Thursday, August 31, 2006

Democracy At Its Finest

With all the attention being given to the US election slated for 2008 (which in and of itself is worse than Christmas decorations showing up in Wal-mart before Halloween…), why would anyone still want to look back at the 2004 election? Well, apparently some folks do, and they’re willing to take legal action to make it happen.

It’s not getting much media attention, but there has been a reoccurring headline (albeit squeezed between the obituaries and the classifieds) in a few newspapers across the nation that reads “Ohio to Delay Destruction of Presidential Ballots”. Essentially, several independent reviews looking at small portions of the 2004 Ohio election ballots have uncovered enough irregularities that a number of groups want all of the ballots preserved until a comprehensive review can be completed.

What sort of irregularities you ask? How about:

  • ballot tampering (applies to electronic, hand written and punch ballots)?

  • counties where significantly more votes were tabulated than the number of people who actually voted?

  • discrepancies of 5% or more between the people in the signature books and the “certified” results?
The majority of the abnormalities were seen in rural areas.

The groups spearheading the movement represent a surprisingly wide portion of the political spectrum, including a republican who is running for governor, the League of Women Voters, and the Center for Constitutional Rights.

This strikes me as rather puzzling. I can certainly understand the motivation behind certain “liberal” organizations, as they are convinced of an election conspiracy. After all, Ohio was one of the swing states that solidified the Bush campaign’s narrow victory, and with the process of Electoral College the rural areas carry a lot more political weight than their population justifies. It doesn’t necessarily take a lot of ballot stuffing in some small counties to turn the tide in an election that is neck-and-neck.

So, why would “conservative” groups be interested in preserving the ballots? The company line appears to be that they are either interested in “learning from the past to improve the future”, or in some backhanded way they want to prove that the election was legitimate. All I can say to that is "Be careful what you wish for, gentlemen..."

Regardless of the outcome, the underlying message is clear: in the most advanced democracy in the world, the election process is shabby and suspect. Last I checked, elections are the very foundation on which democracy is built. Need I go on?

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Modern American Politics?

5 AM ramblings...

I'm sitting in an airport in Orlando at this ungodly hour, starting an epic journey back to Vancouver.
Quite surreal, really. A bunch of Americans sitting like zombies in a waiting lounge wearing Mickey Mouse ears.
Oh, and not to be outdone, there's a scout group of about 20 boys and men, all dressed in their little tan uniforms complete with scarves and badges.
There are flat screened TVs everywhere, blaring CNN. Today's biggest headline? Apparently marijuana is being sold in schools disguised as candy. Yep, some bright soul is stuffing little round bubble gum with marijuana extract (I believe we used to call it 'oil'). The candies are marked with a happy face.
Isn't there a military conflict going on somewhere?
Good God people, stop drinking so much soda pop!
Ah, the perky flight attendants have arrived. We may actually be flying this morning. No pilots yet, however.
Ate dinner last night in a "beni hanna" style Japanese restaurant. Our traditional chef was named Pedro.
Hey, have you ever checked in online before? Super slick. No line up at the airport when you arrive, and if you're not checking baggage, you just head through security straight to the gate. Already assigned a seat, it's nothing but Starbucks and the waiting lounge. Brilliant, huh? Well, not if they happen to change aircraft on you. I'm now sitting in a middle seat from here to Houston.
Already been up for two hours. One more hour til take-off. Feel my pain...

Friday, August 25, 2006

Head Over Heels: How Not to Ride A Mountain Bike on the San Juan Trail

There’s nothing quite like the feeling of utter helplessness that overcomes you when you’re pitched head first over your handlebars and down a steep, rocky slope. Now, any experienced mountain bike rider will tell you that there are three simple rules you need to follow to avoid just such a situation. They are:

  1. keep your weight to the rear of the bike by getting your ass way out behind the seat,
  2. don’t use your brakes (especially the front ones) when working over the tricky bits, and
  3. be sure to maintain enough momentum so that you don’t unexpectedly stop and fall over.
These rules seem simple enough; yet, at the most inopportune times I inevitably forget at least one of them, resulting in the aforementioned cranium led launch into the abyss.

My latest encounter with some challenging downhill single track mountain biking occurred in the mountains just outside of San Juan Capistrano near the coast of southern California. My good buddy Mike has been attacking trails on a mountain bike throughout the west for a good ten years, and currently makes his home in Orange County. During a recent business trip to the area, he assured me that a ride on the famous San Juan Trail is a “must do”. He also insisted that anyone in possession of some basic riding skills (like those I mentioned above) should be able to do it “no problem”.

Now, far be it from me to doubt my buddy’s claims, but I know Mike to be one of those slightly crazed thrill seekers who fearlessly throws himself out of airplanes and thinks it’s cool to push the depth limits of his SCUBA gear. He’s a semi-pro skateboarder that likes to go surfing to “relax”. I figured I’d better get a second opinion.

According to an article in Singletrack Mind (, the San Juan Trail is “virtually 19 miles of exquisite single track through delightfully scenic and rugged wilderness with not a shred of intervening fire road or pavement.” So far so good. Unfortunately, it goes on to say that the trail is located in “California's most appealing yet unforgiving terrain”, and that “regardless of the distances traveled on the San Juan Trail, one's body and mind are completely drained by trails' end.” If that wasn’t enough to put the fear of God in me, the following description had me convinced my time would be better spent sipping beers in the stands at a baseball game. “The panoramic views are staggering. However, for those who take their eyes off the immediate trail ahead the penalty can be life-threatening, as much of the trail clings to steep hillsides and ravines.”

Still, far be it from me to show any sign of weakness (or sense), and by mid-afternoon this past Wednesday I found myself perched atop an unfamiliar, undersized mountain bike at the top of the San Juan Trail. The trail boasts some pretty large elevation changes, and can be done one of two ways:

  1. Really insane riders can start at the bottom and push like hell up 10 miles of steep switchbacks to get to the top, and then turn around and ride back down. This is how Mike usually does it.
  2. Slightly less cerebrally challenged riders can use the shuttle technique, where a vehicle is left at the bottom, and a second is used to ferry the bikes via back roads to the summit.

Since my conditioning is suspect, Mike opted to swallow his pride and we used option 2. All I can say about that is THANK GOD!! Using the shuttle option, it becomes an eleven-mile ride, with a total elevation drop of around 2,500 ft. Even so, there are numerous uphill grinds, including one climb that goes on for the better part of a mile. Oh yeah, and did I forget to mention the part about it being August in Southern California? We Canadians aren’t used to doing anything in that heat, let alone attempt to ride a bike up the side of a steep, sun-drenched slope.

Mike and I posed for photos at the top of the climb. He’s looking fit and happy. I look like I’m about to collapse.

Which brings me back to the subject of rather unceremoniously ejecting oneself from one’s bike. I was amazed at how skillfully Mike was able to guide his bike over, around, under and through some of the gnarliest mountain biking terrain I have seen. At the same time, I wasn’t at all surprised at how these same challenges regularly resulted in separating me from my bike – sometimes on purpose, other times… And sure enough, at one point fairly early on, bursting with confidence, I hit a rocky stretch at speed, completely oblivious of my neglect for at least two of the three simple rules. Leaning forward to get a better view of the trail I hit the brakes to avoid a big rock and there I went, over the handlebars and into the boulders. Needless to say, I dedicated some skin to the San Juan Trail.

Without a doubt, the San Juan Trail provides some spectacular views of the Santa Ana Mountains and the Cleveland National Forest in Southern California. At the same time, it presents riders with some ridiculously advanced mountain biking challenges. If you get a chance to ride it with someone like me, keep one thing in mind: make sure the dinner reservations are for really late, because it’s gonna take me a long time to get to the bottom!

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Warner Lake to Tyax Lodge: Alpine Mountain Biking Mayhem

Imagine taking a floatplane up into a remote alpine wilderness area, then cruising back down on your mountain bike along miles of single-track alpine trails. Just picture the stunning vistas and flower covered meadows that abound as you gently glide by.

That’s basically what was going through my mind when I signed up for the Warner Lake flyout from Tyax Lodge. Three friends were planning to make the trip this past week and invited me along as the fourth. “How hard can it be?” I asked myself. “After all, I commute to work on my bike most days.” Little did I know what I was getting myself into. Words like “cruising”, “glide” and “gentle” most certainly did not apply.

Our group consisted of three old guys and one young one. My buddy Dave, his friend Daniel and I are all 40-ish. Dave’s son Ewan is closer to 15. Regardless of age, we were confident that we could handle whatever challenges the trip had in store for us.

Tyax Lodge is located on Tyaughton Lake in the Southern Chilcotin Mountains of British Columbia. My friends and I loaded down my Explorer with four mountain bikes and mountains of gear and set off on the five hour drive from Vancouver to the lake. During the summer, the best route is to head north to Pemberton, then over the Hurley River Forestry road to Gold Bridge. The forestry road climbs high into the Coast Mountains, providing some spectacular views. It’s a pretty rough trek, though, with enough washboard to test even the hardiest of vehicle shocks. Still, we were encouraged by the blue skies on our journey, as they seemed to contradict the weatherman’s prediction of rain showers.

A wide range of accommodation is available at the lake, from five star chalets at the Tyax Lodge, to a free provincial campground (carefully located out of sight from the lodge). We chose not to break the bank, and pitched our tents lakeside. The guys were wondering whether or not to bother using tent flies. The increasing intensity of rainfall as night progressed made me glad I did.

6:30 AM came early, and the low cloud cover and steady drizzle had us worried whether the plane would actually fly. Warner Lake is located at an elevation where hazardous weather conditions can occur any time of year. Our pilot said he’d fly up to the general area, but wouldn’t decide until we got there if wind and cloud would prevent us from landing. He also mentioned that he was quite surprised that we had managed to get permission to do this ride without having either a guide or previous experience in the area. None of us said anything. My confidence began to wane a tad.

The floatplane trip to Warner Lake is quite spectacular, and often one of the highlights of the day. We were treated to a somewhat dampened version, although it was beautiful nonetheless. Once above the lake, our pilot announced that we were lucky and he touched down through the rain.

Mind you, disembarking from a plane during a downpour in a remote wilderness area while looking up through your breath at fresh snow may not be what some people consider as being lucky.

There was no time for dilly-dallying. The plane departed, we were cold, wet and had a very long day ahead of us.

Our route would take us more than 40 km, from an elevation of 6100 ft at Warner Lake to 3300 ft back at Tyaughton Lake. And, if our initial several hundred yards were any indication, we were in for one tough slog. The literature describes the first 5 km as “technical”. We quickly learned that the definition of technical is “hike and bike”, which meant that we were carrying our bikes up and down over goat trails as much as we were riding them.

After skirting its way along the edge of Warner Lake, across scree slopes and through sparse forest, the trail begins to provide somewhat better opportunities for actually riding a bike. Our group fell into a pretty consistent pattern. Ewan, the fearless teenager, was our “litmus rider”. We’d send him down the sketchy bits, and if he crashed, the three of us would walk our bikes. If Ewan struggled, but still managed to make it without ending up head first in the rocks, then Dave and Dan were about 50-50 as to whether they’d have a go. If Ewan appeared to have any difficulty at all, my bike was on my shoulder until the next flat stretch.

The trail follows Gun Creek past a number of other lakes and through countless mountain meadows. There were several places where it was tough to follow, but Dave was well prepared and had some topo-maps that came in very handy. The views and vistas were indeed spectacular, even with cloud cover. Of course, one must never take their eyes off the track while actually riding. Any time I tried to glance up at a mountain peak or glacier while pedaling, I inevitably found myself tumbling down a rock face or up close and personal with a mud puddle.

At the end of this 40 km toil through the alpine wilderness, the track gives way to a dirt rode that leads back to Tyaughton Lake. If you were on a guided tour, this is the point where your day would end. You’d be met by a van and be cracking your first beer. Otherwise, you will need to pedal your way back to the lake.

The road provides a welcome change from the unpredictable surface of the dirt track. However, it also adds an extra 6 or 7 kilometers to an already grueling day. In addition, there is a three kilometer uphill section right in the middle that proved to be the end of me. Fortunately, Dave is in much better shape than me, and had plenty of time to get back to camp, down a beer, and bring the truck back as I reached the crest of the hill. If he hadn’t brought me a cold one, I’d have almost resented the fact that it took him so long.

Our bikes were muddy and our bodies were sweaty, scraped and bruised. We each took a turn at wading out into the lake for a little hose down and clean up before dinner. Each of us except me, that is. I chose to sit myself down in the lake and stare dumbfounded at the far shore, rain drizzling all around. I drank a beer in silence, and assessed the rather extensive personal damage.

It was too late in the day to head back to Vancouver, and we were all probably too tired for the drive. Instead, we had a wonderful meal at the Tyax lodge, complete with well deserved gin martinis. I slept soundly that night, completely unaware of the cacophony of snoring coming from our little group of tents.

Warner Lake trail is a challenge for both bike and rider. I was over the handlebars several times, and got close up and comfortable with a number of trees, shrubs and boulders. My bike is a Brodie hybrid bike, designed for light trail riding and street use. It was marginally up to the task. The pads of my rim brakes, which were relatively new, had been worn down to the metal.

Meanwhile, all six foot seven inches of Dan’s frame were on a full suspension bike with disk breaks. It seemed much more appropriate for the terrain, and while my brakes had all but quit half way through the day, he could stop on a dime (or before riding into a fresh pile of horse manure – another trail hazard that I found it hard to avoid) all day long. My advice to those without a good back country bike would be to shell out the few extra bucks and rent one in Whistler or Squamish. Either that or be prepared to have to wash off more than mud when your day is done.

The most common question that people ask after hearing that we did the Warner Lake trail is “Was it fun?”
My answer has become pretty standard.
“Challenging and rewarding? Absolutely. Fun? Well, not exactly…”

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