Sunday, October 25, 2015

Bonus Site: Catamount State Forest

My guidebook Trail Running Western Massachusetts (click here to view the book's page on Amazon) profiles 51 of the best trail running sites in the region. It was a challenge to whittle down the final list to include in the book to just 51 sites, and some that I really like or that would have been nice to include had to be cut for space. I occasionally post profiles of some of those "bonus sites" here and link to them from the book's Facebook page. (see the Chapel Brook to D.A.R. Trail post for a previous example).

In this case, the bonus site is Catamount State Forest. It wasn't included in the book for a couple of reasons: 1.) It is an especially undeveloped site for a state forest, with no official map or parking, and no blazed or named trails. 2.) Several of the trails appear to be brand new, and either weren't there when the book was created or they hadn't been cleared and thus weren't visible. 3.) Most of the old road trails are pretty eroded. 4.) The singletrack trails, while wonderfully laid out, can be extremely challenging to navigate, especially in early spring and late fall when leaves are down (and some of the junctions can be hard to spot even in good conditions). Other factors of note are the fact that portions of the site are often used by off-road vehicles and it can be a bit of a backwoods party spot, and the fact that during wet years the bugs are notoriously brutal. Despite these notable drawbacks, however, the site can be a very fun place to explore and run.

a gentle stretch of singletrack at Catamount State Forest

The recommended route (highlighted in yellow) shown on the map below utilizes a combination of dirt road, old roads, woods roads, and newer singletrack trails. It is only about 56 miles total following the suggested route, but it will likely feel considerably longer the first time you go. You will need to look hard for junctions and turns, and paying careful attention to the map will be essential. There are also a number of optional extensions, depicted with light red highlighting on the map. Many of the trails on the northern and eastern boundary of the property continue onto private property and thus are not mapped here.

Starting at one of the small pullovers (with space for 23 cars) along the left side of Stacy Road (a rough dirt road that ascends north from Charlemont Rd just west of Rte. 112 north of Shelburne Falls), continue climbing up Stacy Rd to its end at a turn-around bulb just south of McLeod Pond. At the bulb, look for a trail that leads sharply at a diagonal up the hillside to the right. This trail quickly becomes a meandering singletrack path that winds past a number of old bicycle parts. After switching back and forth through the woods, it drops down towards the eastern shore of McLeod Pond. Follow it south along the shore to the southern end of the pond, then follow a path across ledges and an old dam to the western shore.

From a ledge at the southwest corner of McLeod Pond, follow a faint path north along the west side of the pond, just up from the shore. This trail soon swings left and climbs uphill, then swings left again and heads south. After taking a tight left turn near the height-of-land along the ridge, it meets up with a wider old woods road right where it crests the ridge. Turn right on this wide trail and begin descending. You will immediately come to a deep, eroded puddle (one of several along the trail in this vicinity). Go around it on the right. This trail soon levels out and heads north, with another short high-water bypass on the right that avoids a perpetually wet area, before veering west again and meeting up with S Catamount Hill Rd just east of an open wetland. One of the optional extensions in this area makes a tough 3-mile loop by heading north around the wetland and then climbing the slope to the west, going over a peak with an old chimney on it, and returning to the wetland.

Follow S Catamount Hill Rd north. In just under a mile, you will need to bypass to the right around a beaver flooded portion of the road, crossing over the outlet stream on some stones. Very soon you will arrive at a 4-way junction (where a different optional extension goes left). Continue straight for about 0.3 miles, passing a neat little spot where a stream flows underground on the left side of the road only to emerge from the base of a cliff on the right, to a ledge on the left with a cave called the Bear Caves. Yet another optional extension makes a very fun twisty horseshoe arc around the north side of the Bear Caves. Continue north from the caves for about about 0.1 miles along Catamount Hill Rd. At the top of a short trench-like, eroded section of the road, look for a faint trail leading sharply off the right up a small ledge.

Take a right on the faint trail, and follow it south above the eastern side of McLeod Pond for about 1.52 miles back to Stacy Road. This appears to be a newer section of mountain bike trail. It can be extremely hard to follow at times, but it is definitely there and it is very, very fun to run on, particularly in summer.

There are a number of other unmarked trails at Catamount State Forest, and aside from a few sections that may be rough or muddy, they're almost all fun to run. Some of them do lead off the property, however, and you must obey all posted signs (most notably along the trail that leads upslope to the west towards the summit of Pocumtuck Mtn.). Regardless of what route you choose to run, make sure to pay a visit to the ledges at the south shore of McLeod Pond. This remote and scenic spot is a true gem of the western Massachusetts wilds.

singletrack trail at Catamount State Forest
autumn along the trail at Catamount State Forest

singletrack trail at Catamount State Forest
along the "bike parts" trail at Catamount State Forest

a new bridge along the south shore of McLeod Pond at Catamount State Forest
a new bridge along the south shore of McLeod Pond at Catamount State Forest

Bear Caves at Catamount State Forest
 checking out the "Bear Caves" at Catamount State Forest

Sinuous singletrack trail above the east side of McLeod Pond at Catamount State Forest
Sinuous singletrack trail above the east side of McLeod Pond at Catamount State Forest

Sunday, October 18, 2015

2015 Groton Town Forest Trail Races

"Don't go out too fast," warned a race director.

"It's pretty flat to begin with, but around mile 7 or so you hit some kettles with short but steep hills that you'll want to save for." He was referring to a series of wetland depressions in the otherwise well-drained upland landscape, and his advice was sound. The hills hit hard and fast, and they definitely required quick surges of energy to power up.

With 3 weeks to go until my A-race, the Stone Cat Trail Marathon, I wanted to run a mid-distance "tune up" trail race that would serve as a 20-miler (when combined with generous warm-up and cool down runs), and not be too hilly. The long course (9.5 miles) at the annual Groton Town Forest Trail Races fit the bill. The alternative that day was the 14-mile Mt. Toby Trail Run, which is much closer to home but has that very significant thousand feet or so of race climbing to need to recover from afterwards. So early Sunday morning I headed east for Groton.

Race day was chilly and raw, especially on the heels of the previous weekend at Monroe, which had been amazingly warm and pleasant. It felt like late fall, maybe even early winter. I still wore shorts and a t-shirt (long-sleeve) for the actual race, but I was right on the edge of being too cold.

The race starts along an old rail bed at the northern edge of the forest, about a quarter mile south of parking and registration at a town senior center. The first mile follows a flat, straight stretch on dirt road. It was leaf-covered, but otherwise bore little resemblance to the rest of the course in terms of terrain and forest type. It crossed and re-crossed some live(?) rail tracks, then veered onto a winding singletrack path. From there, the course followed a mix of singletrack, doubletrack, and woods roads through the oak and pine forest. Except for a few rough eroded parts (usually on short, steep hills), it was great for running.

I started out slightly optimistic, hanging out somewhere around 10th place for a while, but eventually I got passed by a pack of people I couldn't quite seem to keep up with. They disappeared from my sight at the first water stop, where I lost some time fumbling to tear open a gel packet. After that I mostly found myself running alone, except for one guy who slowly reeled me in.

The sinuous singletrack portions, clearly designed with mountain bikers in mind, made for fantastic trail running tracks. They curved organically back and forth across the dry hilltops and roller-coastered up and down steeper slopes, generally making excellent use of the natural terrain. A few sections right along the Nashua River were pretty scenic too.

By the time I got to them about 2/3 of the way through the race, the kettle hills that I'd been warned about, along with some associated eskers and side ridges, definitely felt like obstacles in the path that took some wind out of my sails. I wasn't exactly well-rested for this race, as it fell at the tail end of one of my highest mileage weeks in ages. But they were fun nevertheless, and I only got passed by one person in that section.

The final mile was mostly flat, and ended back at the start. I finished in 1:16:20 (full results here), which comes out as just a few seconds over 8-minute miles. I felt pleased with my time and effort, and, most importantly, gained an extra boost of confidence for Stone Cat.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Finding Negus

For years I'd been hearing whispers of a neat trail on a peak called Mt. Negus (a.k.a., Negus Mountain, pronounced "knee-gus") in the Zoar region of northwestern Massachusetts, just north of and across the Deerfield River from Mohawk Trail State Forest. But I couldn't find much information about it. It wasn't in any hiking guidebooks and it didn't show up on any maps and there didn't seem to be any official trailhead. I couldn't even find much on the internet. Eventually, though, I pieced enough together to figure out where to park and where to start walking. And naturally it really wasn't all that hard to find once I knew where to look and where to go.

Parking is along a short section of paved road on the right side of Zoar Road immediately before it crosses the Deerfield River and becomes River Road. Elevation here is about 750 ft. You walk down the road until you reach a yellow metal gate just before the railroad tracks, at which point you should see the trail start into the woods on the other side of the tracks. It has recently been blazed with blue paint markers, and there are occasional round white signs with a blue bear paw symbol saying "Bear Swamp Hiking Trail -- Brookfield."

the trail at Mt. Negus
the trail at Mt. Negus

The trail is steep right off the bat. Really steep. Really, really steep. As in, you gain hundreds of feet of elevation in the first quarter mile or so. That said, it's not so steep that it requires ladders or rungs or ropes or anything. But you'll probably need to use your hands to scale some of the rocky ledges, especially while the trail is still down in the woods. When I hiked it, I was scouting to see if the trail could be used for trail running, and my general assessment is that I think it would be just over the edge of being too dangerous and probably not all that much fun to run, especially if the rocks were at all wet or icy, or if they were covered in leaves. The day I did it was dry and the colorful autumn leaves were mostly still on the trees, but I still wouldn't have wanted to run it. 

the steep trail up the southwest ridge of Mt. Negus
the trail up the southwest ridge of Mt. Negus is very steep to start with

Before long, the trail emerges out into the open along the narrow spine of the mountain's southwest ridge. Just past a large boulder perched right out in the open on the crest, it swings slightly right and climbs the semi-open ridge to the first peak. This section is remarkably dramatic and scenic, feeling much more like a wild White Mountains trek than most places I've been to in Massachusetts. 

dramatic scenery along the semi-open ridge of Mt. Negus
dramatic scenery along the semi-open ridge of Mt. Negus

Just before the first peak, the grade lessens slightly and you get some views of the reservoir to the north. At this point you realize that the mountain is really less of a peak than the edge of a broad upland plateau covering much of this far corner of the state, and that over time the Deerfield River has carved a pretty deep, now-wooded canyon out of it. Then the trail crosses over the wooded knob and makes its way north towards the actual summit. 

For the record, the next quarter mile or so of trail IS quite enjoyably runnable, as it gently meanders through the woods between the two peaks. Then it comes out at an old jeep road just west of the higher summit (which it does not cross). The road ends at a bulb here, and there is a limited view to the west, but the better summit was definitely the first one. From the bulb, the rough road descends towards Steele Brook Rd / Tunnel Road and the reservoir to the north. This was where I turned around. 

ledges partway along the narrow ridge of Mt. Negus
 bony ledges partway along the narrow ridge of Mt. Negus

far-reaching view from Mt. Negus
a far-reaching view that feels as wild and remote as anywhere I've seen in this state.

Overall it's really not a very long hike, hardly 2.5 miles round-trip. But it's challenging, especially in that first quarter mile or so near the bottom, with about 1,000 ft. of elevation gain in total. And it is exposed, and could be cold and/or tricky when it's windy or stormy out. On the day I did it, however, the afternoon sun warmed the ridge exquisitely, and there was a light breeze, so I just took my time and snapped some photos and sat in various spots along the way and admired the view. I've since heard that my friend Jeff incorporated it into a longer run that started at Mohawk Trail State Forest, which sounds like such a fun trip. All of the trails are on the scannable QR code map for site #8 in Trail Running Western Massachusetts.

map of Negus Mountain
map of Negus Mountain

Great Stuff Nearby: Mohawk Trail State Forest just to the south across the river; Monroe State Forest (with Spruce Peak, Raycroft Lookout, and Dunbar Brook) a few miles to the north; the little-known gem of Pelham Lake Park a few miles northeast in Rowe; and the Charlemont Trails network and Thunder Mountain Bike Park at Berkshire East.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

2015 Monroe Dunbar Brook Trail Race

For the past two years, I've taken photos of racers crossing the stream at mile 9.5 of the Monroe Dunbar Book Trail Race (see galleries for 2013 and 2014). I love the splashy drama and they're some of my favorite photos, but this year jealousy got the better of me and I decided to run it again. I couldn't have chosen a better year.

The weather was simply perfect: sunny, warm but not hot, low humidity, and a light breeze. The late arrival of fall this year meant that there were far fewer leaves covering the trail than usual, resulting in a much easier experience finding footing along the way.

L: early climbing at Monroe.  R: singletrack path at Monroe.

I've thoroughly described the course in site 6 of my guidebook Trail Running Western Massachusetts, and blogged about the race in the past (see post here), so I won't repeat any of that information here. As for my race this year? Awesome. I felt great throughout, and I beat my 2012 time by more than 2 minutes.

There was one incident that hobbled me a bit, however. I tried a different (new) pair of socks in my ASICS Fuji Racers, and it turned out to be just as stupid a thing to do as they always tell you it will be. The socks slipped down my heels in both shoes, resulting in an uncomfortable, almost certainly blister-producing scenario. So, on the summit ridge, about halfway up from the powerlines to the top, I stopped and sat on a fallen log and removed both shoes to fix things. Untying and retying double knots and taking the shoes off and pulling socks up probably cost me a minimum of two minutes, which is kind of a lot in a race like this.

Otherwise, I couldn't have hoped for better. I finished in 1:45:40, which was good for 19th place.

me crossing Dunbar Brook at Monroe

Jen ran the race too, and was delighted to defeat the weird asthma demon that had been dogging her ever since late May. She finished in 2:10. At the finish, where there was a great picnic barbeque hosted by the awesomely relaxed and low-key Western Massachusetts Athletic Club (WMAC), we chatted with various friends who had run, including Nate Davis, Dave Stauffer, Arron Stone, Tim Mahoney, Benn Griffin, Rob Higley, and others. And after that Jen and I found our way down the steep slope behind the picnic area and sat on a sunny boulder next to the Dryway section of the Deerfield River for about an hour and watched kayakers and rafters shoot the rapids (Dragon's Tooth, I think) about six feet below us.

I realize it sounds somewhat overblown to say so, but all in all, the 2015 Monroe Dunbar race experience almost perfectly captured the spirit and essence of everything that I love about trail running.