The Bikin' Fools
Take the train!
A couple of years ago, the notion of riding the Skunk Train tracks from Willits to Fort Bragg, CA was floated. This scenic route along the remote Noyo River offers some of the most pleasant redwood scenery on the North Coast. The tracks climb briefly out of Willits then begin a long descent into the Noyo River valley. From that point the tracks are virtually level all the way to Ft. Bragg. The only takers for the Bikin Fools annual camping excursion were Jim Korte and Eric.
On Thursday they convened in Healdsburg, packed the Subaru and headed for Willits. At Willits the Suncycles Bike Shop provided a couple of minor details. The long awaited moment had finally arrived. Although four days is not a huge vacation, it is none-the-less a significant break from the routine of daily life. The two would spend the next few days discovering beautiful new territory, flourishing on camp meals, trying to sleep well and finding out why everyone consulted recommended not trying to ride the train tracks.
Jim was riding his beautiful Super Light. It was equipped with a seat post rack that carried about forty pounds of stuff. He had the rest of his stuff on his back. Eric had the faithful "Bob" pressed into service. This single wheel trailer provides a generous platform to stash untold amounts of camping stuff including a heavy-duty, winter sleeping bag with a fleece liner.
The two shredded through Willits with mounting excitement. Two miles out of town the tracks split from the road. The two stopped and pondered the situation.
"Whaddya think, Jim?" Eric asked.
"Dunno, Homer," Jim replied, "Its up to you."
"Well, lets try it a ways and see what happens. We can always turn around." Eric stated.
"I dont really care what we do. What ever is totally cool with me, Im stoked to be out here." Jim said. He was happy to be going, whatever the route. The two split off of the highway and began what would be a tedious, torturous journey for the next two and a half days. The estimate was that the ride could easily be done in about a day and a half. This miscalculation would alter the course of the original plan which was to spend Friday night at Russian Gulch, then return to Willits via Compche road. That ride would include Montgomery woods an d Orr Hot Springs.
Shortly up the rail bed, Eric experienced a flat. He had trouble with the rear tire for days. Upon close inspection, the rim tape was discovered to be faulty. A quick duct tape fix remedied the tire. It would be happy for the rest of the trip. As the two progressed it became obvious that this riding was not going to be fast or particularly fun. The rail bed was primarily pea gravel. This stuff makes for horrible riding. There were too-numerous-to-mention repairs to the rail ties that left giant ditches across the route. The center of the tracks was way to rough to consider with a few exceptions when the gravel filled the voids between the ties. Most frequently the best riding occurred in a six-inch strip just outside the ends of the ties. The strip was too narrow to be of great use and most often didnt last long for one reason or another anyway.
Although the grade was three percent or less, the sense was that the riding would vastly improve on the other side of the summit. So the "Summit One-Half Mile" sign came with great welcome and enthusiasm. This would mark the point where return, or change of mind would not occur. The next surprise on the adventure was the tunnel at the top. Although not of great length (perhaps one hundred yards), it was long enough to be dark inside and tricky to navigate. Pipes stuck out of the side of the walls, making riding next to the tracks difficult. The cross ties between the tracks were deep and impossible to ride. Water dripped off of the walls and stood in the ditches. Yet, the sense of a long awaited adventure drove the two beyond this minor impedance. The frost on the ground on the other side of the tunnel would indicate winter, cold feet and sometimes a solid riding surface.
Riding downhill was a little better. The miles were long and full of effort. Frequently the best path changed from the ditch to the tie-end, next to the rail. Pedaling through the pea gravel cost greatly. Many, many ditches from removed ties had to be navigated. Usually other hazards accompanied the ditches. All in all, the riding was energy intensive. Slowly the tracks began a turn. The turn continued into a loop, the first of the downhill switchbacks. Now having progressed a few miles, the two came upon a beautiful meadow in the tall trees. The trees werent old growth, but likely those too small to harvest when the loggers trashed this neck of the woods nearly one hundred years ago.
The bikers stopped and took a needed break. It was a chance to look around and appreciate the beautiful countryside. When riding, most of the riders view is only a few feet ahead of the front wheel. So much attention is required to ride, that precious little scenery is taken in while underway. The remote setting was quiet except for the ravens and hawks. They cawed and screeched, letting us know we were in their domain, no longer in service of the madness of modern times.
During the break, Jim inspected the seat post rack. It was sporting an obvious bend. No way would it make the next forty miles. Suddenly the focus became how to fix this situation so that the Bikin Fools could continue. Loose spikes adorned the ground around the area. By sticking a spike between the seat post and rack, the two fashioned a support that would last for the rest of the ride.
The track descended through a series of switchbacks. Towards the bottom, a shortcut between the two loops saved nearly a mile of riding. Eventually the track straightened out at the beginning of the long, long valley that hosted the Noyo River. The sun was beginning to get low in the western sky.
"We should think about finding a campsite before too long." Jim said.
"Youre right. We need a while to find enough wood for the evening." Eric added.
The two progressed for a few more miles. They came across the work cars for the railroad. It was tempting to think how fast one of the work cars could go, compared with the mt. bikes. About a mile later, they found a place near running water, in a nice redwood grove with lots of wood nearby. The camping routine quickly fell into place. The hustle of getting the things prepared for dinner and for sleep occupied the next few hours. All of the systems were set in order. The fire came to life and provided life saving warmth and heat for the delicious dinner that consisted of steak, sausage, cooked carrots, potato and squash.
Eventually the evening grew late enough for the two to crawl into the sleeping bags. Sleep was somewhat fitful. The first night away from home, a cold night and new, strange sounds conspired to keep sleep at bay for part of the night. Both did well enough that by first light there was activity. The fire was stoked back to life. The bustle of morning activities continued as the sky became brighter and brighter until it was obvious that the new day was clear and blue.
Oatmeal was the selection for breakfast. Like most camp food, it tasted divine. It provided warmth and nutrition for the Bikin Fools to press on with this first full day of bike/camping fun. The two judged that they were near Irmulco road. This road, the only road on the map, paralleled the tracks for several miles. So when the two came to an obvious, well used road it seemed like the right one, though it went a slightly strange direction. It started uphill and climbed steeply. This didnt seem quite right, even though it sort of paralleled the tracks. For a half-hour the two climbed higher and higher into the rugged terrain. Doubt began to flood the minds.
Suddenly the sound of an approaching vehicle alerted the bikers.
"Great," Jim said, "Lets ask where we are."
"Good idea." Eric added.
When the Mendocino lumber company truck drove into sight, the bikers flagged the man down. "Where are we?" they asked unabashedly.
"Well," the young man said, "Youre lost!"
"No kidding," Eric chuckled.
"This road goes into private timber land and doesnt really go anywhere." The forester said.
"Wheres Irmulco?" Jim asked.
"You need to go back down to the valley and go the other direction. It will lead to a sign to Northspur."
That was all the information the two needed. They turned around and covered the ground in minutes that had taken the better part of an hour to climb. At the bottom the road was taken in the other direction, and sure enough it progressed to Irmulco. Two fish and game people were doing a fish survey at the creek. Again the information was confirmed and the two progressed towards Northspur. The riding seemed intensely easy. The miles flew past as the riders were able to utilize much higher gears on the bikes. The tall trees grew from lovely fern floors. Dotted along the way were many cabins. Smoke curled from chimneys on this very cold morning.
After rising and falling beside the tracks, Irmulco road eventually arrived at Northspur. This junction is the destination for the ½ day trip of the Skunk Train. It is one of the most lovely settings imaginable. The Redwoods tower towards the sky, the forest floor is a deep carpet of duff. The ferns are huge and lounge comfortably at the feet of the ancient ones. Northspur sports a gift shop, food and rest rooms. The train turns around while the tourists take in the natural beauty.
The two bikers spotted a woman as they arrived. "Is this Northspur?" They asked.
"Yes," She said, "Where are you from?"
"Calistoga." Came the reply.
"Oh," She stated, "Do you know Kevin McCalway?"
"As a matter of fact, we do"
It was one of those small world connections. Kevin is an avid biker often seen shredding the trails and roads around Calistoga.
After consulting another local, Gary, a reasonable alternative to the travails of riding the tracks was offered. Gary suggested a couple of routes that would end the struggle along the tracks. Yet, the mission was the train tracks, and the riding at Northspur was pleasantly easy. There was a generous avenue along tracks that allowed atypically easy riding. After a rest and munchie break, with renewed energy the two decided to continue. This part of the ride almost made up for all of the struggle that it took to get this far. The deep forest provided a sense of calm and beauty. It seemed they had made the right decision. For several miles the terrain flew past. The day was cool but pleasant. The Noyo River flowed with touching beauty all along the way.
Several trestles crisscrossed the river. Each offered scintillating views of the area. These bridges created special challenges The all wood structures were very slick from the damp winter months. Footing was treacherous at best and there were no guard rails to offer any safety. The water ran fast thirty to fifty feet below.
Although the riding had temporarily changed, it was still twenty miles to Ft. Bragg. While the riding was more swift, none-the-less it took time to cover miles. We impatiently counted down each mile post. As the hours wore on, it began to look questionable whether the two would make Ft. Bragg by nightfall.
At one sunny spot along the river, the two stopped to take another break. Eric took off his pack and placed it on the ground. When he turned away, he kicked it and it dove off the edge towards the roaring river below. It tumbled for several yards before landing on a ledge just short of the water. Had it made the water, it would have been history. The steep banks and cold water did not invite any heroic efforts.
Another alternative passage deemed usable. Gary had enlightened us to the Company Ranch Rd. that would eliminate the troublesome, long tunnel at the end of the ride. But the location of the Company road was unknown. Towards the end of the afternoon it was becoming obvious that it was too far to Fr. Bragg to make it on the tracks. In fact, in three and a half hours since noon, the two had only made it 11 of the 22 miles.
"Whaddya think, Jim?" Eric asked.
"I think we should look for a place to camp." Jim stated without hesitation. "I still have enough food for another meal.
"Im afraid that youre right." Eric said. "It will change our plans, but owell."
The two continued. The lovely conditions had deteriorated back to strenuous travel. Often the tracks had to be crossed to access the better ride. Crossing the tracks with the Bob was no easy task. Typically the downhill side of the tracks offered the best going. But that was the side that the ties were removed, leaving the nearly impassible ditches. It took as much as twenty minutes to process a mile. The winter sun was fading fast.
English Camp, the sign said. Several cottages came into view. The enclave of buildings was set among redwoods just off of the tracks. The river flowed through the front yard. Across yet another trestle there were more buildings. This spot was obviously camp for many people. At the further set of buildings there was a small structure on the top of a fifteen foot high redwood stump. This once magnificent living being now sported a shack upon its twelve foot diameter. It seemed like a cynical, bad joke. But such is the rudeness of the marauding industrialist. The aesthetic qualities of life take a back seat to dollars. The greedy hoards that ruthlessly axed these trees had no though of a bigger picture of life. It was inconceivable to them that the trees had greater value left alone than to be chopped and sent to a landfill after only a few years as lumber. A two thousand year old tree would last only a couple of decades as building material in the hands of the white man. O how shortsighted!
"Whaddya think about camping out here in front of the house in this nice open area?" Eric asked innocently.
"Yea," Jim replied, "Theres lots of dry fire wood stacked up.
The two continued around the cottage. There was a huge deck in back that faced the river. Several bed frames were on the deck.
"Hey," Eric said, "I might just sleep on one of these."
As the two circled the premises, Eric suggested; "Hey Jim, see if the door is open."
Jim checked. It was. Humm. It was cold. And it was getting dark. There was a gas stove inside, hummm...
This night turned out to be one of the strangest camping nights ever. The cabin was cold and clammy. It smelled strongly of mold and mildew. Once the two had a fire going in the fireplace, dinner was cooked on the propane stove. It would even be possible to wash dishes, a camping luxury.
Eventually the hands of time pointed to bedtime. The luxury accommodations would come with a price. Jim would wake up so congested that he could hardly breath. Eric had a terror attack in the middle of the night. Thinking a rat was on his chest, he woke from sleep so panic stricken that he was momentarily frozen, "scared stiff". Finally with an audible gasp of panic, he awoke. The rat on his chest was a lump in his sleeping bag.
There was some precedent for the rat dream. When the two first arrived in the building, a large rat was heard scampering across the ceiling. Then it scrambled down onto the kitchen counter just inches away from Eric, then scrambled to safety behind the stove. Later in the evening, a noise was heard in the food closet. Upon opening the door, a raccoon stared at the human, then slowly departed.
The first light of morning was welcome. It would take less time to prepare to leave, except for the flat tires that came with all of the berry bushes along the tracks. Finally going and glad to be in fresh air, the two set about in earnest. They were now way behind schedule and it was obvious that the Compche part of the ride would have to be modified.
Shortly after leaving the cabin, Eric and Jim encountered two fishermen walking down the tracks.
"Hi there," Eric said half joking, "Where are we?"
The fishermen explained that they had walked about two miles from their truck which was parked at Company Ranch Road.
""How far is it to Ft. Bragg on that road?" Jim asked.
"Not far at all." Came the reply.
Thus began the beginning of the end of the rail part of the journey. It was fitting that the riding was relatively easy and in magnificent beauty. Had it not, still, been ten miles to Ft. Bragg on the tracks, the two might have opted to go all the way. But the prospect of the long tunnel stymied the two. They could not figure a way to make the tunnel passage all right. The possibility of getting stuck way in the tunnel with the train coming was too much to bear. Both the time factor and the tunnel factor conspired to lead the guys to the Company Ranch Road.
Now on a hard surface (dirt), the speed increased immensely. Even uphill the riding seemed easy. There were no technical challenges, no balance problems, no trestles to almost fall off of. It was just simple bike riding. The climb to the top seemed easy. Then for the first time in three days the two contacted pavement again. Now the last few miles to Fr. Bragg flashed under the eager wheels. The whitecaps of the ocean could be seen just a few miles away. About this time, the train whistle was heard. It was just about to enter the tunnel that took the tracks under where the two were riding.
On both minds was a good meal. That would be the second order of business. The first was to find out what the train schedule was. One idea for the revised plan was to take the train back to Northspur and ride Irmulco road back to Willits. Bad news there. The train only runs once a week, and it had already left.
The serendipity gods paid a visit by steering the hungry (and smelly) duo to the Eggheads Cafe. This delightful place was adorned with Wizard of Oz memorabilia. There was a magnificent painting at our table of an angry Kansas sky. The dark, powerful clouds nearly left the frame as they boiled across the landscape. The food was excellent. It provided a needed lift for the weary Bikin Fools.
At this juncture Jim and Eric debated their future. Jim was concerned about his bike. He had managed to break a spoke somewhere along the line. It was questionable whether it would tolerate forty or fifty road miles. A decision to buy beer seemed appropriate. With twelver in hand, the two set off for McKerricher State Park. There they poached the "closed" hiker/biker camp area and relaxed for an hour and a half. The surf pounded in the background, seagulls flew overhead and the sun warmed the two bodies. During this time Jim and Eric assessed the situation, tuned the broken wheel and came to the conclusion that; if they left right away, they could make time towards Willits. Then they would have all day on Sunday to get there. It was a plan.
As the sun began to descend into the late afternoon, the two began the ride towards Willits. It was Saturday afternoon. There was a minimum of traffic and very few trucks. The road seemed easy and the miles flew past. It was not long before the question of the next camp came up. Around 4:00 the two began to scan the countryside. They looked for any place that might be safe and appropriate for the evening. At one pullover spot they peered over the bank. It was littered with trash. But just beyond the low-life zone there was a redwood grove. The two scrambled down the steep bank, wiggled through a redwood curtain and, voila! Just out of sight on this steep hill was an area that had a slight shelf. It was just big enough to contain a small campsite. Jim set about creating a kitchen area at the base of a very large redwood tree. After digging through the duff, he established an area the would be nearly perfect to cook meals and hang near the campfire. Although they were only a short distance from the road, they were completely stealth. The smoke from the fire drifted away from the highway and was likely never seen by anyone.
Eric created a ledge just downhill and set up his sleeping bag. This site turned out to be one of the most pleasant campsites ever. The soft, earthy smell of the duff, the soft ground and the view to the stars through the big trees added up to a most comfortable night.
Sunday morning dawned cool and overcast. The Bikin Fools began the daily routine of bicycle touring. Coffee/tea was brewed, water pumped and breakfast was started. After a great meal the camp was stowed back on the bikes and the two scratched their way back up the steep embankment to the highway.
The return to Willits would be shorter than anticipated. Originally it was believed to be over forty miles, but in reality it was only 33 from the coast to Willits. Several miles were processed in the previous afternoon, leaving a little over 25 miles to ride. The initial part of the route climbed moderately then descended into a valley that lasted for ten miles. Finally, a long climb of six miles would spell the end of the effort. Once over the summit of this workout, the two easily cruised back to the spot where they had left the road four days earlier. It was amazing to view the train tracks and the attendant un-rideable path next to the rails. One would have to be crazy to consider such an undertaking.
The sense of excitement, the curiosity of the unknown and the thrill of new discoveries came grinding to a halt as the two returned to the Subaru. Now, life would again return to the predictable, the known and the familiar. Instantly gone was the sense of being totally alive in a fresh new venue. Relegated to memory was all that these four short days represented. It was a grand escape and a time for high adventure. The next task of the Bikin Fools would be to get through the next 51 weeks until, again, the riders would have a chance to slip into an extraordinary slice of life on a future adventure.