Monday, December 17, 2012

Mountain Biking AEDC Trail System

Arnold Air Force Base
Tullahoma, Tennessee

My friend Stacy arranged to meet some of her friends Dave and Paul at the mountain bike trail system at the Air Force’s Arnold Engineering Development Center (AEDC) near Tullahoma, Tennessee to explore a place that had been on her list for a while. She also was running an errand to exchange some cash for a used dry suit (for paddling whitewater) for a friend, which made the trip feel a little like a smuggling run. Nonetheless, I quickly decided that I was up for the adventure because AEDC had also been on my list since I first started riding in 2009 and there would be a guide familiar with the trails along to show the way. It was too good an opportunity to pass up. Things started off inauspiciously as it was raining in Lookout Valley when we met up to carpool from the Chattanooga area but after we got rolling, we drove out of the rain in short order and although overcast it was quite warm for mid-December.

I had messaged ahead for my friend Kenny Warwick to meet us at AEDC at the appointed time so the group grew to 5, the largest group I have ridden with so far. Everybody was running significantly early although Kenny had forgotten his helmet and trail map at home. He decided to go ahead and ride anyway. The parking lot for the trail is not well marked at all. Fortunately Stacy had good directions in an email from one of her friends so we found it on the first try although we felt no certainty until we got quite close.

Why is everyone breathing hard?

Guide Paul on the right.

The AEDC trail system was built over an abandoned gunnery range. The Air Force issues warnings not to touch any ordnance you might come across. While worrisome, I assumed crashing my bike was probably a much greater threat so I decided to worry about that instead. The area is mostly forested, with a few power line cuts and some fire road double track threading through it. The trails are mostly single track but wander onto the double track from time to time. The terrain is fairly level with only short climbs. The trail builders took advantage of the forest to make up for the lack of topographical relief and there are frequent sections of trail that setup a relentless slalom between and around the trees, with many tight turns threatening to throw you into an oak or pine. Speaking of pines, the trail system features long stretches of quiet, needle carpeted trail, one of my favorite things. I love the muffled sounds and the open forest understory of a stand of pines. Of course, these pines are almost certainly artificially planted due to the trail system being on the grounds of an Air Force base. This reminded me quite a bit of the Saul Raisin Woods trail system just outside Dalton, Georgia, which is built on a remediated landfill. Remediation is great, but you can always tell the difference from natural forest and topography.

Sunny double track at a point where the single track crosses over. At times the trail signs direct you down some of this.

I still do not entirely comprehend the trail system there but it’s pretty unique in that most of the trail seems to actually be a single trail, numbered in order with sections of increasing difficulty, so that the farther you ride, the more difficult the trail is. It’s as if the trail designers were actually video game designers. I kind of expected to have to beat a “boss” villain in the last segment before I could get back to my car.

Trail numbers mark segments rather than separate trails. If ridden in order the difficulty increases with the number.

Eventually Dave and Kenny tired out and took an option to return to the parking lot where the trail system crosses over the road. By that time I would say we had ridden at least 5 or 6 miles and it was still at least that much further by following the trail to get back, so they were cutting off quite a bit of trail that would have had to be ridden. It’s nice to have these options to turn back if you find yourself struggling.

Somewhere around trail segment 15 or 16 you go through a quite intense slalom between some pines and end up riding along Woods Reservoir, with the Cumberland Plateau escarpment in the background. The afternoon sun on the lake made for some great views. The reservoir has developed some nice gravel beaches along the lake shore. This section was nice for the technical riding and for the scenery but as is often the case when you are riding close to water, there were too many roots. Soon I was longing for a full suspension bike. I was hoping to have one by now but it’s always a question of money and priorities and I haven’t found the time right yet. Someday soon hopefullyJ

The escarpment of the Cumberland Plateau on the far side of Woods Reservoir.

My guess is this was once a blind for hunting waterfowl?
Gravel beach on Woods Reservoir in the afternoon sun.

Finally we crossed back over the road and got into the high numbered trail segments (high being over 20) and were approaching the car. My right knee was starting to complain and the trail crossed over a series of ravines, or perhaps it was the same ravine over and over again. Either way this resulted in some short but steep climbs, which would not have signified much to me if they had not been so thoroughly covered with roots. Classic East Coast mountain biking – too many roots. Soon I was daydreaming about Colorado Front Range trail again. We finally made it back to the parking lot. As we were approaching the cars, I heard Stacy scream behind me. She had run over a hapless chipmunk that had run in front of her tires. I’m not sure what to make of that but it was an unpleasant end to an otherwise pleasant ride. We shook hands, loaded up and headed back to Chattanooga for some Mexican food. It was a great day on a new trail. I’d rate the AEDC trail system as entertaining but only medium compared to much of the trail near Chattanooga. Still, I’d go back.

[Use caution if you go because hunting is allowed in the forest and it is closed to non-hunting users at certain times of year.]

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Edwards Point via Mountain Bike


I previously scouted out the trailhead for a rough trail system on Signal Mountain that is widely listed as available for mountain biking. At the time, I was not impressed. It was terribly muddy double track with no signage that obviously had been torn up by off-road vehicles and seemed somewhat like a sketchy area to be riding alone. I neglected it for a couple of years until finally getting a chance to go with someone who knew the trails.

There are several trailheads and our guide selected one of the unmarked entry points and we set off. Even though the weather had been dry for quite some time, we still encountered huge mud holes with regular frequency, although most of the rough track was smooth enough. The ride out from the trailhead was mostly downhill and fast. We passed a couple of unmarked trail intersections but it was pretty clear which paths are the ones that lead to the lookout point. I asked about markings and my guide pointed out yellow blazes that mark the main trail. We could hear engines revving off in the woods and stopped to identify whether or not they were coming our way but eventually determined the motor vehicles were on a different track and rode on out to the lookout over the Tennessee River Gorge.

The Chattanooga area from Edwards Point on Signal Mountain, looking out of the mouth of the Tennessee River Gorge.  The ridge and valley region is in the distance backed by the Appalachians proper. Signal Mountain itself is considered to be part of the Cumberland Plateau, or the South Cumberlands as the locals say. Sorry about the quality. I forgot my camera and had to use my iPhone 4.


There were some dirt bike riders out there checking out the view, along with some various hikers and trail runners with dogs. I got nervous when some of the dogs were playing right along the edge of the cliff but somehow they avoided falling over. We took a few photos with cell phone cameras and decided to head back by a slightly different route. This turned out to have a rather stout climb over leafy trail slightly narrower than what we had ridden on the way out. And the climbing continued. I realized that we had dropped more elevation than was apparent on the way out and soon we were cranking hard, but it was nothing worse than other local trail systems. Along the way we passed assorted hikers, families with small children, and kids with department store bikes. We decided to start exploring a side trail for a while but soon heard shotgun blasts and I persuaded the others to turn back since it looked like a more lightly traveled trail and sounded unfavorable due to the gunfire.

When we finally pulled out from the trailhead, we passed three police cars at one of the other trailheads. My suspicion is they were attracted by the probably illegal shooting. The view from Edwards Point is nice but the trail is very low quality and I was cautioned about riding there alone, which was not encouraging. At least my curiosity about the trail system was satisfied.

More pics.
The view downstream. Opposite is Raccoon Mountain.

Development on Signal Mountain, because it doesn't have enough already.

Stacy goofing on the cliff. I'm surprised she wasn't closer to the edge, normally she would be.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

The Middle Hooch

Chattahoochee River: Buford Dam to Settles Bridge

December 8, 2012

When starved of water, I have sometimes found it necessary to wander far from familiar territory. Last weekend the only thing running within 200 miles of the greater Chattanooga area was the Chattahoochee so I went for a long drive. Large groups converged on the Metro section, but a smaller group converged on the rarely run but frequently fished Middle Hooch. I joined the Walkers, Stephen and Jana, who graciously invited me to explore their local run. I hoped the haul would be a meager 2 hours but it went well over that due to my inability to input the correct destination into the GPS. It was roughly a Nanty drive for a class I-II river but that’s not important in a drought. I was just glad to be out on the water.

Lake Lanier from Buford Dam Road.

Buford Dam from the launch site.

Buford Dam is a massive earthen dam that impounds the Chattahoochee near Buford, Georgia. It’s impressive to drive over and impressive to look upon from downstream. The lake is scenic and deep and the water in the outflow is ice cold. The Army Corps of Engineers has the strange habit of releasing either slightly too little, or much too much water from the dam. This results in very extreme fluctuations in flow. Unfortunately I didn’t have the opportunity to experience one of the high-flow events but the signs of it were everywhere. Fortunately even the minimum flow is floatable for the average solo paddling craft, especially if you are drought-desperate for whitewater.

Lot of wood in the run due to periodical high flows.

There were plenty of exposed rocks covered in mud between the highly eroded stream banks. These created some nice small class I rapids with a few opportunities for 360 degree flat spins, though few other opportunities other than playing slalom by dodging the semi-frequent trout fishermen. Judging by their relative scarcity, I suggest a few of the Atlanta fellows cluttering the Toccoa and Upper Upper Chattooga should relocate to the nearby Middle Hooch to have less paddler interference and more solitude. Plus it will keep them off the whitewater. The Middle Hooch is relatively flat. We did not see any other paddlers for the entire day but we saw several fishermen – but only a couple per mile. There are a few McMansions dimly visible through the trees outside the National Park Service property lining the river but for the most part we enjoyed at least the illusion of a river in a fairly pristine condition (once you get out of sight of the massive dam).

The mud on the sign marks the level the water normally reaches when the dam is generating at full capacity. Rivers ought to not have mile markers in my opinion. Very strange.
The Chattahoochee in this section reminds me much of the wider sections of the Etowah River. It also has some qualities fundamentally and unsurprisingly similar to the Metro Hooch (as it is the same river, just further upstream). One of the unusual features of this section of the river is the abundant signage, apparently installed to prevent the drowning of river users, especially fishermen, necessitated by the huge fluctuation of release levels from the dam. Apparently the volume varies by several thousand cubic feet per second during episodes of power generation. The evidence of this were the extremely eroded stream banks, the abundance of entire trees laying over in the riverbed, and mud covering every rock that rose above water level at our non-release condition.

Eventually we arrived at the only true class II on the run, Rescue Rock (a.k.a. the Hump). This is a rock ledge with a giant boulder in the middle, which is undercut but not difficult to avoid. There is a medium sized wave-hole alongside the best channel to the right of the boulder and you can punch it and eddy out behind the rock. There is a huge eddy behind it the size of a medium pond and there is some play to be found in the standing waves in the run-out from the rapid. Sandy beaches (at low flow) make good points to exit your boat on river left. Watch out for the accumulation of logs on river right below the surf in the outflow of the wave train.

Approaching Rescue Rock, the only class II on the section at normal flow. Note the severely undercut front side of the rock.

The left side of Rescue Rock. We didn't run this side. It kind of looks like a Chattooga Section 2 rapid.

Play all you want and then be prepared for flatwater, there is a lot of it. The flat section is punctuated by a few small rapids with play spots including a couple of very nice small but glassy waves that can be ridden for minutes on end, although they are not deep enough to throw any significant moves. We amused ourselves by throwing down our sterns and working on flatwheels in the deep pools between. Finally we came upon the takeout at the defunct Settles Bridge, tired but happy.

The old Settles Bridge. The takeout is on river left.

We finished with Pollo Pakal and a burrito at Cinco on Peachtree Industrial. My Pollo Pakal came with Cream Corn Sauce (?), something I’ve never experienced before. I called it “Mexican Pancakes,” where disks of crunchy tortilla are the cakes and cream corn sauce is the syrup. Nice river, nice people, nice day. At least I got to paddle in a multi-week drought (the heavy rains didn't arrive for another 2 days). Oh, I forgot to mention how warm it was. Spring temps in early December, can’t beat that.

A stack of Mexican Pancakes at Cinco's with cream corn sauce instead of syrup. Actually it was called Pollo Pakal. It was interesting. I was unsure how to eat it at first.