Monday, July 31, 2017

Exploring Downeast Maine 3/3

Day 5 - Columbia Falls to Belfast (169km or 105mi)

The day started cloudy and shortly after I packed my tent and left the campground, it started to rain. As I mentioned earlier, trail surface in that section was quite nice and light rain made all bugs disappear. When I got to Cherryfield a heavier rain started but not enough to make me stop and try to wait it out somewhere. In fact, I didn't even bother to pack a rain jacket for this whole trip hoping that it wouldn't rain too much. I certainly chanced it and I might not do that again, but the one problem with summer rain I have is that no matter what jacket I wear, I end up wet anyway - from all the sweat underneath.
My first planned stop was at Schoodic Beach - a little gem hidden north off Sunrise Trail. It's not exactly unknown, judging from the number of cars parked nearby and it takes a good hike from the parking lot to get there, but it's all worth it. In fact, I would like to plan another cycling trip just to stay there overnight. While this may not be completely legal, I'm not longer sure what it. First I saw signs "day use only" and "no camping", then another one saying "group camping only" and then I counted at least 5 small tents along the beach. Seems like an unofficial camping spot to me.
I returned to the trail and continued west to Ellsworth. There are sections of the trail that are certainly boring, looking like a straight gravel road through forest where you would see nothing but trees for miles. My overall impression with Sunrise Trail is that it has many beautiful spots along the way that are worth visiting (usually where trail crosses streams, lakes, bogs, etc.), but it probably does make little sense to try to ride the full length of it.
Singing "Wish You Were Here" by Pink Floyd to make passing miles more interesting, I reached Ellsworth where I stopped for lunch. By then, the rain stopped. Next, I had to get to Bucksport, which meant riding on Route 1 again. To keep things weird a bit, I decided to detour north through Red Bridge Rd to Boulder Rd and then back to Route 1. While Boulder Rd is basically a wide fire road through forest and it has some pretty spots, it's also private, so keep it in mind when you try to ride through someones backyard.
I entered Bucksport by 3PM, as it was pretty much all downhill on Route 1 in that direction, stopped at Hannaford again to resupply and continued across the Penobscot Narrows Bridge to Belfast. Instead of riding along the coast again, I decided to try going north, via Old Country Rd. I stopped in Belfast for dinner and tried to figure out where to stay for the night. There were some quiet places on the way I spotted earlier but I didn't feel like climbing the hills I just descended so I rode to Searsport Shores Ocean Campground. They charge $44/night unless you find cash, then it costs only $25. Smells fishy to me but whatever. The campground was actually quite nice.

Day 6 - Belfast to Wiscasset (113km or 70mi)

On the last day of my tour I left the campground at 6:20AM and headed back to Belfast. It was raining slightly at night and my tent was all wet. I hate packing wet tent.

I didn't bother to stop in Belfast except for some pictures. The bay and harbor were covered in morning fog and looked mysterious.
Next, I reached Camden by climbing across Camden Hills State Park, but since it was still only 9AM many places were closed so I didn't stop for breakfast anyway. After Camden, I had to climb over a few more hills at Mt Pleasant St and then Clarry Hill Rd (tough one!) to reach Waldoboro and then Newcastle.
In Newcastle I was already starving and needed lunch and fortunately Publick House was nearby with good food and some excellent beer selection. The local Oxbow Farmhouse Ale was a hit.

About an hour later I was back in Wiscasset where I left my car. From there I had a 2.5hrs drive to get back home.

Final thoughts

I'm really happy I had a chance to finally try a longer bike tour. However, now I keep thinking that a 3-4 day trip would be better suited for me. The main reason this tour lasted that many days was distance I wanted to cover. After all, it takes a few days to get to Canada and a few days to ride back.

Even though I planned for up to 140km (85mi) a day, I ended up riding more (sometimes much more). This is due to backtracking after going wrong way, cruising around when searching for camp spots and other changes in route. Technically, there are enough daylight hours in summer to ride 160km (100mi) a day with no issues, but that limits number and length of stops we can make on the way.

All this means my touring days were long - get up at 5:30AM, be on road by 6-6:30AM, ride until 6-7PM and then sleep from 9PM. You could say it's a busy way of spending vacation but on the other hand I would have nothing else to do in the morning or evening. I require no coffee in the morning, I travel with no stove so I don't need time for cooking and once sun sets, I have nothing else to do but sleep.

In terms of bike setup, things I packed, etc. I think everything I took was useful so I didn't haul any unnecessary load with me. I rode the whole trip on tubeless Clement X'Plor MSO 36mm tires and they worked perfectly. In terms of equipment, it's always a compromise. On paved roads I wished I had faster road tires, but then on Sunrise Trail I appreciated the MSOs, sometimes wanting even wider tires on my bike.

I think the no-stove approach works for me too. It reduces carried weight, maximizes daily ride time and in general simplifies things a lot.

Compared to the last trip to Vermont, there was one thing I did much, much better - cell phone power management. First of all, I had a new phone with new battery, which certainly helped a lot, but I also followed this guide on how to navigate by GPS and keep battery drain down to minimum. Let's just say that downloading all maps for offline use and keeping the phone in Airplane Mode as much as possible did the trick. The battery level never dropped lower than 80%.

I'm not sure where my bike will take me next year, but it's going to be fun for sure.

Exploring Downeast Maine 2/3

Day 3 - Millbridge to Lubec (158km or 98mi)

Noise of fishing boats leaving Narraguagus Bay woke me up early in the morning. The rain stopped at night but I had to pack my tent wet. I rode back to Millbridge and then continued to Harrington. It was cloudy and cool but some blue sky was visible ahead so I was hoping I wasn't about to have another rainy day.
As I mentioned earlier, I tried to stay away from main roads as much as possible. Some of those hidden ones turned out being tough but accessible, like Cates Rd in Harrington. Others simply didn't exist. Not wanting to ride along Route 1, I planned on crossing Jonesport area using Masons Bay Rd. It does exist on maps. In reality - much less so. What started as paved, turned quickly into a wide gravel road, only to be a rough forest fire road later on and eventually end up in bushes. Chased by a horde of deer flies, I had to turn around, ride back to Route 1 and admit my defeat.
Eventually, I entered Machias, although those last miles were a bit nerve-wrecking. The nice, wide shoulder between Jonesport and Machias town line is gone, which made many trucks passing me by, way too close to my comfort zone. In Machias I treated myself to lunch at Helen's restaurant and it was worth every penny. This place not only serves excellent seafood but also amazing wild blueberry pies.
To be honest, the real Downeast Maine for me starts east of Machias. This is where I entered Sunrise Trail - a long gravel road in place of former old railway, now used mainly by ATVs in summer and snowmobiles in winter. The views were spectacular but I was a bit disappointed that there was so much loose, coarse gravel on the trail, which made riding on my 35mm tires more difficult.
Even though roads were completely empty, riding on rolling hills in Downeast was tedious and I took a short rest in Cutler with its VLF transmitter antennae dominating the landscape. Then I rode along the coast stopping at tiny beaches and coves on the way - at Moose Point and Hamilton Point. These are truly beautiful spots and you won't find many people there even in the middle of high season.
Then I finally reached the easternmost point in the United States - West Quoddy Head Lighthouse in Lubec. Sun was slowly setting and I had to find a place for the night. The nearby Sunset Point RV Park was full of motorhomes but none of its tent sites was occupied. Call me a wuss but I would gladly pay (even though $30/night seemed a bit too much) to have access to a normal bathroom and a hot shower at the end of a long day. Plus, I had a gorgeous views of the bay ahead.
With my tent set up, it was time to take care of my stomach so I rode to Lubec to grab a burger at Cohill's Inn. Shortly after, with sun low over horizon and breeze from the ocean the evening got cool. I decided to hide inside my sleeping bag and call it a day.

Day 4 - Lubec to Campobello Is. to Columbia Falls (167km or 104mi)

My next day started early and I left the campground at 6:30AM. It was quiet, misty and cool. I had to start making my way back west on that day, but before that I had some other plans first. I crossed the border bridge and moments later entered Canada.
It was fun to ride on completely empty carriage roads in Roosevelt Campobello International Park. I took a longer detour south to Liberty Point and then went back north to Herring Cove Provincial Park. Next, I merged with Fundy Rd that was wide and unpaved and eventually reached Head Harbor Lighthouse. Unfortunately, by that time it was already a bit late in the morning and high tide was coming. The lighthouse is located on a rocky island and in order to get there I had to cross a beach that gets completely flooded at high tide. This means - I was there either a few hours too late or much too early to be allowed to see the lighthouse.
I started riding back and stopped at Roosevelt's private beach for a while. The nearby Roosevelt Cottage used to be a summer retreat of Franklin D. Roosevelt and his family and now is a museum. It's certainly worth visiting. I didn't bother this time as I've seen this place a few years ago already.
After another quick stop at Mulholland Point Light, I returned to United States, made my way west to Whiting, then north to Dennysville. This is where part of fun was supposed to begin. I entered a long stretch of Sunrise Trail that would take me back to Machias. Unfortunately, while views from the trail were amazing, deer flies and coarse surface were not. It's safe to say that likely the entire section of the trail north of Machias is better suited for bicycles with plus-sized tires. My 35mm tires were sinking too much into loose, coarse gravel and after I reached Rt 191 I happily abandoned the trail. That main road must've been resurfaced recently as asphalt was so smooth I couldn't believe the change.
I arrived in Machias before 5PM and scouted a few places for a stealth camp. But first, I had to resupply so I rode to Hannaford, which is located at the other end of the town. When I got there, I realized it's still quite early so I decided not to stay around Machias for the night but keep going further west.
I quickly reached Jonesboro and then took Station Rd to Sunrise Trail. Here the trail looked much more civilized - smoother, with less gravel and much easier to ride by bicycle. I could maintain speed of nearly 25kph (15mph). As I later found out, the rest of the trail all the way to Ellsworth looked like that. My theory is that there is much more ATV traffic between Ellsworth and Machias and all loose gravel have been simply swept off the trail by wheels of vehicles, while the northern section sees few ATVs and remains rougher in general.
At some point along the trail I saw a sign to Cottonwood Campground so I decided to give it a try. It turned out to be another RV park with some tent sites available as well. The owner was very nice to charge me $15 instead of $25 "because I only had a bike". The best part of this place were the bathroom facilities. To be honest, I've never seen bathrooms like these at any campground nowhere in the world. By camping standards they were luxurious and let's just say that many B&Bs don't have bathrooms like that.

It was a long day and the only one I couldn't finish with a pint of beer but what worried me more were my knees. After four days of riding up and down on rolling hills through Maine my knees were sore. Not to the point when riding is impossible but the pain was certainly annoying.

Exploring Downeast Maine 1/3

Downeast is the part of Maine extending from Acadia National Park all the way to the Canadian border. While the park gets thousands of visitors, especially during summer, Downeast remains relatively quiet and empty. I visited this area already twice in prior years, but never by bike. This time, I wanted to stay away from main roads as much as possible and explore some places I haven't seen before. Traveling by bicycle made it certainly possible.

I encountered a few problems when planning this trip. The main one was time - I only had 6 days available and since distances in Maine might be significant, I had to stay on schedule and skip some places in favor of others. That's why I decided not to go to Mt Desert Island in Acadia NP - it's packed with tourists this time of year anyway. I also had to pass on visiting Eastport. The only way of getting there is around Cobscook Bay as ferries from Lubec and Campobello Island were shut down a couple of years ago. But it turned out that even with these restrictions the whole trip was a week of fun.

Day 1 - Wiscasset to Bucksport (140km or 87mi)

Similarly to my last year's trip to Vermont, I decided to drive to a Park & Ride facility in Wiscasset and leave my car there. You can leave your vehicle in those marked places legally up to 7 days for free, which I think is a perfect way to start any bike tour in New England. For a moment, I considered taking Amtrak Downeaster train from Boston North Station to Brunswick in Maine, but I would need more time for it, I would be restricted by Amtrak's timetable and it would actually cost more. It simply didn't make much sense.

I arrived in Wiscasset at 9AM, left the car and quickly hopped on the bike. The little, cute town was still quiet and sleepy when I made my way up north. I stopped briefly at the Wiscasset, Waterville and Farmington Railway Museum, where and old steam engine was being prepared for the show.
I continued northeast towards Belfast and this entire section seemed a bit boring at first, but then I got to the muddy forest road (Pine Plains Rd), where I was too busy fighting swarms of deer flies, to think how boring the first miles were.
Few miles later down the road I found the second railway museum of the day - Belfast And Moosehead Lake Railroad, from where I took the rail trail into the town.
Railcycles - now you can be a choo-choo too!

I arrived in Belfast for a late lunch and resupplied at the Co-Op (likely my favorite grocery store in Maine). Even though I passed through Belfast in previous years, I've never had a chance to visit the waterfront before.

There was still plenty of daylight left in the day so I continued east along the coast. I thought about peeking into the Moose Point State Park but it was heavily guarded by rangers demanding a $4 fee. I figured it wasn't worth it, as I would stay there for no longer than 5min. and turned around.
Instead, I decided to visit Fort Point State Park and lighthouse. It's a pretty place but unfortunately, camping is not allowed there, which I assume is a measure to avoid a horde of RVs and motorhomes in the park. It's too bad tent camping for hikers and cyclists is not allowed though. Their ecological impact would be much smaller than of any motorized tourist.
Next, I briefly visited Sandy Point Beach Park and it was time to look for a place for the night. To be honest, since there are no campgrounds in the area, I was pretty much convinced I had to find a quiet spot somewhere and stealth-camp, not exactly legally, on someone's property. But then I noticed a motel down the road and thought - why the hell not?

Huge mistake.

Rocky Ridge Motel turned out to be a trashy, ran-down place with no hot water in the shower. What was worse - the room smelled like cigarettes and was certainly not worth $60/night. At least my clothes didn't absorb any of that smell so I could quickly forget about this miserable experience next day.

Day 2 - Bucksport to Millbridge (145km or 90mi)

Next morning, I didn't have to pack my tent so I left early after 6AM and headed to Bucksport, crossing Penobscot Narrows Bridge first.
I stopped quickly at Hannaford supermarket to resupply and snack a small breakfast. The day was cloudy but warm and as it turned out later, I wasn't going to see much sun on that day anyway. Good for riding - bad for pictures.

There is no good alternative to the busy Route 1 from Bucksport to Ellsworth but fortunately, the road has a wide shoulder that can be safely used by cyclists. I arrived in Ellsworth at 9:30AM for a good breakfast at Riverside Cafe, then continued east towards Schoodic Peninsula.
Riding on Route 1 became a boring after a while, so I decided to detour by following the Old Pond Rail Trail in Hancock. That turned out to be a bad decision. The place is actually nice - secluded, quiet and with some nice views from the old railway bridge. It's just not a place for cyclists. The trail runs in place of the old railway and while tracks are gone, the wooden railway sleepers aren't. There's simply no way you can ride a bike on this thing - no matter whether it's a road or a fat bike. I spent the next hour walking my bike along the bumpy path and let's just say I didn't enjoy it.
Back on Route 1, I made my way to Winter Harbor and then to Schoodic Point. I remember this place from my previous family vacation to this area and I really wanted to see it again. Unfortunately, it started to rain. Not heavily, but it was still quite annoying. I didn't spend much time at Schoodic Point and started riding north to Gouldsboro.
The light rain stopped briefly only to come back at Millbridge. At this point I started to think about some place to camp for the night and I found out that there is a campground nearby in McClellan Park. It was in the opposite direction that I should've been going but it was worth a try. Being all wet from rain, I really wanted to find a place with a hot shower.
The campground turned out to be pretty nice actually. For only $10/night, I had the empty campground for myself (not counting mosquitoes), a really hot shower (although very rudimentary) and some nice views from nearby rocky coast. Most importantly, this place is for tents only, which would explain its low popularity. No RVs are allowed in the park. Finally!

I fell asleep to sounds of rain and ocean waves.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

A quick guide on how to survive summer in Boston

Summer is in full swing, which means heat, humidity, mosquitoes and weekend traffic. Here is how to survive this mess:
  1. Get up early before it gets too hot to leave your house. Then realize even at 6AM it's already 75F and 85% humidity.
  2. In order to avoid traffic, ride your bike to work and arrive sweaty. Change into other clothes in janitor's closet because your office doesn't provide better facilities.
  3. Alternatively, use T and arrive late and sweaty. You will hear a story of someone's life though.
  4. Or just drive and arrive late. Ride around the block 3 times to find a subsidized parking spot. Then curse the stupid bike lanes that took away those precious 3 spots right in front of your office.
  5. Get one of those frozen sugary drinks that pretend to have something in common with coffee.
  6. School's out and students are gone, which means less traffic, but don't worry - weekend traffic starts now on Wednesday and lasts until Tuesday.
  7. Enjoy your weekends. Just avoid Cape Cod LIKE PLAGUE.
  8. It's seems nice outside so ride your bike to work. Get completely drenched in an afternoon thunderstorm.
  9. Make sure you saved enough last year to be able to pay your A/C electricity bill in August.
  10. Stay away from beaches - they're packed. And from lakes and forests (ticks and mosquitoes). In fact, your office cubicle seems like the best spot (free A/C).
  11. Be ready to figure out how to provide entertainment for your kids for the next 2 months, knowing your boss will let you take only 5 days off.
  12. Enjoy those long, warm evenings. Sip some wine on the deck. Mosquitoes and flies will gladly join you.
  13. Suddenly discover that the best micro-climate in your house is in the basement.
  14. Peek through the window sometime around the Labor Day and ask "Is it over yet?"

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Mashpee HV Power Lines Ride

And, just like that, it's already July. A couple of days of the long Independence Day weekend I spent with my family at the Cape Cod. It's not the best place to ride a bike this time of the year, due to crowd and heavy traffic, but I tried anyway.

My problem with Western Cape Cod was always lack of longer, unpaved sections for some off-road riding, away from the car traffic. There are short fragments that can be stitched together but sooner or later you will end up on a main road with cars and trucks speeding by.

I looked at the satellite map of the area and realized that there is a way to (potentially) create an off-road bike route by using maintenance roads under high voltage power lines. Not knowing exactly what I was signing up for, I gave it a try...

The route covers an area between the village of Osterville and towns of Mashpee and Sandwich, just east of Otis National Guard Air Base.

I started early in the morning, at which point air was already unpleasantly humid (typical for July at the Cape) and I quickly entered the first power line trail. In terms of riding surface, this one (just north of Rt 28) was very civilized:

Then things got a bit rough. The next trail just off Old Post Rd is covered with crushed rocks and riding there was tough on my 35mm tires.
But then the rocky surface ended and when I got to Sampsons Mill Rd, it turned into sand. I had to push my bike frequently as it sank in the deep sand way too easily.
On top of that, once I crossed Meetinghouse Rd, the road turned into a narrow forest singletrack and I quickly discovered that I either take my shoes off or be forced to turn around. This is where the trail crosses Mashpee River. Unfortunately, there is no bridge, no fallen log over water, not even some rocks to jump across. The river isn't wide but deep enough that you may end up stuck, should you try to ride through it. One tip here - it would be certainly easier to ride this section in the opposite direction - north to south. That's because the northern bank is very muddy, which means you can't keep your feet clean to put socks back on.
With that in mind, I continued and my feet smelled like river mud.
I eventually reached a network of fire roads in the deep woods of Mingo Conservation Area in Mashpee. The map of this area is very misleading. The roads on the map are wide and even have their own names. In reality, it's not much more than wide, but very sandy fire roads with no markings of any kind. You need to rely on your GPS (a smartphone will suffice) to figure out where you're going. 
I also had to back track a couple of times as it turned out that I can't ride around Otis base. The whole area is completely fenced in and roads that seem to be on the outside of the fence on the map, are not.
After a few more miles through the forest, I entered a trail on Cove Rd, which started nicely but then got me completely lost. By dead reckoning, I ended up exiting it through Hirsch Rd somehow, just a few hundred feet away from Cove Rd. Then I tried to cut across YMCA camp at Stowe Rd and go around Lawrence Pond by means of Schumacher Way, but I found out that maps for this area are plain wrong. This dirt road first turns into a grass-overgrown path, then enters a field and then just disappears with no sign of any trail or path ahead. I had no choice but to give up this section and go around to Great Hill Rd, which took me to the last power line train on my route.
This power line trail runs along Rt 6 - Cape Cod's main highway and oh boy, it's rocky. I could slowly make my way forward but riding there on 35mm Clement USH tires wasn't "what tiggers like best"...
... and it was quickly evidenced by the first flat I got in many years (in the rear wheel obviously). I realized that I either buy a bike with wider tires or stop riding on trails designed for mountain bikes. Otherwise my tires are not going to last much longer, judging from several cuts and scrapes on sidewalls.

After fixing the flat, I finally got back home - nearly 5 hours after leaving it. What was supposed to be a quick 40km ride (25mi) ride ended up in 55km (35mi) trek across sand, rocks and water.

In the end though, it was fun. Should you attempt it, keep in mind that there are many gates on the way to cross, perhaps not completely legally. Most of them have a sign attached like the one in the photo below. No motorized vehicles allowed. However, it doesn't mention bicycles...