Monday, November 05, 2007

East Coast Road Trip, Part 1

A while back I casually asked my buddies over at Thule if they had a vehicle they wanted me to drive around the eastern time zone for a month or so. Instead of not responding like the couple of other people I asked this same question, Steve got back to me with a prompt “yes.” Evidently there was a Chevy Express van parked out back that I was welcome to use in whatever way I saw fit. After some planning and struggling, I had a rough plan for a fall spent on the right coast doing a bunch of random stuff.

The outline went something like this, starting October 19 and ending November 27, try to follow…

Step 1- Fly to Connecticut and pick up the van.

Step 2- Drive to Diablo Freeride Park in New Jersey to attend a Giant Ride Maestro Demo and jump some stuff.

Step 3- Drive to Philadelphia and race skinny tired bikes on some grass.

Step 4- Drive to Asheville, North Carolina and do some kayaking.

Step 5- Drive to Athens, Georgia for another Maestro Demo

Step 6- Back to Asheville for more kayaking, maybe some Pisgah MTB’n.

Step 7- Drive to Louisville, KY for some more cyclocross racing, round one of the USGP.

Step 8- Drive back to Asheville, more boating and singletrack.

Step 9- Race in the Green River Narrows kayak race.

(this is where I’ve gotten to so far, I’m now flying to the opposite of western NC, that being Los Angeles…)

Step 10- Fly back from the west coast and drive, over the course of two days of screwing around in the woods or on the water, up to Manhattan for some Media shenanigans.

Step 11- Race Cross Bikes once again, this time in New Jersey. USGP #2.

Step 12- Hang out in Manhattan getting all cultured up with my cousin Jennifer.

Step 13- Drive to Maine for Thanksgiving and some hanging out with the family and friends.

Step 14- Over to Burlington, VT for singletrack and adult stuff, meetings and such.

Step 15- Back down to Thule HQ in CT to return the van, meet some people and be on my last airplane ride of the year back to Oregon. Whew.

There it is, the fifteen step plan to driving a bunch of miles and doing a bunch of random stuff, just like in the good ole’ days…

Step one went smoothly once I got done with my usual shellacking at the Chicago Airport, my flight was only delayed 3 hours, no big deal. Thanks to the ingenuity of Steve over at Thule, instead of dealing with getting the van up to the Airport or having me take a cab, when I arrived at the airport there was a guy in a suit and a nice hat holding a sign with my name on it. Turns out he was driving the “White Stretch” parked in front of baggage claim and would be chauffeuring me the van, stashed at a Park n’ Ride with the keys under the bumper. Sweet.

A solid drive through a solid rainstorm listening to surprisingly unstimulating (for greater NYC) local radio found me at Mountain Creek Resort in Vernon, NJ. The Diablo Freeride Park guys lease this little (1000 vertical feet) ski resort in the Jersey Highlands each summer so they can transform it into the east coast’s best place to ride a lift up and charge back down over and

over. Good business plan. Giant had cleverly chosen this location for one of the Ride Maestro Demo Tour events. It having a lift and being in the hometown of Giant Street/Freeride star Jeff Lenosky made it a ringer. We did a presentation on our (awesome) Maestro suspension design to about 50 dealers in the morning, had lunch, then rode the hell out of some bikes under sunny skies all afternoon. Wallrides, jumps everywhere, drops, berms, scary rock gardens, slippery singletrack, etc. We had a real good time. People were fired up on the bikes. It was a success for sure. I’m glad I “volunteered” for this one…

That night I drove down to Philly, stayed with and old friend and slept a ton. We made a huge breakfast and set off for the Wissahickon Cyclocross race. Turns out a huge breakfast is just what you need to make it back through the entire field after rolling a tubular on the first lap… Yup, I was pretending the ‘Cross bike was the Reign X I had been riding irresponsibly the day before. Turns out you can’t back it in on a light racing setup like on a freeride bike… Whoops. Fortunately, I had a spare bike, and I like passing people anyway, it’s entertaining and way less pressure than actually riding at the front of the race trying to “win” or whatever… I made it up to 5th, then Barry Wicks waxed me on the last lap. 6th place, an envelope with cash in it and some of those valuable “UCI Points” to secure me a reasonable start position at the Gran Prix coming up in Kentucky. Oh, and another sunny day, two down, forty to go…

The Green River narrows is a funny place. It is a classic Class V river tumbling off the Western North Carolina Escarpment through a vein of beautiful Granite. Yet it’s got a dam on it, the Tuxedo Hydro Station. Usually this would mean certain de-watered stream channel death for a small, steep river. But no, the Green runs more than just about any other Steep Creek in North America due to daily releases from Tuxedo. You simply wake up and call the flow phone to see what time it turns on and viola, warm water creekin’.

My problem was that I was in Philly at sunset and wanted nothing more than to get on the green the next day, 600 miles south. I called the phone, which was still relaying last week’s message, in an awesome southern drawl.

“Tuxedo Hydro Station will be running one unit at 100% load from 7am to 11am Monday, October the fifteenth, Tuesday and Wednesday, Tuxedo will be shut down. Thursday the 18th through Sunday the 21st Tuxedo will be running one unit at 100% load from 7am to 11am”

What this meant to me is that if I didn’t bust down there through the night I wouldn’t get on the Green until Thursday. Unacceptable. I bore down, taking advantage of the Red Bull and racing combo that seems to give endless energy despite incredible fatigue… This boost took me well south of Roanoake, Virginia, just a few hours north of the Green, by 2am. Fortunately, the Express has a robometronic back seat that turns into the narrowest bed you’ve ever seen. It was awesome, long, firm and perfect for a few hours of sleep until that pesky sunrise reminded me of my quest for the Green.

Once again, I called the flow phone. Once again it was last week’s news. I figured I wouldn’t be able to sleep anyway so I might as well drive down to Asheville and see if the locals knew the story. My first stop in town was Jessie Rice’s place, which happens to be about as non-dirtbag-kayaker as you can get. On the 4th floor of the Kress Condo building right downtown, her studio was probably the nicest apartment I’ve ever been in… Her friend Lizzy English was in town and keen to go kayaking, she figured that the Green would be running this Monday as it had been for the last month. Unfortunately, the frequency of class five kayaking that happens in Asheville had caught up with young Lizzy in the name of landing on her head off from Gorilla two days before. She hooked me up with the infamous Billy Jones, an old buddy of mine from Oregon who had recently moved to Asheville and we made it to the Narrows in the nick of time, actually running down the put-in trail to catch the last of the release. And catch it we did. A run down a river like this with a buddy who happens to know every nook and cranny is well worth driving through the night. We had a real good time.

A late lunch at Burgermeister with Lizzy and Billy was a hilariously entertaining segway to an afternoon ride with legendary local Sam Koerber in the Pisgah National Forest. The morning’s light rain had turned to a steady downpour as we headed up Yellow Gap to Laurel Mountain Trail. Sam kept me honest about the fact that I’d just eaten a huge Feta Burger by keeping a high tempo for the entirety of our hour-long climb up perfectly techy singletrack. I casual “I recommend you drop your seat now” meant we were about to shred a couple thousand feet of the east coast’s finest singletrack. Which we promptly did despite looming darkness and heavy, warm rain. It was an awesome end to an awesome day.

The next day the boys went kayaking on the Toxaway river while I rode sweet singletrack in Athens, GA at the next stop of the Giant tour. It was held at a farm out in the country that happened to have about ten miles of twisty, rooty, red clay trails in and out of the hollows. Fun trails with fun people, but I was still glad to be ignorant of the “running of the shit” that went on up north while I was “working” down in the flatlands…

I fortunately made it back to Asheville that night in time to have dinner with my host for the week, Willow Koerber. We went to a nice Spainish restaurant downtown and I got my first taste of Asheville’s culinary and cultural diversity. Cool town, especially when you have a van full of toys and a good friend’s house to stay at…

The next morning, after listening to it rain all night, I called Billy Jones to see about the prospect of kayaking. He mentioned the Raven’s Fork and I immediately jumped out of bed and proclaimed that I’d be ready to go in two minutes. Fortunately, the southern boating community operates on a slightly more casual schedule, I had plenty of time… We met at Greenlife, one of A-ville’s many organic healthfood stores, for breakfast and flow checking. Then it was time to gather the rest of the crew and head west into the Smokies. Eventually. We actually left town at the crack of noon, five strong. Drew Duval drove Old Blackie, Billy Jones called shotgun before we even decided who’s car to take, “The Professor” Toby McDermott, young ripper Adrian and myself squeezed into the back and the discussion of our perspective flow on the Raven’s Fork commenced. Maybe it was too low? What was our cutoff? Should we turn around? Stop and check the online flow again? Or just keep driving, which is what we did. We were rewarded with this:

Perfect flow. An impressively steep uphill drive in Blackie delivered us to a forty-five minute hike up an old railroad bed to the put-in. We drove up about fifteen hundred vertical feet, then walked in dead flat to a river that rose steadily through it’s canyon to meet us. We would drop all 1500ft in about two miles. That’s STEEP! Fortunately, the put in had a tiny pool to warm up in before dropping into the teacups right off the bat. Perfect.

The first big rapid of the day was Anaconda, the boys fired it up while Adrian and I exchanged concerned glances… We could run it if we HAD to, but chose the high right line instead, opting to save ourselves for downstream challenges.

Looking back up at Anaconda- Steep and tight…

Like the next rapid, Headless Horseman. A classic slot boof entry to a big slide under an even bigger undercut ledge. Very aesthetically pleasing.

Below there the rapids stacked up right on top of each other. It’s pretty amazing how steep and how runnable this river is. Even when you do have to portage, such as the entrance to Razorback at this level, it seems totally reasonable that you might not be able to run 100% of this creek, 90% is plenty…

We eventually made it down to Big Boy, the waterfall everyone would ask if we ran once we got back to town… Our answer would be no. 35 feet of curling perfection, except for the four foot wide green landing pool guarded by a pile of rocks on the right. Beautiful yet quite ugly…

A reasonable portage brought us down to Mike Tyson’s Punch Out, another huge complex slide that we simply scouted from above and fired up out of necessity and enthusiasm. Like all rapids on this river, the photo from above makes it look tiny, even with the tiny kayaker (Toby) in the frame…

A good handful of bonus classic rapids like Caveman eventually led us out of the gorge, basically intact and quite stoked to have gotten on the Rave’s in the middle of the worst drought the southeast has seen in a few years. We hung out with Emmanuel the elderly Cherokee Indian who is kind enough to let kayakers park as his place at the takeout. He was clearly excited to see his river running again and share that appreciation with the kayakers who were so excited to be there.

The next day we got greedy. Linville Gorge is the longest, deepest, most committing kayak run in the southeast. It was still raining up in the Grandfather Mountain area and Linville was in, probably on the “high side of good”… We met Uncle Jeb Hall and his crew at the lake takeout, planning on taking advantage of reasonable daylight and high water to run the whole gorge. Our optimism was commendable even when the river rose two inches while we loaded the Thule van with nine boats and paddlers…

The road to the put in is fifteen miles of washboard gravel. I drove it as fast as the van would take, heeding the advice of “five or fifty” that came from the peanut gallery in back. They quieted down once we got rolling… Linville requires a forty-five minute hike down into the gorge before you even see the river. We descended into the mist wondering what our flow was. Just as we got to the first overlook on the Babel Tower trail some guys hiking uphill carrying kayaks and looking scared. They said it was a bit high… It was. We deliberated for a while and eventually decided it was too high, but Billy and I agreed to go to river level and give it one last look, just in case. Seeing Toby and Brad Kee (who had run Linville as high as it ever had been run) walking up was the last thing I needed to bag it. It was a nice hike into and out of the gorge even with the ungainly 45-pound kayak on my shoulder…

Instead of driving to Cincinatti and being early to pick up Kelli, who was flying in to race in Louisville, I decided a twilight run on the nearby Wilson Creek would keep the day from being a total Skunk. It was just what the doctor ordered, fun class IV boating, rock spins, hole surfs and some fun impromptu racing with Lizzy and Billy had me relaxed and ready to drive another seven hours…

Once again, I’ve been racing bikes all summer and taking photos of it sometimes. This weekend I didn’t take a single one. Sorry. We did have a good time though, staying at our mechanic Tom’s parents place eating good home cooking was a bonus on top of fun racing and nice weather. Kelli and I each won the “Most Aggressive Rider” award on one of the two days, basically the river who gets the crappiest start and makes the most of it. In my case it was doing wheelies up to fifth place, in hers it was cornering fast to tenth. Good times with the big check.

Monday we did some cyclocross mountain biking at some random park in Frankfort, KY before I dropped Kelli at the airport. It was pretty entertaining, riding tight local trails on sketchy bikes.

Another five hour drive had me back in Asheville Monday night ready for more action. I even saw some good southern culture on the way… NASCAR evidently has some fans in the world…

The next two days were “rest days” for green river paddlers, being Tuesday and Wednesday. I decided to rest by doing some huge rides in Pisgah, one with Sam and (badass) dad Bob Koerber. We rode fast up barely makeable climbs and even faster down classic Pisgah descents. Rocky, rooty, fast and covered in leaves. The next day I set off alone to explore the Fish Hatchery zone outside Brevard. Five hours later I’d ridden every trail in the drainage, including the infamous Furlow Gap. Good stuff.

Thursday and it was time for business. Racing kayaks down class V isn’t something to be taken lightly. I figured the best way to get ready was to go kayaking on the Green River Narrows a whole bunch. Which happens to be what I would have decided to do even if there wasn’t a big race coming up. Two runs Thursday and two more on Friday had me a bit sore but completely entertained… I did have a bit of a scare on my last run of Gorilla, the classic blast through the notch but not quite into the eddy above the launchpad. This common occurance (especially for non-locals) usually results in a backwards run off the pad immediately followed by stern-pitoning and falling on one’s head down the rest of the ramp. It didn’t hurt nearly as much as I thought it would. Which is amazing. And lucky. Fortunately, John Grace (of Lunch Video Magazine) was filming the whole incident. He assured Sam that it would make the cut for the carnage section… Which is something I really, seriously, genuinely, try to avoid doing out on the river. We’re not fish, nor are we made of rubber, so I always try to respect the environment we’re so fortunate to travel through by kayak. In this case, I’d respect it by just catching the eddy in the race, eddies being the cornerstone of river-running and all… I’d also respect it by repairing the backband and seat I’d broken in the Shiny new Remix 69 that Woody and Obie at Liquidlogic Kayaks had loaned me for the race. Sorry guys…

I fell for a mean trick on race morning. I should have learned over the last two weeks in Asheville that the boating crew isn’t exactly prompt. When race oranizer Jason Hale told me to be at the takeout at 8:30 for a race meeting I figured he was serious. Really, this was just a rumor to get everyone moving within an hour or two. The real meeting was at the put-in at 10:30… So I met up with local bike race promoter and racer Janet Trubey for breakfast at Waffle House. Not so bad, although the coffee was… Hale climbed on top of a truck at 10:45 for the “meeting” which basically consisted of these few points:

Be Safe.

Are you qualified?

There’s only one winner.

Don’t ask your time when you finish.

Don’t be late.

There would be a party at Woody’s house after the race.

He had official green race panties for all the swimmers.

Our next stop was the field for the traditional photo of everyone with their kayaks standing up in a row, in this case, it was three rows, as there were 130 racers. That’s a lot of “qualified” boaters…

Next stop was Frankenstein rapid, which the race started just above. It was warm and sunny at Frankenstein, perfect for watching people smooth it through, or not… We saw some creative, ingenious lines, some average lines, and some pretty questionable ones… Complex rapid right off the bat.

Toby shows us how it’s done in the new Liquidlogic “Hun-gee” race boat.

Before I knew it my start time had arrived. Since I’m kind of a sissy, and was quite respectful of Gorilla at this point, I decided to go for a brisk paddle down the green all by myself. It just happened that I would be timed. I smoothed some rapids, like “Go left and die.” It was good that I wasn’t distracted by the hundred or so people at Go Left when I came blasting out of Boof or Consequences… The green race is quite the party even at the river… (this is some other guy smoothin’ it…)

And I fumbled some, like Frankenstein, right off the bat. By the time I got to Gorilla I had things under control, even with the rabid crowd, and the rapid was smooth and direct, after which I breathed a sigh of relief before exiting the speed trap and charging down the final slides to the finish rock, upright, intact, and not very tired… Unless you count mental fatigue. That’s a lot of information to process… Kayaking at speed down big hard rapids is an interesting challenge. I have even more respect for those who do it well, like local boy Andrew Holcombe who won this year’s race in 4:26, 76 paddlers ahead of me at 5:37… I think it’s something I could get into someday though, similar approach to a Super Downhill event, smooth line selection complemented by fitness, the reward being speed at all costs. Hmmm.

The party at Woody’s was a thing to see. Southern boaters don’t mess about with the drinking… Or the being absolutely hilarious… I like it down here. And I’ll be back someday, hopefully with my A game…

Thanks for reading.

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