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Big South Fork: Part 1 (Saturday)

Wednesday, October 27th, 2010

Last weekend, Tim,  David and I went down to Big South Fork National Recreation Area for a camping trip, and two epic days of mixed-terrain riding in southern Kentucky and northern Tennessee.

Note: this is Part 1. Read Part 2 here. Also, Tim’s Part 1 is here. David has a writeup here.

I had never been down to this area before; I found it beautiful, rugged, and extremely hilly. We rode 54 miles Saturday and 60 on Sunday, but we underestimated how difficult it would be. Between the rough gravel and the wild changes in elevation, we ended up riding 8 hours or more each day.

Saturday started early. I had driven down to Louisville Friday night and stayed at David’s house. Tim arrived around 6am Saturday, with a box of donuts. We loaded up on coffee, put our gear and bikes in/on Tim’s car, and made the 4-hour trip down to Big South Fork, eating donuts along the way. A glorious breakfast. Once we arrived, we found a campsite in the remote Great Meadow campground and got ready to ride. Here is our route from Saturday:

Our ride began on the road to the campground. Since the campground was at the end of a long, flat gravel road following a creek, we had a beautiful, easy warmup/cooldown on this road for each of our rides.




After our warmup, we found ourselves on a paved road with a big, long climb. This first climb of the ride actually turned out to be the longest, and probably had the most elevation gain of any climb we did. But that is not to say that it would be the hardest. Far from it. This hill was paved and mostly not too steep, unlike some of the others.

We started to get a sense of the scenery. We were pleased to see more fall colors than we expected, big hills, and a lot of interesting rock bluffs.


Here is Tim climbing. You can see David in the background, coming around a switchback.


This climb reminded me a bit of my favorite climb out of the valley in Pennsylvania. Long, but fairly gradual. In a low gear you spin your way slowly up the hill. The PA climb was bigger, but this had a similar feeling.

There’s a nice view of distant hills, behind David.


We turned onto Skullbone Tower Road, and almost immediately saw this bicycle perched on a roof.


Despite its morbid name, Skullbone Tower Road was actually quite pleasant, and not overly difficult. It was a meandering ridgetop road with some minor fluctuations in elevation, some fun twists, a good flow, and some fantastic views.







After a brief stint on a very quiet state highway, we turned onto Jones Hollow Road for our first major downhill of the weekend, and it was spectacular. It was a paved road, so we were able to go quiet fast with good traction. The road descended some 500 feet over the course of nearly two miles, with numerous twists and turns along the way, all the while skirting rock cliffs and offering some wonderful views. I had a stupid grin plastered on my face the whole way down. I couldn’t be bothered to attempt to take photos … the riding was just too good!

I did stop at this intersection. I would continue riding downhill in the left fork. Later, we would return via the gravel road on the right.


Once in the valley, we would have some relatively flat riding on smooth pavement for a while. The scenery just kept getting better.




At one point we passed a horse-drawn wagon. The folks in it were friendly and enthusiastic, and quite curious about what we were doing.  One girl charmingly exclaimed in a sweet southern belle voice, “We never see no bikes!”



We rode on.


Eventually we turned down a steep gravel hill, on a road we weren’t sure would go through. This shot is looking back up at the road we came down.


We were all amazed by this suspension pedestrian bridge over the creek.


We could also see that the road did in fact go through … straight through a rather wide creek! It was shallow, however, and passable.


But we took this opportunity to explore a bit and have a snack. David climbed up on the bridge. I didn’t. I sort of wish I had, it was quite cool.


Tim and I rode through the creek. David decided to take his shoes off. This SUV came through and had a bit of trouble getting through the creek — but he made it.


Here’s Tim, having already crossed the creek. If you view it larger, in the background you can see the bridge, and David preparing to ride across.


David rode across barefoot. Apparently the pedals hurt his feet. Ouch!


We had quite a gravel climb up from the creek (~400 feet), then some easier, paved riding.



This easier section was enjoyable because it afforded us more opportunity to pay attention to the scenery.


We got to see quite a few more interesting rock cliffs and bluffs and other formations.






As well as some beautiful bucolic scenes.


We tackled a quite challenging gravel climb.




Soon we found ourselves on a ridge with some wonderful views of some fields and hills, and had some really fun, flowing gravel riding on the incredible Freedom Road. But not before getting a photo of our three Long Haul Truckers first. Yes! We each rode a LHT. It was a great bicycle for this ride.








Soon the road entered the woods and took us down a hill.


We rode past a church … there were tons of these little Baptist churches in random places, and they all looked nearly identical. White, mostly with green roofs. This one had a white roof I guess, so not exactly identical to the others, but it’s still the same basic design.


We reached a creek — the same creek we had crossed before. Now we had to cross it again.


Another suspension bridge was quite interesting.



A man was sitting by his pickup truck down by the creek. We never were able to figure out what the heck he was doing there. He was a little creepy …  a bit of a Deliverance moment. We needed water but with the old guy creeping me out, I didn’t think to filter any from the stream. This creek crossing was rockier, slipperier, and harder than the first one.


After the creek is where an absolutely outrageous climb began. Nearly two miles and 500 feet of elevation gain, all on a very rough, rocky, loose gravel road. Some sections were so steep that our tires could not get purchase on the gravel and they spun out beneath us as we attempted to climb. This was the toughest climb of the day for me. Being basically out of water, relentless climbing in the heat, on basically a mountain biking surface, I was at a low point. I stopped a few times to catch my breath on the way up.




To make matters worse, once we got to the top, we had some more major ups and downs. These were fun but each time we would start to lose that elevation we worked so hard to gain, it was a little disconcerting. We also saw several 4-wheelers along this section, whose vehicles kicked up untold amounts of dust. More interesting rock formations presented themselves.



Somewhere along here, on a steep loose gravel downhill, I braked too hard and I felt my front wheel wash out from under me. I managed to do a leaping dismount and land on my feet! I’ve only been able to pull off that maneuver a couple of times … previously when mountain biking.

The riding was brutal, but at least the scenery was good.



Eventually we made our way back to Jones Hollow Road. What was a blistering downhill before was a very slow climb now. I took advantage of the opportunity to get better views of the rock cliffs.



We reached KY 92 again and spent a few minutes on that, with some more good views. I missed most of the photo ops here though. By this point, we were in dire need of water.





Finally, we found a fire department and got water from their hose. We had a snack while we were at it and tried to rehydrate.


When we got rolling again we enjoyed another incredible paved descent. This one had great flow, and it was absolutely exhilarating!


We turned onto Wolf Creek Road which had a very tough climb. As we were climbing several dogs gave chase and their owner yelled something like “I’ll let you kill them for $20! Or, you can just take them!” I guess he didn’t much care for his dogs.


Here are some scenes from the climb. It was long and brutal, but I was feeling better after getting some water. I felt surprisingly decent at this point. The sky was clouding up which to me was quite welcome. The sun had been so bright and hot, earlier.





After what seemed like forever, we reached the top and turned onto Rattlesnake Ridge.


This road had some mild rolling hills and I was feeling pretty good. By this time Tim was cooked. I’m not sure how David was feeling at this point. I enjoyed the gently meandering road and even the climbs a bit. I guess I got a second wind after we got more water. A few nice views along the way didn’t hurt, either.






Next we got to ride back down the paved climb from the start of the day, and it was a hoot! A paved road with no traffic and lots of twists and turns had me leaning into the turns and really having a blast. I guess this must’ve been the third absolutely blissful paved descent of the day … and I sure felt we had earned it!

Once at the bottom of the hill, the road turned to gravel and we were on the flat 6-mile road back to our campsite. It was a pleasant way to wind down the ride, though at times it felt like a very long stretch of road, because we were tired and it was nearly dark. Still, it was lovely.






It was an astoundingly great day on the bike. We were all tired when we got back to our campsite. We set up camp, made dinner and goofed around for a couple of hours, before crashing. What a day!

Note: this is Part 1. Read Part 2 here.

Did we see y’all in Fer’nan’?

Tuesday, October 12th, 2010

On Sunday, I headed down to Ferdinand, Indiana, to ride with the Tim and David from the River City Cycling Society. They live in Louisville, but had planned a long mixed-terrain ride based out of Ferdinand. This was convenient, as it’s somewhere in between where I live and where they live. Our initial route was for over 80 miles, but we ended up with 66 miles for the day. Here’s a map of our route.

Not the Breakdown

I decided not to ride the Brown County Breakdown this year (which was on Sunday). The Breakdown is usually my biggest mountain bike ride of the year. I rode the Breakdown four years in a row, and the past couple of years have been pretty much the same, in terms of route and in terms of general feeling of the ride. When an epic mountain bike ride starts to feel routine, you’ve got to switch things up. Don’t get  me wrong, the Breakdown is a great event, it’s well-run and a lot of fun, but I needed a change. When Tim invited me to ride with them on Sunday, I knew what I was going to do instead.

Auspicious beginnings

We met at the post office in Ferdinand. We expected the route to have a lot of gravel. Well, we saw our first gravel immediately … the post office parking lot was gravel!  As we rolled out, we had a few nice ups and downs on paved roads, and quickly got away from town. We hit gravel very soon and the first gravel roads were hard-packed, smooth, and the riding was fast. These early roads were a lot of fun, but also deceptively easy. It was a beautiful morning, and cool (55-60ish?).








We joked about making an unplanned stop at this establishment.


As I said, the riding was good. Here’s Tim, enjoying himself.


It’s hard to tell, but the house below was TPed pretty badly.



Signs of fall were everywhere.



Did I mention the riding was good? The seemingly random combination of paved and gravel roads kept us guessing at what we’d see next. This early portion of the ride was so fun and easy.



Before long, we hit our first road-not-road of the day. More of a dirt trail. How Tim found this stuff is beyond me. Actually, I know he used a combination of various maps and Google Streetview, but I’m still amazed. He must have looked very closely.


David navigates the eroded, rocky dirt + gravel road surface.


Strange occurrences

Just shy of 14 miles into the ride, something very strange happened to me. As we rode under the large power lines below …


… I suddenly felt myself getting shocked! There were no down lines or anything. I was getting shocked in my hands and thighs, just from riding under the power lines. I felt an odd tingling sensation and mild pain. It must have been from my hands touching the brake levers, and I guess my shorts must’ve rubbed the seatpost slightly. Neither Tim nor David experienced this. I can only assume my bicycle picked up an induced charge and that by touching metal parts, I got shocked.

I was a bit shaken by this incident. It wasn’t terribly painful, but it freaked me out a bit. I spent the rest of the ride nervous about riding under large power lines. Still, we rode on.


Along the way, we saw a turkey farm, and other assorted farmery.





More great riding

Things were about to change. We rolled through a wooded area, and by some flowering hills.



And back onto gravel, for a good climb, and some more wooded riding.


This was one of my favorite sections of the ride. The climbing, the fall colors, the gravel road, and views of some bodies of water all combined for a magical ride.



The road had an odd pea gravel texture, for a while.








Soon we turned onto a very narrow gravel road. This was another highlight as it took us through numerous rolling hills at a good speed, I’d say we were pushing the limits of how fast we could handle loose gravel with slick tires. We all had a few insane moments, trying to avoid hitting rocks or slipping on the gravel.



Before long we found ourselves in a flat creek bottom, briefly.


And then the rollers started. They wouldn’t let up for quite some time.



The pavement ended, but the rolling hills continued. They were fun, but also challenging. Also, the day was starting to heat up. Eventually it’d hit nearly 90 degrees.


We had a longer climb up to this water tower, and then more rollers after that.




After some more mixed-surface riding, we reached a pond


Then, an odd gravel road/trail took us up toward some train tracks. Fortuitously, a train went by as we were taking in the scenery.






These power lines made me nervous … but I did not get shocked again, somehow. I rode under them as fast as I could.


After a great doubletrack jaunt across a field …


… we reached Huntingburg.



This was around the 40-mile mark, and the first available food/water stop. We had lunch at Wendy’s.

After lunch, we watched a large piece of farm equipment go over a one-lane bridge. They had to fold in their ladder to be able to fit.


Sometime around this time, we encountered some kind folks in a pickup truck who asked us what sounded like, “Did we see y’all in Vernon?” I said no, knowing we hadn’t been to a place called Vernon. Or Bermon. Or whatever they had said. Either way, no. In a moment,  we realized they meant “Ferdinand,” they just slurred the syllables together … “Fer’n’an‘.” Finally, we realized we had seen them. They were impressed at how far we had gone. It was funny to talk to them, and now I will always think of Ferdinand as rhyming with Vernon.

Soon we faced a nice little climb. I had a nice view, so I stayed back to photograph David and Tim climbing it.




By the time I stopped taking photos and rode on, Tim was but a speck in the distance. I caught up quickly due to the great downhill I had earned.




After a small stint on a wonderful dirt road …



… and a look at a cemetery …


Soon we were near some-little-town-or-other … Saint Anthony. The climb out of town was brutal, but also very beautiful.



The route had been fairly hilly already, but here, the relentless hills started. These were much bigger and tougher than the earlier rollers, and they were one right after another. The sun was quite hot by this time and the heat and the hills combined made for quite a struggle.







Ultimately, we decided to shorten our route. The 82 miles we had planned seemed like too much. We took a couple of short cuts … the riding was still excellent.


We reached some sort of maintenance/fire road. Really just a big piece of dirt with no grass on it.


As well as an old bridge, with new telephone wire going across.


Here is Tim’s beautiful titanium Litespeed Blueridge.



And my Surly Long Haul Trucker.


David also rode his Long Haul Trucker, but I didn’t get a shot of it.



After another climb, we were in Ferdinand State Forest (pronounced “Fernan Stayt Forst”, of course).


The hills remained relentless. We were really struggling up them at this point. Fortunately there were some fun, lovely downhill sections as well.






After a bunch of gravel ups and downs we had a big paved climb …



Then a little flat riding. The evening light was getting good at this point, and the shade finally offered a little respite from the heat.


If you look below you can see a very steep driveway headed up to the silo. Man am I glad we didn’t have to climb that!


However, we weren’t done climbing. We still had a couple left.


But soon, we were approaching Ferdinand.


We could tell we were getting close as a couple of steeples peeked up over the hillsides.



A little more climbing, and we were back in Ferdinand.


This was an absolutely amazing ride. I don’t feel bad at all about cutting it a little short. 66 hilly, gravelly miles is nothing to shake a stick at.

Thanks to Tim for putting together and amazing route, and Tim and David both for inviting me along and being good riding company.  I had a blast!

McGowan Road exploration

Saturday, October 2nd, 2010

Recently, my wife and I were near the North Fork State Wildlife Refuge/Waterfowl Resting Area around McGowan Road, and the signs there reminded me that this area closes from October 1 to April 15. I’ve ridden in this area a few times before, and each time, it’s been incredible. Most times I have just ridden through the area on gravel roads. But there are many earthen dams snaking through the area, and each time, I swear I’m going to go back soon to explore some of the dams more. So when I realized the area was about to close for the winter, I suddenly had a pressing need to explore the dams and fields before they close. Here’s a map of my ride.

The Wildlife Refuge area has become less accessible to me since we moved back in February. With the shorter days, I had to plan ahead a bit so I could leave directly from work. It wasn’t a big deal, and it worked out great. I brought the Trucker into the office so I could keep an eye on it. I normally lock it outside, but I put on a handlebar bag and some lights, and I wanted to keep my eye on them.  It was cool to be able to keep an eye on my bicycle, but it was sitting there taunting me all day. It was highly tempting just to jump on and ride away.


On my way across town I rode with another rider, who had a very cool Trek Portland (though his was brown, unlike the current model), and we talked about touring. He’s thinking about doing a short tour down in Kentucky and trying to hit up all the bourbon distilleries down there. Sounds great to me! I hope I run into him again.

After riding with him for a while, he turned toward home and I rode away from town.  A few rolling hills and a long flowing descent later, I hit my first gravel road, Friendship Road.


We’re having drought conditions. With less rain than usual in July, and very little in August and September, this creek was very low. Normally the water level is much higher and it’s a strong-flowing creek.



Soon I spent a few minutes on a highway before turning back onto the gravel McGowan Road. Not long after I turned on McGowan, I saw a very rough trail of sorts and decided to see where it led.



The trail opened up to a vast field, these are typical in the Wildlife Refuge. At this point the riding was across rough mown paths.



As with some other recent rides, the light was amazing throughout this ride, with the sun low in the sky, producing an orange glow and casting long shadows.

After riding around in the fields a bit, I found a gravel maintenance road and followed it. At one point, it went near Salt Creek and I could see across the creek to Friendship Road on the other side, where I had come from. As I was looking across, a Great Blue Heron took flight and I watched it swoop up out of the creek. It was a breathtaking scene. As I stood and watched, slack-jawed, I didn’t even think to turn on my camera. Whoops.



I really enjoyed riding the Long Haul Trucker for a change. It has mostly been relegated to commuting duty lately, but it was wonderful to take my country bike out in the country again. I hardly even noticed the few extra pounds in my pannier/handlebar bag that I took for this longishg, backcountry ride.



Eventually, the trail looped back around and I ended up back on McGowan Road. I continued on down the road. The light, and the scenery, just got better and better. The road surface was rather rough, loose gravel. Harder than the last time I was here, but still doable.




Soon I turned off onto another field by way of some great doubletrack. Tim and I rode here back in April and it was just as good this time around. I went further this time, and really saw some gorgeous scenes.




Some of the riding was on earthen dams. Normally these fill with water and form a wetlands environment, but everything is just so dry this year that there was no water at all in most parts. In a way, this was fortunate, as it was more conducive to riding, but still …


Other parts did have water.


It’s not obvious from the photos, but I did see lots of birds throughout much of this ride. Flocks of geese, herons, turkey vultures, hawks, etc. I brought some binoculars and watched some of them, but for the most part, they were too far away to get photos of them.

I found a few interesting water access points to Lake Monroe/Salt Creek.




I did manage to get a shot of this turkey vulture as he soared above me.


Unfortunately I was feeling a bit of a rush to see everything I wanted to see before it got dark. But it seemed I’d go 1/4 mile or so and another incredible scene would open up before me, forcing me to stop and take another photo … or two, or three …


The trail got rougher, and the sun was nearly setting. I got a little off track from where I wanted to be, but then again, this was an exploratory trip. I kept moving though as I had a spot in mind to watch the sunset.


Soon I reached the area I had in mind. Oddly, a tractor was running and as I approached I could see it was pumping water from one pool, into another. Indiana University does some research out here and I know they manage the water level to a certain extent, so I think that’s what was going on.





I made my way over the huge hose and onto another side trail to see what I could see.


The sun cast a warm glow over the hills, the peaks casting shadows on the lower parts of the hills. In the wetland below I saw many geese and a few herons, as well. Through my binoculars, I could see them clearly and I watched as a few geese mulled around, and a couple of herons took flight. Meanwhile out of the corner of my eye, a family of deer came out to graze but didn’t stay long. I may have spooked them, or maybe they moved on for some other reason. It was very difficult to get photos of all of this, my little point and shoot camera just isn’t up to the task. If I had brought my DSLR, I could have captured the images better, but I think binoculars were the best way of watching these events unfold.


By this time, the sun had nearly set. I turned around took make my way over to the road, which was not far from me.



But I didn’t make it far. I was distracted again by the still-setting sun.


Eventually, I pressed on.


I made it back to the main road before it got completely dark. This was my goal — it’d be difficult to navigate the meandering mown paths through the fields in the dark.





While still on McGowan Road, I switched my lights on. I’d ride the last 45 minutes home in the dark. Admittedly, I was a little nervous about this part of my ride. I’ve done a lot of night riding, but it’s mostly been offroad. A few of my on-road attempts have been frustrating because of rude drivers. Fortunately, much of the return trip would still be on quiet country roads.



As I neared town, traffic picked up a little, but remained relatively light.


This time around, drivers were courteous and I didn’t encounter any problems at all on the way home. My lights were not really bright enough at times, but I managed fairly well nonetheless.

I got home around 8:40 pm. Having left work shortly after 5:00, this was a long post-work ride by my standards, at over 30 miles, some on rough terrain. I’m very glad I made an effort to get out on the Wildlife Refuge trails before it was too late! Next year, I will explore this area more. Fortunately while the trails are closed for the winter, the gravel roads are still open, so I don’t have to wait until spring to go back.

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