Saturday, September 19, 2009

Attacking the backlong, 6-20-09

If I don't start working on this now, I'll never get around to it.

I know this seems quite disjointed, as from the road I was updating just about whenever I could, but not in a very liner manner. I'm going to try and keep this all date-tagged to help keep your mind in order.

Last I did a liner update, I was in the Northwest Territories, in far northern Canada. I'd spent the last four or five days riding through alternating clear skys and rain (mostly rain), with the occasional hail thrown in for good measure. I'd made a quick stop in Hay River to resupply and refuel, before heading back south to the McKenzie and going west. There was what would have been a perfectly situated fuel stop/resort right at the junction of the Liard and McKenzie highways, but it was closed, forcing me to make the 80 miles detour up to Fort Simpson to refuel before heading south along the Liard highway.

View Larger Map

Maddeningly, the ~40 miles or so of road from the McKenzie/Liard highway junction to Fort Simpson was well paved, good smooth tarmac. And for a good part of the trip there, I was actually in some occasional sunlight. But I was still riding along the edge of the storm front I'd been flirting with all week, and off in the distance, in the direction I was going, there was nothing but black sky. The rain caught up with me as I was refueling in Fort Simpson, and from then on, I was mostly stuck in it. The only blessing was that it was occasionally heavy enough to wash some of the mud off my visor.

Just to taunt me, off in the distance I could usually see rays of sun, clear sky even. But the road never seemed to go in their direction, instead always twisting into the darkest parts of the sky it could find.

While the road to Fort Simpson is paved, the Liard and the McKenzie highways are not. So far, I'd spent a good part of the day on the McKenzie highway, which while it was fairly potholed and had some bad wash-boarding, overall wasn't too terrible. I mean, it was bad, no doubt. But it was usually solid enough that as long as I took it slowly, I was okay.

The Liard highway was a different story.

The Liard highway was mud, pure and simple. Deep, sloppy mud from which there was no avoiding, and no escaping once you were in it. This road nearly killed me.

I wasn't going quickly, I was in the extreme bottom of the usable range of 5th gear, so perhaps 30-35mph, when suddenly I realized that the orientation of the wheels had little to do with which direction the bike was heading. A split second after that, and the bike was, for all practical purposes, out of control. It wasn't a full-on tank slapper, but it was close. The front wheel sunk into the muck, and the rear wheel did about the same. The rear end fishtailed wildly to the left, then snapped back to the right, then left, each time more violently then the last, and the handlebars were doing their best to wrench themselves out of my grip. Soon, the bike was moving underneath me, trying to throw me off, and snapping back and forth from one precarious lean angle to another, 3-4 times each second. I had no idea a bike this heavy could fling itself side to side this quickly.

Guys, I'll be honest, I have no idea why I didn't wipe out By every means, I should have wiped out, in one of the most remote roads in one of the most remote parts of Canada. And I know that 10,000 mile previous me would have absolutely lost the bike. In the middle of this wild slaloming (which, lets be honest, was probably no more then 3-4 seconds, but felt like an eternity), the thought was on my mind to just let go of the bike, and try to get off of it without it falling on top of me, and at least save myself. I knew that the next oscillation would probably be the last before the bike ditched itself, they were getting stronger and more violent with each flick, and I should have just laid it down and tried to minimize any damage to the bike and myself.

But I didn't. Because what I did do, is panic. And when you panic, you don't think. You react. And my reaction was to twist the throttle and lock my eyes on the horizon.

And then the darnedest thing happened. The bike stopped pitching side to side, the rear wheel started following the front again, they got traction . . . and I was riding along like nothing happened. I didn't even have an adrenalin buzz going. It was a full on thirty seconds later that it struck me what had just happened, and how close I'd come to a likely disastrous wipeout. I knew that if I focused on it too much, I would get scared and get shaky, and this was no place for that. So I did the only thing I could do; I kept riding. And it kept raining, and the roads kept being terrible.

I was having fantasies about cars at this point. Nice, warm boxes with gloriously soft seats, heaters, defoggers, and four wheels that prevented them from falling over if your attention happened to stray for a split second. The shear luxury of being someplace out of the cold, out of the wind and the ever-present rain, where traveling from one location to the next simply required the push of a peddle and the turn of a wheel, and if you were too cold, why you could just turn the heater up! That sounded so, so good right now. I was almost hating motorcycles, hating the effort they required, hating how exposed I was, hating myself for taking this route instead of just doing the Alcan like a sane person. I was miserable.

That wasn't the last near-wipeout I had this day, although it was the worst. But even so, after two more near misses, I was done. My nerves were shot, and even though I felt I should keep going, my body just wasn't going to allow it. I was running on adrenalin and exhaustion by this point; it was a solid 20 hours since I'd left Hay River, and the bulk of that had been spent on sloppy, lousy roads that required every bit of attention I could give. Even though most of the pictures I've posted were during sunlight or lighter periods, that was only because the rain was too miserable to pull my camera out during. I had been rained on almost all day, and my suit liner had leaked along the front zipper, leaving me with a wet chest and crotch. I needed sleep, and I needed calories. I found somewhere to camp at the base of a bridge near a stream with water that looked pretty decent.

This night, or day, was the low point of the trip mentally. It had all come to a head, and I damn near lost it. This just sucked. Everything sucked.

I was cold, and wet. That sort of damp cold where you just can't get or stay warm, no matter how many layers you add. I was along side a road that had tried to kill me three times, almost succeeded once, and I was weighted down by the knowledge that the next day i STILL had to get back on that damn road and keep riding it for another two hundred and fifty miles before there was a hope of pavement again.

Everything I owned was wet by this point: I'd run out of change while at the laundromat in Hay River, so my socks and underwear hadn't dried completely (ARRRGG COTTON), and it had been way too humid for the last couple days to allow them to dry out over night. It had been cold and rainy, or at least been on the verge of raining, for the better part of a week. My supposedly waterproof gloves were very not, and even the rubber over-gloves I had were no good, because it turned out that the lining in them just wicked all the water into them anyway.

And then there were the bugs. Now, everyone who's ever considered going to Northern Canada has been warned about the bugs, their size and ferocity. And tonight, they just added insult to injury. They were managing to bite me through my leather riding gloves, through three layers of shirts. Every time I stopped at all on the road, they'd find their way into my helmet, and when I was setting up camp, some managed to find their way into my mosquito-netting hat thing. They were so bad that rather then risk going outside my tent for a pee, I sacrificed one of my water bottles as a piddle-pack.

The next day ("Day is a relative term, it rarely got any darker then a mild twilight) I was so dreading the idea of having to pack up again, and keep riding. I procrastinated there in my tent for as long as I could, shivering in the cold and wet, knowing that my suit and liner were wet and putting them on was going to make me even colder.

For some reason, I did it anyway, and kept riding south. And I was rewarded with my first buffalo.

When I first road by them, I had no idea what they were. A pile of brush by the side of the road? When I got closer, I thought maybe they were dead, until one turned his head to look at me. I turned around and went back for this picture, but this was as close as I wanted to get. I know they're not really aggressive creatures, but let's not push my luck, mkay?

There were still rain showers all around me, and the road was still wet . . . but miraculously, I managed to avoid most of it. I wasn't dry, mind you. Far from it, there was still way too much humidity to dry myself out, but at least I wasn't getting wetter. And while not what I would call really scenic, off in the distance, I could start to see mountains.

The farther south I got, the better things started to look. There were still rain clouds all around, but in front of me, it started looking brighter and brighter. At some points, the road surface even started to dry out a little bit, becoming firmer and less sloppy, enough so that I could finally make use of third gear, and even higher!

The strange thing was that even though I was in one of the most remote parts of Canada, and almost never passed any other vehicles, I didn't really FEEL like I was that remote, like I was that far away. I think it was because I'd left civilization behind gradually; going up through Alberta the distances between towns slowly got greater and greater, there wasn't the sudden "HAY you are in the middle of nowhere!" feeling that I got from other places. For the most part, this felt like any other crappy country road that I'd spent weeks on in the lower 48; just wetter.

I arrived at the turn-off for Fort Liard sometime mid-day (I actually have no idea what time it was. Crazy higher latitudes and your 22 hours of light per day), which is reached by a freakishly steep and long hill down into the valley.

I've got no idea what the grade was, but 20% wouldn't surprise me. I was worried about having enough traction, and even third gear wasn't happy.

More small-town weirdness. Ford Liard wasn't anything special; just felt like your run-of-the-mill tiny remote town of ramshackle houses and trailers. I refilled on fuel, and headed back out, looking forward to getting down into BC and (so I was promised) paved roads.

But my exit from the town was delayed, by your Northwest Territories traffic jam.

(Sorry for the lousy camera work, I was trying to hold the camera and operate the throttle at the same time)

Continueing south, there were more storms around me, often rain to the left and right and behind, but I just managed to avoid any more heavy downpours, or hail.

And lo and behold, what did I encounter after the last two days spent in slop?

TARMAC! Wonderful, glorious, smooth and perfect pavement!!! Oh, it felt good, it felt so good to be able to upshift and actually make more then 20mph again, to not have to be perpetually on edge waiting for the rear end to let go or the front to sink into the mud, to just be able to twist the noisy handgrip and GO.

I was still flirting with storms, sometimes getting sprinkled on or riding over pavement that had very recently been rained on, but my spirits were feeling higher with every mile south.

This being Canada, there was still a good bit of road construction, complete with the requisite flirty girl holding the sign. She looked DISTURBINGLY like my dad's girlfriend.

The farther south I went, the better the scenery got.

I hit the Alcan later that day, the Alcan with it's smooth pavement, well-marked lanes, and other vehicles on it. It felt like I was back in the real world. I turned right on it, heading west into the mountains of British Columbia.

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