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In Search of Bikepacking Journey in Northern New England


To be taught the place to discover journey in America, all it’s a must to do is flip by way of the journey and outside magazines at Hudson Information. Or, like I did moments earlier than typing these phrases, scroll by way of a type of publication’s web sites (Instagram works, too). However you possibly can in all probability guess the apparent locations with out researching in any respect: locations like Colorado, Yellowstone, Utah, and Yosemite.

I’m used to the absence of my own residence, Vermont, or extra broadly, New England, from the realms of common journey storytelling—the area does get some credit score, although not on the identical epic scale—and I do know that the reason being wrapped up in historical past. Vermont was granted statehood in 1791, making it 99 years older than Wyoming, politically talking. That’s 99 extra years for settlers to snap up and de-wild each out there parcel of land (a course of that started even earlier, with British colonists). By the point Wyoming entered the Union, my house state was 80 p.c deforested.

That stat is reversed now, nevertheless it doesn’t change the truth that New England, because the oldest area in america, was developed lengthy earlier than the existence of the land protections that helped create the outside playgrounds the West is legendary for. The Nationwide Park Service wasn’t established till 1916, a part of the explanation why Acadia in Maine is the area’s solely nationwide park. BLM land isn’t a factor right here, both.

Nonetheless, this spring I set out with two longtime companions to show what we as locals already knew: Journey is attainable right here. Actual journey, the type with surprising snags, psychological assessments, and, we hoped, strengthened bonds. The concept—journey to the ocean—was a bit like an old school quest. Extra particularly, we deliberate to bikepack from the shore of Lake Champlain in Vermont to the coast of the Atlantic in Maine whereas avoiding pavement as a lot as attainable.

Plotting a 250-mile, dirt-centric route required some creativity and good ol’ usual resourcefulness, however two New England infrastructural quirks helped us do it. First, the area has a far-reaching community of filth roads—of Vermont’s 15,765 roadway miles, lower than half are paved, and the remainder of the Northeast follows go well with. Second, New England has a rising community of leisure rail trails. Stripped of their ties and rails, these retired railroad beds are perfect for bike using, significantly as a result of the engineers who designed them sought as degree a route as attainable in a area undulating with mountains.

Tanner Bowden

Sadly, no such path was out there to us on our first day as we minimize by way of Vermont’s Inexperienced Mountains on our approach from Burlington to Montpelier. Burlington will be the state’s largest metropolis, nevertheless it doesn’t sprawl, and inside half an hour of setting off we had been using within the firm of dairy cows whereas cruising by barns and fields. Earlier than lengthy, we struck filth, made our approach out of the Champlain Valley, and started the day’s largest climb.

It was self-inflicted struggling. We selected it for the sake of surroundings and to stick to our compact to keep away from asphalt (on the opposite facet of the climb, a winding three-mile descent made it well worth the sweat). The one technique to get from one facet of Vermont’s well-known mountain vary to the opposite on this space is to observe the Winooski River. One of many state’s solely two main highways is on one facet of the river, and a dust highway is on the opposite. A month or so prior, that filth highway would’ve been a rutted muddy soup, however on this present day it was packed and agency. We made fast work of it, although not almost as fast as a pair of native cyclists who handed us headed within the different route, mud clouds billowing cartoonishly behind them.

One in all them turned out to be the spouse of an area professional bike owner, and it simply so occurred that the filth route we used to get out of Montpelier on our second day got here immediately from spying on his Strava account. (Once more, planning an journey trip in New England requires creativity.)

Lastly, we arrived in a tiny village known as Plainfield. The ladies working on the native co-op allow us to refill our water bottles on the again sink, and after that we picked up our first rail path. There’s a small parking space however nothing else (not even a path identify), to let that, beginning right here, you possibly can cross almost half the width of the state by foot or bike or horse or snowmobile with out crossing paths with a automotive. Some sections are only a single filth rut by way of the woods, and others overlap with makeshift roads that locals use to entry their maple sugaring operations or deer camps. The floor is remarkably rideable—largely packed earth with some sandy spots—and it’s all below an arching forest cover: the famed Inexperienced Tunnel.

This rail path is definitely considered one of a number of trails that make up the longer Cross Vermont Path, a leisure greenway that traces a sketchy latitudinal line throughout the widest a part of the state. The concept for such a route was first envisioned within the early ’90s and impressed largely by a U.S. Division of the Inside doc known as Trails for All Individuals. The report known as for a cohesive nationwide system of trails. The challenge may solely be the results of a collaborative effort between governments, companies, non-public organizations, and particular person residents to determine and shield attainable path corridors.

Rail trails are a handy asset for the creation of such a community. For a bike owner, using on them usually seems like getting in on a secret: a path by way of the woods and mountains that’s flat and freed from obstacles (for probably the most half). They help you transfer at an honest clip—we averaged 12 mph on the second day—and canopy plenty of floor. As a substitute of automobiles whizzing by, it’s boulders, bushes, and the occasional canine walker. As a substitute of engine braking and exhaust sounds, the soundtrack is a mixture of birdsong and the up and down of the pedals beneath you.

Two cyclists riding on a gravel road near a covered bridge. new england bikepacking
Tanner Bowden

Three many years later, the Cross Vermont Path continues to be below building, however it is extremely a lot the patchwork that the report proposed. We had truly been using on it at varied factors for the reason that second we clipped in on the primary morning, and we continued on all of it the way in which to the Connecticut River, the place we rolled throughout a bridge to enter New Hampshire.

In the event you’ve by no means been to New England, you’d be forgiven for pondering that each one these tiny states jammed into the nook of the map should be fairly related, however you’d be unsuitable. Even in the event you miss the “Welcome to New Hampshire” signal on the facet of the highway, you’ll nonetheless know you’ve crossed from one place into one other. It’s not simply the Reside Free or Die mentality; the cities are totally different, the roads are totally different, and it seems the biking trails are, too.

We picked up the Ammonoosuc Rail Path throughout from the Dunkin’ in Woodsville, NH moments after crossing the border. The trail, a part of the state’s personal conglomerate of motorcycle routes known as the Cross New Hampshire Journey Path, follows its namesake river northeast for 19 miles, connecting the varied small cities set alongside its banks. As a substitute of the loam and filth and sand we’d identified up till this level, the path is sort of all ballast—massive, chunky rocks, as if the railroad had been eliminated just some weeks earlier than our arrival. (It truly occurred within the ’90s.)

It made for difficult, irritating, wrist-rattling using, even with the outsized tires on our gravel bikes. The 80-degree warmth didn’t assist, both. We handed an outdated railroad depot and an older lined bridge, however their historic significance was past the grasp of my vibration-jolted mind.

By the point the path led to Littleton, our calves and forearms had been caked with the railbed’s tremendous black mud. Thirty minutes prior, every of us had been in his personal fraught headspace, however with the day’s journey full, that separation simply punctuated how a lot we’d already completed collectively. We washed off the mud, then washed down the day at an area brewery.

Most individuals affiliate huge, expansive views of uninhabited wilderness with the West, and these sorts of vistas are comparatively uncommon in New England. But that’s precisely what you see as you trip eastward towards the White Mountains on the Presidential Leisure Rail Path. Ponds, beaver-dammed swamps, and seemingly countless forest paint the foreground, however the Presidential Vary’s looming ridgeline dominates it.

Two cyclists riding on a gravel path with a field and distant mountains in the background. new england bikepacking
Tanner Bowden

They’re just some 50 miles aside, however New Hampshire’s Whites are way more imposing than Vermont’s Greens. They appeared wilder as we rode towards them, too, and they’re—Mt. Washington, the vary’s tallest peak at 6,288 ft, has recorded among the quickest winds on Earth at its summit (231 mph). Then there was the bear that appeared 100 yards in entrance of us.

We knew bears are frequent within the area. We’d seen a canine earlier within the day that, from a distance, we thought may’ve been a bear, however we stored using towards it till we may inform for positive. Once we noticed the actual factor, we knew instantly. It was a medium-sized black bear, and we watched because it got here by way of the bushes and onto the bike path. Gravel grated beneath our skidding tires, heartbeats elevated even increased than they’d been from using, and we launched a stream of expletives into the air. This was an impediment we didn’t count on, and one we weren’t positive the right way to deal with.

Adventures are so usually conceived as far-flung journeys whereas native journeys imply low stakes. However as we stood there questioning how the animal would react to our unusual herd, our trip felt decidedly wild. Happily, it was headed in the identical route as us, towards the mountains. We watched because it trotted down the minimize and disappeared into the woods.

There’s a second throughout all journeys the place the motions of journey turn out to be routine: packing, strapping the luggage to the bikes, beginning a brand new part of path, noting modifications within the panorama, encountering new views, using by way of cities beforehand unvisited. It may possibly appear anticlimactic, nevertheless it’s nearer to the other. It’s a state of fixed thrill, fixed change.

I knew we’d achieved it when, moments after the bear, we clipped in and carried on. As famous bikepacker Alastair Humphreys as soon as put it, “It’s straightforward to kill time, however you possibly can kill distance solely by using.” So we did.

Cyclist in a field by a barn taking a photo with his phone. new england bikepacking
Tanner Bowden

We rode by way of the White Mountains and into the city of Gorham, the place we crossed the Appalachian Path—300 miles from its terminus in northern Maine and never a hiker in sight. After an 18-mile jaunt on a cracked and slender paved highway beside the Androscoggin River, we entered Maine. There was no marker to announce the border, and the woods confirmed no signal of reverence to the invisible man-made boundary. Finally we rolled into Bethel, ME, the place we stopped for a last evening and ate burgers at an empty resort restaurant.

We awakened earlier than dawn on the final day to beat the unseasonable warmth. For the primary time in our journey, we pointed our wheels south, towards the ocean. On a map, going south generally looks like going downhill, and it was true that we needed to lose each inch of elevation between Maine’s Mahoosuc Vary and Casco Bay. However whereas Vermont and New Hampshire are cleaved by spiny north-south mountain ranges, Maine is extra like a raveled bedspread, wrinkled with hills. There have been no rail trails to carve out a degree grade by way of them, both.

So up and down, up and down we went, rolling previous farm, subject, and forest for 70 miles till we re-entered the city grid on the outskirts of Portland. By the point we reached the rocky seaside within the metropolis’s East Finish, the day’s climbing totaled almost 3,000 ft.

We dipped our tires within the water—our small ceremonial ceremony to mark the journey’s finish—then clipped again in and rode into city towards a brand new vacation spot: an oyster bar. The paved bike path we rode on to get there was a railroad.

Two cyclists with their bikes standing on a rocky beach with the ocean and land in the background. new england bikepacking
Tanner Bowden


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