A Markus Day

I, Markus Wandel, can be a blundering klutz at the best of times, but I think yesterday, May 11 2002, may be some kind of record. So I'm preserving it in this writeup.

6:30 AM

The sun is shining, the birds are singing, and it is a Saturday morning in May. This means garage sales! I've got my small change ready, a map of Kanata and the garage sale page from the Kourier-Standard all in my knapsack, and I'm heading out. I'm not too early. Even at this time I find some garage sales already being set up.

9:30 AM

Amidst the traffic of a community garage sale in the "Pine Hills Estates" old-folks area of Bridlewood (primo garage sale territory!) I dither a while over a nice Philips microcassette recorder being offered for $15. This is the sort of tape recorder that executives used to carry to dictate memos for their secretaries to type up. As such, these things are as extinct as the dodo bird. I get it for $10. For some time I've been thinking about making a special kind of geocache where people don't just trade goodies and write things in a log book, but leave audio clips on a tape recorder as well. At the end of the season, I could go and collect the tape recorder, and perhaps make an MP3 and post it for all. Of course this needs a small, reliable tape recorder that I can risk on such a venture, and a cache so far off the beaten path that no non-geocacher will find it (non-geocachers might not have the geocacher's ethics, and just steal the tape recorder).

11:30 AM

I'm back home, after bicycling 41km all over Kanata and buying, among other things, a red rotary dial telephone for a dollar, a perfectly good 900MHz cordless phone for $8, and some goodies to use in geocaches. I look on the web at the weather forecast for Sunday. Uh oh. A high of 8 degrees Celsius, and a threat of rain! This means if a cache is going to get made, it will have to be today. This means I'd better get a move on.

I test the tape recorder with the battery from the smoke detector. It works fine. I choose a cache container and contents, write up instructions for recording sound clips in the logbook, print off the standard geocache info sheet, make something to drink, check over the mountain bike, load it into the car, make sure I have batteries for the GPS and finally get rolling at 1:30. I still have to stop by the grocery store for granola bars - I also get a yummy Ritter Sport marzipan chocolate bar to reward myself on completion of the mission. No sooner on the road than I have to stop at another grocery store because I forgot to buy batteries for the tape recorder at the first one (blunder #1).

2:15 PM

Note: My adventures from this point on are graphically shown on an annotated topo map and elevation plot.

I arrive at the parking area at the bottom of the Eardley Escarpment, where the hang glider types park. There is a trail going from here to the Champlain Lookout, a thousand vertical feet away. I've always wondered about this trail. It's not on any map, and I've never found the trailhead at the top. My wonderful plan is to mountain bike from here to the Luskville Fire Tower and back, and somewhere on the way, preferably in an out-of-the-way and scenic spot, plant my cache.

I've carefully mounted the handlebar bracket for the GPS on the mountain bike, and now I want to snap the GPS on and - whoops, blunder #2 - I forgot the part that goes on the GPS that mates with the bracket. Now I won't be able to see the GPS at all while moving! My nice 17-point route from Champlain Lookout to the fire tower (which would give me a running update of the exact distance left to go) will be useless. I stick the GPS into the top of the knapsack and hit the trail.

Blunder #3: This trail cannot be mountain-biked, by someone of my fitness. It has only two kinds of terrain: 30% slopes and muddy spots. I'm out of breath after 10 seconds. Resigned, I get off the bike and push.

The trail starts wide and open. The hang glider types, after all, lug their folded-up hang gliders, which are about 5m long, up here all the time. I want to stop by the little cliff where they launch. But the trail gets narrower and narrower with not a launching spot in sight. I must have missed a junction. I blunder on. The trail disappears completely and I'm standing in front of a swamp. Oh man.

By now it's pretty clear that I'm having the sort of day that is most safely spent staying in the house, or preferably in bed because, after all, I could trip on the stairs and fall down and break my neck! But I'm here, so I pick my way across the swamp and end up in trailless bush. Lugging my bike. Why do I spend so much of my mountain bike expeditions either pushing or carrying the bloody bike instead of actually riding it?

I regain the trail eventually. At this point it is continually obstructed by fallen trees, so progress is slow and sweaty. When I finally come out at the lookout, I'm relieved. I've solved the mystery of the missing trailhead: To get on the trail, you scramble down a very steep embankment, right by the "no parking" sign a little below where the guardrail ends. From the road you don't see anything.

3 PM

A little late in the day, but the sun doesn't go down until 8:22PM (the GPS knows such things) so I'm fine. I join the jabbering crowds at the lookout -- now that the road is open, it's not just hardcore cyclists here. An elderly lady starts talking to me in strongly accented English. I guess correctly that she's German, and switch to that language. She doesn't seem to understand me much in either language but happily continues to ask me questions while I unpack my granola bars and drink bottle and - oh my god, where is the GPS? The zipper has opened partly while thrashing around in the bush, and the GPS, which was right at the top for good reception, has fallen out. I'm frantically unpacking everything in the pack, my thirst forgotten. The elderly lady continues to make conversation, oblivious.

Visions of a $386 (+tax) replacement cost start dancing in my head. My wonderful audio geocache has turned into useless deadweight. My day is ruined.

Of course, I don't have a bike lock along. So I have to struggle back down the steep embankment and stash the bike in the woods, a ways down the trail. Then I walk all the way down, very slowly, carefully scanning every inch of the trail. Going down, the trail is clear - I have no idea where I lost it and bushwhacked on the way up.

I arrive at the car, check it and the parking lot, no GPS. If I dropped it on the lower, busier part of the trail, it might have been taken by someone by now. But what else is there to do but go back up? Going up allows me to look at the trail more closely. I walk so slowly (and dejectedly) that the thousand feet of elevation gain aren't even noticeable.

Why on earth did I have to wear my cleanest pair of sneakers for an expedition like this anyway?

Going up, I lose the trail exactly as the first time, and I still haven't found where the hang gliders' trail branches off. When it comes to outdoor stuff like this, I'm a certified genius.

I'm able to retrace my way through the swamp and, glory hallelujah, there is my GPS on the ground! I'm almost tearfully relieved. Only another 50m or so to go, and I'd be back on the trail and all hope would have been lost. In those 50m, I lose my way so completely that I end up taking a whole different route, so if the GPS had fallen out of my knapsack 15m later, it would have been gone for good. Now I feel better.

This area has a warning sign about abandoned mines. This means you should stay out. For me this means, gee, I'd love to see those abandoned mines. The only likely thing I see is the hole in the ground in the picture on the right, which may be a filled-in mine shaft entrance. Golly.

4:00 PM

I'm at the lookout a second time. If I still want to plant my cache, I'd better get going so I roll right through without stopping. I hit the trail with the GPS held in two fingers while the rest of my right hand takes care of the bike. Not the safest method for either me or the GPS, but with time running short I want to see how I'm doing, and the trail is pretty good here.

Someone calls my name as I zip by. I stop. Being a certified genius, I fail to recognize the woman who obviously knows me. Duh! It's Jennifer! We met geocaching a few weeks ago.

A bit farther on, my original blunder of forgetting the GPS handlebar mount comes back to bite me one more time: I go down some good trail a bit too fast, end up in a field of stones, and with my right hand clutching the GPS, can't steer or brake well enough and crash! Fortunately I don't injure myself seriously or damage the bike, but my hands are scraped up and bleeding, my shin is banged and my left shoulder feels pretty tender too.

Being a genius, I assumed that the batteries in the GPS still had juice. They don't. I switch to the backup pair, which seems to be about one third charged, and pack the GPS in the knapsack. I'd rather stay alive than know exactly where I am.

I see a wonderful exposed high ridge off the trail to the right. This would be a great place for a geocache! I get the GPS out and confirm: This is where Cliffy's "Des Loups" geocache is. When visiting I came from another angle so I wasn't sure about this view, but it looks good from here. I guess I'd better go further to avoid having my cache right by an existing one (that would be lame).

I've never been able to ride all the way from Champlain Lookout to the Luskville Fire Tower. There are some steep climbs in there that are too steep for me to bike - I get out of breath going fast enough to ride (about 4km/h) in the lowest of 18 gears. At least today there are no superfit hardcore mountain bikers zipping by me at 20km/h while I push the bike, gasping for breath.

5:15 PM

I'm at the hairpin turn where the trail turns southwest toward the Luskville Fire Tower. Lots of people go there from the parking area just below, so if I want my cache to be out of the way, I'd better start looking for a spot.

I consult the topo map. Hmm, the northeast-facing ridge overlooking Lac Mousseau might be interesting, especially if I can find an open rocky spot with a view. It is, however, 1.6km of trailless bush, with unknown terrain, away from here. Oh well, as long as the GPS stays working (and I do have 30% remaining on the battery indicator, with no backup batteries!) I'll find my way back out. So I stash the bike in the woods, in a spot where without the GPS I'd have a hard time finding it again, and charge off northeast, over stick and stone.

Pressed for time, I have failed to eat and drink - a classic Markus mistake - but now I know, if I don't stop and wolf down some nutrients I'll "bonk" later and become very slow. So I eat and drink, but not really enough.

I cross a bunch of ravines, and the bush gets denser, and I'm really starting to wonder about the wisdom of this - well, at least I won't be suprising any bears with the noise I'm making - and when I finally get close to the target area, it is all wooded and I can't see more than glimpses of a view.

6 PM

I'm looking down at Lac Mousseau, tantalizingly visible thorugh the trees. I'm also looking at the time. No good cache spot. Down by the lakeshore would be as remote and scenic as you could want, but I don't know how long it will take to get there and back. Looking at the GPS track plotted on the map now it all looks simple, but trying to guess where I am on the paper topo map is another story. Perhaps I should mark it up with a fine-grained reference grid next time.

6:10 PM

I've got my cache spot. Wisely I decided to stay on the ridge and just look for a high point, and found one that is exposed and rocky. The view is as good as I hoped, but unfortunately once the leaves are out (in two weeks at most) it will be overgrown.

Even so it will be a nice spot. After all, geocaching is all about the location, not about a few cheap trinkets in a container, or even about this wonderful gimmick of hearing voices of people who were here a month earlier on a tape recorder.

I take it out to install the battery and record the first message. Oh my God. No tape. No tape? What possible reason could I have had, in the scatterbrained fog of my mind, to take the tape out and pack an empty tape recorder all the way into this godforsaken wilderness? I'll figure it out the next morning - I'd meant to blank the tape with my bulk eraser, but couldn't find the bulk eraser and left the tape sitting on top of a computer monitor downstairs.

This sucks. I rip out the pages with the tape recorder instructions and write a very brief new message. I'm really short on time now.

I hide the cache in a spot where it can be found even in winter -- with no tape recorder, I probably won't come back to retrieve it in the fall as I'd planned.

6:20 PM

No time for a leisurely picnic here. I set the GPS destination to the waypoint where my bike is and charge off into the bush, following the arrow. I'm having a rougher bushwhack than on the way in, because I'm no longer in exploration mode, just in "get there in the straightest line possible" mode.

6:50 PM

Here is a spot that would have been good enough for a cache too.

7:00 PM

The sun is still well up in the sky and I'm back on my bike. Life is good. Should I go back to Champlain Lookout or on to the fire tower? I have to get the bike off the escarpment either way, and once at the bottom at the fire tower, it's all easy paved road back to the car. So that's what I do.

7:10 PM

I'm at the fire tower. The sun is still up. I can relax now, eat some sorely needed calories and tend to my dehydration, before leisurely walking my bike down the falls trail.

The tower no longer looks abandoned. It sports all kinds of antennas and solar panels, and a little windmill on top.

7:20 PM

"No Bikes" says the sign. I guess they don't want rude mountain bikers scaring the heck out of elderly folks on this popular trail, right? Even though nobody else is here, I walk my bike like a good law-abiding citizen.

It turns out that the sign is for a different reason. The trail turns very steep and rocky, with flat rocks used as stair steps in many places. Half an hour later I'm less than halfway down...

... and the trail gets even worse!

My right arm is killing me from carrying the bike. There is virtually no trail smooth enough to even roll it along. What a genius I am! I could have ridden it down at least part of the equivalent trail at Champlain Lookout, or I could have just stashed it and driven the car up to get it.

I'm not in much of a mood to enjoy the quite pretty Lusk Falls.

8:05 PM

Blessed ground! Beautiful pavement! I could kiss it, I'm so happy. Off I zoom. Only, I have to ride along highway 148, which is a four-lane divided highway here, and it is getting dark, and I have not so much as a reflector on my mountain bike.

I make it, however. At 8:33pm I'm back at the car.