Sunday, October 28, 2012

Medicine for the Soul

I had this past Friday off from work, and the day was expected to be one of those pristine, autumn days. I hadn't been up to ride the North Conway trails all summer. The higher peaks have already received dustings of snow. I was potentially looking at my last opportunity of the season to hit my favorite trails east of the Mississippi.

I wasted no time getting up there, less than 2.5hrs drive, including Starbucks stop. I had loaded my Garmin 705 GPS with a 30+ mile track. I pulled in a bunch of new material, trails I haven't ridden before. I knew there was a new trail that parallels Red Tail Trail, but didn't know it's name or exactly how it went until I found it on Strava. It is called Kettle Ridge Trail. People were riding it up, so I had to try it. My planned route hit the summit of Black Cap Mtn before bombing down Black Cap Connector, Side Hill Trail to the Redstone Quarry, then a trail called Outer Limits, a portion of which DaveP and I hit last year. A swing through Sticks and Stones on the way back to Cranmore, then up the service road for a final plummet down Red Tail Trail. A lot of very steep climbing in not so many miles.

The air was crisp starting out, the way I like it. Track research on Strava showed me how to access Red Tail/Kettle Ridge without taking Kearsarge/Hurricane roads to get there. This is a nice trail behind the condo's that heads up to the water tank. The two trails split at the tank, Red Tail heads up to the left, Kettle Ridge heads up to the right.

Climbing got serious immediately. I didn't have very fresh legs. There were many sustained bits of 20+% grade, tightly woven through trees and rocks with sharp switchbacks. I didn't clean it, but it was certainly all rideable. Once the ridge was gained, the climbing relaxed to a more sane gradient.

Kettle Ridge merges into Cranmore Trail above the ski area summit. Climbing continued. The first mile of Kettle Ridge wreaked havoc on my legs and I was dreading the wall on Black Cap Connector.  When you first see it, you think no way am I riding up that. But every time, at least for the last several times I've ridden here, I've managed to clean it. I continued the success streak. A short spur heads up to the mostly bald, granite summit of Black Cap Mountain.

Cranmore Trail early in ride. Bare granite tread here.

While mashing up this segment, a couple no older than 70 commented how just watching me made their knees hurt. Then the woman said "wait another 40 years and see how your knees feel!" Wow, did she think I was only 30? Everybody outside that day was enjoying good vibes, so I didn't want to be a vibe-kill and tell her was a card carrying AARP member too.

There were a few hikers up top enjoying the mint weather.  I could have hung out all day. End of October, riding in short sleeves, perfect temp, zero wind, zero bugs and zero clouds. Last year at this time, much of New England was buried under feet of snow and without power.

On summit of Black Cap Mtn

Mt Washington in distance from Black Cap.

Eventually I had to leave the summit and continue my ride. The descent was quite treacherous. Leaf drop was complete on the mountain. Those who've descended Black Cap via Connector know how rutted out it is. The deal is, every year erosion carves it out a little differently. Then you fill those foot deep ruts with leaves, well, you have no idea what you are hurling your front wheel into down a 20% slope. I went almost as slowly down as I went up.

Coming down Black Cap Connector.
Much of it is pretty rugged.

The leaf drop made route following on Side Hill Trail difficult. Even though I've ridden this trail many times, and it is not very technical, I found myself off track many times. The forest floor looked the same everywhere. I came to the giant rock that Dave rode over last time. I pondered if I'd ever dare try it. It is all commitment. If you hesitate, you'll pay dearly. Then as I came around the other side, it appears the massive rock slab that provided the exit ramp is gone. It is a 5-6ft drop now, on stuff you wouldn't want to land on. I pity anybody that doesn't know this and meets catastrophe.

Side Hill Trail. Route following difficult at times.

My track took me on a slightly different way through the Redstone Quarry. Some pretty challenging terrain in there, with interesting equipment that was built maybe a hundred years ago.

Redstone Quarry Trail

Pillar milling lathe at Redstone Quarry

After passing through the quarry, the route began climbing earnestly again on Outer Limits. I had climbed much of this once before, but this time I climbed higher. Much of the vertical here is gained in painfully steep pitches. Instead of descending on doubletrack like Dave and I did last year, my Strava mined route descended on fast, flowy singletrack most of the way down. Major score.

I hit a bunch more new-to-me singletrack that paralleled the powerlines en route to Sticks & Stones. S&S is wicked fun, even 3+ hours into a hard ride. It is all decomposed granite and has amazing flow. Parts of it are almost like a super-sized pump track.

A shortcut under the powerlines brought me to the Cranmore Ski Area service road. The rubbish pile there pretty much completely blocked off access to the service road. Crews were unloading stuff into dumpsters. A lot of activity was going on. The road seemed to have been widened a bit, and it was evident a lot of traffic was actively going up and down it. At the time I thought "bonus!",  as it was well packed and the sustained 20% sections wouldn't be like riding on marbles.

About a quarter of the way up, were the bottom terminus of a new chairlift was being installed, a Cranmore worker hollered at me. I turned around to see what he wanted. He informed me the road was closed, and they have a big sign at the bottom saying no mountain biking or hiking during the construction period. My heart sank. I really needed the climb and that Red Tail Trail descent to reach the highest level of MTB bliss. I explained that from the direction I cut into the service road, I didn't see the sign, and I wasn't planning on coming back down the road. He said there was a lot of heavy equipment on the road and it was dangerous to continue. He did not explicitly tell me to turn around, and I remained persistent that I wouldn't get in anybody's way and was just passing though to Red Tail. Things kind of stopped there and I continued on, although nervously.  I encountered only one vehicle on the road after that, a large propane truck, coming down a 20% grade on essentially jeep road surface. I could see where tires were skidding over rocks. I wouldn't have enjoyed being that driver.

I had hoped to catch a photo of North Conway from the ski area summit, but there were many large dirt moving machines going about. I was more than happy to get off the service road after that 1200ft climb anyway, so I started heading up Cranmore Trail. My shadow was getting long on the trail in front of me as I headed east. The days are so short now, and the temp was starting to drop too.

Long shadow on Cranmore Trail late in ride

I dove into Red Tail Trail, my favorite trail east of the Mississippi. It appeared to have been brushed out. No leaves! The trail had been logged several years ago, and new growth had since blocked the expansive views of the Mt Washington Valley. But to my surprise, a large area of this new growth had been trimmed back, opening an amazing view back up. I assume this was done not just for humans to take in the view, but for critters than can benefit from open meadows. Either way, it was a nice bonus.

Reclaimed clearing near top of Red Tail Trail.
All singletrack down from here!

Nothing but FLOW on Red Tail Trail

Bottom of Red Tail Trail along stream

I rolled back into town with about 33mi, 6000ft and 4.7hrs on the Garmin. This ride is almost all singletrack. I rode cautiously and had no mishaps. It was one of my best rides ever in this part of the country. I really needed that, working extra hours lately, with some home projects going on too. With Hurricane Sandy bearing down on the northeast, off-road riding could be a mess until next season.

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