Monday, December 2, 2013

New Mountain Bike and Chickasaw Trace Park

I recently converted my 2009 Specialized Hard Rock Sport to a single speed due to continuing problems with the rear derailleur (one of the mechanisms that changes gear) but it soon became clear that the Hard Rock was in need of major expenditure and retrofitting to get it working again after I shattered a rear sprocket on Chilhowee Mountain. Since I had been preparing for the expense of a new and better mountain bike for over 2 years, instead of investing more money in the low end Specialized I went shopping at 3 different bike shops and finally found a good deal (~30% off) on a new 2013 Trek Superfly 100 Elite 29er with an aluminum frame at a Scott's Bikes in Cleveland, Tennessee. It was a brand new bike and was discounted only because the 2014 models were available.

The author with new bike and post-Thanksgiving "turkey gut." I've actually been working on the gut for weeks but I'm in that phase where you feel better but don't yet look better. I know from experience that I just need to keep knocking out the push-ups and crunches. In the background: the valley of the Duck River and Middle Tennessee knobs of the Highland Rim (knobs = steep-sided hills - think "baby mountains").
I took the new bike to my Mom's house in Murfreesboro, Tennessee for Thanksgiving in hopes of getting out for a ride on Black Friday. I was pretty disappointed when I found the back wheel had gone flat during the trip up from Georgia to Middle Tennessee, although it wasn't entirely unexpected as the shop had warned me that tubeless tires often go flat sometime after first inflation. Unfortunately I was not able to correct the problem myself and mangled the valve trying. I'm used to Schrader valves but the new tires have Presta valves. I headed over to a local bike shop in Murfreesboro to get the problem corrected. Props to MOAB for making the ride happen. I also got some good local advice to go to Chickasaw Trace Park near Columbia, Tennessee for a good trail system with a variety of terrain.

Since I added clipless pedals to the new bike, this would be an adventure. Clipless pedals counter-intuitively involve wearing special shoes that have a "cleat" on the bottom that clips into a spring-loaded mechanism on special pedals so that your feet are locked to the pedals. They are called clipless because they replaced a previous technology called "clips" that are now obsolete. The new tech is called SPD, although it is no longer new really. I was accustomed to using traditional platform pedals where you can just wear any old shoes (I usually wore trail running shoes) and stand on the pedals like we all did when we were kids. You can escape clipless pedals by twisting your foot outwards but you have to think about it. It takes about 1 to 2 seconds to escape from clipless pedals and to make a long story short, you can crash in less than 2 seconds - so that happened.

The park I was visiting is a Maury County (Tennessee) public property located on the periphery of a landfill, alongside the Duck River. The landfill is still in operation and can be seen from some of the higher ground in the park. Why are landfills always built next to rivers? I've yet to see a landfill that is not built right along a major perennial stream.

An obstructed view of the Duck River from the trail system. This is not far from where I had my first clipless crash. I was coming to a stop and basically forgot that I needed to unclip and fell on my multi-thousand-dollar knee. Yeah, that hurt.

The landfill near the entrance to the park.
I realized after I had been riding for a while that I actually went to the wrong place at first, beginning at the Duck River public access point rather than a trailhead with better signage near the entrance to the park. This wasn't troubling since the terrain there was forgiving for getting used to a new bike. I started out in some grassy fields on the flood plain of the Duck. It was easy riding and I figured out how to clip into my pedals and tried to start getting used to the feeling of being locked to the bike. I managed not to fall off but that did not last long after I decided to hit the real single-track trail that led into the woods. I came around a corner and saw a short but steep climb around a giant tree that had fallen and decided I might not make it. I began stopping the bike, remembered that I was actually clipped to my pedals too late, and promptly fell over hard onto my right side before I could get unclipped, landing on the knee I had surgery on many years ago. It hurt, and my right shoulder got jammed, but nothing broken. I walked the bike over the climb and continued.

Some of the more technical trail at Chickasaw Trace. I walked some of this even though it was well within my ability. I had already fallen by this time and I did not want to fall on rock. Mountain biking is a confidence game. The faster you go, the easier it is, but the greater the consequences if you crash. If you have any doubts then you start hiking.
I rode the trails clockwise, and eventually this led along the Duck River and a tributary creek called Knob Creek. The creek looks like a half-way decent whitewater run, although it is small enough that there might be some issues with logs blocking the channel based upon the narrow width.

This is an interesting feature in the tributary Knob Creek. This channel looks artificial at a glance but it appeared to be natural upon closer examination. I interpret the sharp cleavage planes as a natural feature of the rock. I'd love to run this in a kayak at higher flow.
If you ride clockwise from the river access point, the trails become gradually more difficult as you progress and eventually I hit some features that I had to walk my bike over, and also spun out the back tire on the autumn leaf layer on a climb and fell over (thankfully on the uphill side of the trail). It knocked out my wind but other than that wasn't too bad.

Roller coaster section on the more advanced trails. Normally I would have hit these with fury but a couple of crashes made me hesitant and I had trouble carrying enough momentum through them. It ended up being part hard work and part hike-a-bike.

A nice bamboo grove somewhere in the middle of the trail system.
There is a trail that runs along and eventually crosses through a pretty cool ravine. It's surprising to find such a neat place at low elevation in Middle Tennessee. The photographer failed to capture a sense of depth here but the ravine is extremely rugged and steep and equally so in the upstream direction from this photo.
A distant view of the remote controlled aircraft field with Middle Tennessee knobs in the background. I suspect this land might be covered-over landfill but not sure.

Eventually my knees started to bother me and the sun got low in the sky and it started to get cold so I took a shortcut that probably cut off the last mile of the trail system. I was glad to be back at the truck. I picked up some fast food on the way home and made the long drive back to Ringgold. It was a pretty successful first run on my new bike, with only a couple of true crashes, plus some other minor incidents, mostly a result of unfamiliarity with being clipped onto the pedals. The trail system at Chickasaw Trace is nice and I'm glad I got a chance to ride it, but probably not worth driving over 2 hours considering that I live in the Appalachians and have numerous better options within 1 hour of home. Still, it was a fun ride.

The Derryberry Log Cabin is on the site and dates back to the early 1800s, before it was legal to settle in the area. Obviously it's had quite a bit of maintenance in the interim 200 years. The roof is definitely "non-period."
Strava details below.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Mountain Biking Chicopee Woods

Gainesville, Georgia
November 8, 2013

This vaguely medieval looking structure is the Elachee Nature Center at Chicopee Woods.
The mountain biking trails at Chicopee Woods have very good word of mouth in the Southeast. I've noticed there are two camps, those that like it as fast and flowy and those that dislike it for lack of technicality. I personally like to ride what is known as "buff singletrack," which is in the fast and flowy category. Singletrack denotes a traditional trail, typically wide enough for only a single bicycle or hiker. Buff means smooth, something that is rare in mountain biking in the eastern half of the United States. I don't mind some technicality from time to time but I particularly appreciate smooth trail. I decided to check out Chicopee last week.

The trail system starts out at a very nicely improved parking area, with some of the loops marked as directional based upon day of week. The trails nearest the main parking area are easy, but interconnect with more difficult trails to form a series of nested loops, occasionally crossing over or joining in with fire roads. It's pretty smooth on the easier trails and the fire roads but some of the intermediate trails have too many tree roots in my opinion. Still, it's a pretty smooth trail system on the whole.

Stream crossing on the outer loop at Chicopee Woods. This photo demonstrated "fire road," which is a wider type of path found on older trail systems and threading through Forest Service property, or other places where infrequent access is needed. When found on Forest Service land, it is usually intended as access to wild areas to facilitate fire fighting, hence "fire road." Contrast with below . . . 
Baby roller-coasters at Chicopee Woods. This is "singletrack," a traditional hiking trail, in this case groomed for riding mountain bikes.
Although Chicopee Woods is not in the mountains, it is surprisingly rolling. I racked up 1000 feet of total climbing in 11.9 miles, which is a good workout for me, especially since I have converted my mountain bike to a single speed. This means that I have only a single gear and can't change to easier gears for climbing. Occasionally the trail drops into ravines and there are several nicely constructed bridges for most of these, although I ran into a couple of stream crossings that appear to have been deliberately left in place for "fun." These are among the few points of interest, along with the markers for the location of a small plane crash from the 1990s.

There are several bridges at Chicopee, of which this is the coolest, although the photo understates the scale a little bit.
This cross marks the location of a plane crash, March 3, 1995. Two lives lost.

Second stream crossing on the outer loop.

There are few points of interest, but there were a couple of small dams that look like the remains of a mill at the major stream crossing.
Slightly taller dam. This was after the major stream crossing. I had to HAB for a bit to get over the stream and back up to the rideable trail.

I suffered from the leaves for almost my entire ride, but there was someone operating a backpack leaf blower when I was getting ready to finish. This shows a pretty dramatic difference after the job is done.
It was about 2 hr 15 minute drive for me to get to Chicopee Woods, and although fun, it is probably a place I will only ride once unless I happen to have some other reason to be over that way. Since I had driven over on a Friday when I took a day off work and wanted to avoid the Atlanta rush hour, I decided to take the scenic route home, taking some city streets over to Georgia State Highway 53 which I followed through the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains over to Cartersville, Georgia where I jumped back on the interstate. I discovered that Gainesville is sort of a "Little Mexico" for the greater Atlanta area, and drove for miles passing businesses with signs in Spanish, or in both Spanish and English. It was kind of interesting.

It was a pretty good ride at Chicopee Woods, and I would recommend it as a destination if you don't have to drive too far.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

The Jack Daniel's Distillery and Lynchburg, Tennessee

Mom contacted me via Facebook to invite me to join the Murfreesboro family with (Step) Uncle Ed Jablonski and his wife Mi Young to visit the Jack Daniel's whiskey distillery in Lynchburg, Tennessee. It was a rare opportunity to see expatriate and career Army veteran Uncle Ed. I've also had an interest in visiting the distillery for quite some time since it's one of the things most well-known about the State of Tennessee (for good or bad) yet I've never visited, despite having lived in Tennessee (or nearby) for most of my life.

Jack Daniel

I enjoyed the drive from the greater Chattanooga area into Middle Tennessee, which includes leaving the Appalachian Ridge and Valley region, crossing into the South Cumberlands/Cumberland Plateau region, dropping down onto an area of table land called the Highland Rim, and then down into the Nashville Basin to get to Lynchburg. The distillery rests on the slopes of the lower edge of Highland Rim, where water is drawn from a natural spring that flows out of a cave in the karst terrain. It's a neat location.

The original source of Jack Daniel's Tennessee Whiskey, a natural spring flowing out of a cave in the side of the Highland Rim, with a surprising volume of flow.

I was a bit shocked by the distillery as a tourist attraction as there was a huge parking lot with about 400 cars in it, mostly tourists. It was initially baffling. There is an elaborate visitor's center with tours leaving every 5 to 10 minutes in air conditioned mini-buses. I had never imagined that a whiskey distillery could be such a huge tourist draw. In the process of going through the tour it becomes clear that people literally come from all over the world to visit the distillery (or at least it is on their vacation itinerary). I also did not realize that Jack Daniel's Tennessee Whiskey is the best selling whiskey in the world. Perhaps that explains the level of tourism.

The visitor's center.

Tour ticket resembles a bottle label. The tickets were free.

The tour of the distillery operations was interesting and aromatic. The huge vats and columnar tanks reminded me of the Elsinore Brewery from the movie Strange Brew (haha), except it's not beer brewing of course. I would love to have gotten more photos but the company respectfully asked that no photos be taken in the operational areas to maintain trade secrets. I saw several people breaking the rules anyway but I thought it rude.

Anyway I would recommend it to anyone with a day to kill in Middle Tennessee. Hit up the shops and restaurants in downtown Lynchburg and be sure to check out the historic court house in the middle of the town square. Lynchburg is also known as a place where the politician and Texas revolutionary Davy Crockett once lived and is the current home of "oldies" rock and roll artist Little Richard.

The historic courthouse in Lynchburg, constructed in 1885.

It was a nice place for a family gathering and entertainment for a Saturday.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

The Tennessee River Gorge

The Tennessee River Gorge, just outside Chattanooga. You can see in this photo why the eroded edges of the Plateau are sometimes referred to as the South Cumberland Mountains (South differentiating it from the Cumberlands, a hundred miles to the north). Paddler: Stacy Stone.

I've wanted to paddle through the Tennessee River Gorge since I moved to Chattanooga in 2003, but I never got around to it until last weekend. The gorge is one of the largest canyons in the eastern half of the United States and is a place of great natural beauty and inspiration. It's ridiculously close to Chattanooga and can literally be reached within 10 minutes from downtown. I had to miss a couple other opportunities to paddle it, but finally my good friend Lois invited me to join in on a trip being organized by our mutual friend Mike to view the Fall foliage and I took great pains to try to make the trip.

The Tennessee River is one of the great rivers of North America. The river flows 652 miles from it's source at the confluence of the Holston and French Broad Rivers in Tennessee, through Alabama, Mississippi, back into Tennessee, and through Kentucky to the Ohio River, and it is the largest tributary of the Ohio. The Tennessee River Gorge, also historically known as Cash Canyon, is found where the river cuts through the Cumberland Plateau. Fortunately it has been mostly preserved by a series of land acquisitions by the Trust for Public Land, barring some pre-existing homesteads and some property of the federal government that has been developed for electricity generation.

Even the boat launch looks promising, especially in Fall when the leaves are changing. If I'm going on a river trip, this is the type of thing I like to see when I'm getting ready to launch.

Mike chose to launch at a boat ramp off Suck Creek Road, just inside the mouth of the Gorge along the foot of Signal Mountain, with the intention to paddle down to another boat ramp at the foot of Raccoon Mountain, my usual mountain biking location (nearly 1000 feet above the river). The paddle is now about 9 miles of flat water, although prior to the construction of Nickajack Dam downstream, there were several major rapids in the Gorge. The dam floods out the whitewater. Since I'm a whitewater paddler, I hope someday in the future to see the rapids uncovered, like when Nickajack Dam is undergoing maintenance. On such a large river, the dams were constructed to provide navigability for freight traffic on barges, and to provide electricity generation, so unfortunately I think we can assume that any significant dam maintenance will be held to a minimum.

A nice wide view of the Tennessee River Gorge. It's actually part of Nickajack Reservoir these days. Unfortunately there were numerous motor boats racing through the gorge, including a "cigar boat" that must have been running in excess of 80 miles per hour if not faster. That said, all of us on the trip were whitewater paddlers so we are  not troubled by even very large wake.

We were initially encouraged by a fairly significant current at the launch, but within a short distance the current became negligible and we even got pushed back upstream by a mild headwind if we stopped paddling. It was as if we really dropped into Nickajack Lake proper. An examination of the upstream releases from Chickamauga Dam indicates that the flow was a relatively low 19,000 cubic feet per second for our run. I suspect the current would have been much stronger had we been luckier about those releases.

Rock chimneys and cliffs on Signal Mountain. The mountain got it's name from it's use during the US Civil War by the federal army.
The mouth of Suck Creek, a popular class V+ whitewater run that drops precipitously off Signal Mountain. No, I don't paddle that. Suck Creek got it's name from the days before the gorge was flooded out by Nickajack Dam, far downstream. There was once a huge rapid featuring a great whirlpool called "The Suck." I presume the rapid was once right below where we were floating on the surface of the lake when I took this photo.
The bluffs and cliffs on Elder Mountain.

Fall colors at the lower elevations.
Fall colors below the residence of an heir to the Olan Mills fortune. As the saying goes, if you have a good view, then someone else does not. I'd rather not see a house in this section of the Gorge which was otherwise the most naturally preserved stretch. One of the peculiar things about living in the Chattanooga area is the presence of several "old money" families, unusual for such a modestly sized town. This seems to date back all the way to the Reconstruction era after the Civil War and continued through the post-Reconstruction times when Chattanooga was one of the few towns in the South to benefit from the wealth generated by the Industrial Revolution.

The river bends left and right, walled in by the forested scree slopes and the rocky bluffs of the mountainous edges of the Cumberland Plateau. Most trees were still clothed in leaves, although we all agreed that the colors had been slightly more vivid the previous two days and had tamed to russets, browns, and burnt oranges. It was still beautiful, just not as bright. We had just missed the peak colors. That was unfortunate, but it's a beautiful place to be at any time of year. Above us rock chimneys and caprock looked down on us, with a perfectly clear, deep blue sky arching between the canyon walls. It's a place to build memories.

Spectacular cliffs across from the takeout on river left at the Raccoon mountain pumped storage facility. This picture is totally lame. The actual scene was stunning in the falling light of late afternoon.

The inlet of the Tennessee Valley Authority's Raccoon Mountain Pumped Storage Facility. Water is drawn in here and pumped up through tunnels in the mountain to a lake on top when the price of electricity is low. When the price goes up, water is released from the facility back down through the mountain for power generation using turbines located inside the tunnel system, barely visible in this photo. There is an elevator that runs up through the mountain to the building visible up there on the bluffs, roughly a thousand feet above the river level. I mountain bike up there all the time and the view from an overlook platform up there is one of my favorite places. I plan to blog about that some other day.

We were awed by the scenery, but eventually the lengthy flatwater paddle became trying. We reached the takeout tired, but rewarded. After some boat loading and banter at the takeout, we retired to Mojo Burrito in the St. Elmo neighborhood for some delicious food and beer. It was a good way to spend a Sunday. Thanks Lois for including me!

Monday, October 28, 2013

Cherohala Skyway Hiking - Huckleberry Knob in the Clouds

Vivid Autumn color in the Unicoi Mountains.

I really wanted to get out last weekend to some high country before the snow closes everything out for the winter. In the Southern Appalachians, there is usually some low-altitude hiking to be found all winter but I prefer the more alpine regions above 4,000 feet and you really have to get it in between April and October or you are likely to run into ice and snow. I made plans to head up to the Cherahala Skyway in search of meadows with sweeping views. Since the leaves are changing right now, it seemed like a good opportunity to view the fall foliage as well. I invited several people but only my friend Jenny Taylor took me up on the offer. We made plans to meet at the Nantahala River where she had been paddling whitewater the previous day to drive up onto the skyway to Huckleberry Knob, which seemed to offer the best opportunity for wide views.

The Cherohala Skyway on the Tennessee side of the Unicoi Mountains.

The Cherahala Skyway is a highway that was constructed along the crest of the Unicoi Mountains (part of the Appalachian chain) along the Tennessee-North Carolina border just southwest of the Great Smoky Mountains. It climbs to over a mile above sea level and offers numerous views and trailheads for hikes into the high country of the Unicois. The name "Cherahala" is simply a portmanteau of Cherokee and Nantahala, meaning it runs through Cherokee National Forest on the Tennessee side to Nantahala National Forest on the North Carolina side. It is less well known than some other scenic drives such as the Blue Ridge Parkway, but I find it to be as beautiful as anywhere I've been in the eastern half of the United States.

Typical Cherohala Skyway road. Motorcyclists favor this highway.

A typical view from the Skyway. It was a little too cloudy and hazy for ideal viewing conditions.
A wider view into lower country.

The hike on Huckleberry Knob is pretty easy and heads up very "unimproved" double track onto a grassy meadow, referred to colloquially as a "bald." I interpreted the presence of the double track to indicate that the Forest Service is probably taking vehicles up onto the bald to mow the grass and keep it open. In the 19th century these balds occurred naturally but in the 20th century they started to become overgrown. No one is sure why the balds are filling in but the Forest Service maintains the balds in order to maintain the previous character of the high country. I'm never sure about the value of doing something like that but I certainly appreciate the views.

Uh-oh! Fogged in at the trailhead. It's well above 5,000 feet above sea level so there is always a good chance this will happen on a given day in the rainy Southest.

Unfortunately from the trailhead on it was apparent that we were up in the cloud deck and when we arrived on the crest of Huckleberry Knob, we could initially see nothing. This was later interspersed with cloud and fog obstructed views of indistinct mountains. The weather conditions could have been slightly better.

The trail consists of primitive fire road / doubletrack. It's a pretty easy hike although it gets overgrown with grass once you break out of the trees.
The views were obstructed, clouded, opaque, and several other adjectives including the impolite.

A view showing the entirety of the balds at Huckleberry Knob.

The clouds closed back in. You can see the double track vehicle path here.

We hiked out along the balds, stopping to take some photos and enjoyed the late season wildflowers that remained, the fall leaf colors, and the tall grass waving in the wind. Despite the obstructed views, I always enjoy being on top of a mountain and the cold wind didn't interfere with my experience.

Not a sweeping view, but still worth viewing.

We hiked around on some of the more well-beaten paths and waited for clearing but it eventually became obvious that it simply wasn't going to clear up, so we hiked back to the car and continued along the Skyway towards Tellico Plains, Tennessee to get something to eat, stopping along the way to enjoy some views. After we dropped below the cloud layer, it became apparent that the colors were more vivid on the Tennessee side of the Unicois, especially around 2500 to 3000 feet and we saw some of the brightest reds and most vivids yellows I've ever seen in Fall leaves.

Bright colors just below the overlook, which was around 3000 feet above sea level.
The highway was a corridor of color in places.

Vivid color around a picnic area.

The low cloud layer was a disappointment but we still got to see some great fall colors and beautiful mountains. As a bonus, I finally saw a bobcat in the wild for the first time on the way home along Highway 64 near the crest of Boyd Gap. Unfortunately I was moving too fast to get a photo and the cat skittered off into the forest when my car got close. Still, I'll take the experience over the photo any day of the week. I've been trying to see a bobcat in the wilds for decades so it's nice to get that crossed off the list.

Another weekend day well spent!

Post Script Riddle: When is a bear-proof trash can not bear proof?
Answer: When you don't close the lid until it latches.

Bear sign! Also Redneck sign. Note the dents from a shotgun blast. This trash can has had a rough time.

I make these to be claw marks.
Until next time . . .