The 1997 Polar Bear 500



 

I clocked the run from Carson City, NV. to Lake Tahoe as we tooled up over the pass in our rental Toyota. The odometer revealed that the run on Highway 50 from Carson City up and over and back down to the shore of Lake Tahoe was only 14 miles. As we descended on the far side, a dull ache started along the inside edge of my right thumb and forefinger. This trip to Tahoe was for a friend's wedding, but only six days before, I had done the same short run at about 6:30AM on my fiend Bob Mueller's Suzuki DR350SE along with Joe Miller on my older DR350. By the time we got down the other side then, my hands were frozen, especially my right one, in spite of the bright yellow Playtex rubber gloves we had stopped and scored at the grocery store prior to setting out over the pass. We had found that although they did seal out the wind, they could do nothing about the wind chill effect of a 60-70 mph blast as we made our way up and over the pass.

 

By the time we got into Tahoe proper, and hit our first red light, I found that I could not rotate my right ankle to get my foot, or at least what was left unfrozen of my foot, onto the rear brake. I desperately reached out with my stiff fingers and tried to pull in the front brake. No effect. My fingers were not responding. Another superhuman pull and a little speed scrubbed off. A little more was quickly called for as the right lane was entirely covered in black ice, I jogged to the left and somehow managed to come to a stop. I clumsily dropped my left leg off the peg and dropped it to the pavement. Bending the knee was out of the question, so I simply leaned a lot to the left. The still air of the stop light was a blessing, and I quickly tried to take inventory. No appendages were reporting in.

Crotch was non-existent, chest was still moving, brain had turned to mush.

A few more stop lights revealed a bank time and temp sign. 7:04 AM, wait, wait, wait, 28 degrees, wait, wait, wait. My brain thought, hmmm, nice round even number, 28. Always liked 28. Four below 32. 7:04 AM, wait, wait, wait. Hmmm. 28, gee that's below freezing. 27 degrees, wait, wait, wait. My brain snapped to attention. TWENTY SEVEN DEGREES! Not only was it cold, it was getting colder! Holy bejeesuz, we're going to freeze to death. We'll be the only traffic deaths attributed to freezing to death while moving in the history of the world. I could see it now, first one DR is found, still upright, idling at a traffic light, the frozen form of a rider locked in place. A few miles down the road a second is found, nosed into a snow drift, out of gas after idling 2.5 gallons away. The riders fingers have to be sawed off to release the body from the bars.

 

The light turned. Somehow I got enough movement out of my clutch hand to get away. We made it the quarter mile or so to the little Swiss theme restaurant that I had eaten at a couple of years before with some riders I had hooked up with after my brother had done the "Flying J" into the yellow line and broken his collarbone about 50 miles into the ride. We parked the bikes out front, and provided all within view of what must have been a most hilarious sight of two people dismounting their motorcycles while moving no joint more than five degrees. I briefly considered doing a Roy Rodgers horse mount in reverse, but the presence of a fender bag behind me deterred me. My wife is very relieved I made this choice.

 

We stumbled into the restaurant and took a few minutes to fumble our Playtex living gloves off. Quite a trick when you have joined the lower life forms and have discovered what life is like with no functioning opposable digits, our thumbs being frozen in place. I finally got all my gloves off down to the skin. I was amazed to find relatively human looking skin. I was sure I would be greeted with the blackened, dead skin of severe frostbite I'd seen in photos of Arctic explorers and hapless mountaineers after being trapped in blizzards on alpine peaks.

 

The pink skin, however, was no ticket to relief. My right hand, and my thumb and index finger in particular, hurt like no pain I could ever remember. For long minutes we both crouched in silent pain as the blood slowly returned to our fingers and awoke nerve endings screaming in protest at our folly. I was sure that I had permanently damaged my fingers, and indeed they did not feel normal for about three days. While bearing the excruciating agony of our warming limbs, I was making plans to sell our house in Wisconsin, and move anyplace where the temperature never got lower than 70, even if I had to live in a box.  

 

Once we had sufficient motor control to waddle to a booth, we camped out for as long as it took to feel our limbs and for the ice to start to melt on the roads. I don't think I've ever enjoyed a cup of coffee more than the first one of the morning there at Heidi's of South Lake Tahoe. It's a strange feeling when you can feel the hot liquid all the way down into your stomach, and you realize that your entire body is many degrees colder than what you just put in.

 

We eventually set out again, but got no farther than the nearest sporting goods store where we both purchased windproof ski gloves and mittens to go over the top. The trip through the mountain highways was pretty painless after that. We actually enjoyed the beautiful vistas of the snow covering the mountain peaks, and reaching all the way down the mountain sides to around 4,000 feet elevation.

 

We'd hit the snow early the day before and had been alerted to it before our arrival. We had been watching the weather and had seen low temps predicted and the rain marching in from the Pacific coast. Even as we drove East from San Francisco, we saw the black skies of the moisture laden clouds hovering over the Sierras. We hit rain at about Tracy, CA, and stopped in a Target store to load up on long underwear and other cold weather gear. Joe stopped to chat with one of the store managers to ask where thing were while I hit a cash machine. As soon as the manager found out Joe was from the Minneapolis area, he asked if it had been cold in Minneapolis the day before. Joe replied, that yes, it had been as cold as it had been all year. The manager replied he figured as much, since the heat had come on in their store the day before. It seems the thermostats for all the Target stores are controlled from headquarters in Minneapolis.

The employees in Tracy, CA can always tell what the weather is in Minneapolis when they get to work.

 

The drive from Tracy to Angels Camp got progressively wetter as the skies got progressively darker. Inwardly, I was celebrating, as the Ridge Runner 500 is well known for dust bowl conditions if the mountains don't get some rain prior to the event. Like all my favorite California dual sport rides, the 500 is run in the early fall, in hopes of coming in after some rain and before the snow. What I wasn't counting on was the low temperatures, some 30 degrees below normal, which was turning my dust damping rain into lovely white flakes from the mountain tops all the way down to about 4,000 feet.

Blissfully unaware of the effects of low temperatures on high elevation precipitation, we motored East into the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountain range. 

 

Upon reaching Angels Camp, check in at Mike's Pizza went smoothly, if a little damply. Forty degrees and raining is about as bad as it gets for most Californians, but the Ridge Runner crew was bearing up under the trying conditions and getting everyone checked in with their usual mix of cheer and efficiency. We had quickly found Terry Knot and Pat Alexander from Suzuki, who had brought the bikes up from Southern California for us.

A quick tech inspection and sign in and we were ready to go. We both purchased a load of the raffle tickets that the Ridge Runner club sells at the annual event. The proceeds all go to charity, and I've always managed to win some nifty stuff, so we figured it was a worthy investment. A few more hellos to those I've come to know in doing this ride for the last four years, some excellent bench racing with Terry and Pat, some of Mike's excellent pizza for Joe and we were ready to get to the hotel and get turned in.

 

I had waited a little too long to book a room, so we couldn't get anything in Angel's Camp, home of the Jumping Frogs of Caliveras county. As a result we ended up down the road in San Andreas, namesake of the geoloical fault that is the bane of San Francisco. The room was fishing resort basic, but we didn't want much more than a bed and a phone anyway. We watched the local news out of Sacramento which featured live remotes from the mountain passes, now requiring chains for all vehicles, and details of the unseasonably cold weather. I laid out every piece of clothing I had, six layers in all, with one in reserve, and figuring there was little else I could do, we went to sleep.

 

All was pretty peaceful until about 2:02AM, when some riders returning from the local bar shared their excellent adventures at high volume with the entire neighborhood. We eventually dozed back into a fitful sleep, and were grateful when the alarms sounded at 4:30 AM. One of the advantages of coming from the midwest to do these rides is that it's very east to get up early and have plenty of time to make the start. We dressed quickly and drove down to Angels Camp to have a spot of breakfast at Dave's diner. Dave had been feeding this pack of riders every Saturday morning for years and this time had decided to join us for Saturday's ride. Bad timing on his part, as we were soon to discover.

 

After a quick bite, we moved on to Bret Harte high school, the traditional start of the ride. Pat and Terry had already pulled the bikes out of the truck, so we concentrated on getting our roll charts loaded and getting out as quickly as possible. We needed to run down the street and get gas before heading out, so we didn't get going until 6:55AM, which was just late enough that we could read the roll charts without artificial illumination.

 

The route was familiar in the beginning, being the same as a couple of years ago. We did some excellent twisty asphalt up into the mountains, then jumped off on some dirt & gravel fire roads. There isn't much, if any, single track on this event, it's mostly fire roads. I had told Joe on the way out, it being his first time, that pacing is the key, and difficulty is usually moderate. The club is limited by the fact that they are herding 400 riders through the route, so slow, tough single track isn't practical, if they ever want to get the riders the 250 miles or so to the end of the day's ride. It's usually a great event for beginning and moderate riders, with enough challenging stuff thrown in for the more advanced riders, although this year would prove the exception to that rule.

 

As we popped out of the dirt to some asphalt I immediately recognized where we were. Joe and I spent a few minutes talking with some volunteer workers from a local enduro club, and off down the asphalt we went. Unfortunately, I had neglected to tell Joe where we were. I knew that "Flyin' J" corner was exactly 1.15 miles down the road. This was the spot where my brother, Jeff, had met the asphalt a couple of years earlier.

 

Joe had spurted out in front, and I started after him. The road was full of water, and due to the cold in these ever higher altitudes, black ice was a real possibility. Joe was going at a good clip, and there  was no way I was going to catch him in time without some serious exploration of the wet grip coefficient of the DOT knobbies we were on. I decided that Joe's MSF instructor skills were going to have to carry the day, and settled into a good pace down the beautifully twisting mountain two lane asphalt. I came around a series of tight switchbacks, accelerated down a short hill and saw an unmarked left coming up. "Well, here it is", I thought, "Flyin' J corner, in all it's glory." An unmarked, decreasing radius left hander, rock wall in front of you, vertical culvert about a foot off the pavement at the exit point if you run wide; all in all, a very nasty little left. I started to downshift and to brake on the wet pavement and realized that there was no way that I was going to make it. As the rear started to break loose I started to have very vivid memories of what it looked like to watch my brother trace a perfect parabolic curve from seat to yellow line as his bike crunched against the rocks. Deciding not to repeat Jeff's "both ends sliding, almost made the turn" maneuver, I stood the bike up, kept both ends on the edge of lockup, and simply ran the bike up the rock wall a few feet, rolled back down, and even managed to keep it running as a group of riders slid by. Humbled, but not deterred, I motored on down the road, knowing that there is something genetic going on with that turn and the Hackney clan.  

 

The first gas stop brought many tales of tough sledding (literally) ahead, and much discussion of taking pavement on into lunch. Undeterred, we gassed up and headed out, committed to stay off road as much as possible. Our bravery was quickly met head on by the first of many, many miles of snow covered fire road. The snow ranged in depth from a few inches to just below the axle. Most of the fire roads had been traversed by Jeeps and other 4x4s. The upside of this is that we could see where we needed to go, the downside was that any place the snow had been compacted it was like riding on ice. We both washed out the front end a few times and splatted. These were totally painless drops as the snow cushioned the fall and you'd just slide 20 or 30 feet down the trail and get back up again.

 

Offsetting the challenges of the snow were the incredible vistas awaiting us around every turn. This was first snow in the Sierras and the mountain tops were glimmering in the sun with bright white snow, and the towering pines and Douglas firs were all dusted with a picture perfect topping of snow. As the sun warmed the trails, this snow in the trees would rain down on us, providing a constant soaking and an ever present watering of the goggles. The trails ranged from full snow, packed snow/ice, and a few spots of dirt and gravel (good for acceleration). We didn't see anybody down, very, very few flat tires and the topic of conversation at every stop between the veterans was "NO DUST!"

 

One downside of the snow was that it slowed our progress quite a bit.

Trails that would normally be fairly high speed were reduced to a crawl in difficult snow. In addition to this, many of the trails for the morning were closed due to impassible snow conditions. In one section that we usually use to cross a mountain range, the two pre-riders from the club made only 15 miles in over two hours before finally turning back. This section being closed forced a long detour of about 1.5 hours on pavement around to lunch. There was no route chart for this, just some quick verbal directions. Unfortunately, the roads were not all well marked and riders were soon spread out over a good portion of Northern California. We too took an off the route side trip, ours into Murphy, CA, where a long, and somewhat painful consultation with a local led us back to our intended route. As a consequence, we didn't pull into lunch at Bear River Resort until 2PM. There, we were greeted with the usual array of factory support trucks from Honda, KTM/Husaberg and Suzuki, along with the best barbecued Tri-Tip, beans and garlic bread on the planet. I only eat meat once a year, and this is the place.

 

While waiting in the gas line we started to hear ugly rumors that the afternoon trails were all closed that we would need to ride pavement all the way to Carson City. We were suitably depressed as we topped off and parked the bikes at the Suzuki truck. Terry and Pat were working on replacing the bars on a DR that had caught a tree while going down in the snow. The guy had somehow ridden through the rest of the snow, and all the way to lunch with independent directional control from each hand. Sort of a BMW turn signal approach to handlebars.

 

As we grabbed some lunch and enjoyed the view of the lake, we saw a girl standing by her bike, looking pretty shell shocked. We found out later that she was a first time rider, a beginner on her own bike, and that they had to stage her the entire way through the snow. They'd "two up" her on a bike down the trail, then go back and ride her bike up, then move her forward, go back and get the bike, etc. All the way through the entire morning's worth of snow covered trails. Her face reflected the despair, disgust and fear she must have felt out on the side of a cold mountain, bike dumped in the snow, shivering from the wind, wondering if she had enough food and water to live long enough to be found and rescued. First hand memories of the "Mountain Blizzard" dual sport I had survived few years before flashed in my head, and I was reminded just how lonely and fearful that circumstance can be. The fact is that these rides are tremendously rewarding and challenging, and without a little danger they probably wouldn't be worth doing. The flip side of this is the fact that you'd better be prepared to take care of yourself and your bike, and have what it takes to survive in the mountains, alone if need be.

 

Fortunately, the rumors of total trail closure were false, and we started out toward Carson City warmed and refreshed. The trails after lunch brought the deepest snow of the weekend, as we rode through some mountain sides that had not received much if any warming sun to melt down the snow.

Several times as I looked ahead I could see the snow almost up to the axles on Joe's bike. It was a pretty amazing experience to be duck walking the bikes through this deep snow, trying to build up enough momentum to carry us through the next uphill section of the trail. We often found that the unpacked, virgin snow was the best alternative, as the sections that had been compressed by other riders or vehicles were simply too slick to sustain travel.

 

By the time we reached the last gas stop in South Tahoe, I was ready to call it a day. The sun was sinking low in the sky and I knew that the trails leading from there over the mountain into Carson City were going to be high, and thus cold. We had been hitting some ice on the trails just before, so I knew that the entire section was going to be frozen by the time we got to the downhill trail into Carson City. I also knew that it was an awesome trail, but 100% technical (this is route sheet talk for ROCK).

Discretion being the better part of valor, I decided that negotiating a frozen, rocky, downhill, mountain trail in the dark would not be the wisest choice. We warmed our frozen hands in the blast of the heater the clerk had fired up and tried to decide the fastest way to the hotel.

 

The station clerk wasn't much help, as he couldn't successfully locate himself on the map we had. It was a hallmark of this trip. I can't remember a time when the locals we consulted were so uniformly uninformed. We finally took matters into our own hands and took the direct, easy route through Tahoe and over the pass into Carson City.

 

After checking in at Michael's Honda/Suzuki and grabbing our bags that had been trucked over, we headed down to the Ormsby House hotel and casino.

Along the way we stopped to gas up, so we wouldn't have to do it in the morning. This turned out to be a fateful decision. I manned the pre-pay pump while Joe went in to take care of the finances. After a few minutes I started to wonder what the hold up was. We'd done about 300 miles on the day, and I was ready for a shower and some food. After seven minutes I'm figuring something must be broken with the pumps. After twelve minutes I'm convinced there's a gunman inside holding everyone hostage. Finally after fourteen minutes the pumps are enabled and I can pump the $1.50 it takes to top off both tanks.

 

Soon after Joe appeared, and related the tale of the most clueless clerk in the United States. It seems that she first insisted that Joe leave a deposit for the fill up, this was no problem, but she couldn't grasp the concept that Joe was going to stay inside while I filled up the bikes. It took about ten minutes of negotiation and explanation to get this one through her head. As I understand it, Joe was just about reduced to drawing it out with crayons. Next came five minutes of explaining that yes, it only took $1.50 to fill both bikes and to convince her that I was actually done pumping gas. All in all, about 20 minutes to purchase $1.50 of gas.

 

After this experience we were not in any mood to have any difficulties checking in. Alas, this was not the case. The Ormsby House had overbooked the hotel, and all the late riders attempting to check in were being told that they were being bussed down the street to another property. I raised a sufficient stink that we were able to get a suite for the same price as my reserved room and stay in the hotel, rather than do the shuttle commute.

I'm sure my road weary appearance, somewhat crazed expression after the gas stop from hell, and twitching, red, swollen hands didn't hurt in the negotiations.

 

It was about 8PM by this time, so we didn't have time to shower before going down to the banquet. We just grabbed our hats and shucked our jackets and trotted on down in our riding boots and gear. Most of the food had been hoovered by all the other riders, but we were able to unearth some cheese and grapes, and there was still plenty of hot food to fill us up. We each grabbed a beer and settled in.

 

I quickly Shanghaied a Ridge Runner member who knew the routes and started to review the next days sections on the roll chart. I had to be back to San Francisco to catch a red eye flight that night, so it was imperative we not run as late as we had on Saturday. We went through the chart section by section, noting the times for each, and good opportunities to drop sections and make up time. As it turned out, we wouldn't have to worry about dropping sections on our own.

 

The banquet was fun as usual, with the annual presentations of donations to the shop class at the middle school in Carson City, the high school in Angels Camp, and the local EMT crew that rescues the hapless riders that don't make it in one piece. The highlight of the evening was Charlie Keller, president of the Honda Riders Association, presenting a roster of current and former off road and motocross champions they had brought to the event. Charlie's a funny guy, and he kept the audience laughing as well as providing expert setups for each champion's anecdotes.

 

Joe and I called it a night early, and went upstairs to a hot shower and bed. We briefly previewed the weather channel to be reminded that the average temps were 30 degrees below normal, and that it was going to be somewhere south of 30 for a low. With that encouraging news, I hit the sack, while Joe stayed up to monitor the TV.

 

We were up at 4:30AM again, and ready to go at 5. We were the first participant bikes in the lot at Michael's Honda/Suzuki soon after, and proceeded to try and find a way to protect our hands from the wind. Pat Alexander offered up a couple of zip locks from the Suzuki truck and we pressed them into service. While were searching for ways to retain our fingers through the cold, one of the Ridge Runners appeared with a side cover for a DR350SE. He laid it up against my bike and proclaimed that this must be the one. That was the first moment that I realized I had lost Bob's side cover somewhere along the way. Someone had turned it in the day before, and they'd been keeping an eye open for a wayward DR with half of its clothes missing. Pat quickly applied an appropriate bolt and we had the bike restored to factory appearance. Thus fully dressed and fortified with zip locks we set out for Tahoe and breakfast. We didn't make it but a few blocks when a 24 hour grocery store beckoned, and we stopped in to get our very own, bright yellow, Playtex living gloves.

 

After somehow surviving what will forever be known as the "Donner Dual Sport pass crossing", we warmed up in Heidi's restaurant, stopped and purchased the warmest, and certainly timeliest, pair of gloves on God's green earth, and made our way toward the first dirt section of the day.

 

Usually we do a desert section around Carson City either Saturday or Sunday, depending on the direction of the ride, but this year we had lost that section when a bridge had been washed out. The loss of this first dirt section cut out quite a bit of Sunday's morning dirt riding right off the bat. The night before we'd been warned that the next dirt section, over an 8,000 pass (which is a killer trail), would probably be snowed out. Sure enough when we got to the trail head, we found that the trail was entirely impassible and they were directing us around to take pavement almost the entire way to lunch. We motored down the pavement, enjoying the toasty warmth of our gloves and the mind blowing scenery. Just before lunch we had a short seven mile section of dirt. This was a good sampling of what the 500 usually consists of, and I was glad that Joe got to experience it. It dumped us out into the lunch stop, where we gassed up and grabbed  some quick chow.

 

We weren't too hungry, considering we'd just spent almost two hours at Heidi's defrosting and eating, but we couldn't pass up going through the lunch line, since Honda had Jeff Stanton and Scott Summers serving the food. They'd ridden the route the day before, even the closed sections, and had some great stories about surviving it they'd shared the night before.

Their culinary and serving skills were as good as their riding, and we sat down to enjoy a few quick bites.

 

The afternoon trails were great once we got down below 5,000 feet or so. We had some fun on some high speed fire roads on the last section, with Joe especially enjoying the flat track experience of the super tacky clay. All the vets were again overcome with the chant of "NO DUST" as we all marveled at the endless miles of perfect consistency dirt.

 

Due to the loss of most of the morning's riding, we had no trouble getting back on time, making it into Angels Camp at about 3PM. A quick change of clothes, and an even quicker stuffing of the bikes into the Suzuki truck and our weekend was almost done. Of course, we had to collect our finisher's pins and our raffle booty. Joe did much better than I did this year, coming up with lots of good stuff to take home. I wasn't skunked, so was able to hold up my raffle record. We said our goodbyes to the Ridge Runner crew and to Terry and Pat, and headed West towards the bay.

 

Although it might have been more appropriate to do this one on snowmobiles, we had survived another memorable Ridge Runner 500, and the ride back to San Francisco was filled with a full quota of bench racing and war stories.

I'll be back next year, but I'll be sure to pack grip warmers, an electric vest, and my new windproof gloves.