Friday, September 15, 2017

Boston to Northampton Epic Trail Ride (July 2017)

My bike took me here.
 The light was fading fast as I slowly walked my bike up a ribbon of steep, rocky singletrack beneath the high canopy of old hardwoods.  My only companions, the mosquitos, urged me along the trail despite the empty feeling in my legs.  I looked up to see the top of the hill, seemingly miles away,and put my head back down.  I was broken.  Physically and mentally.  Although I was in the homestretch of my second day, it had been a hard day.  Hot. Humid. And what I had hoped was a flowy five miles of singletrack to end the day became a five mile slog on slick, steep, and rocky singletrack.  I didn’t have any choice but to push on.  There was no other way I was getting home.  And so I took another long pull from my water bottle, pushed one leg in front of the other, and brushed the swarm of mosquitos from my shoulders and back.  Only a couple more miles now.  It wouldn’t be long. And that’s when I heard the thunder.

And we're off....
How far can the trails take me?  This has been a question floating around in my head for years.  Whenever I’m out exploring trails, I’m constantly thinking about how I can connect it to other sections that I know, and where new sections might bring me even further out and away from Boston.  Over the years I had pieced together a network of trails that would take me from downtown Boston all the way to Nashoba ski area out by the I-495 loop.

I had toyed with the idea of extending it all the way across the state, and even mapped out some trails to explore.  So when I learned of a set of trailsextending from Rutland, MA all the way to Northampton.  I quickly put together a course that could take me all the way to Northampton. To the Connecticut River Valley.  All that was left was the time needed to try it out.  And to figure out how to stage vehicles to get back home.

Bridge on the Charles River
As I was planning a mountain biking trip in July it became clear that I was going to have a three to four day window of decent weather.  But without anyone to help me stage cars, I was having a hard time figuring out how I would be able to get to my vehicle at the end of the long rides planned for each day.  That’s when I learned that the MBTA Commuter Rail around Boston allows bikes on most trains on the off-hours.  As long as you aren’t travelling with the flow of traffic during rush hour, you can bring your bike on most routes.  And the easy to read schedule shows whattimes/directions to avoid to help you plan your route.

And so I started my journey by riding the commuter rail with my bike to South Station in Boston one early summer morning.  A short jaunt through the Financial District, past Faneuil Hall and the Boston Garden and I was onto the Charles River Path – and on my way west.  Although paved, this section was immensely enjoyable as you follow the river and take in views of Cambridge. I ended up riding with an older gentleman who was headed the same direction and we chatted about my journey as we cruised along through Brighton and into Newton.  On reaching Waltham, I jumped over onto the Western Greenway, and onto dirt singletrack.  It was hot, sticky morning and temperatures quickly jumped up into the 80’s.  I religiously drank water and ate snacks on regular intervals in order to stave off the exhaustion that was sure to come by the end of the day.  The Battle Road Trail in Lexington took me out to Concord, and I skipped over to Estabrook woods where I knew of a network of mostly trail that would carry me to Nashoba.  Just before reaching Nashoba, in the heat of the late afternoon, I took a dip in a large clear water pond along side the trail.  It was a welcome relief and much needed for the last few miles ahead.  From Nashoba it was mostly road into Littleton and onto the MBTA station.  I rolled up in the late afternoon, tired but not too bad off given the heat of the day.

Long, straight stretch of trail near Acton.
My planned route, and the forecast for the second day, however, had me a little worried.  There were around 4,000 feet of climbing over nearly fifty miles of trail.  Of those fifty miles, I had actually biked about 100 yards of the route.  It was almost a complete unknown.  It was going to be an adventure.  To add some added challenge, it was going to be even more hot than the previous day.  This would be manageable if the whole day was spent in the woods, however a good portion of the climbing was slated to be on paved roads- which offer no quarter from the sun. In fact, the tar only seems to intensify and radiate the heat of the day.  I was comforted, however, by the fact that the last quarter of the day was to be on the Midstate Trail, which I had read had been previously featured in a national magazine as a bikepacking destination.  So it was sure to be a lot of fun on an unloaded mountain bike.  Right?   I also was going to be joined by my buddy Brandon for at least the first half of the ride.  And misery loves company.

Mountain bike in its natural habitat.
Our start for the second day didn’t go quite as planned.  We had hoped to park directly at the Littleton MBTA station, but there were no spots to be found anywhere nearby.  Instead we headed toward the village and eventually parked in a large lot near a gas station.   This meant that I would need to ride a few miles at the end of the day after taking the train- a minor annoyance.

The route took us on road for a few miles until we hit the one section that I had actually ridden.  A scorcher of a power-line climb that gave us a good taste of the heat and humidity that was to come.  We descended the other side and darted into the woods where we ran along some doubletrack through a quiet forest, and back out onto a road. Eventually we reached another trail entrance which had us climbing straight up through a meadow to some playful singletrack in the forest above. We descended back down off of our perch on a fun section of trail where we eventually found our way over toward Groton Town Forest. 

Broken chain = too much raw POWER!
One of the highlights of the day was a section of singletrack running along the river and through a pine glen surrounded by ferns on all sides.  Beyond Groton we found our way into Townsend and some smooth, but slowly disappearing singletrack.  The trail eventually ended completely but we managed to make our way to the road after only a short bushwhack.   Brandon needed to get back (or he decided he had had enough of my trail finding skills), and he wished me luck as I set out on the next section of the route. 

I had mapped the next section through forest, but a signed entrance made clear that visitors were not welcome.  Looking at the map, I worked around the forbidden trail, and hooked back up to the route not far beyond, where a weathered ATV track wound its way through the woods.  If you’ve never ridden dedicated ATV trails, you’re in for a real treat.  They somehow combine the worst features of mountain biking: ruts, wet roots, and mud.  Lots of mud.  And even where the trails are dry the constant potholes prevent you from gaining any real speed.  But it was trail.  For a while anyway.

Wachusett in the distance.
 My GPS track eventually led me to a wide open bog where I shouldered the bike and thankfully found a stone wall that crossed to the other side.  The doubletrack continued, eventually leading to another powerline climb where I entered the woods and started the highlight descent of the day.  I thundered down a long winding section of doubletrack that ended at Pearl Hill State Park where I refreshed my water supply.  The singletrack through the park that followed was excellent.  Rolling, smooth, and fun, it took me downward until I rolled out onto road, and at the bottom of the two biggest climbs of the day.

Now I’m not going to lie.  The next few hours of my life sucked pretty badly.  They were hot as hell, and on paved roads with traffic.   But I slogged onward and upward, thinking about the amazing Midstate Trail singletrack that was awaiting me on the other side.  As I was reaching the end of my rope, I crested a steep hill next to a farm on a quiet country road. I stopped under a tree to gulp down some water, and force some more food into my stomach, and I was taken aback by the view.  There, across the field, and staring back at me was Wachusett in all her glory.  She was now within sight.  I was getting close.

I whizzed down the paved road with renewed energy eventually reaching the valley floor where the entrance to the Midstate Trail awaited.  I slowly pedaled into the woods, and was immediately greeted with a steep, chunky climb.  With barely anything left in my legs I pedaled upward, until the trail became too steep and slippery to navigate.  “This is a bikepacking trail?” I thought to myself.  It wouldn’t be the last time that I questioned whether I had read about the trail.

Welcome to the Midstate Trail.  Now walk!
Although I had remained dry all day, I could tell a rain squall had passed through the area as the leaves were still dripping wet, and the rocks and roots on the trail were slick and glistening.  The first few miles of the Midstate were steep ups and downs.  Too steep to climb, and also too rocky and slippery to try and descend with any speed.  After a couple of very slow miles, I began to worry about making it to the MBTA station before dark.  I still had only about five miles to go, but my pace was down to about a few miles per hour.  Just as I was getting frustrated, the trail opened up, and I made a long fast descent down to a secluded pond with a lean-to.  I stopped and sat, admiring the shimmering light off the water and the smell of the tall pines surrounding me.  This would have been a good place to set up camp for the night, had I any equipment.  The descent continued on the far side of the lake, where I crossed an open field and out onto roads. 

My moment of zen.
I mistakenly believed that I was done with the Midstate Trail for the day, as I motored along a wide shoulder on a busy road.   Suddenly the GPS track had me headed back into the woods, and so I rolled along until I came to a long nasty climb.  It was on that long climb, in the darkening forest, surrounded by mosquitos that the Midstate Trail broke me.  I cursed as I walked upward- swatting away the mosquitos and wondering how many more hours it would take to reach the train station.  And so, just as I reached the top of the climb and was ready to climb on my bike the sky opened up and it started to pour.  Hard.  Thunder rumbled around me as I sat under a small tree fruitlessly trying to stay dry.  I finally gave up, deciding to simply keep riding, as I was starting to get a chill.  I rolled down the hill and out onto paved road where the rain mercifully stopped and sun broke out.  Steam rose from the road as I set out to cover the last couple of miles.  My legs were dead, and I struggled to climb even the smallest hills, so when the train station came into sight, I almost screamed with happiness.

Post-thunderstorm misty road.
My joy, however, was short lived, as I realized that the road I was on ended against a 12 foot high chain-link fence.  On the other side of that fence was the train, waiting to leave, as well as the platform and parking area.  To the left of me was the active railroad tracks and to the right was an old railroad line that had since been overgrown with every manner of bush and small tree.  I decided I needed to skirt along the right side, to where the fence eventually ended so that I could get to the parking area. This was easer said than done, though as trying to walk my bike through the thick growth proved nearly impossible.  Between the brambles, and the small branches grabbing at me and the bike, I made it only a hundred yards before I decided I needed a new plan.  At that point the chainlink fence had dropped down to about seven feet high.  As I looked at the fence I saw an old 4x4 plank about three feet long just sitting in the undergrowth.  I leaned it against the fence, and under the gaze of curious commuters waiting for their loved ones to arrive on the next train, I hoised the bike up and over the fence, dropping it on the other side.  I then pulled myself up, jumped over and walked my bike down across the platform and onto the waiting train.

As we thundered eastward, back toward Littleton, we passed through the downpour I had endured in the last section of wooded singletrack.  So when I got off at the station, I sat on the covered platform and enjoyed the sights and sounds as it passed over me again. And in the fading light, as I rolled my bike along the ramp to ride the last section of road back to the car, I was greeted with a giant rainbow.

My car is at the end of that rainbow.
The long two days of riding was as much as I could handle.  Originally I had planned to drive to Northampton that night and catch an Uber from Northampton to Wachusett and finish the journey on bike.  The last section was the longest- nearly 70 miles.  Although it was mostly a descent, it was still 70 miles of trail riding.   And as hot as the previous two days had been- that day was forecast to be even hotter.  Again, I had ridden none of the trail that stretches between the two, and the first twenty miles of the journey would be along the Midstate.  With the taste of that last section of mosuito laden Midstate Trail still fresh in my mouth, I was not hopeful of maintaining any kind of decent pace.  And so I decided to leave that adventure for another day. 

Ultimately, I didn’t answer the question of how far I could go on “mostly trails”. Or then again, maybe I did.  Maybe the limits aren’t set by what’s on the map.  But the answer to these kinds of questions are fluid.  Perhaps I’ll find a different answer when I try again this Fall.

Here are the videos showing the ride:
Bikes & Trains

And here are the GPS tracks:

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