I didn’t see the crash and I didn’t hear the cries for help. As I attacked the vertical wall of sand in front of me, the only thing that stopped me from running over Michael Klaser was dumb luck.
The trail had ended abruptly with a large embankment of sand blocking our way. Not thinking anything of it, one by one we rode up and over and down the other side. Unlike my friends in front of me, I hesitated at the top of the steep incline to scope out the descent and determine the best line of attack.
The pause couldn’t have been more than a few seconds, but it was long enough for me to see Mike hit the ground at the bottom of the hill, his Husqvarna Terra 650 falling on top of him. I laughed at first. The crash was so comically slow I thought he was just clowning around, Klaser had a reputation for being the goofball of the group. When he didn’t immediately get up, I shut off my engine and hollered down asking if he needed help.
Klaser was hurt. The severity was yet to be determined. But, as we were about to find out, we had a bigger problem on our hands. The mound of sand which I was perched upon acted as a dividing line between a public forest road and a private quarry. I was standing on public land. Mike, on the other hand, had crashed, and was now hurt, on private property.
I met Mike almost two years ago when we attended the same Pine Barrens Adventure Camp Riding School class. I was there to get a little faster at riding off-road and Mike was there to fulfill a promise to his wife that he would get a little safer. After the class ended, we kept in touch and ended up bunking together for the Pine Barrens 500 later that year.
Fast forward almost a year and the summer of 2017 was in full swing and Klaser had become an integral part of our group. Yes, he has a smart sense of humor and is fundamentally a good dude, but more importantly, he brews his own beer.
In addition to tackling organized adventure events, we were throwing weekend dual-sport parties and creating rides of our own. To celebrate the long Labor Day weekend, a bunch of us rented a cabin near Bald Eagle State Forest in Pennsylvania and spent our time riding during the day and drinking Klaser’s brews around a campfire at night. It was there we hatched a plan for another ride to take place in mid-September. With the Pine Barrens 500 getting moved to Halloween weekend for 2017, we decided to put together a “pre-ride” trip to help acclimate some of the folks unfamiliar with Jersey riding to the sandy terrain.
With summer wrapping up and fall rolling in, the weather was perfect for riding. Temperatures hovered in the mid-70s, the sun hung low in the sky until just past 7 p.m., and the vacationing hordes that flock to Jersey in the summer months had all but disbanded.
By 8 a.m., a small group of us had gathered in the parking lot of the local EconoLodge to secure rooms, fill hydration packs, and prep bikes. Mani Kalidasa, an ex-Pine Barrens Adventure Camp instructor who Mike and I had befriended when attending the class, was busy unloading his KTM 1190 Adventure R from his newest purchase, a used Toyota Tundra. For years Mani had been riding his bike from Brooklyn to all of the surrounding locations. It just happened to be a fortunate coincidence that on this particular weekend, for this particular event, he decided to give his bike a lift to the start of our ride.
Our group ended up being smaller than expected. Some of the newer riders had cancelled at the last minute, leaving just five relatively skilled riders to chase each other around for the weekend. Mani led the group, navigating from GPS tracks from the Pine Barrens 500 of years gone by. Following him was his buddy, Julien Morel, on a BMW F 800 GS and Shmuel Avital (who owns an awesome cafe with motorcycle-themed artwork called Spiegel in New York City) on a KTM 1190 Adventure R of his own. Mike and I brought up the rear.
The riding was great, and if we had ended the day after our late lunch at Lucille's Luncheonette, this would be a story about how five friends went for a ride and drank a few beers afterwards at the local Applebee’s. But who stops riding at lunchtime?
The predicament of private property
The problem with riding in the Pine Barrens is that you have to be really careful to stick to fire roads and public trails approved for street-legal dual-sports. There have been a number of times where we ended up on private land by accident and had to make a hasty retreat out of the forest on the same trail that brought us in. Normally, in those instances, we had made a wrong turn at a crossroads or passed a “No Trespassing” sign that was covered by overgrown brush.
In this instance, the public fire road just ended in a giant mound of sand. We didn’t realize the pile of sand was blocking an abandoned entrance to the westernmost perimeter of a private sand quarry.
As I mentioned earlier, from my perch, I was standing on public property. Klaser, lying under his bike at the bottom of the hill, was trespassing on property privately leased from the state. We had a predicament on our hands.
Mike was pretty sure his leg was broken, which was problematic enough on its own, but we had no immediate way to get him out to the main road to reach the hospital. Yes, we had a SPOT tracker with us (everyone should have one of these with their bike), and as much fun as a helicopter ride would have been, we were trying to reserve that for our last resort.
We knew we were working against the clock, with only a few hours of daylight remaining before the lights went out for the night. Hugging the outskirts of the property was a unmaintained sand road. Mike was in good spirits, considering; we tried to make him as comfortable as possible. Mani headed south on the private road in the direction of the hotel, searching for an exit to the main road so he could get back to his truck.
Nearly an hour had passed before we heard from Mani. Mike’s mood was darkening as he was getting increasingly uncomfortable with the pain. Mani called to inform us that he had picked up the truck but was still about 45 minutes away. He also informed us of another problem.
While he was able to exit the quarry riding his KTM over a similar sand berm, there was a locked gate into the quarry preventing him from driving his truck to what we had dubbed, “the extraction point.” We had to figure out a way to get Klaser to the truck.
Hanging up with Mani, Julien stayed with Mike and I followed the road to the right on Klaser’s Husky to see if there was an additional entrance on the northern side of the quarry (Shmuel had left earlier to make the night shift at Spiegel). The road was broken and rutted and in some areas it had washed away so badly that there were gashes four to five feet deep. While I was able to make it through on a motorcycle, it was doubtful we were going to get a truck back here.
I hadn’t traveled a mile when I saw a man driving toward me in a beat-up Nissan Pathfinder. I flagged him down only to discover he was the quarry's weekend security officer and he was none too thrilled to find me on his nightly route. I explained the situation, and that we weren’t intentionally trespassing, and asked him if there was any easy way to get Klaser to the main road.
He was gruff with his response. Apparently this guy is stuck dealing with teenagers on dirt bikes and quads all day, and from where he was sitting, Mike’s Terra 650 looked more like a dirt bike than a street-legal motorcycle. He wasn’t buying my story. He informed me that the only way he’d be willing to open the gate would be to allow the police in to take over the situation. In addition to helping Mike, he’d also have us arrested for trespassing. He suggested we get off the property, and quickly at that.
I imagined a night in a New Jersey jail, listening to a chorus of drunks sing along to Bruce Springsteen and Billy Joel songs, and then opted for his other suggestion. Firing up the bike, I headed back in the direction from which I had come. By this point, it was starting to get dark and we still had to get Mike to a point where Mani could grab him. After a quick discussion, we decided to ride Mike out.
It took both Julien and myself to lift Mike onto the back seat of my 1090 Adventure R. As I had removed the passenger pegs, his legs dangled perilously with no real way for him to support himself. From what Mani had told us, we had about two miles of deep sand before we reached the gate.
Going was slow for me and painful for Mike, who just kept begging me not to drop the bike on the left for fear of it landing on his leg. I obliged him by dropping the bike on the right.
We had no sooner started rolling again before we arrived at a wall of sand even taller and steeper than the first. There was a tight trail through the woods to the left of the berm, but I wasn’t going to be able to make it through with Mike on the back.
Julien rode ahead to make sure the trail was clear before parking his bike and walking back. We lifted Klaser off the bike and together we carried him on the tight trail through the woods. The sand was so deep it made the going difficult, even on foot. Upon reaching the other side, I hoofed it back to my KTM and rode it through the woods. We continued on our way.
It felt like eternity before we reached the gate. With Klaser safely situated, I rode Julien back into the woods to get Mike’s bike while Mani drove him to the hospital. I had just made it back to the gate when I saw the Nissan Pathfinder heading my way.
Lessons to live with
Maybe it was the fact that I was on a larger adventure bike, or perhaps he had just had some time to calm down, but whatever the reason, the look of anger in the aging security guard's eyes had subsided. I pulled over and removed my helmet. He explained that he wasn’t trying to be hard-headed earlier, but he and his team worked 24/7 to keep kids out of the mine, and despite their best efforts, some still made it in.
The more the man talked, the more I respected his position. In his eyes, he wasn’t trying to be mean-spirited. He was trying to keep us safe. He admitted the boundaries of the quarry are confusing because the state prevents them from posting trespassing signs because the land is owned by the state and leased by the mining company. In the end, he was kind enough to open the gate which allowed us to push the remaining bikes to the other side, where Mani was waiting to pick up Mike’s bike.
By the time we reached the hospital, Mike was already back to his old self, cutting it up with the doctors and nurses in spite of having broken his leg in multiple places (no doubt the painkillers were doing their job). I have a video of him joking that he’s so bad he can crash on crutches, too.
In the end, everything worked out OK, but it could have gone very differently. This simple little adventure made me realize the importance of riding with a partner, even on easy trails that you’re extremely familiar with. If you insist on riding solo, invest in a SPOT tracker system. It’s cheap insurance compared to the alternative. And while it’s sometimes hard to determine, do your best to respect the boundaries of private property. It only adds to the difficulty of the situation should something go wrong.
As for Mike, he made it to the Applebee’s for a beer that night, but he showed up in the passenger seat of his wife’s Fiat, not on his bike. And while he didn’t recover in time for the Pine Barrens 500, that didn’t stop him from showing up to work the event as a volunteer.
Every group needs a friend like Mike. But it’s important to remember that it’s up to each of us to be the friend you would want taking care of things if the roles were reversed.