2016 Blue Ridge

-By Jennifer DeBruyn

“It’s like the walking dead out here…”

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Adventure Capitalists (L-R): Josh, Jenn and Evan

There is one race that makes onto Adventure Capitalists’ race calendar every year – the Blue Ridge Adventure Race.  Over the years, the race directors and names have changed (Blue Ridge and Atomic AR merged a couple years ago) but the race in and around the beautiful northeast Georgia mountain town remains a classic.  Blue Ridge always brings massive elevation, white knuckle whitewater, and unpredictable spring weather and this year did not disappoint.  I was very excited to race this one again after missing the last couple years.  Joining me was Captain Josh and AC Newbie Evan.

Driving to Blue Ridge from east Tennessee through the Chattahoochee National Forest is always a treat.  Nothing like a winding mountain road and REM’s “It’s the end of the world” to put you in the mood for an AR.  We arrived in Blue Ridge around 4 PM, had our bikes and backpacks all ready to go by 5:30.  While the previous week had called for rain all weekend, the forecast now looked relatively clear with only scattered showers.  Race check-in and map distribution wasn’t until the morning, so we enjoyed a very relaxed evening.  Some pizza and beer and bed by 8:00 PM – if only all races were this stress free.  As I drifted off to sleep, I found myself thinking back to my first 24hr+ adventure race:  Exactly 5 years ago, Tabby and I (team Huge Tracts of Land) ran this same race together (then Atomic AR).  The 2011 Atomic had us taking cheap rubber dinghies down the Toccoa, then dragging the deflated boats for miles along the subsequent trek section.  Tabby was near hypothermic overnight and we got hopelessly lost attempting a bike-bushwack down to Amicolola State Park.  I couldn’t help but think how far I’d come in 5 years, and how much better prepared I felt now.

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A man with a plan

After our full night’s sleep, we felt fresh and ready to go.  We checked in at race headquarters in downtown Blue Ridge and picked up our pre-plotted maps.  The course was not going to be clearable, with 60+ checkpoints divided between six segments  (trek-bike-paddle-trek-bike-paddle).  The winning strategy was obvious – the final paddle on Blue Ridge Lake had a lot of checkpoints around the perimeter of the lake, spaced about 20 – 30 min apart.  So the optimum strategy (and indeed the strategy used by the winning team) would be to skip any checkpoints that weren’t along the direct route that would take more than 30 min to get, get to the final paddle early, and get the ones on the lake.   As a team, we decided to eschew this strategy – I love paddling, but Evan and Josh prefer the bike, so we opted to go after more of the bike checkpoints along the way, and just pick up a few by canoe at the end, depending on how much time was left.  Strategy in place, we boarded the buses at 8:00 AM and headed to the start location at Friendship Church in Skeenah Gap.  We clearly got the economy plus seats as Team Drummond Racing was giving out free Leatherman pedicures on the ride over.

 

Segment 1: BMT Trek 

Map1 - Skeenah Gap to Deep Hole

Map1 – Skeenah Gap to Deep Hole

The race began at 9:00 AM.  All racers headed out on foot up the road and onto the Benton MacKaye trail headed south to Deep Hole.  The Atomic/Blue Ridge race has used the BMT in the past, but this was my first time on this particular segment.  It was a beautiful run.  Lots of elevation as we picked up CPs 1 through 7.  We crossed the Toccoa River over the footbridge and picked up CP8 overhanging Rock Creek.  Josh made some new friends as we were jogging along Rock Creek Road, convincing a couple rednecks in a pick up truck that we were “Team America”.  HECK YA!!!  After grabbing CP9, we forded the Toccoa up to the Deep Hole TA.

 

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Rock Creek crossing

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Toccoa River from the BMT footbridge

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Along the Benton MacKaye trail

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Evan channels his inner Russian gymnast

 

Segment 2: Hatchery Bike

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Adventure Capitalists in fine form at CP10

Map2 - Deep Hole and Hatchery Bike

Map2 – Deep Hole area

We transitioned to bike gear and headed out to the fire roads south of Deep Hole.  We knew the next segment, a paddle down the rocky Toccoa River, was next.  The rapids on the Toccoa are not trivial, especially in a canoe, and would only be more difficult and dangerous in the dark.  So our plan was to skip a few CPs (13, 14, 21 and 22) on this bike segment so that we would be back at Deep Hole by 6:00 PM and could complete the paddle before the sunset (8:30).  On this segment, we ended up riding with Jesse Nelson, a solo racer – he was keeping about the same pace as us so we teamed up to find checkpoints.  Most were pretty straight forward.  CP16 gave us a little trouble: the clue was edge of clearing.  As it turned out, there were multiple large clearings in the area, and we pulled off into 2 other clearings, searching the edge, before found the right one.  As we were searching through one clearing, Jesse startled a mother turkey and her 2 chicks nesting in the grasses – it nearly gave me a heart attack (I’m not a fan of large birds, for reasons I’ll not get into hear).  After that it was single track to CP19 and a short and easy bushwack with our bikes got us across to CPs 20 and 23.  Then it was time to take on the Toccoa…

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If only all bike-whacks were this easy…

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“The hills are alllliivvvveeeee….”

 

Segment 3:  Toccoa Paddle

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Why is there a stranger in the back of my canoe?!?

This was my third time on the Toccoa; and Josh has done it even more frequently. The Deep Hole to Dial section boasts some Class II+ rapids, with a particularly big one right where the BMT footbridge crosses the river.  I’m an experience flat-water paddler, and white water in an open canoe makes me nervous.  As the three of us were loading our canoe, soloist Jesse discovered that there was no single kayaks, and he’d have to take a canoe.  We made a quick decision – rather than do 3 in one canoe and 1 in the other, we’d even it out – Josh and Evan in one canoe, Jesse and I in the other.  For me, this took an awful lot of trust.  I’m way more comfortable in the stern of the canoe anyways, so trusting even someone I know to steer us through whitewater is a stretch.  Put me in a boat above the rapids with someone I just met a few hours before?  Yeah, I was nervous.

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Just another idyllic float down class II+ in an open canoe…

Turns out Jesse was a champ.  We worked great as a team, maneuvering though the many rapids.  At first it was thrilling, crashing down through the whitewater.  But it was tough going and the fun wore off after a while.  We slammed in to rocks and got stuck on a lot of barely submerged ledges.  Josh and Evan, being a heavier boat, struggled even more, capsizing four times.  Jesse and I made it through the worst of the rapids at the footbridge without capsizing, but still took on a lot of water as the nose of our canoe plunged over the falls.  We pulled into the Dial TA just as the sun was setting – tired but relatively unscathed, and four more CPs (24-27) in hand.   Needless to say, we were very thankful we didn’t have to do it in the dark.

 

Segment 4: Trek up Pine and Tipton Mountains 

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Hike up the firebreak in the moonlight

Map 3 - Deep Hole to Dial to Wilscot

Map 3 – Deep Hole to Wilscot

As if the paddle hadn’t been frustrating enough, Josh misjudged the water depth getting out of the canoe at Dial and plunged into the river.  Temperatures were dropping rapidly as evening set in, and now he was soaked head to toe with no dry clothes.  It was going to get cold if we didn’t start moving fast.  We pulled out our headlamps, quickly packed our paddle gear and headed up the road to find the next trail.  The trailhead was a little tricky to find and we overshot it.  As we were walking along the road looking for it, we saw a couple teams walking down the road, PFDs and paddles in hand.  I don’t know if they had skipped the paddle entirely or just gave up halfway… either way it just made us even more thankful we had made it down the river in one piece.  Once we found the trailhead, it was a fast trek to CP28 and CP29 along the trail, passing a team that had to back track to look for a lost bike helmet.  From there, a cross-country bushwack up the side of the mountain and along the ridge brought us to the hilltop.  We actually didn’t think we had gone that far, when we stumbled on a yellow geocache-type box.  Turns out that was CP30 – we got lucky running into that one!  From there we bushwacked to a forest service road and picked up an old trail along a fire break.  This hike up the firebreak to CP31 was particularly cool in the middle of the night, the moon illuminating the long wispy grasses.  The trail up to Tipton Mountian netted us CP 32-33.

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Prophetic?

We jogged into Wilscot TA, opting to skip the two trek CPs that were east of the TA, so that we could get rolling on the bikes.  Here we considered two alternate routes:  One was straight up Brawley Mountain, a 400 m climb and single track decent that would get us 2 CPs.  The alternate was to skip those 2 CPs and take the highway around – it would be relatively flat and fast.  We deliberated, noting that the distance was about the same either way.  We were feeling relatively strong, and Hunter Leneinger, who was at the TA with us, assured us the trail on the backside of Brawley was ride-able.  So we grabbed some bbq pork sandwiches, changed into bike gear and prepared to head up the mountain.

 

Segment 5.  The graveyard shift

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I see dead people.

Map4 - Wilscot to Morganton

Map4 – Wilscot to Morganton

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Brawley Mountain Lookout Tower

Up up up.  We rode a good portion of the way up Brawley, but my legs were still punchy from the climbs on the first bike segment, and it ended up being a hike-a-bike up to the top of Brawley Mountain.  CP36 was on the lookout tower at the top, eerie in the moonlight.  The decent down the backside of the mountain was a bit technical, and would probably have been a lot more fun in daylight.  We picked our way down to the paved roads, grabbed CP38 and headed down a gravel to pick up CP40 and 39 in the old graveyard.  From there we had planned to bike back out the way we came.  But a look at the map made it seem like there might be a shortcut:  If we just push our bikes through the woods along the coast for about 600 m, we could pick up the next forest service road to the west.  It was risky, we knew, but could pay off with a big time saving, especially if we could find an old road cut that wasn’t on the map.  We headed in.  It was thick and slow going.  We were about to give up when we stumbled on an unmarked old fireroad running parallel to the coast.  Perfect!  It would take us right to the marked road on the map.  We followed it for a while, it brought us around the coast to the right location.  We pushed our bikes up a steep ridge, anticipating the road at the top.  We got to the top –  but the other road was nowhere to be found.  We might have missed it in the dark, but I’m guessing it just wasn’t there. (A look back on our spot tracker route confirmed we were, indeed, in the right spot.  There was no road.)  Dejected, we bike-whacked thought the woods another 800 m up to the main road.  We had definitely lost some time on that move.  I had also messed up my front derailleur trying to punch my bike through the undergrowth, and the BBQ we had at the last TA had not been sitting well.  Happy to be back on gravel, we ploughed on down the road. CP41, another tiny old graveyard, gave us some trouble, as it was not visible from the main road.  But after a couple passes, Josh found it.  We then started heading back north to the Morganton TA, with a stop to pick up CP42 and 43 as the sun was coming up.  Josh finally succumbed to the pork, emptying his stomach contents in the underbrush while Jesse and I punched CP42.  He rallied like a pro, and we rolled north to the TA, grabbing CP44 on the way.  It hadn’t been pretty, but at least we cleared this bike segment.

 

Segment 6.  Final paddle and finish

Map5 - Blue Ridge Lake paddle and finish

Map5 – Morganton to Finish

We rolled into the Morganton TA around 7:00 AM – only 2 hours left in the race.  We kept our bike gear on, threw on our PFDs and piled Josh into the middle of the canoe (this time Jesse had a kayak).  We quickly crossed the lake to pick up 3 of the closest shoreline CPs.  We debated running in for a couple more, but decided that with our stomach and bike issues, we should leave ourselves lots of time to get to the finish.  We dropped the canoes, grabbed our bikes and rode to the finish line in downtown Blue Ridge.  With 40 CPs total, we finished 4th among coed teams.  It was a solid race, with really only one mistake (our gamble on the bike-whack short cut).  We worked well as a team and really enjoyed adding Jesse as our plus one!

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Jesse finally found a kayak

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Crossing the Blue Ridge Dam on our way to the finish line

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Adventure Capitalists and their ‘plus one’ at the finish of the FLX Blue Ridge Adventure Race 2016