Sunday, July 31, 2011

Jeff Papenfus

I was out of comm range all day, but when my phone finally started working again I had this waiting for me:

"Hey man just to let you know not sure about all the details but Jeff Papenfus died while Mtn biking today"

Aside from hundreds of condolences, that's all I've heard.

I met Jeff last year at the TNGA and he was signed up again for this year's ride. I hardly knew him, but he was a brother just the same.

Here he is with Ruth after finishing last year.

Ruth and Jeff

May we all die doing something we love.

Rest well brother.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Jake and Bull Mountains

Yesterday I had plans to head east to Augusta and ride a bunch of miles out there. I'd hoped to rope a couple of friends into riding with me too, but I got no takers and the more I thought about it, the more I realized that the riding with friends part was more operative than the riding a bunch of miles part.

As luck would have it, Dr. Z was trying to get a ride together from the Jake Mountain lot this morning. We were to be there, ready to ride at 9:45. And, though I'd been up late journaling last night, I was there, ready to ride at 9:30.

There was one other truck in the lot when I got there, and I recognized it. Literally every time I've ridden at Bull or Jake this year, I have seen it and ran into it's owner on the trail or in the lot. She's a former equestrian who lives nearby. She can't ride after having had a hip replacement, but she and her cute little dog hike all over Bull and Jake Mountains. She's the sweetest lady and I hoped I'd get a chance to see her on the trail.

9:45 came and went. Nobody had actually replied saying they were going to show up, so I started thinking she'd called it off and felt silly for not posting "I'm in" or some other trivial indication. At 9:50 some folks showed up with a horse trailer. At 10:00 a truck finally pulled up, but it was loaded with dudes.

One of those dudes was Marc Hirsch though. Hirsch! A while back, he'd broken his hand. He told me how, but I don't remember now. It was bike related, but I think he was working on his bike and it was some freak accident. Maybe it was from a tire exploding when he was trying to get it to seat. Michele had the same thing happen to her the night before though so maybe I'm getting them mixed up. At any rate, he was healed up and he invited me to ride with him, Eric and Chris (I think? Man, I'm bad with names) who are a couple of pro's riding for Atlanta Pro Bikes. There would almost certainly be some spelunking in the pain cave, but seeing as the folks I was hoping to meet didn't look like they were going to show, I was all in.

Of course, not 10 minutes later, they did show.

At first I didn't recognize them because they were in Michael's truck and I figured it couldn't be him. He'd busted his finger in the same watersports accident that took Michele out a few weeks back and wasn't riding mountain bikes for the time being. But, indeed, it was them:

 Michael and Michele

Great photo of Michele there. I have this uncanny ability to take the shot right when at least one if its subjects are looking away.

I was then faced with an impressive moral dilemma and with Hirsch and crew still getting ready, the ethical centers of my brain had plenty of time to waffle back and forth about it. With which group should I ride? It was a no-win situation - the Kobayashi Maru. It seems like the older I get, the much more of those I run into. It was possible to disappoint either of my friends, or potentially, neither might mind. Both are generally cool. Aaaa! I ultimately decided not to bail on Hirsch's crew, having actually committed to ride with them. If it seemed a little awkward, that's why. Sorry guys.

Me and the dudes rolled out a few minutes after all that and went flying down Jake Mountain. After the first couple of rollers, you can literally coast all the way to Jones Creek. Man, these new trails are great.

On the descent to the creek, we passed the owner of the truck and her little white dog. I'd talked to her for a while the last time I was up there, but I'm not sure if she recognized me or not. I'm sure I'll see her again. I need to get her name next time.

At the creek, I waded in directly but everybody else was all "Oh, come on, you've got to be kidding..." We all like to get dirty, but I think I'm the only mountain biker there is who likes getting wet too.

Not far up after that we ran into a lady on horseback. Her horse spun when she saw us, but she held on and got it under control. When it spun, I noticed a long braided tail... I know this horse! And, for that matter, it's owner. Russell had been talking to her at Dry Creek when we drove up a few weeks back. Her horse is extremely scared of bikes and she had been hoping he could help desensitize it, but she couldn't get the horse to go anywhere near his bike. Today, we stopped, she got him off trail in a corner and we walked by. The poor animal was noticeably nervous, but he was holding it together. I mentioned that we'd met at Dry Creek a few weeks back. She kind-of remembered. I'm pretty sure at the time she was way more focused on just getting on the trail.

What are the odds though, that of the thousands of mountain bikers, hikers and equestrians in North Georgia, I'd have randomly run into one of each that I knew?

Speaking of running into things, we ran into this black rat snake a few miles later.

 Black Rat Snake

Marc identified it. I thought it was a king snake before I got a good look at it.

We stood around gawking while and it eased itself away...

 Our Crew

...and I took a couple of blurry pictures.

We rolled up Jake to Black Branch, around the new trail there to Montgomery Creek and spun the loop up there that leads past the falls. None of the guys had ever seen the falls before.

For whatever reason, the inner part of the chamois in my bib kept folding up on itself. If I stayed seated, it was fine, but if I stood up at all, or especially if I walked, it would bunch up and fold over on itself. It gave me extra padding, but it was unevenly distributed, annoying and occasionally painful. It started doing it somewhere in there and I ended up picking at it all day long. It might be time for a new pair of shorts, but seriously, what the heck?

We attempted to ride No-Tell and Turner Creek, but the APB guys were sparring with each other, rode up past me and Hirsch and past all of the possible turn off's for either. We ended up hanging a right at the Y and riding up past the old game check station instead, out on 77A and up Bare Hare.

I'd been on the front all day, trying to keep the pace down to something I could manage, but on the road it was impossible to keep up. I refilled an empty bottle at Lance Creek, but in my haste, I didn't drop an iodine tablet in it. I had another full bottle, so I figured I'd only use it if I had to and I'd either purify it then or dump it out and refill it from one of the trickles at the top.

I struggled up the Bare Hare roadbed, which is looking a lot more like singletrack these days. I was climbing strong compared to how I usually climb, but I couldn't even keep the rest of the guys in sight. At the proper singletrack, I told them not to wait for me. They had a time they needed to get back for and I didn't want to hold them up. Still, we ended up staying together, more or less, up to the very top.

We ran into Michele's crew about halfway up too.

 Michael and Michele Again

Again, everyone in this photo is looking away.

The guys were just out of sight at the top, but we were about to descend Bull. I'm usually fast on a downhill, and I figured I'd catch them but "at such odds with destiny are all the little plans of man" or something like that.

Right away: pinch flat.


I changed it quickly, but it meant abandoning the chase.

Abandoning the chase gave me the opportunity to take the obligatory truck shot though. So, that's good. Right?


It also gave me a chance to examine some of the dozens of pink ribbons, hanging all over up there. We used pink ribbons to mark the Fool's Gold route last year, somebody had forgotten to take them down from No-Tell and I'd ended up picking them up myself during a bunch of night rides last winter. At first I thought "Oh, man, did somebody forget these too?" But they had words written on them. Mostly "dip."

Ohhh. All right, somebody's going to run the Ditch Witch up here. That'll be nice. Bull's in fair shape now and it's a long way up the mountain from any streams, but it could use some work. In a few places, I'd like to see the trail pushed to the outside a bit and debris placed on the inside too. In some places though, it might not be necessary. Tons of little sprigs have shot up through the duff that's built up on the inside. I hadn't noticed them in previous years. I wonder now if that's a new development or if I just never noticed before.

Speaking of not noticing things. Apparently I didn't notice another rock and flatted again, not a quarter mile down from the truck.

 Double Flat

I'd been riding really carefully too, but apparently not carefully enough.

I usually bring a patch kit and my little pump, but figuring I'd be with a group all day, I'd left them back at the truck. Come on Dave. There was no fixing it this time and not wanting to ruin the rim, I walked.

I fully expected to walk all the way back to the Jake Lot, which had to be 6 or 8 miles away, but after a mile and a half or so, I ran into a group riding up the trail and they offered me some help. The lead rider was the guy John who owns the bike shop in Dahlonega. I can't definitively remember his last name now, Dahlman, I think, unless that's a different John, but for the last few years, between generally exploring up there, and Fools Gold-related stuff, I'd almost run into him several times, but never managed to actually do it. Well, today I finally did. He was leading a ride with some guys that were up from Florida. One of them had a 26er and two spare tubes. They also had a pump and a dozen CO2's and before long, I was rolling again. Thanks so much guys. I owe ya.

From then on, gravity did most of the work. I rolled down to FS83 and took the Bypass and Bull/Jake Connector back to the lot.

All in all it was a pretty good day. It was great to meet the APB guys and really good to ride with Marc again. I feel fast and strong when I'm all alone in the woods by myself, and I probably am compared to myself last year, but it was really good to ride with some stronger guys, get a reality check and set some expectations for the next couple of races.

Silver Comet

I had a good day with the girls today. We started the day off right, pounding three times our daily allowance of sugar at the Dutch Monkey, and then trying to burn some of that off throwing and kicking various balls around the park for a while. Kathryn even joined us. It seems like the kids can't take more than about 2 hours of that at a time though, so we got done before noon.

I tried calling Tim to see if he wanted to go ride tomorrow but he was in North Carolina getting ready for ORAMM. Oh yeah, ORAMM. I'm not ORAMM'ing this year, but practically everyone else I know is. My brother's out of town too. I didn't even get any takers on facebook. It'll be a lonely day tomorrow.

All that was back-burner though.

Our next stop today was the Silver Comet Trail. Or, more precisely, the Twisted Taco across the street from the start of the Silver Comet Trail.

 Twisted Taco

We probably hadn't burned off all those donut calories yet, but the donuts themselves were no longer filling our respective abdominal voids.

We were starving and the Twisted Taco alone could save us.

Post-tacos, as we got ready to actually ride, Iz noticed that she couldn't make her helmet fit any more. No kidding, it just wouldn't sit down far enough on her head. Fortunately, Smyrna Bicycles was two doors down from the taco shop. They hooked us up and now she's that proud owner of a new Giro that ought to last a couple of years.


We took off down the Silver Comet.

The girls actually watched the first week and a half of the Tour with me, I think mainly because it enabled them to stay up late, but eventually they got legitimately interested, asked me about ten thousand questions and even started pointing out things that I'd explained to them earlier. Who knows how long it'll be before this knowledge gets pushed out to make room for more important things, but for the time being, they seem to understand the concepts of drafting and rotation and today we took the opportunity to try it out for ourselves.

Not that you can get much of a draft off of a kid going under 10 miles an hour, but it was really interesting. I showed them how to do a team time-trial style rotation, where one rider pulls for a little while, then drops back and the next rider pulls until the previous one has fallen in at the back. They picked it up immediately and didn't have any trouble that I didn't see riders my age have last Wednesday in the Reality B1 group. Before long we were doing it without talking at all.

We flew through Smyrna and Mableton.

 Train Tunnel

Eventually they got tired of constantly shifting around though so we switched to long turns. One of us would pull for a few minutes before rotating back.

It was surprising how much slower we went.

There was no draft to speak of, but I guess all that rest they'd get dropping back made them punch it just that little bit when pulling through. When we took long turns, without the draft, it was just a steady, slow grind. The difference was really amazing.

The terrain had an interesting effect too. The Big Creek Greenway is twisty with varying grades, bridges, punchy climbs, boardwalks and other features. The Silver Comet is a dead-straight rail-trail with long, barely noticeable climbs and equally long, barely noticeable descents. Occasionally there's a road that you have to cross, or a new bridge that doesn't just use an old trestle but otherwise, it's pretty much straight and flat.

But it's not really flat, and the kids can push hard for a block or two, but on a mile long, steady, barely perceptible climb, they'd start struggling about halfway through. It confused them tremendously. Not realizing they were climbing, they felt like they were about to run out of gas entirely, but then a half mile later, they'd be fine again when the grade pitched almost undetectably down.

I remember having similar issues when I first moved here. I'd climb like the top was at that corner or that false-flat that I could see up ahead. It took me a while to learn to just assume that I'd be climbing all day. The girls have that concept down hiking, but it hasn't translated to the bike yet.

We consumed miles and miles of trail. We'd meant to ride out 10 and turn around, but somewhere in the middle of 9, they quit marking the miles and we ended up riding out about 12.

Just prior, we stopped at an intersection in Powder Springs for some water.

 Powder Springs Sign

There was a big, crazy bush there with hundreds of flowers and dozens of butterflies.


We counted four different species, but there might have been more. There were about half as many bees too, mainly Honeybees and Driller Bees.

The ride back was faster than the ride out. I'm not sure if it was net downhill or if it just seemed faster, but every time we looked up we'd ridden another half mile.

We alternated between quick turns and long turns and the girls got pretty good at it for a while.

We did have two classic chain reactions though, where the lead rider stopped pedalling and nearly crashed out the rider at the back. I'd been warning them all day about the danger of that, but it took a couple of close calls to make it clear. I seriously almost went down the first time, there was no time to think, it was just instinct and luck that prevented it. I'd have been more upset if I didn't see grown adults do the same thing every week.

At the very end, there's a tough climb up off of the Silver Comet proper to a connector trail, then you go around a bend, cross a street and then you're back at the lot. Since Sophie has no gears, I had to ride up and start pushing her at the halfway point. I kept looking back, and every time, Iz looked like she had it. Apparently though, she cracked just after the very last time I looked, right as we'd gone around the bend. She'd had to stop and walk, but when we went around the corner, she panicked, thought we'd cross the street without her and tried to run to catch up. Realizing that she didn't have the energy to run, she panicked even more. By the time she saw that we'd stopped, it was too late. She's already been breathing super hard and that last bit of panic had made her cry. While relieved that we'd waited, she could barely breathe and all we could do was wait until she either calmed down and caught her breath or passed out.

It reminded me of Sophie getting locked in the bathroom a few weeks back. It never fails to amaze me what they shrug off and it never fails to amaze me what terrifies them completely. Bears, snakes, 100 foot cliffs - who cares? Spider webs, broken locks and crosswalks - utter terror. I guess that's part of the charm of fatherhood. I am glad that Iz didn't pass out though.

After all that, we went swimming with my mom and their cousins at the pool in my brother's neighborhood.


Yay, swimming! Every ride this summer must end with a swim. It's a new North Georgia ordinance.

We grabbed some dinner at the Douglasville Diner. It was OK. The milkshake we split for desert was excellent. With three straws, it was gone in minutes.

On the way back, I had to get some gas and walking around the back of the car, I glanced up at the bikes and it triggered a sense-memory.

 End of the Day

Out all day, heading home, exhausted but happy, need to get some gas... bikes on the roof. You can't ride them now, but they're symbolic of the great time you'd been having and the how much you love the friends you'd been having it with. I have so many memories like that. In most of them, the other bike(s) belong to some riding buddies or my brother, or my dad, but this time it was Isabels. Today's wasn't the best ride ever, but that same feeling struck me and it was time spent with the girls I remembered so fondly. Someday they'll get tired of running around with me, but every day between now and then is a fist full of blessings. God, help me spend those blessings wisely.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Weekly Beatdown

My weight is way down these days. It makes me feel weak, but actually ride relatively fast. It seems like I remember this from last year too. I'm not down to that champion-level gauntness yet but we'll see what I can do in a month's time.

I had a pretty easy time with the beatdown today. Some little group got off of the front during the roll out and the rest of us spent the entire ride chasing them down. Me and this dude in a grey tri-kit did about 60% of the work. We'd bridge up about 3/4ths of the way to the leaders, only to lose them again when the paceline would get going. Eh, that's how it goes. It's a ride, not a race. I had a lot of fun but I should have ridden with A. I keep saying I'm going to. What the heck?

Monday, July 18, 2011

Pigeon Mountain

This past Saturday was Sophie's birthday, so I missed the Drama Queen ride up at Mulberry Gap. Last year it was the same day as the TNGA start, so I missed it last year too. I'm crossing my fingers for 2012. Hopefully the world won't end before the ride.

Having missed the Drama Queen, I woke up Sunday morning with a craving for some dirt and a destination already in mind. I'd snapped a stem bolt a few weeks back though and my front brake pads were completely worn out, so it took a few minutes to get out of the house.

It took a few minutes to get to my destination too, like about 130. My destination? Pigeon Mountain. So far I've only had a moderate amount of fun exploring up there, but I feel compelled to finish what I've started. You never know, maybe the next trail will be great.

I parked at Estelle Lot, which I'd seen on the way back to the car last time. It took me a minute to find the trail, but I did, and after a short jog up to the road, I was in familiar territory. And, then, soon after, back in unfamiliar territory - the Estelle Mine Trail.

For the most part, it was rideable. The ground was strewn with debris, but the grade was shallow and consistent and I was moving right along. I did take a quick out-and-back on the Branch Trail, which intersected with West Brow and was much less ridable, at least uphill, but Estelle Mine itself was great.

I'd been looking forward to riding this trail to solve a minor mystery. A long time ago I'd read that there were a series of tunnels along it. The tunnels were allegedly mines, but that never made sense because they were described as were short and open on both ends. I hadn't seen a tunnel yet though.

I did cross a series of dams, in odd places, and then went through a deep cut. Ohhh, wait! Those aren't dams, they're fills. The rusty gears in my head started turning. This is an old rail bed! The tunnels aren't mines, they're train tunnels. Hah!

Right about then, I saw the first tunnel. It was about 100 yards long and I could see all the way through it. The entrance was partially blocked though and I'd have had to crawl in, so I kept to the trail and went around that one. The second tunnel was slightly less blocked, but the third was wide open. I could have ridden straight through it.

 Estelle Mine Trail 3rd Tunnel Entrance

Instead though, I followed the trail around to the other end...

 Estelle Mine Trail 3rd Tunnel Exit

...and rode back through from that side.

 Estelle Mine Trail 3rd Tunnel Inside

The ground was covered in big, chunky rock, but it was completely ridable.

There were a few more tunnels, including two that had completely collapsed.

 Estelle Mine Trail Collapsed Tunnel

Instead of going through the tunnels, the trail followed an old roadbed up and around them. The road was extremely wide and deeply depressed. At first, I thought it had been run up a drainage, but eventually I realized that it had created the drainage. In some places it was really trenched out...

 Estelle Mine Trail Trench

... but the trench was wide and I didn't have much trouble riding it.

I still don't totally understand the road leading up and around the tunnels though. Was it built to bring in equipment to then build the rail? Was the rail abandoned and replaced by trucks that used the road to get ore out? Was it not a road at all, but rather a series of strip mines, now connected by the trail? None of these possibilities seemed likely. It's a bit of a mystery.

There was no mystery about one thing though. The fork that I'd had rebuilt a few weeks back was working just right. The last time I was up there, it had beaten me to death. Today, I was enjoying the ride.

I rolled through the Pocket Road Lot toward the Wildflower Trail. I'd seen signs for it last time and it looked like it had a boardwalk or something. It turns out it's entirely a boardwalk, raised up over a wildflower area next to Pocket Creek.

No bikes were allowed on the trail, so I carried.

This is what I mean when I say "carried":


I hook the seat on my shoulder and hold the down tube near the bottom bracket with my right hand. Actually, I don't even need to hold the down tube, the bike pretty much just balances on my shoulder, but holding it takes some weight off.

I didn't see any wildflowers along the Wildflower trail, just endless tickweed.

 Wildflower Trail

About halfway around, I passed a lady and her daughter enjoying the view. Just past them, the boardwalk led to a trail up along the creek. I parked my bike and followed it. Some hikers were coming back the other way and I spoke to them for a minute. I asked if there were any pools up that way. They said no, but there's a big cut-out.

I didn't realize they meant that it was a waterfall!

 Pocket Branch Falls

No water was actually falling at the time though. Georgia is in a strange period right now. We're still recovering from the drought we had a while back, but since then we've had record rain and we get torrential rain pretty regularly. The creeks all look like somebody's run a bulldozer down them, but the groundwater still hasn't been replenished, and the waterfalls don't really run like they used to.

It wasn't easy climbing all over the slick limestone (or whatever it is) in bike shoes so I didn't get too aggressive with that. However, as the temps were in the high 90's, I did risk clambering down to a small pool to wash my hands and face in the cool water.

Side-adventure accomplished, I headed back down, grabbed my bike and walked out. The lady and her daughter were still there, so I talked to them for a while. It turned out she's on a climbing/caving search and rescue team and they regularly rappel over the falls there for training.

Back on the bike, I headed up the southern section of the Pocket Loop, almost all of which I ended up walking.

If it wasn't the incredibly steepness, or the rock gardens...

 Pocket Loop Rock Gardens was the wet rocks, or the rocks and debris that spun out from under me. It wasn't a lot of fun.

Plus, I was itchy all over and moving so slowly that the bugs could keep up. There was a constant buzzing in my ears.

And speaking of bugs. I'd scraped my shin on a downed tree earlier and it felt a little itchy, so I looked down and noticed it had gotten covered in dirt. That's not good for a scrape. I brushed it off. Or, at least I tried to. It wouldn't brush off. I brushed harder. No luck. What the...?

Yeah, that's not dirt.

 Seed Ticks

Click on that image and look at the original. Those are dozens of seed ticks. Tiny, baby ticks. And this photo only shows what was left after scraping probably twice that many off and realizing I should take a photo.

It wasn't easy getting them off. They'd come off and stick to my gloves and then my grips and everything else I touched. I kept worrying that I'd get them in my eyes. I ended up scraping most of them off with a chunk of bark, but I still found several more in the shower that night.

When the crisis of the ticks was finally over, I continued climbing. It was hot. I was uncomfortable. I felt low on blood sugar. There was a brief descent, and in the middle of that downhill, somebody had abandoned an old bike.


(the one on the left)

I needed to eat, and since I was stopped there anyway, it was a good spot. My lunch consisted of two Clif Blocks and the last remaining Honey Stinger block. Not a lot of calories, but who needs em? I've got too much Dave right now. It would be good to reduce the amount of Dave I'm carrying around. My brain was recharged though, and the push to the top didn't seem too hard.

At the intersection with West Brow, I was able to ride again.

When I hit the road, I was able to make much better time.

I passed the fishing lake...

 Fishing Lake

...and rolled around exploring the Sawmill Camp area, looking for Hogjowl Trail. There's a small maze of roads and former roads up there. I generally knew where the it had to be, but it took a bit of elimination to find it.

Find it I did though, and none too soon. It was about 8:20 and I only had another 20 minutes or so of light in the woods and maybe 20 more on the road.

The first half mile or so was extremely fun. The trail gets way less traffic than the others in the area, but was surprisingly free of debris.

Abruptly it became incredibly technical though. Pigeon mountain is more or less terraced. To descend any face of it, you roll along a terrace, then drop over a ledge of rock and work your way down an extremely steep backslope to the next one, where you roll along again until the next opportunity to drop down. Many of the drops require you to commit to a line before you can really see what you're committing to. I rode as much of it as I could, but I drew the line at committing to blind rock gardens.

At one point, I lost the trail, but thankfully somebody had built an arrow, indicating the right way to go.

 Go Left Here

And, yep, there was even a red trail marker in that direction.

The trail crossed Nichols Hollow at the base of a dry falls.

 Nichols Hollow Falls

It looked like there might be even be another cascade above this one, but I had no time to check it out.

The further down I got, the more insane the rock gardens got.

 Hogjowl Trail

Not pictured - anything ridable. By me, at least. Scott Morris would, no doubt, chuckle and show me how it's done.

I tried to stay relaxed, move with the terrain, be the deer, not the bear... But Pigeon Mountain hates me and it attacked me relentlessly. Rocks shifted, downed trees and soft ground grabbed at my my wheels, brush yanked at my hands and face, there were slip layers on the inside of switchbacks. Everything.

Eventually, I crashed. Something grabbed my back wheel and threw me against the bars. A split second later my chin drove into a rock, half buried in the ground. I didn't expect that. I had put my hands down. The slope was just so steep that they hit the ground at the same time as my face. I immediately thought of Clark, who'd gotten his face crushed during our last ride together. It was like the forest was getting even with me on his behalf. Nice jab Pigeon.

I got another jab a few minutes later in the form of a flat tire. I'd picked up a thorn over a half inch long. I almost put the new tube in without checking too. Almost.

I could hear cars on the road below. It was frustratingly close for how long it took to actually reach. The trail just kept switching back and back and back.

When it did end, at Hogjowl Road, right next to Hogjowl creek, it was the most anonymous end of any trail, ever. Unless you just knew it was there, you'd never know it was there. There was no sign at the bottom, but there had been a sign at the top, and red markers all the way down. There was one alternate route most of the way down, but it had a homemade gate across it and it looked less travelled. It's possible that's a former route and the trail might be marked at the end there. Oh well, I was down off of the mountain before dark and that's all I really cared about that that point.

Across the street, the creek was roaring. It was dark in the woods, but not quite dark out on the road.

 Hogjowl Creek

"Is that a dog? No. An otter!" It was an otter. Maybe it was a beaver. It dog-paddled on the surface, but it dove and spun and twisted around like an otter. A beav-otter. Schrodenger's otter.

I saw several large trout too.

Ok, the water's probably not too polluted. I couldn't resist a swim. These days every mountain bike ride involves a swim. It was cool and delicious. I didn't want to get out, but I had to. It wouldn't be light for long.

It had taken almost 6 hours to get to that point. I took the road back and nearly doubled my mileage in the 30 or 40 minutes it took to get back to the car. It should be clear why from this ridiculous elevation profile.

 Elevation Profile

The sun was setting over lookout mountain.

 Sunset over Lookout Mountain

It's too bad my phone takes such poor photos in low light. It was a beautiful sunset. Soft colors. Warm little lights on the mountain. Bats were chasing moths overhead. If I hadn't been constantly pelted with tiny bugs, it would have been perfectly serene.

I grabbed some dinner at Sonic in LaFayette. It was the only thing open. Don Lolo's was even closed.

I was able to asses the damage to my face too.

 Face Crushing

Not too bad. It seems like I crush my face about once every year and a half or so. The last time was hiking the Art Loeb. Prior to that, a wrench broke loose while I was working on my truck. That one required stitches. No stitches this time though. In a week I'll be good as new.

Friday, July 15, 2011

The Lost Sea

My mom called a few days ago and invited us to join her on a trip to The Lost Sea. The last time I'd been there, Kathryn and I happened across it on the way back from a trip to New York, I think in 1996. I didn't think it would be much different, but it was cool the first time, and the kids would surely like it, so we were totally on board.

Today we rolled up to Sweetwater to check it out.


The timing worked out such that it was lunchtime when we arrived, but Sweetwater turned out to be almost devoid of restaurants. The historic town square offered only sandwich shops. There was an Italian place but we'd eaten pizza last night. We were seconds away from resorting to Subway when we ran back across a Barbecue joint that we'd passed on the way in. It was excellent.

Lunch accomplished, we proceeded on to our actual objective: The Lost Sea.

 The Lost Sea

The Lost Sea is an underground lake in a cavern near Sweetwater. The lake itself is cool, but so are the caves. As underground tourist destinations in the south east go, I'm not aware of one that's bigger or more interesting.

Tours started every 20 minutes. The waiting room was this long, yellow tube that led from the gift shop down into the cavern.


Why yellow? Apparently it's the easiest on your eyes when you finally emerge from the darkness at the end of the tour.

Our tour started with the most beautiful formation in the entire cave, though my photo doesn't do it justice.

 Cave Bacon

I don't think our tour guide told us the name, or if she did, I forgot. The draperies hanging down from the ceiling are translucent and often referred to as cave bacon. With the light shining from behind, it was obvious why. They looked like bacon.

There were also these weird things hanging from the ceiling: Anthodites.


They're really rare. Only 7 caves in the world have them. They grow like 1 cm per 1000 years. As interesting as they were, they were small, and with the rest of the formations in there, I'd have overlooked them entirely on my own.

During the civil war, people "mined" saltpeter by collecting bat guano in these big contraptions, adding water and letting it strain out.

 Guano Strainer

The bats are long gone though. Our tour guide said she's only seen two in years.

The cave has been used for a few hundred years. The Cherokee held secret meetings there. It was mined for saltpeter. There was a bar down there once. Food had been stockpiled during the cuban missile crisis. They found the remains of a saber tooth tiger down there too. I can't remember what else.

Some users left their mark.


Moon's Milk grows along the ceiling in various places.

 Moon's Milk

It's apparently a bacteria that people would put on their wounds to promote healing. It eats dead flesh voraciously, but cannot eat living flesh and out-competes germs which can eat both before they get a chance to take hold.

Oh yeah, moonshiners also used the cave. There's a replica of an old still down there.

 Moonshine Still

At some point we were in a room that had once been filled with a swirling whirlpool. In there, they turned off the lights and it was darker than you can imagine. "Total darkness." If you're left in total darkness for 2 weeks, your retinas will die. Sophie didn't like total darkness at all. I think she felt like if she let go of me, she'd never find me again.

Eventually we got to the Lost Sea itself, but it was too dark to get any decent photos. Legend has it that an 11 year old kid named Ben Sands discovered the lake while running around in the cave but nobody believed him, basically because nobody believes kids and who's ever heard of an underground lake anyway? About 60 years later, another explorer had heard the stories, re-discovered the lake and then went and found Ben Sands, then in his 70's, to make sure he got the credit he deserved.

No kidding, there's a lake down there. Basically there's just a big chamber that's filled most of the way up with water. Groundwater trickles down through cracks in the mountain, falls from the roof through Crystal Falls, which I also couldn't get a decent photo of, runs over some cool-looking pools, goes back into the ground, and fills the chamber. When it rains, the water level can rise super high, so they keep it pumped out and use the water for toilets and other stuff like that.

To tour the lake, we packed into this long boat with a trolling motor and spun a few laps. There were lights set up all along the perimeter and the water glowed an eerie blue. They keep the lake stocked with trout and they were everywhere. They'd originally put them in to see if they could find their way out, which they couldn't, so apparently there is no way out, or at least none discernible by fish.

There is another, much larger chamber below the lake, also filled with water, but no one has successfully explored it yet. The one diver that went down there caused a minor cave-in with his bubbles and nobody's been back since.

We fed the fish. People kept putting their fingers in and getting bitten.

That was about it, we walked up and out.

The kids were good. It was my kids and their cousins, minus the two year old. They acted about like any of the adults on the tour. They didn't go running all over the place, they seemed genuinely interested and asked a couple of good questions. Nice job kids.

There's apparently a "wild tour" you can take where you go crawling around in some narrow passages and spend the night. Sophie wanted no part of it but Isabel was interested. Maybe one day we'll do that together.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Weekly Beatdown

Today's beatdown was luxurious.

It was about 97 when I rolled out for my little warm up loop. No matter what direction I was facing, there was thunder to the left and right but no rain or even dark clouds above me. I somehow managed to get done way ahead of schedule and got to sit around at the bike shop for like 40 minutes before the B1 roll out. Much better than the debacle a few weeks back, but I guess it means I could do a longer warm-up loop. In theory that means I'm getting faster? We'll see though. I don't know.

Matt was there again this week, and Rob. Rob wanted us to join him with the A group but it gets back so late, I can't meet my family for trivia at Mia's on time. Not today.

The group was small, probably because of the heat and potential for rain. Well, it was hot but we never got rain. We did get the next best thing though. On the other side of Sawnee, it had rained, and was drying up, but the roads were super steamy and humid, for pretty much the whole route.

In the hard right leading into the Hendrix Road climb, some dude drifted way out of his line and pushed another dude over into the other lane. Dude number two asked dude number one to watch his line and dude number one lit into him all the way up the climb. Pfft! If those dudes had energy to talk, they'd better have energy to counter. I attacked, 4 or 5 guys bridged up, including dude number two, and we held maybe 20 seconds on the main group until getting stopped by traffic at the next intersection.

The rest of the ride was fairly uneventful, except for how fast it was. We rolled up Elmo like it was just another random road. I think too many of us have been watching too much of the Tour.

Near the end, I misjudged how much space I had, trying to fill a gap that was opening up on my left, and moved over on a guy, but he was gracious and later me and that same guy burned ourselves up trying to catch the leaders coming down off Sawnee. It just doesn't seem like I've gotten my money's worth unless I'm broken down and crawling in at the end there.

Matt held on the whole time. I shouldn't say held on, he didn't appear to have much trouble at all. I don't think he used his little ring, or for that matter, any of the top 3 in the back either. He's singlespeeding ORAMM though, so I imagine that has something to do with it.

Yay, another beatdown for the books. I'm feeling good. Maybe next week will be an A-group week and put me in my place. Hah.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Brasstown Bald

I got a text from Clark at 10PM Saturday night: "Want to hike Arkaquah from Brasstown to Trackrock Sunday morning?..." The text went on, but at that point I already knew that I wanted to hike from Arkaquah from Brasstown Sunday morning. The rest of it indicated that Vonnie's family was up from Albany and they'd be joining us, though the spellcheck on Clark's phone had changed "Vonnie" to "Bonnie" which I think is the name of somebody else in their family, like maybe Suzy's sister, so it was slightly confusing at first.

Either way, I was down. I've put in a lot of miles on the bike lately, especially on the road, various biking muscles are tired, and these days my brain translates that into "I feel like hiking" rather than "I don't feel like riding." So, I felt like hiking.

I met the McClung party at their campsite at Trackrock Gap Campground.

 McClung Camp

It wasn't super easy to find their site. There are a couple of of camping loops up there, but none of them have signs indicating which sites are off of which loops. I just happened to run into Vonnie, headed down to the bathhouse for a shave while I was searching and he pointed the way.

Tiffany, Cadence and their buddy Merit, who's name I'm almost certainly misspelling, and his dog Zaxby were milling around when I got there. Merit had come up the night before.

 Merit, Cadence and Zaxby

Clark and Suzy showed up a few minutes later. Cadence ran over and hugged each of them for minutes apiece. She's the sweetest little kid. I half wished I'd brought my girls, but they'd put in a long day yesterday and Iz has gymnastics on Monday. It was probably best that I hadn't.

Vonnie and Merit parked his truck at Trackrock Gap. When they got back, we piled into a couple of cars and headed off into the Brasstown Range.

 Brasstown Range

We parked at the Brasstown Bald lot.

 Brasstown Lot

There was a bunch of construction going on. Some little building had been torn down and they were rebuilding it. I struggled to remember what used to be there though. The bathrooms by the Arkaquah trailhead had been torn down too and a swath had been cut for some new construction there as well. Dangit! Now I'm going to have to go back up in a few months, just to see what they've done.

Fortunately there were bathrooms out in the middle of the parking lot, and after we ran our little train through them, we were off into the wilderness.

Literally, the Wilderness:

 Brasstown Wilderness

I'd hiked the Arkaquah once before, in early winter. Today it was a lot warmer and everything was blooming. There were Wild Azaleas here and there, but mainly, tons and tons of magnolia:


Petals littered the trail in the tunnels that had been cut through it.

 Magnolia Litter

Later in the year, the mountain laurel will do the same thing, and then in fall, at lower elevations, maple leaves.

There were a couple of rocky outcroppings.

 Clark and Suzy

 Rock Slab

In winter, I'd seen beautiful views from them, but the views were largely obscured yesterday.

There were several rocky overhangs that looked like they'd be good shelters if we'd needed to camp. We took a break under one of them.

 Break Time

We ran along the ridge for a while. There were a couple of tricky, rocky descents.


I managed to sort-of catch one view of Brasstown Valley.

 Brasstown Valley

Blueberries, or at least blueberryish things were growing all over up there, but we only found a few berries that were actually ripe.

 Blueberryish Thing

They were hit or miss too. This one was dry and crumbly, but the one Clark got off of the same bush was juicy and delicious.

There were blackberries too.

 Blackberryish Thing

They were uniformly sour though.

The last mile or two of the Arkaquah is an unrelenting, potentially knee-shattering descent. Clark and Vonnie took turns carrying Cadence. At one point, Zaxby just flopped down and pretty much refused to keep going until he'd had some water and rest.

In the end though, we made it out.


Clark's and my vehicles were up at Brasstown. After dropping everyone else at camp, Vonnie shuttled us up to get them. Clark and Suzy had to get back home to attend to their dogs, so they took off, but I'd had an idea the night before and wanted to see it through, or at least determine if it was possible to see it through.

There are several trails leading up to Brasstown. Wagon Train from the north, Arkaquah from the west and Jack's Knob from the south. But, if you look at a USGS Topo map of the area, it shows a trail leading up Fodder Creek from the east. When I was up on Wagon Train last year, I even saw where it might tee in. I love exploring old, primitive trails, and being in the area, with my car at the top of the mountain, if it was possible to access the bottom end of the trail, I didn't want to pass up the opportunity.

Nobody else wanted to do it, but Vonnie was happy to drop me off.

The map shows a campground and one of the roads through the campground just becomes the trail. Presumably, the road once led to the top of the mountain and since it's inclusion in the National Forest, has become a trail, or more likely, a "trail"

The campground turned out to be an RV resort. They had a billion RV campsites where you could pull in and stay a while. They had ball parks and playgrounds and pools and lakes and a creek and food and everything a resort generally has, except lodging. Wow. I'd never seen anything like that before.

There were signs everywhere saying "Registered campers only beyond this point!" But they didn't appear to apply to the roads, just to the various amenities. I started to get that Indiana Jones feeling...

There weren't any signs saying not to do what we were doing, but after seeing enough of those signs, I got the idea that they probably don't want random people wandering around their facility. We needed to move quickly before we bothered anybody.

Unfortunately the roads were a bit of a maze and they'd changed since the topo map was published. In the movies, the hero blends into the crowd at first, but his wrong turns give him away. We were blocked by a dead end, but I could see a little foot bridge that led where I wanted to go. I had phone service, so I figured I'd check it out, Vonnie could drive out and I'd call him to let him know if it worked out or not. If it didn't, I'd walk out and meet him. Immediately though, on the other side of the bridge was a sign: "Residents only, beyond this point." There were houses back along that road. That's where I drew the line. If it doesn't say don't, I might, but if it says don't, I almost never do. For all I knew, I'd have to walk through somebody's yard to get to the trail, if it existed at all. Vonnie hadn't left yet, so I jumped back in the truck and we headed out.

Looking at the map, it would be a long bushwhack to get to the trail any other way. Fodder Creek would have to wait. I took Jack's Knob up instead.

I think Jack's Knob is the steepest, on-trail, sustained climb that I've ever hiked. I'll have to compare it to Rainbow Falls, but I'm pretty sure it is. Moving quickly, I was actually able to get my heart rate up and keep it up, which is pretty rare on a hiking trail without jogging. It felt like tempo climbing on the bike, but using different muscles. Woohoo!

Jack's Knob has many different flavors. It starts off with a little ridge running through a mostly-pine forest...

 Jacks Knob Trail -Ridge

...gets a little too steep for a while...

 Jacks Knob Trail - A Little Too Steep

...meanders through an infinite series of long, lazy switchbacks...

 Jacks Knob Trail - Switchback

...and tops out in some open, ferny forest...

 Jacks Knob Trail - Ferns

...before dropping back the parking lot, the only descent on the entire trail.

There was a lot of pine in the woods there. More than I'm used to seeing in the mountains. The trail had that pine-needle kevlar surface going. Most durable surface ever. It didn't look like it got a ton of traffic either, maybe because of how steep it is. We're halfway into the summer and last winter's leaves hadn't yet been crunched into oblivion.

I also saw a lot of Chestnut.


I'd seen some on Arkaquah too, including one that had to be 30 feet tall. It was still thin and spindly, but that's tall for a Chestnut in Georgia.

There was also a good bit of Shagbark Hickory.

 Shagbark Hickory

Or, at least, I think that's what it was. The bark kind of feels like balsa wood. Whoever marked the trail used them almost exclusively.

It took less time than I expected to get to the top.

 Brasstown - Jacks Knob Trail Sign

I jumped in my car, cranked the AC and headed back to camp. Me and Vonnie played softball with Cadence for a little while and we all generally sat around lazily for an hour or so. I figured I'd better get home before I got sleepy, so I took off when I felt it creeping in.

It was great to see everyone again and spend the day running around in the woods together. Thanks for having me up.