Backpacking to Bikepacking: Mountains of the East and a Lake Twice
By Kieran Andrews
We used to love backpacking. My partner, Dee, and I would pack up our bags and hit the trail each year when we needed a break from riding bikes. But that was before I had the kind of crash that changes your life forever. Now, walking with a pack is nothing but a distant memory for me and we both miss spending time in the woods together. At the risk of sounding like aging hippies, we laughingly call this time together our “forest therapy” and we don’t get enough of it. This summer, however, Dee and I decided to change this.
The last time that I strapped a heap of equipment onto my bike and headed off for an adventure, I called it “touring.” While the bags are different now and we call it bikepacking, the nuts and bolts of a ride like this are the same: no start line, no finish line, no timing chips. The goal of the ride is to simply roll around beautiful places at our own pace while eating and drinking what we find along the way. Dee and I wanted to get as far into the backcountry as a bike could take us while also keeping our load light. I worked up a route from the High Peaks region of New York's Adirondacks through the western Green Mountains of Vermont, finding the smallest roads and tracks possible, all while occasionally dropping into civilization to keep our logistics simple.
We set out on our adventure in mid-August, and by day three, we were a few hundred kilometers into our summer holiday. We’d slowly gotten the knack of packing up each morning; organizing our gear so that it would stay dry in case of rain while keeping essential things accessible for when we needed them. Even the route that I’d puzzled together from the comfort of our kitchen a month earlier was working out well. We nailed the timing for the ferry to Burlington, Vermont and joined in the chaos of Saturday night in that vibrant little city. We managed to drag our loads over both the Appalachian and Lincoln Gaps and made our way back toward Champlain Lake for the second time. Our vacation was going great. And then I started to worry for the first time.
Before setting off on our bikepacking trip a few days earlier, there were two sections of the route that concerned me a little bit. These two sections of gravel track were unknown to me, and I wasn't sure they were ridable, which would mean going far, far out of our way if they proved impassible. As the first section approached, dark clouds amassed overhead. We were deep into our longest, hardest day and we were both dog-tired.
We passed the dead-end signs and then we passed the use-at-your-own-risk signs, both were perforated by bullet-holes. The clouds grew darker and we climbed higher and higher while the track got smaller and more rugged. As each kilometer took us deeper into the remote trail, my nerves grew and I wondered how I’d admit to Dee that I wasn't sure the route went through or what we were going to do if it didn’t. Then, with a sigh of relief, the trail topped out and started to descend. After 12 kilometers of giggly, rocket-fast descending, we were back into the late-day sunshine and onto the shore of Lake Champlain with a huge sense that we’d dodged a bullet.
The next day, we faced the second unknown section of our route. Despite even greater uncertainty about this part of our trip, we approached the challenges with confidence since we had daylight on our side. Again, we climbed until the shrinking track and the shrinking trees indicated that we were close to tree line and close to the limit of what was rideable on our gravel bikes. Call it luck or call it crafty route-finding, we navigated our way through the marshy pass to another giddy descent.
At this point, however, Dee was slowly submitting to the kind of bonk that can forever change one’s relationship with the world. Admit it, you’ve had one of these bonks. And if you haven’t, then you will, at some dark and dreary moment, you will. Just as the lights were truly starting to go out, we rolled close enough to civilization for a badly needed fast-food intervention. It was magical. And with a few hours of sun left, we tasked ourselves for the remainder of the day to blend our stark cycling, tan lines, which, by the way, never seems to work for me.
Rounding out our bikepacking adventure was a trip up Whiteface Mountain. As one of the very few alpine roads in the east, this was the icing on the cake. We set out for this climb on our last day, leaving our gear at the bottom because we’d be returning the same way down. Climbing without the burden of our gear, the sense of freedom grew as we inched closer and closer and then beyond tree line. Perched high on the summit of Whiteface Mountain, we traced our whole route by looking over the hazy mountain range to the east. After several restoring days of forest therapy, we were once again reminded just how far bikes can take us if we just let them.