The prize of survival
Thursday, April 6, 2017
Posted by: Richard J. Atkins, Ed.D. (#92162)
When I took my first real motorcycle ride, it was on much of the length of the Long Island Expressway. That was a big deal for me, as it was a rather long first-time riding experience. There was a feeling of having conquered something—and equally important—of having survived it. That notion of enduring something and living to tell the tale probably rates low with most riders; they go somewhere, come back and repeat the process. I have to admit that the value of surviving most of my rides has been off the radar, in most cases, at least until my run on Ashby Road in Ontario.
Having earned a contract with a Big Pharma company in Toronto (teaching a Business Writing class), it was another opportunity to commute to work on two wheels. Toronto resident, former FM drummer, producer (boomKA! Studios), composer and arranger Martin Deller agreed to ride with me on my way back to the United States. Martin rides an R1150R Rockster, so he and I ride the same kind of street bike. I've ridden with him before and found him to be an excellent motorcyclist—technically competent and well-skilled at tandem riding.
On the day after my training class, we made our way out of the city. We passed to the south of Lake Simcoe, ultimately placing us on Crystal Lake Road, which begins just south of Kinmount. Heading away from Crystal Lake, a right turn placed us on Fire Access Road. The fun only seemed to begin here.
Fire Access Road is a thrilling 13 miles of dirt, gravel, puddles (no mud) and up-and-down twists and turns. I discovered it only four months earlier when Paul "Saddlebag" Cunningham and I were rambling around Canada on another one of my business trips. When we rode it in May, we considered ourselves quite the adventurous ones. This time, Marty and I rode it with fervor and had a great time.
After conquering Fire Access Road we went north in Ontario and then east toward Bancroft. A little over 20 miles later, we took another unpaved diversion discovered in my Microsoft Streets & Trips software. I like the idea of choosing the road less traveled. It makes all the difference, and for our purposes, that difference increased the value of the journey.
Trout Lake Road was adventuresome and challenging. There were steep gradients, rocks and spectacular puddles, which made for some fun (and wet) crossings. In fact, some of the puddles were so deep, I ended up getting water on my face shield! Although this road was a skill-sharpener, it was manageable.
From Trout Lake Road, my mapping software's instruction was to "Keep STRAIGHT onto Ashby Rd [White Lk] 7.7 mi." Once committed to Ashby, it didn't take long to notice that the grass was tall, the rocks were big and and the downward grade only got steeper and steeper. We were driving further into danger, yet there seemed to be a few good reasons to keep going: the hope that it would be better up ahead, and also that by this point, we were too far down. We had taken some serious jumps with our motorcycles to get there; even if we could turn around (an unlikely option based on the uneven and jagged terrain), we probably wouldn't be able to get the bikes back up the way we came.
Tension-filled moments like these usually have my mind racing. I conjured images of a tow truck driver telling me that it would be impossible to get equipment into the area, and that I would have to abandon the vehicle there. With no mobile phone service, fear gripped me. I couldn't even call for help! More dire thoughts came: if we have to leave the bikes here, how long will it take to walk and get to the nearest human, and what are the odds of encountering some not-so-peaceful, peckish wildlife?
We found ourselves at the bottom of the hill and now had to assess the navigability of the upward path ahead of us. Marty and I walked to the top and determined that we could do it. As though going into battle, I led the charge. With my engine racing, clutch held and feathered, I applied power to the rear wheel, occasionally grabbing my foot brake to keep my position. It took a few minutes to make the climb, and during this time, the smell of burning fluids from my motorcycle filled the air. Also, in an effort to help with stability, I kept both legs out from their foot pegs to help when necessary. That worked fine until the protruding rocks, my stepping stones, pinned my right foot under the saddle bag. Any applied power to the throttle would have snapped my foot against that rock. Grabbing the front brake and rolling off the throttle meant that I would lose some ground. Clearly it was worth it to keep ambulatory for the rest of the trip!
Marty had his own challenges going up that hill. At a few points, I had to pull his front forks or push his motorcycle from behind as he accelerated. There was even a time I had to tell him to stop so that I could remove the soccer ball-sized rock from under the frame of his machine to allow him to continue on. When we finally made it to flatter ground at the top, we took a break.
Some people think that riding a motorcycle can be effortless because the engine does all the work. My heart pounded palpably from this down- and uphill adventure,—I could feel it most strongly in my helmet, and I could sense all my veins throbbing.
Much to our relief, the road past that initial gully area was more drivable. As we progressed, we discovered that the puddles, unlike the ones on Fire Access Road, covered a thick layer of mud. This meant that when one had to be traversed, the additional risk of instability and crashing were possibilities. Despite these ordeals, we did well until, just toward the end of Ashby Road, we arrived at an area where we needed to make a right turn to get ourselves out to pavement and civilization again. From the hard-packed dirt we were on, we were positioned toward soft, recently graded dirt. Marty and I both looked at each other and uttered two words (no, they weren't "happy birthday"). The road offered a quality similar to mushy beach sand. We probably could travel on it, but it would be treacherous and slow going, with many opportunities to drop the bikes.
We again undertook a reconnaissance mission to verify that what lay in front of us was, in fact, the road we still wanted, and also to ascertain if we would be able to ride out. Turning around and going back was a dreaded impossibility at this point, but it was the right road. Cooperating with the inevitable, I started first and took off. Although spongy, the dirt seemed to be packed enough to move the Roadster along. It occurred to me as I was riding on this dirt that the tracks I was riding in were made by other vehicles, so if vehicles can drive on a road like this, my motorcycle probably could also. Traveling further, the tire prints of large machinery became apparent. Clearly some big vehicles had been driving on this road, probably to and from a logging operation.
The first few rain drops started to fall as we continued on. Possibly the most reassuring sight I saw was an oncoming truck, believe it or not. Seeing it meant that there was another human nearby, and that vehicles could drive on this road and actually get somewhere! Only a few miles later (and after allowing one more oncoming truck to pass), we exited Ashby Road, taking Route 7 back out to 28. At the moment we arrived on a paved road, we both dismounted and celebrated our survival. We made it! This was two hours and 14.6 miles (6.9 on Trout Lake, 7.7 on Ashby) of transformational motorcycle riding.
The forceful downpour was a double-edged sword. While we were both incredibly thankful that the precipitation abated until we were out of the woods (it would have been impossible to ride the last few miles of soil, if it were mud), the torrent was now cleaning our motorcycles.
Here was injustice! We worked hard and earned that dirt. The mud splashes and caked-on dirt were all being washed away. Our trophies of the day's commute were being removed by an act of nature! In the end, we walked out with the greatest prize of all – the chance to tell the tale. Having survived the ride was enough of a reward. Another trophy worth mentioning is that neither of us dropped our motorcycles. On roads like these, I almost expect that a bike will be dropped. Not ours – not that day.
It's been a long time since I thought about that first big ride on the Long Island Expressway. A lot has happened since then, and I've certainly grown in mileage and experience. As a result, I rarely take stock of how thankful I am to be able to get out of bed every morning and give life another shot—and then tell the tale. Maybe one day, I'll get it right, but for now, the fun and prizes lie in the trying.