Forest Hill Backcountry Death March

by Mark Weaver

I like to ride in the backcountry. I like to explore new trails. I also like to share my passion with others, like my lovely wife, Stacia, and my good buddy Mike. That was big mistake number 1.

In the sierra foothills between Sacramento and Lake Tahoe, there are practically an infinite number of trails. Footpaths, cart-tracks and fire roads, leftovers from the gold rush and logging, criss-cross the area. I got some maps and handouts from the local forest service ranger station and found what looked like a pretty fun ride. If you know the central sierra well, you can find the general area of our ride approximately south across the north fork canyon from Yuba Gap and Eagle Mountain. The idea was to start at the Mumford Bar trailhead, 15 miles or so east of the town of Foresthill, then ride up Foresthill road for 9 miles, to the Sailor Bar trailhead. The Sailor bar trail descends 3000′ to the north fork of the American River, where it meets the American River trail. This trail (like the name implies) follows the north fork of the American about 11 miles downstream where it meets the Mumford Bar trail, which climbs 3000′ back to the car.

The downhill and the uphill looked pretty serious, but the trail along the river appeared on my elevation profile as a gently sloping line, gradually and smoothly losing elevation the whole way. With this in mind I estimated that Mike and Stacia and I would need 4-5 hrs to complete the ride at a leisurely pace. Neither of them is a fully psycho backcountry rider, but both are fit hikers and xc skiers and have pretty good off-road experience.

The ride began normally enough. We worked our way up the road, climbing the whole time, occasionally looking back to check out the nice views. After about 5 miles we passed some other trail whose name I forget, which also drops down to the north fork. My handouts suggested this trail was extremely rugged, and also closed to bikes. We happily continued along until we saw the sign for Sailor bar.

Real Riding Begins
We turned off the pavement onto a fire road. Pretty quickly we were going straight, freaking down, over huge water bars. About halfway down, we passed a VW bus parked on the side. It didn’t look abandoned, but I can’t even imagine how it got there. I would’ve expected to have seen it high-centered about 23 waterbars back up the hill. Shortly after that the road dwindled into a singletrack and began to get shaly and loose. This was in the time before V-brakes, and we had been going down for quite some time, clamped pretty hard on the brakes too. I stopped from time to time to wait for Stacia, who was having no real problems with the terrain. We were starting to think about how long the climb back out was going to be, since we had spent close to an hour descending.

Towards the bottom, the trail turned exceedingly technical, at least by the standards of 5 years ago. I was riding most of it, but partly due to the steep cliff to one side, Stacia and Mike were reduced to walking many portions. On one rocky dropoff i got my weight wrong, flailed a bit, and went sailing off the trail. I blindly reached out and grabbed a small tree with one hand, then swung around it, over the abyss and back to the trail, holding on to the tree and my bridgestone mb1 with equal tenacity. I got a little more cautious after that.

A few minutes later, we were at the bottom, ready for a nice relaxing singletrack mosey before the big climb. Before we got started though, Stacia found a cute little pet snake on the ground. “Eek” she said. “Don’t worry” said mike, “It’s not a rattlesnake, just walk right by.” I went back to look, and it was, in fact, a rattlesnake, about 3 feet worth. I very calmly said to my lovely wife “No problem dear, it’s perfectly safe. just stroll along over there about as far as you can possibly get from this cute little snake, and never listen to Mike again.” Stacia, who is petrified of rattlers, figured out that I wasn’t telling her the whole story, but she gamely complied.

How Not To Draw A Map
Unfortunately, what I had envisioned as a relaxing level mosey along the river was really a rugged, rocky semi-trials course, with steep ups and down the whole way. “hmm” I said, “it doesn’t look like this on the elevation profile.” Looking more closely at my chart, I noticed that some mischief-maker used a vertical scale of nine-freaking-thousand feet per inch (!!), rendering the chart completely worthless, since the width of the line was the size of a difficult climb. At this point I was beginning to think it would take longer than we had planned. Fortunately, we had 4 power bars, 3 packets of cytomax and a water filter. Unfortunately, we had sweated away all our mosquito repellant, so the little insects were starting to munch on Stacia.

The day wore on as we dragged ourselves over the rocks. Some of it I could ride, but I kept going back to help carry Stacia’s bike over the rough sections. I figured I had gotten her into this, I at least had some responsibility to get her out. After several hours of this, we were all starting to get very discouraged, as well as tremendously tired, and we had seen no sign of any other trails or mileage signs or anything. Stacia asked “Are we actually going to get out of this?” The worst part of it was, we had no idea where we actually were. We didn’t know if the Mumford bar trail was coming up soon, or was still miles away, or if we had accidentally passed it, or if the map was just plain wrong and we were doomed to die there. We knew daylight would run out eventually, and we were starting to worry about having to spend the night in the woods, with only our sweaty shorts and jerseys to keep out the mountain chill.

We stopped at a stream to filter a couple bottles of water. Stacia rinsed the dust off her bottle cap in the stream. A few days later she started showing symptoms of giardia. wheee, what fun. As twilight approached Stacia and I decided to leave her bike and come back for it another time, since she wasn’t really able to ride any of the trail, and carrying it was a great burden. Fortunately, Mike vetoed our decision and hiked back to get it. This proved to be a wise choice, as right after that the trail started to smooth out and we finally saw the sign for Mumford Bar. We had spent over 5 hrs on what looked like it would take 1 hr at the most. Now all we had to worry about was a 3000′ climb, with the sun going down, using bodies that had already been pushed to the limit and not fed, with clouds of mosquitoes swarming around us and biting right through our bike clothes, sucking our vital fluids dry. At least we were certain we were going to live.

The trail up was in decent shape, though steep, so I would ride my bike several hundred yards ahead, park it, run back down, get stacia’s bike and ride it up. She walked wearily, too exhausted to even complain about the miserable situation I had dragged her into. It took us around 2 hrs to drag ourselves and our bikes up to the top. I had my trusty altimeter watch, so I knew about how far we had to go. This was a huge psychological boost. Just as the sun went well and truly down, and the darkness began to surround us, we finally crested the top and saw our car. Stacia and I both burst into tears. We felt like we had truly been delivered from the jaws of disaster.

The Aftermath
All in all, we had taken over 9 hrs, with almost no breaks, to cover the whole loop. I was too sick to even finish my hamburger when we got into town. Stacia got giardia, as mentioned, and that evening she counted 180 mosquito bites on her body. Mike was pretty quiet about the whole thing, but pretty much refuses to ride with me now. He’s into swimming and running and other things that take place nearer to 7-11. Someday soon I plan to go back and try that loop again, with modern equipment and skills, adequate food, and no novice riders, and see if it really was that horrible, or if we were just horribly unprepared.

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