The Bikin' Fools


The December Eco Challenge


Shawn had lobbied for a ride to Crabtree Hot Springs for the annual bikin' fools camping trip. Having driven deep into the Mendocino National Forest one time, two years earlier, he could verify the presence of the remote hot baths. The plan was set. It would be a sortie into territory yet untrammeled by the fat tires of the camping enthusiasts.

Michel threw his hat into the ring and would show up with expanded camping gear. He still had the old shaky seat post rack and his excellent coffee maker. Jim K. and Shawn both sported B.O.B.s (Beast Of Burden, single wheel trailer) for the first time. It would take the massive amount of weight off of their backs that they previously carried. Eric would take his trailer also, full of winter camping gear. Everyone sported a heavier than usual load, considering the bad weather. Although conditions can be wonderfully pleasant during the winter months, they also can be deadly. Jim was ready. His rig looked like the Beverly Hillbillies headed to Hollywood.

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Early in the first climb - life is good

At 7:00 Saturday morning, December 20th, Shawn called Eric and Said; "We’re on our way." Michel was also motoring towards Middletown were the four would meet. After a few minor adjustments the riders motored to Upper Lake. The four parked at the elementary school, prepared their gear and headed off towards the high, rugged mountains to the northwest. The first part of the ride traveled through Middle Creek valley. This lovely farming area sports walnut orchards and other agriculture on the fertile bottom lands near Clear Lake. This area was once underwater not long ago in geologic time. The pedaling was easy and the air of excitement filled the senses of the riders as this once-a-year event was finally under way.

At the end of the valley the paved road began to wind its way uphill. This grueling climb would last for two hours as the bikers processed two thousand vertical feet of altitude. The views would have been spectacular but the threatening weather obscured the skyscape. Low clouds and the imminence of rain prevented any view of the beautiful Clear Lake area. The fully loaded bikes prevented fast passage on the climb. At the top of the hill the four passed a campground inhabited by motorcycles and quads. Several people yelled encouragement to the passing fools on bicycles.

Shortly after the top of the climb, the turn off the pavement onto a dirt road appeared. The four would take to the wilderness and rocket down, down and more down into the drainage of Bear Creek. Now the sense of getting deep into the woods took over. The road was in good shape, though it was muddy in places making for sketchy riding. However the BOBs faired well and Michel’s smooth, skillful riding kept him out of trouble. There was a sense that one would not want to have to return on this road. It was very steep and the mud was soft enough to cause difficulty.

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Shawn dares the swift moving ultra-cold water

The plan was to try to make it to the hot springs on the first night. That plan would be drastically modified and the group would not see the soothing hot water until near the end of the trip. The four arrived at the first obstacle; crossing Bear Creek. It was obvious at first glance that the water was too deep and moving too fast to be able to safely cross. For several long minutes the four stared at the water hoping to see something that was not there; a reasonable way across. It was getting late in the short solstice season day. Even had the crew been able to cross immediately, there was still another significant climb before dropping down to Crabtree.

It didn’t take long to decide to camp right there. Shawn had tried wading across the very cold, swollen river without bike or equipment.. He made it halfway with questionable success. It looked deeper beyond that point. The others were unable to generate any enthusiasm for an attempted crossing. The consequences were clearly evident. Loss of footing would result in getting swept downstream. Although one would probably be able to get out and survive, it is likely any equipment swept away would not be seen again. It had been raining for an hour.

The four became focused on finding and setting up camp. A nice level spot with no standing water was located near the rushing river. Jim busted out an enormous amount of tarps. A string was set between a tree and some bushes and within moments the four had the beginnings of nice tarpology. All four set up their tents under Jim’s massive tarps. It was raining hard. The task of wood gathering became a challenge. There was no easy wood despite the remote location. However a considerable pile of wet, soaking wood was amassed. The final touches of each setup ushered the bikin' fools’ into the end-of-the-day, relaxed mode. Finally the beer cube appeared to ease the day. It had been well earned.

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Camp One in the rain

The attempt to get a fire going consumed most of the evening. The fire would only blaze for a short period of time, just long enough to melt Eric’s shoes. The Dura-Flame log and safety flare produced a flame that shyly remained small and meek. After two hours some of the wood began to dry enough to produce a real fire. Jim dried his wet clothes while the others one by one began to settle in for the night. The rain tapered off as the night wore on. The stream level continued to rise.

Starting from the first day, food was never a problem. Starting the second day the troupe was treated to excellent breakfast burritos that Shawn had prepared ahead of time and frozen for the trip. The four would need all the nutrition they could eat. The morning did not bring good news for the water level. A new plan would have to take effect. The troopers broke down the camp and proceeded to the crossing point on the road. There the four pondered their situation.

"What do you think?"

" I don’t know, what do you think?"

This conversation continued for nearly an hour. Jim walked upstream to see if a better place existed. The four discussed a variety of strategies such as two people trying it together. Shawn, Eric and Jim scouted more while Michel was left on sentry in case another truck came by.

"What do you think?"

"I don’t know, what do you think"

Finally Eric decided he would test the waters. Sans pants he treaded into the swift moving river. Step by treacherous step he made his way to the further shore. Several times he nearly lost his balance but manage to struggle and stay upright. Now he had to get back to his equipment and the others. Shawn was encouraged by this questionable action, shouldered his bike and started across. He made it. Eric took his bike and successfully made it across. They still had to carry their BOBs across. Jim and Michel did not like what they were seeing. Eric and Shawn’s larger body size was clearly a help in this matter. Both Jim and Michel envisioned a swift, cold trip to some remote, wet grave downstream.

After not seeing a car for twenty four hours, amazingly two appeared. One from each direction. Shawn and Eric stood bare-assed as the first car approached with a couple on board. Eric did his best using tights as a loin cloth. Clearly this was a scary sight for the young lady on board the first car. The fact that Eric didn’t bring a hairbrush and sported the Wild Man from Borneo look didn’t really further their cause to get help from that vehicle. It didn’t really matter as it turned out. They were already on the proper side of the river. The other truck on Jim and Michel’s side agreed to carry them and the remaining gear across the water. As the truck entered the stream, it seemed very questionable whether they would make it. The water was well above the bumper and threatened to flood the engine compartment. Somehow the Toyota kept going and forged the stream. This serendipitous moment caused great cheer with the bikers. After hours of fretting, suddenly they were on the other side. The great adventure could continue.

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Michel and Jim get a bye on the water crossing

The four began the ride towards the next climb. All indications seemed favorable and the encouraged riders began a long, long climb to oblivion. A map check seemed to indicate that the riders were on course. The road climbed along the side of a vast mountain. The opposing view was spectacular. The long range views became greater as the four strained for altitude and the promised short descent to the hot springs. According to the topo the climb was significant but not as long as the climb from Upper Lake.

There would be a right turn at some point. It never appeared. Now late in the afternoon, the four began to question their position. Another map check was made. No clear results. The bikers continued to scratch for altitude, now with very close views of Snow Mountain. That didn’t seem right. Finally the group seemed to reach the top of the terrain. Two different signs to Goat Mountain appeared along the road. Another map check was in order after which Shawn declared with great despair and frustration; "We’re lost, I haven’t a clue where we are." This was that half-way point in the adventure when we all wished we were at home. We wished it wasn’t so damned cold. We wished the day had several more hours to retreat to our last know point of navigation. The day had only minutes left.

After a long climb back to the top of the terrain, after crossing snow and blowing cold the four began to descend into the darkening evening. At one point the group stopped to consider options. One was to jet all the way back downhill to the campground that existed at the bottom. It would take all of the remaining light to get there. The place that this decision was pondered was protected from the wind. Although it was about 4000 feet high, the group also knew that the coldest air would likely settle into the valleys.

Snow.BMP (2845750 bytes)

Headed to oblivion

"What do you think?" Came the question of the day.

"Let’s camp right here!" With that declaration a sense of relief came over the crew and they quickly began to set up camp right on the side of the road. There had been no vehicles since the two early in the day. None others came by. There was a beautiful stream running just off the road and plenty of fire wood nearby. The sky was clear and rain was not an issue for this evening. No tarpology would be needed. The four tents lined the edge of the road and a fire was established with slightly greater success than the previous evening. Although the wood was wet it was dead enough to catch after a short period. Eric would torch more of his shoes as he tried desperately to provide comfort to his cold feet, feet that had been chilled to the bone since the water crossings earlier in the day.

In an attempt to cook dinner, Eric’s MSR stove turned into a flame spewing, terrorist bomb that threatened to ruin the evening. Once past this not-so-interesting event, the four ate a satisfying and welcomed hot meal thanks to fact that both Jim and Shawn had stoves also. By eight o’clock, the troops were bored enough to go to bed. It would be a long night. The stream provided just enough noise to cancel out Jim’s snoring.

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Eric's Teva's return to the elements after 13 years of high adventure starting in the Grand Canyon

The morning brought an overcast, but not yet threatening sky. Knowing now that they had ventured well off course, there arose the thought that they might not be able to get back to Upper Lake by dark. There were still navigational issues to deal with. There was no phone service. Failure to return would create havoc back home. The four packed up the camp and were riding by 8:20, a record early start. The first five miles were all downhill. It took only twenty minutes to process what had taken hours on the previous, ill-fated day. Further down the road was a turn that had not been considered originally. Information from the people in the truck misled the bikers past this not-so-obvious route. It required another water crossing. This one however was not as deep and not so scary though it was still bone-chilling cold. Eric would sport cold feet for several more hours.

Another map check produced very promising results. Shawn’s comment about seeing more chaparral fit. The relationship to Snow Mountain was much better. The climb was brutal. Much of the road surface was soft enough that one could only walk the bike up the brutally steep grades. This would last for another hour. Finally near the crest of the hill a split in the road appeared. A signpost finally identified their location. A huge sense of relief filtered into the minds of the weary travelers. Now encouraged they quickly made the descent to the hot springs below.

It was disappointing to find "No Trespassing" signs at the springs. This feature greatly reduced the comfort level, though Shawn did not hesitate to strip and plunk into the one pool that was available. The high winter water level covered several others. His eyes rolled back in comfort as he melted into the soothing, hot water. The pool was only big enough for one at a time. Eric stood in the water until his cold feet prickled with heat. Life was good for the moment.

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Hot water in December

Upon returning to the bikes, a cute calico cat had made itself present. She was clearly hungry and most probably abandoned. The crew had to leave the cat and make the final stream crossing. This one was not very deep, but much longer than the others. One by one the group made it successfully across. Now established on the other side and on course, the four could take a few minutes for a meal. While eating, incredibly, the cat reappeared having somehow forded the creek. Michel gave her an enormous amount of sausage which she downed immediately. She macked on pasta that Eric had heated for lunch. She was overtly friendly and seemed to be asking for a home. She was unwilling however, to ride on a BOB and missed her chance for adoption by the bikin' fools.

The only question remaining was the distance to the top of the French Ridge that the bikers had to process. It was just after 12:00 when the crew departed. Shawn seemed a little anxious. The others were complacent, thinking that there was plenty of time to make the final climb. The road was in good shape, yet parts were too steep to ride and other parts too soft to ride. After an hour, the group began to have commanding views of the terrain that they had ridden both on this day and the previous day. The climb was estimated to be about the length of the Oat Hill, a ride very familiar to the four. However after two hours the top was still not near. The distant ridge seemed far away. Finally after another hour Shawn declared the top to be near. It was getting late in the afternoon. Clouds had been gathering all day. Now the bikers could begin to think about the beer that was not so far away.

Thinking the top was near, all of the riders were propelled with an extra bit of energy. They could pull out the stops because once at the top it would be all downhill. At least that was the commonly held perception. The reality was different. They had to struggle for nearly another hour until the terrain finally yielded. The deciding clue was a view of Clear Lake. Although this view gave great comfort to the riders, they didn’t know that there would be several ‘bumps’ (climbs) on the upper part of the downhill section. These climbs seemed merciless. The sun was approaching the horizon. The cloudy sky was becoming threatening. Now it was clear that it would be a close call with the daylight. Any problems could spell disaster.

There was a point on the descent when it was obvious that it was now all downhill. Jim began to test the limits of the bike BOB by shredding at warp speeds. The BOB faithfully followed Jim down the hill though much of its travel was in the air. Michel, not known for downhill speed, stayed right with the fast fleeting BOB set. His less stable configuration did not slow him. His metal to metal, worn out brake pads did not cause him to lag. The Frenchman was ‘en feugo’.

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The Final Descent

As the anxiety relaxed, one could appreciate the spectacular views. The huge, 4000 foot mountains to the north towered over the landscape. Clear Lake (biggest lake in California) unfolded below with the adjacent, towering Mt. Konocti standing in the clouds. The farm valleys surrounding Upper Lake appeared lush and green in their winter garb. The fading light of the solstice became soft and soothing. Finally the dirt yielded to pavement and signs of civilization appeared. The three day trek rolled to a successful close.

All of the equipment worked well. There were only minor mechanical problems. Shawn had a spoke nipple break. Phenomenally, he had a spare. A field fix only took a few minutes. Eric’s rear hub skipped and made bad sounds at the very outset of the trip but lasted through an incredible menu of tough riding. This was Jim’s first ride with his new BOB. He handled the rig with a fine touch. Michel had a better pannier setup and his smooth riding style prevented the early departure of his entire camping outfit off the back of the bike.

The 2003 winter bike trip slid into the record. It was a ride of great intensity, great challenge, creativity and accomplishment. Packed into three days was a lifetime of great memories for the bikin' fools.