Thursday, March 11, 2010

Reading the river.

We've been discussing our scanning techniques and strategies. Since this is such a vital way we gather critical information while riding, it behooves us to get really, really, good at it. Better yet, let's set the dial to "excellent"!

I have a good friend who has been an avid fisherman all his life. This guy can read a stream like nobody I've ever known. Where most folks will simply throw a line into a likely looking spot, my friend studies the water. He'll tell me to work a certain pocket with a dry fly. He tells me to drop the fly in above the pool and let it drift to a certain spot. Following his advice has led to several good sized fish. I'm amazed, but my friend tells me it's simple.

Big fish need a lot of food. They can't afford to spend a lot of energy chasing it. So they find comfortable places to wait for food to come to them. The place he picked out for me is one where the landscape provides both the resting place and the food supply. It's the natural flow of things. Once in a while we'll come across some special event that doesn't fit the normal patterns. Things like Mayfly hatches. These hatches bring a feeding frenzy where the usual flow is out the window. New tactics are in order.

I've often related riding a motorcycle to running a river. A rider needs to pay attention to the flow, the currents, and the rapids. Reading the water reveals to us where we should ride and how we should go about it.

Which brings us to Level 4 scanning skills. There's things we can see. There's a plan of attack to see these things as soon as possible. On a higher plane, there's things we should be feeling and sensing, as well. Based on our knowledge and experience, there are situations and areas that should put us on higher alert. We should be using our intuition, our eyes, and our knowledge of where we're riding to find those disturbances in the normal flow.

Bluekat alluded to this in a comment she left on the last scanning post. Here's an excerpt:

"I'm always watching for all the usual suspects and anything out of place. Sometimes it's just an odd sensation that someone is going to do something unexpected, so be ready for it. "

She's right about looking for something out of place. Fortunately, there are some things we can add to our arsenal so we're not left to rely solely on our intuition.

Eric Trow writes a column for Rider Magazine. In the February issue he talks about knowing what other drivers are going to do before they even know it themselves. No, it's not magic. It's called paying attention. Besides paying attention to other drivers, we also need to pay attention to the environment we're riding in. Specifically, to how the area we're in affects the flow. What will that change in flow mean to our personal vessel? So let's explore this last phase of scanning.

Since this blog ( with the exception of Ryan photos ) is primarily about commuting to work on a motorcycle, I'm going to relate it to that. Just bear in mind that these principles apply whether it's a familiar route or a new one, and to those riding for recreation instead of commuting. In the list of things to scan for, add one more item. Look for where we are, as well as for who is around us.

Here's traffic flow in a big city. It's a route we ride every day. We see the same fellow commuters in their cars. The same people on the same route every day. As mind numbing as it is sometimes, the daily commute is also a sort of comforting routine. Everybody is used to the route and they become a part of the regular flow.

Some things disturb the flow as isolated incidents. Take these examples.

Delivery trucks block traffic and cause temporary ripples in the current. They're a part of the routine but at the same time they introduce random elements. Like this one.

For whatever reason, this truck driver ended up blocking the crosswalk and the right lane of the street to my left during the green light cycle. Drivers were doing strange things to get around it and pedestrians were doing their own strange things. Either way, it's still an isolated, random, incident. Here's another random incident.

Again, the parked ambulance is causing eddies in the flow of traffic. Let's use the ambulance to start the journey into going up a level with our information gathering skills. Or maybe I should say in our being prepared to gather information in the first place.

Back up a step and take a look at a building we ride by every day. Most of the time it's quiet and we don't pay much attention to it.

Truth be told, it's much better for everybody if this place stays quiet, too. However, the reality of the world says the potential is in place for a dramatic event. Not only will we have to accomodate the emergency vehicles themselves, but the reactions of other drivers doing the same thing. What the other drivers do will often make no sense to an intelligent person, either.

Not only do we hunt down the random event, but we go even further. Knowing we are riding through an area where an event could possibly occur should have us on a heightened alert level in the first place even if no such event is happening at the moment. It's like the deep pool in the stream where the big fish are lying in wait for prey. The less favorable side of the picture would be to remain oblivious to the fact that we ride by a fire station every day and be suddenly surprised by an emergency vehicle headed to a call. This is an example of a critical event not actually seen, but we sure know the possibility exists so we prepare. Just in case. One more step ahead of the game, so to speak.

A busy transit mall downtown.

The usual suspects to look out for. Buses coming and going on schedule. We just don't know what those schedules are, usually.

Police cars and pedestrians. Both a source of sudden and unexpected random incidents. Put a whole bunch of people getting on or off buses en masse, and who knows what will happen. If we believe everybody will stay in the crosswalk and wait for the lights, well.................... "All hands, this is Captain Kirk, Yellow Alert, I repeat, Yellow Alert! "

Some places attract a lot of drivers to them. Here's an example.

Cool reflection, isn't it? Don't forget that on the other side of those windows are hundreds of people who work for a very large medical insurance company. Speaking of which, those mirrored windows only mean we can't see inside, not the other way around. So don't stand and use the mirror for any sort of, uh, personal grooming stuff. The workers arrive at and depart from the building in bunches. Usually from a single spot like this.

Certain times of day will see a lot of traffic streaming into and out of the parking structure. It's not a reason to let our guard down, but a lot of these folks are part of the routine stream flow. They drive to and from the same place every day over the same route. Other places attract crowds of people that aren't a regular part of the flow.

This theater draws crowds from all over. Depending on the particular performance, it will also draw different types of crowds. Now we really have the random incident factor working overtime. People not familiar with the area, drivers running late and taking a bit of extra risk to arrive on time, and cars circling the block like sharks to find parking are just a few of the things we'll encounter.

Here's another type of place just a few blocks away.

A conference center will bring in all kinds of people from all over. In large numbers. With most of them driving. Most of them in an irrational manner.

These are just a few of the kinds of areas we find ourselves riding through. Rural roads can mean farm equipment could be on the road just around that corner. Housing developments on the edge of town mean the possibility of soccer moms and mini-vans. The list goes on and on.

So what's the takeaway?

Actively hunt for critical information. Don't be like the big fish waiting for things to come to you. You probably won't like some of the things that drift your way. Have a plan, a strategy, in place for being an active predator. Instead of being passive, go on the hunt. An effective scan should be done aggresively, and with purpose. Take things further by listening to our inner voice. If it's whispering in our ear, listen to it and act accordingly. Call it a hunch or an intuition, but it's our brain telling us it's noticed something me might not have consciously realized, yet.

Pay attention to what's around us in another way, too. Read the river. Be aware of how the the layout of the land around us can affect the water flow. Better to be prepared ahead of time for the potential of rough water than to be caught by surprise. The more skilled we get at reading the river, the smoother our ride will be. I love smooth sailing!

Miles and smiles,



Bluekat said...

Funny you should mention a river, that's exactly what riding through the streets feel like to me, though for me it's related more to kayaking than fishing.

River or road, I like a spot with a good view all around where I can watch for stuff feeding in from the sides, look for problems ahead or see trouble sneaking up from behind: rapids, strainers and funny looking ripples in the flow. I want to track it all and find the best line through it. I should mention my kayaking is on flat water. Everything on the road happens at a much faster pace.

The odd sensations mentioned earlier, I know I'm picking up on something even if I can't identify it. It's like my first time caught in an eddy on the river. I knew the water looked funny, but I didn't know why. I learned it turns my boat around (or worse) If I'm not paying attention, and I now know the eddy is a current moving counter to the main current. Now to figure out all the eddies out on the road. :)
Hope this makes sense...I shouldn't stay up late trying to write.

By the way, in your first photo is a printer, Salem Blue, they do printing for my work.

Apologies for the novel-length post, and thanks for another great read! :)

Anonymous said...

Interesting thoughts.
Aside from the a actual topic the location(s) are where?

My reason for asking; the architecture of the buildings is different to what I would normally encounter here in Southern Ontario. And especially the methods and types of street and covered car parking. Your ambulances are red, ours are white, and reflective orange
and physically smaller.

And your Ford built police cars are entirely different; still four wheels but beyond that.

Suspect the weather or lack of harsh weather has a lot to do with the street and structure layouts.

Conchscooter said...

So now I'm an angler, even though I thought I couldn't stand fishing?
Bryce, I don't know why but the word dsalem sprang to mind, the capital of Oregon.

Mike said...

Another very informative post Dan! Thank you again for the work that went into this. I even took some notes on this one so I can put some new points into practice. I really like your fly fishing analogy, it fits well with this topic. It makes me realize that proper scanning is more than intuition and dealing with things as they crop up. It's aggressively looking for danger way before it can become an issue and know those dangerous areas.

The Team Oregon class emphasized this but we (I) tend to sometimes slip back into what works instead of what should be done. Thanks again for this scanning series. It's going to be more of a challenge to ride while carrying my fly rod now.

irondad said...


Some day I'll have to try kayaking. Closest I've been is a canoe. You describe the process and potential pitfalls well. Thank you for the comment.

Small world. We buy vitamins on the corner a couple doors down from the printer. Always neat to read local blogs and recognize the places, isn't it?


Are you home and getting strength back up? I would hope to not be important enough to warrant reading my blog from a hospital bed.

As much as I hate to validate Conchscooter ( I love you, I really do, M ) he is correct. The city is Salem, the capitol of Oregon.

We're still a wild west place in many ways.

You take care of yourself, got it?

Take care,


irondad said...


I don't actually know about fishing. However, from many of your posts, it does seem you spend a bit of time trolling for whatever turns up. Close enough for me!

Take care,


irondad said...


Are you reading while lunching at Washington Square? It is Friday, isn't it?

I really appreciate your comment. It seems the meatier posts garner fewer comments than the lighter posts. One could almost get the impression people prefer gossip to really useful information. Sometimes I wonder why I bother.

Then I see a comment like yours and it makes me all happy again! I'd like to feel I'm giving back something of value to the motorcycling community in return for all I've received.

As to the fly rod, you are on your own. My suggestion would be to extend it and have it stick up from the bike. Then mount a video camera on top of it, wrapping the cable with electrician's tape. Video seems to be all the rage these days, thanks to Bobskoot!

Take care,


Unknown said...


Oh, oh, I heard my name . . .

the meatier posts are so full of information that is hard to dispute from a seasoned pro, so better not to comment and let everyone know what a fool you are.

when the lighter posts show up everyone is an expert and able to offer opinions.

Just like clockwork, another Friday afternoon post without a bike in sight, just like Conch and his kennel. That's my new term for Cage and I rather like it.

as far as video is concerned, I have been doing it for about a year or two but the GoProHD will be strictly for bike use. I am going to experiment with mounting another one rear facing, we'll see how that works out

and electrician's tape isn't strong enough, you need duct tape or if you have a heavy camera then go for Gaffers' tape.

bobskoot: wet coast scootin