ZI. WetLeather pt 4 – Chase the Snake

Posted 8/28/2014


In May 1998 I planned a WetLeather weekend centered on riding. On Saturday there would be guided rides of some lovely motorcycle roads in the Oregon Coast Range, then a barbeque dinner on the deck at my home in Corvallis. Sunday morning we would cheer the finishers of the Timberbutt 24-hour endurance rally as they checked in, and then a visit to the Oregon Vintage Motorcycle (OVM) club’s bike show and swap meet around noon. I called the event the CREST.

Every year the OVM club has their bike show and swap meet at the Benton County fairgrounds in Corvallis on the Sunday before the Memorial Day weekend. I had been to a couple of the shows and was pretty impressed by the number, variety, and quality of the bikes on display.

In 1998 that weekend was also the running of the Timberbutt, a 24-hour 1,000 mile road rally, a mini Ironbutt-style event. There were a few WetLeather folks taking part and it ended in Albany at 9AM Sunday.

In theory it was a nice event but it practice it didn’t go so well. The forecast was for rain all weekend. Saturday, scheduled to be the main riding day, was a complete washout with no riding at all. Sunday morning was also wet so we piled into a couple of vans and went to cheer the Timberbutt finishers. Man, they looked whipped. The rally had started in the rain and it continued to rain for most of the 24 hours. Riding for 24 hours straight is hard enough but 24 hours in the rain is misery. Those guys are tough.

Later we drove to the Benton County fairgrounds for the bike show, which had moved into the display hall instead of the usual location on the lawn. The OVM claimed it was the first time rain had forced the show inside in 25 years. There was a nice collection of old bikes, some quite rare.

Sunday afternoon the weather cleared and we did get to take some short rides, so the weekend wasn’t a complete washout, riding-wise.

There never was a second CREST as I was injured and in a wheelchair five months later. However, the spirit of the CREST survived thanks to Blackbear. (If you want to know more about Blackbear read the stories Fun with WetLeather parts 3A and 3B.)

Chase the Snake

Blackbear was one of the riders who came to the CREST, a WetLeather member who lived in Pullman, Washington. He had earned his WL nickname because he was tall, dark and rather gruff in person. He spoke with a low-pitched, gravelly voice and always got directly to the point. A good guy once you got to know him but on first impression he could be intimidating — bear-like.

The month after the CREST Blackbear organized an event that had a similar format, focused on rides in S.E. Washington. Blackbear made the announcement in late May, 1998, soon after he returned to Pullman from Corvallis. Typically he got straight to the point.

JohnT and I are hosting...

When:  Saturday June 6th, 1998...
What:  Ride the Palouse and check out the crossings of the Snake
River, these include the (from East where the Clearwater joins the
Snake, to the West where the Snake Joins the Columbia River): 

  Lewiston (East side) Bridge
  Lewiston-Clarkston   Bridge
  Clarkston(West side) Bridge 
  Lower Granite        Dam
  Central Ferry        Bridge
  Little Goose         Dam
  Lyons Ferry          Bridge 
  Lower Monumental     Dam
  Ice Harbor           Dam 

There is consideration that these four salmon killers^H^H^H Dams
will be breached in the near future to restore salmon runs on
the Snake and Clearwater rivers.  

Lots of nice 'motorcycle' roads... and a lot of scenery that
is uniquely dryside...   

JohnT added:

Sat. BBQ most likely will be:  Beer (Homebrew on tap), Hamburgers,
Hot dogs, Veggie Burgers, Pasta Salad, green salad, baked beans or
chili, and I'll bbq a Turkey. Anyone is welcome to bring something
if they'd like, but not necessary. We'll have some other assorted
drinks for non-beer drinkers.  

Um, yes. Wetleather knows how to party — feed them and they will come. The event became known as Chase the Snake, and the challenge was to do all nine Snake River crossings in a single day. Let’s see, ride 430 miles to Pullman, ride around on swell motorcycle roads the next day, have some great food with interesting people, then ride back on day three. Over 1,000 miles in three days: piece of cake. I’m in.

I joined up with Guzzi Dave and Gustavo in Troutdale on Friday and we headed east. There was a rendezvous point at a diner in the small town of Washtucna, WA. By 6 pm there were nine of us, we three from Oregon, two from Seattle, two from Pullman, and two from Boise, Idaho. Blackbear led us along some lovely farm roads to Pullman.

This area of Southwest Washington is called the Palouse and is heavily cultivated, and at that time of year there was an amazing collection of colors. The main crop appeared to be wheat, but it was alternated with mustard, field peas and alfalfa in contoured strips. There was some mustard in bloom, plowed fallow fields, and some leftover dry stubble from last season’s harvest. There had been some rain showers in the area and the colors on the land ranged from a deep milk chocolate brown of wet dirt, to the tan of dry dirt, with several shades of verdant green and the screaming bright yellow of the mustard. It was quite pretty.

Saturday was ride day. A good crowd of over 20 motorcyclists gathered for breakfast at the Cougar Diner. We were divided into Red, Blue and Purple squadrons; the Purple squad was the smallest and most ambitious – the three of them intended to do ALL nine of the Snake River crossings. Blackbear led the Blue squad, with eight members including some of the quicker riders. The Wizard led the Red squad. Red was the largest squad at 11 that included the “baggers,” bikes with saddle bags and fairings, set up more for comfort and distance than speed. There was a subset of four of us who were on “sportier” bikes – myself on the HawkGT, Goatboy on a Ducati 900SS, a Suzuki Bandit for Andrea and Timk’s Triumph Tiger.

Here are some highlights of the Red squadron’s day.

Andrea wanted to go fast. The first opportunity to safely air things out was riding along the Snake where the road was smooth, flat with sweeping curves, low traffic and good sightlines. I was riding third holding a comfortable pace of about 70 mph when I heard “BWWWWAAAAAAAAA”, and a red streak flew past. It was Andrea on the Bandit. Goatboy was right on her tail in a flash and I tucked in behind them. Timk also broke away from the main group and we ran at, er, well, let’s just say a bit over the limit for about 15 minutes. We eventually slowed and pulled over in a parking area to wait for the rest of the squad. Andrea was bouncing around, and gave all three of us big hugs.

“I’ve never gone that fast before!” she said. This girl needs a track day, I thought to myself. The group started calling her That Fast Girl, or TFG.
TheFastFourThe Fast Four. Myself (seated), Timk, TFG, and Goatboy, aka the Smurf. Photo by (I think) the Wizard.

We found twisty roads: the road ran along the river a bit more, a bunch of fast sweepers, then started to climb out of the valley and into the hills. Tight, fun curves here, not wide sweepers. Goatboy and I pulled away from the others as we attacked the corners climbing out of the river valley. At Boyer Park we waited for the rest of the squad, and Goat was jazzed about touching down a knee on the street for the first time. Maybe we need to slow down a bit I thought after hearing that.

A pattern developed with the Red squadron. The ‘sport’ sub-group dashed off to the front, then usually the Wizard, with the ‘tour’ group following at a slower pace. We would regroup at key intersections. At one point the Wizard had caught up to us, but needed to wait at the intersection to make sure the touring sub-squad took the correct turn. He told us to go ahead but to wait at the next stop sign, four or five miles ahead. We had finished the climb from the river and this stretch of road was mostly sweeping turns. We were running along at a fairly sane rate for the conditions, about 80-85, when we rounded a corner and saw two SUV’s with light bars going the opposite direction. Yipes!

As we flashed past I checked my mirrors and saw their blinkers go on. Pretend you don’t notice, I told myself. Just keep going. They couldn’t have gotten us on their radar, I thought. We kept going to the aforementioned stop sign, and stopped. Will the sheriff show up? What will we say? Which of us was the best liar? “Oh yes officer we saw those guys they blasted by here and didn’t even stop. They went thataway.” (point).

TFG was selected as spokeswoman, since she’s small and cute, but we hid the “Grrls Kick Ass” sticker on her helmet. We waited, and waited, and began to wonder what was happening.

The sheriff never did show, but the Wizard finally appeared. He took off his helmet and said, in his sternest voice (but with a twinkle in his eye), “I don’t know whether to thank you guys or kick your butts.” Turns out after the four of us blitzed past the sheriffs at about 80 per, the next two motorcycles were the Wizard and Curt going 70 mph, and they got caught on radar and pulled over. As the sheriff was talking to the two of them the rest of the group, on their full dress touring rigs, came along and stopped. Everybody got a tongue lashing, and the Wizard was told, “It wouldn’t be fair to ticket you but not those first four, so I’m just giving you a warning.” Yes sir, thank you sir, we’ll be good from now on. Sir.

The Wizard later posted his side of the story to the Wetleather list:

After a dozen miles at our own 'spirited pace' a pair of Sheriff’s
Jeeps came around a corner in front of us and turned on the radar.
I was already braking hard, but they turned on the lights in front
of us so we pulled over after passing them. As I walked back to
Curt and the Sheriff with my driver’s license in my hand, I asked
"Did you see 4 motorcycles ahead of us? They're our friends and
we were trying to catch up with them". The reply I got was "Yes,
and they were going even faster than you and we couldn't get the
radar turned on in time to clock them. You need to slow it *way*
down!" I saw that he didn't have his ticket book out, just a tiny
notebook, and was writing our names in it. I turned to my right
(shamelessly putting my MSF Instructor patch in his face) and
asked if I should get my insurance info. When he said "No" I
thought, damn! We're going to get off without a ticket. Sure
enough, after a verbal warning, and our promise to slow it down,
he let us go. He'd said that it wouldn't be fair to give Curt
and me tickets if he couldn't also give the first group of bikes
tickets too.

We continued on (a bit slower this time) to the town of Starbuck for lunch. We found the family-run diner that Blackbear recommended but, while normally open until 7PM, it was closing in 15 minutes so everyone could attend the son’s high school graduation (“family-run” really means it around here). After extracting a promise to order fast and eat faster we were allowed into the cafe. It was good, and inexpensive, and we all left big tips. The Blue squadron arrived a bit later to find the place locked up and everybody gone. Hee.

We stopped at Palouse Falls, a dramatic free-fall-into-a-pool of Palouse creek. The access road was gravel. Goatboy started in front with the Wizard behind, then me. Goat goosed the Ducati’s throttle, spinning the rear wheel and raising a lot of dust, so I backed off a bit to get some clean air. Later at the barbeque, Goatboy admitted he was doing it on purpose, trying to spit gravel back on the Wizard. Goat had made a critical error — he had forgotten that the Wizard was riding the BMW GS; a motorcycle better suited to a gravel road than the Ducati 900SS. A quick twist of the BMW throttle and the Wizard was in front, returning the favor. Goat, telling the story later at the BBQ, admitted that he was thinking at this point “Boy am I STUPID!” while dodging a hail of gravel bits.

Palouse Falls
Palouse Falls. The scale is hard to tell from the photo, but that’s a drop of 180 feet. (Photo by Phil Kopp, shamelessly borrowed without asking permission.)

After the stop at scenic Palouse Falls we headed to JohnT’s place in Colfax. Our red squadron was the first to get to base, with ‘only’ 265 or so miles completed. The Blue squad arrived about 30 minutes later, with around 350 miles logged. Purple squadron arrived around 7:30, with the highest mileage total of 460; they made their goal and made all nine of the Snake River crossings.

JohnT and wife put on quite a feed: burgers, hot dogs, potato salad, deviled eggs, chips, pasta salad, and pitchers of well-crafted home-brewed ale. Dessert was brownies and fresh strawberry shortcake. They earned some well-deserved praise. Thanks much, folks.

Casualities? The Wizard and Curt got stopped by the sheriff, and most of the red squad got a lecture about speeding. No citations, however. The Blue squadron missed lunch. Guzzi Dave’s Guzzi died just before getting to Pullman and Dave spent the weekend wrenching instead of riding. Fortunately JohnT had a well equipped workshop where Dave could tend his bike.

I got home at 6:15 PM on Sunday, after a three day total of nearly 1200 miles. The HawkGT never missed a beat, and turned over BOTH the 17k and 18k mileage milestones on this trip.

Many, including me, suggested that the event should happen every year. It did become an annual WetLeather event and riders are still Chasing the Snake every Spring.

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