Bikepacking Rothrock State Forest & Big Valley.

Though I don’t do it nearly as often as I’d like, every time I leave on a bicycle with everything I’ll need to spend the night packed in my panniers, I just have this good feeling of excitement and adventure and utter peace all at once. A couple weekends ago, I went on my first bikepacking trip in nearly two years with a group of friends. We didn’t go far—just up into the State Forest close to home, and back the long way through the next valley and over the mountain—but it was an experience that’s left me jonesing for more, and I reminded me how much I love to travel by bicycle. Though I ride all the time, it’s somehow a different experience and vibe when you’re going for an overnight. It’s very freeing, to have all that you need on your bicycle, and nothing you don’t need (well, sometimes I still pack things I don’t need, because I’m still a bikepacking rookie, but you get the point). We left after work on Saturday from our house, and after a short warm-up stopped for dinner at a local grocery and sandwich shop. Since we were leaving rather late, we decided to save time by just eating on the way to the campsite rather than hauling extra food for dinner. A burger and root beer later, we were on our way again, pedaling along with the sunset as a backdrop. IMG_3448 IMG_1643 IMG_1642 IMG_1653 IMG_1676 We rode without lights most of the way, even when it grew dark. It was a little-traveled route, and with eyes adjusted to the dim light, we could see just enough to stay on the road. It was a bigger climb than I remembered to Penn Roosevelt State Park, but it went quickly, and before I knew it, we were choosing a site and setting up camp. We spread out our tarps and sleeping bags and hammocks, and built a fire. We stood around its warmth for a couple hours as the temperature dipped, then crawled into our respective cocoons for the night. IMG_3500 IMG_3481 IMG_3504 IMG_3514 IMG_1682   IMG_3520 Morning brought another beautiful day. The sun shone through the pines as we pedaled our way out of Rothrock State Forest along the gravel roads leading out Coopers Gap to Big Valley. The roads had just been re-graveled, so the surface was loose and washy, making for a sketchy descent, especially with extra weight on the rear of the bikes from all our gear. In Big Valley, we hopped onto Back Mountain Road, which would take us south until we reached Allensville Road, our route back over the mountain to our house, where we had begun the day before. The valley was warm, as it had been heating up in the sun for hours while the other side of the mountain was still cloaked in shadow. We quickly noticed peculiar ruts in the middle of the road, formed by the hooves of the horses belonging to the many Amish who reside here and travel throughout the area. IMG_3521 rutted IMG_1742 IMG_1745 IMG_1728 We spread out a lot, and for much of the morning, I was mostly pedaling alone. Every now and then someone would catch up with me, or I would catch up with someone else, or the whole group would stop at an intersection for a quick snack break, but it was a lot of just me and the farms and the big blue sky. IMG_3526 IMG_3539 The weekend was warm, and it seemed like overnight, flowers began to bloom and trees began to sprout small, light green leaves. The green that everything seems to be this time of year is my favorite color, perhaps because it reminds me of new life and the emergence from the cold depths of winter, which seems to be welcomed more and more every year. IMG_3567 IMG_3562 IMG_3570 IMG_3576 IMG_1790 IMG_3581 We found a spigot in Allensville, where we filled up on water before the long climb ahead. I hadn’t ever biked up the mountain from this side, but I’d done it plenty of times coming from the other direction, and I knew it would be brutal, especially laden with panniers full of gear. But it turned out to be easier than I thought. Not “easy,” but I didn’t stop or walk the bike, two things I thought for sure I’d be doing. I was pleasantly surprised at myself. IMG_1796 IMG_1795 IMG_3590 IMG_3591 At the top, Evan, Jake, and Caleb cheered me on. I sat down on the side of the road and joined them to wait for the next rider. When we all had made it, we walked out to the hawkwatch platform and hung out for a while before descending the mountain into Martin Gap. These roads had been re-graveled too, and my hands began to hurt from gripping the brakes so much and holding onto the bike as I tried to control it on the washy surface. I released the brakes for a few seconds, to give my hands a rest, and it was then that I hit an extra deep patch of gravel and went down. I slid on the gravel for a few feet. I got up to get myself off the middle of the road, and everything hurt. My arm and knee were bloody, and I was covered in dust, but aside from surface injuries I was fine. I continued riding out after taking a minute to catch my breath and let the initial shock and pain wear off. Luckily, we were almost home. IMG_3605 IMG_3606 IMG_1817 IMG_1826 In our driveway, we said our goodbyes and I headed up to the house to clean my wounds. It had been a great weekend, and we had been gone less than 24 hours. And yet, we still packed a lot in and had plenty of fun. We need to do this more often.

Paddling Stone Creek. 

Stone Creek is a small stream that runs parallel to the main road that runs from our house to town. In the summer, it’s usually tough to navigate all the way down it in a boat due to the many shallow spots. But a couple weeks ago, all the rivers and streams were running high due to rain combined with a large amount of recent snowmelt, and we figured this was a good opportunity to attempt the 17-mile section of the creek from our house to the town of Huntingdon.

A group of us met early at our place, clad in neoprene and drytops. We hiked with our boats across Rt. 26 and put on the creek by 9am, a whole day ahead of us to figure out just what was in store. I had never paddled any of Stone Creek—I had only done a very small section in an inner tube quite a few years ago, and all I remember from that experience is a lot of walking.

Luckily, this experience ended up being a lot different. Never was it too shallow to paddle through, and we only had to portage log jams twice in the 17-mile stretch, which was a lot less than we expected.

It was a chilly day, but the sun offered some reprieve from the cold breeze. We stopped often, to stretch, snack, check out interesting things onshore, and visit friends who live along the Creek. The trip ended up taking about 7 hours in its entirety, and it was a great day on the water.

Here are some pictures from our journey:

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Sunshine and skinny tires.

Sunday was the first really warm day of the season, with temps souring into the 50s and barely a cloud in the sky to boot. Luckily, it was also my day off. Trails and wooded areas were still pretty well packed in with snow and ice, so it was a fitting occasion to break out the skinnier tires and drop bars and put some miles in on some central PA back roads.

I was joined by a few friends—the Raders, usual riding companions, and Jeff, one of my longtime best friends who is currently trying to make his way out of winter hibernation. We hung out in the back parking lot of the shop for a little while, messing with layers and pumping up tires, basking in the sunshine that seemed like such a rare treat after a winter of clouds and cold.

We decided on a direction to head, and began pedaling. Soon, we were out of town, cranking past fields and farms, battling the occasional headwind.

We passed through McConnellstown (Mactown), and I admired a run-down, overgrown old building. I thought about stopping for a picture, but decided against it. The rest of the group was already moving along. We hopped onto the main road briefly and then were back in the middle of nowhere, alone with the cows and silos. We passed a car or two here and there, but for the most part, we had the asphalt to ourselves.

We kept a leisurely pace, stopping a lot, taking pictures, chatting. Jeff discovered a perfectly good coffee mug by the side of the road and just couldn’t resist picking it up and stuffing it into his pannier. We looped back to Mactown, forming a lollipop, and ended up stopping for a break at the run-down old building I had so admired earlier. I took a picture this time. We munched on beef jerky and energy chews before heading off in a different direction than before, through Hartslog Valley to Petersburg.

It feels as though this year, I am more excited for spring than I ever was before, despite this winter being considerably easier than last. Our house was warm (enough) when we got home at the end of the day, and we didn’t have to fire up the woodstove just to cook dinner. Our walk to the house via the snowed-in driveway was considerably shorter. And, Evan and I had plenty of our own space to be cooped up in, rather than 120 square feet of a tiny cabin. But somehow, this past month has been mentally difficult, and I’ve been ready for this thaw for a while now.

As we pedaled along, I thought about how great it was to be outside without a jacket and still be warm, how easy it felt to just ride along and not spin out every few feet from the slippery snow, and not have to push the bike up every hill. It was a delight to not have giant ice balls around my cleats, and a million layers around my body.

Yes, I’ve been a little sick of winter. It happens every year. And then, every fall, I’m excited about the first snow. It comes with living in a temperate climate, with changing seasons. I enjoy the variety, and though perpetual sunshine and warmth would be lovely, I know it would soon get old. But for now, I’m more than ready for it.

We rode past the river, its distinct odor reminiscent of many a day on the water, then through Petersburg and up over the mountain back towards town. We thought about doing a longer loop, but decided against it in the essence of time and other commitments. At the bottom of the hill, we stopped at an intersection to reconvene, but Jeff never showed up. My phone dinged, and it was a text from Jeff. He had a flat. He told us to go ahead, but we couldn’t leave a man behind, so the rest of us chugged back up the hill to find Jeff all the way at the top, changing his tube. A few short minutes later we were all back on our way, down the hill again.

The last few miles to town were rolling and easy. Back at our cars, we talked about the ride and shared a few sips of whisky before going our separate ways for the rest of the day. We had ridden almost 40 miles—and I felt a lot better than I thought I would after the past month of not doing as much physical activity as I should. I always forget that riding in the snow takes a lot more effort, and every spring, I’m pleasantly surprised that I’m not as out of shape as I thought I was. Always a good thing!

I don't think it's quite warm enough for these yet, but Jeff does.

I don’t think it’s quite warm enough for these yet, but Jeff does. And yes, he knows they’re mismatched.

Winter’s last hurrah.

Spring is in the air, I can feel it. Despite the fact that temperatures have still been way below freezing the past week, something seems a little bit different. The birds are chirping more, the sun feels warmer when it shines, and the weather report confirms that next week, it will indeed rise above freezing, and will even jump into the 40s a couple days. Though it’s not unusual to get snow through March and even a freak storm every now and then in April, I think the deep freeze has finally ended, and soon the winter parkas will be replaced with hoodies, and gloves won’t be a necessity just to walk outside.

But today, as spring is just around the corner, we got a snowstorm. Perhaps not the last, but one of them for sure, and the snow and ice probably won’t stick around too long after this next week. We decided it would be appropriate to do a ride on the lake for our usual Sunday bike adventure, and it couldn’t have been better. A much larger group than normal came out to partake in this unique experience—14 in all, compared to our usual 3-6. The snow began early in the morning, and continued to fall all day. Out on the lake, with a white shroud all around, it looked like we were in a giant snow globe.

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IMG_0809For most in the group, it was their first experience riding on the lake, and first impressions were all positive. Conditions were perfect—a layer of snow covered the ice, so traction wasn’t an issue, and the ice was clearly very solid. We didn’t hear a single peep from it all morning—no cracks or shifts, which is not uncommon even on ice that is fairly thick. The snow was a few inches deep, so there was quite a bit of resistance when trying to pedal through it, but there were enough of us that we broke a good trail and took turns leading.

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From our start at Backbone Road, we made our way to Pee Wee Island past the Juniata College Field Station, then over to Aitch. The way back was a mix of land and ice as we cut over little peninsulas to come back to where we started, completing a loop of about 7.5 miles. We stopped a lot, hung out on the island, took pictures, sipped flasks of brandy, and enjoyed each others company.

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It was great to get so many people out—while I love small, intimate groups, it’s also really fun to hang out with a bigger crowd sometimes, especially those I don’t normally get to ride with.

It certainly was a nice way to ring in March!

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 Photos were a collaborative effort between Helena Kotala & Evan Gross.

Riding on Standing Stone Creek.

It’s been a cold winter. It started out rather mild, with days in the 50s through December, but the past month or so has been brutally chilly. There have been plenty of days with highs in the single digits, and it’s been regularly dipping below zero at night. The snow is also just deep enough and just crusty enough to make most activities in the woods pretty difficult. This is about the point when I start getting pretty sick of winter, and begin to look forward to seeing the ground again and walking outside without a coat.

But the frigid weather has certainly been good for one thing—ice. Last year, we did a lot of ice rides on the frozen Raystown Lake, and this year has been similar with the addition of a new venue—Standing Stone Creek. After a couple weeks of very cold weather, it seemed that the stream had frozen over enough to ride bikes on it for a considerable distance. A couple Wednesdays ago, we decided to check it out for our weekly night ride. Five of us braved the chilly evening and potentially dangerous conditions, and it was well worth it. We discovered that the creek was even more solid than expected, and we were able to head upstream from town about 5 miles.

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This is a view you don’t get every day.

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Gusts of wind kicked up snow tornadoes.

Gusts of wind kicked up snow tornadoes.

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Evan’s hole. The ice was solid for the most part, but this was a random spot where he broke through. Yikes!

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Cool ice waterfalls.

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Sunset.

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That’s water. But right next to it, the ice is amazingly thick.

Jake the monkey.

Jake, the ever-playful monkey.

It was the cold and not the ice conditions that eventually forced us to turn around and head back to town. I’d like to do this ride in the daylight sometime, perhaps in the week or so we have left before spring finally arrives.

The oatmeal ride.

I sat in my car in the parking lot, tired, hungover. It was early, too early for how late I had gone to bed the night before. I felt more like snuggling in the warm covers than hopping on a mountain bike and pedaling through the snow for a couple hours. But I refused to be the one to bail.

He was running late. Part of me hoped that he wouldn’t show. But then, I saw the little red Toyota pickup rumbling down the road. Game time.

He swapped pedals for me, and in doing so, caught his wrist hard on a chain ring, drawing blood. He found some tape, patched it up, and we were off.

The snow was mushy, thick, and several inches deep. Deep enough to make pedaling through it a grueling slog. By 20 minutes in, I began to have thoughts of quitting. At the next intersection, when I caught up to him, I’d tell him I’m turning around, that I just wasn’t feeling it this morning, that I was too tired and the snow is too deep and I felt like I was going to die. My brain listed excuse after excuse.

But by the time I made it to the next intersection, where he was waiting patiently as always, I had convinced myself to forget about all my excuses. There was no way in hell I could quit. If I turned back, he’d write me off and might not invite me to ride again. I couldn’t let that happen. I was enjoying myself too much on these early morning adventures we’d been having the past couple of weeks. And if I quit, I’d just feel crappy about it the rest of the day. So I smiled and replied with a cheerful “Yup!” when he asked if I was good, and we continued, straight up Tussey Mountain.

As we rode the ridgeline, and I pedaled and pushed my way through rock gardens amid the slushy snow that had the consistency of oatmeal, my thoughts wandered away from all the excuses and instead to my riding companion, who was far ahead at this point. We’d known each other for years (about 5 to be exact), and were work acquaintances, but had never become friends until recently, when my interest in fat bikes peaked his interest at a party. He invited me to ride, I accepted, and in the month since, we’d met up several mornings a week to mountain bike.

And the night before, we’d had dinner together. I wasn’t sure if it was a date. Maybe it was just friends having dinner. Or maybe it was a date. A strange chemistry had developed between us during those chilly mornings. Strange because we’d known each other so long, but had always been so distant. I actually never particularly liked him, thought he was a bit stuck-up and could come off like a jerk. But I had never really gotten to know him. Now that I was, I had changed my opinion entirely. I liked him a lot. And my efforts to remain emotionally stoic were failing miserably.

The snow grew soggier as the temperature warmed. At times, it was necessary to pedal even downhill to make any forward progress, and maintaining control of the bicycle in the slippery mush was nearly impossible. But we continued to plod along, him waiting every now and then, and me trotting up to him with a smile every time I caught up, amused by the insanity of it all.

By the time we reached the parking lot where we had started, the 1.5-2-hour ride had turned into 3. He rushed off to work, and I to class, a big silly grin planted on my face. I was falling in love—with fat-biking and with the man who had introduced it to me.

The next evening, I discovered that Evan reciprocated my feelings. We kissed, we talked, and we began what would turn out to be so much more than I ever anticipated.

That was two years ago. Here’s to many more.

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Not the Oatmeal Ride, but the same time frame—when I still rocked the duck-taped helmet. Photo by Evan Gross.

Welcoming the Alpacas.

The latest news on the block is this: Evan and I got ourselves a herd of alpacas.  They arrived a week and a half ago. Evan and his friend Chris made the journey together to pick them up several hours away, and returned home close to midnight with a box trailer containing 5 furry fluff-balls. The next morning, we introduced them to their new home—a stall Evan constructed for them in half of our garage, with access to much of the yard for roaming and grazing. The five new members of our family include two mothers, two sons who are a little over a year old, and one baby boy who is only a few months old. In the near future, we’ll also be getting two full-grown males from the same farm to add to our herd. IMG_1588 IMG_1594 IMG_1610

Mama/baby.

Mama/baby.

Learning the "ropes"

Learning the “ropes”

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Evan has a long history with the animals—he worked on an alpaca farm in high school, so he knows what he’s doing, and he’s always wanted to raise them himself. I, on the other hand, am learning it all as I go. The biggest question we get is, “What do you do with them?”  Lots of things. First and foremost, we have fun with them. They are incredible creatures—smart, funny, cute, curious—and they all have unique personalities. We take them for walks—sometimes in the yard, sometimes on back roads near our house, and in the future, once they’re more used to us and our new home, we plan to take them hiking and backpacking (yes, alpaca backpacks will happen).

Snow walk! This has been a favorite activity lately.

Snow walk! This has been a favorite activity lately.

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Meet & greet with our friend Carissa.

Meet & greet with our friend Carissa.

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First night in their new home.

First night in their new home.

Evan is a great alpaca dad.

Evan is a great alpaca dad.

But they’ll also be more than just pets. In the spring, we’ll shear and sell the wool or get it spun so that we can knit with it. We’ll also most likely end up breeding them. One of our females is currently pregnant, so come May, we’ll have another baby alpaca. Our yard can only support so many, so we’ll have to sell some of them eventually. I was a little skeptical of the idea of getting a herd of rather large animals at first. I was a little worried we’d be getting in over our heads. But so far, they’ve proven to be a lot easier to take care of than I thought, and a lot more fun and engaging too! Despite my initial reservations, I’m so happy they’re here.

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We named this one Paul Simon. He’s been the least shy so far—always walks right up to you for a nuzzle!