Touring a Small Bore 4-Stroke by Gary Brown – copyright 2003, 2004
You’re crazy! That was the reaction of some when I told them I was going to take my Super Sherpa on a 3-day camping “tour”. A buddy with a Honda Shadow 1100 asked if I had any interest in riding from Portland, Oregon up around the Olympic Peninsula of Washington and around St. Helens, camping along the way. It sounded like a great ride, probably 800-900 miles long, so we immediately started to scope out the calendar. With most touring steeds above 1000cc these days, the idea of taking a 250cc dual sport on a ride like this was appealing to me because, well, it’s the only bike I currently own that is street legal. 🙂 Taking my Beta Techno 250 trials bike would have been truly crazy.
Some of you small displacement 4-stroke owners may be interested in how I set up the bike and how it fared on this adventure.
The Bike –
We needed a bike to take along on RV trips for local transportation and had a Honda XR650L for this purpose. But, it was relatively heavy and a bit of a pain to load/unload on the RV. We sold the XR and went in search of a lighter bike. The choices are not many these days – we wanted something akin to the 250cc “Enduro” of the 70’s. While light weight and reasonable accommodation for a passenger was of highest importance, this bike would see most miles on pavement, so I chose not to go the route of slapping a lighting kit, mirrors and a squeeze-ball horn on a dirt bike.
Most dual-sports push the 300 lb. dry barrier these days – I wanted something lighter, but larger-engined than a scooter. It came down to a Yamaha XT225 and the Kawasaki 250s, either the KLR or the Super Sherpa. The Yamaha is old technology and too heavy for the whimpy engine, so I compared the Kawasakis. The Super Sherpa leans a bit more toward street use than the KLR, has electric start, 6-speed, disk brakes at both ends, has a slightly lower seat height and a claimed 249 lbs. dry. Bingo! I picked up this 2001 Kawasaki Super Sherpa with 500 miles on it.
The Sherpa is mostly stock but has a few adjustments and accessories added just for this “tour”. To give it some toting capability, a rear rack ($90 Dual Star) and expandable tank bag ($100 Marsee) did the trick. A tinted windshield ($80 National Cycle Deflector Screen) mounted easily to the handlebars, taking out the lion’s share of wind-blast while allowing clear vision over the top. It was well worth the additional weight and price – and had no effect on handling to speak of. The stock mirrors are located too close together, but do offer a nice view of one’s shoulders/arms. Swapping the mounting locations of the clutch lever and left mirror brackets moves the mirror left about 2 inches, improving visibility substantially. This has the added benefit of moving the clutch lever to the right, giving more leverage to those who like to clutch with 1 or 2 fingers.
The engine is stock, but there is one secret adjustment I learned from our (very helpful) local Ma-and-Pop bike shop. On the bottom of the carb, toward the front, the casting has a cylindrical shaped protrusion with a plugged end on the bottom (looks like a freeze plug). There’s something inside you should know about – a hidden fuel screw. This is set at the factory and sealed, presumably for EPA requirements. Stock carburetion is pathetically lean. There are some free hidden ponies lurking within the engine when adjusted a bit richer. I drilled a small hole through the seal (don’t drill too far!), screwed in a machine screw and yanked out the plug with a pair of pliers. Easy money. Stock setting for the fuel screw was 2 1/8 turns out (on mine). I conservatively set it at 2 ¼ with a noticeable improvement in throttle response. This didn’t even hurt mileage (still 75 MPG), so I likely will try screwing it out more until it starts to run poorly, then back off a bit. I still need to play with this so don’t know the optimal setting to suggest at this point.
The Gear –
Keeping weight and wind resistance down for this journey was of utmost importance, so I took the bare minimum: small dome tent, sleeping bag, one-AAA-battery flashlight, a change of clothes, camera, extra riding gloves, rain gear, a water bottle and a couple of Power Bars (these are good to seal cracked cases). The big items went into 2 stuff sacks and bungeed on back, along the length of the seat, maintaining a narrow profile against the wind, and giving me a nice backrest. The small stuff and a sweatshirt were kept easily accessible in the tank bag, with a map visible inside the clear vinyl top.
The Trip –
We took off from Hillsboro, Oregon on a slightly overcast and cool morning and promptly hit every red light between here and the back roads leading us over the local hills to Hwy 30 westward. What a relief to finally hit cruising speed on Hwy 30 running along the south bank of the Columbia River. It is usually about a 100 mile ride from Portland to the mouth of the Columbia River at Astoria, but we crossed over to the north side of the Columbia at Rainier and took Washington State Hwy 4 from there. The scenery was typical northwest coastal range – gentle winding curves, greenery everywhere, scattered farms/cows and the occasional freighter steaming alongside in the Columbia.
After the first 30 minutes at Hwy speed, I found myself making mental notes of how the Sherpa was performing in its current garb. Very quickly I was convinced that the windshield purchase was well worth it. I subconsciously recognized a more relaxed grip on the bars, less buffeting from the wind, and a quieter ride than usual, even with the standard ear plugs installed. While I weigh only 150 lbs dripping wet in all my riding gear, the extra 30 lbs of “luggage” added some stability, fooling me into thinking I was on a larger bike until a big semi passing in the opposite direction would blow me over a bit and rudely remind me I was on a weenie bike. It really wasn’t too bad, but I learned to momentarily wander over to the right whenever the big rigs passed by.
Cruising speed was defined as the posted speed limit plus about 10 mph – the idea was not to see how fast we could do this ride, but to actually enjoy the sights along the way. The Sherpa gearbox comes with a really nice, tall 6th gear. While the Sherpa does not come stock with a tachometer (too bad), if my calculations are correct the engine spins at about 5560 rpms at 65 mph in 6th. Who knows what redline would be on this bike but I’m guessing it would be around 7000 rpm. I figured 65 was a “safe” cruising speed for the long haul. The engine seemed quite happy at 65, and in a responsive part of the power-band with enough throttle left over for occasional bursts up to 80 mph for passing.
Buzzy-buns start to kick in around 60 mph, but the ride is very tolerable even at 65 and faster. I’ve owned about ten single-cylinder 4-stroke dual-sports and this one is smoother or as smooth at 65 than any of the others. Perhaps this is because most of the other bikes had larger engines, hence more mass oscillating, perhaps less efficient counter-balancing, and most had knobbier tires. Needless to say, I can sit in the saddle for an hour and a half at a time on this Sherpa, but I’ll admit that’s about my limit. We rarely went much more than one hour at a time anyway, with sight seeing stops along the way.
Hwy 4 extends up into Washington along the Pacific coast as far as Raymond. Then it turns into Hwy 105 and heads westward as it curves around Willapa Bay. I distinctly remember a huge smile across my face as we carved the twisty-windies, with the sandy beach and waterfront on the left, thick forest on the right, and blue skies and warm sunshine above. This was living, and it was really fun!
We departed from the coast at Aberdeen and followed Hwy 101 northward to Lake Quinault, within Olympic National Park, where we would camp for the night after a 250 mile first day. This is a beautiful area, worth visiting, within an old growth forest. I would like to come back for some hiking – there are many trails through the area. We got a kick out of a sign that boasted “World’s Largest Sitka Spruce”. 200 miles to the south near Cannon Beach, Oregon there is a similar tree with a sign “World’s Largest Sitka Spruce”. Which is largest? We’ll leave that assignment to the interested reader. We found a campsite fairly close to Quinault Lodge on the south side of the lake. A $5 bundle of firewood lasted the evening. Once tucked into my sleeping bag, I realized my first really bad decision of the trip – in the spirit of traveling with a minimal load, I didn’t bring a pad for under my sleeping bag.
In the morning we were packed up and on the road by 8:00am. Our plan was to ride around to the north side of the lake to check out July Park – situated in an old growth stand with some trees measuring 15 feet in diameter. As we dropped in elevation toward the lake, we witnessed a most fantastic, eerie view. There were blue skies above and a bright sunrise off in the east shining its rays onto the forested mountainside across from us. The evergreens were a brilliant green. While down in the valley floor below us a thin layer of silky fog blanketed most of the lake, but you could see in real-time the mist flowing as a river westward toward the ocean. For the next 10 minutes as we rode down and through the mist, I regretted not having stopped for a photo session of us riding up out of the fog. By the time we reached July Park, the mist was gone, the wind had stopped, skies were blue, and the lake was crystal clear and glassy.
Back in the saddle, we headed toward the coast on Hwy 101 from Lake Quinault. We soon caught up to the misty fog and the temperature dropped dramatically within a few miles. While it wasn’t raining, we were being misted upon. I could have used some windshield wipers and was debating pulling over to don the raingear as we were heading into a rain forest that gets about 400 inches annually. This was the first time my upper back and neck muscles tensed up as the frigid weather started working its way through my riding gear. Not a bit too soon, we arrived at Kalaloch Lodge on the coast and pulled in for a hot breakfast.
Hwy 101 hugs the coast for only about 10 miles at Kalaloch and then turns inland. We were gracious for the sudden rise in temperature and return to blue skies about 1 mile inland. We really had to plan our lives when it came to gassing up the machines. The Sherpa gets 75 mpg but only has a 2+ gallon tank. The Honda Shadow got about 45 mpg at best but has a small tank, so we were limited to at most a 150-mile range. Some gas stations were up to 50 miles apart and it was impossible to tell from our map which towns would have gas. So, we never went much more than 100 miles without topping off the tanks to be safe. Just about every time we stopped I would get quizzed about what kind of a bike the Sherpa was… engine size? Electric start? You rode that from Oregon? Cool! This bike is one of Kawasaki’s best-kept secrets.
Next stop was Sol Duc Hot Springs. This is in the northern end of Olympic National Park, just south of Lake Crescent. We paid the $5 to enter the park and $10 to take a dip in the hot springs. Nice resort, nice pools, nice therapy, and nice hot showers after. Definitely worth stopping at, particularly if one is touring through on a motorcycle. How would my kids rate it? The swimming pool doesn’t have diving boards nor allow jumping in head first, and the hot pools are “stinky” and smell like sewers. 😉 I am much kinder than my kids, it really is a nice place. (On the side, the best hot springs we have come across are at Lava Hot Springs, Idaho, about 45 minutes SE of Pocatello. These are not smelly, super hot (112), clean and they have an Olympic sized swimming pool with many diving boards (including a 10M platform) and waterslides. It cost us only $25 for the entire family (we have 7 in ours) for all of it. Plus, there’s a river through town with small rapids the kids can tube in. This place rates a “10” with the kids. But, that’s in Idaho and we are now back in Washington.)
On the road again, it was all smiles on the curly road along Lake Crescent. Wow, another spectacularly beautiful lake, similar to Lake Quinault. We soon arrived at Port Angeles where I broke down and hit the Wal-mart for an air mattress. I was going to be comfortable tonight! The mattress is fairly compact and only raised the “stack” on the rack by another 2 inches.
We grabbed dinner at Sequim (pronounced Sqwim). Strange weather here – Sequim only gets about 15 inches of rain annually, compared to Port Angeles, 15 miles away which gets 30 inches of rain. It was noticeably HOT in Sequim and 5 miles out of town it cooled dramatically. Now we were southward bound on another fun stretch of road – Hwy 101 along the Hood Canal – about 40 miles of twisty-windies. Our destination for the 2nd night was a private campground just south of Olympia. We did about 300 miles this second day, and the Sherpa didn’t miss a beat.
We started day 3 on the least enjoyable part of the ride – Interstate 5. Most traffic was going at least 70 mph and there were quite a number of trucks. Before we took off, we agreed upon 65 as our cruising speed, but that quickly felt really slow so I bumped it up to 70. The Sherpa didn’t seem any less happy at 70, and this was a better pace relative to other traffic. I endured a quick 40 miles of this, and then with relief got off at Hwy 12 eastbound toward Mount St Helens.
Hwy 12 has gentle curves through scenic, rolling farmland. Traffic was light and the 65 mph cruising speed was more enjoyable than it was on I-5. Even though we had only traveled 60 miles on this tank of gas, we wisely topped off the tanks at Randall before heading south on NF 25 (National Forest route 25) toward the Mount St. Helens. The next gas station would be 105 miles away. Now we were riding the roads with the highest “fun” quotient of the trip. The forest was so dense in areas that the road was literally a tunnel with trees interconnected above us. There was mile after mile of corners marked “25mph”, “15mph”, “35mph”. I’m kind of a whimp on the street so didn’t push it too hard – the algorithm I used for setting speed was to add 20-25 to what ever the signs recommended. Occasionally we would hit an opening in the forest, giving an instant burst of sunlight and about a 20-degree rise in temperature. If you are ever in the area, this road has a MUST RIDE rating.
Although it’s a dead-end road, one also must do the Windy Ridge viewpoint road. This leads the last 10-15 miles to the best view of the Mount St Helens “blast zone”. In May 1980 the mountain erupted, relocating 3.7 billion cubic yards of rock over a 230 square mile area. The lateral blast sent debris at up to 300 mph – some material landed 17 miles away from the crater. An old growth forest was demolished in the process. It was a sobering sight to see thousands of huge trees, strewn like toothpicks. Now, 23 years later, new varieties of bushes and trees are popping up, and the cycle starts once again.
On the way back down the mountain, heading south now toward Portland, we took a quick stop at the Ape Caves – lava tubes over 1 mile long formed by a lava flow 2K years ago. The temperature outside was in the high 80s, but inside the cave it was in the mid 40s – a nice reprieve from the hot day. Bring a flashlight and extra batteries for a nice cool hike through the caves.
After nearly 300 miles this last day, we were brought back to reality hitting Portland in time for rush hour traffic. We avoided the worst of it by taking Hwy 30 and Germantown Road up over the hill and back home to Hillsboro.
Impressions of the Sherpa –
The Sherpa ran absolutely flawlessly, and performed better than expected. Granted I’m not the heaviest guy in the world, but I rode it hard and it gave without complaint. I spent a grand total of $20 for gas for the entire 820-mile ride, averaging 75 mpg. Electric start may seem extreme on a dual-sport 250, but, spoil me, please – I love that little button. The engine is not the most potent 250cc out there, but that’s not really what this bike is about. I highly recommend the Sherpa as an excellent first bike, but even with over 30 years of riding experience, I find it to be a fun, comfortable, reliable and inexpensive ride. It is ready, willing and able to take you on an 800+ mile ride.