Wednesday, November 23, 2016

A Wilderness Ride

I had hoped that I would be able to ride to the VermontFest educational conference in Killington, as I did once in the past, but the early November weather did not cooperate, yielding instead a cold rain, Thursday morning.  I took the Gunnar with me, planning to get in an evening ride or two, after the rain stopped.  Thursday evening, I headed down steep East Mountain Rd and then to West Bridgewater, to check out some dirt roads that have long intrigued me.  The climb on Bridgewater Hill Rd was quite steep, but I turned around after two miles, as it was getting pretty dark by then and I had the tough climb back to the hotel ahead of me. I'll have to leave those roads for a future expedition.

After the second and final day of the conference, I parked at the bottom of East Mountain Rd in the parking lot of the lower gondola station for the ski area and struck out on a loop I had planned.  I headed down VT-100 toward Plymouth, until I got to the old CCC road that heads up into the Coolidge State Forest. The single-lane road was closed for the winter, but quite smooth, and I had it all to myself, winding around the switchbacks as it climbed out of the valley.

At the very top, I came upon what I thought was a monument, but which turned out to be a chimney, likely left from a cabin that had burned.  It was in pretty rough shape.

 After the top of the climb, I came on another gate and the road at this point was open to vehicles, but since it was effectively a dead-end, I saw no one.  With the leaves gone, I had some nice views of the wilderness through the trees and I could imagine what this area might have been like when it was settled, as evidenced by the many stone walls and empty fieldstone foundations.  It was very peaceful.

Soon, the road dropped down the other side of the ridge and houses started appearing.  The dirt turned to pavement as I reached North Shrewsbury, where I stopped to get a few photos of the old church.  This is one of those really short, classic churches, although it doesn't show in the photo.  It's quite similar to the one in East Braintree, except it still has the two entrances common to many of the churches built in the early 1800s, when there were separate doors for men and women.  This is locally known as the Northam Church and the plaque on the front indicates a date of 1823.  The Men's door on the right had been retrofitted with a wheelchair ramp and, with typical Yankee ingenuity, they simply shortened the door by cutting off the bottom.  After all, a wheelchair user doesn't need the extra headroom!

The road soon turned back to dirt, and I made the turn onto Upper Cold River Road, where I soon stopped to take a photo looking up the valley in the setting sun.  I should have brought a real camera with me, as the quality of the one in my Motorola cell phone isn't that great, especially in low light.

Soon, I passed this beautifully restored building that bore a plaque indicating that it had been built as a cheese factory in the 1800s.

The road wound past more stone walls and eventually started a long, steep downward pitch until reaching the recently restored Brown Covered Bridge, built using the Town Lattice truss design in 1880 by Vermont bridge builder Nicholas Powers.

There are two unusual features of this bridge.  First, it is believed to be the only covered bridge in the US that retains its original slate roof.  Second, at one end the bridge abutment is built into a large boulder.  The location of the bridge obviously was chosen to utilize this boulder and this proved quite fortuitous, as it likely saved the bridge from destruction during Hurricane Irene in 2011, when the roadway on the other side of this boulder was completely washed away.  Powers was also the builder of the famous Blenheim Covered Bridge in Schoharie, NY, which was carried off to its destruction by Irene.

The bridge is also considered unusually well-preserved, having received no major reconstruction beyond the replacement of its siding since it was built over 130 years ago. Even so, it remains in extremely sound condition. There wasn't much light left when I shot the last photo, looking down the side of the rebuilt roadway as I climbed back out of the brook's ravine.

I was soon back on pavement and enjoyed a nice descent into Rutland.  I had toyed with the idea of taking another unfamiliar road that headed back into the wilderness, instead of riding busy US-4 over the mountain, but had pretty much decided it was getting too dark when I came on the turn and talked myself into taking the gamble. I soon found myself climbing the exceptionally steep Notch Road, eventually turning onto Wheelerville Rd and was deep in the woods, again. There is nothing left of Wheelerville--and there are only a few houses at the beginning and end of the eight-mile, single lane dirt road.  I found the road deserted, as it wound through the Rutland City Forest.  The road surface was light colored and I took advantage of the partial moon to leave my headlight off and follow the white ribbon through the trees.  It was magical, and the road was almost completely free of potholes, so I enjoyed the dark solitude.  The sounds of animals fighting in the forest kept me moving, though!

Mary Provost's Grave, from
Later, when I was looking for information about the area, I found that I had ridden right by a cemetery that dated back to the mid-1800s, when the area hosted a small settlement.  The cemetery is tiny, with only seven unmaintained graves, and I wondered about the story that must be behind those of three children who died over a fifteen year interval, at ages ranging from 5 months to six years.  I tried to imagine what it must have been like for their mother; how many others in the family may have survived, and did the family give up trying to scratch out a life in the wilderness?  Is that why the parents are not buried there?  Did they move to Rutland, or go to find a better life out west?  The cemetery also contains the headstone of "Indian Joe," who reportedly saved a settlement of whites from impending massacre, and then escaped to Vermont where he hid out from members of his tribe until he died in 1810.  I will definitely head back to the area sometime in the daylight to check out this small patch of Vermont history.

I turned on my headlight when I approached Rte. 4 and took advantage of its wide shoulder as I climbed the mountain alongside a steady flow of traffic.  Four miles later, I reached Pico Ski area, where the road pitched down and the traffic thinned out to a trickle as I enjoyed the long descent past Killington town.  One final, short detour onto Mission Farm Rd, which was almost certainly once part of US-4, and I was back to my car.  It was only 42 miles, but over 4,000' of sometimes extremely steep climbing.  Definitely a great capstone on a good year of cycling.  It will be a fond memory as I slog through the winter months on studded tires, under multiple layers of clothes.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Kelly Stand Loop: An "Epic" Tandem Ride

The term "epic" is vastly overused when describing athletic activities.  You can look up the definitions of the word yourself, but if you will permit me to redefine the term to mean a ride that you will remember in detail the rest of your life, then the loop Jeanne and I did on August 20th certainly qualifies.

I had spotted Kelly Stand Road on a map years ago and quickly decided that it was one that I wanted to ride, sometime.  I was taken by its remoteness and a couple years ago, I was traveling through the area with a suitable bike in the car and decided to try it.  I parked in Arlington and when I reached the start of the road, I noticed with dismay that it was a construction zone.  The road had been largely washed out in Hurricane Irene and its rebuild was one of the last of the storm reconstruction projects in Vermont.  In fact, the state had planned to simply abandon the road, due the extent of the damage, but locals lobbied their legislators until they found the money to reconstruct it.  I forged ahead, past the signs warning me not to, and threaded my way past a number of very large excavators, making it most of the way through before a foreman stopped me.  Since it was far shorter to continue on the road, he let me go on, with an admonition to not come back and to not try it again.  No problem there, but I think my focus on the construction itself distracted me from the grade and left me with a sense that it was easier that it actually was.

Chiselville Covered Bridge
I've long wanted to go back and ride this scenic road on a tandem, so I eventually talked Jeanne into it and we headed down to Manchester to start the ride from there.  The stretch from Manchester to Arlington is quite nice, with pleasant roads that parallel the busier US-7.  There was only one significant climb and we were rewarded with a ride through the Chiselville covered bridge, near the end of the descent.  The name comes from an early mill at this location that was renown for its associated iron works that made outstanding--you guessed it--chisels.

We noticed as soon as we turned onto Kelly Stand Rd that it had been recently graded.  We were riding a tandem with 38mm tires, so we had the right rubber for it, but there were a few places where the grade was steep and the surface loose enough that we had barely enough traction to maintain forward momentum.  There's a big difference between riding smooth, hard packed dirt and freshly graded gravel, especially of the type that has only recently been laid down.  The material contained a lot of sand and none of the clay that tends to work its way up through over decades of use and which can provide a surface that sometimes rivals asphalt.  There was a huge difference once we had completed the several miles of newly rebuilt road and were on the section above the washout, which was relatively smooth, in spite of the grading.

Kelly Stand Rd
We were about half way up the long climb when I realized I was soaked with sweat.  Near the top, Jeanne called me on the fact that I had said it was a long, but easy climb, with only a few steeper pulls.  Her GPS had revealed the truth--multiple 18% climbs, extended grades of 13% - 16% and an elevation of 2800' at the top, for an almost unbroken 2100' climb, much of it on some pretty loose and bumpy gravel.  This rivals many of Vermont's storied "gaps." Including a couple short breaks on the climb, it had taken us 2 1/2 hours to cover less than 21 miles.  On Kelly Stand Rd, we had climbed 1900' in just over eight miles of almost unbroken ascent.  Suffice to say, we were plenty glad to reach the top.

Daniel Webster Monument
Just before the end of Kelly Stand Rd, where it turns to pavement and becomes the Stratton-Arlington Rd,  is a monument that I have been trying to locate for years.  At this location, in the summer of 1840, Daniel Webster came to speak, over the course of two days, to an estimated 15,000 people on behalf of the candidacy of William Harrison for president.  This event has amazed me since I learned about it, as Kelly Stand was little more than a logging camp at that time (it's uninhabited, now), with the only business being a single, small hotel on the stage line.  There was no significant population in the area, yet Webster was such a respected figure that his presence drew a gigantic crowd for the time, with people traveling many miles via horse and buggy to hear him.  Political speeches, like sermons in those days, could run many hours but people didn't have the entertainment options that we now have, so they were willing to go through the hardship of a long trek into the wilderness for such an event.  To assemble 15,000 people, many of them would have had to travel quite a distance to get there!  I think it reflects the level of orator than Webster must have been.  Apparently, it was to good effect, as all the counties surrounding the area went for Harrison in the election, some of them by fairly small margins.  History buffs will recall that Harrison's term only lasted a month, as he caught a bad cold after giving a long inaugural address outdoors in bad conditions and died, leaving his running mate, Tyler, to complete his term.  Today, this monument in a small clearing marks where the event took place.

We were rewarded by an extended, and in some places high speed, winding nine-mile descent to Wardsboro and VT-100.  Very little traffic and mostly smooth roads made it quite fun.  Then it was another nine miles heading downhill to the intersection with VT-30.  After climbing that section so many times during the 100/200, it was nice to be heading the opposite direction.  We had coasted most of 18 miles!  From there, it was an easy climb up to Jamaica where we took a much needed break.  Jeanne's legs started really hurting a couple miles before, leaving us a bit concerned as there was no way to shortcut the ride, but the break, and a chocolate creemee, did wonders, and soon we were on our way again.

I had long wanted to ride some of the West River Rail Trail, and had worked this into the route.  There's a great video at that describes the trail and shows some of its route.  The railroad had run from 1879 until a number of sections were destroyed in the Great Flood of 1927, and it never recovered, becoming fully abandoned in 1936, leaving very little of the infrastructure intact, today.  The rail trail is a fairly recent construct, and we were traveling the "upper section," which is bisected by the Ball Mountain Reservoir, which now covers a long section of the old railroad bed.  It was this interruption which put the ride over the threshold that I believe qualifies it as "epic."

Former RR bridge in Jamaica, VT
The first evidence of the defunct railroad that we encountered was this bridge, which is now used to access the Jamaica State Park.  Its placard shows that it was built in 1926, leaving it in use as a RR bridge for only a year.  Not wanting to pay the park fee just to ride through on the rail trail, we followed the old rail bed around the gate, and threaded through the campsites until we picked up the trail on the other side.

West River Rail Trail

The rail trail in this area is quite nice, but it gradually deteriorates and eventually leaves the old RR bed and becomes more of a trail.  There were a couple places where we needed to dismount and push, until a clearing presented us with the wall of stone that is the Ball Mountain Dam.  I had only hinted of this to Jeanne, so it was quite a shock to her to learn that we needed to get to the top of it.  A steep trail led us to the series of switchbacks that climbed the face of the dam.  Although a young couple successfully rode their mountain bikes down it, there was no way we were going to be able to get around the switchbacks with the tandem, so we resorted to pushing the bike to the top.

Ball Mountain Dam
Top of Ball Mountain Dam
Aerial View
Posing on the dam
Jeanne poses in front of the reservoir
It would take a lot of water to raise the level to the spillway
View of the dam from the west side

After a false start, we located the trail on the other side.  Since the RR bed is somewhere under the reservoir, a hiking trail travels 2 1/2 miles along the edge to link up to the point where the former railroad reappears.  Though parts are rideable, and would be more so on a mountain bike, there are a number of sections that were quite tough to get through with a tandem!  I was glad that our bike is well-nicked up and thus didn't feel bad about the many rocks it contacted on our way through.

Stonework on the trail around the reservoir
It was worth the trek just to cross this stone bridge in front of the waterfall.
Jeanne is laughing because she knows it's going to be
my job to carry the bike up this section of the trail.

We came out on the backside of a campground.  After bouncing over all kinds of rough surfaces and trails, I hit a portable speed bump that had been laid across the pavement.  I was taking advantage of the smooth asphalt to get to my water bottle and didn't see it until an instant before we hit.  The stupid thing was at least 4" tall and the resulting whack left us with a blip in the front rim.  I was some peeved that there were no pavement markings warning of this obstacle.

We took another break in Londonderry, and Jeanne was none too happy with the fact that she could see the steep climb on VT-11 that we were going to have to take.  We pass by this spot on the 100/200, and I am always glad that our route veers off to the left when we reach this spot, as VT-11 looms like a wall in front of you.  That was not going to be the case, today.  After downing a cold drink and a couple energy bars, we were back on the bike, passing the sign noting it is eight miles to the Bromley Mountain ski area.  This is not a continual climb, but one of those rolling ones.  Although we were glad that it was actually only a bit over seven miles to the top, we climbed 1150' to make just 900' of vertical gain.  Although I knew what to expect, Jeanne was pleasantly surprised that it was entirely downhill for the last 6.3 miles, with extended 9% grades, making for a fine and fun end to the ride.  We earned it!

I highly doubt that we'll be doing this section of the White River Rail Trail again on the tandem.  Jeanne commented that her sentiment was the same as that expressed by most riders when they reach the top of the Mt. Snow climb, "Well, I never have to THAT again!"  Of course, many do return, so you never know!  Still, I'm thinking that we'll just leave it as an "epic" memory, and seek out other challenges in the future.

I confess that I showed Jeanne a stretched out version of the elevation profile, before the ride.