Monday, January 27, 2014

Oconee National Forest

The Huracan 300 is coming up in March and man, is it taking off. Fifteen riders from Georgia are signed up this year. A lot of them are Huracan rookies and some are new to the whole bikepacking/ultra-endurance scene altogether. As such, they've got gear to test and training miles to put in. To that end, Chris Tavel of Loose Nuts Cycles organized a long ride around the Oconee National Forest near Madison today.

Mark Baldwin invited me. My brother was in too, and Hirsch, and Namrita.

I've explored the Chattahoochee National Forest almost obsessively, but as fate would have it, until today, had never so much as set foot in the Oconee. New territory to explore, good friends to do it with, a chance to fake like I was riding in some monumental event... I couldn't resist.


I'm not riding the Huracan this year, but if the other riders are testing out their gear, I figured I'd play along. I washed my bike, bled my back brake, assembled my Adventure Pile and attempted in vain to get some sleep. I was excited. You'd think I was actually on my way to Florida the next day or something. I guess it's been a while.

I might have gotten 3 hours of sleep. That's OK though, it's the sleep you get two nights prior that really matters and I'd gotten plenty of that.

I met Mark, Marc, John and Nam at Baldwin's place and we carpooled to the community center in Madison where we were soon joined by as diverse a group of riders as I've ever seen.

The Field

Usually if you meet some folks for a mountain bike ride, you get a fairly homogenous group. There might be the odd 26'er, somebody might prefer a camelback to bottles, somebody might be riding in baggy shorts. That's about it though. It is similar on the road. The bike and gear haven't had time to become standardized for these longer format rides yet though. There were mountain bikes - hardtails and full suspension, a couple of cross bikes, one with road tires, at least one road bike, two fat bikes and a cargo bike. The bikepacking gear was just as diverse, as was everyone's clothing. Some of the guys appeared to be in their 20's, several of us were in our late 30's to mid-40's and one guy was much older. We even had 2 ladies - Trudy and Nam.

Side note... I've been trying all day to remember how I got to know Trudy. I've run into her randomly on the trail, at Mulberry Gap, and at the Dutch Monkey of all places, and I think at various rides and races, but I already knew her all of those times. It seems now that I've ALWAYS known her which obviously can't be the case but I have no memory of first meeting her. Ha! Impossible! Sorry Trudy, maybe you can help me out.

At any rate... We got geared up and hit the road around 11AM. It was chilly but not cold. A mile outside of town and we were decidedly in the country.

On the Road

Pavement gave way to dirt and gravel and some hike-a bike across an old bridge with mounds of dirt on either side to help heavier vehicles avoid catastrophe.

Old Bridge Crossing

Some of the riders struggled with the mounds.

On the way into the National Forest proper we passed a house that was decidedly Off The Grid.

Off the Grid

Man, THAT's a solar panel. I wonder how long until they break even.

The route alternated between pavement, dirt and gravel quickly and randomly.

On Dirt

I had the track loaded in my GPS but having never been to the Oconee before, I really had no idea where we were or what was coming up.

Ha ha! I'm pretty sure that's one of the criteria for Adventure.

Negotiation of unexpected obstacles like that old-bridge is another. Perhaps more lay ahead.

Almost as soon as I considered the possibility, it was delivered.

Chris had plotted the route from Google Maps. He'd never seen most of it. It would appear that Google isn't totally familiar with the Oconee either. The track led us down a numbered forest road which eventually hit a private property boundary. The track urged us forward but my experience with territorial landowners sent up 20 little red flags in my head. New-looking Posted and WMA boundary signs were tacked to every 10th tree to the right and a very new road hugged the border to the left. It appeared that the boundary had been surveyed recently and somebody, either the state or the forest service, had realigned the road to stay inside the forest. We followed thew new road, presuming it would take us to the same place as the private road would have. It did. At the end we had to climb a big pile of dirt to get up to the main road though.


Actually, as it turned out, we didn't HAVE to. The road cut hard left and sidehilled cleanly into the main road about 50 yards down. How it is that all 10 or 11 of us missed that is beyond me, but we all did.

The road was Trembling Bridge Road, or Trimble Bridge Road, depending on who you ask. It was gravel, but well maintained. We jogged left a bit, hung a quick right and found ourselves back on dirt. A few hundred yards later a cable was strung across the road but there were no signs and there was a path around the cable to the right, presumably to provide access for non-vehicular traffic. We went around and kept following the track. Before long we saw an expensive-looking deer stand to the right. Hmmm... Odd to see that in the NF. Well, maybe the road is the NF boundary or something. A bit further on we rode into a planted field with a blind to the left.

Five or six more little red flags went up in my head. It seemed likely that we'd ridden into somebody's deer lease. It was unsigned and unlikely we'd run into anyone, given that it's past deer season and not yet turkey season, but independent of all that, I've had bad luck with unsigned private property before. Best not to be on it. We debated options for a minute but ultimately turned back to look for a way around.

Our first attempt led us to the road's namesake: Trembling Bridge.

Trembling Bridge


We'd have forded the river and continued had there not been a large sign indicating that the property on the other side was private. In retrospect though, it's possible that only the property on the east is private. Chris is going to check it out from the other direction some time. It would be cool to develop a route that involved crossing that river.

No good though! The only other option was back the way we came on Trembling Bridge Road. Since this end is a dead-end, the other end has to go somewhere, right?

As we were deciding to turn around, a guy and his wife drove up and got out. John pinged him for some local knowledge but he was apparently not from around there and devoid of such knowledge. He did know the name of the bridge though, for which I thanked him. It would have helped though, I guess, if I had known the name of the road prior to asking, as that bit of information would have, itself, revealed the name of the bridge. Heh.

Going the other way panned out and we appeared set to cross-cut a short section of the route.

We'd been a bit scattered all day but everyone was pretty serious now and we were pretty well organized on the road there.

Getting Organized

Soon enough we were back on route, and yes, the road we were supposed to have taken was marked private at the other end. I guess the landowner doesn't expect anyone to come in the way we did. Classic.

The roads got hillier and hillier. The good thing about the hills out there though... When you see the top of a hill, it's likely to actually be the top, not a false top like literally every single hilltop in the mountains. I was enjoying that.

Maybe a little too much. I found myself way out ahead of the group sometimes.


We paused at the Little Creek Baptist Church, hoping to score some water but there was no spigot outside. There was a porch though and we did a little setten-down before pressing on.

Little Creek Baptist Church

Again, the route alternated between pavement, dirt and gravel, forest and field.


The gravel proved a bit much for road tires though and we had the first flat of the day. What is it they say in 24-hour racing? Don't stand if you can sit, don't sit of you can lie down. Some of our crew took the opportunity.

Flat Tire Lounging

Somewhere in there we were on a section of road crossing a river and I swear I saw a bear carcass just down the hill from the road. It was either a bear or a pig, but it had the dense, long hair of a bear, not the thin, wiry hair of a pig. We were really moving and didn't stop to investigate, but we debated it. Some of the guys thought it was a horse. Maybe it was. It looked like a bear to me though.

Somewhere else in there we saw a chimney and an old rock wall randomly off to the left of some dirt road. I wish I'd been able to take a photo and mark the location but again, we were really moving at the time. Hopefully I'll get another chance someday.

I did get a chance to take some photos at a fairly challenging creek crossing.

Challenging Creek Crossing

It wasn't challenging in the sense that it was difficult to cross. It was quite easy actually, but the water was a little deep and it was challenging to keep one's feet dry. It took the right combination of momentum, gear selection, ratcheting, balance and blind luck. Only 3 of us succeeded. Most made no attempt and just blasted through, soaking themselves entirely, in 40 degree water.

Further on the road crossed Falling Creek. There was no bridge or ford. There was just a section of exposed granite wide enough to drive across and they built the road there.

Falling Creek Shoal

As we approached I saw a small but fairly spectacular waterfall on the right and I was all "I don't care! I'm taking pictures."

Falling Creek Falls

And I did. One, at least.

Just up the road a ways, we had to dodge a pair of trucks drifting around a curve. Some of us had to go to the inside and others to the outside. The trucks drifted right through the middle of our group and there was nothing they could have done to alter their course. It sounds sketchy but the road was wide and we actually had plenty of time to move. With cool heads, we weren't in any real danger. We might have been if someone had frozen or if the drivers had panicked, but none of that happend.

Near the town of Maxeys we got back on the road.

Downtown Maxeys

The downtown was picturesque in its decay. Kathryn would have loved it. Maybe we'll drive out there some time.

Pavement led back to gravel. We followed the fence line of some kind of preserve or something. I saw a big fat butterball turkey take flight as we approached. I used to work with a lady who ridiculed me for saying that turkeys could fly. This kind of pissed me off because I'd SEEN wild turkeys fly - way up over the trees. I'd SEEN it. My friends had seen it. It's not uncommon. She hadn't though, so as far as she was concerned, I was a fool. It did get me to thinking though, maybe big fat farm-raised turkeys can't fly. Well, ha! They can. I saw it today. She can suck it. Turkeys, in general, fly. This one did seem to struggle under it's own weight though, and only flew about 50 feet and maybe only 7 or 8 off of the ground. But, still. It flew. It FLEW! Turkeys can fly.

We passed a family out for a walk. The guy with the road tires who's name I can't remember now. Matt? Man I suck with names. Right around there, he hit some really rough bumps and it knocked his rear wheel out of the dropouts. We thought he'd flatted again, but he hadn't and it only took a minute to fix. I'd never seen or heard of that happening before. The irony? Not a mile down the road I took a sketchy line through some ruts, took a rough hit and knocked my own rear wheel out of the dropout. No joke. What are the odds?

The road ended abruptly at a flood-demolished bridge with twisted metal and displaced concrete projecting wildly from the creek bed. The creek itself was fast, sandy and deep. The border fence continued across the creek though, and the solution presented itself immediately.

Gate Crossing 1 Gate Crossing 2

Oh yeah. Nothing short of Adventure.

The trick was not to put any weight on the sheet metal, just balance on the pipe. In a lot of places, the sheet metal was really loose.

On the other side of the old bridge we were treated to even more weirdness.


The pig was enormous. At least 4 feet long. Strangely, it didn't stink at all. It reminded me though...

My friend Kirk used to tell a story where he and his friends found a dead, bloated pig in the woods and dared each other to throw a big rock at it. One of them took the dare and ran at the pig before throwing the rock to get maximum penetrating force, whereupon he tripped and stumbled face first into the carcass, which exploded on impact, covering him, especially his face, in thick black, disgusting gore. He wailed in vain for help. Nobody wanted that nasty crap to get on them, so they all went home, leaving him wandering the forest alone, covered in pig. He apparently went to closest house belonging to one of his friends, but they wouldn't let him in. He had to walk all the way home to his own house to get cleaned up.

We decided not to throw rocks at this particular pig.

Not 20 feet from the pig were two deer skeletons, picked clean and scattered by scavengers, except for an entire leg that had so far been ignored.

A ways on down the road, the gravel ate up another road tube and while we stopped to fix it, we noticed an armadillo rooting around for bugs up the road to the left.


It couldn't have cared less about us for several minutes. Then it cared, suddenly, and ran away in terror. Apparently this armadillo is a female, as evidenced by little bits of pink coloration.

As we walked back to where they were fixing the flat, they spotted another armadillo, this one male, on the other side of the road. Again. What are the odds?

Rollers gave way to real climbs for a while, with false tops and everything. I was running low on fuel. I'd brought all the Cliff Blocks I own, 14 in total, but that was all. I figured 3 an hour would do it. We were going on 5 hours though. 3x5 is 15. Even 20-odd cliff blocks probably wouldn't have done it though. It's funny how well those little chocolate donuts work. Donuts and honey buns - the ultimate endurance fuel.

At length we emerged from the National Forest and picked up the Madison Highway for a long, straight run back into town.

I was flagging, struggling, frowning. I sat on. My pulls were weak, or forced. I pounded water to stave off hunger.

We crossed Lake Oconee.

Lake Oconee

The sun was low and flared on the water. It was lost on me but I got a shot, hoping I could enjoy it later.

Two miles out I cracked. In desperation, I sat up, coasted, rested, took a deep breath, punched it to bridge back up and prayed my momentum would carry me for a while. I did this twice. I could not have done it a third time.

Fortunately I didn't have to. We'd made it back.


7 hours. 83 miles. Done.


Well, almost. Nine of us grabbed some dinner at Amici's where I didn't wait long enough for my phone to adjust to the low light.

Amici Italian Cafe

I'm not sure if it was really as good as it seemed or just tasted good because I was so shattered. Either way, it was really good.

Whether the company, the route, the Adventure, the Adversity... For whatever reason or reasons, that ride was so deeply satisfying. Sitting there at dinner, I kept replaying it in my mind. We talked a lot about it. "Group ride, long gravel road loop, not in the mountains" isn't usually the recipe for such a good ride. It was an anomaly. One I'm going to remember for a long time.

Hell of a ride, Chris! Thanks so much man. I'm in if you do it again.

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