Appalachian Trail (a Connecticut Story)

Our summer of adventuring continued yesterday in the northwest corner of Connecticut. Debbie and Laura Becker set out to run the Connecticut section of the Appalachian Trail (AT). On a very hot and humid day, there was a lot of drama, and most of it the good kind.

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It was disappointing for Laura to stop after 34.1 miles (of 51.6), but lessons were learned, and as I told her, “she will live to fight another day.” Debbie forged ahead and finished in 14 hours and 32 minutes or so. The plan was for them to stick together, but Laura struggled with stomach issues throughout the run and the combination of nausea, dehydration, hunger, and fatigue finally did her in. The rest of her story is for her to tell, but I assure you there is no “quit” in this woman. She fought through the adversity and ultimately, it was not her decision to stop. She would have kept putting one foot in front of the other, and would have walked for as long as it took to get to the northern border. However, with health, and longer term goals in mind, I called a technical knock out (TKO) before she could start another brutal “round.”

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So how did we get the point where we were standing on the side of a mountain debating what to do next? In late May, Debbie and Laura ran the Shenipsit Trail end-to-end. They have done a lot of training together in 2020 and that run was a big one for the two of them. Laura was a very helpful on our NET Adventure and she has continued to build her trail strength. She joined us when we returned to the Menunkatuck Trail to figure out what it really looks like (in daylight). She even did the bicycle ride back to the trailhead. I figure that after a few more of these trips, she will be an official member of our family.

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The two of them wanted to take a step up in trail difficulty. Originally, they planned to run the 62 mile Metacomet Trail, but Debbie and I just did that as part of the NET and after further discussion, they settled on the Connecticut section of the AT. This hilly segment has nearly 14,000 feet of elevation gain on rocky and challenging terrain. The high point is the summit of Bear Mountain at 2,316 feet which comes very close to the finish. Much of the ascent is done on hills that peak out around 1,200 feet, so “undulating” would be the best way to describe the route. Relentless is another good definition. Both Laura and Debbie are signed up for the Connecticut FKT Challenge, which ranks this trail the third toughest in the state. Debbie has now done about 11 of the 16 listed trails, though many of her runs predate the window for this particular competition. I’m conflicted as to whether we have to turn FKT’s into a “race,” but if the challenge gets more people to explore the trails of Connecticut then I’m fine with it.

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Debbie was strong all day. Despite no races in 2020 she has made the most of these “do it yourself” (DIY) adventures, and with four months to go, I’m excited to see what she may do next. Over 22 years of trail and ultrarunning, she has experienced her own share of bad days. Yesterday, she suffered in the heat (and dealt with some ugly chaffing), but she was able to pick up the pace and finish strongly. The original plan was for the two of them to do the run self-supported, but as soon as I met up with them to provide aid, it became a supported run. Given how dry it has been, they didn’t want to take chances with finding available water sources, so on Friday, Laura cached water (only) at three different spots on the trail. They had a water filter with them, but leaving their own water was a wise decision as Saturday turned out to be one of the warmest days of this already hot summer. I was doing my own thing (more on this later) when I got a text message from Debbie requesting that  I meet them with more water near Sharon Mountain. I had dropped them off at the New  York border around 5:15 A.M (we left Bolton at 3:30 A.M.) and stayed in the area just in case they needed help. I wasn’t planning to see them until the finish in Sage’s Ravine, but after she reached out I altered my plans. Debbie continued on her own and I walked with Laura back to the car.

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The fact that Laura stopped also changed the FKT type to “supported” as her teamwork with Debbie is considered assistance, much like it were a race. Regardless of all these definitions,  it was a hard run on a blazing hot day. Laura’s husband Steve Becker was very supportive. He had intended to come to the finish with me, so when plans changed, he met Laura and me at the Route 44 road crossing. Laura and Steve waited with me until Debbie arrived, before heading home for some much needed rest.

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I located a Mexican restaurant in Salisbury and placed an order over the phone. Debbie had mentioned that she wanted something “savory” for the finish and the fact that Picante’s was only 1.5 miles from where I was parked was perfect. In their parking lot, I pulled all the gear from the back of our Subaru Outback and laid it out on the ground. I had been living out of the car all day and it was a mess. While I waited for the food, I rearranged and repacked everything. I even figured out how to get my bike into the car, as I didn’t want to drive up the dirt Mount Riga road with it bouncing on the hitch mount rack. I picked up the order and stashed it away for later. As I started up the mountain, I spotted our teammate Paul Nyberg’s truck on the side of the road. I saw him earlier when he met up with Laura and me on Route 7. The original plans for the day included a two-man ride up and around Mount Washington State Forest (in MA). Paul ended up doing the ride solo, and as I was making my way to the border as the sun was setting, he came flying down the dirt road one his cross bike.

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We had a great chat about cyclocross, work, COVID-19, the economy, health, and life. It was awesome as the two of us hadn’t seen each other in quite some time. I kept glancing at my watch and occasionally checked the Garmin tracker to see where Debbie was. Our inReach Mini is OK, but not foolproof and there had been lags between updates. With the spotty cell coverage, our telecom strategy was far from perfect. I think Paul and I chatted five minutes too long. By the time we parted, Debbie was making her way up Bear Mountain and neither of us remembered how fast that last section can be. I also think that at that point of the run, she was absolutely flying.

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Paul and I parted and I parked at a turnout near AMC’s Northwest Camp lot, packed a ruck, including some watermelon for Debbie, and walked in. It was about a mile of walking to intersect with the AT. I located the border using my  Garmin Fenix 6s and Google Maps and made a makeshift “finish line” but dragging  my heel in the dirt. I walked north a bit but it was getting dark so I didn’t go too far. Apparently, I stopped 50 feet short of the Sage’s Ravine sign. I’ve been there a few times, but at the end of a long day, I was confused. I waited and waited. Debbie’s final text read, “In bear” which I interpreted to mean on Bear or climbing up Bear. It turned out that she was already over the top and roaring down the hill towards the finish.

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After 20 minutes I thought she should have been there already. My texts back to her failed to go through, so I started walking south (uphill) on the trail and yelling her name. I yelled her name for another 20 minutes before she finally called. Miraculously at that moment, we both had a cell connection. She was frantic and worried about stopping her watch at the right finish line. She knew she was on the AT and I knew I was on the AT, but we couldn’t figure out where. It seemed illogical but she described where she was. After a few more texts and phone calls, she shared her location with Google Maps and it was clear that she had already passed the border and was more than a mile into Massachusetts, headed for Vermont! The AT crosses the border and then hooks right, paralleling the border for a mile or so. It turns out that the signage indicating where the CT/MA border is located, is nowhere near the spot where the trail crosses. That’s nuts. It isn’t our only gripe about the publicly available info. We LOVE the Connecticut Forest & Park Association, but the Walk Book mileage is wrong. It says the trail is 56. 6 miles long, whereas the AMC Connecticut Chapter info describes the more accurate 51.6 mile distance.

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I was hoarse from all the yelling, but she would never have heard me as she was more than a mile away. This was a ridiculous situation and it wasn’t until 9:00 P.M. or so that we finally found each other. She had been wandering around for more than an hour and we both got munched on by mosquitoes. At one point she ran into some hikers, but they actually pointed her in the wrong direction. Thankfully when she first passed the sign in the ravine, she had taken a photo, so we have adequate proof within a minute or so of her true finishing time. After we finally figured out where we were in relation to each other, she had to come back south (all uphill) to meet me. In reading through prior FKT reports (after the fact), we realized that just about every previous runner indicated that they were confused as to where to stop. I’m embarrassed that we fell into the confused camp, but you just aren’t thinking straight in these circumstances. We intend to make some clarifying comments on the FKT site so future attempts get this right without all the confusion. “People, use the first Sage’s Ravine Sign (with the other locations listed below) located a short distance past the official border as your stopping (or starting) point for any FKT attempt!”  We were both tired and frustrated when she got “back” to the state line, but the watermelon helped relax us. We still had to walk a mile back to the car, which means her effort ended up being more than 54 miles. As I’ve said many times, in trail and ultrarunning, mileage doesn’t matter. What’s another mile, or two, or three?

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We changed our clothes, sat in the car, and devoured our burritos. They were fantastic. Picante’s gets five stars from us! We have had countless adventures together and this one is just another great one to add to the list. It would have been even sweeter if Laura and Steve were with us. We could have eaten vegan burritos (and gluten free for Laura!) together. With a few more brains to do math, we might not have lost 90 minutes wandering around the CT/MA border in the dark. Once refueled and hydrated, we got rolling again. I drove us back down to Salisbury. We stopped at a lovely spring to fill our water bottles, before reconnecting with Route 44 for the drive home. It took a little under two hours and we were in bed by 11:45 P.M.

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So far, I’ve only described my interaction with the two main protagonists in this story. While they were in the woods, I had some fun of my own. Without the early-afternoon plan change, I might have done even more exploring (including some with Paul). As it was, I still squeezed in some “exercise” of my own. After my last activity was logged (the hike in and out of Sage’s Ravine), my Garmin “Training Status” was indicated as “Overreaching.” That’s probably true.

What it doesn’t indicate is how sore my feet are. They still haven’t recovered  from the NET run. My right heel has some bruising that was made worse by the northwest Connecticut rocks. My right Achilles continues to bug me,  and though I’ve indicated I need a few weeks off from running, this time, I’m going to take my own advice.  The plan is to hike a little and then stick to riding for the rest of July.

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Going back to the pre-dawn hour, after I dropped them off at the border, I drove to Macedonia Brook State Park. It was my first  time there. I didn’t realize that they had an organized race there before, but apparently that is the case. I did the loop trail, which is also part of CFPA’s Blue-Blazed Hiking Trail system. Here is the official Walk Book description of the trails in the park:

Macedonia Brook State Park is situated on 2,300 acres of rugged terrain in Kent, less than a mile east of the New York border. The bulk of the property was originally gifted to the State from the White Memorial Foundation of Litchfield in 1918. The land was once the domain of the Scatacook Indians. After Kent was settled in 1738, the native inhabitants and settlers shared the area in harmoniously. During the Revolutionary War, Scatacook volunteers operated a signal system along the summits of the river valley.

A primary commercial activity in Macedonia was the iron industry. The Kent Iron Company’s iron furnace operated both in Kent and the village of Macedonia. Today remains of a forge and a stamping works are still visible at the southern end of the park. In 1865, competition from larger mines forced the Macedonia furnace to close. Many years later, the National Park Service established a Civilian Conservation Corps camp at the park to undertake park improvements.

The park has 11.5 miles of foot trails, all originating at the graveled park road (Macedonia Brook Road). Several side trails cross or connect with the blue-blazed Macedonia Ridge Trail, an oval loop encompassing much of the park. In general, trails east of the park road are not as steep as those to the west. The Macedonia Ridge Trail offers outstanding views of the Taconic Range and Catskill Mountains from Cobble Mountain (elevation 1,380’), located on the west side of the park. In the valley below, numerous streams tumble into Macedonia Brook, which wends its way south through the park and is flanked on both sides by peaks and ridges over 1,000 feet high. Numerous springs and streams in the park add to the great hiking experience.

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It’s 10 kilometers of rugged, rocky, and steep climbing and descending. There are short runnable sections in between sections of tough singletrack. I took Lee-Stuart Evans’ advice and went counter-clockwise. It was safer to climb the worst of the rocks rather than descend them. At the top of Cobble Mountain, I had a spectacular view as the clouds were below me. I was running all out but still wanted to stop and take a photo. The problem was that my iPhone was stuck in the front pouch of my hydration belt. I gave the zipper a tug and it broke off leaving my iPhone trapped. I eventually got it out, using the pliers on my Leatherman, but that wasn’t until I was back at the car. Thankfully, a few miles away on the NY side of the border (where the AT briefly curls), Debbie and Laura were ascending a different hill while experiencing the same clouds. They got a photo of the early morning beauty.

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Despite a few brief wrong turns, I knocked out the loop in 1:06:19, good for 4th on the Strava list that includes runners from the 2018 and 2019 editions of the race. My run was unsupported so I think I can post it to the site with confidence. I ran hard, didn’t fall, and felt good. Thankfully, I brought enough clothes for multiple wardrobe changes because I was drenched in sweat. I changed up and drove back towards the AT before eventually heading north, the direction of the day. I got some nice photos at the Macedonia Road crossing before continuing on to Bull’s Bridge, and then through Kent. Kent Falls State Park is officially closed during the pandemic, otherwise I would have stopped. It is one of Connecticut’s most visited parks.

I made my way up Route 7 to the Pine Knob Loop Trail, yet another CFPA trail that I would do for the first time. Here is the CFPA info:

The Pine Knob Loop Trail is located in Housatonic Meadows State Park and Housatonic State Forest on the west side of the Housatonic River, north of Cornwall Bridge. A short and challenging trail, it coincides with the Appalachian Trail for a portion of its length. Hikers will enjoy beautiful vistas over the river valley. The trail is accessible from the state park’s campground and group camping area via unmarked trails. For more info on Housatonic Meadows State Park, click here.

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Once again, I went counter-clockwise. The unsupported FKT was a fast 32:12 but I figured I could beat it. It turns out that some guy (as posted on Strava) ran like 25 minutes as part of a much longer run, which seems crazy, but possible. After all,  I’m not that fast! Anyway, I’ll submit my time of 29:19 for the 2.6 mile loop and see what happens. I made a few wrong turns, but that didn’t cost me five minutes. This loop was also very hilly and rocky. I enjoyed it and also liked seeing all of the day hikers. The trail actually overlaps a bit with the AT, so for a few minutes, I was on the AT headed south. Laura and Debbie were still many miles south of me at that point, so there was no chance of an encounter.

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When I finished around 9:45 A.M. the temperature was really rising. In reviewing this data, Strava indicated that the pair of shoes I was using have more than 500 (trail) miles on them, which is not good. No wonder my feet are sore. I made another wardrobe change and headed north again. I drove to Beckley Furnace Industrial Monument in North Canaan. This was a first time visit for me and I wasn’t disappointed. There were two interpretive volunteers sitting under a picnic table umbrella, and they talked my ear off. One of the volunteers was an elder gentleman who was extremely knowledgeable.

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Given my metalworking background, I could have listened to him all day, but it was 85 degrees (and getting warmer by the minute) so I had to cut our conversation short. His assistant was a young high school intern who is a descendant of the clan that created this  nearly 200 year-old iron furnace, mines, and related enterprises. I plan to return with the kids as there is a lot to learn. I took some photos, checked out the display they had set up for visitors, and grabbed some brochures. As I said, we will return.

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I  locked my Seven Evergreen XX to  an electrical conduit on a nearby park shed. I left a bag with my cycling shoes and helmet. Then, I drove 11 miles around Canaan Mountain to the start of CFPA’s Iron Trail. Here is the Walk Book description:

The Iron Trail runs through Housatonic State Forest and the Canaan Mountain Natural Area Preserve.  From the southern terminus at a metal gate on Canaan Mountain Rd in Canaan, the trail heads north and west to the State’s Beckley Iron Furnace Industrial Monument on the banks of the Blackberry River in North Canaan.  The trail mostly crosses through mixed hardwoods— including white oak, black cherry, and beech—punctuated by islands of pine and hemlock.  In the 19th and early 20th centuries, the area was regularly cut to produce charcoal to feed nearby iron furnaces, including Beckley.  Repeated coppice cutting has resulted in many multiple trunked trees.  Visible in a couple places are flattened areas where mounds of wood were stacked and “cooked” with slow, smoky fires to produce charcoal.  About halfway along the trail is a pile of stones that was probably once the fireplace of a collier’s hut.  From Wangum Rd the trail follows a broad woods road bounded in places by stone walls.  Upstream of a narrow brook crossing there is a beaver flowage.  Upon veering west, the trail narrows and winds through thick woods while skirting the edge of Canaan Mountain.  The last three-quarters of a mile descend to Beckley Furnace along a narrow charcoal road.  The upper part features beautiful rock outcroppings on the upslope side.  Pieces of slag from the furnace can be found on the lower part of the trail.  Pass slag piles overgrown with vegetation just before crossing the Blackberry River and arrive at the stone furnace stack which produced iron between 1847 and 1919.  Picnic tables and interpretive signs make this a nice spot to spend some time learning about a part of Connecticut’s industrial history.

I had print outs for three more possible FKT’s, but by now, the temperature was approaching 90, my feet (especially my right) were aching and each successive run was getting slower. Thankfully, I was only going one way. The out and back record is a stout 58 minutes. I wanted to at least make it to the northern end in 29 minutes, but alas, it ended up being a painful 32:42. So, this is another case where the calculated Strava segment is faster than what is officially noted on the FKT site. I’ll debate whether I submit this one or not.

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When I got back to my bike, the information volunteers had moved into the shadow cast by the large furnace. They were smart! I ended up riding back to the car in the peak noon heat with the sun beating down on the road. The climb up Canaan Mountain was hard but the farms and fields that I passed were lovely. I have to explore these roads again. The plan was to meet up with Paul as we had gotten in touch, but when I was making my way up the mountain, I got the first text message from Debbie indicating their struggles and the request to meet them with water. She also suggested that ginger ale might help settle Laura’s stomach.

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It took me nearly an hour to get back to the car and then 10 minutes to conduct another wardrobe change. I dug some food out of our cooler and ate it on the way back towards Falls Village. I stopped at the Mountainside Cafe, a restaurant I knew well. Debbie and I stopped there in 2017 on our ill-fated Mohawk Trail/AT Loop Misadventure. It was good that Debbie returned to the Mohawk in 2018 to get the job (that I couldn’t finish) done. It was take-out only so I called from the parking lot. I ordered three ginger ales and they had a nice locally sourced craft version in glass bottles. They delivered them to me out front and I got moving again. After a little driving around to figure out where I could get closest to them, I parked at the AT trailhead on Route 7. I packed a ruck and hiked south until I met them a mile or so down the trail. That’s the point at which the earlier part of this story began. With my individual pursuits for the day paused, and a raincheck from Paul issued, I became the “crew chief” again, which was fine with me.

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I know that if either or both of our kids were in tow for this trip, there would have been a lot of complaints. Thankfully, they were spending another long weekend of “summer camp” at Debbie’s parents house. During this summer of cancellations, this has been a fun substitute for them. We did FaceTime with them this morning and they are having a blast. Apparently their Satuday consisted of climbing fences, skateboarding, go-karting, truck washing, bickering, bike riding, and chores.

Sunday will be about recovery as tomorrow is another important workday. I’m motivated and ready.

Some more AT resources:

AMC Connecticut Chapter AT Page
Appalachian Trail Conservancy Site
NPS AT Page
CFPA AT Page (with some erroneous data)

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