Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Bear Standoff in the NEK

I made the first pilgrimage of 2016 up to the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont on my off-Friday with Connecticut riding buddies Alex and Jason. Like the mountains I've been hiking in, not all of the Kingdom Trails have dried out yet. Some of my favorite trails on Burke Mountain are still closed. All of the Darling Hill trails were open though, and there are many miles of great riding outside of the NEK trails network.

One feature I've hit many times is East Mountain, aka "Radar Mtn." East Mountain is the site of an abandoned cold war era military radar installation. It is in a remote area, not easily seen from most valleys where people live. A timber company now owns most of the woodland around the installation, with a private owner owning the buildings.

With Burke Mountain singletrack being closed, the three of us thought a big loop out to Radar Mtn would help fill out a big ride in the Kingdom. We'd roughly follow the Rasputitsa course in reverse out to Radar Mtn in East Haven. For about 10 years, I've wanted to ride through Victory Basin on the back side of Burke Mtn. It's all dirt roads, some narrow seasonal roads. None of us have any aversions to riding mountain bikes on roads. They work just fine, unlike road bikes on a trail.

A sporty pace quickly developed on the first climb up Kirby Mountain Rd. I didn't exactly taper for a race for this ride but started wondering if I should have. The descent to River Rd was sweet. The open views in the basin were gorgeous. We might have seen one or two cars looping around Burke Mtn on this Friday morning.

Kirby Mtn Rd

Descent to River Rd

Alex and Jason in the Victory Basin

River Rd

We reach Gallup Mills and the entrance to Radar Rd in no time. The lower gate was open. I was surprised to find the road vastly improved. It had been a few years since the last time I rode up Radar Mtn. Then it was a doubletrack. Now it was a full width improved gravel road. The climbing along the brook was very gradual.

Less than a mile in, we spooked a black bear in the road. Looked like a young one, probably two years old. He bolted into the woods quickly. I was just thinking earlier that I hadn't seen a bear in quite a while, especially with all of the hiking I've done since last summer. True, bears hibernate, but they've been active for a while now this spring.

At the T-junction in Radar Rd, we found the next gate heading up to also be open. I hadn't seen that before. The road here too was improved to the point where ordinary cars could go up. Why all this improvement? This section used to be eroded, rutted out jeep track. I knew one thing for sure, the descent was going to be so much nicer.

Upon reaching the barracks area, one car was parked. Spooky there, many old buildings that haven't been used in over half a century. We then encountered the new barrier I read about. A massive tank bolstered by huge rocks was placed across the road where it is swamp on either side. Yeah, that will quite effectively prevent car loads of partiers from going the last two miles up the mountain. Vandalism and destruction of property has been a problem, and the private owner had enough of it. Passive recreational use is still permitted. I hope we don't lose it.

The new barrier to keep hooligans out. Not that we're saints...

It was a bit of a hassle to carry bikes around the barrier, but we were into the final 20 minute push to the summit. The grade hovers in the 12-20% range the whole way. A real spanker of a climb. Spooky up top too, with the abandoned big structures that supported the radars to detect Russian bombers coming over the north pole. I've never dared climb any of these to take in the panoramic view that is available. On the ground, trees have grown in to block the view from the summit.

Sustained double-digit grades on final push to summit

The tallest structure. May be possible to go to top, but I was too scared:(

A couple other radar platforms in this photo

Part way up the tall structure, there is opening to snap this view to the east

Bombing down, we crossed paths with a couple hiking up with their dog. The light tree debris on the upper paved switchbacks sketched me out a bit. Jason ripped those turns, commenting later his bike got a little loose on him. Yeah, I wasn't ready to become one with the forest just yet.

Passing the T-junction we earlier turned right at, we continued straight to take a different way back down, the way I always come off this mountain. We quickly came to a massive mountain of crushed granite, resembling something you'd find on a summit cone of a 5000 footer in the White Mountains. It was hike-a-bike talus field. WTF! It was where the road used to go. Did the road resume on the other side? Only one way to find out. I hiked and stumbled my way up to see the road did resume its old, non-improved state on the other side of the talus field. Only problem was the talus grade was so steep we had to hunt for a different way down.

Looking down the "talus" field

Pain in ass to get over, loose and cycling shoes suck

Once back on rideable terrain, we continued up the climb to crest a ridge we had to get over before bombing the rest of the way down to Rt 114. Bear! Wait, no, mama bear with two cubs! My first reaction was cool, two bear sightings in one ride. But this quickly turned to dismay. The cubs immediately bolted up the nearest big tree on right side of road. In seconds, they were 50ft off the ground. Mama stayed right there near the tree for a moment.

Then mama stormed into the road and stared us down. Alex was on the verge of soiling his chamois with his bike pointed downhill and ready to bolt. You know that saying, where you only have to be faster than the slowest guy when a bear chases? Well, Alex was not going to be that guy.

Just then, mama bear bolts off into the woods on the left side of the road. Great. Now what? Cubs on right, mama bear lying in wait on left. We couldn't see mama, but assumed she was right there in the dense forest watching us. That kind of eliminated bush-whacking far to the left to go around cubs and mama bear. It was rough terrain and sight distance limited. Alex suggested we just go all the way back out the way we came and take Victory Rd to Rt 114. That would be like 15+ miles! We'd never get to the NEK singletrack, for which we bought trail passes.

Of course, my nature is to find a "quicker" way. We had no map of the area, no knowledge of what went where. We only knew there was a fork a little further back that kind of angled off in the right direction.

Well, would you???

Just then, mama bear re-appears in the road, staring us down again, clearly agitated. She was giving us the look, "like why are you still here, don't you know I can f you up?" Of course, mam bear bolts back into the woods on the left side of the road, opposite the cubs. Clearly, we were not going out that way. I convince Alex and Jason to give the other fork a try.

Starting out, it seemed nice, improved gravel surface and all. But then it starts veering east, and we needed to go west. Was not looking good. These roads are all winter snowmobile routes. We spotted a sign with map. It was very hard to decipher, as where we needed to go was off the map. In fact, we were barely on the edge of the map. Then Jason spotted sharpie markings on an orange arrow sign that said "Burke." Well, that's the way we're going, so it can't be wrong, can it? See where this is going?

That "trail" was far from improved. In fact, it is a winter only trail and does not get summer travel. it was weedy, wet and mud to rotors at times. We spent almost as much time off the bike filling our shoes with stinky quagmire as we did riding our bikes. Rolling resistance was so high that even going down 20% grades required work. Not being on the map we saw, there was no telling how many miles of this we would have to suffer through.

Let the boondoggle begin!

Doesn't show, but this had to be 20%, very soft, and went forever.

We suffered through a good amount before the grassy surface "improved" a little. But it went straight up an almost impossibly steep fall-line grade. You could see a mile up the trail. It was so disheartening it was laughable. I think after a while my pedaling degenerated to linked track stands. Eventually, all good boondoggles come to an end. We regained the road just over the ridge from where we encountered the three bears. It took 1.2hrs to span 0.5mi on planned route. Burned a huge number of kilojoules in those 1.2hrs going 3mph too.

We had planned to ride a full 100km without stopping for water in town, but now that was out of the question. After hitting the NEK Whiteschool trails, we popped into town for a quick water fill. Alex was content with the 50+ miles we already rode and didn't want to risk injury. Jason and continued on to Darling Hill with some reservations.

What occurred over next 15 miles can be best described as death march punctuated with bouts of adrenaline rush.  We hit many of the classic berm-fest trails, down Troll Stroll, up Tap & Die, down Tody's, up Hogback, down Sidewinder, the new Bear Back flow trail, then over to the east side of Darling Hill. Jason nor I were feeling that chipper any more. We had just ridden over 30 minutes on the most popular trails at NEK and hadn't seen a person. That never happened before. As nice as the riding conditions were, thoughts transitioned to how we get back with the least amount of climbing.

When on east side of Darling Hill, you can't skip the Ridge/Rim descent. Of course, to do the descent meant you had to haul your ass up top first. Pretty much all trails on Darling Hill worth riding require a 200-300ft climb to beginning the fun. Ridge was pretty much the last nail for both of us. We got back to town with 65+ miles and 7600ft of climbing, possibly my biggest MTB ride in the New England to date. We discovered where all the riders were: at the Tiki Bar. So many people and not a whole lot of English being spoken.

I always get a country turkey sandwich at the cafe after riding NEK. It is a whole Thanksgiving Day meal on a sub roll - turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce and more. Must have weighed a kilo. It was gone in 10 minutes. Always a great way to cap off an excellent adventure in the kingdom.


Jason said...

"thoughts transitioned to how we get back with the least amount of climbing"- I'm shocked! Is that the "Hill Junkie" way?! :D

Hill Junkie said...

I didn't say they were my thoughts ;)

Jason said...

Oh, okay, I'm relieved to hear that. I thought the "Hill Junkie" way was getting watered down. ;)

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