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Up a lazy river to bustling Bend

The Deschutes once defined the area, but now this former timber town in Oregon is a nexus of outdoor fun.

July 30, 2006|Tim Neville | Special to The Times

Bend, Ore. — 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.

Personality preserved

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