Mon 5 Jan 2009
Note: I’d written this to completion December 28, but an inopportune FAIL of WordPress’ draft-save function left only the first few paragraphs saved and the rest unrecoverable after I clicked “publish.” In the frustrating aftermath I’ve spent the last week grousing and harumphing miserably at all that had been lost, waffling between junking the saved portion or trying to recomplete it. Here goes an attempt at the latter option.
Two posts elsewhere — one here on LA Metblogs about arroyo restoration work halted and another on LAist here about the benefits of snow in our local mountains — reminded me of the time shortly after my introduction to mountain biking back in the year of our lawd nineteen hundred and ninety.
It was under the thick clouds of a pretty powerful storm and in the midst of a couple days of significant rainfall, when I finished up a light route day on the job as a Sparkletts Man and decided I’d head home that mid-afternoon, get my faithful GT Timberline and take it for a ride up past JPL into the upper Arroyo Seco, long a popular trek for hikers, bikers and equestrians known as the Gabrielino Trail.
If you’ve never been in there, it’s really a marvelous place, and you don’t have to hike far to get a feeling you’ve gotten away from it all. The scenery is beautiful and under a canopy of tall sycamore and maple the winding trail itself is characterized in part by several crossings of a winding creek. It was there months earlier and in much warmer, dryer and shallower conditions and that I’d taken my very very first ever inaugual mountain bike ride up to the Brown Canyon debris dam and back. I think the draw to do such a wet version of it was enhanced by the allure of naturally running water (something I never got enough of in my L.A. youth) and my desire to see how different the trail was in a deluge.
Boy was it different.
By the time I’d pedaled up past JPL from where I’d parked on Windsor Avenue in Altadena with not another soul in sight, the skies had opened again and I was pretty much entirely soaked when I left the asphalt for the dirt roadway that parallels the creek for a bit that under normal conditions flows at little more than a babbling burble. But these were abnormal conditions and basically what I found was a raging torrent, largely because Brown Canyon is a naturally formed chute (augmented by man-made additions) whose walls get narrower and steeper the deeper into it one goes. As a result rainfall gathers in it quickly and subsequently gets channeled out quickly and fastly and powerfully into the lower arroyo.
Lesser idiots would have stopped right there and turned around. Me? I decided to bike up to the first creek crossing and check things out. Arriving a few soggy minutes later I gazed in amazement at the transformation. What’s typically a couple feet across and only a few inches deep was now at least eight feet wide and probably two to three feet deep at the center. And as if that alone weren’t enough for my system to send out the Abort! signal, the water was moving faaaaaaaast.
Call it fearlessness or stupidity or a conspiracy of both I will forever be amazed at myself for what I did next. Hoisting my bike onto my shoulder — I stepped off the bank and into the water. The current was swift enough to immediately grab my shoe and move it out laterally downstream and I was forced to counterattack the force by pushing down hard and planting my foot into the creek’s bed. I did the same thing with the second step, but the soil was less compacted the deeper the water got and as soon as I would pound my foot into it, I felt the loose bottom around the sole of my shoe being eroded and carried away. At the same time the ice cold waters buffeted my shins like strong undulating winds. It was an uncomfortable feeling, and one that should have forced me to backtrack, but instead forced me to hurry forward while struggling to maintain my balance. At the midway point the water was up past my knees and I wasted no time getting up onto the opposite bank — and figuratively dry land.
Back on my bike I pedaled deeper into the canyon across a carpet of soggy leaves, marveling at the sounds of the rushing water, the steady smack of raindrops through the thick trees and the wonderful smell of wet earth and wood and rock and foliage. And I had it all to my self.
Arriving at the next crossing I found myself confronting a creek section substantially narrower than thee first one, but one whose waters were deeper and more roiling. I’d like to say this is where I confronted the risk and dangers and experienced a moment of sanity, but no… I was still being a foolish idiot and I again hoisted the bike to my shoulder and successfully repeated the step-plant-balance-lift-step-plant technique while the current did its best to knock me over or rip the dirt out from under my shoes until I got to the otherside. At it’s deepest point, the brown water was battering my thighs.
It was at the third crossing that reality set in. At a turn of the canyon that opened up a bit allowing a far more shallow flow of water than the first two, the trade off was it was now a good 20 feet wide, at least. Not only that, but a large section of the bed was flat concrete laid at some point either to prevent erosion or keep debris and water moving down the line — in this case over a short staggered falls and onward. On the plus side, concrete may have meant a stronger place to put my feet, but also meant one far slicker, and for the first time I recognized the potential to slip and become one giant piece of flotsam — two if you count my bike.
On top of that it finally dawned on me that what goes in, must come out. No matter how many fords I made in, I was only half done if I entertained any thoughts of ever drying off and getting home.
Still I didn’t just turn around and retreat. Up went to bike and I took a few tentative steps into the muddy waters until I got to the edge of the concrete slab where I then conducted some tests to see if I thought it was possible to continue.
I’m not sure if what happened next was a matter of good timing, or a sign from God, but as I was just about to pretend it was doable, a large branch, about eight feet long and as thick around as my arm, came bouncing and bucking past me. For a second it got hung up going over the falls, but it broke free and continued on around a bend out of sight.
And I thought, that could be me.
And I turned around.
I was extra special careful getting back through the waters where I’d crossed the creek coming in. It could’ve been my imagination, but the level seemed deeper and the flow angrier, and on the bike ride back to my car I gave some serious thought to how stupid I’d just been.
Could I have died had I slipped and been swept away? It was a possibility. I’d like to think that I would have found something to grab onto and hauled myself out, but I also like to think that I’m not some irrational thrillseeker, and in this case I most decidedly was. I’m not so thickheaded to not realize I could’ve knocked myself out on a rock or a lose branch or gotten an arm or leg broken somewhere along the way. At best I would have been battered pretty good and probably would have lost my bike, served up with a hypothermia chaser perhaps.
And for what?
For nothing, that’s what. Because a few rainless weeks later, I returned to the Gabrielino Trail and biked up to the base of the debris dam finding the flow over its lip back to nothing much more than a trickle and everything dried out and back to normal. What wasn’t normal was the highwater line visible from leaves and dirt and stuff left stuck to the walls of the wide clearing below the dam after the waters had drained out. The flood had been enough to fill it to about six feet high on the canyon walls,which would put it about 10 feet deep in the center.
I had been biking toward this.
I never would have made it.