Photo Credits: Evan Leung DTC and Kevin Miklossy
GPS: 50.3645750000, -122.1554416667
“I don’t think we’re making it through that,” is Mark Binstead’s first response surveying the tricky re-mix of terrain slopped across the Forest Service Road (FSR) to Blowdown Pass, one of the most accessible alpine back entrances to BC’s famous Stein Valley, ahead of us. Composed of rock, trees, branches, mud, top soil and other debris set atop a base layer of compacted snow and ice, at first glance the slide looks impassible. The statement gives me pause, a rider whose selection of routes and honed dirt skills have constantly pushed Kevin’s and my off-road bounds, Mark is not a man who turns back easily.
As we scout ahead on foot, Mark recants, “I take that back. I never said that.”
Mark’s right, there’s a line through the mess that would be interesting on a smaller dirtbike. We, however, are an impromptu orange armada of four KTM 990 Adventures attempting to see if we can get the big bikes up to Blowdown Pass for a view of the Stein Valley. Blowdown is as close to the 107,191 hectare Heritage Park as vehicles are allowed, with luck we’ll be able to kiss the “don’t you dare bring a horse, 4×4, ATV, mountain bike, snowmobile, helicopter, float-plane or motorcycle in here” sign. From this conservation perspective the slide may be a lucky disaster.
It’s a slippery start, especially for photographers Evan Leung and Kevin Miklossy whose bikes are shod in the stock Pirelli Scorpion A/Ts, tires whose on-road aspirations aren’t coming to grips with slick wet packed snow and ice. Kevin keeps his brand new 30th Anniversary Dakar Edition upright and avoids stressing his injured shoulder – though some pushing and spotting occurs. Evan then gives the slide a go, and the obstacle lives up to its name — the Pirellis lose traction, kicking the bike sideways and laying it down. The tall on-road off-road adventure bike is a challenge for shorter slighter riders like the 5’5” Evan, who can’t get a foot down to save the bike when it starts to go.
We all pitch in; after a bit of hefting, lifting, pushing and switch hitting, which sees Mark riding the remainder of the slide for Evan, we’re climbing again towards the Stein Valley.
From the start the ride feels expeditionary in the best ways; teamwork to cross an obstacle, fresh new riding challenges, a destination on the edge of achievable and a route fresh to almost all of us. Kevin has ridden Blowdown before, but two seasons and one mudslide ago on a smaller, lighter, more manageable KTM 640 Adventure.
True, we’re not heading into uncharted territories or unnamed ranges, but in the age of Google Earth who can say they are exploring the unmapped? That age of discovery has passed. Perhaps, though, we are entering the age of rediscovery, where regular individuals can explore and chart increasingly forgotten off-road routes. In that context, bikes, due to size, weight and complexity, create as many challenges as they solve while exploring the back country. Seemingly, the smaller the road, the bigger our world.
Our reward on the slide’s far side is a section of fine and fast FSR, with only a couple small decommissioning cutouts trenched across it. There’s two strategies for these ditches; gas it, bring the front end up and jump the trough or ride them like whoops by pushing down on the pegs to preload the suspension as you ride through. With fully loaded panniers I’m opting for the latter, more conservative, of the two.
Brandon McLeod, the fourth to our group, and Mark Binstead charge ahead, stopping only at more major intersections and obstacles. The climb proper begins with a few hundred meters of rocky scramble. Evan hits one of the larger rocks front on, causing the front end to pop up, and the bike to come down and topple to its side. From our rest stop around the corner in the section’s middle, we can hear a few muffled calls for assistance. Nothing urgent or wounded sounding, so we de-helmet and walk back down the hill to help.
The lightest built of the team Evan is starting to tire from wrestling with the large bike, along with occasionally having to lift it. We take a breather before attacking the second part of the rocky section. Here Kevin’s a priori knowledge spurs us on, the route opens up and gets a bit easier ahead. Evan rides the next section like a pro, and we’re delivered into narrowing overgrown dual track, before the route begins a sandy, gravely and rocky edging of the mountain with embankment and scrub on the left and trees and a vertiginous drop on the other. All the best roads feature doom on either side.
Evan’s 990 drops again entering a section of sand and gravel filled washout, a four-foot wide narrows in the trail, with an “likely unrecoverable” righthand drop. A combination of hot summers day, lack of sleep the night before, increased altitude and rough terrain has exhausted Evan. He wants to opt out of continuing.
We discuss the options, with Mark and Brandon kilometers ahead at this point and Evan almost completely spent. I begin to leap frog the rider’s bike and mine to the next shady spot so he can rest. The process is taxing; ride his bike through each rough section, find a place the park the beast, walk back to my bike in full gear, and ride to the park point and repeat.
For an afternoon’s jaunt, the outing has a more intrepid expedition’s badges — we’re contemplating leaving a member.
I’ve misgivings, but leaving Evan is the best option. I can’t stay and send Kevin on alone; should he dump the KTM his bum shoulder would force him to lift the 517lb/235kg bike single handed – literally.
Evan encamped creekside a mountain spring in the shade, we hand him an extra energy drink and make him promise one thing, “Don’t try to ride out on your own.”
Exhausted, Evan may not be able to squirm from under a dropped bike or lift it on his own, or worse could injure himself. The promise is designed to pre-empt disaster, and you’ve got to commend Evan for not doing the “macho soldier on through diversity till I’m injured” BS many adventure riders fall pray to. Despite being less than 15 kilometers from the main road, there’s no cell service and a hospital would require riding out or a potential air lift.
The upside is Evan can guard our luggage full of camping gear, clothes and food, making him Basecamp 1 and lightening and narrowing Kevin and my KTMs by about 25 kilos and about a half-metre apiece.
Pulling away, I wonder if it’s for better or worse that I’ve not mentioned the Stein, a pass over, is one of BC’s premier habitat for cougar, wolverine, black bear and grizzly bear. Cougars worry me more than the others, they tend to attack from above off embankments and you almost never see them coming.
Lighter, we set a brisk pace towards the pass; riding a road that has a seasonally recurring role as a creek bed and historically provided access to the now abandoned Silver Queen Mine. It’s not particularly easy going, but not insurmountable – that is saved for approximately a kilometer from the border with the Stein two deep, wide bands of snow slide cover the road.
Another couple of weeks of summer weather and Blowdown will be achievable, but it hardly matters, the visual payoff is stunning and the sense of achievement is warm as the sun’s alpine blast. Above the tree-line, our 2168 meter alpine perch on the old mining road, below we watch a glacier fed lake sparkle in the sun. The water is the base to a bowl of snow covered peaks. The road, on a sunward facing slope, was one of the first to lose its white blanket – courses of small slides vein the the others. Below us we hear Mark and Brandon, their uncorked 990s growling alien mechanical-beast exhaust notes. They’ve tried the way into the lake, but for now it too is blocked. Joining Kevin and I on the ridge we survey the bowl.
“We need to come back here on the smaller bikes and camp.”, says Mark looking down at the glistening temptation of the lake. “I hear there’s a cabin, too.”
Off the venerable ride route the Duffy Lake Road, Blowdown is just an often passed spur like 100s of others sitting in the BC Motorcyclists proverbial backyard. The motivation to explore such in and out routes can be limited, as they contribute nothing to a bigger loop. Yet, backed onto the Stein and feeling as distant as the Himalayas, Blowdown deals out some of the finest adventure riding one could hope for in any outing – let alone an afternoon.