Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Day Trip Turns Into Overnight Adventure

This adventure ride was done last September but I just finished documenting it.

The day started out cloudy but the forecast was for clear skies, sunny and warm.  I had been planning this adventure ride for a month or so, and today was going to be it. The ride was in what I call the "unknown National Forest" that lies in central Lewis County, Washington. This is an isolated block of the Mt. Baker - Snoqualmie National Forest administered by the Gifford Pinchot National Forest. There are no official recreation sites such as campgrounds, trails, or picnic areas in this National Forest.  The area has many interesting features and many mountains above 3,500 feet elevation, such as The Rockies, Lookout Mountain, and Cougar Mountain.  Topo maps reveal deep valleys, steep mountainsides, cliffs and a lot of forest roads in the area. Ideal for an off-road adventure.

About 30 years ago we ventured up into this area on smaller dual sport bikes.  We explored the headwaters of the Deschutes River with little or no challenges. The roads then were all in good condition because there was a lot of active logging going on. As I started to research the area for the upcoming ride I found that there was no information on this area. Searches for National Forest roads returned nothing except that National Forest road 74 (NF74) was washed out in several places (via Flickr and a mountain climbing site). Both Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie and Gifford Pinchot National Forest web sites had no road reports for the area. I checked to see if there was any active logging that might result in closed roads, machinery in the way, or encounters with logging trucks but again nothing. I even tried looking at geo-caching, fishing and hunting web sites - all nada. I was beginning to realize that this area was "not on the grid."

Google Maps shows the area as a maze of roads. When you turned on the satellite view you didn't see the familiar brown look of clearcuts, rather everything looked green.  Now I was getting excited about a great ride through the woods on nice forest roads. So now the task was which roads to explore. I focused on single or double-digit forest road numbers because typically these indicate arterial or major forest roads. Major forest roads lead to spur roads which lead to logging sites. Spur roads are generally three to four digits long. Spur roads are generally dead ends, may be in poor condition, and are not maintained. Whereas major forest roads are generally maintained and in good condition, and often times connect to other roads.

Map of "Day Trip."  Red marks route in. Green marks route out. Yellow marks specific sites.
I programmed the GPS to follow various major forest roads to go from one end of the National Forest block to the other. Starting on NF71 and crossing over to NF74 via a spur road 7415, then on NF74 to NF70 and come out on Washington State Route 7 between the towns of Elbe and Morton. The route was about 55 miles through some high country and the down and out along a river. Figuring that we would be on mostly major forest roads I estimated that we would travel about 20 mph (average), or about three hours including some stops. Traveling to and from this area would be fun too; instead of highways I programmed a back roads route. Looking at the planned routes I saw an easy day trip of five to seven hours. I filed this trip as something we could do before the fall rains came.

Sure enough a beautiful weekend day came to do this day trip. I explained to my wife the route especially the off-road portion. She verified with me that we would be traveling on major forest roads not trails, ORV, or ATV routes. She was a bit skeptical of the connector road 7415 between NF71 and NF74. I assured her that because it connected these two development roads it would be fine. She examined the route and said "lets go."

Saturday morning there were low clouds and some drizzle but the forecast was for clearing, and temperatures in the high 70's. We took our time that morning because of the low clouds and ended up leaving at noon. A bit later than I wanted but still doable. We dressed fairly light but decided to take the liners to our mesh jackets. Also we decided to wear riding pants versus lighter apparel. The only other thing I took was some tools, a tire repair kit and the usual water and snacks. We were on our way.

Soon the clouds broke to a beautiful sunny day. As we made our way we noticed the leaves on the trees we
NF 71 with view of Mt. Rainier
starting to color - fall was coming. Traffic was very light and we were making great time. I had chosen some roads that we had never been on before and so it was fun going through new places. Finally we made it to where we were supposed to turn off to the off-road portion of the trip. My wife commented that the road seemed narrow, rough, and unused. I agreed, but we decided to go on. The switchbacks up the clearcut mountain side were challenging on their own but we made it fine. We stopped and were presented with an incredible view of the Cowlitz River valley. You could clearly see Mt. Adams and Mt. St. Helens in the distance. We forgot about the rough and narrow road and excitedly motored on. We traveled through several different levels of returning forest and every now and then saw some beautiful scenic mountain views. As we continued to climb up and up and deeper into the forest we started to notice that the road was becoming rougher and narrower. We started to encounter some small road washouts that gave us a challenge, but still nothing insurmountable. Unfortunately road conditions got progressively worse. We went through one particularly challenging washout recognizing that we didn't want to go back that way. Finally we came to that connector road 7415 between NF71 and NF74. It started out fine but soon turned into a nightmare.

Our first challenge on 7415 was that a slide of logging debris crossed the road. Slowly I picked a path through it and shouted for my wife to come through. She made it through - faster and more confident - than I did. Next the road dropped so steeply that it was even hard to stand up on or off the bikes. The dirt on either side of the tracks had washed out leaving deep ruts filled with large gravel and rocks that were brick sized or larger. As we made our way down, at about the same instant but about 40 feet apart we both dumped our bikes. We took a breather and started to notice that we were riding slower than planned and it was getting late in the day. These roads were not what we imagined - smooth gravel - rather rocky trails. Going was slow and we were getting tired. I calculated where we were and noticed that our average speed was not 20 mph as planned but about 12 mph. We were about halfway and decided we didn't want to go back the way we came so onward we went. I worried that it would be getting dark soon.

Rest stop on NF 71 near Rooster Rock.
The "roads" continued to narrow to the point they really were single track trails. You couldn't see farther than 10-15 feet ahead because of the trees and bushes. You also had to watch out for "widow makers" - trees that had fallen and the broken top was just waiting to spear you.  Finally it got to where we were in the dark with many more miles to go. So dark you could barelyt see the road, or the common softball or even basketball sized rocks, or the road intersections even with the high beam on. As in most trips going wrong, we turned right where we should have turned left. We were now on a road so rough, rocky and narrow (and in the dark) that I realized we made a wrong turn. I motored to a place where we could turn around. What I didn't realize in the darkness was that the road barely hung to the side of the mountain. I came around a corner hit some big rocks and started to drift to the left... Luckily I immediately dumped the bike before I careened down the steep mountainside. My wife then passed me and I shouted that I was okay and to pull forward to a flat spot. My bike's two wheels hung on the vegetation and the skid plate was on the edge of the road. I thought, "there is no way we were going to easily right this bike back on to the road."

We attempted to pull the F800GS up on to the road but it was too heavy. I found a couple of day pack straps, tied them together and tried using my wife's G650GS to drag the bike up onto the road. We were able to move the bike about three or four inches until the straps broke under the load. My bike was firmly positioned on the road edge. Too exhausted to try any more fruitless pulling. I said, "we are done with this." We then weighed our options: one of us drive out to get help; we go out two up and return in the morning; we call and get help; or lastly we do any one of the above options tomorrow and stay the night. We quickly decided that we would not leave that night, it was just too dangerous. Also too dangerous for anyone to come up and get us in the dark. We didn't know what kind of roads lie ahead - were they passable or not. We luckily found a spot - only one small spot - where we could get one bar of cell service. We discovered that we could call and/or text out but no one could reach us. I got the exact longitude and latitude of our position and called family and friends telling them that we were okay. A plan was made for friends to attempt a rescue in the morning.

Again we assessed our situation. We had some food, about a half cup of water, toilet paper, pocket knife, tools, first aid kit, some nylon string, and our riding gear. What we didn't have was, a flashlight, matches, sleeping bag, or shelter. I felt like we were on a reality adventure show. Lucky for us the weather was nice, and warm, although rain and thunderstorms were forecast for tomorrow.  I cleared an area beneath some trees as a spot we could lay down. I took the vinyl liners out of our jackets and used them as a ground cloth to keep any moisture from seeping up into us. I contemplated making a fire using my old survival skills but because it was so warm we decided against it. The moon was bright and all the stars were out. We felt comfortable and safe with our decision to spend the night; funny but neither of us were worried about our situation. My wife asked if I knew that these roads were going to be such a challenge? I replied that it was only supposed to be an easy day trip. We cuddled up together and fell asleep.

A few times one or both of us awoke in the night but it wasn't because of any reason. The woods were so quiet. I would position myself to see the stars and fall back asleep again. Surprisingly morning came quickly and I felt refreshed from yesterday. So far an unplanned night in the woods wasn't so bad. A light rain shower passed by but we were dry under the tree I selected as a shelter. I decided to walk farther down the road searching for better cell phone service. I passed a road intersection when I heard a vehicle approach. No, it wasn't our friends but some guys traveling out after camping at a nearby lake. I flagged them down asked if they could help me. Sure enough the five of us were able to pull my bike back onto the road and upright it. They too said I was lucky I didn't end up farther down the mountainside because it would have been impossible to get my bike out. I chatted with them about the best way out. They said they were locals, had logged these woods and knew this area well. Maybe we could've gotten out on the road we were on but it was doubtful. One of our rescuers said, "NF70 doesn't exist anymore. It used to, but not anymore. The only way in and out is NF74." They were quite surprised when I told them where we had come from; their reply was,. "You can't get here from there." One of the guys looked at our bikes and said, "Riding up here on them big, heavy European bikes is foolish. You are city slickers doing that."  Grateful for their help, I reluctantly agreed and everyone laughed.  As they were leaving our friends showed up, but we had already been rescued. What timing.

View to the west from "the pass" on NF 74.
Our friends agreed the only way in was NF74 and it wasn't bad except one spot were it went along a cliff. The road was starting to washout at that location. Instead of two tracks there was one but we made it. After the washout, we stopped at a beautiful pass where you could look down either side into some river valleys. Low clouds and fog obscured the valley bottoms but above dramatic skies - it was beautiful. We sat at this pass enjoying a wonderful breakfast our friends had brought. We told them of our adventure. They asked why would you do such a challenging trip? I replied it was supposed to be an easy day trip. As we followed them down NF74 the road improved greatly to a nice, smooth gravel road. This is what we had originally imagined. We made home safe and sound albeit a day later. We had a great adventure - riding and our unplanned overnight stay.

So what are the lessons learned from this?
  1. Don't be lured on thinking it's going to get better. If it's bad at the start its probably not going to get any better. Know when to say "when."
  2. Even if it's only supposed to be a day trip make sure you have a small emergency kit with at least a flashlight, matches, hats and two space blankets - one for the ground and one for cover. A hat will help you stay warm.
  3. When going remote make sure to bring a tow strap or some good sturdy rope.
  4. Bring more water than you think you will need. You will lose water through perspiration and need to replenish it.
  5. Make sure bring a good GPS that has the appropriate map(s) loaded and that can pinpoint your location. I had a very detailed map on my smartphone which allowed us to exactly determine our location.
  6. Make sure you budget enough time to do your trip. Don't assume that if you leave late that you can make it up.
  7. Print a spare map, mark your route and itinerary and leave it with family or friends.
  8. Don't travel on unfamiliar roads or terrain in the dark.
  9. Make sure your bike is prepared. In hindsight my tires were not the right type for this terrain and didn't have enough tread for these roads.
  10. Be mentally prepared. Even though weather was good we had a good attitude about our decisions and what we were faced with.

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