Wednesday, September 10, 2014

New Trail on Mt. Warner in Hadley

Pioneer Valley mountain bikers (and hikers) should know about the lovely new trail that's sprung up on Mt. Warner in North Hadley over the last year.  If you like the buff, flowy nature of Earl's Trails, there's a pleasant surprise waiting for you on this scenic hillside.

Mt. Warner is well-known amongst locals as the easy-to-spot high point in Hadley, one of the lowest-lying Pioneer Valley towns. There's some evidence that so-called Paleo-Indians were there as long ago as 10,000 BC, and that the more recent Norwottuck tribe hunted there quite a bit. Later settlers left behind two handsome artesian wells in remote places on the hill.

For almost as long, locals have made other kinds of use of the hillside: hiking, cross-country skiing, hunting, and, yes, mountain biking. However, the property was all private, and usage rights were contentious and unclear.  Trails consisted either of neglected cart and jeep trails, or unmarked, complex spur trails.

In 2009, The Trustees of Reservations, a venerable Massachusetts organization dedicated to preserving local places of natural beauty, acquired 156 acres (amid a larger protected area of about 500 acres, including neighboring Lake Warner) and set about to preserve and develop it for wise and enjoyable outdoor usage. Within the last year, Pioneer Valley director Josh Knox and a varied team of staffers and volunteers (recently including me!) have developed a lovely two-mile trail, mostly new but incorporating existing paths where possible.

I've been riding this yellow-blazed Salamander Loop Trail trail for months now, and believe it compares quite favorably to some of the best riding in the Valley

When taken clockwise, climbing is moderate, though fairly sustained through the middle third of the trail. When you top out at the site of a former fire tower, take a moment to pause at this cool, refreshing spot, listening for birds and local fauna. Then tighten your shoes, because next comes a delightful half-mile or so of swoopy descent, including switchbacks just tight enough to be scary if you bomb them, and simply fun if you don't. The last third of a mile, like the first portion of the trail, rolls gently through open trees, separated by swaths of dark-green ferns, and shot through with beams of sunlight on a clear day.

Intentions to develop further official trails do exist, but are currently in conceptual stage only.

Though all are welcome to ride or hike the trail now -- I met four first-timers there just this past Sunday afternoon -- the reservation will open officially on Saturday, October 18, 2014, with a ribbon cutting and guided hike at 10:30 a.m., followed by food and festivities at the popular North Hadley Sugar Shack, just around the corner from the Reservation. For more info, go here.

Finding the trailhead is a bit subtle right now, as road signage is still in the works. Simply put, look for an unmarked gravel driveway on the north side of Mt. Warner Road, half-way up the hill from where the road branches off of Route 47. This driveway leads to a nice, new gravel parking lot.

Get out there and have fun -- fall is here and the air is crisp!

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Salsa Mukluk as a Rigid 29er: The Ups and Downs

It's been nearly four months since Will Sytsma (owner of Hampshire Bicycle Exchange, in Amherst, MA) built a sleek pair of custom 29er wheels for my Salsa Mukluk (which I reported on here). The main reason I've posted so infrequently since then is that I've been out riding the dickens out of them, and having a blast learning to mountain bike.

It's been a gorgeous summer here in New England, and I've been riding a lot on local trail systems large and small, buff and rugged. Here are some of the conclusions I've drawn from the experience.

First, the rigidity: It's wonderful! And... it sucks.

It's wonderful that I have a quality 26-pound, 29-inch mountain bike; it climbs really nicely and the only real limiter is in my lungs, not my legs. It's wonderful when I stand and stomp, and the bike takes off like a rocket. When I lean into a turn, nothing—I mean nothing—flexes. It's wonderful that I got all of this for a mere five or so hundred dollars for the extra wheels and tires.

It sucks when I go over endless tall roots or "bony" (boulder-ridden) trails; my wrists, hands, shoulders, and neck have taken quite the beating this summer. (Though the recent addition of ergonomic grips has helped a bit.) It sucks when I'm climbing for my life, hit a switchback, and my path is obstructed by obstacles; where a suspended bike might allow me to just roll over what's in the way, with this bike, I have to pick a line right at the least opportune moment, when most of the weight's on the back tire, I'm going 2 mph, and I'm already deep into a turn.

I'm a beginning mountain biker and I've been watching how-to videos, sessioning trails, and practicing skills in my backyard for months. As my abilities develop, I've been able to lessen the impact of each of these problems, and I've really enjoyed the ease and pride that come with the achievements. But when push comes to shove, I'm 50 years old, and my body won't take the beating forever. As I get better, I ride more advanced trails, and, around New England, that means a lot of rugged stuff.

That's not changing until the next ice age, which, by all indications, is quite some time off.

This report might be very different if I'd written it about a more forgiving, all-steel bike. My frame and fork are aluminum, famous for its stiffness and harshness. The custom wheels are also dishless (because they're built on wider-that-usual hubs to fit the fat bike dropouts), which means they, too, are extra stiff.

The geometry of the bike does help a little with the rigidity problems. This isn't your typical 29er -- not even a typical fully-rigid one. It's a fat bike, built for absurdly wide wheels and unbeatable stability on soft or slippery surfaces. Which means that the wheelbase is long, the head tube angle is a bit slacker than usual, and the chainstays are way out there in la-la land. But in the end, the aluminum wins out, because it just doesn't flex much no matter how long it is. The long stays and wheelbase do make handling stable—but that can also mean sluggish, especially in moments when I really need a quick response (as on the aforementioned switchbacky climbs).

One possible bonus to the 29er Mukluk set-up is extra speed up steep grades. I've heard it said that long chainstays aid climbing, and I know the stiffness and lightness of this bike (when viewed separate from the handling drawbacks) help a lot when I'm going straight up without too many obstacles.

In summary:

Am I glad I had the wheels built? You bet. Have I learned more by learning to mountain bike on a set-up that will feed back every tiny decision I make? Certainly. So let's be honest: with all the limitations, I've had more fun than should be legal on this version of the Muk. (The respect and interest it gets at the trailhead doesn't hurt either; I've not seen one other 29er-converted fat bike all season.)

In the end, two facts sum up my rigid 29er Mukluk experience: (1) I've been shopping for a purpose-built mountain bike for a month now; it would be full-suspension if I could afford a decent one, but will likely end up being a hardtail. I'm so looking forward to seeing how that suspension fork eases my riding experience. (Much more on that bike when it comes to fruition.) (2) Once I do find that bike, I really hope I don't have to sell the Mukluk to afford it. I want to keep it, along with both fat and 29er wheel sets, because (apart from the many ridiculous joys of riding fat) there are certain extra-buff trails around here I'm always going to love ripping up on my unique, light, and stiff 29er.

Monday, August 4, 2014

A Weekend at Mohawk Trail State Forest

Mrs V and I packed the micro-SUV (that is to say, the Toyota Corolla) to the gills on Friday and motored northwest for a weekend of camping at Mohawk Trail State Forest. Charlemont and Hawley, which encompass a good part of the park, might not be as celebrated as their noted neighbors, North Adams and Williamstown, but this area is equally beautiful in a different way. Steep, tall hills intimately folded about the beguiling Deerfield River create alluring vistas and rewarding hikes.

I'd reserved a site in the park's car-free area, which entailed hauling our car-load of camping stuff down a steep hill (and back up on Sunday) in two loads with a cart the park provides. It was worth it, though -- the car-free area was occupied by like-minded campers who were quiet and respectful in a friendly way. To top it off, our site was at the very end of the car-free area, a huge spit of land with the Cold River (a Deerfield tributary) rolling by just down a hill at the edge of our site.

After setting up camp, we headed for the hills -- and how! We decided to try hiking the Indian Trail, the closest trail head in the park. Turns out it's also the steepest, scrambling and scrabbling nearly straight up for about a mile and a quarter over large boulders and huge rooty step-ups toward a supposedly rewarding look-out. We made the ridge, but it was getting late and we were pretty worn out, so turned around before the peak. 

Saturday morning, while we broke the fast, I improvised a way to heat the all-important coffee water (is there anything better than camp coffee on a chill morning in the woods?). 

We then set out for the centerpiece of the park: the Mahican-Mohawk Trail, a re-creation of an ancient foot-trail made thousands of years ago by Native Americans traveling between the Deerfield and the Hudson Rivers. The portion in the State Forest is a long, flattish meander from the park entrance (right off Route 2) along the Cold River to its junction with the Deerfield. We then followed the Deerfield closely along a dirt road/hiking trail, strolling by 18th century farm fields, idyllic shaded fishing spots, and a couple of perfect summer meadows.

At one resting place, we were startled by river tubers yelling in delight as they scooted by on the rapid current. The Deerfield is a very popular recreation river, and there are many guide companies established in the area to show visitors a good time. The hullabaloo was a bit out of sync with the peaceful vibe, but hey -- they were having a good time out in nature, and that's a good thing.

We turned back before the path turned significantly uphill toward one of the original (native-made) sections of the trail, because it looked like it climbed straight up Todd Mountain, much like the Indian Trail, but on the reverse side. We'd managed a few hundred yards of the original trail up on the ridge the day before, and decided to call that good enough. (If we had it to do over again, we'd do a short portion of some more moderate trail on Friday, and save our legs for Saturday so we could do the entire Mahican loop.)

Note that if you bring your mountain bike, you could do an easy out-and-back along the Mahican loop, or, if you're very fit and skilled, might even make it up Todd Mountain and around the whole loop.

All in all, a very rewarding visit to a glorious part of our fair state!

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Grace over Grit, Every Time

A long time ago, when I was struggling to make it as a singer-songwriter in the acoustic folk world, I took a few voice lessons from a great local teacher. She was showing me ways to produce more pure sound while using less physical effort. My job was pretty much to fill my lungs and then let the air escape, freely taking shape as sound in my throat and mouth. She told me I was pushing too hard, and I made a wry comment about how familiar that message was to me. She then made a wry comment about how our least helpful patterns seem to follow us most closely into the parts of life we care most about.

In the short time I've been climbing the steep learning curve from experienced road biker to competent mountain biker, I've seen that same dynamic at play. It seems satisfying to heave body and bike over a steep, loose ramp through sheer quadriceps power, but in reality, it's wasteful. On even a moderately intense ride, I'm going to need every watt of power I can conserve, and often skill will create more speed and fun than power ever could.

At lunch today, I headed out for a neighborhood trail that features one super-steep portion which I've never managed to ride through. Feeling stronger and more confident after my personal-record ride at Kingdom Trails last weekend, I was determined to overpower it today.

Surprise! The hill won again.

I could have seen it coming. I set myself up for failure by viewing it as a competition: me versus the hill, My determination doesn't change the nature of this hill; it's steep, uneven, and features roots and rocks aplenty to slip on in the humid dampness of summer. I spun out the rear tire on a wet rock, and, of course, came to a dead stop, given the grade. Starting again wasn't an option -- too steep and loose -- so I hike-a-biked the final 30 yards.

So close!

And yet, I wasn't ashamed. Lots of people would choose to walk their bike up this hill. In the moment, I was humble enough to view this as a chance to learn, and saw that, 18 inches to the right of the fatal rock, there was an unbroken line of good dirt. "Next time," I thought.

Down the trail a ways, I reached another imposing ramp. I approached it in the tried-and-true manner, slipping forward on the saddle to keep my weight vertically aligned over the bottom bracket and evenly distributed through the wheels. But this time, I slid forward much further than usual, and found myself seated on the extreme forward edge. I hadn't even realized I could sit that far forward. And guess what? I spun up the ramp, steady and in control, no grunting or lactic acid involved.

Grace. Elegance. I felt like one of those guys in the extreme videos who make it all look so effortless.

I may be older than a lot of people who try mountain biking for the first time, but I have the benefit of having slogged through some life lessons a few hundred times already. I look for every way I can finesse my way through a fix, rather than power through. (At least on the bike; I'm working on being like this day-to-day…) The end result is that I was able last weekend to ride roughly 60% further and higher than ever before, on more technically demanding trails.

Now pass me the chopsticks, Daniel-san; there's a fly loose in the room.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Northeast Kingdom and Kingdom Trails: Bike Heaven

Ever had one of those outdoors trips that leave you pie-eyed, exhausted, and exhilarated by the end of the weekend? Did you return dutifully to home and work, only to end up wandering dreamily about town, replaying glorious memories of days just passed?

Well, friend, I just had me that kind of a weekend.

*     *     *

Back in February, when I turned 50, I spent a few weeks casting about for a proper way to commemorate the occasion. Fifty years seemed too much of an achievement, too dizzying a precipice, to go without a real humdinger of a celebration.

Many dried-out magic markers and mind-maps later, I settled on cooking up a trip for me and some good friends, people I knew would have the right spirit for such an undertaking. I wanted to keep it within New England so everyone could drive. I wanted it to involve as much biking as possible. And I didn't want to tour; I wanted a beautiful and reliable base camp for us to return to every night, where we could smear ourselves with bear fat, dance in loincloths by the firelight, and tell stories of glory and danger from the hunt.

As the weeks dwindled, one and then another of the three friends I was expecting had to excuse themselves. It was a bit of a let-down to realize that, after all that dreaming and planning, it would just be my friend Todd and me having the actual adventure. However, I've ridden enough with Todd to know that he's a perfect partner for such outings, and I was still pretty darn stoked the week leading up to the trip.

Last Thursday -- four and a half months after my birthday -- I packed up the micro-SUV (my trusty Corolla) with tent, food, sleeping bag, and all the camping accoutrements, strapped the road and mountain bike on the back, pointed it all north, and put a brick on the accelerator. Destination: Vermont's fabled Northeast Kingdom.

Our goal was to ride the famed Kingdom Trails mountain bike park as much as possible, and also to get a couple road rides in the beateous countryside. As it turned out, we did all that and more

I'd booked us a gorgeous campsite at Brighton State Park, a little parcel about 25 minutes north of Burke, home of the Kingdom Trails. When I arrived at the campground, I could hardly believe the beauty.

The sites project out over a beautiful pond, with peaks in the background

A short path from the campsite leads down to water's edge
Todd arrived, and, after setting up camp, we set out on a short ride to get a little dirt road action in before starting the fire for dinner.

Dirt road junkies will find heaven in northeasternVermont
Friday turned out to be a perfect summer day, with cool breezes, temps in the 70s, and blue skies. We were eager to get down to Kingdom Trails and find out what the fuss was all about. The morning was spent on the lower part of Darling Hill, reminding our legs what this mountain biking thing was all about; we enjoyed these trails a lot, and even ended up repeating one of them (Beat Bog) for fun. It was the first time I'd ridden in a purpose-built mountain bike park, and it was strange and wonderful, as if someone had built a candy store in the middle of the woods. So much fun to be had, how do we choose trails? The folks at the check-in office had been very helpful with that.

Around noon, we broke for a sizable lunch, knowing that our bigger challenge lay ahead of us. As we worked on our sandwiches, we struck up a conversation with Bennet and Nathan, two very nice young guys from the West Coast who are traveling the country for nearly five months, going from one infamous adventure site to the next. California, Utah, Colorado, the South -- you name it, they've been there (or are headed there). To top it all off, they're getting college credit for this, since they're majoring in outdoor leadership and have helped to develop their own program. Smart guys, indeed!

As we saddled up for our afternoon ride, they asked for info about our campground and I gave them our site number, assuming we'd never see them again.

Up and up we headed, for the higher trails on the Darling Hill side of the park (the Burke Mountain side is more for the downhill crowd, definitely not our thing). Thence, we dove down the twisty, switchbacky routes that seem to be Kingdom Trails' trademark, my rigid fork registering every lovely root along the way. The registration gal had boasted about how smooth the trails were, but I have to say, even the Pioneer Valley back home in Western Mass has smoother trails than this. Maybe she rides full suspension?

However rooty the trails, they are laid out in such a pleasing manner that we had no complaints. Swoopy, challenging, but not insane, we more than once let out the childish whoops that are the sure sign of a good riding area.

The climb from the river basin on the far side of Darling Hill back up to the peak was brutal, with sections ranging from 15 to even 30 per cent in grade. The reward, however, is so spectacular, it was more than worth the effort: Heaven's Bench.

Burke Mountain from Heaven's Bench
At this point, we'd already far exceeded my record for distance and elevation in the mountains. Since the descent back to town started with a 40% grade (yes, you read that right), I was instantly put on alert that I couldn't let exhaustion blur my nascent skills. I spent the first part of the descent talking out loud to myself, trying to keep sharp. Once we hit Widowmaker, however, the fun took over, and (as happened a few times that day) I suddenly became a better rider, just because the trail was so enjoyable I just had to let go and trust the bike and my body.

We finished the day with 17 miles, no injuries or even dangerous moments, and more joy than I've ever had in one day on a bike.

Ice cream? Of course. A splash in the cold river running behind the town bike shop? You bet! After a stop at camp to shower and change, we headed into Island Pond for burgers. Here are a few shots from this exremely scenic little burg, which is being kept up admirably:

Back at the campground, Todd had just built the fire and I was finishing up a call to Mrs. V., when who should arrive at our virtual doorstep but Nathan and Bennet, in the flesh. We were delighted, and, in response to their shy inquiry, insisted they spend the night at our campsite. We talked into the night of fabulous adventures (no bearfat or dancing about the fire, unfortunately), and Todd and I were deeply impressed with the passion, intelligence, and unstoppable optimism of  these two young fellows. They infused our tired souls with much-needed zest, and we drifted off to sleep with visions of future adventures dancing in our heads.

It was one of the best days of outdoor fun in my life, and I'll remember it forever.

Saturday, the young men left early, and Todd and I struggled to saddle up for a road ride. We were tired from all of Friday's shenanigans! Saddle up we did, however, to head west on Route 105. What looked to be flat-to-rolling on my iPhone, however, turned out to have a few more feet of up and down than expected. However, we were surrounded by miles of low-lying fish and wildlife refuge, which was refreshing and lovely. The hills in the distance were a dramatic border to the picture.

We made it over the New Hampshire line, our stated goal, and searched in vain for decent food in a town so small, one-pony would be the most accurate description.

The best part about North Statford, NH, was the view coming in to town

On the way back, we just about lay down and went to sleep on the side of the road. Only the mosquitoes saved us from being found late in the day, dehydrated and mumbling something about Clif Bars. We got back on the bike, somehow found a rhythm, and formed an efficient paceline of two, actually motoring back to camp in good time. I think I just needed those five mosquito-infested minutes to digest the packaged cheese from the North Stratford Gas Mart.

The rest of the day went quickly, and all too soon, Todd was packed and on his way back to family and home. I stayed Saturday night on my own, reading, resting, and retelling adventures to Mrs. V by phone. Sunday morning, I was up and out early. I stopped in Burke on my way south and got a good breakfast and a bucket-load of coffee. I was envious of all the riders suited up for a day's adventure, and toyed with the idea of one more ride. It wasn't just the fact that -- disappointingly -- there are no public trails in Burke, and I didn't want to pay another $15 for an hour's ride. Over the years, I've learned to make my break early on the final day. Lingering is never as good as it sounds.

*     *     *
Despite the setback of losing two key guys for the trip, Todd and I managed to have the time of our lives in the Kingdom, and were making plans for a return before the weekend was half-over. I strongly recommend these highly-touted trails and this lovely part of scenic and rugged New England.

More importantly, please don't sit around jealously staring at other people's adventure blogs. Let them be a guide to you, just as Bennet and Nathan inspired us. I had plenty of reasons not to chance such an ambitious trip this year, and other reasons along the way to give up (just four weeks ago, my knees were killing me, but I persisted in my already-long search and, in the nick of time, found an ace physical therapist who got me fixed up in no time). 

Bottom line: I found a way, and you can, too. Do it! These are the stories that will sustain us in our dotage!

My new motto: Own the trail, buy the bumper sticker.