The '96 SheetIron 300

The SheetIron 300 is 2-day AMA Dual-Sport ride sponsored by the Oakland Motorcycle Club. They usually run it the weekend before the Memorial Day weekend. It starts at 7am Saturday morning in Stonyford, Ca. on the east side of the Mendocino National Forest and winds its way thru the forest & several OHV riding areas to Ft. Bragg on the coast. Sunday, we return to Stonyford via a different route. The route consists of single-track, 4wd trails, fire roads, dirt county roads, and a minimum of pavement. There are "easy" bypasses around each of the hard sections; 4 on Saturday, and 1 on Sunday. This is usually a fun, easy ride with a great deal of dust to contend with.

It had rained HARD for 3 days before I drove up to Stonyford that Friday evening, and continued til I pulled into Stonyford. I knew this was going to be "Another Amazing Adventure(tm)" when I drove into the campground and saw this HUGE mud bog that had to be crossed. They had a guy "stationed" near the beginning of the bog telling everyone to drive around it on the grass. It didn't look deep, no standing water in it, and I had a 4wd Toyota. Piece of Cake ! I started across in 2wd and got about a third of the way before I loss my momentum to wheelspin. I put it in 4wd and had to spin the tires up a bit, but I got across. Where I was raised, in the deep south of Mississippi, this type of wet sloppy clay mud was referred to as "Gumbo" because of the way it would stick to anything, except itself. Once your tires are "caked" with it the riding becomes very, very slippery. In California, they just call it SNOT.

Earl Minkler, my riding partner in most all motocrimes, had arrived a couple of hours earlier and found us a camping spot near the back. The sky was actually clear right above the valley at Stonyford; but to the west, as little as 5 miles away in the mountains, it was still raining very hard.

We were awaken Saturday morning at 5:40 by the first "thump-thump- thump..." in the campground. The weather had not changed; to the west it looked very stormy. I decided to wear my Darien suit on the ride so I could stay warm & dry. Earl wore his regular dirt-riding stuff, but with a rainsuit over it all. We have done a lot of dirtbiking in the Fout Springs area west of Stonyford over the years with the Northstars, and knew the area quite well. After a sound-test, we were off ! The route started across the Fout Springs Road before we took the turn for the first hard section. GUMBO, SNOT, or whatever you want to call it, was the norm in the hard sections & Earl was having a hard time on his new-to-him XR600. Being a skinny little old fart(52), his dirtbike of choice is a hot little KDX200; so this XR600 on snot, was a handful for him. I've had my XR650L long enough to ride it in all types of conditions, so I was not nearly so tense in the slippery stuff to cause myself further problems. After the second hard section, we decided to play on the easy route for a while as it was a hard-pack dirt road with enough gravel in it to be quite fun. I practiced my feet-up power slides in the corners for the next several miles with a BIG grin on my face.

As we approached the "Y" for the last hard/soft section, a route stewart was flagging everyone over for a little talk. The last hard section had a creek crossing that had gotten DEEP with the continuing rain we were in. Only one of their 3 experts had made it across the day before. So he was recommending to everyone to take the easy section. He did say that if you wanted to try it, there were a couple of guys at the creek with ropes to help pull anyone out; however they would NOT go in the creek to help you, only throw you a rope from one side and reel you back in. We elected to not drowned the XRs and took the "easy" route.

Well, it was easy for a mile or so til we got to SNOT road. This old dirt (clay actually) road was very slippery with 1-2" deep gumbo. You could see a ways down it, so I was running in third--just fast enough for the MT21s to fling the stuff off and enjoy the nice man-made jumps or water breaks. With the rain, visibility was not as good as I had thought and as I was about to jump the next water break I noticed a 2nd one just behind it. Can you say DOUBLE ! I was not going fast enough to make the double, and in this muck I wasn't going to be able to change my speed up or down appreciably in time either. I stood up and prepared for my emminent ENDO(tm) over the bars ...

WOW ! I didn't crash ! The suspension on this XR never ceases to amaze me with what it can swallow up without upsetting the rider. Since I had lost sight of Earl in my mirrors, I pulled over and waited for him. He came along in a few minutes with a fair amount of extra gumbo on him & the bike. He had pushed the front tire sideways crossing a rut and it threw him to the ground. He hurt his right thumb somehow during the crash, and to add insult to injury, had stressed his back picking the XR back up again. :-( He was not enjoying himself and told me that if he dropped it again, that he would HAVE to have some help picking it back up. Earl is normally a better dirt rider that I, but this muck on an unfamiliar & much heavier bike was giving him fits. He wanted me to continue leading, but at a slower pace so he could watch me. We continued after a little rest down this foggy ridge to the "small" water crossings that everyone was to do. The first one was only up to the axles and not moving very fast. The second one, only some 30 feet later looked about the same ...

The crossing was at an angle (heading upstream) to the creek. I got about half-way across when a large submerged rock decided to grab my front tire and point me straight upstream. I felt lucky to have reacted with only a dab and not drop it in the creek, but I was now going the wrong direction and the creek was getting VERY deep this way. I dabbed again to help pivot the XR back in the direction of the trail exit and got out OK with both boots full of water. Earl just cruised across both. We rode on down the foggy ridge into the town of Upper Lake for the 1st official gas stop.

As we're standing around in the rain talking to a couple of other friends who made the ride, I notice a very interesting bike across the lot with a pair of neat silencers emerging from the bodywork along the rear fender. I had to investigate. As I got closer, I noticed the Honda v-twin engine but the chassis & suspension looks full MX ! As I stand gawking at it, the owner steps up & tells me about his little custom toy. He had a shop (somewhere I can't remember) build him a CR-650 Hawk. Yeap, it was a 650 Hawk motor in a CR-500 chassis. The union was perfect in every detail; a definite work of art with new designed plastic to hide its CR looks. WOW, would I like to have one of these ! Except for today though; I bet it was a heavy SOB in this muck.

We headed down to the Cow Mountain area next, but it turned out to be closed because of "excessive muddy conditions". So we turned around & took 20 & 101 to Ukiah for the next leg.

Low Gap road from Ukiah to Comptche Rd. was 20 miles of 1-4" deep GUMBO ! I gave up counting the number of times I was seriously out of shape and somehow managed to save it. However, the level of concentration required to perform miracle after miracle was wearing me out. I was REALLY pleased to see pavement again. Earl too had managed this section without dropping it, but we were getting tired. After a well deserved break and removal of some 20-30 pounds of mud from each XR to be able to see the engines and brake calipers again, we headed towards the last dirt section to the coast.

Flynn Creek Rd. from Comptche back down to Hwy-128 is a fun section of asphalt and it not only had stopped raining, but the road was mostly dry ! Next came Navarro Ridge Rd. Initially, it looked like it was going to be fun; lots-o-gravel in the muck to help hold it together. But the gravel only lasted a half mile before we were in 3-12" of gumbo again. Suddenly, I started hearing a voice. I thought to myself, I don't have time for a religious experience right now, maybe some other time, thanks. Then I came to my senses and realized it was Earl yelling at me from behind to stop. He had NO desired to run the next 15 miles through this "SHIT" and was going to turn around and take the bailout route. I felt honored (& relieved) to join him. We headed back up Flynn Creek Rd. to Comptche and the paved backway into Mendocino. :-)

We motored up to Ft. Bragg, down past the Wharf area along the river, and out to the point to finish the day's event. They were taking polaroids of each of us on the bikes in front of the BIG ride banner to make these silly-looking little picture-buttons that only my nine-year-old was going to appreciate. That was it; no pin, no t-shirt, no trophy babe to get muddy, or anything ! We gathered up our bags that got carried to Ft. Bragg for us and headed to the motel to get cleaned up. Passing through the mid- dle of town, we found where most of the riders were congregating ... the only coin-operated car^H^H^Hbike-wash in town.

We had called a friend (Frank Massey) who moved to Ft. Bragg several years ago and were going to have dinner with him and his family. After Frank took us up to their new custom home they had built, we all went back to the "Wharf" for some seafood.

Frank does a lot of dirt & dual-sport riding in the area and asked about the route we would take the next morning. Earl told him, the Ft. Bragg- Sherwood Rd. Frank's eyes got REAL big, and he proceeded to tell us about this little dirt road over the coastal ridge that all of the local 4x4 jocks routinely abuse. Since it became passable after the winter rains, the 4wd crowd had torn up & rutted the road badly; especially the long uphill & downhill sections. With the previous 3 days of HEAVY rain, Frank feared it was impassable again for another day or two. Earl & I looked at each other and simutaneously said in 2-part harmony;


We shifted the conversation to the bypass route, Branscomb Rd., and were pleased to hear that it was a smooth graded gravel road that should be fun without its usual dust. The quality libations at the Wharf were working nicely & it was getting late, so Frank drove us back to the motel.

Sunday morning was clear & cool. Perfect, compared to Saturday's weather. We dropped our bags off at the starting point, and were informed that Sherwood Rd. was in BAD shape. They said, "If ya did ALL of the hard sections yesterday, you could probably get through; but we are advising everyone to take the easy route this morning." We went to the car wash, knocked some mud off the XRs, and had a nice greasy breakfast at Denny's.

Up Hwy-1 out of Ft. Bragg, we went a little ways past Westport and headed inland on Branscomb Rd. Amazing how a little hard-packed gravel can completely change most dirt. This is what DS riding on a 600/650 is all about; 2nd-4th gear feet-on-the-pegs power slides with NO dust. Pavement and the town of Branscomb arrived WAY too soon. We droned with traffic into Laytonville. The Laytonville-Dos Rios Rd. was gravel & tighter than Branscomb. :-) It led us down a steep ridge to a new bridge across the junction of the Eel River & its Middle Fork; Dos Rios. More beautiful backcountry that you simply won't find if your travels are limited to paved routes. The next gravel road and the ridge it crosses were heaven; but with a name that MUST have an interesting story behind it, Poonkinny.

We pulled into Covelo for gas & a lunch stop. The temperature had finally warmed enough that Earl wasn't complaining about cold hands, and I removed the Darien jacket while in town to keep from getting too warm while standing around. North out of Covelo, we turned right on 162 (Alder Springs Rd. and headed up into the forest and to Mendocino Pass. This was a fast 3-4th gear road that was surprisingly dry considering the amount of rain this area had gotten in the past 3 days. There was even some dusty spots. As we climbed in elevation, the Mendocino National Forest became thicker, more gorgeous, and a bit cooler. Approaching the top of the first ridge and the pass, we could see that the top 300-400 feet were covered in fresh snow. Evidently, the wind had been mild around here as the tree tops were still covered in fresh snow; picture-postcard stuff. The road became wet, but not too snotty; then it was just moto- tracks through the snow. Not deep enough to be bothersome, but enough to play in. :-) We stopped near a group of 10 riders to play in the snow. As I noticed that their bikes were COMPLETELY covered in mud, one of them noticed that ours weren't. After a fair bit of razzing, we realized that they had done Sherwood Rd. that morning. I related Frank's description of this road & Earl's injuries as to why we baled. Tom ? said Sherwood was the West-Coast "Black Water", but on steep uphills and downhills. He said EVERYONE fell numerous times on each hill & that 3 of their group's bikes required repairs to get 'em out. Looking closer, I noticed that about half of this group were on REAL(tm) knobbies, not the DOT variety. Nodoubtaboutit, we make a GOOD decision this morning.

After a round of snowball fights, we continued along the ridge heading south on Alder Springs Rd., and the M3 that would take us to SheetIron Mountain. The Medocino Nat. Forest appears to be in much better shape that the Forests in the Sierras, and these roads were an absolute BLAST with only minimal dust. On one section of M3, we had BIG sweepers with gentle rolling hills for some 10 miles. We were running WFO in 4th & 5th through here with no traffic and mass-quantities of adrenaline !

The last sections up to & down SheetIron Mtn. was 2nd & 3rd gear tight stuff with rapid elevation changes; i.e. GRAVITY CAVITIES & AIRTIME ! WOW, I wanted to go back and do that again ! As we headed down into the area above Fout Springs, we recognized where we were and that <sniff> the ride was almost over. :-( It was about 5pm when we rolled into Stonyford. We checked our raffle tickets to see if we'd won any doorprizes, but left emptyhanded. We had a feeding frenzy to re-gain some strength and loaded everything up. It was going to be another 2.5 hours home.

Wow, what an adventure ! Saturday was exciting, SCARY, and draining. Sunday was almost perfect ! The XRL (& the Darien) performed flawlessly, and I didn't drop either all weekend ! Earl had a great time too, even if he questions whether that XR600 should be replaced by a XR400.

If its like this next time though, I may leave the VE33s on the XRL ...

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1996, Mike Chaplin catfish at endorphin-express dot com

This page was last updated; August 29, 2005