Sunday, May 30, 2010

Red River Gorgeous

Repairs completed and weather warming, I packed the tent and sleeping bag on the bike and took off for an overnight to the Red River Gorge Geological Area. Renowned for the well preserved sites of prehistoric peoples who lived and traveled through this area, the Gorge contains the largest concentration of natural rock shelters in the eastern United States. In more recent history, the Shawnee natives settled in this region prior to arrival of European explorers. The federal government established the geological area in 1974 by designating 29K acres and in 1976, the National Park Service declared the area to be a Natural National Landmark. The government established Clifty Wilderness in 1985, an eastern section of the gorge set aside for natural study and in which no modern development of any kind occurs. In 1993, U.S. Congress indicated that a 19.4 mile section of the Red River, after which the area is named, be set aside as a National Wild and Scenic River.

While there are many areas in which to camp in the Daniel Boone National Forest, camping in the Gorge itself is highly regulated. For instance, camping in the Clifty Wilderness requires leaving any motorized vehicle behind and setting out on foot. Established campgrounds, such as Koomer Ridge, lie just outside the boundary of the geological area and provide amenities such as flushing toilets and showers. I wanted something affording a little more solitude and decided to try John Swift's Lost Silver Mine Campground, a privately owned primitive ground located two or three miles inside the boundary on the bank of the river. Rt. 77 threads it's way through the Nada Tunnel, a 900 ft.-long, single lane road originally cut through the rock by hand and steam-powered drills, and is the only road looping through the area.

Preceding the tunnel and immediately after, Rt. 77 spans two-lanes and the tendency to open the throttle and play can be overwhelming. However, road conditions vary widely from mile to mile. Due to the large number of hikers and rock climbers accessing the Gorge, vehicles group on the shoulders of the road near trail heads, restricting the width of the road. These vehicles drag cinders from the roadside onto the tarmac and these patches of black gravel hide in the shade of the overhanging trees. As I entered the Gorge on a sunny Saturday afternoon, I rode through a group of Harley riders stopped by the roadside. A man and his wife traveling two-up rode through one such patch, lost control, and slid off the road. They dropped down a steep embankment into an area of boulders and trees along the river. Needless to say, the couple was not having as pleasant an afternoon as I. An ambulance was on it's way, but due to the limited access to the area, the couple were stretched on the grass of the embankment. A half an hour had passed between the crash and when I passed by. The twisted wreckage of the motorcycle glinted from amongst the rocks nearly twenty feet below the surface of the roadway.

Heavy rain inundated the Gorge and surrounding country the previous week. Sections of Rt. 15 running from just east of Lexington to the Gorge were closed due to flooding. This entire section of Rt. 77 cascaded down the hillside and into the river, tearing away the pavement and the trees. While the area surrounding the Gorge may seem like a motorcyclist's playground, the uninhabited sections are relatively small. Family farms and small towns dot these Appalachian foothills. It's not uncommon to encounter commercial traffic and farm machinery, and these industries take precedence in consideration for repair of roads.

I arrived at an empty campground and chose a sandy spot beneath shade trees toward the rear of the grounds. I carried a gravity fed filtration system with me and collected water from a stream feeding the Red River about 50 yards from my camp. Due to the flooding the previous week, drift wood swept down river and onto the bank piled against the upriver side of trees. With the temps ranging from 70 to 90 degrees during the day, I gathered enough dry firewood to last me through the evening and into the next morning. Forecasts for the region promised that overnight temperatures would drop into the upper 30's, what I consider to be perfect camping weather. I brewed a pot of coffee and settled down to read in the last of the golden, late afternoon light. A group of people canoeing the river passed through, stopping on the sandy bank to eat and take pictures.

I believed that I'd have the campground to myself as the sun set and the sky began to rust it's way toward twilight. As I was situating my supplies for easy access in the dark, the crunching of tires on the gravel access road alerted me to a group of guys approaching my campsite by car. While most folks visiting a campground are usually just searching for a little solitude of their own, I'm always a little leery of others when I'm camping alone. I've had the profound experience of being robbed, once at gunpoint, while camped in isolated areas.

The car parked in a spot on the edge of the small stream from which I'd drawn my drinking water. The four men in the car didn't exit their vehicle for a half an hour. When they emerged, smoke billowed out into the still evening followed by raucous fits of coughing. They'd paid for a trunk full of firewood, but by the time they'd finished getting high, full-on night shrouded the camp and made searching for kindling impossible without a flashlight. I started my own fire with flint and steel and a handful of dry pine needles. Great flashes of light blossomed amongst the trees as the men doused their pile of damp wood with charcoal lighter and gasoline. When it was burning well enough to shed a little light on the wooden cornhole game they were in the process of assembling, they took hiatus to complete the baking process. And then the fire went out. This process was repeated over a dozen times throughout the night.

They erected their tent in the dark with much cursing and fumbling. Due to the fire remaining unlit more than ignited, they positioned their car toward the game area and turned on the headlights and the stereo. The alcohol arrived. I considered my options. I could confront them, but with just myself and no weaponry, not the wisest of choices. At 130 pounds, I'm not perceived as much of a threat. Go figure. People become unpredictable and dangerous where mind and mood altering chemicals are concerned. The campground owners did not remain on the premises at night. Judging by the exorbitant rate of consumption, I decided to do nothing and await the inevitable. Their commotion reached it's peak around midnight and then quickly choked off. At least they remembered to turn off the car headlights.

In the morning, I emerged into a campground shrouded in mist. I rebuilt my fire from the smoldering embers of the previous night and brewed fresh coffee. My neighbors had crammed four adult men into a youth model tent that was now collapsed on one end, tent poles lying stretched out on the grass like a pair of splayed legs. Empty beer bottles were tossed in the undergrowth as far as 20 yards from their camp. I finished my coffee and was in the process of finding their ineptitude laughable when I paid a visit to the stream to rinse my dishes. One of the men had decided to evacuate his bowels sometime during the night in the shallow water; he'd left his soiled underwear behind as well. I found myself praying that they'd all come down with a raging case of pneumonia and croak.

Thankfully, I stayed only one night. I broke camp and jotted down the license plate number of the vehicle. Unfortunately, the ranger station was twenty miles away in Stanton and closed on Sunday. I spent the rest of the day visiting the area's stunning overlooks. I stopped for a home cooked breakfast at a hostel-style inn geared toward the rock climbers of the region before gassing up and heading north toward the horse country around Lexington.

Few things upset me as greatly as disrespect for the natural environment. I was taught as a boy that when I camp, I place myself in the care of that environment. I was educated to see my responsibility, my duty even, to ensure that those who come after me are not aware that I preceded them. This philosophy attracted me to motorcycling and eventually led me to unite these two passions. I pass through, just a flash of silver on twisting, country tarmac, and leave no trace, as water over the rocks, wind through tall grass.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Chain, Chain, Chain

I alluded in my recent post on camping in the Smokies that I ran into some trouble of my own making while traveling this year. When it comes to maintenance, I've often had to learn the hard way that something needs to be completed in the interval specified in the owner's manual. The challenge when dealing with components that rely upon measurement of wear patterns arises when trying to extend the life of the component to it's maximum. My trip to eastern Tennessee this year taught me that when a chain reaches the end of it's natural life, it has absolutely, positively reached the end of it's natural life. There can be no wringing a few extra miles of usefulness out of a worn drive chain.

My preferred destination is Tellico Plains, the starting gate of the Cherohala Skyway. From my home in northern Kentucky, I must ride over 350 miles to reach this town. In March of this year, I set out with an already taxed drive chain for an extended weekend in the mountains. First let me say that my maneuver wasn't just foolish, but dangerous. Of course, hindsight is always 20/20. What started as poor judgement on my part could have easily become a costly mistake. A worn drive chain can jump sprocket resulting in a crash and yet another trip by bus to the emergency room. In many regions of the Appalachian mountain chain, a rider could leave the road, disappear into the brush, and not be recognized for days, if at all.

At the least, worn drive chains no longer respond appropriately to adjustment and can damage other drive line, such as sprockets, or transmission components. Fortunately for me, none of the above incidents occurred. I limped the Ninja home after a single day and arrived in my driveway with a chain seriously binding in more than one location. I decided to spend the remainder of my vacation disassembling the final drive and thoroughly cleaning my machine. As the pictures indicate, a good bath was sorely overdue.

All body panels were removed and cleaned from each side. One of my least favorite aspects of chain-driven machines is the chain itself. While this method of drive is relatively simple to maintain and affords a tremendous amount of power to the rear wheel, I've never been able to keep one very clean with the type of riding in which I engage. Old chain gore refuses to be scrubbed away without a little labor. After several days accompanied by an ample supply of elbow grease and Simple Green, a motorcycle was discovered beneath the grime on wheels I'd parked in the driveway. I took the time to change my oil and filter, replace the rear tire, inspect the brake pads, and check the frame for breaks in the welds, a failing reported by several web communities on the first generation of this Ninja model.

And the chain needed replacement. While this requires a few specialized tools, such as the chain breaker and riveting tool pictured to the left, the procedure is relatively simple. Manufactured by Stockton Tools, the instrument I purchased came with simple instructions, and with the aid of several on-line how-to tutorials, I performed the job myself. Keep in mind that the last time I replaced a chain was with my father's assistance when I was ten. Very simply, the old chain needed "cutting" and it's replacement required that it be sized, which involved removing links to bring the chain to the proper length. In this case, that would be 114 links. The chain I purchased, of the x-ring variety, arrived with 120 links. Adhere to the old axiom, measure twice, cut once. An inability to perform basic math will result in...well...let's just say I measured once and paid twice.

The trickiest part of the entire process comes when placing and riveting the new master link. Rather than use a clip-style master link, which involves a retaining plate slid over the ends of the link pins to hold the master link together, I utilized a rivet link. The outer plate of the link is pressed into position using the riveting tool and then the heads of the link pins are mushroomed out to hold the outer plate in place. Much of this must be done by feel and careful inspection to avoid pressing the outer plate on too tightly. An over pressed master link will damage the tiny rubber x-rings and cause the new chain to bind. Needless to say, I learned my lesson from my first mistake and took my sweet time.

Another hotly debated topic contests whether the sprockets must be replaced at the same time as the chain and whether both sprockets should be switched out at the same time. I chose to replace the smaller drive sprocket due to wear, a slight forward lean of the teeth upon inspection. I did not replace the rear sprocket as the teeth showed an even and predictable decline. Several factors influence how fast a sprocket will show wear. Aluminum sprockets, for instance, usually wear faster than those made from steel, and the differing alloys used by various manufacturers can deteriorate at varying rates.

Averaging 15K-20K miles per chain is considered by most sources I consulted, including my regular mechanic, as high mileage. My old chain accumulated 25K miles, and when I think hard about it, probably should have been replaced between 20K and 22K miles. I sometimes fall into the trap of trying to extend the life of my machine's components. In reality, some parts are just designed to wear out and be replaced. This is the third chain fitted to the Ninja, and the first replacement I've undertaken myself. While not altogether complicated and a learning experience, I dream more frequently of shaft drive.