My sense of adventure has little respect for my lack of dirt-riding and trail-riding skills. So when I decided to further explore a route I had previously turned back on, I had no idea what I was getting myself into.
The terrain was just too much for me the first time I tried riding it. Fear of the unknown and lack of experience, I guess. The route snakes up steeply, and depending on recent weather, surface conditions can be intimidating. But I had begun it at least, and I was determined to finish it another day.
My immediate destination was a mountain lake called Chute Lake. The sensible route is via Gillard FSR and then a decommissioned rail bed called the KVR; an easy scenic ride.
The original Chute Lake route that I was riding though, is not maintained. Decades of Canadian winters and spring run-offs have morphed this old mountain road into a rough track. My goal was to ride this old route to Chute Lake, then, still on dirt, to Naramata; an incredibly scenic community on the edge of Lake Okanagan.
The next week, I returned to try again. After a brief pause and a deep breath at the bottom of the steeper section, I committed with all senses engaged, as I throttled and dodged my way to the top. I was pretty chuffed with myself for riding up that steep and twisted incline, with all its water-washed gullies, deep ruts, shady mud patches, loose rocks, boulders, ridges, and bone dry sandy turns.
Hard ride up, but harder ride down
A sunny and open expanse greeted me as I rolled off the throttle, stopped and dismounted. I expected to the see the route continue in a clear direction. No such luck. Instead, it forked into three directions. Some reconnoitering was in order.
The route straight ahead quickly petered out. To the right, I saw a long steep climb to the top of a distant hill. I had just come through some unexpected — and scary/squirmy — deep sand. More sandy surprises on a climb like that were not on my wish-list. When I looked to the left though, I saw this gentle downhill route; a comforting vision for this slightly rattled rookie rider.
You know which route I chose don’t you? And after that, it was, as they say, “all downhill from there.”
From my vantage point, the route was a gentle descent. I imagined that it would rise again, just as gently, until it reached Chute Lake. Visions of easy riding and scenic views played in my mind. In reality though, the route was a series of short level areas punctuated by long, steep, rocky/sandy declines. From the distance all those short level areas appeared as one; an illusion.
Each decline became a point of no return. At the bottom I’d figure, “I’m not sure I can make it back up that grade, so I may as well push on down.” The further down I rode, the more committed I became.
Meeting the quad riders
At this point I met some quad riders. Clyde, My CRF250L, was resting on his side stand while I was doing the hard work. It was a hot day. The mountainside was in full sun, and I had just returned from hiking down the next descent and around the bend at the bottom to see what lay ahead. The city shimmered in the heat far below me.
It became obvious that I had chosen the wrong direction to ride, so I revised my goal. Now, all I wanted was to ride back to town without having to turn around and ride up those grades I had just ridden down.
So when I heard the sound of the quads climbing towards me, I thought, “good stuff, they must have come from the city and they’ll be able to tell me what the route down is like.”
Three quads in all. Hard-core, both machines and riders. I told them I was going down to the city, and asked if this route would get me there. Their advise was to… “turn right onto a small track up ahead, go down and up through some mud and ruts, then down again bearing left at a creek. Ride in the creek for a spell, then when you see two large rocks, ride between them and you’ll land in a gravel pit next to a paved road. A little tricky in places, but no worries mate; you’ll do it easy enough on that dirt bike.”
I followed their route advice. What the hell was I thinking? They were riding quads with four chunky tires. Sure, it was “no worries” for them, but I was riding a motorcycle on two skinny, rather worn, stock tires. My worries were only beginning. Don’t get me wrong. It was still an adventure and I was enjoying the challenge, but riding challenges rise sharply as riding skills diminish, and my riding skills were wearing thin.
The trail of no worries — not!
Almost immediately after beginning the descent where I met the quad riders, I made a rookie mistake. I knew better, but what I knew wasn’t part of muscle memory yet. I snatched hard at my front brake while maneuvering in deep loose gravel. The front tire buried itself and pulled Clyde and I down on our side. My first thought was, “Damn, I hope they weren’t looking back to see this.”
But I dusted myself off, and struggled to pick Clyde back up midst the ruts and rocks on the edge of a slope that fell steeply to the right of the front wheel. Back in the saddle now, I was on the lookout for this “small track” I was advised to ride.
Sure enough, after a descent that flirted with the limits of first gear, there was the track. It cut off at a nice spot before the next big descent. It looked good; a narrow forested route, shaded from the relentless sun I had been riding in. It was level at first; just a cool and pleasant ride. The heady aromas of the forest — the dampness, the earth, the undergrowth, the Douglas and Alpine Fir — flooded my senses. I also picked up the musky scent of mud and bog somewhere in the distance.
My worries about getting my motorcycle and I, safely down, were vanishing with every beautiful turn of this trail. A trail so lovely would certainly be friendly.
But trails are like weather in the wilderness. Nature is your dearest friend when the mountain air is clear, the sky is bright, and a gentle breeze caresses your skin. But that same nature will turn predator in a heartbeat, when a storm cloud rolls in.
My proverbial storm cloud was building, waiting for me two hundred yards ahead on the trail. It was hiding behind the illusion of scenic bends and idyllic riding conditions. The track turned muddy. Well, the quad riders said it would.
The decline was steep, but the mud was just surface, so I rode my little CRF250L on down. A small stream began to merge with the trail, lubricating the mud and rocks as I tried my best to control the pull of gravity through the slip and slide. I made it to the next semi-level spot in the now, quite muddy trail, and dismounted. Rivulets of water rushed past the kick stand and tires, creating small eddies in their wake. I was beginning to worry again. Could I make it back up if I had to?
I decided to hike down to the next vantage point, but I was fatigued and overheated. I neglected to bring water with me (unthinkable, I know). On a short level stretch, I found a deep spot in the stream of water that was now flowing freely down the track. I drank as much as I could. It made me feel better; more positive and strong. So I chose to hike back up, and ride down to this new point in the trail.
Somehow I managed to keep Clyde on his feet, but more worries set in as I stopped to plan my next move. Tall trees and thick brush closed in the narrow trail, blocking out any sense of space and light. I began to feel as if the forest was swallowing me; a tiny human morsel being drawn into a vast, dark and damp, bottomless hole.
Ride in the creek?
I thought, “So where is this creek I am supposed to ride through?” Further down. They said that the water was only 8 inches deep. That sounded manageable as long as the bottom wasn’t pure mud.
Well, I arrived at the creek, but it wasn’t actually a creek. It was more like a twisted rut, about twelve to eighteen inches across. It’s true, the water was only 8 inches deep, but the sides were two feet high. There was no way I could ride in that. Nor could I ride on either side of it, as both sides rose up sharply in a mix of mud and tall grass. I could see the tracks their quads had made. They straddled the creek. Makes sense if you have four wheels. I guessed that’s why they said to ride through the creek. I also guessed they had never ridden on two wheels before.
The mosquitoes were enjoying a good lunch — on me of course — while I stood staring at the so-called creek, wondering uselessly where the two large rocks were that I was instructed to ride through. No matter; I had only one choice: ride back up to where I first joined this trail.
A small pep talk was in order: “We can do this Clyde; no worries; keep focused, pick the path and roll on the gas,” I said.
Still, thoughts of being stranded clouded my mind as I tapped into first gear and let the clutch out. I needed speed, but before I managed to gain ground I took a wrong track and slipped into a deep rut. I caught myself short of falling over. The mud was halfway up to Clyde’s axles. Rolling my bike back was impossible while seated on it, so I dismounted, then pulled and pushed with one hand controlling the throttle and the other using the clutch. A few minutes later I was out of the rut and onto the center of the track where it was firmer.
Ahead was a combination of steep grade, mud, loose rock, and surface water. There was no room for doubt. Being stuck here was not an option. This time I made it up without incident. You might imagine my relief when I got to the point where the trail had previously been so friendly.
Riding (sliding actually) into town
I still needed to get down to town of course, but at least I was back on the route I had been on before taking the quad rider’s advice.
Suddenly I wondered why the quad riders took the route they did through all that mess to get up here. The route I was on was staring right down at the city. Surely, it descended clear into town. It appeared to be a power line route. There had to be an access to civilization at the bottom of it.
So down I rode with those thoughts in mind. Still, I wondered why the quads didn’t come up that way. Then I saw a signpost in the distance. As I approached, I saw the words, “Permanently Locked Gate Ahead.” Alright, maybe that explains why they couldn’t come this way, but on my motorcycle? For sure I would be able to ride right past the gate; find a way around it; “no worries mate; you’ll do it easy enough on that dirt bike,” I thought.
And sure enough the gate was shut. Beyond it was what looked like a quarry. Was this the gravel pit the riders spoke of? There was no way around the gate though. Huge rocks, mounds of earth, and deep ditches blocked my path.
After fantasizing about building a ramp with dirt and rocks to propel Clyde and I over the barrier, Evel Knievel style, I returned to reality and once again contemplated turning around. I had already tried moving the gate, but one more try wouldn’t hurt.
I couldn’t believe that I missed it. There was a heavy iron pin latching the gate — with no lock securing it. “good stuff,” I thought. I rode through, I shut the gate, and reinserted the pin. Now I was home-free. I felt pretty good about things; proud that I come through it without serious trouble or despair.
As I rode through the quarry on the exit road, I saw it. It was another gate, and it was indeed locked. In fact, it appeared to be welded shut. The signpost, “Permanently Locked Gate Ahead” flashed in my mind. Like the last gate, the surroundings were impenetrable. The tease was: I could see vehicles on the other side. They were parked along a forest service road that I knew lead clear into town.
What to do? I examined the gate a dozen times, looking for some hidden latch or pin. No luck. Then it dawned on me: this gate would stop a quad, but there was sufficient space for Clyde to slide clean under it. So after apologizing to Clyde, I laid him down on his side right in front of the gate, hopped over, and pulled the front wheel through, then the back. Another couple tugs and both Clyde and I were finally on the other side of the gate.
It felt real good to be truly out of the predicament I got myself into. On looking back after I returned home, I regretted that I did not take photos in the worst sections. I guess I was too busy worrying and figuring stuff out. But what hit me most were a few lessons in dirt riding that I could pull from my experience.
8 off-road riding lessons learned from this experience
- Be bold but smart. Scout ahead if needed to pick the right path.
- Be willing to turn back if your gut says “no.”
- Be wary of advice from nice people on 4 wheels. “A little tricky in places, but no worries mate; you’ll do it easy enough on that dirt bike,” actually means that this route is the trail to hell on two wheels.
- Respect what you don’t know how to do well. Don’t pretend that you’ll somehow figure it out. Train in safe surroundings first.
- Trust the skills you have developed. Use THEM to full advantage when things get hairy.
- Carry a cell phone, tools, first aid kit, flat repair supplies — and water.
- Always let someone know where you’ll be riding.
- Remember to take photos, especially when the situation turns dire.
Please share your thoughts and experiences in the comments below. Here are the few photos that I took of this ride. I am sorry that I didn’t get shots in the bad sections. Next time I will remember to do that.