Tioga Road, January 17th 2012

Just to say we were there.

Lars and I took off for Tioga Road yesterday to get as far out it as we could. This was to be the last day it is open this season, and ends the longest run of days Tioga Road has been open since 1933, when they started keeping records.

With a late start, we decided to stop, make coffee then turn around at Olmstead Point. The following pictures were taken there.

Put a Plug in it

Ear plugs and motorcycles, contrary to many people’s opinion, go together like apple pie and ice cream. The noise generated by a combination of turbulent air from a motorcycle’s windshield and a helmet at highway speeds can be loud enough to fall into the “harmful” range. Especially so on a long day when one subjects himself to many hours of such noise. Clearly the design of a motorcycle’s front end, the design of the helmet and the speeds one is going to ride play a role, but for the most part, my personal modus operandi is to plug ‘em no matter what.

Of course I’ve used ear plugs for many other reasons as well. They come in handy at The Filmore when you’re crushed up against the stage at an Ozomatli show. They’re extra handy when you’ve paired up in a double-queen hotel room with your riding buddy  who just happens to snore loud enough to shake loose the screwed-to-the-wall art. Yeah, we stay in high-end places. I use them at work in all kinds of situations, from close quarter work near the big diesel engines to the  rotary hammers, chain saws, and hydraulic power units. But the last place I ever expected to put in the plugs was so I could get some sleep on the one of the quietest nights of my life.

One of my riding buddies Luke and I had been poking around Canada for only a few days of a long trip and we’d been turned around twice. Once by raging fires blowing across the Canadian countryside on this unusually hot summer, and once by raging glacial runoff, again, caused by the abnormal heat. Lucky for us, the last two nights had cooled down a bit and tonight, even some rain was expected.

Wasp Lake

Having changed plans again at a water crossing that had turned raging torrent we ended up for the night at Wasp Lake. The forest around the lake was dense and the water in the lake had receded a bit leaving a deep muddy slick extending about 50 feet from the official shore to the lake level. We followed what passed for a road around the lake for a bit, dodging both standing and fallen trees until we came across an old hunting camp. It had a fire pit, a couple of spots where we could throw out our tents, and a place to park the bikes. Most of the places that I’ve ridden have easily met these qualifications for a campsite, but here, as I mentioned before, the forest was dense and a place to set up even the smallest of tents appeared rare. The other feature of this campsite was a hanging rack, where the hunters could hang their kill and it couldn’t be easily reached by bears.

Oh yeah… That’s the other feature of this place. Bears. Oh, they’ve got Black Bears like the variety was have here in California… The somewhat timid species that’s really not interested in messing with humans unless they’ve been careless with their food. Then they’ve got Brown Bears, which are also known in these parts as Grizzlies. They’re a bit more cantankerous than the black bear and though I’ve never seen one, it’s understood that they take what they want when they want it, and anyone or anything that thinks otherwise will quickly get a lesson. This is slightly unsettling knowledge, but with proper safety measures, the risks can be cut greatly. We intend to cut those risks because clearly, neither of us wanted to meet a bear on it’s terms. (On a side note, we did see a Grizzly later on in the trip, and while viewing it from the safe platform at Fish Creek in Hyder, AK, it was clear I was not mistaken about the attitude.)

On the campsite front it’s important to know we’ve arranged ourselves intelligently. First of all, the bikes are over there. Way over there. All our food and other smelly stuff is carried in their saddlebags so the bears might be interested in inspecting them. I’ve left the tops of my hard-bags loose so Mr. Bear can have a looksy without doing any damage. Between them and much closer to the motorcycles than our tents is the kitchen, which we set up around the fire pit and the rack on which we’ll hang our food and other aromatic items like toothpaste. Then way over here, away from it all, is our tents where we will not bring food, toiletries or anything else we think might attract a bear. Except maybe a snoring human. We can’t help but bring that over here and hope the bears aren’t too interested in one or two.

After dinner the food is hung up on the rack and as the sun goes down at an hour that is much later than we’re used to, we go to bed. Laying there in my sleeping bag, headlamp illuminating my book I realize that it’s a very quiet night. I don’t hear any wind in the trees. There’s  no crickets. No frogs. No mosquitoes and apparently no streams, creeks, or other sounds one might associate with nature. Except maybe Luke. I hear him move about in his tent a little every now and then but that’s pretty much it.

A few chapters later I call it quits and go lights-out.

That’s when the trouble began. Not the “here comes a bear crashing through the forest” trouble, but the other kind. The “my brain won’t shut the hell up on this quietest night of my life” trouble. Without a moon and down in the dense forest there was no light. I bundled up in my mummy bag and tried to sleep, but couldn’t. I laid awake for at least an hour listening to every little sound that might be made  in the forest. I’d hear a mouse moving about and wonder if it was a bear. “It has to be a bear,” my brain would tell me. “It can’t be,” I’d reason with myself, but I’d listen even closer to the ongoings, or lack thereof, outside my tent.

After a few minutes I’d roll to my side, trying a different way to muffle the ever-so-slight sounds that might be filtering through the nylon walls of my tent. After a few more I’d roll the other way. The intensity of silence felt like it was smothering me in my tent. The sound of nothing was making me listen ever closer. The more there was nothing to hear, the more I paid attention. All this silence was keeping me awake and it was driving me nuts.

Figuring that I’d not been sufficiently sleepy when last dog-earring a page and turning out the headlamp, I retrieved them from the dark recesses of my tent and dug in for another few chapters. Lost in the story, my mind eased as I followed the narrator through his tales of adventure, eventually falling into the familiar mid-paragraph nod and re-read cycle that says it’s time for lights out. Following my routine of always putting the light in the same place in the tent when going to sleep, I was ready for some rest now.

But there it was again. That nothing. Or was it something in the nothing? I swear I heard something, but now there’s nothing. Listening closer again, I heard something. No way it could be a bear. Or could it? Now there’s nothing. The silence was becoming deafening. The more I listened the less I heard. There had to be something to hear! It was so quiet I should’ve been able to sleep like a baby, but I couldn’t help but listen for something even if there was nothing to hear.

Succumbing to the insanity and having found my ear plugs in the pocket of my riding coat, I stuffed them into my ears and fell asleep listening to my own rhythmic breathing in a way that can only be done with earplugs while simultaneously feeling guilty for the sacrilegious action of wearing said earplugs on a silent night. Perhaps even the most silent night I had ever experienced.

Hit the Shower

After riding around the backcountry for a week, it is understood that a shower comes with a room in which you can sleep for the night. At $69 Canadian, it’s a deal for hot water, clean towels and a coin-op washer. The bed is a free extra which the lodge owners could charge for, if they only knew…

Two nights before rolling into Quesnel, British Columbia I took a quick bath in Big Lake near which we were camped. Yes, the name of the lake was Big Lake. In an area where they named some of the other lakes Chilko, Taseko and Konni, I’m not sure who’s bright idea it was to assign “big” to this one. Especially when it’s the smallest lake around. Perhaps even that’s the joke. So, after getting in the  water to about my knees I realized that there were little organisms in the water that were attracted to me. I hastily ended the bath which had not even really begun, did a quick scrub with my towel and hoped that I hadn’t just put an end to my trip by catching some odd virus, worm, or disease. Those things in the water did look like worms, didn’t they?

The following morning my feet began to itch a bit, associated with some little red dots. While not enough to put a stop to the trip, this was definitely going to add a new twist to the ride. The important parts of my body were all still working well and that was the most important.  I could clutch, shift, and stop my dual-sport well. I could even see where I was going. Some people might think that breathing and stuff might be the most important, but we were coming up on 1000 miles from my riding buddy’s house and we got here the long way on our thumpers, taking the roads that didn’t have pavement and didn’t go straight. Getting back to his place from here would be no easy task, nor would it be quick. Later on, down the road at the tax-free gas station on the Nemaiah Reservation I read a sign that some of the lakes were infected with “swimmers itch.”

A flyer posted on the wall of the double-wide trailer come general store and laundromat assured me that it was harmless. Something about snails, flatworms, and eggs. Great! Now I’m a bona-fide carrier of the itch. Wait, what’s this? The small print at the bottom says what? It dies immediately. The itching is an immune response. It goes away in a week. Wow, at that rate I may even forget this happened by the time we get home! Let’s ride!

The itching only got worse over the next few days and some little red welts came up, spattered around my feet and calves like someone stomped in a puddle of red right next to me. For the most part I could ignore the itching even though it was always there. Well, except for the several daily occasions when it would flare inside my hot boots, and nightly episodes inside my mummy bag.

By the time we reached the motel in Quesnel I’d stomped my feet on the foot pegs by day and scratched my legs to the point of bleeding by night. It was two days down and I had about 5 days to go before this was going away. When I hadn’t been busy dodging cattle, horses, bears, and overloaded logging trucks on the back roads I’d figured out the details of this itchy leg stuff. Not the good details, but the bad ones. 5 days is 120 hours. It’s 7,200 minutes. That’s 432,000 seconds or so, and at times, I was aware of each an every one of them. This swimmers itch business was pretty much cementing my thoughts about never getting into another body of water that wasn’t overly chlorinated again.

Strolling into the lobby vaguely smelling like a weeks worth of dust, sweat, and bug repellent, I was keenly looking forward to the shower. I had some strange idea that a hot shower would not only wash away a weeks worth of stink, but the irritation that was slowly driving me crazy. Having rid myself of the detritus from many miles of dirt roads and sleeping on the ground, I was now clean as a whistle- as the Irish Spring guy would say. However, the itching didn’t go away until I bought a tube of cortisone the next morning at the pharmacy and slathered it on my welts.