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1st prize: SURVIVAL!

Tuesday, May 14, 2019   (1 Comments)
Posted by: Richard J. Atkins, Ed.D. #93162

When I took my first real motorcycle ride, it was on much of the Long Island Expressway. That was a big deal for me, as it was a rather long riding experience. There was a feeling of having conquered something - and equally important, 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.

Having earned a contract with a pharmaceutical company in Toronto, Ontario (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 out of town. Martin rides an R 1150 R Rockster, so ostensibly 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 met in the morning and made our way out of the city. We passed to the south of Lake Simcoe, ultimately placing us just south of Kinmount. Heading away from Crystal Lake, the fun only seemed to begin.

Fire Access Road is 13 thrilling miles of up and down, twisty dirt, gravel and puddles. I discovered it only four months earlier when my erstwhile riding buddy, Paul “Saddlebag” Cunningham and I were rambling around Canada on another one of my business trips. When we rode it in May, we thought that we were quite the adventurous ones. Marty and I rode it with fervor and had a great time.

Once again, Fire Access Road was conquered! From this point, we went north in Ontario and then east toward Bancroft. We ventured down unpaved roads suggested by Microsoft Streets & Trips; I like the idea of choosing the “Road Less Traveled.” It really does make all the difference, and for our purposes, that difference really 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 splashes up to my face shield! Although this road was a skill-sharpener, it was entirely manageable.

Leaving Trout Lake Road, it didn’t take long to notice that the grass was tall, the rocks in our riding path were big, and the downward grade was becoming steeper and steeper. We rode further into danger, yet there seemed to be a few good reasons to keep going. We held on to the hope that it would be better up ahead, and also that by this point, we were too far down to go back. 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.

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 motorcycle 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 would it take to find 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 that lay ahead of us. Marty and I walked to the top and determined we could do it. As though going into battle, I led the charge. Engine racing, clutch held and feathered, I applied power to the rear wheel, occasionally tapping the foot brake to keep my position. It took a few minutes to make the climb, and during this time, a burning smell filled the air. Keeping my legs out like struts worked fine until the protruding rocks pinned my right foot under the saddle bag. Any power applied to the throttle would have snapped my foot against that rock. Grabbing the front brake and rolling off the throttle meant I would lose some ground. I chose to keep the foot.

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. There was even a time I had to tell him to stop so I could remove the soccer ball-sized rock from under the frame of his machine. 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 hilly 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 somewhat more drivable. As we progressed, we discovered the puddles here, unlike the ones on Fire Access Road, had a thick layer of mud, adding the additional risk of instability and crashing. 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. 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 beach sand, best described as mushy. We probably could travel on it, but it would be treacherous and slow going, with many opportunities to drop the bikes.

We made a reconnaissance walk 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. Sure enough, 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 Rockster along. It occurred to me as I was riding on this dirt that the tracks I rode in were made by vehicles. If vehicles can drive on a road like this, my motorcycle probably can also. Traveling further, the tire prints of large machinery became more and more 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. 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. At the moment we arrived on a paved road, we dismounted and celebrated our survival. We made it through 14.6 miles of transformational riding in just two hours!

As the rain began to come down with force, we celebrated our timing. The downpour was a double-edged sword. While we were both incredibly thankful that the precipitation abated until we were out of the woods (and mud), the torrent did us the injustice of washing our motorcycles clean of the hard-earned dirt and mud.

In the end, we walked out with the greatest prize of all - the chance to tell the tale. We didn’t need the mud and caked-on dirt; 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.


Kenneth Jamrozy says...
Posted Tuesday, May 28, 2019
Loved the adventure. Congratulations on surviving your character building adventure. Sounds like your adventure may be something I would enjoy. Passed up a Rockster for an RT to ride cross country. Now have a 2017 RT that I love except for the concrete seat. Sounds like I’ll be looking for an older GS to mud around back trails on. Thanks again for sharing your back road survival. 👍

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