworth, train here. Several years ago, Lance Armstrong came to town to ride.
Few other mountain towns around the West offer a visitor as many outdoor-adventure options -- mellow as well as death-defying -- so close to amenities typically found in cities twice as big.
“In Sacramento, I’m about 90 minutes from everything -- the coast, the mountains, the Bay Area,” says Tracy Peterson, an elementary school teacher who chose Bend over other destinations, including Ashland, Ore., to spend six days caving, hiking and paddling. “It’s not like this, where you look out your window and it’s all right there.”
Getting to Bend is becoming easier too. Starting Tuesday, Horizon Airlines will offer two daily nonstop flights from LAX to Redmond, Ore., 14 miles northeast of Bend. Before, Los Angeles travelers flying to Bend had to connect in San Francisco, Salt Lake City, Portland, Ore., or Seattle. The new route will make it possible to hop a 9:15 a.m. flight and be on your way to casting flies in the Deschutes River by noon.
“I can imagine a lot of Californians being very interested in that,” says Jim Gentry, a 43-year-old from Simi Valley who was walking around downtown Bend on a hot summer day. “To come up here, go rafting, see mountains with snow on them, even in July -- you don’t get that in Southern California.”
Thank geology for that. Bend sits amid millions of acres of national forest and wilderness areas braided with lazy rivers, burbling with Class IV rapids and tumbling glaciers. For eons, volcanoes have cauterized the landscape here into swirling pools and jagged fields of ancient lava. Eruptions rearranged rivers and created giant lava tubes -- long tunnels formed by air pockets in the molten rock -- that Piute Indians later used as their homes.
On a clear day, hikers who tackle the strenuous 5 1/2 -mile trail up 10,358-foot South Sister volcano can see a 250-mile tri-state stretch of the Pacific Ring of Fire, from Mt. Adams in Washington to Mt. Shasta in California. The forests, sliced through by mountain-bike trails, cover the region like horizon-to-horizon carpet.
Bend, founded 100 years ago, has its roots in those thick stands of ponderosa and lodgepole pines that stretch along the drier eastern flanks of the Cascades. For decades, the town thrived as lumberjacks harvested a seemingly endless supply of timber -- an estimated 40 billion board feet, enough to make about 45 million gazebos. Railroad tracks and river currents ferried that wood to mills perched along the Deschutes River.
But as the industry began its long decent after World War II, Bend began to become known for its other assets. Mountain bikers discovered that the rolling terrain was perfect for single track, and climbers and skiers and hikers flocked to places such as Smith Rock, 30 minutes north.
Mt. Bachelor, a ski area 30 minutes southwest of town, has long dominated Bend’s winter vibe. In summer, hikers can ride the chairlift about halfway up the volcano to a day lodge, sip wine while overlooking the Three Sisters Wilderness and then press on to the 9,068-foot summit. Lower down, they can trek to more than 100 backcountry lakes or launch a kayak or canoe into those accessible by road, like the one we’re paddling around in, Hosmer Lake, and cast for stocked Atlantic salmon and brook trout.
After we float in silence for a few minutes, Hiker leads the flotilla to a small clearing on the distant shore. He whips out a Thermos of hot chocolate and a container of strawberry tarts. As the moon climbs, we paddle back to shore, then drive into town shortly after 1 a.m., ready to sample Bend’s cushier aspects with the daylight.
DOWNTOWN Bend, though only five blocks long and two blocks wide, is still the center of action. The Deschutes River moseys along it, the slow water coursing by a park where farmers sell cherries and salmon in the summer. Brick-paver sidewalks run past low-rise buildings that were once hardware stores, gas stations and the post office. Now they’re boutique furniture stores, shoe shops or, in one case, an empty space to be filled in a couple of years by an upscale hotel.
Despite the gentrification, the town still has soul. Heidi and I walk around Wall and Bond streets, downtown’s bustling arteries, ambling past Goody’s, an old-fashioned ice cream parlor, and a barbershop that serves beer.
Ah, yes. Benders love their beer. There are four breweries and one distillery in town. You can almost tell the day of the week by the beer specials here: Monday, $2.75 pints at Deschutes Brewery on Bond Street; Tuesday, $2.25 pints at Bend Brewing Co. on Brooks Street; Wednesday, $2.50 pints at Cascade Lakes Brewing Co. on Century Drive. On Thursdays, DJs mix it up at the Grove, a couple of doors south of Deschutes. On Friday, you can jockey for a table at O’Kanes Pub, a cozy cigar bar at McMenamin’s Old St. Francis School, a sprawling complex of hotel rooms, bars, restaurants and a movie theater housed in an old Catholic school.
Heidi and I head to 28, one of Bend’s newest bistros. The owner, Steve Helt, describes it as “a little New York, a little L.A.” I immediately see what he means: black concrete floors, rich wood tables and a swanky clientele. We sip blueberry-infused martinis and nibble on chorizo-stuffed dates wrapped in bacon.
To sample more of the epicurean offerings downtown, we head around the block to Merenda, a restaurant and wine bar run by the former executive chef of San Francisco’s LuLu restaurant, Jody Denton. The polpettone, or Tuscan meatloaf, is so savory that I have to stop myself from licking the plate. A sampling flight of Northwest wines -- Pinot Noir, Merlot, Syrah -- washes it down well. For dessert we share a marionberry cobbler and a glass of port at Staccato, a new Italian eatery in Bend’s recently renovated firehouse.
We could stroll down to the Tower Theatre, a 1940s movie house, for an independent film, or, were it October, to McMenamin’s for the BendFilm festival. Musicians including Beck and Lyle Lovett have played at the Les Schwab Amphitheater by the river this summer too. But we have a big day tomorrow. We might drive 30 minutes south to Paulina Lake, dig a pit in the sand and sit inside while it fills with hot natural spring water. Or perhaps we’ll sample the hundreds of miles of mountain-bike single-track trails. Or hike to Tumalo Falls, a cascade that roars 100 feet off a volcanic cliff. So we call it a night.
In a place as active as Bend, you’d better get your sleep.
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Oregon, from the outdoors in
From LAX, Horizon Air will begin nonstop service starting Tuesday to Redmond, Ore., which is about 14 miles northeast of Bend. For travel through Nov. 17, prices for a ticket purchased two weeks in advance start at $99 one way. After that, restricted, round-trip fares start at $308. Delta and United airlines also offer connecting (change of planes) service.
WHERE TO STAY:
McMenamins Old St. Francis School, 700 N.W. Bond St.; (877) 661-4228, www.mcmenamins.com. This renovated Catholic school in downtown is a sprawling complex of pubs, restaurants and hotel rooms. Hotel guests have free access to a Turkish-style soaking pool and the on-site movie theater. Doubles $94 to $139.
Mill Inn, 642 N.W. Colorado Ave.; (877) 748-1200, www.millinn.com. Within easy walking distance of downtown as well as the shops and Les Schwab Amphitheater. Doubles from $80.
Mt. Bachelor Village Resort, 19717 Mt. Bachelor Drive; (800) 452-9846, www.mtbachelorvillage.com. A five-minute drive from downtown Bend and 20 minutes from the ski area. One- to three-bedroom condominiums, $159-$395. Check the website for promotions, which often include free lift tickets or discounted stays.
WHERE TO EAT:
28, 920 N.W. Bond St.; (541) 385-0828, www.28downtown.com. This swanky bistro serves excellent mid-size plates (too big for appetizers, too small for an entree) that are good for sharing. The chorizo-stuffed dates wrapped in bacon are small but wonderful, the barbecued shrimp outstanding. Blueberry martinis are a house specialty. Plates $8-$12.
Merenda Restaurant and Wine Bar, 900 N.W. Wall St.; (541) 330-2304, www.merendarestaurant.com. Chef Jody Denton has helped place Bend on the epicurean map with such house specialties as shellfish bouillabaisse and Tuscan meatloaf. $12-$30.
Staccato, 5 N.W. Minnesota Ave.; (541) 312-3100, www.staccatosfirehall.com. On warm summer evenings, workers open the converted firehouse’s oversize garage-like doors, making for excellent ambience. Try the gourmet Italian fare such as wild boar ravioli and a massive marionberry cobbler for dessert. Open for dinner and Sunday brunch. Entrees $12-$30.
Wanderlust Tours, (800) 962-2862, www.wanderlusttours.com. Runs canoeing trips on lakes throughout the summer as well as excursions to caves and hikes up the volcanoes that surround town. Moonlight paddles take place around the full moon. Tours $37-$47 per person.
Cog Wild Bicycle Tours, (866) 610-4822, www.cogwild.com. Guides shuttle mountain bikers and lead them along the best trails, often to high alpine lakes, where a refreshing dip will wash off the dust. Guided tours $80-$115, including bike rental. Shuttle service available too.
TO LEARN MORE:
Bend Visitor and Convention Bureau, 917 N.W. Harriman Ave., Bend, OR 97701; (877) 245-8484, www.visitbend.com.
-- Tim Neville