“Not all those who wander are lost.” – J. R. R. Tolkien

"Everybody dies. Not everybody really lives."

The saddest sound in the world is a man saying, "I wish I'd have done that."

Friday, December 11, 2009

Backpacking Denali National Park

When we backpacked into the wildness of Alaska’s Denali National Park, we thought that if we had any scary wildlife encounters it would be with the park’s plentiful grizzly bears. Mainly because when we picked up our backcountry hiking permit, we were required to view a video that advised what to do when encountering a grizzly. If you have any doubts about hiking into grizzly country that video will not ease your fears of being mauled by an 800 pound bear—close ups of roaming, growling, angry bears does not put your mind at ease. Trust me. I was ready to trade my tent for a hotel room ten minutes into the movie. But we struck out into the wilderness despite our apprehensions.

What the video didn’t mention was what to do when being charged by a 600-pound caribou. So when we spied a bull caribou grazing in the high tundra of an alpine mountain valley, we watched him disappear behind a ridge and continued hiking. We still didn’t give it much thought when he reappeared behind us over the ridge. But when he advanced belligerently with his head held high and his neck puffed out, we knew we had a problem. We were momentarily stunned, uncertain as to what to do. We were above tree line--no trees to climb. And the terrain was open and stark--not even any boulders to hide behind. We jumped up and down, waving our arms and yelling, which seemed only to provoke him more. Only when we clapped our hands did he stop charging and stamp his feet, staring at us as if finally realizing ”Hey this is not another caribou.” He stood motionless for a moment and then trotted back to the ridge, pausing for a final backward glance before melting into the Alaskan fog. He had come within 75 feet of us and my heart was racing.

Somehow this did not seem out of place in the raw wilderness of Denali. I guess when you are wandering through six million acres crammed full of incredibly scenic spruce forests, sub-arctic tundra, broad river valleys, caribou herds, and soaring mountain peaks nothing seems extraordinary. In a park that stretches more than 100 miles from end to end, and is larger than the state of Massachusetts, some animals may never have seen a human so they don’t know what to make of us.

This is a wild land and one not to be taken lightly and we had a real sense of stepping into the unknown when we hopped off the backpacker bus that shuttles backcountry hikers through the park. Only one road cuts through Denali; a two-lane gravel road that bisects the park from east to west and the buses are the only mode of transportation allowed—private vehicles need not apply. We hopped off into a gloomy drizzly day and trekked up into the high plateaus bordering the highway. We tramped through chest high alder thickets, whistling and talking loudly to alert any browsing griz along the way.

It was July but still brisk in the Denali outback. We hiked for the day and set up camp on a high shelf at 5000 feet on the shoulder of a mountain overlooking an open valley and a winding river. The wind whipped up a storm blew in overnight and our tent was buffeted all night long. A cold driving rain and low clouds enveloped our campsite, driving temperatures down into the mid-40s. The sun never sets in Denali in July and we slept through a dull light—fitfully, alert for griz prowling through camp. We never saw Mt McKinley's peak during the entire trip—the gloom set in for days, obscuring the mountain’s peak

The trip was incredible, awesome scenery, abundant wildlife and that sense one gets out in the wild, away from civilization and help. It feels good to be in wilderness and we came back cold, wet, tired, dirty and exhilarated. And yes, we did see griz, many in fact. But the caribou proved our fears were misplaced.

Road Rash and Worse

“There are two kinds of riders, those who’ve been down and those who are going down.”

Somehow, I knew it was going to happen before it went down. Without trying to sound like some kind of mystical psychic nut case, when I saw the Ninja come wide around the turn, I wasn’t surprised. Something along the lines of “yep, there he is” rushed through my brain.

The silver Ninja drifted wide around the curve into our lane from the other direction, plowing full speed into my buddy Rick, who was minding his business on his Honda Shadow Aero just ahead of me. A tremendous blow followed—more like a loud thudding “Oooomph” than those crashing, tearing sound effects you hear on TV, a literal explosion of plastic body fairing, metal engine parts, searing exhaust pipes and—worst of all—human bodies. Shrapnel flew in all directions, both riders flew into the air and crashed head to head into each other then fell in a heap on the ground. Both bikes came down simultaneously, one landing on top of the down riders. Jerry, another of my riding buddies, dumped his bike behind this carnage to avoid piling up into the mayhem and out of my left peripheral vision I watched a green Ninja go down, sliding down the highway in a shower of sparks, the rider following in leathers. All of this happened in mere seconds.

We had been riding—twelve of us, a group of friends who gather a couple of times a year—for two days through the twisty mountain roads of Tennessee and North Carolina. Our semi-annual trek took us to the tiny town of Bryson City, North Carolina where we used a local campground as our staging area for day-long rides on the area’s meandering and scenic asphalt.

Our featured ride is always Deal’s Gap, an infamous stretch of Highway 129, a narrow, snaking ribbon of extremely twisting road that famously features 318 turns in eleven miles. The Gap, known commonly as the Tail of the Dragon, carries an almost mystical reputation with bikers and sports car enthusiasts and on any given weekend you can expect to see dozens, often hundreds, of riders and drivers tackling the curves, many at high speed.

The Gap is also notorious for accidents and fatalities, a grim roster of which is kept on the website http://www.tailofthedragon.com/. The danger is part of its attraction and the accounts of accidents seem to add to its mystique. In 2009, five fatalities were recorded on the eleven miles. The number of injuries and metal-bending off-road excursions is not known. Suffice it to say that of my many trips to the Gap, I’ve never come away without seeing at least one mishap. And, yes, I guess that was part of the attraction for us. To ride the Gap unscathed makes for great tales around the campfire.

So we spent the weekend riding the scenic byways of the area; the Blue Ridge Parkway, the Cherohala Parkway, twisting North Carolina Highway 28 and other back roads that offered rollercoaster thrills. We ran Deal’s Gap three times.

We had just come through our third Gap run and stopped at the bottom to regroup, all of us in high spirits. The adrenalin was still pumping and we were ready for a leisurely cruise through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Our plan was to ride Foothills Parkway, a gentle, wide and smooth strip of road that offers easy laid-back touring along the ridges leading into the National Park. We were less than ten miles down the Parkway, traveling at no more than 40 miles per hour when the Ninja hit.

Parts were still tumbling down the road past me as I clamped down on the brakes and dove to a stop, my front tire less than ten feet from the ugly scene in front of me. I jumped off my Speed Triple, threw my helmet on the ground and ran to the Honda, lying on its side with gas leaking onto the pavement. I remember someone else next to me also lifting the bike—to this day I don't know who—and we both pulled the bike off the two riders and literally threw it down behind us.

The sight underneath the bikes was ghastly. Both riders lay flat on the pavement, facing each other head to toe, just as they’d landed after their bodies smashed into each other in midair. In my confusion I couldn’t remember who had been riding in front of me so I looked at his face to see who had gone down. I couldn’t tell, all I could see was a bloody mess but I recognized the helmet and realized it was Rick. The other rider’s full face helmet was cracked almost in half in front. Rick’s left hand was nearly severed, hanging only by the skin and a thin strip of muscle. Two bloody white bones protruded from his wrist. The left side of his face was mangled and bloody, his nose hung loosely from his face. He was bleeding profusely from his mouth and the gurgling sound with each labored breath was ominous. The other rider looked remarkably untouched, hardly any outward signs of injury but he was unconscious and his breathing was very shallow.

We were far back in the Smoky Mountains with no cell phone service. Luckily, a ranger station was just up the road and a rider sped ahead for help. A couple of park service volunteers were on the scene in minutes but it seemed like an eternity before professional medical help and Park Rangers arrived to attempt to stabilize both riders (the other two riders who went down did not need hospitalization). A med flight from Knoxville was called and it was almost an hour before the chopper arrived. In this hour Rick bled profusely—there was a crimson stream a good twenty feet across the road--and both riders stopped momentarily breathing at least once.

So what’s this all about? More than just a gruesome recounting of a random and tragic accident. It’s about a loss of confidence, that it-can’t-happen-to-me attitude that we all carry so self-assuredly astride our bikes. Rick didn’t do anything wrong. He was on an easy ride, doing everything right, enjoying life when instantly everything changed.

It’s been a while since the accident. Rick recovered, though he still has lingering effects. The Ninja rider suffered serious head injuries, prognosis uncertain. A lot of uncertainty and reassessment went on. Reading about the toll at the Gap is one thing, to actually experience the results, to see mangled flesh, hear perhaps the last breath, feel the warm blood on your hands—it changed the whole game. It affected us in different ways. Some quit riding. I’m considering selling my bike. Does this make me a wuss? Am I overreacting? Maybe, all I know is that every time I ride now I’m constantly peering around the next curve, wondering if someone is going to come screaming around and cross into my lane. The freedom that riding offers has been taken away. Will it return? We’ll see. In the meantime my Speed Triple sits in the garage awaiting its fate.