This endeavor can only have one of two possible outcomes. Either it will be an amazing adventure, or I will find myself along the side of the road wondering “just what was I thinking”?
So much of life is simply about finding inspiration. As motorcyclists it seems like an easy enough proposition. Yet no matter what your passion, as some point the lust for it wanes. For many years motorcycle racing was all I lived for. It represented life for me. The same goes for Baja. But with both I have reached a position where there is little new to see and accomplish.
As time passes the natural desire to slow it down grows. There becomes a desire to enjoy more of the scenery rather than pass through it as quickly as possible. Old motorcycle magazines have become a recent passion of mine also. In one of those I stumbled across my latest inspiration.
The story was titled “Two Yankees in Alaska”. It chronicled a trip north of the border on Yankee motorcycles some 45 years ago. Reading the story I was fascinated by the idea of heading off to the bush on what we would consider such archaic motorcycles. But in 1973 the bikes were brand new and clearly the editors had the requisite sense of adventure.
Or perhaps they just didn’t know any better. Regardless, I couldn’t help but marvel at the daring. No sat phones, trackers or GPS. Heck it was probably weeks between phone calls back home. I couldn’t help but wonder if I would have been up for such a challenge.
In my search for new places to see and travel by motorcycle, the Idaho Backcountry Discovery Route (IBDR) had recently come onto my radar. This tarmac avoiding route covers much of Idaho that I have never seen. It promises 1,200 miles of beautify scenery, nearly all of it on dirt. It is a route perfectly suited for adventure bikes.
Almost too perfect it seems. Most dual sport and adventure bikes could cruise right along the route in comfort and ease. Nice, but not particularly adventurous. While contemplating this, the Alaska story came back to mind. It contained the key ingredient – old motorcycles! That is what I would do, ride vintage bikes on the IBDR.
Of course my dad, Gordon White, would want to come along. At 82 he still rides and races regularly. A couple of years ago he decided to take up rally racing. I am the 3rd generation of our motorcyclist family. My grandfather got his first bike in 1921 and went on to become a Harley-Davidson dealer in the Pacific Northwest.
Gordon has a very nicely restored 1975 Bultaco Frontera. I figured it wouldn’t take him very much preparation to be ready to go. When I pitched the idea to him he was ecstatic about the concept. The logical thing for me to do was to find a similar Bultaco for myself. As a teenager I had ridden Bultaco’s quite a bit, so it wouldn’t be completely new to me.
It only took a couple of calls before I was the proud owner of my own 360 Bultaco Frontera. It was cosmetically very beautiful. First impressions turned out to be deceiving as the bike needed a complete overhaul to make it road worthy. But this wasn’t my first rodeo, such was to be expected. The final result was a rather expensive, but great riding Bultaco. Bruce Reynolds of BR Bultaco built me a fine motor and helped me through the build process with parts and his vast knowledge. It is wonderful how simple working on old bikes is. But don’t expect it to be inexpensive.
After a few months of preparation, I was ready to go. When I packed for the trip north to Sandpoint, I only had an hour or so of ride time on the Bultaco. It still wasn’t licensed so I was limited where I could take it. If there was ever an original title, it has long since been lost to time. The process of licensing it in Idaho was another hurdle that took a couple of DMW trips, but fortunately it all worked out fine.
Gordon and I made a test run around the roads of Bonner County on our matching Bultacos. Even with the highest possible gearing, the Frontera cruise speed is only about 47 miles per hour. But other than that, all seemed pretty good. On some short sections of fire roads and single track, the 360 proved to be a torque monster and very fun to ride.
Considering that we have identical bikes, it is striking how different the two Bultaco’s run. Both motors were built by Bruce, but Gordon runs a smaller carb and slightly different exhaust. My bike has better traction and bottom end, but Gordon’s has far more overall power. It feels almost pipey. I attribute most of it to the modified exhaust. Mine is whisper quiet while his has a pronounced bark. Quiet is good, but the restrictive exhaust builds heat in the motor too.
These bikes like quality fuel to run well. Fortunately non-ethanol premium is widely available in Idaho. Even so, my bike was happier when running an octane additive, Chevron Techtron at 1oz per gallon. This was mixed with Maxima Super M at 50:1.
I spent quite a bit of time debating how we would carry enough fuel. For the IBDR 120 mile range is the very minimum required. It seems easy enough when looking at distances on the map. But when you realize you have gone 10 miles down the wrong road and will now need 140 miles of range to make it to the pump it is a different thing. Ultimately we decided to run the Acerbis 5 litre fork mount auxiliary tanks. They were simple to mount and worked brilliantly. We averaged about 36mpg on both bikes which was better than expected.
The tanks required us to find a new location to mount lights. We also wanted good quality lighting for both day time running light and should we get caught out in the dark. The solution was simple enough, we were able to mount LED lights we had on the handlebar with a bracket purchased online. For power we used a Cyclops DC rectifier wired directly into the stock AC charging system, no battery. We carried helmet lights but they never saw use.
Getting On The Road
It doesn’t take much for a simple plan to become a complex one. Once we got it all together our cavalcade consisted of 5 people, 4 motorcycles and one chase truck. Earl Norman joined us riding a 525 KTM. Neena and Carlene White piloted the chase truck with gear and spare bike. They would meet us each evening. Arriving early to each overnight stop, they could figure out lodging and meals for the night. In some of the smaller overnight stops the options were pretty limited.
We left Sandpoint the first morning to drive up to Porthill, Idaho on the Canadian line to start our ride south. In proper vintage bike fashion, Gordon’s bike was reluctant to start without the help of a tow rope. But once going it ran great. My bike was still somewhat new to me and I wasn’t quite sure which sounds were good ones and which were bad. Old air cooled open class bikes make lots of odd sounds. So I was somewhat tense the first day getting used to everything.
The North Idaho section is easy riding. We had to skip one section due to forest fires. Our destination for the night was the historic mining town of Wallace. After lunch in Clark Fork we started on the 100 mile section south.
It was well into the afternoon now and we were starting to get into the rhythm of things. It was a relief to finally be riding and having everything cruising along well. There were months of preparation on everyone’s part to get to this point and now it was all happening. We were 50 miles into the section and making good time. We would be into Wallace well before dark to finish up our first ride day.
We stopped to take a few photos along Tepee Creek and the historic Magee Ranger Station. My bike was running fine…. then it wasn’t. It just died. No hesitation, no warning, just died. It kicked back to life briefly and then nothing. We tried towing it, nothing, just dead. We wrenched on everything we could. Finally we decided that there was no spark and the points looked bad. But there was nothing we could do to help the situation on the trail.
Being 50 miles from town, I opted to not try towing the Bultaco. That left us with nothing but to ride out and try to drive back to retrieve the bike. Gordon volunteered to stay behind while Earl and I started out. It was early in the afternoon; the weather was fine so it should all work out okay.
As we started for Wallace it became apparent that the route we were riding was aimed at being entertaining for a motorcycle, but wouldn’t be very suitable for driving in the pickup. There were lots of roads in the area, so there was certainly a better choice.
Arriving in Wallace, we met up with the chase truck and got the hotel arranged. We had to unload everything from the truck before heading back out. Neena and I started back about 5pm. With any luck we should be able to get to Gordon before dark.
I chose a route on the map that got us much closer by pavement before starting into the dirt. But it was really nothing more than a best guess decision. The dirt road had a good gravel base and we could travel at a good pace. We were about 4 miles into the dirt when I noticed something wasn’t quite right on the pickup. I got out and what I suspected was true, we had a flat tire. I had been traveling too fast on a sharp gravel road with too much air in the tires.
Okay, no big deal, I can change the flat easy enough. Walking back around I was stunned to see that we had not one but two flat tires! A moment of panic crept on me, time to take inventory of equipment and situation.
Searching through the pickup, I realize I left Wallace without my backpack. My backpack is my life line and goes everywhere with me. It has both my sat phone and spot tracker. It dawns on me that not only can we not reach Gordon, but no one actually knows where we are and we have no way to make contact.
It is getting dark. I feel the sense of panic creeping back, not so much for our immediate situation, but for the situation in general. While I contemplate, Neena digs in the back seat and comes up with a can of Fix-it-flat. I pray that is still has some pressure inside, who knows how long it has been there. Fortunately it does and I spray it into the other tire. The can itself won’t accomplish much, but I have a small 12v compressor under the seat too.
With some work we have one tire changed and few pounds of air in the other. We limp back out to the pavement. I have to stop a couple of times to add air to the tire. By the time we get back to Wallace it is nearly 10pm. We are back safely, but have no way to get to Gordon. He will have to spend the night in the mountains. You can imagine what is going to through my mind when I think about having left my 82 year old dad in the woods for the night. But if you have met Gordon you know this would not really faze him much.
It turns out he had a tiny bit of cell service and had called in and spoke with Carlene. At least I can call him to explain the situation. It takes me a couple of tries to get through to him, but once he answers, I realize he is talking to someone else. My relief is huge knowing someone is there with him. Turns out that someone had come along and stopped with him. Gordon couldn’t leave his spot as he expected we would return for him. But now he could ride back into town with his new friend. It has been an exhausting day for me and I am happy to get bed. The rest of the worries can wait for tomorrow. We are not off to a very auspicious start, but at least we all have a bed for the night.
The next morning we hit it early. We have had the dreaded break down and in a way it relieves some of my tension. Let’s see what we can do to make the best of it. I always figure things happen for a reason, so let’s see where this leads us.
First stop is Les Schwab for tires for the pickup. The OEM tires on the Titan really are not suitable for having to do much offroading. $1,200 later we roll out with new treads and some local knowledge of the roads. Turns out the mechanic hunts in the area of our break down regularly and there is a much easier way to get there. In an hour and a half we are back up on Grassy Mountain loading up the Bultaco. As it turned out, this road was so good we could have easily towed the bike out to the pavement. The elevation change would have let us coast nearly half the distance.
In the meanwhile Gordon has called back to Sandpoint to make us an appointment with Frank at Cycle Haus. Frank is an old Bultaco dealer and possesses a wealth of the kind of mechanical knowledge that will soon fade from existence. It is a couple of hours to drive back, but Frank has all the tools and parts that we may need.
The problem was easy to diagnose – burned up points. This was probably due to a bad condenser, a common problem on these bikes. The fix is to move the condenser from the motor to the frame where is away from the heat. In a short while we have the Frontera back together with the relocated new condenser and I get a tutorial in points, condensers, static timing and a few other bits of interesting tech info.
Any visit with Frank requires a bit of benchracing. He pulls out the scrap book to show us some of the racing and bike building he was doing back in the late 50’s and early 60’s. By dark we are back to Wallace, another long day, but a productive one too.
The next morning we hit it in earnest once more. My bike is running great. It only takes half a kick to start it. Our route takes us along the North Fork of the St Joe River to Avery. The day is beautiful and the scenery is spectacular, everything you could dream of. In the afternoon I get so caught up in the riding that I miss a turn and we end up taking a long route towards Clarkia before getting pointed back the correct direction. But it was just more great roads to follow, with even more that we didn’t get to explore. We encounter a few bikes and cars, but for the most part have the mountains to ourselves.
Late in the day it is clear that we are not making very fast pace. Even riding solid, we could make more than about 20mph speed average for the trip. Few of the roads were open enough to go much faster, regardless of the bike. Even at that we had a few close calls with traffic. Moderation was in order.
That evening we rolled in to Pierce. We found food and lodging without issue and it was a very pleasant overnight stop. Like much of Idaho it was once a mining boom town and later the center of logging. These days those occupations are long since gone and towns like this survive on hunters, tourists and retirees.
Riding day 3 was along the Lolo Motorway. This follows the traditional Nez Perce route east toward the hunting grounds of the Great Plains. This was certainly one of the highlights of the trip, another great day of riding.
Late in the day Gordon’s Bultaco rolled to a halt. We performed all the voodoo rituals we could, but found nothing wrong. With new plug it fired up and we headed off again. But the fix only lasted a short time. Seems the bike would run when cool and die once warm. We suspected a bad coil. We were still a considerable distance from the pavement. Consulting the map I could see we were right at a junction that shortened the distance to the highway. Again with the altitude, Gordon was able to coast miles down to the pavement and then the bike ran fine the 10 miles up to Lochsa Lodge. We met up with the ladies and had a fine lunch at the beautiful spot.
We had a long pavement liason to get over Lolo pass and into Montana. We loaded up the Bultacos while Earl had to ride the KTM. Traveling as we were without reservations, we had to find rooms each night. Turns out Hamilton MT isn’t overflowing with rooms during the summer. But as luck would have it we ended up at an out of the way place called Trapper Creek Lodge. This guest ranch is owned by TV personality Laramy Miller of “Last of a Breed”. He wasn’t there, but his manager gave us the background and we had a pleasant place to stay for the night.
The next day was to be one of the highlights of the trip, the Magruder Corridor. It was a cool morning when we unloaded. This would be the longest mileage day of the trip and the most remote. This route winds from Montana west to Elk City, Idaho snaking between the Frank Church and River of No Return Wilderness areas. The historic Magruder Ranger Station was the first photo opportunity for the day. Marguder was a packer who was murdered by his crew while returning to Lewiston from selling goods in the Montana mining camps.
It is a beautiful area and the road was in very good condition, almost too good. As the only access through the wilderness, it is a well-traveled route. We encountered light traffic all day long. It was nice but didn’t have the true feel of wilderness. We also had to keep a close eye for oncoming side by side traffic. The entire route showed the tell-tale two track grooves cut into each corner by them. As we headed toward Elk City the weather became more menacing. We got behind schedule when I took another wrong turn. As we rolled into Elk City the store had just closed its doors to shut down early for Sunday night. Fortunately the lady opened back up to let us pump gas.
We still had 60 miles or so to make it to Grangeville for the night as the rain set in in earnest. The route down the east fork of the Clearwater was pretty, but the rain dampened our spirits somewhat. As we neared town the rain came down even harder. Nevertheless, I guess we were fortunate as the mountains we had just crossed were getting blanketed by an August snow storm.
Our chase crew had the situation well in hand. They already had the motel rooms (last ones in town) and drove out to the edge of town to meet us so we would not have to wander around. Soaked to the bone, I was never so glad to see a cheap hotel room. There was a heater and plenty of hot water. We topped the night off with some comforting Mexican food.
The next morning the rains continued and the forecast looked bad, rain all day. If you recall, Gordon’s bike was acting up two days prior. For the previous day he rode the KTM spare bike we had along. As we were waiting out the rain we decided to see if we could go in search of a Bultaco coil in Grangeville, Idaho. In theory, just about any coil from a points bike could work. The only likely place we saw to start was the local saw shop. Turned out the place was formerly a Honda motorcycle dealer and had a generous scrap area out back. In short order we scavenged parts from a 1980 Honda XR100, coil and condenser in one unit.
It was decided that we would scrap the day’s riding and drive south to Riggins to spend the night. Earl had suffered the day before for lack of rain gear. So he set of in search of some, returning with something that would be suitable for an Alaskan fishing boat. Good thing because once again he had to ride while the rest of us rode in the chase truck.
The next morning was clear and cool in Riggins. The distinct feel of fall was in the air. We followed the Salmon River east for a few miles before leaving it to climb toward Burgdorf Hot Springs. Like much of the route, the climb in elevation took us up over 6,000 feet for much of the day. It was strikingly cold up high too. We passed both Burgdorf and Warren, each picturesque and neither with any sign of available fuel.
As much of the route was new for me, there were always a few surprises in store. Todays would be the big drop down to the South Fork of the Salmon River into the remote community of the same name. The weather warmed nicely and we found ourselves once again in a wonderfully scenic canyon. We had to stretch our fuel range clear to Yellow Pine, about 120 miles. Yellow Pine is another slightly less remote mountain community that was bustling with travelers when we arrived. Lunch and fuel were to be found at the Tavern. The rest of the day was a fast cruise to Warm Lake where we secured lakeside cabins for the night. This was perhaps the most scenic stay of the trip.
Riding day 7 found us on a fast run taking us due south once again toward Lowman. There was very little traffic, for the most part we had the mountains all to ourselves. After fueling near Lowman we crossed another of the many mountain passes that took us to the Middle Fork of the Boise River and the area around Idaho City. Having spent more than a decade racing near here, this was one of the only areas of the trip I was already familiar with. We crossed to the South Fork of the Boise. Climbing once more we headed for the highest point of the trip, Trinity Mountain Lookout at 9400 feet. The last section of the road is gated, but closer inspection revealed that road remained open for motorcycles. The view of the surrounding mountains and lakes was breathtaking. After a pleasant visit we backtracked to catch the road to Featherville, our stop for the night.
The final day found the terrain changing from mountains to desert. Graded county roads took us into Glenn’s Ferry where we met up again with the chase crew then started our final stage to the finish line in Jarbidge, Nevada. It was fast going and we covered the barren Idaho desert in short order. Jarbidge is a small remote community situated in a large canyon cut from the desert plain above.
For the final day I was keen to make it to the finish. We had given ourselves a big challenge. Riding 45 year old motorcycles from Canada to Nevada is not the kind of adventure you do every day and I wanted to make sure we reached that imaginary finish line. Getting a photo with us posed in front of the town sign was the confirmation of that goal accomplished.
But it was also very short lived. Arriving in Jarbidge it was quickly apparent that we had beaten the chase truck there. None of the roads were marked and navigation without a GPS track might be difficult for the crew. We decided the best course was to immediately start out on the bikes and intercept the truck. And it was a good thing, the driving route was challenging both for navigation and road condition. Even once we got to the truck, we were faced with having to back track nearly 100 miles to Mountain Home to spend the night. Once again Earl drew the short straw and had to ride his bike while we loaded up the Bultacos.
It just wasn’t Earl’s day. Not only did he have to ride nearly 260 miles for the day. He managed to attract the attention of the local constable on his barely legal bike going down the highway. But he concocted some scenario that seemed to satisfy the Sheriff deputy and we cruised into Mountain Home right near dark. Another cheap motel and Mexican food for us and we were glad to have it. We all slept well that night, tired and contented with our accomplishments. It all felt very similar to having finished a challenging race.
The Idaho Backcountry Discovery Route was a trip well worth taking. For the most part the roads and scenery left everyone wanting more. For each road we took, there were many more that we did not get to see. I am glad to have done the entire route. Should I go back I would skip the first and last day routes, this would allow more time to explore everything else in between. Riding it on Bultacos may not be for everyone. For us it was a great adventure and wouldn’t change any part of it. The only question now is what will be the next adventure for the vintage motorcycles.