Bears and Bumblebees
Who? Nick Kohn, aka @strokeofstoke and founder of Yews, Views and Brews
What and where? Old mate is having a crack at bikepacking as many dirt roads as possible to get him from California, up through the States, across Canada and down the Continental Divide.
Highlights? The Sierra Nevada are unfathomably beautiful and the wildflowers in bloom is making it even more special. The remote roads that are being travelled on are absolutely empty besides for the wildlife (plenty of it out there!) and the remoteness of it all is breathtaking.
Recommendations (who and when?) It is highly recommended to not head out here, particularly alone, unless you have extensive backcountry navigation and survival experience. There is no signage or direction or means of bailing and calling for help if you are to get yourself into trouble. There were also problems with the lack of maintenance of the trails, having fallen trees all over the shop, however this is only due to how early in the season it is.
Essential gear? Plenty of food and water, a whistle or some form of bear irritant, strong navigation skills and a massive sense of adventure.
Home: Sydney, Australia
Favourite activity: Bikepacking
Favourite brew: Coffee or Shiraz
Favourite snack: Peanut butter.
Nick Kohn is an outdoorsman who spends most of his time bikepacking, though he has hiked, dived, motorcycle toured and travelled throughout SE Asia, the Indian subcontinent, Central Asia, Europe and Australia.
He has cycled through Italy, France, Spain and across the Silk Road from Mongolia through to Turkey, as well as a little in Australia. Next stop - USA and Canada.
I awoke to the light and unpeeled myself from the sleeping bag while unzipping the door on the tent. I glanced out while breathing the crisp mountain air, eyeing the sparkles all over every surface outside. I was out in Stanislaus National Forest, California, down forest and logging roads that are designated codes rather than names because they are so intricate and everywhere. On the map, it looks like somebody gave a small child a litre of red cordial syrup and mum’s lipstick and let him draw here, there and everywhere. I had slept in a clearing that had obviously been logged. There were only the small remains of stumps left, standing naked and sad amongst the circle of emptiness. Amongst these is the woodchip and small pieces of sticks, presumably to be picked up at a later date and sold for firewood.
I had come down a well-maintained fireroad and gone past a logging fence that must have had half a dozen signs on it about why I shouldn’t go past and how much trouble I’ll be in if I get caught down there. But as I mentioned, these trails were numerous and maze-like so I assumed I wouldn’t come to too much trouble.
The dew that morning soaked everything. My boots, as I got up to pee, got a complete clean of all the dirt that I thought was engrained in their leather forever, while my tent and bike looked as though they had been painted with a sheen. It was brisk too, with that mountain breeze that has a little bite to it before the sun makes it over the tops of the slopes around. Not enough bite that you need to layer up, but enough that taking your pants down for your morning business is a less than exciting task.
I packed away all my sleeping equipment besides the tent, which I left standing in the warmth, shaking it at regular intervals in the hope that I wouldn’t pack it up wet. While doing this, I journaled about days past and ate a cabbage like an apple while my lentils cooked on the Trangia. Once I had stretched and all was suitably dry to my liking, I packed up and got rolling.
I was so pleased with myself in that I had planned last night’s stop at the peak of a five kilometre descent of rutted, rocky and awefuly dusty mountain trail. While I was able to bomb some sections, there were plenty that were very slow rolling due to the ruts catching both pedals due to the lower bottom bracket on my 26 inch legend of a bike Tania - the Surly Troll. When it flattened out, it got eerily dark again, with pine and oak towering over me and blocking the sun, as I traced my way between contour lines on the map. There were barely any sounds too, besides the soft chirping of birds and the dancing of the wide leaves as the wind blew deep through the valley.
Eventually, I came to a shallow river crossing that was not marked on the map. I figured this would lead to the larger, but still small one in about another kilometre or two. I stopped to drink direct from the stream and wet my face, that was sticky with sweat and dirt from the descent. On the other side of it, I was shocked to run into some spiderwebs. ‘Surely people come out here?’ I pondered. It’s so beautiful and really not that far from town if you’re committed to a good adventure.
The terrain got rockier and chunkier as I neared the bigger river. The gush from around the bend before I saw it was concerning as it sounded more like a rapid than a tranquil little stream that was barely big enough to be placed on the map.
I scouted it out for depth and slow moving points, as the after gurgled and swooshed over the rocks at high speeds. I slid off my boots and walked in, stopping when the icy water reached my shorts and still had a ways to go. It was that cold that was such an extreme that it began to burn, like putting your cold feet in a hot bath after a long winter’s day. I picked up the bike and tried to cross in two different spots but to no avail.
So I left it there, walking upstream and down, in search for an alternate option. Down a little ways, I found an enormous oak that had fallen across the water God-only-knows how long ago.
It had been uprooted on one end and the other was buried in Nature’s waste on the other. Sticks, logs, entire plants and its own small forest of leaves that had been pushed down the river, hit the tree and like a manufacturing plant, been moved over to the sides. Then there were trees sprouting from within that.
It was my only option to get across and not need to turn around at such an early point of the ride. So I pulled my Leatherman from it’s sheath, found the saw and prepared the route in the hope that both Tania and I could fit across simultaneously. I didn’t have much faith in the idea, so I pulled all electronics and valuables off the bike and walked them to the safety of dry land on the other side, setting up the camera to film the experience should it all go downhill and my bike got lost in the rapids. Slowly, slowly, bit-by-bit, I edged the soles of my Blundstones onto the most secure foot holes I could spot, while I tried to keep the rubbed from rolling off the rounded sides of our natural bridge.
On the far side, I stopped myself to make a brew as a celebration. Nothing says beautiful and romantic like sitting alone in the forest, by a stream with a punchy black coffee going down your gullet. As I rested, the sun finally began to reach the deeper sections of these hills for the first time that day. Smells seemed instantly to magnify as the light hit them, like a magical force that brought everything to life. There were suddenly more bees and butterflies and birds and I lay back between sips, watching the tree tops shimmy with the breeze.
Within twenty minutes, I had so much caffeine running through my veins that I had no option but to ride, and fast. The sections were large rocks and very soft and sandy, but all that energy had my legs firing and I continued on. The deeper I ventured, the harder it got. It wasn’t the steepness or make up of the terrain, it was the number of trees that had fallen across the trail. And big ones too, ones that would crush your house to pieces if it was to fall on top. There must have been twenty in four hours. It was exhausting.
I was lifting and twisting the bike through the contorted messes of trees that some force of Nature had decided to strike down directly across my path. Before long, I was getting tired of this routine. I stopped to consider whether I wanted another coffee, and while making up my mind, munched on a sunflower seed, pepita and almond mix that I’d put together in town. I sat with my back again the spines of a pine tree, hidden in the shade and out of the sun that was now punishing everything with it’s harsh midday rays. I stretched out my hamstrings and groin and began to focus on some box breathing as it’s a practice I like to do in beautiful places to really take it all in and hopefully remember them forever.
I made the decision to leave the bike resting against a tree as I scrambled upwards and onwards by foot, often sliding around on the thick bed of pine needles that disguised the trail. I felt like I could have been in a Matrix movie with the contortions that my body was going through in order to fit through and past the fallen debris. After fifteen minutes I was about to turn back when I heard a crashing in the trees. ‘Probably just a rockslide’ I thought to myself and turned to walk back, unphased. A hummingbird came from nowhere and hovered in the air, glaring at me while its wings flapped a million miles an hour, creating a droning noise. What a beautiful sight - the dark emerald greens and turquoise blues glistening in the sun. Then I heard the crash again, though this time, it seemed too abrupt to be a rock.
I walked around to check what it could be and was greeted by a very spooked looking baby brown bear staring in my direction about twenty metres away. It would have made great comedy if someone had been filming, with both of us making distressed noises and sprinting off in opposite directions of the forest. My immediate thought was I was glad he chose to run away and not towards me. My next train-of-thought, however was the terrifying fact that baby bears don’t hang around without their mothers, who I’d been told can have quite a temper. That ten minutes of trail that I’d slowly made my way through earlier, became a blur as I jumped and hopped and ducked around obstacles while making all the noise I could, just as the man in the camping store told me I should do if I ran into bears.
Back at the bike, I quickly pulled out my whistle and began blowing it like a mad-man. For reasons unknown, out alone in the forest, with a bear on my heels, I blew it to the tune of ‘Jingle Bells’. I blasted it so much, I frustrated and deafened myself by the high pitch screeches and was sure the bear must be gone.
I was disappointed in that my planned trail was now blocked by a cuddly looking, but face-removing several hundred kilogram mammal. There were alternates of course, however they were significantly more steep than the already difficult terrain I was already on. But I was committed to the ride and rerouted my GPS that was slowly losing battery despite being plugged into the dynamo. I was moving way too slow for that.
In the next three hours, I’d made only an exhausting four kilometres of navigating more fallen trees and broken rivers and steep hills of slippery terrain. Heck, I probably pushed my bike for two of those long hours. By this stage, the sun was starting to reside back on the far side of the mountains for the day. The angle of the light allowed me to see tracks in a muddy section of trail. Massive bear trails, at least the length, but likely longer than my feet. In the next thirty minutes, I heard another two bears and caught a glimpse of one running through the trees. My gosh did my whistle get a workout.
Suddenly, that screaming five kilometres of descent that I’d shredded and cut down in the morning became a cruisy climb, as my legs cranked away like pistons, running on not much but nut mix, fear and adrenaline. I went past my last night’s camp and charged on, wanting to get as high and far away from bear territory as possible. As I belted out ‘Take It Easy’ and ‘Hotel California’ by The Eagles to keep the bears at bay, the terrain slowly flattened out and I came back to the gate that I’d so bravely skirted just twenty-four hours before. Confidence was low but morale was so very high. I got to see a bear in its natural habitat, in the dense forest where it roams as king and at the top of the food chain.
I continued down that nicely maintained trail once again, beaming with an ear-to-ear smile after such an insanely unbelievable day. My elevation increased and decreased as my tyres crunched gravel to the enjoyment of no one except for me. I came to a field, shrouded in purple wildflowers, with specks of yellow sprouts dotted amongst the mix. The smell was sweet like candy and musk and incense infused with the mountain air through which the furry bumblebees scurried from plant to plant, gathering their pollen. The field faced the west, allowing me a few precious minutes of fading light to clear a spot and erect the tent before taking the time to sit on a cut off log. I watched the deep purples and burgundy reds and fluorescent oranges burn in the sky behind the ceaseless layers of the Sierra Nevada and reflected on a what a day that was, and also how it’s probably a good story to keep away from Mum’s ears.