Monday, August 17, 2020

Portage

Long before Europeans settled the part of Northeast Ohio which is now Akron and Summit County, Native American tribes lived and moved freely about the area, using the rivers as almost a natural highway. Shawnee, Iroquois, Delaware, Wyandott, Huron, Ottawa, and Miami Indians are among the tribes believed to have traveled by canoe between the Great Lakes and the Ohio River, and from there, to the Mississippi and possibly all the way to the Gulf of Mexico.

There was one hitch, however, to making the trip entirely by canoe: there was no waterway connection from the Cuyahoga River, which flows to Lake Erie, to the Tuscarawas River, which flows to the Muskingum and Ohio Rivers. Perhaps thousands of years ago, Native Americans made an overland trail to connect the Cuyahoga and Tuscarawas Rivers -- an 8-mile stretch known today as the "Portage Trail." Today, the ends of the trail are marked by matching sculptures depicting a Native American carrying (or portaging) a canoe. One of these stands a couple miles from my home, at the edge of the valley roads I routinely bike on.

Riding through the valley the other day, just a couple miles north of the bronze Indian portaging his canoe, I had to do a version of some portaging myself. I got to a "Road Closed" sign blocking the way north along the main valley road and decided to ignore it, as I frequently do. Well, a little further up the road I found why it was closed. A huge tree had fallen over, completely blocking the road.

Couldn't go around it, so I just hoisted the bike up onto my shoulder and started climbing over the fallen tree. As I scrambled out of the tangle of branches with my bike, I saw a police officer on the other side, sitting in his SUV watching me. "Can't do that with a car," I told him, as I remounted my bike and rode off.

OK - so it wasn't anything like an 8-mile trek, but still. . . that's one of the great things about a bike, isn't it?

Rarely am I deterred on a bike ride from a closed road, unless I know for certain that it's truly impassable. On a bike you can almost always find a way to get through. Bridge out? I've been known to scramble down riverbanks and ravines, wade through streams, and climb back up the other side with my bike on my shoulder. Once, on a ride many miles from home, and on unfamiliar roads, I got to a bridge that was in the process of being rebuilt. Turning back and following a detour was going to add many miles to what was already a very long ride, so it was portage time. There was no roadway - just I-beam spans across a stream. Being a Sunday and no workers around, I picked up the bike and walked carefully over the spans to the other side. A bit foolhardy, perhaps, but no regrets.

I recall some years back when a major flood hit the Cuyahoga Valley. Sections of the two main roads that flank the east and west banks of the river were under water - at least a couple of feet deep in some parts. Car travel was impossible. I went for a ride the next day, and there were several stretches where I was wading knee-deep - with shoes in one hand, and bike on my shoulder. I remember one section where I could see a car stranded in the deepest part, with water half way up to the windows. Obviously some idiot thought he could make it across. On the other side I found a lady in a minivan watching me wade across the flood, and she was actively contemplating whether she should attempt to drive through. The stranded car was apparently not enough of a deterrent. 

As I emerged from the water carrying my bike, she asked me "Do you think I can get through?"

"I don't know," I answered, and pointing to the bike on my shoulder, I asked "Can you do this?"  

She didn't press the issue.

Being able to go where cars cannot, or ignoring signs that say "Road Closed," feels not only a bit rebellious, but also like getting a free pass, or like being part of an exclusive club, or knowing a secret handshake.

Portage-ability. Just one of many awesome things about a bike.

5 comments:

  1. I remember once riding to work the day after a torrential downpour. The road leading to the office was flooded. It wasn't unusual; it's a low point in the area and beavers regularly dam the river, leading to minor floods. This one was different, with the local police redirecting traffic on a narrow road. I thought that I could cut through a local office park's parking lot and bypass the flooded road. Nope! I made it past the first bit of water but not the next two. It was deep enough in some spots to come up to the wheel hubs. The fenders were overwhelmed; my feet got soaked, and but I made it to the office in time.

    I prefer riding a bike vs. carrying it. That's why I never got into cyclocross: building out a sport where you have to dismount and carry your bike, on purpose, just seems daft. That being said, yes, it really is awesome to carry a bike when needed, or to transition to walking and wheel it in to places where cars can't go, such as train stations.

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  2. Here in California, mudslides often block mountain roads, and chunks of the coastal highway get washed out periodically. In 1983, I biked from San Francisco to LA, and there was a slide a few hundred yards long on Highway 1 at Big Sur. Unfortunately, the detour around it was about 150 miles, since few roads connect the coast to inland regions there. We considered portaging over it, but on talking to others who had done it, they described knee-deep mud and an arduous hike, with a risk of arrest. Didn’t seem that appealing with a heavily loaded touring bike. So we did the inland detour from Carmel to San Simeon, with two climbs over the Coast Range. When I drove through the area years later, I saw that the slide extended far up a steep slope above the highway. It would have been a difficult and dangerous climb.

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  3. In 2011 I rode around Sri Lanka with a friend. For months there'd been incessant rain that sometimes you literally couldn't see through. We often stopped not to avoid a drenching but being pounded into the ground. There were large floods and over a million people trying to move away from the water.

    Ignorantly & foolishly, we continued, occasionally riding across rivers where the water was above the bottom brackets. But these were only short crossings.

    The worst was a 2-3 km stretch somewhere between Batticaloa & Muttur where a river had broken through a forest next to a lake. Tuk-tuks & cars had stopped, only army relief-supply trucks were driving through—-very slowly. Unsure if we could go back the way we'd come, we recklessly decided to follow them. We sandwiched ourselves, me leading, between two trucks, trying to stay in the shallower water created by the lead truck ploughing through the water & watching carefully to see if it hit holes or dips. This was sort of okay for about 10 or 15 mins but the road gradually got lower & the water higher until it was around my knees and I was really struggling to keep the bike upright. (I think I could do this cos we only had small front low-rider bags.) I only had time for glimpses to the side to see which tree I'd grab if/when I fell off; I couldn't look behind for my friend. A little later the water was intermittently washing across the top tube. Many times, for brief moments my bike was literally under the water. I swear this is true. It may have been wash from the truck but it definitely happened.

    I was too focused to be terrified; only as the road slowly rose after what felt like ├Žons did I get the horrors. On dry(ish) land we removed the seat posts to drain the bikes. My friend's was aluminium; mine was 30 year old custom built steel. I dried it out, brought it back to Australia, and rode if for another 3-4 years before selling it. It's going yet, and I still have the Ortlieb bags (plug!) I used.

    Occasionally I wake up in the wee hours thinking about all that. I've ridden along the edge of a bush (wild) fire and just after a Level 7.8 earthquake, but that's the most dangerous thing I've done on a bik—-and the highlight of an incredible time in Sri Lanka! Do not try at home.

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  4. I live in hurricane territory. We have taken direct hits by several over the years. Afterwards many roads are closed by fallen trees and washed out crossings. A bicycle or walking are the only forms of transportation that can continue with minimal detours.

    Aaron

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  5. I have bought the same old bike on eBay in an auction. This bike has the fixed gear also made it easier to balance at intersections.

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