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Common Tread

2wd and chainsaws: Ari and Zack work the trails in Idaho

Sep 06, 2019

Exploring the outdoors is one of motorcycling’s great pleasures. It makes faraway places accessible and, unlike those suckers doing the same in a Jeep or a UTV, bikes can navigate single-track trails and otherwise narrow, difficult terrain.

If you’ve ever been on rides like these, you know the feeling of skipping across ridge crests overlooking a vast desert, happening upon a glassy pond shrouded in fog, or killing the engine and coasting along a loamy trail winding through evergreens. It’s glorious. What’s easy to miss is the effort that goes into making these trails rideable, especially in places where winters are long and unpredictable.

This story is based on the latest episode of Throttle Out, now available at MotorTrend On Demand. You can find Ari and Zack on social media at @arihenning211 and @zackcourts.

Consider Idaho, for example, a state with harsh winters and only 1.75 million people in an area nearly the size of Great Britain. The first thing that comes to mind when you think of Idaho probably isn’t 6,000 miles of trails and off-highway riding, but it’s there and particularly susceptible to nature’s yearly weather whimsy. Every year, across Idaho and around the world, perfectly good off-road riding areas erode away, disappear behind overgrowth, or become blocked by downed trees. The solution that the State of Idaho Parks and Recreation Department came up with is elegant — hire motorcyclists to ride around on specially outfitted dirt bikes, clearing trails as they go. And pay for it with the proceeds from the state’s OHV registration fees.

We here at Throttle Out have ridden a lot of beautiful trails in our many years of motorcycling, but haven’t spent much time fixing them for others. We decided it was time to see what it takes to give back. The Idaho Trail Rangers agreed to let us sign on as honorary employees, so we packed a truck for the potato state.

But, what machines to bring? After some clear-eyed consideration of our off-road skills, we agreed that when it came to technical riding we would need all the help we could get. It seemed like knobby tires, stump-pulling torque (maybe literally), plus some storage, would be needed. Better yet, how about two-wheel drive? That would help our amateur off-road skills pass as acceptable, plus there are arguably only two on the market.

Christini 450DS and Rokon Mototractor
There aren't that many two-wheel-drive motorcycle options. Here, Zack and Ari are on the Rokon Mototractor and the Christini 450DS. Photo by Spenser Robert.

Two bikes with two-wheel drive

On one side, a 2020 model of the all-wheel-drive Christini 450DS. Essentially, a Honda CRF450X engine clone stuffed into a modern, twin-spar frame, along with all of the fixins to make it street-legal. The Christini’s party trick is the arrangement of chains and shafts that run from the countershaft sprocket up the left side of the bike and then down, parallel to the fork tubes, to power the front wheel. Not all the time, though; only once the rear wheel is spinning 30 percent faster than the front is moving. It’s a fairly sophisticated all-wheel-drive system, especially considering the bike sells for about $10,000 — around what you’d pay for an orange dual-sport bike. And luckily, we found a luggage rack to hold a chainsaw. More on that later.

Christini 450DS
The Christini 450DS looks (and works) like a pretty typical dirt bike. The dead giveaway, aside from the “AWD” stickers everywhere, is the red chain cover running up from the countershaft sprocket to the steering stem, where two driveshafts run down to the front hub. Photo by Spenser Robert.

On the other side of the prep garage, it was half motorcycle and half NASA project: the mighty Rokon Mototractor. Perhaps the most famous two-wheel-drive motorcycle of all time, the Rokon gets power to both wheels with a driveshaft running up the spine of the bike, which runs to a miter box just ahead of the steering stem. That output shaft is connected to a second set of chain and sprockets that turns the front wheel. The powerplant is a 208 cc, seven-horsepower unit from Kohler, makers of generators and large-scale pump engines. There’s even a pull cord to start it (as well as an electric start).

Rokon Mototractor
Note the Rokon’s black plastic cover for the front wheel’s drive chain, which runs parallel to the support member of the leading-link fork. That means when the front wheel pivots to soak up bumps the chain stays tight. Clever tractor. Photo by Spenser Robert.

It’s hard to look at the Rokon and not be amazed, because of both weirdness and ingenuity. The 12-inch wheels are hollow, for example, which means a Rokon is buoyant and can be floated across bodies of water. Alternatively, extra fuel, water, or any other liquid can be poured into the wheels for safe keeping. The tires themselves are massive, a foot wide and 25 inches in diameter, with “Grim Reaper” branding splashed across the sidewall. Because the chains driving the wheels are connected downstream of the centrifugal clutch, the brakes consist of tiny discs (with equally small calipers) mounted on the smaller drive sprockets. This keeps them up above debris and it lowers rotating mass of the wheel — as if that’s a concern on a bike with monster-truck wheels that can be filled with motor oil or Pepto-Bismol.

The Mototractor doesn’t get its name from its agricultural Grim Reaper rubber, surprisingly enough, but because this model forgoes a padded passenger area for a 12-by-29-inch platform behind the sprung seat, for hauling whatever is needed. With the Stihl 311 chainsaw mounted securely via Rok straps to the back of the Christini, the Rokon was left to carry everything else. And so on went two gallons of water to drink on the trail, 0.75 gallons of extra fuel, a cooler with enough food for two days (we hoped), two sets of loppers, two Pulaskis, a 20-foot length of chain, a medical kit, plus two sleeping bags along with pads, and two hammocks. The Mototractor might not seem like an $8,400 bike at first glance but what it does, it does well.

Christini 450DS with chainsaw rack
Yep, there’s a company that makes chainsaw mounts for motorcycles, and the setup worked great. The Christini even had room for extra gas for the saw (in our Baja bottle) and all of the tools to maintain it on the trail, tucked into the saddlebags. Photo by Spenser Robert.

Sawtooth sensations

Landing at base camp near Baumgartner hot springs in Idaho’s Sawtooth National Forest, it felt like the right place to find ruined trails. Steep hillsides carpeted with trees towered overhead, along with massive shards of bedrock jutting out of the earth, casting afternoon shadows across tumbling and uneven fields of rough grass. The South Fork of the Boise River roared confidently through the valley. It was raw nature, largely unfettered by humans having set up a pit toilet and some picnic tables among its grandeur. We cooked bratwurst, peppers, and onions in a skillet, threw our hatchet at a stump, and thought on a life when we weren’t city slickers.

The next morning we headed for our assignment — a seven-mile loop of single-track following a creek up a hollow on one side of the river valley, then crossing the spine of a ridge, and trickling back down to our base camp. Our Trail Ranger mentors had told us the section was currently impassable, but rather than dispatching one of their teams it had been earmarked for us. A yank of the Rokon’s pull-cord and it settled into its barnyard idle, the Christini barking to life and sounding significantly higher performance. Among the many odd things about the Rokon is putting it in gear, which requires rocking it back and forth and pulling a rod a couple of notches out from the plunger-style transmission control. With second gear engaged (good for zero to 20 mph, according to Rokon), we headed for the wilderness.

Our first blockages on the trail came in the form of shrubs, saplings, and small dead branches obstructing the route. Loppers, engaged. We trimmed a few sections back and after only a few minutes work found ourselves quite satisfied with the results. For an hour or so we rode and lopped, pausing now and again to revel at the beauty of the Sawtooths (Sawteeth?) and nosh on a granola bar. Perhaps best of all, we got to know our machines a little better along the way.

Christini 450DS
A dry, steep section of trail like this is exactly where a bike can start spinning the rear tire and lose momentum. That’s when the Christini’s front-wheel drive kicks in to assist. Photo by Spenser Robert.

The Christini was an absolute natural on the single-track. At around 290 pounds (without a chainsaw on the back), it’s slightly heavier than a normal, 450-class dirt bike but it skipped over roots and splashed through water crossings like a champ. Eager to see the Christini’s all-wheel drive in action, Ari paused on a slippery uphill exit of a creek bed, then spun the engine up and slipped the clutch. As the bike inched forward and the rear tire started to spin on slippery rocks, the front wheel clawed at the dry dirt in front of the bike and pulled it away from the water. Then it stalled and he slid back down into the water, stringing together a sentence of expletives worthy of a rap album. And thus an important lesson of all-wheel drive was learned: When the front-wheel drive engages it saps power and adds traction all at once, which can catch you off guard if you’re expecting the rear tire to simply spin.

Aboard the Rokon, it’s approximately as weird to ride as it is to look at. It steers heavily and there’s no rear suspension (aside from the saddle), plus the sheer width of the Grim Reaper tires makes single-track feel extra narrow. However, the Mototractor delivered in some other ways. No stalling, for one, as the centrifugal clutch and torque converter do all the work. Seven horsepower and 12 foot-pounds of torque might not sound like much, and that’s because it isn’t. But to be fair to the Rokon, we didn’t find anything it couldn’t conquer. At one point a steep slab of rock stood at the top of a short climb. The Christini blasted into it, the suspension soaking up the hit and successfully scurrying over, chainsaw and all. With first gear engaged the Rokon chugged briefly and then the bike stood up on its hind end like a wild stallion. Unexpected. Both tires ripped at the rock and it Grim Reapered stoically over the top. A Rokon with an obstacle in front of it is a thing to behold.

single-track trail
The Idaho Trail Ranger job description says you must be an expert-level off-road rider to apply. We got by with two-wheel-drive and the occasional undignified dismount. Photo by Spenser Robert.

The work

A couple of hours into our journey, we found our first real challenge in a massive tree down directly across the trail at about chest height. We gleefully pulled the chainsaw out of its sheath on the back of the Christini and fired it up. After trimming off a dozen or so branches, we cut up from the bottom expecting the telephone-pole sized trunk to split downward, but instead it balanced perfectly on the lower embankment. Another cut on the downhill side and we threw a 7-foot section of tree out into the gully below. The area needed some sprucing up, but a few minutes of lopping and leveling the trail made it as good as new. We were making the impassable passable, and it was proving to be its own reward.

cutting up a downed tree
Cutting logs where they lie sometimes means challenges you wouldn’t have if you had felled the tree yourself. Making sure the removed piece has a downhill escape route and doesn’t re-block the trail is one. Photo by Spenser Robert.

We scampered between boulders and splashed through the creek that was now running right next to the trail. Then, worryingly, it became the trail. We nosed the bikes down to the edge of a creek where the path had evidently run adjacent to the shallow water for 30 or 40 feet before aiming up an off-camber bank to safety. Now it was a rocky mess, with no discernible trail leading to the escape route up the hillside. Ari decided gumption was all that was needed and confidently fired the Christini into the shin-deep creek. Almost immediately the front tire deflected off a stone and sent our hero, along with his chainsaw and all of his gear, into the babbling snowmelt. Would a better rider have made it? Maybe, but hey, that wasn’t the point. This piece of trail needed maintaining.

Dismounting the two Pulaskis from the back of the Rokon, we dug into the eroded hillside. Ax on one end and adze/hoe on the other, the Pulaski is a tool commonly used to fight wildfires, and is a Trail Ranger’s best friend when it comes to blasting through roots, dead wood, or shaping earth. We pulled the erosion to a wider, more rideable surface and built a row of stones to divert the water, then flattened the escape ramp up the bank of the creek. Half an hour later we had a handsome trail to test, and poetically Mr. Gumption went first, albeit with heavier and soggier boots. Mission accomplished, as the Christini brapped up the hill like a mountain goat. The Rokon trundled along behind, Pulaskis remounted to the luggage rack.

along the stream in the Sawtooth Mountains
The first attempt at riding up this creek ended with one of us in it, which seemed like a good enough reason to stop and fix it. We were obviously very proud of our work in the end. Photo by Spenser Robert.

As the sun sank toward the horizon we came across what appeared to be a herder’s camp. Perched above the creek we had followed up the hollow all day, the simple clearing offered a pre-built fire ring and a stand of trees just big enough to hold up our hammocks. We boiled water for freeze-dried meals and treated ourselves to a reheated sausage each, careful not to get them too close to the socks drying next to the fire. Stars burned fiercely in the sky, like pinholes to the paper-white edge of the universe. God’s country, you might say, religious or not.

Camp in the mountains
Our simple campsite in the hills. We cooked sausages ‘til they were juicy and Ari’s boots ‘til they were dry. Photo by Spenser Robert.

A calm dawn the next day was followed quickly by bright blue skies and we could see our crossover trail winding uphill, disappearing over the ridge to our east. Team T.O. plugged along all morning, getting into a routine of lopping branches and saplings when needed, and pulling the chainsaw out to double team the big stuff. We sawed several logs out of the way, flattened a football field’s length of wonky and eroded trail tread, and cleared brush away from the rocks hiding next to the trail that seemed to be waiting to make a mess of someone’s shift lever or ankle. Just about lunchtime, we got our real payoff, when we cleared the top of the ridge and caught sight of the view down the valley. Jagged peaks in the distance craned into the sky, capped in snow despite it being the middle of summer.

view in the Sawtooth Mountains
Swinging a Pulaski and a chainsaw all day is tiring, but the view from the office isn’t bad. Photo by Spenser Robert.

Standing at the zenith of our loop and assignment we were face to face with what keeps dual-sport riders coming back to the trail. Removed from our daily problems and desires, strung along through the wilderness, by the wilderness. We had bonded with our machines and the awesome utility they served, and our admiration for Trail Rangers was at an all-time high. On the one hand, Rangers take on difficult and sometimes tedious work, portioned in eight-day stints over the course of many months of summer. Then again, they ride modern KTM two-strokes through magnificent forests, enjoying the benefits of their own work as they ride. What a job that is.

The rest of the afternoon was relatively smooth sailing, connecting to another trail on the far side of the ridge that had already seen some Ranger and volunteer traffic. We marked the joining of the trails with a makeshift fence post, pausing for a few more photos of the epic valley view. Then it was a beautiful ride back down the trail to base camp for a soak in the hot springs and a dip in the river to wash off two days of dirt. We only gave two days to the thousands of miles of OHV riding in Idaho, but it was a terrific foray into what it takes to keep all of the amazing riding in Idaho alive and well. And, as far as we can tell, a damn good to way to spend OHV registration fees.