Watching Jim Fowler of “Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom” ride around in the desert on a strange-looking, all-terrain motorcycle left a lasting impression on Mark Spreadborough of Kalama and his friend, Bob Crisman of Longview.
Fowler’s ride of choice during the wildlife program, which aired for more than 20 years and starred zoologist Marlin Perkins, was called a Rokon (pronounced Rock-on). The bike hit the market in 1963 — luring young men through ads in Boys Life and other outdoors magazines. It is still being made and sold in the United States today.
Spreadborough and Crisman’s passion for the bikes recently led them down the trail of taking part in a documentary called “Chip’s Winter Ride” by Keith Felkins of Arkansas about the fun of riding Rokons.
They and roughly 50 other enthusiasts from around the U.S. gathered at the Maine home of Chip Austin and spent six days slogging through snow and icy water on the bikes. The documentary, which is about 30 minutes long, won several awards and was chosen to be part of the upcoming Motor Week segments that will air on PBS on Saturday and on the Velocity Channel on April 7.
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Although five years apart in age, both men grew up in Kalama and have known each other for decades. Both men were bitten by the Rokon bug at a young age, though neither of them purchased a bike until later in their lives.
“The bike fascinated me, with its giant tires, drum wheels and all-wheel drive, and I knew I had to have one someday,” Spreadborough said.
A family friend, Lloyd Young of Lexington, had one in his garage, and Spreadborough hoped to one day ride it. But he never got the chance before he went into the military.
He said that he briefly dabbled with quads, but “I found that they didn’t go where I wanted without putting the machine or myself at risk of damage or injury.”
Then he remembered the Rokon. He searched and found a couple of disassembled bikes in Winlock. Neither of them ran, but Spreadborough pieced them together, got them running and headed out into the woods where there are no trails. He now owns about 10 of the machines.
Crisman bought his first Rokon from Spreadborough’s son, Eli. It, too, had to be reassembled, a project that Crisman and his friends took on together.
The bike has upsides and downsides, and some one-of-a-kind features, Crisman said.
On each wheel, a large cap conceals an aluminum compartment that can hold 4 1/2 gallons of liquid. Most of the time, trekkers use one wheel for extra water and the other for gasoline.
“There’s nobody else around who has ever done that,” Crisman said.
Each bike is handmade, with the exception of the motors, which were produced by various car manufacturers. Crisman’s bike, a 1969, has a Chrysler motor that started its life as a chainsaw motor. The bike takes a gas-and-oil mixture and resonates with the familiar buzz and grumbly rumble that chainsaws make. (New Rokons have four-stroke engines.)
Power is supplied to the front wheel via drive shafts, U-joints and chains. The motor also drives the rear wheel with a conventional chain drive.
Locally, the Rokons were used on Mount St. Helens by the Forest Service, getting the workers up steep and rugged trails for clearing brush and doing other habitat care.
“As recently as two months ago, a bunch of these were sold to the government in Africa for work during the Ebola outbreak,” Crisman said. “They had them specially painted red and were outfitted with coolers on the back for transporting blood.”
Because the older model bikes lack a suspension, the ride is bumpy.
“They can climb over the tops of logs, downed trees ... no problem,” Crisman said. “But the only suspension comes from the tires, so we run these half-flat. There’s a little bit of spring in the seat, but not enough to be comfortable.”
The men began video-blogging about their Rokon experiences in the Kalama River area and the Olympic National Forest on the You Tube Channel for their small production company, Fire Mountain Outdoors. The company, which Crisman and Spreadborough work on during weekends, specializes in testing and evaluation of items relating to the outdoors industry.
The motorcycle segments on the channel caught the eye of filmmaker Felkins, with whom Spreadborough had worked on another Rokon documentary filmed in 2013 on his Kalama property.
They were invited to Maine for the winter documentary in 2014, which included an all-expenses-paid trip to the location and luxury accommodations. Because they couldn’t bring their Rokons along, the men borrowed bikes from some fellow enthusiasts from New Jersey.
When the filming concluded, Crisman and Spreadborough took a day trip to the Rokon factory, which was located about 35 miles away.
“We got to spend the day hanging out with the owner, and see how everything runs,” Crisman said. “It looked like it could be done in anybody’s garage. Just a bunch of easy-going people, sitting at desks, screwing stuff together and doing some welding.”
In the modern age of robotic assembly lines, the motorcycle’s handmade assembly makes it unique, Crisman said.
That’s part of the appeal, Spreadborough said.
“It’s hard to describe, but these goofy bikes attract folks that I really ‘click’ with,” he said. “I really enjoy the camaraderie that comes with owning and riding these unique motorcycles and communicating and riding with the independent spirits that are drawn to them.”