Sunday, November 11, 2012

You May Quote Me On This

I got a nice message from Fodor's the other day.  The company publishes travel guides that Pam and I have bought over the years and I am an occasional contributor to their online travel site.  They informed me that a quote from one of my trip descriptions I posted on their website was used in one of their guides and they kindly offered me a free copy of any of their books.  I chose their Costa Rica guide since that is a trip we are planning.  The book in which one of my comments is quoted is their Complete Guide To The National Parks Of The West.  Flip to page 701 and there is my quote on the opening page of their chapter on Saguaro National Park.

The trip I was referencing was a 2010 journey we took to the Tucson area which predates the beginning of my blog.  I dug out my notes and here is a recap, along with a few photos:
When I was a little shaver (1st grade) Sunday dinners were held at the home of my mother's parents in Riverside, Illinois.  In addition to dinner with the grandparents, these evenings meant one other thing: TV.  We did not have a television at home but our grandparents had a black and white set in their library.  In addition to a TV, the walls of the library featured quite a number of early color photographs taken by and of my grandparents when they visited one of their favorite places: Tucson, Arizona.  Most of the photos were of them standing next to large cactus by the side of the road.  My grandfather explained that the tall cactus were called Giant Saguaro and that the frames around the pictures themselves were made of the wood-like fibers in the cactus that made it possible for them to grow so tall.  The idea of such a place sounded pretty exotic to me. 

Pam had been to Tucson for business years ago but I had never been there.  We put it on our list of places to see and the time was finally right.  Our bike trip to Death Valley last year probably did a lot to spur us on to plan this trip.

The Sonoran desert covers about 120,000 square miles in southwestern Arizona and southeastern California, as well as most of Baja California and the western half of the state of Sonora, Mexico.  Giant Saguaro cactus are found only in the Sonoran Desert.  Tucson is one of the oldest towns in the United States and was originally a Pima Indian village called Stook-zone, meaning water or spring at the foot of black mountain.  Hugo O'Conor established the Tucson Presidio in 1775.  Spanish settlers arrived in the area in 1776.  Tucson officially became part of the United States with the Gadsden Purchase of 1854 and served as capital of the Arizona Territory from 1867 to 1877.  Our mid-March trip meant that we saw the countryside just as it was beginning to green-up to prepare for the spring blooms.  A few wildflowers were visible but the blooms will not really get going until April. 

We flew into Tucson on a Tuesday and headed over to the area surrounding the University of Arizona.  Locating a good bike shop in a university town is never difficult.  FairWheel Bikes rents and sells all manner of bikes and we had ourselves outfitted with a couple of mountain bikes made by Specialized in no time at all.  Loading them into the back of our rented Chevy Equinox wasn't too easy but we did get them to fit (barely).  We then made a quick stop to pick up some fruit and a case of bottled water.  We planned to be on the go for most of our trip so we knew that hydration would be important, especially in this part of the country.

It was about a twenty minute drive into the foothills of the Santa Catalina range north of Tucson to our hotel, Hacienda del Sol Guest Ranch Resort.  This charming small hotel was a girls finishing school until sometime in the late 1920's when it was converted to a hotel.  Our 2-room suite in a separate building overlooked a small valley.  The foothills have been pretty thoroughly developed so don't let the name of the hotel fool you into thinking we were somewhere out in the middle of nowhere.  Still, the view was nice and the many gardens and courtyards on the hotel grounds were wonderful.  Gambel's quail quietly skittered among the cactus in a garden just outside our room and humming birds could be seen visiting the blossoms from time to time.

Food is never far from our minds and after getting settled at the hotel, we found Blanco -Tacos + Tequila a short drive away.  I had a couple of great fish tacos & Pam had a taco salad.  The views of the sunset were very nice and we lingered over wine and beer and wondered how our day of cycling on the following day would go.  We hadn't been on bicycles since September.  We knew conditions would be warm and arid.  We wondered if there would be hills. 

On each of Wednesday, Thursday and Friday we had breakfast at the hotel.  Our waiter Joe gave us lots of great advice on daily activities.  Saguaro National Park is divided into two major sections, one on the east side of Tucson (the Rincon Mountain District) and one on the west side (the Tucson Mountain District).  The park encompasses one of the largest collections of saguaro cactus in the world.  This tall, majestic plant is practically the symbol of the American southwest.  As we drove through the park, it seemed like I had stepped into one of those photos on my grandparents' library wall.  Although saguaros thrive in total exposure to the region's blazing sun and temperature extremes, they grow slowly and take up to 15 years to attain the height of just a foot and up to 60 more years before growing their first arm.  In their first few years of life these cactus require the shade of a nearby plant for a part of the day before being able to stand on their own in the hot sun.

The saguaro are easy to spot, even in a crowded desert like this
Saguaro's Rincon Mountain District is higher in elevation (2,670 to 8,666 feet above sea level vs. 2,180 to 4,687) and a bit moister (12.3 annual inches of rainfall vs. 10.3 annual inches) than the Tucson Mountain District.  Cactus Forest Drive is a one-way paved loop road that runs through the Rincon Mountain District.  In addition to a few cars, the road is used by many cyclists and runners.  We arrived, set up our bikes, applied sunscreen, made sure we had plenty of water, strapped on our helmets and hit the road.  Death Valley is wonderfully stark with very few visible plants and wildlife that stays well hidden most of the time.  The Sonoran Desert in Saguaro is crammed full of cactus and many other desert plants.  Snow-capped Mt. Lemmon in the distance made it an even more scenic landscape.  About three miles into our ride we started up a gentle incline that went on for more than a mile as we climbed 500 or so feet.  I will admit to having to get off the bike at a particularly steep spot about three-quarters of the way up the incline but after a quick rest it was not too hard to get back on and make it to the top.  Seeing this sort of scenery from a bike is a real treat. 

Words like "colorless", "barren" and "lifeless" don't describe this desert
Pam surveys the road ahead and the view of snowcapped Mount Lemmon
Cactus Forest Drive is a great biking route

On Wednesday afternoon we wanted to see the Tucson Mountain District in the western portion of Saguaro National Park.  It was about a 40 minute drive from the hotel and seemed more remote than the Rincon area in the east.  This part of the park seemed closer to the foot of the mountains and was definitely drier with a lower density of cactus growth.  We hiked three separate trails here but our total hiking distance was less than two miles so it was not a challenging afternoon.  Our legs were sore from our previous efforts so we were grateful for the shorter distances and more gentle terrain.  We saw gila woodpeckers, desert cottontail rabbits and (from the car) we watched as a coyote crossed about 50 feet down the road in front of us.  

We'd made reservations at the dining room at our hotel for dinner Wednesday night.  I started with a skillet-seared Mexican cheese over a house-made focaccia bread with a pear compote and a strawberry-habanaro chutney with tamarind followed by a veal chop with house-made chorizo, Basmati rice, haricot verte, brazed Swiss chard and a saffron butter sauce.  Pam enjoyed artichoke hearts with house-made lamb sausage followed by pecan spit-roasted Cornish game hen with toasted orzo, Tanque-verde garden greens and organic vegetables.  For dessert we split Hacienda's signature chocolate cake with chocolate and caramel sauce and a scoop of locally made vanilla ice cream.  I thought the meal was top-notch and while Pam did not give it the high marks I did, she enjoyed it as well.

Tucson boasts more than just Saguaro National Park.  It is right on the edge of the Coronado National Forest.  The signature hike in this area is the Bear Canyon trail up to the Seven Falls area.  From the parking lot northeast of Tucson, take a brief tram ride up to the trail head.  Over the first half mile you descend about 75 feet but for the next two and a half miles up the canyon you ascend about 650 feet, crossing the stream that runs in the bottom of the canyon no less than seven times.  Pam & I were in hiking boots so it meant lots of taking boots off to wade across the stream.  Water depths at the crossings ranged from one foot to a little over two feet.  This was not a scene where we hopped from rock-to-rock, you had to take off your boots and wade.  A word to the wise here: A pair of Keens or similar rubber vented hiking sandals would have been a much better selection of footwear.  Some of the hiking was on kind of high canyon walls but Pam, who is not a fan of heights, did really well here.  The waterfalls at the end of the trail were worth every step, out and back.

Hiking up the Bear Canyon trail covered lots of dry ground...
... and required seven stream crossings each way
Seven Falls in the Coronado National Forest

We hustled back to the hotel because we wanted to go into Tucson for dinner that evening and we had symphony tickets.  Cafe Poca Cosa is located in downtown Tucson in an area that (I hope) is improving.  It has sort of a modern vibe and is clearly popular with locals and tourists alike.  The menu changes daily and is inspired by food from all over Mexico.  I had the pulled pork and Pam had the chicken mole.  Both plates came heaped with great salad greens and veggies.  Rice, beans and corn tortillas were served as well.  Pam said it was the best meal of the trip so far and I gave it high marks too.  The Tucson Music Hall was not far away and we very much enjoyed the performance by the Tucson Symphony Orchestra (in its 81st season), the Tucson Symphony Orchestra Chorus and the Tucson Arizona Boys Chorus.  They performed Leonard Bernstein's Chichester Psalms for Chorus and Orchestra and his "Make Our Garden Grow" from Candide.  After the intermission they performed Beethoven's Symphony No. 9 in D minor, Op. 125.  Well-exercised, well-fed and well-entertained, we fell into bed and slept like rocks. 

Forty-five miles south of Tucson you will find the town of Tubac, Arizona.  In 1726 it was the site of the first European settlement in what is now Arizona.  It is now a popular art colony.  I can't say it's crammed with genuine native artists selling nothing but handmade items but it is a community with lots of pleasant side streets with shops that sell everything from furniture made of the locale mesquite wood to all manner of souvenirs.  Don't simply stroll the central part of town taken up by a modern mall-type structure.  Get out on the surrounding streets and see it all. 

Friday afternoon we drove up Mt. Lemmon in the Santa Catalinas north of Tucson.  At 9,157 feet above sea level, it is one of the highest peaks in the area and boasts the southernmost ski slope in the continental U.S.  The community of Summerhaven at just over 8,000 feet is where the road essentially ends.  By the time we got up there we noted two feet of snow on the ground, although the roads were clear.  The temperature at the top was 43 degrees.  There are any number of places to pull off the road and take pictures of the valley below.  Unfortunately, the Mount Lemmon Cafe that used to be up there and we are told was a great place to stop, is now closed.  Still, the drive was worth it to experience the climate change and the views. 

View from about 9,000 feet above sea level near the top of Mount Lemmon

We were ready for a relatively simple meal for dinner on our last night in town.  Zinburger a little north of town was our choice and was it a winner.  Try the kobe burger with cheddar and wild mushrooms along with a Corona beer or one of their wines.  This may rank as one of the top burgers ever. 

You could tell our trip featured a wide variety of activities by the footwear Pam required

Saturday came all too soon and we headed back to the airport.  We returned to the Chicago area and an inch or two of new snow but I didn't care.  I have a much better understanding now of the beauty my grandparents saw in this part of the world and I wondered whether one of the towering cacti Pam and I saw might have been no more than an inch high and hiding in the shade of a mesquite bush in one of those photos I saw years ago after one of those family Sunday dinners at the home of my grandparents.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Autumn Inn-To-Inn Hiking In Vermont

Our trip started out with a bang.  We drove out of the Chicago area early on Monday, October first.  We were heading to Toronto for dinner with friends and then planned to re-enter the U.S. in northern New York state and spend a few days in central Vermont before joining an R.E.I. Autumn hiking trip.  A few miles before we crossed from northwest Indiana into southwest Michigan we felt and heard the highway get bumpy and in the fraction of a second that it took us to realize that the highway sounded a lot bumpier under our tires than it looked to our eyes, the right rear tire blew.  This wasn't one of your hissing deflations followed by a flop-flop-flop sound.  This was a sudden and total failure of the tire accompanied by full disintegration of the sidewall and a complete separation of the tread.  Getting to the side of the road wasn't a problem but we quickly realized that our schedule had just been dealt a blow as severe as that delivered to the tire.

When this happened, we knew we would never make it to Toronto in time for dinner
AAA membership, cellphones and GPS navigation made all of this a lot easier to deal with.  AAA had a guy at our car within twenty minutes and the smaller scale spare was on in no time.  In the meanwhile, I pulled the tire information from the glove box.  I had replaced the tires in July and fortunately had used a retail outfit with locations in many areas.  Their Benton Harbor, Michigan store was fifty or so miles down the road.  They did not have an exact match to the tire but had one that would fit and promised to order a replacement that we could have put on as we came back through town in ten days or so.

We we crossed into Canada at Port Huron and were able to reschedule our Toronto dinner as a breakfast the next day with one of our friends.  We arrived in the city about three hours later than we planned.  After breakfast the next morning we headed east out of Toronto and elected to re-enter the U.S. at Ogdensburg, New York after tracing the northern shore of Lake Ontario and following the St. Lawrence River eastward.  Ogdensburg is apparently not a frequently used crossing so we had absolutely no delay.  We drove southeast through upper New York state, including Adirondack Park.  Many people misconstrue what is referred to as the Adirondack area as a national or state park.  At six million acres (2.6 million owned by the state and 3.4 million privately held) the Park and the 105 towns within its boundaries is the largest protected area in the lower 48.  We entered Vermont near Port Henry, New York toward the southern end of Lake Champlain.

We arrived at the Strong House Inn outside of Vergennes.  We selected the inn since it is used by Backroads, a travel outfit we have used several times.  Innkeeper Hugh Bargiel greeted us and got us situated in our room.  We were in a building called the Country House Annex.  It is of modern construction and set a little further back from Main Street (Route 22A) just south of Vergennes.  Hugh suggested the Black Sheep Bistro for our late dinner, even though we just wanted a small meal.  This place was a real find.  Pam had the seared salmon cakes with caper remoulade and celery root slaw.  I selected the pork scaloppini with chantrelle mushroom gravy.  We skipped a first course and dessert but made reservations for two nights later.

After a very good breakfast in the dining room on Wednesday, Mary Bargiel us if we had our plans for the day in place.  When we said we thought we might take a drive she promptly produced a map and traced a route for us to take, pointing out highlights.  We headed east under cloudy skies with occasional showers.  Our route took us through Waitsfield and per Mary's suggestion we stopped at a place called The Store to check out some of the various Vermont products they offered.  The Store also has a demonstration kitchen and there was a class scheduled for the following evening that would feature the preparation of a few Cuban dishes.  We got back in our car and placed a call to our friends Sue and Craig who were driving to Vermont to join us for the R.E.I. trip.  They said they would enjoy the class so we then called and shifted our dinner reservation at Black Sheep Bistro to that evening and then stepped back into The Store to make a reservation for the four of us for the class.
Back on the road we turned north to head for Stowe, enjoying the Autumn color all the way.  Stowe is a ski village located in the shadow of Mt. Mansfield which,  at 4,395 feet is Vermont's highest peak.  We walked around the village and stopped in a few of the shops before continuing our drive.  Our goal was Smuggler's Notch, a narrow pass through the Green Mountains that features a road that winds around huge boulders.  The area was used in the early part of the nineteenth century as Vermonters smuggled goods to Canada in defiance of President Thomas Jefferson's embargo and later in the century it was used by runaway slaves escaping to Canada.  The narrow road through the forest allowed for tree branches to touch overhead providing a tunnel of Autumn color.  The beauty of this road, along with that of the highways elsewhere in the state made driving here a pleasure.  Additionally, the fact that Vermont is one of four states which prohibit highway billboards added to the beauty.* 

Approaching Smuggler's Notch

We did not even have time to explore the state's largest city, Burlington, nor its capital of Montpelier, the least populous state capital in the U.S.  Craig and Sue arrived in good shape and checked in at the Strong House and we were off to dinner once again at Black Sheep.  The salmon cakes made such an impression on Pam that she ordered them for the second evening in a row.  I had the coriander crusted bistro steak in a shallot and red wine reduction.  Sue ordered the pork scalopini I had enjoyed the previous evening and Craig had the applewood smoked bacon and brie stuffed chicken breast, balsamic cream reduction.  We agreed it was another very fine meal and the price was not bad either.

Thursday was our last full day before the R.E.I. part of our trip was due to start.  The weather was cloudy with the possibility of rain but after much too much time in the car we were ready to stretch our legs.  Vermont's oldest state park is Mt. Philo State Park and on clear days it features commanding views of the Champlain Valley and even the Adirondacks.  We walked up the road to the top of the 968-foot Mt. Philo.  We did see views of the valley below but the horizon was cloudy.

Pam led the way as we walked up Mt. Philo

The view of Lake Champlain and the Adirondacks from atop Mt. Philo
Next we visited the Shelburne Museum.  With 37 buildings on 45 acres it has something for everyone.  In 1955 the 220-foot steamboat Ticonderoga which used to ply Lake Champlain was brought over land to the museum.  We toured the boat and learned about the steamboat days on the lake.  Electra Havermeyer Webb started this museum and for us the centerpiece of our visit was a tour of the incredible impressionist paintings displayed in a museum building that reproduced her parents' New York city apartment.  It is a small but very notable collection of paintings by Monet, Manet, Degas, Mary Cassatt (a friend of the Webb family), Gustave Courbet, Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, and Charles-Francois Daubigny.  The lower level of the building presents a great display of bronzes.  All in all it is a very approachable collection of great art in a place you might not expect to find such wonders.

We returned to Waitsfield and The Store for our cooking lesson and enjoyed a few glasses of wine while chef John Lumbra prepared taro root soup, meat croquettes, Cuban pork chops, rice and beans and rice pudding for dessert.  Guests could participate if they wished or simply sit back and enjoy the lesson and dinner.

Chef John Lumbra showed us how to cook Cuban food

On Friday we enjoyed a final breakfast at Strong House and checked out.  We spent the middle part of the day exploring Middlebury and then headed towards Blueberry Hill Inn near Goshen where our R.E.I. trip was scheduled to begin.  The inn is located in the heart of the Moosalamoo National Recreation Area, 15,875 acres of forests, waterfalls, lakes and streams within the Green Mountain National Forest.  We met our guide Sue Wetmore that afternoon as well as the four other hikers who would be on the trip with us.  We bonded over a couple of glasses of wine and a cheese plate appetizer followed by a delicious salmon dinner.  We found the food on this trip to be absolutely first rate.  We enjoyed dinner at a long communal table that seated all of us as well as the other guests of the inn.  Some of the others were hikers like us while a few were parents of Middlebury College students who were participating in the college's annual family weekend.  One couple from England were there doing some scouting work for their group of antique car enthusiasts who were planning to ship their cars over to North America in 2013 for a road rally to be held in the area.  Meeting interesting folks is one of the top reasons to stay at inns like Blueberry Hill.
Our guide Sue

After a hearty breakfast the next morning we assembled in front of the inn with our hiking gear and our lunches which had been packed by the inn.  It was a windy, relatively warm day with temperatures expected to be in the high 60's but occasional showers were in the forecast as well so we had packed rain jackets.  After a short ride in the van we arrived at a parking area at Brandon Gap.  We were now technically outside of the Moosalamoo and had ascended a few hundred feet.  The winds were quite strong through the Gap as we started up the trail.  We intersected the Long Trail and hiked a section that took us along but not on top of the peaks.  The Long Trail runs the length of Vermont and is the oldest long distance hiking trail in the United States.  Sue had selected this section for the morning hike estimating the rainy weather predicted for the morning might not reach this area and it turned out she was largely correct.  We put on rain jackets halfway into the hike but the forest canopy did not let too much rain through.

From the trail we could look across to the cliffs of Mount Horrid

The height of Autumn color was not the only well-timed aspect of this trip.  The occasional rain, warmer temperatures and the onset of Autumn had prompted all of the late season mushrooms and other fungi to grow and spawn.  On this and subsequent hikes we saw fungi of every size (from one-quarter inch across to almost twelve inches) and color (brown, black, gray, yellow, red and even blue).  I have never seen so many fungi.

While traversing a darker section of the woods before reemerging into the brighter Autumn light, we recalled the words of Robert Frost (1874 - 1963) who spent almost every Summer and Autumn beginning in 1939 at nearby Middlebury College and his farm in Ripton, Vermont:

Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep.
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

Some of the woods did seem dark and deep...
... but most of the time they were filled with light

After returning to the van we drove a short distance to the Otter Valley Union High School parking lot.  We walked across one of their athletic fields and after eating our lunches in one of the baseball dugouts, we headed out on the Hawk Hill Trail.  In the eighteenth century, early settlers established the town of Neshobe (later to be named Brandon) in this area.  The town was moved to its present location at a later date.  Hawk Hill is part of the property owned by the high school and is managed by the town of Brandon.  We continued to find mushrooms of every description but the most surprising aspect of this hike is that we found bright orange salamanders moving through the leaf litter.  Usually you have to flip over logs or rocks to find them perhaps the warmer, moist conditions were prompting them to move to prepare for the onset of winter.  They ranged in size from barely an inch to more than three inches.

The indigo milk cap is an unusual blue mushroom
Turkey tail mushrooms are found on many logs
Hen of the woods mushrooms are found at the base of oak trees.  This specimen was about 12 inches in diameter
We found dozens of red eft salamanders on the trail

The red eft's bright color is a warning to predators that eating them would be a bad idea and perhaps a fatal one

As red efts mature, their bright red colors fade to shades of green

We returned to Blueberry Hill after a nice day of hiking and gathered in the living room for appetizers, drinks and to recollect what we saw on the trail.  As we prepared to go in to the dining room, someone glanced outside and said that the sun had dipped below the clouds and was now shining brightly.  Blueberry Hill faces west and there is a pond behind the inn at the base of some hills.  The setting sun had brightly illuminated the scene and we all rushed outside for some pictures of the scene.  We enjoyed another dinner together and then retired for the evening knowing that we faced a long hike the following day.  We would be checking out of Blueberry Hill and hiking between ten and eleven miles to Churchill House Inn near Brandon.  We were anticipating cooler weather but little or no rain.

Sunday did indeed deliver the expected weather and after breakfast we piled on an extra layer or two of clothes, packed our lunches and started hiking.  After about 3.5 miles we entered the Silver Lake area and hiked to the lake shoreline where we enjoyed lunch while watching a couple of loons dive for fish in the lake.  We then followed the eastern shore of the lake and went around the northern edge of the lake.  We ascended onto the Chandler Ridge where we enjoyed commanding views of the lake and of the larger Lake Dunmore.  We spent the rest of the afternoon hiking south along the ridge while flocks of geese honked as they followed their annual southward migration.

A young maple tree?  Nope.  This is a maple leaf viburnum
Often it seemed as though our path was a Persian carpet

We stopped at Silver Lake for our lunch
This little spring peeper frog wasn't much more than an inch long (photo by Sue W.)
From its very unusual blossom, to its beautiful summer leaves and finally its autumn color display, Indian cucumber-root is a singular plant
Club moss sends forth its "candles" to bring on the next generation
One of the scenes from our last hike of the trip

There was color everywhere we looked

We arrived at the Churchill House Inn tired but happy to have completed the hike.  After enjoying a glass of wine on the inn's enclosed porch, we sat down to a very nice dinner prepared by innkeeper Olya Hopkins.  After breakfast Monday we were driven back to the Blueberry where we had left our cars.  Our hike that morning was to be the trail around Hogback Mountain.  After hiking through the woods and a meadow where we saw a porcupine munching on bark on a high branch of a tree, we emerged out over a meadow and were greeted with a spectacular view of the valley below and more mountains in the distance, all covered in beautiful Autumn colors.  That view will remain in my memory for a long time.  We enjoyed our lunch at a picnic table near the Blueberry and then said our goodbyes.

Our route home took us back into Canada through the crossing in Buffalo, New York. As we approached the crossing back into the U.S. at Port Huron, we saw rather long lines of cars waiting to clear U.S. customs but that did not delay us. Within the last year we had both signed up for the U.S. Customs' Trusted Traveler program and were entitled to use an express lane where we presented our passports and our Global Entry cards and were promptly waived through.

Since quitting day-to-day office work two and a half years ago, we have tried to take Autumn trips to see the leaves.  We were a little too late in driving up the northern Mississippi River valley a couple of years ago and last year we were way too late to catch the height of the seasonal color when we traveled in Ontario but this year we feel we saw the area featuring the best color at its very height.  As we drove homeward through western New York, Ontario and Michigan, we enjoyed the beautiful seasonal color along the highway but driving by the scenery does not compare with hiking among the trees, lakes and mountains.

*The other states that prohibit highway billboards are Arizona, Hawaii and Maine

Monday, September 10, 2012

2012 Ore To Shore Mountain Bike Epic

I imagine if you are the chief orthopedist at Marquette (Michigan) General Hospital that it might not be easy to get the second Saturday of August off.  As a matter of fact, if I were that person, I would report to work, scrub up and calmly wait at the emergency room entrance because some business will definitely be coming your way.  This past August 11th was the 13th annual Ore To Shore Mountain Bike Epic, billed as Michigan's largest point to point mass start race.  Those choosing to participate had a number of events from which they could select:
  • Hard Rock (48 miles)
  • Soft Rock (28 miles)
  • Shore Rock (10 miles)
  • Junior Rock (4 miles)
  • Little Rock (1 mile)
  • Littlest Rock (50 yards)
Last year my brother Rob, sister Anne and Pam and I all did the Soft Rock.  This year Rob and I elected to do the same event again.  Our family summer home is just west of Marquette so we don't have a problem getting to the race.

This is primarily a trail race that is run on the two-track logging roads and trails between Negaunee and Marquette.  Let me make this clear, I am not a racer, nor am I a mountain bike trail rider.  Most of the 1,300+ miles I have biked so far this year could be described as path riding.  My Trek 7200 is not suited for this type of trail riding so my brother John kindly lent me his Giant Rincon for the ride.

My brother John loaned me his Giant Rincon for the ride
The evening before the ride we reported to Lakeview Arena in Marquette to pick up our race materials.  A local service club puts on a $7 spaghetti feed for riders as a fundraiser.  Rob and I waited a short time in line and received our packets and then enjoyed the dinner before returning to our cabin for the evening.

Participants line up to receive race materials
My Bib

The weather was cool but clear as participants assembled near the shore of Teal Lake in Negaunee for the start of the race.  Organizers advised us that the temperature was already 12 degrees warmer down in Marquette and we expected sparkling conditions for the ride.  The number of riders signed up for the Soft Rock was a record 1,160.  There were signs suggesting where riders should line up based upon their projected finishing time.  Elite qualifying riders were lined up at the head of the pack since they were expected to be in the hunt for a prize money winning race time.  I wasn't in the race to try to score under a particular time so I stayed well away from those gunning for a cash prize.

Participants line up the morning of the event
Rob is ready to go!
Signs indicated where participants should line up based on their expected race times

Here is the sign I lined up behind!
The starting gun went off at 9:00 and the crowd started moving.  The first couple of miles was on a roadway and we were under police escort.  The escort then ended and we turned off into the woods.  At this point the racers are all still bunched together and conditions are ripe for a bike-to-bike crash.  After 15 minutes or so the crowd disperses over the course and there were plenty of times I found myself alone.  Rob moved ahead aggressively since he was looking to come in under 3 hours, bettering his time from last year.  There were a few tandem bikes as well as a few folks who rode single speed bikes.

On the trail
There were some limited views of Lake Superior but riders were wise to keep their eyes on the trail ahead
Much of the course looked like this

The iron ore still mined in this part of Michigan's upper peninsula makes the predominantly downhill ride to the Port of Marquette on Lake Superior, thus the name Ore To Shore.  Click here to see a map of the course.  Simply because there is a gross loss of altitude as one rides the 28-mile race, don't be fooled into thinking that it is all downhill.  There is plenty of uphill and more than a few of the downhills consist of large rocks scattered among soft sand.  Our Midwest summer has been pretty warm and dry and while the Upper Peninsula was not under drought conditions, the trail was dry and featured much more loose, soft sand than last year.  Conditions were challenging and I worked to stay back on the bike during descents and to maintain control of steering as I negotiated the dry, sandy areas.  I did not see any crashes this year but saw many more flats and bike chain problems than last year.  I did see a couple of folks walking off the course with shoulders that were clearly giving them pain.

"Caution, Fast Decent"?  Oh, no, "Clavicle Hill" is the most notable descent on the course.  Just over the horizon in this photo it drops very steeply.
I had no trouble at all until about mile 24.  I was rounding a very sharp curve in the course amid tree roots.  I turned sharply to the right to make the turn and went over a tree root but my wheel came up parallel to another root and turned even more sharply right.  I was too far forward on the bike and the bike fell over with me on the top of it.  Other than a coating of dirt from my chin to my waist, no harm was done.  I pushed on.

As I rounded the last turn into the parking lot of Lakeview arena and the finish line, the crowd let out a great cheer.  For a second I basked in their roar of approval for my accomplishment until I noticed that, rather than looking at me, they seemed to be looking over my shoulder.  I glanced back and saw the leading riders of the Hard Rock bearing down on me like the Four Horsemen Of The Apocalypse.  The order of finish: Cole House (age 24) of Oneida, Wisconsin, Brian Matter (34) of Sheboygan, Wisconsin, Mike Phillips (35) of Chicago, Illinois and Christian Tanguy (37) of Rochester, Minnesota all finished with a second separating first and fourth place and all averaged a whopping 19.7 miles per hour over their 48-mile course.  That's right: They all started later than I did, rode 20 miles more than I did and they still beat me to the finish.

The first place finishers of the Hard Rock of each gender win a cash prize of $1,600 with additional prizes awarded to other top finishers.  The first place finishers of the Soft Rock of each gender get $250.  Rob met me at the finish having bettered his time from last year and reached his goal.  I wanted to better my time from last year and did so but it was not a race as far as I was concerned.

The Ore To Shore is a great event and for those accustomed to trail riding, I recommend it.