“I figure you look just like a cougar’s lunch.”

This story originally appeared in the January / February 2017 issue of Canadian Biker magazine.


Francine, my 2008 Husqvarna TE510, declined to start.

I insisted; she refused. Marriage: what are you gonna do?

Start walking, that’s what.

It took a day to reach Ellensburg, Washington, locate a motorcycle shop to retrieve the bike, diagnose and change a broken spark plug lead and intake valve clearances out of spec. A day of vacation lost, yes, but now I was ready to ride again.

I should be here. But I’m not.

Hop on the Husky. Still. Would. Not. Start.

Resigned, I left the bike at the shop and trudged to the Greyhound station. One ticket to Vancouver, please.

A week later, I got the call: the bike was fixed. Turns out, we had actually diagnosed the problems correctly. But, try as she might, Francine couldn’t start after our repairs because I might have neglected to adjust the manual decompression cable that was holding open an exhaust valve. Although nobody has yet proven that to my satisfaction.

Could I have a Corona, please? The family size.

Now that a week of holidays had been sacrificed to my ineptitude, I loaded me and my frustration back on a Greyhound heading south from Vancouver and spent six hours sitting next to a guy drinking a family-sized Corona through a straw. Believe me, I was happy to arrive in Ellensburg.

I retrieved the Husky, with its handlebar-mounted GPS, and began planning a route for the remaining week of my vacation. I had originally intended to ride 200 kilometres east of here, in the Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forests, but now that was too far to be feasible in the week I had left. It also meant I hadn’t loaded any maps for this area of Washington on my GPS.

I remained undeterred – uninformed would, admittedly, be a more accurate description – and turned off the pavement onto an overgrown track that looked promising, heading for the nearest empty-looking region on the entirely inadequate Washington state highway map I had just purchased at a gas station.

An hour later, I was forced to admit my plan might suffer some not insignificant flaws, as I was now riding through a forest fire.

I had unwittingly ridden into the destruction of the catastrophic 33,000 hectare Colockum Tarps Fire of 2013.

Squinting through acrid smoke, I was soon lost in a labyrinth of ridges and canyons lit by flickering flames. Dismissing the obvious strategy – Just stop, you moron! – I rode through the murk until I regained enough sense to become acutely anxious about my dwindling fuel supply. Thankfully, I had stumbled across the Columbia River and found a spot to set up camp. It was clearly not a good idea to continue riding.

Hey — this isn’t on the map…

Naturally the next morning I continued riding. I did ponder the idea of retracing my route but, of course, dismissed that thought as spineless and unworthy. But the GPS – its memory card positively bursting with detailed maps of riding areas far beyond the hazy eastern horizon – displayed nothing but my location marker and track. I was a triangle trailing a pink line across grey emptiness. I looked up from the screen; grey, smoky emptiness swallowed the trail up ahead, too. So I guess everything must be fine then….

Oh, I see: I’m right here. That’s not even slightly useful.

I forged ahead, focusing on the tiny arrow that was me, moving across the blankness of the tiny screen of the useless GPS – including when I should have been focusing instead on the old mining road cutting across the hillside I was traversing. So, at a barely discernible curve, I launched the Husky off the mining road and onto the rocky slope below.

Is this why they say, “Look where you want to go?”

I’m not sure what it actually means when people say someone was “knocked out.”

I suppose it could be the disorienting loss of a period of time – seconds, minutes? – or the peculiar displaced feeling of abruptly discovering you are situated somewhere which you don’t recall having any role in your plans whatsoever. As I say, I’m not sure. I am quite positive, though, that such an experience always concludes with a demonstration of the kind of language a person used to pick up on the docks and on whaling ships and today learns on the Internet.

Favoring my left ankle, and, actually, most of that leg, along with sundry other joints, I haltingly improvised repairs. Then I restarted the bike and cajoled it back to the road, uncertain about the implications of the pool of coolant left behind on the rocks. That uncertainty about the damage I may have done to a radiator morphed into an entirely unwelcome certainty as a sizable cloud of steam erupted from under the Husky’s fuel tank. I had been creeping slowly along the path – because, you might recall, I was operating on the fumes that had been the only thing remaining in my fuel tank since the night before – and I had just overwhelmed the limits of a damaged cooling system in the balmy 40o C temperatures of an August day on an arid plateau during a forest fire.

Not lacking a sense of irony, Francine followed the steam with a sputtering from her fuel pump.

We were now out of gas.

I pushed the bike under some scorched pine trees and broke out the magic. You know: JB Weld, hose clamps and zip-ties. I prepared to conduct marginally more thorough repairs to the damaged radiator. The heat was overwhelming, even in the broken shade the trees offered now that the sky was clearing and the sun was vengeful. So I stripped to my…well, let’s just say I stripped, and began disassembling the Husqvarna. That’s when the hornet stung me on the…right there. Sensitive location. Insert euphemism here. You know what I’m talking about, right? And you know that old saying, “They won’t bother you, if you don’t bother them”? Yeah, I used to believe that one, too.

Letting the JB Weld work its magic

Eventually, repairs were complete. I set up camp in an early-evening twilight of dissipating smoke and settled in for a sweltering night, giving the metal epoxy time to metamorphose into unbreakable steel, because somebody told me it would do that if I used the stuff correctly and deserved good karma and loved children and small animals.

Washington, yes. Definitely.

Morning arrived, and I consulted my crisp new state map, using it to accurately pinpoint my location: yep, I was definitely in Washington. Reassured, I strode off down a rocky trail heading north, and, I hoped, towards a town. Or a gas station. Or a place that wasn’t on fire. Remembering vividly the aftermath of tangling with ill-behaved hornets while naked, I was sensibly clad in a protective bathing suit and flip-flops.

An hour later, just as my footwear was beginning to disintegrate on the jagged rocks of the trail, I saw a 4×4 bouncing its way toward me from the crest of a still-smouldering hillside. The truck pulled up and the driver rolled down his window. I could feel the icy wonderful air conditioning.

Peering at me dubiously, he demanded, “You got a weapon? Two people been attacked by cougars right here.”

“Yeah,” said his passenger, “I figure you look just like a cougar’s lunch.”

Of course I do.

They drove me back to the Husqvarna, and, yes, the air conditioning was wonderful. Then, longing for a step ladder, I attempted to deploy my emergency siphon, cleverly included in my minimal kit. Predictably, the hose was too short to span from the tank of the lifted 4×4 to my bike; it slipped and pumped a litre or two into my eyes. But it pumped a few litres into the Husky as well, and once Francine started, the radiator repair held. I emptied my remaining two bottles of drinking water into the rad, and I was back on the trail and out of the fire.

And you know how that saying goes….

I figured the frying pan was probably just biding its time as I rode through eastern Washington’s desert plateaus, making my way back to British Columbia; I anticipated the arrival of that old skillet each night as I camped under smoky skies and contemplated hazy sunsets.

Between the fire and the frying pan

It had been a titanium intake valve worn well beyond its best-before date that had caused the original valve clearance issues more than a week ago. Now, several days after I escaped the fire, that slowly deteriorating valve finally meant I couldn’t keep the Husky running. I had tools and spare valve shims, but even the slimmest of those would no longer allow the thinning valve to close fully. Frying pan.

Don’t try this at home: the Husqvarna factory wouldn’t approve.

Once again I camped and readied my tools: Vice Grips, feeler gauges, valve shims…a large rock, a handful of sand…. With Francine’s fuel tank set aside, I removed the valve cover, water pump, and rocker retainer, so I could extract the offending shim, only twice dropping it perilously close to the black depths of the timing-chain journal.

Into the frying pan: a shim grinding day

And then I spent four hours in the oppressive heat you can only find in the middle of nowhere, grinding a nine millimetre-diameter valve shim on a sand-sprinkled rock. Since I was out of water, the sweat of my brow obligingly mixed with the sand, adding to the abrasive slurry. And more of that Internet language was heard that day in the forest. Talk about abrasive….

Finally, exhausted, finger tips raw, I popped the misshapen – and now very thin – disc of metal into the precise-tolerance Italian racing engine.

Francine fired right up.

Plainly, it was time to head home. Before I ran into bad luck.

Francine wants to go home.

Research findings stun motorcycle community

A press release today from the International Motorcycle Manufacturers Association (IMMA).

IMMA Secretariat International Motorcycle Manufacturers Association (IMMA)      Tel: + 41 22 920 21 23

20, Route de Pré-bois, CH-1215 Genève 15 Switzerland

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

A team of investigators today revealed that systematic methodologies and scrupulous examination of research results have, following multiple previously-inconclusive attempts, decisively identified the preeminent expression of the form first articulated in the 1894 Hildebrand and Wolfmuller.

To wit, the finest motorcycle ever produced is the 1970 Honda QA 50. In Sprout Green.

Image credit: Cycle Chaos

Decades – indeed, more than a century – of debate are finally put to rest with the release of this exciting finding. A contentious and oft-times surly group, motorcyclists of all persuasions and every continent unexpectedly united behind the investigative results.

Utilizing a triple-blind study design, researchers were able to isolate confounding variables by ensuring that neither subjects, researchers nor motorcycles were apprised of the ongoing research methodologies employed. Consequently, the results obtained are irrefutable. “Quite simply beyond reproach,” explained Herr Doktor Professor Ber Schmidt, head researcher.

Most frequently cited as definitive was the constant variable, “Primacy of Experience.”

Although complex in nature, Primacy of Experience can be reliably expressed on an X-Y axis (Figure 1).

Notable here is the finding that as the onset of motorcycle ownership approaches zero years (x relative), motorcycle quality reaches its zenith (y grins). The ineluctable conclusion is that the first motorcycle one owns is the best motorcycle one will ever own.

Noteworthy, nevertheless, is the subsidiary finding that motorcycles owned in the latter part of a subject’s life showed a tendency to foster elevated experience values as well. At no point were study participants reported to acknowledge that their own motorcycle was inferior in any respect to the motorcycles of other study participants.


There you have it…the Honda QA 50, in Sprout Green: the best motorcycle in the world.

Ain’t science great?

Disclaimer: individual results will vary — unless your first bike was also a QA50.

That overbite… How did I not need braces?

 

Can I really do this?

Okay, you know what a rhetorical question is, right? Oh, actually, that’s one there: it’s me asking you a question when I already know the answer.

Now, don’t worry if you’ve already got this stuff wired: I’m not being condescending. I’m being pedantic.

Anyways, I mention the whole “rhetorical question” factoid for two reasons.

First, I’m an English teacher, so I dig that kind of stuff. Second, I mention it because the title of this post is a rhetorical question.

You see, I already know you can do this off-road expedition thing.

I’ve been out there. A lot.

When I was a private wilderness guide and Outward Bound instructor, I guided adults and teenagers tackling challenging month-long canoe trips, dog-sledding treks in temperatures as low as -47o C, rock climbing, white water kayaking, hiking, camping, sea kayaking, backcountry skiing, snowshoeing….

 

snowshoeing-guide
Guiding a snowshoeing group

A real diversity of trips, with an even greater diversity of participants.

But virtually all the people I’ve guided in the wilderness – and there have been hundreds – had two things in common:

1. They didn’t think they could overcome the challenges they encountered.

2. They overcame the challenges they encountered.

It’s one of the reasons I loved my job: I got to see people overcome their fears and limitations. Every day.

I witnessed the transformation when my clients and students realized their limitations were mostly self-imposed. Given the motivation to challenge those limitations, they were able to accomplish more than they ever dreamed.

I take my hat off to all of them.

And I take my hat off to you.

Because, if you’re reading this, you have the motivation to get on your bike and leave the pavement far behind.

You just need someone with experience to get you started

That’s where I come in. My profession and my passion have given me decades of experience in outdoor travel and survival. Plus, massive miles accumulated off-road on motorcycles. And – you’ll recall that I’m a proudly self-confessed pedant — I have a life-long habit of making lists.

So, seriously, who better to lay out all the details of this adventure thing?

Whoa! Is that another rhetorical question? I didn’t even do that on purpose.

 Ride farther. Stay out longer.

I know you know how to ride

You already know how to ride a motorcycle. On the road, maybe on the track – but especially in the dirty stuff.

And you’ve got this whole Internet thing wired, too: if you need information about braking points, picking lines, weighting the outside peg, you know where to find Professor Google’s office.

So I think we can all agree you don’t need my advice about riding your bike.

But then I still have a question for you. Why don’t you ride more?

I’m not perfect

I suspect it’s not really imperfect riding technique that limits your time in the saddle. True, neither of us is Jonny Walker – unless you are Jonny Walker…in which case, Mr. Walker, could you please teach me how to ride a dirt bike? Please?

 

jonny-walker-hard-enduro
Jonny Walker doing a magic trick (source: redbull.com)

Where was I…? Oh, yeah: assuming we’re not enduro prodigies, we still ride and do our learning while we’re missing the apex or forgetting to unload the suspension before rolling over that rock. Okay, so we mess up sometimes (Speak for yourself!). But that kind of learning is part of the excitement of riding a motorcycle off road.

But.

But I bet you aren’t satisfied.

If you’re like me, you’re riding to Starbucks, or commuting to work.

Doing an annual holiday trip on the slab.

Or getting out on the occasional weekend dirt ride to orbit the same few trails over and over, locked into the gravity well of your bike trailer or the nearby gas station.

But I’m willing to bet you want to ride more. Ride farther. Get off the blacktop.

And I know you want it enough that you can convince your boss, significant other or Toy Poodle to give you some time off work or from the To-Do list stuck on the fridge door.

So why aren’t you out there riding the Great Basin desert?

And I know you aren’t, because I was there, and I didn’t see anybody….

 

great-basin-desert
Great Basin Desert, Nevada

The non-riding stuff may be the biggest obstacle on the trail

If it’s not recent surgery holding you back, or your kid’s Grade 4 class performance of “Silent Night” that you just can’t miss, I gotta figure it’s because you’re uncertain about the non-riding stuff.

Stuff like…

  • What if I break down, crash or get lost?

  • How do I get all that gear into those bags? (It’s never going to fit, you say, unless you can figure out the secret to that thing where the clowns multiply like rabbits inside a Volkswagen….)

  • Where can I camp, and what equipment is essential?

  • Does GPS actually stand for “Gadgety Piece of Shit”? Because I cannot get this thing to work!

It’s not about the riding

Let me show you the tested techniques and systems I’ve developed in almost 75,000 kilometres of off-road adventure. You’ll learn all the stuff the riding schools don’t teach you.

In fact, this isn’t about riding skills at all. Don’t forget that part where I was being painfully honest: I can’t ride like Jonny Walker.

Heck, I might not even be able to ride as well as you.

But I don’t need to. Because even a moderately skilled off-road motorcyclist can…

  • Ride confidently into the desert, forest or mountains for days at a time

  • Enjoy fantastic routes through places you just can’t reach in a single day

  • Rely on light, tested equipment

  • Camp comfortably in beautiful, remote locations

 And so can you!

Don’t forget to share this adventure with your riding buddies!

Ride farther. Stay out longer.

Motorcycle riding schools don’t teach you this stuff

I like riding alone. Especially when I’m in expedition mode: way off the pavement, picking a route through the back country towards some lake or ghost town.

And I like riding with friends even more.

But most of the time, I’m by myself out there….

Be honest: do I smell?

I think more riders would hit the trail with me if either, (a), I showered more frequently, or, (b), they had the skills necessary to take their dual-sport and adventure bikes on long off-road trips: equipment selection, bike preparation, route planning, navigating, camping — you get the picture.

I want to change that. I want more riders to feel confident tackling multi-day trips in the dirt. So I’m sharing my own practical, proven techniques and systems for adventure riders.

This isn’t about teaching you how to ride your bike off-road; there are already lots of schools that do a great job of that. In fact, I’ve created a list of dirt and adventure riding schools. Those guys are the pros. Attending one of their programs is certain to teach you something valuable.

Adventure Ride Guide will teach you something else: the techniques you need to put those riding skills to good use, way off the blacktop.

These are techniques I’ve learned through experience out there, off road, through trial and error and hours in the saddle in the middle of big blank spaces on the map.

Your bike belongs in the dirt. And so do you.

I’ve talked to many riders who want to enjoy epic trips like mine.

But they say they don’t have the knowledge or confidence to get off the beaten path.

Skilled riders, some of them more capable than I am, tell me:

  • I don’t have camping or wilderness experience.

  • I don’t know how to start planning a motorcycle camping trip.

  • Specialized equipment is just too expensive.

  • Once I get my gear on the bike, it’s too heavy to manage off road.

  • I’m not a good enough rider.

That list is probably why I meet those riders, on their GS1200s or their V-Stroms or KLRs, on the pavement.

“I could never do what you do”

I’ll be rolling onto the pavement somewhere in…let’s say, Idaho…dirty and grinning. A guy riding past on a sweet Triumph Tiger waves and pulls over to ask where the gravel road goes. He’s a great guy, friendly and genuine, like most riders.

After I tell him I’ve been out in the mountains for a few days, the conversation usually goes something like this:

“I’m an okay rider. But I could never do what you do.”

“Really? Why not?”

“Well, I’ve never done that much camping and, like, wilderness stuff.”

“You know,” I say, “that’s easier than you think. You just need someone with experience to get you started.”

“Well, I’ve read lots of stuff on the forums…but it’s kind of overwhelming. There’s so much information, and I’m not really sure what to focus on.”

I nod my head. “Yeah, I get that.”

“Then when I pack up my gear for a road trip, it looks like I’m ready to go around the world, and my bike handles like I’m doubling a sumo wrestler. I’ll probably just stick to the pavement. Maybe take the occasional gravel road….”

It kills me

‘Cause he’s a great guy, and he’s got a bike that could take him almost anywhere he wants to go. I’d happily ride with him for a couple days, and I know I could learn lots from him, too.

But then he waves again, and turns back onto the pavement.

While I turn up the old logging road to Fourth of July Lake….

lake-sawtooths-adventure-motorcycle
Fourth of July Lake, Sawtooth Range, Idaho

Let’s change that.

Ride farther. Stay out longer.

Don't keep it to yourself. Share the adventure!