Wednesday, August 28, 2013

The Ups and Downs of Mountain Biking in Maine

Cycling is one of my favorite activities.  When I lived in Pennsylvania I rode bike more frequently than probably any other outdoor activity.  I spent most of my time road cycling since it was convenient but I have always favored mountain biking.  When I moved to Maine road riding became more of a hassle.  I live on very rough dirt roads that aren't suitable for a road bike.  There aren't too many appropriate paved roads without driving a great distance.  I now have only a mountain bike.

Mountain biking in Maine has its ups and downs.  Despite miles and miles of dirt roads, finding a good place to ride is challenging.  Many of the roads are logging roads.  Most of these are able to be ridden.  Unfortunately many other roads dead end, become overgrown, or are swampy and not ridable.  It takes a lot of exploring and local knowledge to discover a decent place to ride.  I have found a few places to ride that allow for a decent ride and I still try new areas hoping to find more options.

The past week I rode several days.  One place was new and two were areas I regularly frequent.  Two of the rides made for a pleasant experience.  The other was a big waste of time.

Last weekend I headed to West Forks, Maine.  This is the northern trailhead of the Maine Huts and Trails system.  Currently this trail runs about 50 miles one way and passes several full service huts for overnight use.  Mountain bikes are allowed to use nearly all of the trails in the system.  I started at the West Forks trailhead because it is the closest access to my house. 

Unfortunately the ride was a bust.  My plan was to ride to the Grand Falls hut and back, about 28 miles.  This section of the trail apparently doesn't see any summer use.  Immediately leaving the parking lot the trail was heavily overgrown with thorny brambles.  With the exception of a short section of trail that shares use with a dirt road, much of the trail was nearly unridable.  Less than a 1/4 mile into the ride I hit a rock hidden in the tall vegetation that sent me over my handlebars and required a minor adjustment to my bike afterwards.  Most of the trail was covered in at least knee to waist high vegetation with some areas covered in weeds over my head.  A few sections had vegetation so thick that I could stand my bike upright in it without it falling over.  Many obstacles were hidden in the weeds making the riding miserable.  I rode less than 4 miles before I gave up and turned around.  I rode a couple miles on a dirt road but that came to an end shortly and I returned to the trailhead.  I rode just under 10 miles and didn't enjoy any of it.

Typical trail with knee high vegetation

Vegetation so thick it held the bike upright.  That is the middle of the "trail"

On Saturday I headed to Greenville, Maine.  There are a couple of loops I discovered last year that offer fairly consistent riding.  I chose a 28 mile loop this time.  Generally the ride navigates around Big Squaw (Moose) Mtn.  After a short stretch on the paved road, my route takes me over various logging roads and ATV trails.  Along the way there are several decent views, including views of the Bigelows and Katahdin, with several up close views of the Big Squaw Range.  The ride is never too technical and quite often fast on rolling terrain.  There is one big climb at 22 miles into the ride that climbs over 1000 feet in 1.5 miles and is semi-technical, riding over washed out and rocky terrain.  Only one section that was flooded by beaver caused any problems  This ride is fairly remote and wild with many chances for wildlife sightings.  In fact I saw a bull moose with a nice sized rack on this ride.

Approaching Eagle Rock

Close up of Eagle Rock (A great hiking destination)

Stream flowing out of Moore Bog

Typical trail.  Wide enough for an ATV to pass but not much more.

Trail flooded by beavers.  About 50 yards of the trail covered and quite deep.

A rough section of trail.  This ride never gets too technical.

Finally on Sunday I headed to Acadia National Park with the J Man.  Acadia has the carriage road system with 45 miles of trails for mountain biking.  These trails are never technical.  They are nicely graded with fine gravel.  A few of the trails offer long climbs and descents with many switchbacks. 

Our ride started at the park visitor center.  We made our way to the Around the Mountain loop which climbs high on the shoulder of Sargent Mtn.  We then descended along Jordan Pond before crossing the park loop road and passing Bubbles Pond.   Along the way the carriage roads pass numerous ponds and offer nice views of surrounding mountains and glimpse of the ocean.  We wrapped up our 26 mile ride with only a very short stretch of overlap.  During the summer, you won't get Acadia to yourself, but not too many places to ride do you have views of mountains and the ocean with nearly 50 miles of trails.  As far as mountain biking goes, Acadia doesn't offer any technical riding, but you can put in a decent length ride over rolling terrain with some nice hills on the Around the Mountain section.  The carriage roads are always in good condition and seldom muddy.  Occasionally you can see some wildlife too.  In the past we have seen deer and even a coyote. 

Somes Sound

Carriage road on shoulder of Sargent Mtn

Eagle Lake with harbor in distance

View across Eagle Lake.  North Bubble in middle.

Heron along the trail

View of harbor and islands

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Whale Watching off the Coast of Acadia

Puma and I were able to get tickets for a whale watching trip off the coast of Acadia National Park for half price.  While I've seen most land animals in Maine, I haven't had the opportunity to see too much of the ocean life.  The whale watching cruise let us see a few sea mammals up close.

We took the two hour drive to Bar Harbor, where the trip started.  I was surprised at how many people were crammed on the boat.  We were lucky enough to get a spot at the very front of the bow nonetheless.  They told us to dress warmly as the boat travels about 30 miles off shore and temperatures can be 25-30 degrees cooler.  On an 85 degree day this proved refreshing.  Almost immediately everyone bundled in jacket and hoods.  I guess Puma and I hardened to Maine weather as we were among the very few that didn't need a jacket.

The trip is about three hours.  Only a few minutes after leaving shore we saw a harbor seal swimming near the boat.  Nearly an hour of the trip is just getting to the viewing area.  On the way out we saw several groups of harbor porpoises swimming nearby the boat.  Numerous seabirds were sighted as well, including, gannets, shearwaters, and numerous gulls.

Whales started surfacing almost immediately when we reached the viewing area.  Two humpbacks rose to the surface numerous times, putting on a nice show.  The same two remained close to the boat the entire time we were viewing.  There was some other activity further from the boat but the boat focused on the two playful humpbacks.  A grey seal also swam nearby the boat while we were in the whale viewing area.

Humpback whales near surface

Closer view

Seeing the whales in the wild is a neat experience.  The area off the coast of Maine is a good feeding ground for the whales and they spend most of their summer there fattening up before heading back to their winter breeding grounds.  Typically you would see the whales spout before they would rise to the surface.  Occasionally they would do a slight jump before fanning their tale and diving back underwater.  They remained surprisingly close to the boat, sometimes as close as 50 meters, not too far for a 40+ foot sea mammal.

The return trip to shore takes about another hour.  Along with plenty of seabirds, we saw a few more groups of porpoises.  As you approach land, the mountains of Acadia National Park become clearer.  A few lobster boats are hard at work nearby.  Closer to Bar Harbor the boat passes near Egg Rock Light and the rocky shores of Schoodic Peninsula.  The rocky Porcupine Islands are passed before arriving in the harbor.  The large number of boats anchored in the harbor is amazing, from tall mast ships to luxury yachts and everything in between.  The mountains of the national park provide a scenic backdrop the entire approaching land.

Egg Rock Light with Acadia's mountains beyond

One of the Porcupine Islands

Champlain Mountain

Boats in the harbor

Luxury yachts

Dorr and Cadillac Mountains  

Bar Harbor with Champlain, Dorr, and Cadillac Mountains beyond

More boats in the harbor

I am glad we were able to go on the whale watching trip.  The whales were very active and never out of sight very long when we were in the viewing area.  The seals and the porpoises were also a neat to see fairly up close.  Sometimes you have to play tourist to see things you wouldn't normally see on your own.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Backpacking in the Bigelows

Dustin Putt, a friend of mine from Pennsylvania, was visiting Maine.  He gave me a call to spend a couple days on an outing.  He was looking for a trip that involved a night of camping.  Last time he was in Maine we hiked Katahdin, including the Knife Edge.  This time I suggested a trip to the Bigelows.  They are among the most interesting and scenic mountains in Maine after Katahdin with several spots to camp on an overnight backpacking trip.

The Bigelow Range is a beautiful set of mountains.  The highlight of the range are the 4000 foot summits of West Peak and Avery Peak.  They are among the highest in Maine and offer summits above treeline in an alpine setting.  The 360 degree views from both summits are among the best in Maine.  On a clear day, the view stretches from Mt Washington in New Hampshire to Katahdin in Maine, over 330 miles of the Appalachian Trail are visible.

There are several trails to hike in the Bigelows with the Appalachian Trail as the centerpiece.  Initially, our plan was to ascend via the Horns Pond Trail.  Logging activity closed the road so we parked on Maine 27 and approached via the AT, which adds a little more distance to the hike.  

There are many scenic spots in the Bigelows.  About five miles into the hike, we reached Horns Pond.  This is a small 3 acre tarn that sits at the base of the twin peaks of North and South Horn.  There is a nice viewpoint overlooking the pond with both peaks rising behind it.

The Horns beyond Horns Pond

The peaks of North and South Horn are the next feature along the AT.  Almost immediately after passing the pond, the trail climbs steeply up these peaks.  3805' North Horn is the first peak reached by following a short side trail off of the AT.  The bare summit just barely pokes out above the trees and offers 360 degree views.  The peak of its twin, South Horn, is less than a half mile away.  Horns Pond sits at its base and giant Flagstaff Lake sits more than 2500' below  The most stunning view is that of West Peak's pointy summit towering just two miles away.  The view from the South Horn  is nearly as attractive as its twin's view.

West Peak from North Horn

Horn Pond below North Horn with Cranberry Peak beyond

Sun peaking through the clouds

The western peaks of the Bigelow Range from South Horn

West Peak and Little Bigelow from South Horn

Two miles beyond South Horn, the summit of West Peak is reached.  At 4150', this is the apex of the Bigelow Range.  The alpine summit of West Peak rises above treeline and has one of the best vistas in Maine.  Avery Peak stands just a few feet lower, less than a mile away.  The entire length of Flagstaff Lakes sits at its base to the north.  On a clear day, nearly every mountain range from Mt Washington to Katahdin is visible.

Looking back at the Horns from West Peak

Flagstaff Lake from West Peak

Avery Peak from West Peak

A closer look at Avery Peak

Bigelow Col sits between West Peak and Avery Peak, 8 miles from our starting point.  This is where we stopped the first night.  This is possibly the highest official camping site in Maine.  There are several tent platforms in the area and a couple of water sources.  From our tent platform we had a nice view of Avery Peak's cliffs.

Cliffs on Avery Peak from our campsite

Our first day on the trail went smoothly.  We hiked just over 8 miles.  A few sprinkles fell but nothing that lasted more than a minute or so.  The views were somewhat obscured by haze but we still had decent visibility.  As night approached, a few more sprinkles fell.  We were slightly concerned when a few bright flashes of nearby lightning lit the sky.  The flashes seemed to be moving away from us however.  Shortly after we turned in for the night, it sprinkled a few more times, but none of the showers lingered.  

Saturday morning we got a fairly early start.  We left our gear at the tent site and headed to Avery Peak less than a mile away.  Avery Peak is nearly as stunning as West Peak.  The haze from the previous day was gone and we had perfect visibility.  The morning air was crisp, probably in the mid 40s with a steady breeze.  We took in the views for quite a while before heading back to our gear.  We descended the Fire Warden's Trail.  Where the Fire Warden's Trail ends, a short walk on a dirt road brought us back to the AT less than a mile from our starting point.

Little Bigelow from Avery Peak

View from Avery Peak

Low clouds over Flagstaff Lake

West Peak from Avery

Sugarloaf ski area from Avery

Looking across alpine tundra to West Peak

This was my 5th trip to the Bigelows.  The route we hiked is a loop of just over 15 miles.  Putt seemed happy with the trip selection and I'm always pleased with a hike in the Bigelows.  As we hiked out on Saturday morning we saw several groups hiking up the Fire Warden's trail, the most direct route to Avery and West Peak.  On our first day however we saw only two AT thru hikers, a group of day hikers, and two other long distance AT hikers camping at Bigelow Col.  Not many people for a decent summer day in one Maine's most scenic mountain ranges.