Author Archives: Jeff

Beaver Ponds in Frost Country

Several years ago, I described a run where I crossed over a lot of the terrain commonly associated with the Robert Frost environment – the Frost Cabin, the Robert Frost trail, and the Breadloaf campus in Ripton.  This run begins at the Robert Frost (note the theme!) turnout and picnic area, and proceeds up the dirt road behind the Frost Cabin, known as the “Old Farm Road” on Rikert trail maps, before going deep into the forest behind Breadloaf. When I attempted to run this earlier this summer, I discovered that the blowdown from last December’s ice storm had rendered this stretch of trail impassable.  More recently, I had heard rumor that the trail had been cleared, as it is often groomed by the staff at the Rikert Ski Touring Area, and so I decided to revisit the route for the first time in over 5 years.

On a cool Saturday morning, I joined a friend from the Middlebury Trail Enthusiasts, noticing some of the first dustings of snow on the ground, signifying that just maybe winter is finally here?  We headed eagerly up the hill, past the cabin, and I could see that the rumor was indeed true, and that the trail had been cleared.

Freshly Cleared Trail

Freshly Cleared Trail

From this point, the route becomes more difficult to describe, as the trail system can get pretty complicated. The good news is that if you get off-route, you will hit a road sooner or later, and you would have to work pretty hard to not be somewhere in Ripton! We followed this trail until it forked by a sign labeled “Blue Bed House” on the right fork, but we took the left fork, and later when we came to a T in the trail, with a short steep downhills to the left, we chose the left again, until we got to the terminus of one of the Ripton dirt roads, known as “Wagon Wheel Road”, although there was no sign indicating this.  Taking an immediate right turn, past a forest service road gate, on the trail labeled as “Wagonwheel Road” on the Rikert map, passing by the first of several beaver ponds, before coming to a more primitive trail with a sign calling it “Kiwi”, where we took a right.  I knew from past experience that Kiwi is a trail which has been minimally maintained over the years, providing a more bushwhacking cross country ski experience than most of the Rikert trails, and this was apparent while running this short connector.  The big surprise however, was the observation that what I had remembered as a tiny stream crossing, had been enlarged significantly by beaver activity at some time in the last few years!  A series of small beaver dams were indeed crossable with wet feet but no wading, but I will be curious to see how well this freezes up for skiing this winter.

Surprise on Kiwi

Surprise on Kiwi

Crossing the stream, we soon came to the more developed Brown Gate Trail, where we took a left up a modest climb which brought us to Forest Service Road 59, aka Steam Mill Road, a well developed dirt road which will hopefully shortly be closed off for the pleasure of skiers and snowmobile enthusiasts.  From here, we took a right turn, heading gradually downhill for about a km, until we came to the left turn onto a trail clearly labelled as a snowmobile trail, past the small Kirby family graveyard, until we came to a short section where the snowmobile trail was separated from the Rikert Battell trail.  These side by side trails, one for skiers and one for motorized winter travelers were not were more clearly separated by the planting of a line of pine trees in the late 80’s, and now the trees are about 30 feet high!  I guess I have been here a long time.

Parallel Trails

Parallel Trails

The trail then veered to the right, and descended to Rt 125, where we crossed the road, and onto Brooks Rd, one of my longtime favorite trailheads, and when we got to the parking lot, we ran to the back of it and started uphill on the Widows Clearing trail, our last real climb of the day, until we reached the actual clearing. I discussed some of the story of the widow herself a few years ago, and it was the most commented on posting I have ever done – apparently a lot of people were curious as to the story of this place.  Not long after the Widows Clearing, we came to a T in the trail, where we went right on a trail called “The Crosswalk, a muddy descending trail which brought us after about a mile to the back of the well-loved Robert Frost Trail.  After crossing over the new (as in a few years old new) handicapped accessible bridge, we finished off the trail portion of the run with a few moments at the last beaver pond of the day, ringed with the first traces of the season’s ice.

From the Robert Frost Trail

From the Robert Frost Trail

Returning to Rt 125, we had a short run alongside the highway, returning to our cars, for a round trip run of about 8.5 miles.I usually post the Google Earth projection of these runs, but I apparently had a malfunction on this run, so I am going to refer readers to a previous posting, where I included this, as well as the altitude profile.

Doing the Charleston

During the last week, I had a meeting requiring my attendance in Charleston, SC.  Of course, my friends and family were very concerned for my safety, given the recent news of rains and flooding from South Carolina. So, I called the hotel in Downtown Charleston, and they assured me that the flood danger had passed, and that the airport, hotel, and the route between the two were in no danger.  Whew!  So I flew off to Dixie for a few final days of summer weather before hunkering down for our more seasonal autumn.  As I have mentioned in the past in this blog, I enjoy undertaking a run on my first morning in a new city – It orients me to the local roads, sights, and geography, and should further opportunities for exploration come up. I have some idea where I might want to go.  Also, a good run is a great way to chase the travel stiffness from my legs.  So on a warm, clear southern morning, I set off on a run.

The touristy section of Charleston, where I was staying, is on a lowland peninsula, bounded by the Cooper River on the east, and the Ashley River on the west.  My hotel was adjacent to the central square, celebrating “The Swamp Fox”, Francis Marion, who led much of the colonial resistance against the British in South Carolina during the Revolutionary War.  I noticed the monument celebrating General Marion at the start of my run, and from my perspective, he seemed to be flashing the southern part of the peninsula, home of the most aristocratic of the city’s population, then and now.

Flashing Francis

Flashing Francis

I began my run heading east towards the Cooper River on a street named after one of the strong early defenders of state’s rights, and the institution of slavery, early 19th century Vice President John Calhoun. Reaching the waterfront, I noticed a mix of uses- industrial and tourist-oriented. I could see an aircraft carrier across the bay, and later found out that this was the WWII-vintage USS Yorktown, which confused me, as I had learned in history classes that the Yorktown had been sunk in the Battle of Midway. Apparently, this carrier was built a year later, and christened with the same name in honor of its sunken predecessor.

USS Yorktown

USS Yorktown

Continuing south along the east side of the peninsula, I passed through some of the most beautiful homes in the city. Charleston is known for its architectural preservation, which I noted in both the tonier, as well as the poorer neighborhoods just to the north of my hotel. Well, these homes on the southeast shores, not unlike waterfront properties in most well-off neighborhoods, were beautiful and well-preserved.

Cooper River Frontage

Cooper River Frontage

I also noticed a funny site, where in an attempt to keep waders out of the fountain, the following sign was posted:

No Swimming

No Swimming

Continuing south, I came to the far southern tip of the city, the fortification known as “The Battery”, where I could spy the flag waving over the distant fortifications of Fort Sumter. Cannons, with a curious graffiti message were poised on The Battery, but these were not the guns used to shell Fort Sumter, which was still several miles out into the bay and out of their range.

Ephemeral Cannon

Ephemeral Cannon

Rounding the horn at the battery, I headed north up the somewhat less scenic Ashley River for a short distance to return to Calhoun St. This time, my trip back to my hotel passed through the campus of the College of Charleston. This campus is a beautiful mix of the “Old South” with shady streets and moss-covered trees, despite its urban setting. There was one disconcerting observation however; Namely, here I was at a state-supported school in the deep south, in a state with a sizeable African-American population, and I barely saw any students of color any where on campus.  My New England liberal brain kicked in, and I started wondering if this was some artifact of Jim Crow laws, in a state which also has historically black universities?  As a reality check I looked at the numbers; about 5% of the students here were self-identified as African-American in a state where close to 30% of the population is African-American.  This was worrisome, but before I got too smug about it, I compared these numbers with those from Ohio State University, and the even more progressive (at least by reputation) University of Michigan, two northern flagship state universities in states with large minority populations.  As it turns out, their percentage of students of color is no better.  I can’t blame this on the old south – it is a seemingly universal challenge in higher education.

Finishing the run, I got back to my hotel, making this a slightly over 5 mile run, with a lot of stopping for photos.  I am not going to bother showing the altitude profile, as stepping up onto the sidewalk is probably the biggest climb I saw on this run.

Around the Charleston Battery

Around the Charleston Battery

 

Searching for the Weybridge Cave

It is no secret that there is a good sized cave somewhat off the beaten path, in Weybridge.  After all, there is a “Cave Road”, and if you look at maps of the area, you will see a “Weybridge Cave State Park” out there, although it is not alongside any major roads.  Realizing this cave, purportedly the second biggest known cave in New England, was within running distance of Middlebury, I thought I would try to figure out more precisely where it is, and make a run for it.  Of course, I did what everyone does, and tried googling for its precise location, and found nothing!  I have never spelunked, at least in public, but according to what little I know of this particular pastime, those who participate in cave exploration are sometimes reticent about openly publishing all the gory details of how to find their favorite holes in the ground.  With this, I realized that I had to find this particular cave the old fashioned way – actually talking to people.  Like from the bad old days before Google!

I parked my car in the small parking lot at the corner of Weybridge St. and Pulp Mill Bridge Road, and set off on Weybridge St out of town, until I came to the right turn onto the segment of the TAM known as the Jackson Trail a short distance later.  This is a fun little segment of trail – it goes through a heavily wooded gorge with a small stream for the first mile or so, and the second half of the trail emerges into open fields for the better part of a second mile before reaching Hamilton Rd.  The wooded section has some challenging footwork due to the fact that much of it is on the side of a hill.  Earlier in the summer, the field portion can be quite muddy, but on this pleasant Sunday morning, it was a dry run, made even nicer by the wind rustling the dense cattails alongside the trail.

(click here for a video of the cattails)

Emerging onto Hamilton road, I took a left turn, and passed by a farm full of what looked like a bunch of very happy cows!  They were all having breakfast, munching away happily from their common trough, when this random runner (me) came up to them and shouted “look up ladies”, and of course they all looked up, clearly obeying my command so that I could get their family portrait. Who says cows aren’t smart?

Look up Ladies

Look up Ladies

 

 

Shortly after this, I came to the point that allows most locals know that we do, indeed have a cave -Cave Rd, where I took a right turn,and followed the road to its conclusion about a mile later.  Cave Road makes a tight turnaround loop at this point, but stay left, and take Lafontain Lane, which is conveniently not signed, but it is the road which is NOT Bunny Lane, which is conveniently signed, and is the only other road.  You will know you are on the right road if you look to your left and see a home with a confederate flag as a window shade.  Yup – we still have a few of those in Vermont!  About 50 yards down the road, you will see a fork in the road, and a No Trespassing sign.  Stay left here, and you will shortly enter a large cornfield.  Once you are in the State Park, you are no longer on private property, and I have been assured that the landowners have no objection to allowing passage to respectful individuals who don’t block passage by parking their cars here.  This is also where I turned off my GPS watch for a while, in keeping with the apparent cavers’ sense of not making it too easy to find cave entrances.

I, on the other hand, had done my homework, and had a good idea where to start looking for the cave entrance, so I wasn’t looking for a needle in a haystack at this point, and I was a little bummed when I realized that once I was close, the easiest way to find the cave entrance was simply to follow the trail of trash and beer cans.  It wasn’t just the usual can’s of Bud Light which tend to litter most roadsides – I saw a few empty cans of Vermont’s favorite cult beer, Heady Topper.  So, apparently, spelunking, littering, and expensive microbrews are all part of the experience.  Who knew?  Following the trail of debris, and armed with a Geology 101 understanding of cave topology, I was able to locate the cave entrance.

I had no desire to crawl into the cave on this trip, as it was dark, cold and wet in there.  Also, it apparently takes a few rappels to get to the cave floor.  Maybe someday with a friend who is appropriately equipped the guide me in?  A few years ago, an unprepared explorer tried to climb in, and fell, injuring himself, and required a rescue.

Mouth of the Cave

Mouth of the Cave

After achieving my goal, I retraced my steps back to the end of Cave Road, where I turned my GPS watch back on, and began my return. Looking for a different return route, I took a right turn onto Hamilton Road, until I reached Weybridge Hill, where I realized that I had never stopped to see whose name was on the obelisk in the town green. The monument is inscribed with the name and the bust of Silas Wright, a Middlebury College alum from Weybridge who became a congressman and governor of NY after his graduation. Funny how everything sculpted in marble looks like an artifact of ancient Rome after a few years, huh? This obelisk also serves as the inspiration for Monument Farms, the local milk producer.

Silas Wright Monument

Silas Wright Monument

From here, I continued back towards Middlebury for a few hundred yards on Weybridge St, but instead of coming home on the road, I took a left turn onto the new segment of the TAM, which connects the main loop of our trail to Prunier Road and Snake Mountain. This short section of trail was also created to connect the TAM to the North Country Trail, a long distance trail which currently has Crown Point as its eastern terminus.  The next mile on this segment of trail, passing through a mix of forest and farm fields brought me back to the main loop of the Jackson Trail segment of the TAM.  I was pleasantly surprised to see a healthy little patch of buttercups, which I usually think of as more of a midsummer wildflower.

Last buttercups of summer

Last buttercups of summer

 

At this point I could retrace my steps the mile and a half back to my parked car, where I did the short run down to the shore of Otter Creek, to bring my mileage for the day up to about 10 miles.  Since apparently chocolate milk is considered the latest and greatest recovery drink after long runs, it seemed only fitting that I chugged a pint of Monument Farm’s legendary offering when I got home from the run.

The Route to Weybridge Cave State Park

The Route to Weybridge Cave State Park

The Return Route

The Return Route

A Running Hike on Haystack

Once again, I decided to venture out of Addison County for a trail run.  I have been an avid Adirondack hiker since I began my employment in Middlebury in the mid-80’s, but never really thought seriously about them as a running destination, given the muddy, rocky and generally gnarly condition of most Adirondack trails.  In fact, the challenges of overcoming some of the challenging terrain on many Adirondack hikes constitute much of their appeal.  That said, another one of the challenges of these mountain trails is their length – most of the popular hiking destinations require long approach hikes on gentler, more runnable terrain.  Since I do most of my hiking in running shoes, rather than the more traditional hiking boots, I had gotten in the habit of coming down off a peak, and running in the last few miles at the end of the day.  So, when one of my running friends Ben suggested a run/hike to one of the most remote peaks in the High Peaks of the Adirondacks, Haystack Mt, I agreed that at least some of the route would be runnable, and we decided to give it a try.

At first, Haystack would seem like an odd choice for a trail run.  While it is the third tallest of the High Peaks, it is far more challenging than Marcy (#1) and Algonquin (#2) due to the length of the hike (about 8.5 miles each way) and the ruggedness of at least some sections of the approach trails.  In fact, it is generally not recommended as a day hike for all but the most fit and experienced hikers.  On the other hand, the first 3.5 miles in from “The Garden” parking lot in Keene Valley are very heavily hiked and in excellent condition with only modest ascent, and the next few miles beyond this, while steeper and less heavily traveled might also offer at least some stretches suitable for running.  I was mildly concerned that Ben planned to bring his dog, Tizzy the labradoodle on this trip, but he assured me that she was an excellent and experienced runner and climber, and I knew there would be lots of water for her to drink along this route.  Prepping for the run in the morning, I basically broke every rule in the book for Adirondack hiking, trying to go light.  For gear, I brought my small camera, a GPS watch, a 28 oz water bottle, and a windbreaker, allowing me to run with just a fanny back and a water bottle around my waist. Also, for my food, I basically grabbed all the “energy food” in my stash – so I brought along a mishmash of old Gu and Powergel packets, various energy bars, most of which were leftover bits of swag from previous races, and a bar of chewy energy blocks much like Gummi Bears, whose origin I had long forgotten. Oh yeah, and I also brought a few Snickers bars, because everything is better with chocolate.

After completing my 46 Adk peaks a dozen years ago, I have been doing my hiking in a wider variety of areas, and some of my memories of the trails and terrain were a little dated or fuzzy.  For example, I was not worried at all about us finding a parking place at “The Garden”, the parking lot for the Johns Brook Lodge and our planned approach.  This small but very popular parking lot always requires a very early entry on the weekends, but since this was a Friday, I figured we would be fine.  So, when we headed up the access road roughly across the street from the Keene Valley hotspot, The Noonmark Diner, and saw a sign indicating that there was indeed space in the undersized parking lot, I wasn’t surprised.  However, as we approached the lot attendant, she let us know that we were lucky enough to have gotten there just in time to grab the next to last spot, and it was only 8:30 in the morning, attesting to the ever increasing popularity of Adirondack hiking.

Setting off from the trailhead at around 8:30 in the morning, the run was as I expected;  the trail was in good condition, and the climbing was moderate, and we got to the Johns Brook Lodge, a mountain hut where overnighters can pay for a bunk and meals, after about 3.5 miles.  I was kind of surprised to see that we had already climbed 700-800 ft by the time we got to the lodge.  After topping off my water bottle from the lodge’s potable tap, we resumed the run, and over the course of the next 3.5 miles to Slant Rock, a very obvious trailside landmark, the trail stayed at its gradual pitch, but gradually got rougher, and muddier, so that we could only really run about half of this stretch.  It is funny how early in any trail run, I avoid all the mud through careful footwork, but once my toes get a little bit moist I basically give up and just charge through most of the water hazards, and by the time we got to Slant Rock, my shoes were sloshing.  I also noted an odd looking shelf fungus which looked like a bizarre set of lips.  Anyone for a kiss?

Kiss me baby!

Kiss me baby!

Given my plan of traveling light, I had neglected to bring along a map, counting on my distant memories of the last time I had passed this way, years ago. I remembered that there were two ways to get to Haystack from here – the short direct path which pretty much headed directly up and over the ridge to Little Haystack and Haystack, and a more roundabout route, the dreaded “Shorey Shortcut” which accomplished the same result, but with a lot of extra climbing and descent – obviously a route to be avoided. So shortly after passing Slide Rock, the trail took an obvious left turn across the brook, and we took it.  The trail started climbing much more seriously, so other than a few very short stretches here and there, the running part of our ascent was over.  After a long a substantial climb, we started an almost as long descent, and I realized that we had indeed taken the route I had wanted to avoid at all costs.  Oh well, what’s a few hundred more feet of climbing in a long challenging day?  Once we regained our lost altitude and achieved timberline it was a short steep ascent to the summit of Little Haystack, just north of our destination.  I was amazed at this point by our canine companion’s ability to climb and descend some very steep sections of trail.  I guess her four wheel drive works pretty well!

Ben and the mountain dog

Ben and the mountain dog

Finally, we got to the last quarter mile or so to the summit proper, and of course, this was a great place to enjoy the views. In this shot, I am looking west towards Redfield and Allen, two of the more challenging trailless peaks in the area.

A trailrunner enjoys the summit views

A trailrunner enjoys the summit views

From here, we made our descent, backpacking to timberline at the base of Little Haystack, where we found the trail we had hoped to take up from Slant Rock, but somehow missed. Taking this trail, we cut out a lot of extra unnecessary climbing in our descent, but this trail was no bargain either – it was even steeper than the Shorey, with the added benefit of loose rocks and a few sections where the trail was basically a muddy stream. Once again, Tizzy the wonderdog proved the strongest hiker of the party.

Muddy nightmares

Muddy nightmares

By the time we got back to Slide Rock, we were all ready to stretch our legs again with some more running, and despite tired legs from the previous 10+miles, this easy descent was the best running of the day over the last 7 miles. When we returned to the parked car, my GPS registered the day at almost exactly 17 miles. Checking the details of the run after our return, I could see that we had climbed and descended over 3500 ft in the course of the day! I usually don’t mention times and speeds in this blog, as everyone needs to run the trails at the pace where they are comfortable, but I found it interesting to note that we were able to complete this in just under 6.5 hours, whereas my previous hikes here had required more than 9 hours, so we were able to make up a lot of time in the runable sections!

Of course, when we got to our car, we made another anonymous hiker happy, as our departure opened up a spot in the parking lot for someone else to enjoy that section of the backcountry. Finally, all hikes in this section of the Adirondacks are required by law to end at the Noonmark Diner. While some people have sung the praises of their pies, I always go for a milkshake for the drive home. I got coffee this time, but perhaps next time it will be strawberry?

I usually just show the route in my Google Earth projections, but in addition to that, I also created a projection which better shows off the topology around the summit of Haystack. So, the first projection shows the entire route as if it was taken from the perspective of a satellite looking straight down, while the second one would be what one would see from an airplane approaching Haystack from the Mt Marcy side, at low altitude – I kind of like this perspective!

satellite perspective

satellite perspective

airplane perspective

airplane perspective

Altitude profile

Altitude profile

A short run in the Mad River Valley

One of my favorite running areas outside of Addison County has always been the Mad River Valley, where some of my extended family lives, and has a trail network at least as varied and beautiful as that which we have in the Middlebury (as in Middlebury VT, the 11th best town in the country to live, according to Outside Magazine!) area.  One of the limitations on running in “the valley” has been my lack of knowledge of much of the trail network, but while looking online for appropriate trails, I stumbled across the existence of a guide to the trails there, available at a variety of stores.  So, on Saturday morning, while enjoying the food and sights of the Waitsfield Farmers’ market, I picked up a copy of this map at the Tempest Bookstore in Waitsfield, one of many locations where this guide can be purchased, and studied it to look for an interesting run.  As an aside, the Waitsfield Farmer’s Market is a great place to spend a little time on a warm Saturday morning – while it does have some of the most beautiful veggies in the world, as one would expect, it also has a wide variety of specialty foods, crafts, and prepared foods.  One cow decorating the booth of a butcher shop looked far happier than one would expect, given the circumstances.

Waitsfield Cow

Waitsfield Cow

I knew I would not have time for a particularly epic run, given my other commitments, and looking for an area where I could put in a decent 5 miler, I settled on a trailhead which I had previously noted, heading south from the Mt Ellen Access Road across from the Fayston Elementary School. According to my map, I would be looking for a section of the Catamount Trail which headed south until it rejoined the German Flats road 2 miles to the south.  When I got to the trailhead, I didn’t see any of the blue diamond signs indicating that I was actually on the Catamount Trail, but did see signs indicating that I was actually on a section of the Mad River Path, a pleasant but disjointed collection of trails spread throughout the valley.  So, I was in the somewhat confusing position of holding one map, which failed to acknowledge the existence of the Mad River Path, and saw trail signage which had no mention of The Catamount Trail.  Curious, to say the least!  Oh well – they both are there and are both great trails – just run and don’t worry about it.

So, I followed the trail signs out of the parking lot, crossed a footbridge across the stream, and in about a quarter of a mile, my short section of the Mad River Path crossed the section of the Catamount Trail which I had planned to run on, and I decided to turn onto the Catamount Trail.  This section of trail climbed gradually over the next mile or so, passing alternately through mature hemlock forest, and much younger hardwoods.  It seemed as if the tree varieties were hyper-sensitive to their exposure, and I suspect that the hardwoods had been more recently logged, although there were definite signs active maple sugaring operations, as well as old stone walls and remnants of barbed wire fences hinting at past use for pasturing of dairy cows, although the fields were clearly long grown in.  After a little over a mile, I came to a T in the trails, joining a trail referred to as the Sugar Road on my map, and it also looked like a long grown in road of sorts.  I came across a few rusty old buckets hanging from the limbs of hemlock trees, and I assume that they were long abandoned sugaring buckets hung up for amusement rather than any utility.  My camera’s auto exposure settings made for an eerie effect.

Rusty Bucket

Rusty Bucket

I went right on this trail, until it merged with an extended series of driveways, and met up with the German Flats road, before beginning my return. I could tell that the trail was well worn by mountain bikers as well as foot travelers, making for smooth running. Returning to the T, I chose to continue on until it met up with a road less than a half mile later. This final section of the Sugar Road trail followed some open fields which must get mowed once in a while, but appeared to be fields of wildflowers (mostly goldenrod) and high grass at my passing. When the trail emerged from the woods into an open meadow, I could see that I had emerged at the end of Marble Hill Rd, which climbs up to this point from Rt 17. Looking at these meadows from the perspective of Google Earth, I could see that they were not contiguous with the lower open fields and their associated farm house, leading me to believe that I was on an abandoned hill farm. My suspicions were further reinforced by the presence of a few ancient apple trees, one of which grew some of the more interestingly colored apples I have seen. I can’t help but wonder if these are some long- lost heirloom variety, or something more well known to apple aficionados. There was also an odd wooden structure, standing out in the field like some ancient monolith, and I could not discern its former function.

Ancient Apples

Ancient Apples

Curious Structure

Curious Structure

After enjoying the sights of this meadow, I returned to the T, and descended to my car, with a slight variation at the end down a section of trail which was clearly built for the pleasure of mountain bikers, with tight banked curves and a moderate pitch. This section of trail returned me to the Mt Ellen access road, forcing me to run a few hundred yards uphill to the parking lot where my car awaited me. All in all, this was a pleasant, not particularly difficult run of slightly less than 5 miles, with maybe 500 ft of total vertical climb and descent. I enjoyed how this run sent me through sections of forest where elements of past and present habitation and agriculture were readily seen, but I could also see the effects of wilderness slowly taking over.

Google Earth of the run

Google Earth of the run

Altitude Profile

Altitude Profile

Worth Mountain and Bailey Falls

For direct, easily accessible mountain runs, ski areas are hard to beat.  While most of the ski trails are far to steep to run, almost all ski areas offer one easier route down the mountain.  In part, trails of this sort can be motivational for less skilled skiers, giving them a chance to experience the top of the mountain, and see the sort of trails they might aspire to.  More practically, they offer a drivable route to the summit, at least with 4WD  vehicles, allowing for access and maintenance during the summer months.  At the Middlebury College Snow Bowl, the trail that fits this description is the Voter Trail.  I described a run up this trail a few years ago, hoping to describe a run to the top of Worth Mountain, whose summit is slightly south of the top of the Snow Bowl.  Alas, I turned around too soon, as I discovered when I loaded my GPS track into Google Earth – the point where I turned around was actually a false peak, slightly to the north of the true peak.  It was time to rectify this mistake!

I pulled into the Snow Bowl Parking lot on a pleasant, cool Sunday afternoon, and saw a lot of construction going on.  There were huge piles of fill up near the exit, presumable for the ongoing road improvement on Rt 125, and a substantial stack of rusty pipes – from the look of things, they are in the process of replacing some of the plumbing required for snowmaking this summer.  I also found it curious, that with all this open terrain in front of me, there was a random “trail closed” sign hanging in front of the entrance to the Voter trail, to the left of the Ski Patrol Hut.  I assumed, of course, that this was there to deter motor vehicles, rather than runners.

Trail Closed Sign

Trail Closed Sign

Stepping over the sign, I began the day’s ascent. While I have been on this trail a few times in the summer, noting the broken up asphalt beneath my feet that somebody went to the bother of actually paving the first part of this trail – I have never noticed this on any of the ski area service roads I have run before. The ascent via the Voter trail is not as easy as one might assume for a “green circle” trail. Things are a lot steeper running up than they are skiing down! I could maintain a running gait for most of the ascent, with only a few short walking sections due to poor footing and increased steepness in a few pitches. Running at the pace of “1.0 Jeffs” (whatever speed I am running at the time corresponds to 1.0 Jeffs) I got to the top of the Bowl in about 20 min. Of course, I had to take the obligatory picture of the views to the east – these constitute the best views on the day’s run!

Obligatory View Picture

Obligatory View Picture

From here, I chose to continue uphill to reach the true summit of Worth Mountain, by continuing south on the Long Trail. In my previously described run, I assumed, incorrectly, that the first summit was indeed the summit of Worth. As it turns out, I learned the hard way after my previous run that I had a little further to go – so remember – THE FIRST SUMMIT IS NOT THE SUMMIT! THE SECOND SUMMIT IS! Oh – and did I mention that neither of them has any decent views? The trail run itself isn’t bad, however – most of the Long Trail is very “scrambly” and this section, with its modest ascents and descents is actually run-worthy in places, albeit slowly and with careful attention to one’s footfalls.  reaching the summit, I retraced my steps back to the top of the Bailey Falls chairlift, and continued down Voter, at least part way.

I had another goal for this run, however, so rather than simply retrace my steps to my car, when I reached the Meredith Trail, the first gentle trail to the right, about half way down the mountain, I saw a set of recent 4WD tracks, which had beaten down the increasingly dense and high ground cover, and used them for my descent.  I have known about the existence of a waterfall, known, not surprisingly, as Bailey Falls” (hence the name of the Bailey Falls Chair lift!) for several years, but had never actually seen them, nor have I met anyone who has, either!  According to the scant descriptions online, this waterfall is kind of hidden in plain sight – it is probably 100 yards from the Youngman Trail at the Snow Bowl, and maybe a quarter mile from the small parking lot along the east side of Rt 125, across from the Bailey ski lift.  I followed one of the online descriptions of how to find this hidden gem, heading uphill from the chair lift for 30-40 yards before bushwhacking into the woods, but within a few moments I could see it, quite obviously, a 100 yards or so upstream.  The challenge was getting to it, as the hillside where I was standing was rather steep, and did not provide for firm footing.  Hanging onto appropriately spaced trees, I was able to lower myself to the point where I could catch a picture of it, although the picture does not do the falls justice.  This shot is of only the lowest 1/3 of the falls – I could catch glimpses of higher cascades through the trees.  I will need to return, trying to get at it from the other side of the stream, where access appeared easier, to get a fuller glimpse of this rarely seen treasure.  I have a hunch it is about as high as the well known Falls of Lana, and certainly dwarfs the well known Texas Falls roadside attraction.

Bailey Falls through the trees

Now, only a short section of running remained – the climb back up, and over to the east side of Middlebury Gap where my car awaited me. I could have chosen to move to the road at this point, given the wooden bridge which allowed for passage over bogs and streams from the bottom or the Bailey Falls lift to Rt. 125, but chose instead to run up the trail, furthermost to my right looking uphill, the Wissler Trail, named after a legendary and long-deceased Middlebury College Physics professor Ben Wissler. After a few minutes of chugging up this grassy slope on my tiring legs, I reached the top of the Sheehan Chair, where I was pleasantly surprised by a large clump of daisies on the Lang Trail. The daisies seem to be starting to wither down in the valley, but apparently this patch in the cooler higher altitude climes is doing quite well.

Lang Daisies

Lang Daisies

From this point, a short descent on the service road following the Lang Trail, which is after all the bunny slope of the Snow Bowl, led me back to my car for a challenging but scenic and interesting 5.5 mile run, with about 1800 feet total of climbing and descents.

Google Earth of the Run

Google Earth of the Run

Altitude Profile

Altitude Profile

A Montana Mountain Adventure Run

A few months ago, I made the decision to search out a fun marathon, requiring some traveling, to compete in during the month of July.  One of the challenges of marathoning is that I have most of my “free time” in the summers, but for much of the United States, the summer months tend to be on the hot side for long races.  One of the exceptions to this is our own regional Mad Marathon, held in Waitsfield, VT in early July, but I had already run that particular race a few years ago.   While running this race, I was introduced to the world of the “50 States Marathon Club” whose members seemed to have a heavy presence in this local race for just that reason.  So, I googled for “July Marathons” and found one that piqued my interest – the inaugural “Big Sky Marathon” in Ennis, Montana, on July 19, 2015.

The Big Sky Marathon is the younger sibling of the already established Madison Marathon, one of the toughest “road” marathons in the US, due to its challenging terrain and high altitude.  Sam, the race organizer, clearly a glutton for punishment, decided to follow up his established Madison Marathon with the Big Sky Marathon, on the very next day.  Wow.  The big difference between the two races is that the Madison Marathon starts and finishes at altitudes which might prove unrealistic for many runners recently arrived from lower altitudes, especially in light of its many climbs and descents, while the Big Sky Marathon, not lacking in its own challenges, is more “altitude friendly”, descending from high altitude (8500 ‘) to the valley floor at a much more reasonable altitude (5000′) over its duration, without any significant climbs.  I did not for a minute think that this race would be easy – but I can train for descents, not for altitude!

Reading through the web site for these races, it was apparent that Sam wanted a race which would appeal to two groups of runners – the aspiring 50-Staters, who might find the new marathon’s altitude profile less intimidating than the Madison,  and a group which I had never heard of before, the “Marathon Maniacs“, a running group which honors runners who complete large numbers of marathons in a short period of time, and who are particularly keen on running marathons on back-to-back days.  Ouch.  I counted myself among the former, not the latter.

So, looking forward to the upcoming adventure, I flew into Montana, rented a car, and spent two nights sleeping in a canvas tipi (hey – it was cheap!) in West Yellowstone, MT, acclimating, and enjoying Yellowstone for two days before the race.

Sunset Over the Teepees

Sunset Over the Teepees

 

Given that the race was mostly downhill, and I have had a lot of experience at altitude, I knew I could handle the “breathless” component of the moderately high altitudes where I would be running – Past experiences told me that I just had to never run hard enough that I was seriously out of breath (aka- no “going anaerobic”), which I wouldn’t do in a marathon anyways.   I was more concerned with hydration issues.  Most tourists don’t notice high altitude dehydration, as the most common repercussion,  especially in the dry, sunny climate of the Rockies in the summer, is that they get tipsy a little faster at cocktail hour.  Bearing in mind that I was running a marathon in two days, I was constantly drinking water as soon as I arrived, but it seemed like I was losing more than I was taking in.  There were other issues with this that arose during the race.

The town of Ennis, which serves as the headquarters for these races and as the finish line for the Big Sky Marathon is a cute little town about an hour northwest of West Yellowstone, located in the Madison River valley (apparently home to some of the best fly fishing in the country) between the Madison Mts. to the East (the range just to the west of Yellowstone Park, and home of the Big Sky Ski Area) and the Gravelly Mts to the west, where the race was held.  Ennis reminded me a lot of Jackson, WY in the 70’s before it got turned into a tourist trap and became surrounded by the summer homes of billionaires and Hollywood types.  It has a tiny little village with small shops, bars, and cafes, plenty of shade, and is a fringed by the less quaint sort of places where probably many of its inhabitants are actually employed.  I pulled into Ennis at 5 am on the morning of the race, and met up with the race organizers and other competitors at a gas station in town, where I realized how intimate a race I had gotten myself into.  Almost all the competitors took the school bus to the start line, and there couldn’t have been much more than 40 of us, and a few were doing the half marathon version rather than the full!

The bus ride to the start was the first adventure of the day, and followed the course of the race in reverse. Looking around the people on the bus,  it seemed like there were some real hard core runners, male and female, who looked the part that I expected for a race like this.  The other half, well they looked like me – fit marathon tourists, not necessarily that young in chronology while clearly young at heart.  This was the peer group I expected to find myself running with.  After the drive along the valley floor, the bus turned off and started to weave its way up the east flanks of the Gravelly Mts on rapidly deteriorating dirt roads, with pronghorn antelope scattering as the big yellow monstrosity approached.  At one particular point I remember noting a steep primitive road angling up the mountainside, and thinking “a school bus can’t make up that, can it?” And it did!

Finally after about an hour on the school bus, it screeched to a halt high at the starting point high on a mountain ridge, not too far from a few small snow banks, and the well-hydrated runners dashed out to relieve themselves, either in one of the two porta-potties brought to the start for the race (courtesy dictates that women, of course, get first dibs on these)  or on the above timberline wildflowers (for the men, out of necessity).

Porta Potties at Sunrise

Porta Potties at Sunrise

 

At 7:30 in the morning, after Sam sketched a start line in the dirt road, the race started with a short half mile climb up to the high point in the race.  Many of the runners started off very conservatively, walking this first ascent in light of the altitude, while others took off like they were shot from a cannon.  I started off this climb at a slow 10 minute mile pace, which pretty much put me in the middle of the pack as the participants spread themselves out almost immediately.

Scenery Near the Starting Line

Scenery Near the Starting Line

High Point of the Race

High Point of the Race

The scenery at this point was simply spectacular – Over the course of the first 10K of the race, the descents were pretty mellow, and we were running through wide-open alpine meadows and cattle grazing fields, where I could see the mountains of Montana in all directions, and other racers strung out thinly in front of me.  There seemed to be a lot of them in front of me!

Early Morning Madison Range Views

Early Morning Madison Range Views

Runners on Top of the World

Runners on Top of the World

The second 10K was the part that race guru Sam referred to as “the quad burner” section, where most of the 3500 ft descent transpired.  I usually feel steep descents in my glutes (butt!) more than my quads by the way.  This was an interesting part of the course, but knew would be one of my stronger sections given my Vermont trail running background.

Burning Quads and Glutes

Burning Quads and Glutes

At one point, I seemed to have set off a small stampede of the grazing Black Angus cattle grazing on the slopes of the mountains, but I suppose they weren’t running at me – they were probably running from whatever was chasing me!  I also noticed that without pushing things particularly hard, I started passing some people who had long been far in front of me – perhaps all the running in the Vermont trails was paying off?  I was clearly moving up through the pack, but I truly had no idea of “where I stood” in the race standings, given how spread out the runners were.  At the 13 mile point, at the end of the serious descent, a few of the runners in front of me called it day as half marathon competitors, and the second flat, easier part of the race through ranch land alongside the Madison River began.  Flat is easier, right?

The Madison River Valley

The Madison River Valley

It wasn’t.  Why?  HYDRATION!  While I felt well hydrated before the start, during the first half of the marathon, in the cool morning weather, descending, I drank water at about the same rate I would during a sea level marathon – a few ounces of water or Gatorade every two to three miles works just fine for me usually.  By the time I reached the valley floor, unbeknownst to me, I was starting to get seriously dehydrated.  I usually do my fastest running in the middle 1/3 of marathons, and while I did pick up the pace for a few miles to pass a few more competitors, by the time I reached the water station at mile 17 I could tell that I was in trouble.  I had to stop for a few minutes, and drink about a liter of water.  The water lost through normal running at the early altitudes, and the relentless sun (there isn’t much shade in this part of Montana- they don’t call it “Big Sky Country” for nothing!) in the cool temperatures had baked a lot of water out of me!  From this point until the end of the race I needed to drink about two more liters of water from the water stations, and walked far more frequently than I have ever done in a marathon in order to recover from the dehydration, as well as the descent which had taken a toll on my legs.  I ended up leapfrogging with another strong runner at this point, a gentleman somewhat younger than I for whom this was his hundredth marathon, before eventually pulling away a few miles from the finish line.  I was totally relieved to see the “Welcome to Ennis” sign a mile from the finish line, fighting leg and foot cramps, but determined to run the last mile without stopping.

Near the Finish!

Near the Finish!

Since this was such a small race, normal, but mellow traffic continued without any roads blocked off, so I brought it in to the finish line in a small park at the far side of the village, running on the sidewalks with encouragement from the few people who knew that there was a race finishing in their town.  The finish line was simple – a few orange traffic cones, and a few volunteers with a stopwatch.  My time made it my slowest marathon in a few years by about twenty minutes, which at first disappointed me.  As I gathered my wits at the finish line I looked around, expecting to see the runners who had finished already sprawled all over the lawn, but the only folks I saw were Sam, and a few volunteers.  I inquired as to my finish, suspecting that I had managed to sneak my way into the top ten, when I heard the shocker “2nd PLACE!”  How on earth did that happen?  I realized that I had passed more people than I first suspected, a few had dropped out at the half marathon point, and most importantly, a lot of the best runners were attempting to complete two marathons in two days, and thus were running at a far slower pace.  Never having finished this high in a race, I sought out the winner to offer my congratulations – that is what you are supposed to do right?  This was new territory for me.  Apparently he had beaten me by an hour, and had to take his medal and driven home to Arizona to get to work the next day.  He had also run in the previous day’s race.  WOW!  Well done, whoever you are! So instead, I hung out for the next 45 minutes or so as other racers trickled in, cheering them on as best as I could.  Alas, I did not have the chance to meet the race’s celebrity, an older fellow who apparently was using this race to complete his 1500th marathon.  now THAT is a marathon maniac!  In another interesting twist, since I was wearing a Middlebury College t-shirt, a gentleman came up to me and identified himself as a Middlebury College graduate, and he was there waiting for his wife to finish.  It’s a small world sometimes.

All in all, this was a memorable race for all the right reasons.  It had a unique twist, and was really a well inspired, organized, and from my perspective, well executed race by Sam the organizer.  He was in perpetual motion over the course of the day – moving from water station to water station, and cheering on the racers along the way.  He reminded me a lot of my favorite race organizers in Vermont, people who work hard out of their love of the sport and competition, and want to offer participants the opportunity for a uniquely memorable experience, while keeping their sense of humor.  I am glad that races like this can still be found, even as running becomes more and more corporate.  Well-done!  And did I mention that this is about as beautiful as it gets for running scenery?

The only drawback?  My reward for the runner-up finish was a shot glass and a few tokens for free beers in the town’s brewpub, and I still had a half day drive in front of me to get back to Billings to catch my plane home the next day.  Someday……

Google Earth of Big Sky Marathon, Looking West

Google Earth of Big Sky Marathon, Looking West

 

Check out this Altitude Profile!

Check out this Altitude Profile!