Getting down in the Quasi Backcountry: a how to guide to riding and camping in Michaux, Greenridge and other state forests.

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Wild places are simultaneously alluring and terrifying.  The enlightenment philosophical concept of the sublime sought to define these entwined concepts.  Kant, in the late 1700’s, wrote that the sublime was a separate thing from the beautiful.  The sublime is found in formless, boundless entities.  Nature and the wilderness can be sublime, not say, a flower, or even a park full of flowers.  Schopenhauer postulated that for something to be fully sublime, it also had to be unpredictable, potentially violent and harmful.  A mountain and it’s weather system, a storm in the Atlantic, and a grizzly bear in a meadow all qualify as sublime. 

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Turner was a master of painting the emotional essence of the sublime.

Humans are drawn to the sublime.  Sometimes it’s through a book about survival or an arduous trek, sometimes it’s art (Frederick Church, Turner) or music (black metal, Beethoven), and sometimes it’s through direct experience.  Rowing across the ocean.  Solo AT thru-hikes.  Racing the continental divide bike race. There are degrees of the sublime and wilderness experiences.  Not all backcountry experiences are equally dangerous, even if they all have some level of danger.  The trick is to find experiences that are going to give a feeling of the sublime without leaving you stranded in a bivy sack on the side of an ice waterfall waiting for a rescue chopper.

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Frederick is pretty close to a number of quasi wilderness areas.  I say quasi, because there is very little true wilderness left on the east coast, but there are plenty of stretches of trees cut only by a thin dirt road.  They’re called state forests, and there are a bunch near by.  Michaux State Forest is less than half an hour away, and is a current shop favorite.  Green Ridge is under 1.5 hours away.  Savage River is just over 2 hours.  Buchanan State Forest in PA is 1.5 hours.  And that’s just to name a few.  State forests generally all share the same key attributes:  They are all well mapped, they generally lack ‘organized activity facilities’ like normal camp spots, pavilions, swimming pools, etc, and you can back country camp in them.  The maps and the back country camping are the elements that make these places are super cool.  You can ride on back roads, fire roads, single track, find a good place to plunk down for the night, and ride some more in the morning.  You find a quiet dirt road to ditch the car, orient yourself with the map, and head out.  The forest links above all have downloadable maps, but paper maps are the way to go if one is available.  Michaux’s paper map that the DCNR prints is close to perfect.  

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The lack of recreational facilities in state forests means that most folks stay away, preferring the edited experience of a State Park.  You won’t find too many people willing to go recreate somewhere where they have to make up their own plan.  It’s work, and there’s chance involved, as well as risk.  What if you take a wrong turn down a long mountain road and end up in some boggy marsh?  Here’s the thing: if you venture off the beaten path, sometimes you’ll strike out.  That’s ok, it’s part of the experience.  You can’t always find some rad overlook, or summit some amazing mountain.  I’ve summited plenty of mountains only to find the top completely covered in trees and no view in sight.  The thing is, when you do stumble upon a great view, or a winding trout stream, you are filled with a genuine sense of discovery and wonder.  Discovery & wonder don’t exist when you already know what’s coming.  You’re just turning the page on a book you’ve already skimmed.  

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Here’s what you’ll need to head off into a state forest for some wilderness exploration:

A good map.  USGS topo maps are great but often outdated.  Combine an electronic USGS topo map like the excellent Gaia app with a real, updated trail map.  Most local DNR offices have one.  The Michaux map is particularly excellent; it’s big, easy to read, and updated with lots of trails lacking from the 1994 USGS maps.  Just call them and ask for them to mail you one (expect to pay a few bucks for that) or snag one from the DNR office. 

A compass.  Learn how to use one, and not just how to point yourself north.  Electronics fail as often as they work, and if you don’t know how to use a compass and a map to navigate, you should either learn or stay away from backwoods wanderings.  One dunk in the creek and your phone is shot.  Here’s a great resource on how to use a compass for orienteering:  http://www.orienteeringusa.org/new-o/resources/videos#learning

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A course. You can just get out and randomly wander.  I’m all for that.  But a general idea of where you want go (check out a lake, a stream, etc) is usually a good idea, and gives you a basic goal, as well as a point of navigation.  I like ridewithgps.com, which is a free mapping website that auto generates cue sheets after you make a route.  You can save them and reference them later.  It has a handy USGS overlay that lets you find small remote streams, weird old jeep trails, avoid populated areas, etc.  I use this, a paper map and Gaia to navigate.  I draw the route in orange marker on the real map, and follow along on Gaia, or download the GPX track from ridewithgps to Gaia.  It’s easier than it sounds, just read the tutorial.  I pick routes based on water features, road names, tiny-ness of the road, or mountain features (names like “Dark Hollow Vista” are usually good indicators of something rad).  After a basic route is picked out, realize you are probably going to deviate from it.  Flexibility and on the fly rerouting is often key, as old trails disappear into the leaves, bridges are washed out, or trails are impassible with a touring bike. Set realistic goals for yourself.  40 miles of riding in Michaux is really difficult, and will leave you wasted in a way that 40 miles of normal road riding never would.  25-35 miles a day is a realistic goal, especially with a load of camping gear.   

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Rough rows, top to bottom, left to right: First Aid kit with bandages, pain killers, tweezers, etc, vaseline soaked cotton balls for starting fires, a sharpening stone, stainless opinel No 8 knife, compass. Row 2: Rubber band, glue sticks (melt with lighter for gear repair) and a needle and electric tape wrapped around a spare cell phone battery with Paracord, chap stick, chlorine water drops, char cloth and strike anywhere matches in a tin. Row 3: Zippo, spork, headlamp, all on a sturdy paradigmatic handkerchief.

Overpack on food and water.  You’ll eat more than ya think, and drink more water too.  I bring 90 oz or so of water, and expect to have to treat water at least once while in the field, choosing natural springs when I can, and moving water when springs are not available.  If you are heading out for multiple days, you’ll probably have to snag some dehydrated meals from your local backpacking store.  When the meal says two servings, think one.  When it says one serving, buy two.

Obviously you need lots of other things.  I never head anywhere remote without a basic survival kit (fire stuff, knife, first aid kit, water purifiers, etc), proper layers, and appropriate shelter, even for day trips.  You don’t know what’s going to happen, and a pound of survival gear goes a long way if things get bad.  Food, water, and tools are all musts as well.  I carry a comprehensive tool kit, a kettle that I can also use as a stove, a mug, rain gear, and my front hub can charge my phone. 

Some caveats:  always check local camping regulations. Most state forests have simple regulations: no car camping, no horse camping, no extended stays, no big parties.  Keep groups small, keep fires small, completely clean your campsite after packing up, and fully extinguish your fire.  Check with the local DNR office about fire danger. If it’s been raining, you’re probably ok, but summer time is often a good time to skip a fire and stick with a stove.  Back woods riding is dangerous.  Things can bite you, you can twist an ankle, crack a collar bone, etc.  It’s best to travel with a partner; let someone know where you are going.  That sorta thing.  Be safe, go rad places.