Friday, April 8, 2011


I took a jollier-than-usual mountain bike ride on Wednesday. The goal was to head over to Big Basin and Butano State Parks to do some mountain bike exploration of the fire roads back in that neck of the woods to see if any of them would be reasonable to ride on a road bike as part of a bigger home-to-coast-and-back loop. After all, I can't be expected to do the same loop over and over again :)

It seems that there is little information out there about the surface condition of these routes -- maybe because they are obscure, but maybe also because ye olde average roadie sticks to the paved routes, and the general mountain biker wants singletrack. I'm more of an "anything goes as long as it's interesting" adventure cyclist who will happily take the "wrong bike" down a route if it has promise to be scenic. This leads me to covet the not-yet-invented "One Bike To Rule them All" which will happily forge its way up and down any terrain and serve as my only bike, but that's another story....

At any rate, I picked out a route after looking at maps and other people's GPS tracks of rides on Strava with two goals in mind:

1. Explore Gazos Creek Road, which I previous knew of as a dead-end road off of Cloverdale Road near the coast -- but actually has a dirt connection into Big Basin and thus up to Highway 236.


2. Climb the Butano Fire Road, another dirt road which appeared to have a reputation as a nice climb up to an abandoned airstrip, and also looked to connect back up to Big Basin a couple of miles above that.

Given the time constraint provided by the school day (I had to be back to get Nim at 2:30), I loaded up the mountain bike on the truck and drove over to Big Basin to check it out from there. I bought a new map at the ranger station to replace the ancient one I had and set off through the redwoods. I chose to ride down Gazos Creek road based on a comment I had read about steep sections if one were to climb it. For several miles, it was really unclear what those comments might have referred to -- the dirt road had a good surface and undulated gently through the park. I tried really hard not to think about how good the singletrack trails heading off in either direction might be (bikes only allowed on dirt road in the park and not the skinny trails -- boo hiss).

So far, all would be quite pleasant even on my road bike. Of course, this all changed once I hit the park boundary. Here the road starts to plummet precipitously and clearly the creek wanted to become one with the road in some places. Nasty ruts, gravel strips, strange bumps reminiscent of Dr. Seuss illustrations, and double digit grades made up the next three miles or so. Given that it was dirt-road width, one probably *could* pick a line and ride up it on a standard road bike, but it sure wouldn't be pleasant. On the bright side, going down it on a mountain bike wasn't bad at all. I eventually had to hop a gate where the dirt met the pavement near the bottom, and enjoyed the fast descent down to Cloverdale Road.

There's always wind out near the coast, and this day was no exception. A corollary to Murphy's Law dictates that for any given day, the direction I want to go on this stretch of road is always into a stiff headwind. It doesn't matter which direction I'm planning on going -- whichever it is, is always the hard direction. I was starting to watch the time given that the careful descent down the rutted section ate more time that was allocated, and had planned to make up some time along this paved section. Ouch.

After a mile or so, I turned out of the wind briefly to ride in the main entrance to Butano State Park to check and see if they had a better map than my ancient one (they didn't) and then headed back into the wind until I found the unmarked Butano Fire Road heading up the edge of the park.

What a delightful idyllic sunny climb through beautiful coastal California terrain! I can't believe I hadn't ever run across this one before. The surface is smooth and predictable despite being dirt, and the road winds its way up at a gentle and uniform ~6% grade, part in the sun and part in dappled shade.

Just as I was musing on what an excellent find this road was with a giant grin on my face, I came around a corner and my inner monkey brain made me come to a sudden halt. There was an animal on the trail about 150 feet ahead.

A very large animal.

A very silent animal.

A tawny golden brown animal with a loooong tail and feline features, standing broadside across the road. Very big paws. Lean and muscular, and powerful.

I stood there for what felt like almost a minute in sheer amazement at actually seeing a mountain lion in the flesh before realizing I had to figure out what to do about it. Of course, the whole experience had some of that "time stands still" sensation that also happens during a crash, so it was probably briefer than it felt.

What an incredible animal!

I didn't want to turn around and go back down the hill because (a) I wanted to explore more of the trail up above, (b) forward was the shorter way back to the car, and (c) if I turned my back and ran, I'd look like prey. Not a good plan. So, I stood over my bike waving my hands in the air and started yell-singing. "LA la LA la LA la LA LA LA LA LA LA!" The cat turned its head ever-so-slightly toward me, acknowledged my existence -- barely, and disappeared off the trail downhill into the woods.

Ok, now what? I stood there yell-singing for a couple of minutes, marvelling at how silent the creature was as it took off through the brush. Most critters, especially ones of that size, make a bit of noise as they move through the bushes. Not this one -- it didn't make a sound as it took off. Great. The lion is encased in velvety silence, I'm making an unholy racket, and I can't keep track of where it is.

And come to think of it, how many more are out there? This is well known to be mountain lion territory. A few months ago, when I took an animal tracking workshop just across Cloverdale Road from here offered by the Midpeninsula Open Space folks, we saw all sorts of lion scat, and the rangers were certain that there are quite a number of them in the area.

Big Kitty is watching you.

Most unnerving. I continued to caterwaul "LA la la LA la LA la LAAAA! I'M NOT A DEER! LA LA LA LA LAAAAA! YOU'RE NOT GOING TO EAT ME!!! LA LA LA LA LA LA! I'M KING OF THE RANCHLAND! LA la LA la LA la LAAAAAAA!" for about another mile as I continued to ride up the hill, until I was so hungry I had to stop and eat my lunch. Hollering is hard work.

For better or worse, there was no one out there to witness this performance. I didn't have to be embarrassed by the racket, but on the other hand there were no numbers in which safety could be had.

I convinced myself that my shape and demeanor was not very deerlike, that I was heading into the woods soon and the cats hang out in the sunshine, that my rattletrap mountain bike was really quite scary. Maybe the squeaky chain emits high-pitched cat-deterrent noises. I can convince myself of all sorts of notions when I have to, but the underlying heebie-jeebies were still there. And the awe. And the relief that the silly chattery monkey-brain response was effective in this case.

Lunch was had at the junction with Jackson Flats Trail, which fueled more climbing. The road is quite spectacular through this section, as it is open and runs right along the top of the ridge and you can see down on either side of you. Plus, there's nowhere above for a cat to be lurking.

The road gets steeper for brief sections past the airstrip and runs through what feels like the middle of nowhere in the woods. Somewhere in there I hit the park boundary. Time felt like it was really getting quite tight at this point, so I had to push pretty hard. At least the road was pretty -- a needle-covered track heading through evergreen forest. There were reassuring patches with bike tracks, indicating that others had been this way and I couldn't possibly be lost. My now-tired legs pushed their way up the hill until -- yay -- I popped out onto China Grade Road and relative civilization. At this point, I had the choice to ride to longer route down China Grade, or head directly back into Big Basin along Middle Ridge Road.

Still exploring for future road rides, though. I've ridden the steep section of China Grade below 236 a number of times, but had never gone on this dead-end stub above it. This part rolls along relatively gently in an obscure one-lane road sort of way before descending back down to the main road, and I enjoyed the sunshine in between navigating around the numerous potholes. At one point, I came around a corner and narrowly avoided hitting a port-a-potty truck that was trying to turn around. Quite oddly, I had more of an obvious adrenaline rush from this incident than the mountain lion, and clearly the driver was just as surprised to see me as I was him.

Finally out to the main road and ZOOOOOOOOOM, a fast four miles down to the car. I tossed the bike on the back and made it back to the school with exactly two minutes to spare. The ride ended up being about five miles longer with a full thousand feet more climbing than I projected from my somewhat inadequate maps before starting. The final total was 30 miles, 4000 feet of climbing, and one mountain lion. All in all, a fine day's adventure.

For the record, the entire section of Butano Fire Road that I rode could be done on a road bike without too much pain, if one were mentally prepared for the many miles of dirt. Just be ready for the steeper parts up top and mind the felines...

Big Kitty is watching you.

The route and profile. The little yellow marker labelled "1" was just uphill from the mountain lion sighting.


eileen said...

Oh, Anna of the 40 years - you're *scarin'* your Mama!!!

Ma said...

Hey, at least I chose the *smart* response (being big and loud) rather than turning tail and running! It was pretty clear that he didn't want anything to do with me, as he evaporated down the hill at high speed once he noticed me.