BAKER CITY — When thousands of bikers descend on a small town in Eastern Oregon you might expect the locals to be wary. But in Baker City, the Hells Canyon Motorcycle Rally is a chance for the town to let its hair down, get to know a thing or two about bikes and the people who ride them, and make some good money.
With only 536 hotel rooms countywide, some of the estimated 6,000 bikers who showed up at this year’s June rally were put up in residents’ homes. Meanwhile, bars and restaurants were packed and local bands had the chance to play to a crowd. “It is really fun for the community to showcase itself like that,” says Kari Whitacre, Baker County marketing director, who joined a small brigade of volunteer designated drivers and shuttled a bunch of bikers from bar to bar in her minivan.
Born as an annual road trip led by Portlander Steve Folkstead to take in some of the state’s most riveting scenery, this was the third year of an official Hells Canyon Motorcycle Rally. The first, in 2005, had almost no advertising and drew 75 people. A year later nearly 3,000 motorcycles arrived and the rally became one of the biggest events in Baker City. As Folkstead puts it: “There were enough bikers to make the city stand up and take notice.”
After two years of sell-out crowds, all the county hotels have waiting lists for next year. Bars, restaurants and coffee shops pull in record numbers and residents flush with biker bucks spend more on everything from flowers to motor oil.
The event, which has surpassed the town’s expectations each year, isn’t through growing yet. Says Folkstead,“In time it will be the premium motorcycle event on the West Coast.”
— Brooke Matschek
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