Flume Flail

One July about 1999 or 2000, the family got a great deal on a room at Squaw Valley off-season, and we enjoyed exploring around Lake Tahoe for about a week.  After arriving in the wee hours, we set out the next day to tick two items off the list , one for Mom &the boys, one just for me.  I had heard that the 12-mile Flume Trail, on the East side of the lake, was one of the best MTB (Mountain Bike) trails in the world. FLUME TRAIL LINK   The Ponderosa ranch (where the Bonanza TV series was shot) is near the north end of the trail, so while my wife and sons visited the movie set, I rode that trail.  There was a truck road I could use to leave the trail and get down to Incline Village and the Ponderosa, beside Lake Tahoe.  They dropped me at Spooner Lake, near the south end, and drove to the ranch, while I hit the road from the campground to the trail proper.  As I churned along through the loose sand of the jeep road, I passed a few people, and finally mentioned to one pair that I thought the Flume Trail was single-track.  They pointed up the steep mountainside to our right, and said that the trail was up on the ridge, a mile or so above us.

I hadn’t researched this trail enough to be sure, and they seemed rock-solid, so I backtracked to a small trail I’d seen heading from the jeep road up toward that ridge.  It was much too steep to ride the bike, so I threw it over my shoulder and headed up.  Nice little trail, sparsely-traveled, through scrubby pine and fir… and then narrower and narrower… until it was more of a rabbit run.  Still, by the angle of the sun, I knew the ridge must be up there somewhere. I came to a small grassy clearing, and the trail just ended.  Circling the uphill side of the clearing, I found nothing that even resembled a trail, so I gulped down some water and began making my own trail through ankle-deep bark chips, up to the ridge.  The bike kept tangling with the brush I passed, and I was getting pretty exasperated, when I stumbled onto a proper ridge trail, single-track, heading north and south.  Must be the Flume Trail.  I clipped in (pressed my shoes to the pedals so that clips on the soles locked into catches on the pedals) and began to roll along the narrow, beautiful trail. I passed a sign, which faced the north, and turned around to read “Hiking trail only. No horses, motor vehicles or bicycles.” Looking down at the dirt of the trail, I saw no bike tracks. Maybe the part of the trail to the south was foot only, and this part was OK?  As I kept going, and the terrain opened up to grassy slopes, I did see one set of bike tracks, and felt better.  Then I began to feel worse. The smooth, meandering dirt track traced through more and more rocks and small boulders, until it was again hike-a-bike. That was when I met the one other human I saw on that ridge, a gruff gent in alpine gear, who told me I was not supposed to take a bike on that trail.  I said I thought it was the Flume Trail, famous among mountain bikers, and he pointed north. He told me that the Flume Trail was four miles that way, around Marlette Lake.

Flume&RimI had climbed that steep slope and gone several miles out of my way, using a trail I was not supposed to be on, because I had not gotten an actual map and traced my intended route carefully ahead of time.  Today, I’d pull out my cellphone and it would show me where I was, map the trails, and give me an estimated time of arrival. Back at the turn of the century (nice ring to it, eh?) all I had was a couple of “You are here” reader boards, and a couple of verbal descriptions.  I hated that I was on a foot-only trail. I respect that designation, and don’t ever intentionally abrogate it. I wasn’t upset about the extra distance, but I was very concerned about the time.  We had agreed to meet at the Ponderosa, a couple of hours after they dropped me at Spooner Lake. Now the 12-mile ride on an established bike trail had turned into 16 miles, with a lot of extra hill climbing and bike carrying. I was going to be hours late!

I continued north, ate some snow (Yes, in July, at over 8,5oo feet altitude) and finally found an outrageous downhill that got me to Marlette Lake.  There I took up the actual Flume trail, and followed it along the edge of the lake to where I could see Lake Tahoe, 1500 feet below.  The trail leaves Marlette and clings to the western slopes of the mountain, eventually meeting the truck road for a 3-mile downhill to Incline, beside Lake Tahoe. I had to carry the bike again in several spots, but other bikers I met along the way assured me that I was on the right trail. It was beautiful, but I was feeling time pressure.  When I finally got to the truck road, I was ready to bomb a little, to make up what time I could. The truck road was hard and fairly smooth, so I was flying. I came up on a hairpin turn and could see a berm at the kink, which told me it needed special attention.  I set up my approach perfectly, and was carving my line precisely, when I unexpectedly got airborne because of a shelf I couldn’t see from above. That put me a foot left of where I wanted to be, and my front tire caught on a rock I should have missed. I endoed. When the front stops, but the rest keeps going, it means flipping end-over-end, and one mainly hopes to land with some sort of grace, maybe roll, and not get tangled up in the bike. I was able to clip out (disengage my shoes from the pedals) and the bike and I separated nicely. I rolled a few somersaults before stopping.

I stood up to survey the damage, and the bike seemed intact, though twisted a little. Then I noticed that my left shoulder was bumping my chin. It was not supposed to be able to do that. I didn’t see much blood, so I was not worried, but I couldn’t ride the bike that way.  I pushed at the shoulder, but it hurt, and didn’t move much. I grabbed a branch of a small pine tree next to the trail and leaned away from it, but my hand reflexively let go. I tried it again, but could not hold onto the branch when I yanked against it.  I was able to wedge my wrist into a fork, and leaned hard away from it, pressing at my shoulder with my right hand, and that did it. I heard a squishing sound, fell flat on my back and saw a whole galaxy of stars, but my shoulder was now closer to where it belonged.  I straightened the handlebars of the bike, checked over what I could, and clipped back into the pedals. I rode the last couple of miles down to the Ponderosa’s parking lot, and met the family there.CollarboneCurveOrtho

We went to the emergency room, and they marked my crash on a map there. It was a hundred feet above the hairpin turn they call “Collarbone Curve.” Apparently, riders come down that road too fast for that curve, lose it and go over the berm, breaking a lot of collar bones.  I was special, though. I broke mine before even getting to the actual hairpin.  They said that my makeshift setting of the bone had already aligned it as well as they could.  They put on a figure-eight wrap and told me to sleep on my back with a rolled-up towel between my shoulder blades. One thing that seemed to bring the ER nurse extra pleasure was scrubbing out my abrasions.  Everywhere blood and mud was sealing up the ground-down parts, he went after the mess with hydrogen peroxide and abrasive sponges, and a cheerful grin. After that came gooey gauze and mummy wrappings. No lollipop, but at least I got one really cool x-ray of my shoulder to take home.

collarboneANN

I enjoyed the rest of the vacation far more with the wife and boys, hiking rocky streams, enjoying the lake, and taking the tram up to the summit.