Tuesday, June 12, 2012

North South Trail RI Aka: "Horrible Idea Ride"

My first encounter with the North-South trail occurred a few years ago riding down the Midstate trail through Douglas State Forest.  In a cozy part of the forest one can find the intersection with a sign proclaiming "78 miles to Atlantic Ocean". 

A couple of times I started heading down the trail only to find it turned into a swampy quagmire with mossy rocks - completely unrideable in sections.  But it piqued my interest so it was off to the 'net to find out more.

Online there are several sites that describe the network - in simple terms it consists of paved sections, dirt roads, jeep trails, ATV trails and single track. 

Also there is this great little book that describes the trail in detail:

The trail itself started out the vision of George Ernst from Cranston, RI.  He proposed the concept to the RI Dept of Environmental Management which deemed it plausible in '78.  In the early 90's things came together.  It passes through 8 state and municipal management areas - as well as a few private properties.  A pretty remarkable accomplishment for such a small populous state.

I knew what the northernmost section was like between Douglas and George Washington Management - and gave it a shot here and there with my CX bike.   There was too much hike-a-bike going on - which entirely defeated the value of a lightweight bike.   At least I was abiding by the hiking only policy - which is far less an issue these days compared to the roaring Mt bike 90's.

Swamp / pond within George Washington Management area

After that tryst I decided to ride some of the trail south of Rte 44 on a mountain bike.  Starting on Durfee Hill Rd I headed south along some ATV torn fire roads.  Meaty tires were an absolute necessity here. Eventually the trail got smoother then fed into some paved sections that headed up Snake Hill Rd (steep) then across Rte 94 down a very rocky hill past a farm then into some jeep trail terrain. 

I wonder what's in there??

After getting back I posted the ride on Strava - to find Dan had ridden a bit of the southern portion the same day.  We crossed paths maybe an hour apart.  During some online communication  I tossed out  the idea of doing the entire thing - down to the ocean and back.  Dan's comment - "that sounds like a horrible idea - the kind of horrible I'm down with" - "It has to be done this summer".   The best opportunity came along on Memorial Day weekend less than 2 weeks after the initial proposal .  Why wait??

Based on average speeds ridden on sections prior it looked like 13 hours would get the job done.  Dan proposed we meet @ 5:00 am to get a good head start before things got steamy.  He had also proposed we ride around the Buck Hill section down Wallum Lake Rd.  This alone would knock an hour off the time due to all the required hike-a-bike.  Not to mention, we'd remain decent law-abiding folk in terms of the hiking only policy. 

I was up at 3:30 - made some coffee & oatmeal then out the door @ 4:30 - arriving in 25 minutes or so.  Temps were around 65º and very, very moist. 

Today's choice - the Spearfish.  It's not a point and shoot XC short course weapon - it's designed for  stupidly long rides just like this.  Dan - well... If you know Dan - you know he likes things simple masochistic.  He was outfitted with his usual ride - a rigid single speed - including minimal gear & food.  What a contrast.  I had 5 PB & J's, three water bottles, several different kinds of gels, 2 packs of chock blocks, two tubes, patches, tools, a camera, a fancy water filter, two lights, my wallet, phone and a pump.  I really dislike back packs but today demanded one if I was going to bring all this crap.

One mans idea of being ready for over 150 miles of mixed riding.

After some final checks we were off.  We headed out the drive down Wallum Rd - making serious time - ticking off a few mile long sections in around 3 minutes apiece.

Before long - we zipped past the George Washington Management - area then across Rte 44 up Durfee  Hill to the same dirt road I had ridden a couple of weeks prior.  Down the dirt road - then into a paved section - on up Snake Hill Rd.  After crossing Rte 94 -  going downhill past the farm I started having annoying problems with my bottle set up.

I purchased one of those Tri-style bottle holders that mounts to the seat post.  Early tests with my hard tail bike demonstrated how good it was at ejecting bottles over rough terrain.  I figured with rear suspension it wouldn't be an issue.  Nope - it was only slightly less effective at popping bottles out.  Of course I found this out the first time at least a mile past where it came out.  Damn.  I turned around and rode back up quite aways - then finally gave up.  I'd have to hope it was there hours later in the day.

Panaracer Pro Driver Tires - perfect blend of grip and speed here. Profile Design bottle thingy - not so perfect for mountain biking - maybe some bungees or a really small bra would keeps things in place.

We continued along - passing through the Moosup River section, a straight flat part that's a bit soggy - after that the trail pops out onto a very busy Rte 6.  The good news is, there is a Shell station there to replenish with food & hydration.  After this stop we continued down some back roads that took us past the Foster Country Club. Nice terrain around here - hilly terrain.  The kind of terrain you know you'll have to manage on the way back. 

Further south some more dirt roads - then a sweet section of trail riding near Carbuncle Pond Management after a short trip along Rte 14 to connect.  Coming down the rocky trail Dan pulled aside to let me through (remember - I'm on a FS bike - he's on a rigid) and started to warn me about some kind of something up ahead.  Of course I wasn't paying full attention - but sure enough figured out what he was talking about.  A rock water bar caught me up in the worst way and  I came down hard on my hip & knee.  Damn!  Less than 50 or so miles in and a fairly hard hit.  I shook it off and let Dan lead.  Continuing on we rode along more back roads and then more trail riding.  The Terrain kept getting more interesting as we started towards Arcadia.  Along the way an absolute monster of a downhill dirt road with scary switchbacks.  Take it from a Vermont boy - it was the real deal.

At the Rte 165 crossing - Dan had stashed a gallon of water a day or two in advance.  We filled our bottles and Dan put it out there:  "wanna keep going or head back up?"   Continuing seemed dandy - so within a few minutes we were off.  

Dan knows  the Arcadia and surrounding areas pretty well - so he led us through some fun terrain with giant berms - then some not so fun terrain in the form of a rocky swamp.  It might be rideable on a good day with plenty of energy - but I could barely walk properly let alone ride.  Somewhere along the way I managed to ram my left calf into the upper joint of my rear suspension.  It didn't seem like much happened initially - but upon looking down a few minutes later I was horrified.  A giant bulge along a vein had formed under the skin.  It was itchy as hell too.  Two things came to mind: "this might require a call for medical services" &  "I sure hope this doesn't look this way for the rest of my life".  Thankfully after 45 minutes it started to go back down.  A giant multi-color bruise would form in the following weeks.

After Arcadia some more back roads then Carolina Management.  A nice pine-forest section that we somehow lost track of the trail on.  We would ride in opposite directions looking for the blue-blazes - only to get off track at the next junction.  We managed to reconnect properly while heading down another rural road.

I don't recall exactly where it was but the trail takes one past a nice sod farm.  Something about wide open lush green spaces like this makes me happy.

Moving further south along more back roads & jeep trails we finally came across Burlingame Management.  Riding along the same trail the King of the Burlingame Time Trial takes place on we couldn't help but think "not far now!!" - but the course wound around even more of the technical terrain than we had realized.  At one point shredding Dans sidewall:

After the repair we got moving again within the Burlingame trails.  The trail goes along the infamous "Bridges" section - a section with...umm..   lots of bridges.  The slippery wooden kind.  I was leading and heard a pretty awful "whump" aways behind.  As these things  happen I waited... then waited some more.  Finally I turned around and headed back a little to see Dan picking himself up.  He wiped out pretty hard and landed on his face among other things.  Ouch. He gathered himself and we forged on.  This was starting to getting rough.

The trails in Burlingame seemed to go on *FOREVER* but you could just taste the ocean air. Finally we popped out at the southern end near Rte 1.  Across the highway and then along a short paved road down to the beach.  

Ok then.   There's the beach. We're halfway along.

The beach scene was an interesting contrast.   There was Dan and I, covered in sweat, mud, blood and whatever else stuck along the way - surrounded by nice clean & dry people just starting their Memorial Day weekend. 

We turned around and headed back up towards Rte 1 - then took a left to make a stop at a Shell station just down the street.  More water bottles were filled.  Then it was time git goin' back to where we come from.

Cruising back north past the sod fields. Major bonus here:  Tailwind.

The trip back north was similar to the trip south with the following highlights:
  • We rode around some of the more difficult terrain in Burlingame Management
  • I completely missed a turn while leading along a paved section and went a bit further than necessary - thankfully Dan waited several minutes for me to figure out he wasn't there anymore.
  • At the Rte 165 crossing the "rigid SS experience" caught up with Dan.  He offered the remainder of the water from the gallon jug - then called for a ride. That was 110 miles in - he suggested maybe I could call for a ride @ Rte 6.  In my head "I gotta finish this thing"
  • I missed yet another turn heading north even after Dan provided very good directions.  Thankfully I came across a horse convention thing and was directed to a salty chap named "Neil" who "knew every trail in New England"  Neil was a bit tanked (being memorial day weekend and all) - but after he described the same route three times the same way I decided to take his word for it.  Thanks Neil!
  • I missed yet another turn.  The same turn Dan had mentioned his father missed once while blasting downhill.  That's the tricky thing - you have to keep an eye out for the markers when flying down hills!!
  • It started to rain. Ok - actually it was a thunderstorm with torrential rain.  I stopped in at the same Shell station on Rte 6 to replenish fluids - the guy behind the counter clearly thought I was bonkers.
  •  The worst section - Moosup trail.  Standing water everywhere - I really thought this might be the end
  • It started to clear while heading into Foster.  YES!!!
  • I kept-a-keeping on - my legs now felt oddly terrific.  Either that or not having to ride through standing water was uplifting.
  • George Washington Management - not long now! 
  • Missed yet another turn along the powerlines.
  • Headed back up Wallum road with plenty of daylight. 
  • Then finally for posterity the final mile or so - I tried to capture the awful sound of a completely beat drivetrain here (mile 163)

Total moving time:12 hours 54 minutes.  Downtime - about 50 minutes. 

Closing thoughts: 

There is much to see on the North-South Trail.  In a way, hammering all the way down and back seems a shame.  You witness a part of Rhode Island few folks know exist.  Old foundations, farms, wide open fields, crazy rock formations etc.  As Dan commented: "You could take a guy from Cranston out here and he'd deny it was Rhode Island.

There is more elevation in this part of the world than you'd think.  Strava says just over 8,000 feet.  Garmin thinks it's just over 9,000.  Either way - the western flanks of Rhode Island have some elevation to offer.

In a perfect world your bike would transform from fast road bike, to gravel grinding CX to full suspension Mountain bike with beefy tires.  There is so much variety along the way.  That said,  a full on mountain bike with fast tires is the best choice.

Don't forget to bring chain lube. Or in my case, don't forget *you brought* chain lube. The poor chain was screaming after all the miles. 

I'm thinking this might be something to do annually or maybe again towards fall.  It takes some,  but not too much planning and is entirely doable. 





  1. Replies
    1. That it were - you coming next time?

  2. Thanks for the write up Alby. Now I know not to do that. And congrats. Quite a feat.

    1. Awe c'mon Rob!! It's nowhere near as difficult as you might think. Something about actually going somewhere changes the dynamic - opposed to doing a circuit at an endurance event.

  3. sounds like a good/horrific time.

  4. Fantastic! I segment hiked it over the winter/spring and made some GPS maps. You can also track down the SNT Trail council and get a patch you know. Love the blog, have a visit to mine some time? I have the maps lined up there in a post.

  5. Alby, Mottram and I did this ride on 7/5 this summer. Though, frankly, we didn't finish it, and we STARTED at the beach.
    Differing from your approach though, I didn't know trail or the short cuts well enough and literally went through George Washington TWICE. Ugh.
    With the "ride-arounds" I would be up for doing it again, no problem.
    Mottram bailed at the northern end, and I turned south and soldiered on, solo until I hit route 6.
    Then I called it in.

    1. Hey Adam, I saw the recap on Facebook through Shawn. I might have joined were it not for that work thing. We'll see if Dan is up for it this fall - his knowledge of the trails helps alot. Even still, there was plenty of backtracking from missed turns.

  6. I did not think that anyone had done that yet! Much respect! I have ridden it several times from N to S, and heard tell of the Mottram St. Germain expedition. But after hearing that they came up a bit short and knowing their reps (as two of the strongest riders around). I had assumed it a pipe dream for me to even attempt it. That really is a crazy thing to do man! I am dumbfounded that someone actually pulled it off. And Dan Ward you have to be the craziest person ever attempting that on that bike.. And just one final note some of that stuff up north in the Buck Hill area that you refer to as hike a bike (it is for me too) is not really hike a bike for Shawn Mottram. I have seen him ride some of the worst of it. Just a great write up, and for those of you unfamiliar with this trail trust me when I say that Alby should be inducted to the Southern NE MTB hall of fame based on this ride.

  7. Great write up Alby! I'm hoping to do the North South one way on June 29th this year so this was a great read, Thanks!