Over the River and Into the Wild

(Click here for Part 1 of this story: Ride to Carter's Ferry Crossing)

I soon found a hand painted plywood sign that read, "To cross, push button for 5 seconds." I pushed the button below the text and slowly counted to five. I released the button, and waited. Did this button do anything? Maybe I should press it again...

Behind me, a gruff male voice called out, "Are you going across?" I turned as a man approached. He strode passed me without waiting for my answer. He headed toward the river and I guessed he was the ferry operator. I said, "Yes, I want to go across, explore a little and take some pictures."

He turned toward me and in a very surly tone said, "I don't care what you do over there." Then he dropped the cargo net that allowed entry to his "boat" and motioned me to ride on to the platform. I did so, but was a little taken aback by his abrasive tone and behavior. What was up with this guy? 

He fastened the cargo net behind me and busied himself in a little shack to the side of the platform. I parked my bike and got off to start taking pictures. This was my first ferry trip and I had looked forward to it. An engine started and the ferry slowly pulled out into the river.

I moved to the rail with my camera and the Operator loudly barked at me, "You are supposed to stay in your vehicle!" Maybe he wanted to ensure I heard him over the engine, but I suspected he wanted to assert his authority as the "Captain" of this floating platform. I apologized and started to get on the bike. Then he said, "It's all right, don't worry about it." Then why make an issue of it, Captain Ahab?

The shore slowly receded and the Captain paced the deck. He gave my bike a thorough inspection and paused at the license plate, "You come all the way from North Dakota?"

This was my chance to crack his grouchy exterior. I replied that I was indeed, from North Dakota and had ridden to Butte for Evel Knievel Days, then pressed on to this ferry crossing. His silence and sour look told me that he not impressed.

I quickly changed the subject, "What's on the other side of the river?"

"Nothing," he answered gruffly, "the same thing that's on this side. In 18 years I was over there once and never went back."

My map showed a twisted gravel road over there. The road eventually connected to a state highway. I asked, "How far to the highway from the other side of the river?"

He thought a moment and answered, "Twenty miles, maybe a little more." He looked at my bike then added, "A four wheel drive truck can do it, you can make it on that." He paused and then continued, "I used to have a bike like this, but it was smaller - back in the 70's." I waited for him to continue, but he turned, walked to the rail and stared out at the river as if I wasn't there. I guessed that he was not a "people person."

The far shore neared and soon the exit ramp gently ground against the sand and gravel river bank. I was on my bike and ready to depart when the Captain called loudly, "If want to come back, push the button again." I nodded, he dropped the cargo net and I rode on to dry land.

A short distance up the shore was another hand painted plywood sign with a push button in the center. I rolled by, anxious to see what lay on this side of the river. Ahead, was at least 20 miles of unknown road before I reached civilization again.

But, it was soon clear the Captain was correct, there was nothing on this side of the river. More rugged, empty land with a few abandoned shacks and dilapidated  houses. I admired those hardy souls who settled here (100 years ago?) in almost complete isolation. Could I have made it, living out here in those days?

In many places the road became more of a trail. The ruts, washouts, and loose gravel provided a great ride. The road easily made up for any disappointment that lingered over the less-than-expected ferry boat and its crotchety captain.

This was a memorable ride without a safety net - no cell service, no quick and easy rescue if something went wrong.  It was just me, the bike, and a road to overcome. It felt real, and I loved every minute of it.

It's probably not the safest way to ride, but if safety was our main concern, we would not ride at all. 

The Ride to Carter's Ferry Crossing

(From July 28, 2013 during my ride through Montana)

You can't see it from here, but the Missouri River flows through west central Montana in the hazy distance. Remove the power poles and barbed wire fences and it's easy to imagine a herd of buffalo out there. This wide open country is near the small town of Carter's Ferry, about 25 miles north of Great Falls. From here, I headed for Carter's Ferry Crossing where the Montana DOT operates one of several ferry boats on the Missouri River.

Five miles of rough gravel road led down to the ferry crossing. My bike was loaded down like a pack animal and when I saw the condition of the road, I paused to reconsider this trip. But, I had not came this far to turn back now. I throttled ahead and stood on the pegs as the KLR rolled off the pavement and plowed into the loose gravel that led down to the river.  

It was soon clear that my apprehensions were needless. Despite the heavy load and stock suspension, the KLR handled the ruts, pot holes, and loose gravel without any problems. My trust in the bike was rewarded with some awesome views of the Missouri River valley.

This was a desolate area with no other people or vehicles in sight and even more disturbing, no cell phone service. I was totally alone and noticed how quiet it was out here. The only sounds were the grass rustled by the breeze and a few crows somewhere in the distance. I confess, it felt a bit strange and a little lonely. 

While stopped to shoot some photos, the thought hit me, if this bike does not start, I will have a long walk to find help. I thought it best not to dwell on that, and to just enjoy the moment and the adventure of  "the road less traveled."  

I enjoyed the quiet and the view, but I was looking forward to the river crossing. I guided the bike back on to the gravel road and soon reached the Missouri River without any difficulty. But, what I found at the ferry crossing was both more and less, than what I had expected.

The wide Missouri River flowed quietly onward. Its surface was as smooth and reflective as a mirror. Across the river, the hills and bluffs were a beautiful sight and despite the gloomy, dark, and cloudy sky, I had avoided any rain so far. Things were going just as I had planned - almost.

I had expected to find people here, but aside from a couple of distant fishermen downstream, nobody was around. The ferry "boat" I was expecting was actually a floating platform attached to a steel cable stretched across the river. I don't know why, but for some reason I had expected more.

Regardless, I was glad to have reached my destination, and pleased with my bike. After many miles of highway, the KLR easily handled an ugly gravel road to bring me here. Now, before I could cross the river, I needed to find whoever was in charge of running the ferry and get a ride across the river.

To be continued in my next post...

Road Trip: My KLR650 Touring Bike

After several thousand miles on paved and unpaved roads, I can say the KLR650 is a competent touring bike. This post will cover a few modifications that I feel have most improved my KLR's touring ability. This post will also tie together several previous posts and I have linked to those below.

Even on stock suspension, the KLR can haul the gear needed for a long road trip. Here is my bike before starting a week long 1,800 mile road trip. It is loaded down with tools, tent, sleeping bag, camping gear, clothes, and everything I would need. I later discovered that I had forgotten a few items, but that is another post.

I like soft baggage for several reasons. A few of these include, the bags' light weight, no need for additional racks, and if the bike goes down they will not bend or dent. I formerly ran a tail bag but removed in favor of the waterproof, lockable, Pelican case.

The bike's handling on the Interstate was greatly improved when I installed a fork brace. The brace helps to eliminate flex and stabilize the front forks. There is some debate in the KLR community on the effectiveness of the fork brace, but I like what it does for my bike and would buy it again.

For improved handling, especially in strong winds or when stuck behind a semi truck on the highway, I replaced the stock plastic hand guards with a set of Western Power Sports guards. These work fine, but installation was a real pain and I would not buy them again. I also replaced the stock front fender with a smaller fender from Acerbis. Together, these reduced front wheel "wander" in strong, gusty cross winds. I have ridden on many windy days with this setup and the bike handles very well at highway speed.

I normally run a highway speed of  75mph with my tach just under 5k. The bike will go faster, I have gone over 80mph while passing a semi, but try to avoid it. This summer I ran at 75mph for hundreds of miles on Interstate highways and the bike performed perfectly. At this speed I keep up with traffic and pass quite a few other vehicles. I credit this to the 16 tooth drive sprocket , an essential upgrade for touring on the KLR.

Many KLR owners complain that the bike needs a 6th gear and for me, the extra tooth gives you that gear. The gear trades a bit of lower end torque for top end speed, but it works for me.  That extra tooth lets the bike run at highway speeds without pushing the tach beyond my comfort zone. The lower RPMs also reduces vibration on the highway.

Finally to improve comfort I modded the stock seat with a new Seat Concepts kit. This made the seat wider and cushier for improved comfort on long stretches. When my butt gets sore, I can still slide back or forward and keep on riding. 

The KLR is not the best touring bike on the market, but it works for me. Still, there are a few changes I will be making before next year. Those will be covered in a later post. But, I would not hesitate to take the KLR on a cross country touring trip. When properly configured, the bike has the speed and range to take me anywhere I wish to travel. 

KLR Touring Review vs BMW, Triumph, Suzuki, and Yamaha

The italicized statements below are portions of a Popular Mechanics comparison of  "5 Tough Touring Bikes." The lineup includes the BMW F800, KLR 650, Triumph Tiger, Suzuki V-Strom, and Yamaha Super Tenere. These are each fine bikes, but differ so widely in price, size, performance, and technology it is silly to compare them one-on-one.

Overall, the KLR received so-so treatment by the reviewers at Popular Mechanics. Here are my comments on a few inconsistencies that jumped out at me as I read the article:

1. "It has just enough power to cruise at 80 mph, but don't ask for more."  Depending on gearing, you can go 80 mph, but I would not recommend it for long runs. I normally run 70-75 mph on the interstate.

2. "Engine has decent low-end grunt, but would probably benefit from lower gearing." C'mon guys, you want more speed, but then suggest lower gearing!! Lower gearing will benefit the torque curve for off road rides, but that will hurt your top end speed.

3. "Earned the trophy for both the slowest and thirstiest bike." Compared to a group of fuel injected twin cylinder bikes and that big Yamaha - I have no doubt the KLR was the slowest, but it is hardly a fair comparison. Finally, for a touring comparison, I assume the reviewers spent a lot of time running the KLR at 80 mph which does hurt gas mileage.

4. "Engine shake puts hands and feet to sleep." The reviewers never said if this vibration was related to a certain speed. But, at 80 mph the single cylinder engine vibrates a lot compared to a twin cylinder. Slow down a bit, and the vibrations are much less noticeable.

It speaks highly of the KLR 650 that it was included in this comparison with much bigger and more expensive adventure touring bikes. While the KLR does everything well, it has never been the best at anything and has never claimed to be. But, I have toured on the KLR 650 and can say it does just fine as a touring bike.

Click the green KLR picture below to read the article and decide for yourself.

Click the Pic to Read the Article

When A Good Helmet Goes Bad

I was happy with my Scorpion EXO-700 for about two years. That changed recently when I was 70 miles into a 500 mile road trip and my trusty Scorpion crapped out. In hindsight, maybe I should have seen this epic fail coming before the helmet literally fell apart.

I was riding south on a narrow two lane, facing a lot of north bound semi traffic. Suddenly, the wind behind one these monsters ripped opened my face shield. My sunglasses deflected most of the 70mph wind and I pulled the shield down again. Weird, that's never happened before, I thought. But, it would happen again.

After the third incident, I was pretty unhappy with the helmet. I pulled off the highway and into a parking lot to see what was wrong. I removed my helmet and flipped up the face shield which promptly fell off, along with the shield pivots on each side of the helmet. Now, the problem was obvious.

The face shield pivots are mounted on each side of the helmet with two plastic screws. The heads of all four screws had broken off. Not good news since I was not in a place to fix it. So, I picked up the scattered pieces and parts, put on my sunglasses, and rode on without a face shield.

Back at home, I had replacement screws, but the broken screws were stuck in the helmet. The longer I messed with them, the less I cared about fixing it. Frustrated, I pulled out a spare helmet and chucked the broken one into the closet. I may mess with it again, later.

Here are a couple pics of an unbroken EXO-700 highlighting these plastic screws. The pic below shows the helmet with the shield installed.

When these screws break, the entire pivot assembly shown below (circled in red) falls off. On my helmet, all four failed and that is odd. This helmet was never abused and had little wear, since I use a couple of other helmets, as well. There is no reason the helmet should have fallen apart like this.

For those wearing the Scorpion EXO-700, pay attention to those plastic mount screws on the face shield pivots. Be sure to carry the spare screws with you and stash a pair of sunglasses or goggles on your bike. They can get you home again when a good helmet goes bad.

Adventures on the Streets of Butte

On the second day of the Evel Knievel festival, uptown Butte was alive with the sights, sounds, and smells of a carnival. Street vendors offered everything from hotdogs, hamburgers, and tacos to ice cream, lemonade and cold beer. I wandered down the street soaking up the atmosphere, as people of all ages shopped, ate, drank and enjoyed the beautiful day.

Along with the food, were t-shirts, riding gear, hand bags, and new tattoos. Something for everyone. Dwight Yoakam's Guitars, Cadillacs blared on one street, while on the next block over, the Scorpions' Rock You Like A Hurricane blasted the crowd that bustled in the street. In case you forgot the occasion for this revelry, giant images of Evel Knievel gazed down from various buildings.

There was also plenty of free entertainment on the street. A group of motocross riders performed a stunt show and risked their lives in true Evel Knievel fashion. The large crowd was very impressed when three of them raced side-by-side up the ramps and back-flipped their bikes in unison. Click the picture below to see a video of these guys in action.

Later in the afternoon, a couple of  Harley riders put on another stunt exhibition. These bikes were really loud which was good since "loud pipes save lives" and both of these riders risked serious injury to entertain the crowd. Click the picture below for a short video of them showing their stuff.

That evening, I joined the parade of bikes to cruise the Evel Knievel Loop around Butte. The Harleys dominated this event with a smattering of other bikes including one KLR, a Kawi dirt bike, and a modified Honda scooter. Click the picture below to see the ride video.

The procession of bikes moved through Butte as police cars and fire trucks guarded the intersections, so the parade had no interruptions. Most memorable, were the crowds along the streets that waved and cheered as we passed. It was great to be treated like a hero for just showing up to ride! This experience alone would have made the trip to Butte worthwhile, but I had one other stop to make.

Mountain View Cemetery is on Harrison Avenue, just south of I-90 in Butte. When you enter the cemetery,  a couple of signs point the way down a tree lined drive to Evel's final resting place. I stopped Sally in front of the head stone and killed the motor. Nobody else was around and I think it worked out better that way.

I took a few pictures and sat down in the grass nearby. I had followed the memory of my boyhood hero for several hundred miles to reach this place and I was in no hurry to leave. It just seemed right to sit alone under the trees and enjoy the solitude.

First Day in Butte - Evel Knievel Museum

I reached Butte, Montana on Thursday evening ready to hit Evel Knievel Days the next morning. Friday was day two of the event and over breakfast I scanned the local paper for the day's agenda.

Everything was happening in historic uptown Butte where I found about a million Harleys lining the streets. I wondered if I could be on the only KLR in town. Never afraid to stand out from the crowd, I parked just down the street from the Evel Knievel museum.

Late in life Evel had expressed his hope that all of his memorabilia could be displayed in a single Evel Knievel Museum. But that never happened. Instead, collectibles from his daredevil career are scattered among various private museums and private collections all over the U.S.

Evel Knievel Enterprises is one of these small museums with a respectable collection and some nice displays. Admittance was free, which was an unexpected surprise. So, I contributed to the museum's donation box and was happy to see many other folks doing the same. 

The place was packed with a lot of middle age or older men who were patiently followed by bored looking wives, girl friends, or daughters. These were the people who remember Knievel's glory days and were part of the Evel Knievel mania that effected kids of the 1970s. 

The main attractions in this museum were several Harley Davidsons that Evel rode in various performances. To me, these bikes were "the survivors." I imagined the forgotten wrecks from his failed jumps rusting in pieces in some scrap yard.

I also learned that Evel's son, Robbie is testing a new Canyon Sky Cycle and may attempt to jump the Snake River Canyon on September 8th, 2014. That date will be the 40th anniversary of his dad's failed Snake River Canyon jump.  

Also on display were many of Evel's leathers, helmets, and autographed photos. There were also other "odd ball" memorabilia, such as x-rays of some of his injuries. I was not overly interested in the x-rays, because something else had already captured my attention. 

One of my favorite pieces was this Evel Knievel pinball machine that was originally released by Bally in 1977. I would've loved to have dropped in a quarter and played some pinball. But, it was my first day in town and I didn't want to get thrown out of any establishment, just yet. 

Evel Knievel Ride Day 2: Pompey's Pillar

My second day on the road through Montana, I stopped at Pompey's Pillar National Monument. The large rock butte sets beside the Yellowstone River, just outside of Billings. There is a lot of history here and it is worth the stop if you pass this way on I-94.

Pompey's Pillar is noteworthy because it holds the only existing physical evidence of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. During the explorers' return journey, William Clark carved his name into the rock here, and mentioned this place in his journal. By dumb luck, I just happened to visit on the 207th anniversary of the day Clark carved his name in history.

From his journal we know William Clark gave this place its name. The expedition's Native American guide Sakakawea, carried her infant son with her on the journey. Clark took a liking to the infant and nicknamed the child "Pompey." From that, he named this butte "Pompey's Pillar."

There are approximately 200 stairs that lead to a viewing platform at the top of the pillar. The view of the Yellowstone River and Montana country side is really amazing. It occurred to me that William Clark saw this same view (almost the same) 207 years ago.

Another historical tidbit, in 1873 Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer and his men were camped across the Yellowstone from Pompey's Pillar when they were attacked by the Sioux Indians who were firing from the base of the pillar.

Today, Pompey's Pillar is more civilized than when Clark or Custer were here, thanks to the efforts of the National Park Service. There is an air conditioned visitor's center with a gift shop. I appreciated that air conditioning since it was nearly 100 degrees that day.

Outside, I braved the heat and wondered down the cement path that led to the Yellowstone River. A gentle breeze stirred the leaves of the giant cottonwood trees and it was noticeably cooler near the water. I lingered a few minutes in the shade and watched the fast moving Yellowstone flow northeast toward North Dakota. A few minutes of peace, then it was time to go. 

Back in the parking lot, the burning sun bore down and I dreaded getting back into my riding gear. But, refilled my Camel Bak with cool water from the visitor's center and got ready to ride. I hated to admit it, but there was a schedule to keep regardless of the temperature. Butte, Montana was about 250 miles to the west and I needed to be there by evening.

Waves of heat radiated up from the black parking lot as I rolled away from Pompey's Pillar. I would have liked to spent a couple more hours soaking up the history and air conditioning on this stop. These is just never enough time for everything on the road, but this shortened visit it gives me a reason to come this way again.