Giant Loop Rally 2015
By Brian C. Englund
I unexpectedly discovered that I had the weekend free due to changes at the job. After some tense negotiation (I think I have the Bambi eyes look down…I think), I secured four days off. The plan began…after asking the Black River ADV guys about extra tickets and getting a reply that Ronald won’t be able to make it. As usual when Wiel is involved, my plan looked like, well, whatever he’d already planned. Throw some stuff in a bag, and let’s go!
Attempted to mount my Ortlieb soft panniers. WTF, the cross-straps aren’t long enough for them to fit on the 950!? Fiddled for an hour. Drank beer. Cursed. Wadded them up in disgust and begged for help. My friend Jake came through with a set of tiny Nelson-Rigg “Pods” that he uses on his ZX-10. The price was right, and time was tight. Done! They actually fit pretty well, even if they were too small for the hauling capacity I needed. For main carrying, I moved on to the old standby: big Army bags. An aviator kit bag’s volume can be compared to that of a Buick–and it’s just as ugly. Of course, I looked like an RTW guy once I got it strapped on there (Rok straps rule!). You know the goofballs–the guys riding around the world with two hard panniers, a top box, and a bunch of crap stacked on top of it all like the Beverly Hillbillies.
Clock moved slowly. Slooooooooooooowly. I looked online for a few minutes and gave up in disgust after finding that waterproofed cordura soft luggage in bag format is somehow worth $450 or more in many cases. At 1700, my wife arrived at the office with my gear, and I strapped it onto the bike and myself somewhat quickly while sweating in the unexpected heat. The kids of course slept through all of this. Little buggers. It was pretty warm, so I launched while wearing only my Axo Aircage over a wicking long-sleeve t-shirt. This was great for the first hour or so, but as the sun began to hide behind hills and my elevation crept ever upwards, I started to catch a bit of a chill. I’m not running a windshield either, and I found myself racing the sunset to get to the campground without being forced to ride off-road in the dark, so I refused to stop and layer up. Probably even my Outdoor Research Helium II rain jacket would have made a difference as a wind barrier. However, in the hurry the night before, I wasn’t sure where I’d packed it and I didn’t want to have to unstrap my giant bag and figure it out. So…I froze for a bit. The trip from Packwood past Rimrock Lake and over White Pass was particularly unpleasant, but my burning hatred for deer and elk which infest the roads in that area was helpful in keeping me warm.
Maxim: Life is hard. It’s harder when you’re stupid.
Corollary: If you’re going to be stupid, you’d best be strong.
Arriving at the turn-off for FS-1500 off US-12, I accepted an almost-nasty reminder to firm up my pre-load on the rear shock as I accelerated up the loose gravel. I’d never ridden the new suspension with that kind of load on the back, and the front wheel was extremely light! I actually flipped the bars back and forth at one point and found that the bike only gradually took the suggestion to head in a new direction–more like a rudder. I leaned as far forward as I could and powered up the 10 miles of dirt to the camp site on Bethel Ridge, overlooking Rimrock Lake. Along the way, I waved hello to a pair of riders who suddenly found me tearing through their campsite, only to discover that I was at the wrong place! Wrong campsite? Oh, that’s why no one else is here. The final mile along the ridge top consisted of rocks and mud and tree roots–which are genuinely fun, unless you’re loaded up and attempting to ride conservatively.
I arrived as the sun set and found myself among friends again, whether email acquaintances, frequent riding partners, or those with a shared passion for riding. Hell yes, let’s get this weekend started! Wiel, ever organized, had a classy Rainier Beer in my hand before I could get my helmet off, and it was handshakes all around. I settled in for an evening of spectacular views and fine dining around the campfire.
Great success stories usually include some sort of failure. In this case Clint Casebolt’s ESA rear shock on his 2009 R1200GS failed rather spectacularly and was spewing oil within miles of hitting the trail earlier in the day. We talked about it at the campfire and I realized that I had a spare OEM 1200GS shock back at the house, left over from a Touratech Tractive Explorer HP upgrade. Sure enough, we had just enough signal up there that I could call the wife, get my son into the rafters in the garage where it was stored, then get her out to Gent’s house the next morning at 0700 to drop off the shock. How awesome is that?!
I awoke with the sun–actually before the sun. In my line of work, we call this “BMNT” or Beginning of Morning Nautical Twilight. I think normal people call it pre-dawn, or “too damned early”. Slept well in my tent/hammock, where I’d simply looped the head end around the bars to hold the bug net off my face, then snuggled down in. The combo of Therm-A-Rest Prolite 3 sleep pad, military-issue Goretex bivvy bag, and my Kelty Ignite 0F Dri-Down bag is somewhat bulky, but has yet to leave me cold. It was more than a match for the high-40s temps that night.
Breakdown commenced at a leisurely pace, and we hit the trail around 0730, even after killing some time with coffee and snapping pictures. I regret that I didn’t get a picture of the sunrise, but I was too comfortable watching it from my fartsack and convinced myself that the photo wouldn’t do it justice anyway. I’m sure I was right.
Hopping on the trail last, it quickly became apparent to me that I would almost certainly drop the big 950 if I tried to ride at the paddle walk pace that several of the more conservative GS riders were setting. I don’t blame them, as that goo and the rocks and roots are disconcerting on a big bike if you’re not going fast enough to power through. My, what a couple years of hard experience has taught me! I wicked it up almost immediately, and passed everyone quickly. Midway down, I encountered an enormous black bull, standing in the middle of the road. We startled each other (dude should have heard me coming for miles–I’m not very quiet on that bike), and he took a few paces in my direction before I skidded past, taking care to roost the shit out of him and hopefully drive him off the road. He trotted away as I rocketed downwards again.
On the way into Packwood, I ran out of gas. This was a bit unexpected, as the light came on, and I was suddenly out. Thankfully, this occurred 300 meters from the Shell station on the outskirts of town, so I literally coasted in to fill up. Oddly enough, I only filled the 3.7gal tank with 2.7gal. Hmmm… Fiddled with both petcocks to make sure one lobe of the tank wasn’t turned off, and moved on out. See notes below about fuel pump issues–this wasn’t to be my last encounter with fuel difficulties.
Just outside of Packwood, we jumped back on the Washington Backcountry Discovery Route (WABDR or “wobder”). I think this first leg is pretty boring, as it’s primarily gravel roads with a bump or two, which are both boring and challenging on a tall, laden bike like mine. Plus, it’s so much more embarrassing to blow a turn or somehow crash on that stuff when there’s great technical riding on days 2-5 which is way more fun. Still, it’s a lot of fun with friends, and I genuinely enjoyed having zero navigation responsibilities. I just followed along and spaced out. I did succeed in dropping the bike, coming to a stop in pea gravel, only to have my foot slide out from under me as I went for a dismount. Duh. Happily, Gent’s downed 1150 was more of a scene–he’d sunk in the same stuff and had basically a stationary fall too.
The crew of about 10 bikes sailed along until roughly parallel with Mt. St. Helens, at which point, we split into a road crew and a trail crew, agreeing to meet in Carson. Not much significant to report here, though I had fun splashing through the puddles and jumping the water bars and such as we continued south. I did have one panic moment where the music turned off all of a sudden…because my phone was missing. Even with a rubber band, it bounced out of my X-Grip. I definitely need to set up Velcro on that setup.
Ride along Hwy 14 along the Columbia River Gorge was gorgeous as always. The procession grew to 14 riders, which is the oddest biker gang picture I’ve ever seen. A pack of BMW R1200GS, a Husqvarna, three KTMs, a Kawasaki KLR650, etc., and no leather anywhere other than boots, but easily a thousand bucks a piece of high-end cordura gear. But really…is it that far different than a bunch of guys on Harleys out for a stroll? Probably not. Some like to think so, but we’re all out there for the same thing: escape, brotherhood, adventure.
We reached Maupin after a loooong ride on the tarmac which saw me getting drowsy. No stop-lights in that town, and some old blue-haired lady came out and berated us for taking up all the parking spaces. I moved to take up yet another space, and we ignored her as we dropped some cash in the local economy. Apparently, Maupin is a great place for whitewater rafting, so I’ll have to take a look again with the kids.
The ride through the Indian Reservation was tarmac still, but lots of long, sweeping curves, including a really cool one where we could see down into the long valley, and I enjoyed the showdown between Germany and Holland as Gerd and Wiel shot away from the pack.
Upon arrival at Gerd’s cousin’s house in Redmond, we quickly switched out Clint’s shock. In 20 minutes, it was ready to go, and he’d packed away the busted ESA–hopefully to jam in BMW’s ass for failing at less than 30k miles and costing over $2200 to replace. Hell, a top-of-the-line Tractive Extreme shock from Touratech (what I run in my KTM Super Enduro) is only $1800. BMW is smoking dope.
Smokes and stories, beers and booze, steak and laughter. I strung up the hammock and got another great night of sleep, rocking out to the sound of the nearby frogs croaking at each other. Tomorrow is the rally!!!
I hate feeling disorganized. Thankfully, with my kids, I’ve had plenty of time to get used to it, and I endure daily bouts of conditioning. I thought I had my act together this morning, had all my stuff packed early…then discovered I was missing my sunglasses as I went to mount up and ride off. Of course, everyone was looking for me, so after a cursory search, I had to press on. Bummer, I liked those, and Oakleys are not cheap! Plus my eyes are really light sensitive, so desert riding without them is basically impossible. Lucky for me, Wiel had a spare set, even though they crushed the bone ridge behind my ears and created a wicked headache after a few hours.
We arrived among the first at the Giant Loop shop. I linked up with Alex Martens from Konflict and picked up my replacement Pro Moto Fastway Adventure pegs. With a minimum of cursing, I replaced my broken right peg in the parking lot, then searched for a group to ride with. Meanwhile, the safety brief covered the basics, and I enjoyed some BSing with fellow riders. The day was going to be decidedly hot, so I crammed every extra thing I had into my bag and dropped it off in the baggage van.
As usual, routes get billed as “hard” and “not for big bikes”, and I start to doubt myself. Hard Fandango was my stated goal for this trip, but it seemed like no one was excited to ride it on big bikes. When Group 1 was announced as, “They’ll take little bikes super fast and eat rocks all day,” I knew where I wanted to be. With more than a little trepidation, our leader, Justin, accepted my request to join the group–after first checking that I had a GPS and a plan to bug out if necessary. Smart move, but ultimately unnecessary for me. The four of us quickly departed–a trio of 450 or smaller KTMs, and my monster 950.
The first trail served as an excellent wake-up call. Sometimes rocky, sometimes sandy, sometimes with whops, and more than a few curves. I flat-out hammered it and felt amazing! I hit 60+ mph in a few sections and found myself more or less keeping up with Justin in the lead, with Davy and Schultz trailing back a bit to stay out of my dust. This aggressive start was a perfect way to shake off the cobwebs, and once it became apparent that I knew what I was doing, we flowed pretty well through the next couple of hours, headed towards Christmas Valley. Highlights in this section include a bit of navigation correction that Chris and I did, and a sneaky turn just over a hill which convinced several people that the track veered right…while it actually went left. I wasn’t the first to blow it, judging by the other tracks there, but I helped other people follow me off the road later! I managed a great save…only to drop the always-too-tall bike while horsing it around to get turned back to the main route and moving again.
At the Christmas Valley gas station, we spent a few minutes guzzling Gatorade and BSing with a crew of cruiser riders who pulled in just after us. They were genuinely impressed with what we were doing, and they asked a ton of questions. I’d like to think that we created a few wannabe dual sport riders there, but who knows? Still, it highlights that riders really aren’t all that different from each other. We’re all out there looking for something.
Now the fun really begins! Giant Loop published a new route via paper copy a couple of days before the rally. We elected to go check it out, leaving Hard Fandango for another day. Through terrain association, I was able to determine where the trail started, and we bumped and tractored our way up and over a ridge and fairly rough terrain which quickly smoothed out once we got to more level ground. We were looking for what the map called East Summer Lake Road–which was anything but a road for the most part. Some portions of it were visible as faint, old 4×4 tracks. In some areas, it disappeared entirely, and our GPS tracks show cloverleaf circles along our route as we searched to pick up the trail again. We had an absolute blast! Much of this was open desert with sage brush only–is this what Baja is? We could literally ride in any direction. Much air time was had, and smiles were rather large. I had a moment of terror when my throttle stuck open as I blasted through an easy turn. Through some investigation, I found that the right hand guard had actually snagged the throttle cables, so when the bars approached full-lock right, the throttle was stuck. A zip-tie fixed this, but it served as a great reminder to check the bike each time you get ready to go!
Eventually, we could no longer find the trail, and in some areas, the scrub brush was a real hassle to ride through. I spotted a set of trees about a mile away and everyone agreed to ride in that direction. When we converged, we found ourselves at the closed gate to a ranch. Knowing this was probably off-limits terrain and bound to start trouble or ill-will, we followed another road (driveway?) back out towards Hwy 31. Highway 31 arrived far too soon, but we sat and waited a good, long time before deciding that Schultz wasn’t coming. Since he was sweep and we’d been spaced out for the dust, no one knew what had become of him. Davy headed back to search and soon came up on the little FRS radio asking for a tow.
I’ve owned a tow strap for about 14 years now, never having used it. It actually came out of my kit for a while, but at the last moment before departing, I’d tossed it back in. Good thing, as I hear another bike had to be towed out with a strand of barbed wire. And I thought *I* was hardcore… Sure enough, we backtracked and found Schultz pushing his bike along. The motor had seized–which is a damned shame. Not sure why. I promptly dropped mine trying to do a power turn, which I’m sure filled everyone with confidence for my ability to tow a bike. Still, with one end secured to a passenger footpeg, and the other wrapped around his footpeg for easy release, we had no real difficulties getting back out to the highway.
With Shultz dropped off at the country store across from the church steeple, we headed out on the final 30-mile leg to finishing point at Summer Lake Hot Springs campground. I was fighting my circadian rhythm at that point and just droned along at high speed…completely missing the campground and the Giant Loop van which passed us on the way to rescue Schultz. Instead, I rode all the way to Paisley, from which we had to backtrack six miles to the campground. We arrived, revived with a frosty Coors Light, and realized…it’s only 2:00pm! There’s a lot of daylight remaining! With the rest of the crew committed or sans bike, Chris and I hatched a plan to ride East Summer Lake Road from the south end and see if we could link it up where we’d given up previously. I updated my SPOT tracker’s non-emergency recovery button with Chet’s data so he’d get a notification to come find us, and then we headed back out.
Attempting to cut in before going all the way to town, I turned off the highway at the little air strip. A guy doing maintenance on the lights passed us coming in and cheerfully told us to feel free to cross the runway and head east across the valley floor. He also reminded us not to dawdle on the runway itself. For the life of me, I can’t think of why we didn’t stop for a picture of us on the numbers! We cut cross-country for a mile or so on a cow trail and soon intersected with the path we wanted.
Five events stand out in our exploration of the valley floor in search of East Summer Lake Road–which is possibly an old easement that shows on maps, but is on private ranch property.
- We lost the road a few times. Generally though, our GPSs wanted to route us on it, so we were usually able to home in on where it should be–not necessarily where it was. At one point, I looked at a big hill about 180ft high and told Chris that we could probably get some badass pics up there. The hill climb was technical and a lot of fun, with me spitting rocks everywhere, fighting the big beast up and over to the top. Indeed, the pictures were great, though they fail to show the elevation we’d just climbed. We managed to snap one with dust devils in the background and the entire valley floor laid out below us. Departing, we took a route even steeper and basically rode it out. The 950 gets going like a freight train in downhills like that, and I was a bit apprehensive. I leaned way back, held both brakes just under the point where I’d skid, and experienced no problems.
- Zipping along at around 40mph, Chris suddenly came to a halt and held his arms up. He’d stopped just inches shy of riding off into space, as the washout in front of him was 8ft deep! I parked and helped him to lower his bike, then climbed back out and did some recon for an easier crossing site for the big bike. I found one, and promptly dropped the bike on myself as I eased down, only to have it cave under the front wheel. No big deal, and good for laughs. Should have goosed it and rode down like a boss!
- Doing about 40mph, I rounded a corner to find that it looked like a snow-field. In the desert. In June. Turns out, this stuff is alkali salts. It also turns out that it’s like riding on talcum powder once you crack the crust. Furthermore, it also turns out that it tastes like shit. How would I know? Not thinking, I eased off the throttle, and the front wheel let me know that it was getting heavier by almost instantly kicking out at an impossible angle. Plooooof! Down we went in an enormous cloud of dust. Chris, following not far back, tapped his front brake and promptly did the same. Both of us sat there and laughed at ourselves for a moment, then hauled the bikes up and headed on our way. I rode a little more carefully in that crap from then on.
- We lost the trail and arrived at a ranch fence again. Following it, we found ourselves at the same tall trees I’d spotted earlier in the day. The trees sat next to a ranch house, and as we putted up, the rancher, a couple kids, and his *smoking* hot wife were taking a walk. Thankfully, this was a positive encounter, so we were very polite and apologetic about finding ourselves on their land with no route through. The wife kindly informed us that just about everything we could see belonged to the ranch and that we were welcome to attempt to bypass. We could see where we’d turned around before, but without opening any gates (normally we do, but I didn’t want to do it right in front of them), we couldn’t complete the track. Can’t get there from here! There remains about a 150 meter gap in our track. We turned and headed south again to call it a day.
- I got a little over confident and got to riding pretty hard on the way back. As in so many cases, the bike is happy to remind you that you’re a dumbass. After hopping over small washes and ruts, I got up to around 45mph in a section where I thought we’d be free of them. Nope. With the bike accelerating into 5th gear, I had just enough time to spot a wash about 18″ deep by 24″ across with square edges. I grabbed all the throttle I could get and flexed my knees, but while the front wheel cleared, the rear kicked up into my nuts and damn near launched me. My epic hit resulted in a heroic Flying-W save though, so I had just begun congratulating myself when I ran out of gas. WTF, I’ve got plenty, right? With a 1gal Rotopax mounted, this amounted to mere inconvenience. I fueled, secured the tank, and blipped the starter. Nothing. To summarize the following trouble-shooting, I cracked the carb bowls and nothing really came out. I checked the fuel petcocks and laid the bike down to get all possible gas to the valve side of the tank. Checked the fuses and all were good? In a fit of despair, I whacked the fuel pump several times and disconnected the main fuel line to it, confirming that gas was flowing from the tank, while simultaneously pouring a pint of gas all down my arm. We prepped to start towing, and made a call with the surprising cell signal I had out there, bringing a recovery team (Some sober. Some not.) to a standby with a 4×4 truck in case we couldn’t get out. Frustrated as we buttoned the bike back up, I switched on the ignition and heard the pump hum to life, filling the carb bowls. In disbelief, I hit the starter. The bike caught. I hauled ass. Rode like crazy another 13 miles and pulled the bike into the Paisley gas station, where the old man looked at us in amusement. Crisis averted! Thanks to Gerd and Wiel and Chet, I’m sure recovery was going to come get us, but we ended up not needing it.
The rest of Saturday is fairly uneventful. Ate some tough but tasty ribs, helped diagnose a failed stator on a BMW G650GS for one of the Team Dirty Girls, grabbed some sweet Icon Raiden jersey swag, watched a somewhat disappointing but humorous “awards” ceremony, drank beer, found my way to the hot spring fed hot tub, and passed out quickly once I rolled my sleeping bag out.
OBSERVATIONS ON THE RALLY ITSELF
– I haven’t been to any of the other GL rallies. So far, I’ve done the MOA (Salem), the Blackdog, the Touratech, LAB2V, and a couple of Alt Rider Hoh Rainforest rides. I don’t have an extensive basis of comparison for judging the merits of a rally. However, from finding that the routes were the same as last year (not even re-named), to discovering that there wasn’t at least a grand prize raffle of some cool GL swag, it felt like this didn’t get enough attention and planning. I like loosely planned. I’m glad Harold made it work. I was just disappointed at the quality of the food and the coordination, based on this being a $150 event. It was good. I just think that it could be better. Maybe I’m overly critical.
RANDOM INTERESTING EVENTS & FACTOIDS
– 1370 overall miles. Mileage ranged from under 23mpg to 42. Much of this depends on how hard I’m hammering the bike, but elevation, air filter clogging, ethanol, and octane all play a part.
– Bombing down a desert road, listening to some music, when suddenly my phone rings. Mom is asking why I called, and I’m making a good 70mph down a straight road.
– I call Gerd while stranded. He can’t understand me because of the wind and the noise. He remarks, “Here, let me hand you to an English speaker.” Wiel picks up the phone. Ha!