After a day of rest, I decided to take on a challenge, and squeeze one more day of riding out of Pisgah before I headed north towards real estate responsibility. Near legendary MTB-masochist David Cook, Most Horrible Thing Ever finisher, was proposing a very long day in the woods, and the Wednesday night crew, consisting of Jonathan, Dennis and David George signed on. A few emails shot back and forth throughout the afternoon and it was settled, meet at the Fisherman’s bridge in North Mills River at 9 a.m.
The planned route; Yellow Gap -> Laurel Mountain -> Sassafras -> Big Creek -> BRP -> Laurel Mountain -> Pilot Rock -> 476 -> South Mills -> Squirrel Gap -> Laurel Creek -> Bradley Creek to 5015 -> Yellow Gap and down to the car. Six of us started the day, around 9:40. Cook, Jonathan, Dennis, David George, Jen from ATL, and myself made our way up the now familiar stretch of F.S. road to Yellow Gap. After a day of rest, and feeling familiar with the traveled twice Laurel Mountain, I went off the front a bit, and fell into a much better pace than my last venture out with Beth, and the momentum carried me over a few more of the technical spots. I even cleared the little slab climb, dodging the root system at its top, only to get bogged down in the rocks that follow it. Next time. We regrouped at each of Laurel’s gaps until Dennis, Cook and I were alone for a while, and waited as Jonathan was helping Jen with a flat. Jen’s rear derailleur spring later decided to back itself out, resulting in a yard sale of Japanese technology that required an impressive field repair. Shifty bits in order, we took off again and all gained the split to Sassafras.
I’ve learned a lot about descending in the past 3 weeks. Ohio never really required one to be behind the saddle when going downhill. From my times in the Wilderness 101, Shenandoah 100, and a few weeks of Pisgah riding (Trace, Spencer, Big Creek) I’ve become a little more comfortable back there, and have even dropped the saddle a touch to make life back there less male-dangerous. Sassafras put a lot of this skill to test, especially in the wet conditions at the bottom. For the most part the trail points straight down a ravine, and then when the angle lessesn, the moisture in creases. A little double log pile sent me flying, tucked the wrists opting for the head land, and slammed my new found audio set up into the side of my head, and ringing my bell pretty good. New lessen learned. Dust off, and make the bottom, a nice little waterfall, and the junction of Big Creek.
I knew the plan was to hike up (or attempt to ride up) Big Creek. Big Creek is for all intents and purposes, a one-way trail. I think Sam Koerber started this, but David Cook jumped on the idea of doing it backwards. I was also told that Sassafras intersected Big Creek “somewhere in the middle.” It may have been somewhere in the middle, but it was surely at the bottom of all the major descending. So up we went. We rode a bit, and the hiking lulled us into walking some otherwise rideable stuff, that, and I was in the rear of our now group of four, and wasn’t going to be able to SS by anyone. We all settled into our mix of riding and hiking, and made the 1:05 hump up to the Blue Ridge Parkway.
The BRP was a welcome site, the hiking was behind us, and the sun felt good after being in the damp vegetation chutes of Laurel and Big Creek. We climbed up to the Pisgah Inn store for some snacks; beef jerkey, Dr. Pepper, Cheez-its, and Fritos, and then walked a section of the Mountains to Sea trails to the top of Laurel. This top section of Laurel is very rocky, and was now very wet, so some biking, skipping, falling, sliding, hiking finally got us down to the intersection with the Pilot connector. We passed Ed and Jay making their way up Laurel, looking well rested after missing our 9 am start time. The four of us climbed the Pilot connector and gained the Pilot Rock trail, where I was once again educated on technical descending. I made the whole thing, miraculously dry given the rest of the forests slippery wet rocks, until the long loose rock section near the bottom. After about halfway, I spent too much time looking for lines, and not enough time putting power to the pedals, and came to a jarring and abrupt halt.
The gravel road at the bottom of Pilot Rock served as good spot as any to regroup, check the time, and make a plan. Our 6 had become 4, Dennis was a little shy on calories, and the sun was a little lower in the sky than we had hoped it would be at this point into our planned journey. We gave up on our idea of graveling to South Mills River, and instead graveled back up and over Yellow Gap, bid farewell to Dennis, and climbed up a gravel double track that eventually became the Yellow Gap trail. This was a fun, simple section of trail, a welcome addition to our day of technical ups and downs. The wildflower/weeds were shoulder high along the 6 inch trail as it dropped gradually down the fall line. It was open enough that you didn’t need to shave speed, and closed in enough by the flora to make it interesting. This dropped all the way to the North Mills trail, where we made a few cloudy stream crossings, always comically close to one another. I think at the first stream crossing you could just walk in the water for a hundred yards and save yourself all the trouble of multiple dismounts. We hiked up a short steep cliff line to gain the road to the hub of most North Mills trails, the road to the Hendersonville Reservoir.
The rest gets a little cloudy. A lot of the trails north of the reservoir are very close together, criss cross, have a lot of fake trails on both sides of water, and are generally confusing. I can get through there pretty well, but can’t name a whole lot of it with accuracy. Nor could Cook, so we back tracked from time to time, reached the end of a petering trail, and stepped into a stream to regain something on the other side, and eventually made it to what I think is called “the road to nowhere,” or “the endless road” or something like that. My best guess is that we took Spencer Gap to Spencer Branch to this unnamed double track, but I think our tires graced Fletcher’s for a bit too, who knows.
We got a little chatty on the double track as I finally took this moment, well into the day, to get to know Dave and Jen. In doing so, we missed our opportunity to continue on Spencer Branch to the top of Trace, and ended up taking this double track all the way to the Trace parking area, where we just jumped on Lower Trace and took it to the car.
Dennis was all set up, his chair set up, sourdough pretzels in hand, and Yeungling on ice. He had rode down from Yellow Gap, got a little food in him, and went out for a loop on Bear Branch and lower Trace before waiting for us to get back. We sat around, washed in the creek, did a little yoga on wet towels and drank a few beers. We got back to the car around 6 pm, just over 8 hours out in the woods, which, is a full day in my mind, even though we didn’t make our original goal. At the relaxed start and stop pace of the day, I felt really good throughout. Was making a lot of wet technical climbs along Spencer, and still had a lot of energy in the legs when the terrain demanded it. I think the energy created by seeing some new trails with new folks, along with starting to feel like I knew where I was, carried me through the day with ease. No race pressure, nothing getting me down, just a day in the woods with some genuinely good people. It was without burden, and the lightness of spirit made it an easy day. As for completing our loop, I want to get Dave out there again, can his Big Creek idea, and add South Mills/Squirrel/Laurel Creek to the day, moving a bit more steadily, and probably starting a bit earlier….next time around, maybe after the move.