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Holly
July 11, 2018

Tread Lightly: The Three Plateaus

Posted by Holly

The granite plateaus of the cairngorms began their life far from the sun, at the roots of a mountain chain, at a time when Scotland and America were still parts of the same landmass. Wind, water and ice took their toll, and the mountains were eroded into nothing, but their roots remained. Ice came and took bites from it, but the granite was only diminished a little, 1000m above the land around it. It became Am Monadh Ruadh, the Cairngorms: round-backed and standing proud of everything around them, a mountain fiefdom separate from the rest of the Highlands. They are closest thing to wildness that we have on our increasingly crowded island.

Winters are long for the Cairngorms: the mild, damp Atlantic climate of the glens is replaced with sub-arctic patterns of early frost and late-lying snow, and the wind has nothing to impede it as it tears across their shoulders. Only crawling alpine plants can tolerate it, so that the crowberry beside your ankle is a giant compared to its neighbours. The ptarmigan and mountain hare change their coat to white to meet the onset of winter, and the UK’s only herd of reindeer spend their summer roaming the plateau.

Summer is short, but sweet. That’s when the sun never seems to want to leave the summits, and maps come out, and adventures are hatched. The highest places in the Cairngorms are fragile, and we have to try to tread lightly there whether it’s with tires or boots, but to ride there on a long summer evening is like nothing else. For a few years, we had a route simmering away to try and link as much of the highest places as we could, but aligning the time, the company and most importantly the weather is never easy on an island stuck part way into the North Atlantic. The push towards lighter, more technical routes has given fresh momentum to the inherent adventure of bikepacking, and we knew that a single-track heavy, aesthetic line existed through the Cairngorms, where the easier gradients make the riding efficient enough to be worthwhile.

Cue the summer to end all summers! It hadn’t rained for weeks when we set out on a scorching (well, for Scotland) Friday afternoon; the grasses of the plateau were ripening to a midsummer gold, and we were grateful to the ever-strengthening breeze as we winched, sweating up the steep dirt road through the ski centre of the Northern Corries. Annie had left a couple of hours earlier, having agreed a rendezvous on the summit of Ben MacDui, the country’s second-highest point. As Scott and I left the mountain’s developed northern face behind from the summit, the empty upland backcountry of the Cairngorm plateau spread its arms wide: the country hidden behind the mountains.From the giant, rounded cobbles of the summits, the trail sweeps the corrie rim in an arc, drawing you on to lochains fringed by yellow-green meadows, before the ground rises incrementally, growing almost too high for even the plants, to the bald, grey head of Ben MacDui, where Annie stood waiting. It was 10.30pm. To watch the sun set from a mountain’s top is a rare treat, no matter where or what you’re doing. Nan Shepherd wrote some of the most famous words about these mountains, saying: “The focal point is everywhere. Nothing has reference to me, the looker. This is how the Earth must see itself.” An hour of descending later, we camped beside the dark waters of Loch Etchachan, still high enough to watch the fading glow as the sun hid itself for a few hours. One plateau down.

When we next opened our eyes the light was clear and bright, the temperature rising as we continued to descend into Royal Deeside, stopping for breakfast in Braemar after stopping for a mandatory swim in the Derry Burn. The day ahead took us towards Balmoral Castle (no, the Queen wasn’t in) and ‘Dark Lochnagar’, who looms above it. Even loaded with plenty of food, it’s a joy to travel light in the summer months. I’ve been using the Vole seat bag for a wee while now, but this was the first time I’d used it with a dropper post and in honesty I’d forgotten it was there on the technical descents of the day before. Between the Vole, a small Sweet Roll and a small rucksack, I had everything I needed.

Not that packing light made the climb on to our second plateau any easier. More winch, more sweat, more opportunity to eat some food and lower that weight… Like Cairn Gorm, Lochnagar’s dour northern face masks the plateau behind, and after a lengthy hike the climbing was done. On the way, a hiker kindly told Annie, a little ahead of Scott and I, that it would be impossible to get a bike there. The fact that she had, in fact, done it before didn’t change his mind.The tors that pepper the plateaus of the Cairngorms are relics of the landscape before it was scoured by ice, being preserved in the highest places because the ice was moving away from them rather than over them. They are remnants of the rock that formed in the roots of those ancient hills, now revealed to the sun. The summit of Lochnagar is a spectacular place, more of a promontory from which we could see our starting place on Cairn Gorm, the royal castle below us, and our third plateau stretching away beyond it to the north.

This time, the descent was sinuous, a looping thread of dust between the grass of the meadows that ducked and dived around corners out of sight. The filter of fatigue made it less enjoyable than it could have been, as tired brains stopped sending important to signals to even tired-er-er muscles. There was a grateful sigh as we were spat out not far from Braemar, and a pressing date with the fish and chip shop…With full bellies after a long and physical day, we span away from the tourist trappings of Braemar up the Quoich Water, to a camp spot on an island in the barely flowing water of the river. Unfortunately, it was then that I discovered that the tin of fish in my seat bag had been ‘compromised’, possibly through being squished as the plastic plate on the underside of the Vole made contact with the tire while descending. I was banished to the edge of the island to sort it out in a well-ventilated space. (Huw later noted “that despite the tire contact to the Vole, there’s no damage at all, it’s been coping just fine, apart from the tin of fish!”)

From quiet places to quieter still. The third and final day would take us to the eastern Cairngorms, the enormous bulk of Beinn a’Bhuird and Beinn Avon, standing silent and more distant than the others. The climb to reach them is, literally, a ladder to the sky, streaking on and on and on around the flank of the hill, to a skyline that never seems to grow closer, until suddenly it is beneath you, and the great stone legs of the northern face are revealed.

Summer can’t last, and nor could our time riding up there. Eventually, we dropped out of the sun and back to earth, still with miles to do, but grinning from ear to ear with the satisfaction of having made a familiar part of Scotland feel new again. Summer on the mountains here is all too fleeting, but then again, if adventures like that were possible at any time, they wouldn’t be so special. Soon summer will be dead; long live next summer!Words and photos by Huw Oliver. You can follow Huw on more adventures through Scotland and beyond at his blog Topofests.

Holly
June 12, 2018

Highland Trail 550 Gear Freak-Out

Posted by Holly

The 2018 Highland Trail got a little too exciting for me, and in the end wasn’t a completion, although it had nothing to do with my gear choices. I do like to indulge in a little gear nerding from time to time, and optimizing my kit for this year gave me something to think about in the months leading up to May. At the end of the day, it’s stronger legs that make you move faster during a race, but gear choices play their part in allowing your body to do its best, and it gave me something tangible to chew on.

I was pleased with my choices last year, but we can always learn and improve, and this year I felt like I had my bike totally dialed in for the way I like to ride, even if my stomach had other ideas, so I’ve listed what I used and why here. If you’re of a mind to come to Scotland for a Highland freak-out in 2019, then let your gear geekery start here!

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Santa Cruz Tallboy CC, medium

I love this bike. I’ve been riding it for around 18 months now, and it just gets better and better. It covers the whole spectrum of riding styles that appeal to me, from endurance events like the Highland Trail through to the gnadgiest, steepest trails I’ve ridden. Its own capabilities far exceed my own, and the pedalling position is a great match for my own ideas of being comfortable. As well as being super composed over technical terrain, the VPP system is effectively a rigid anyway on more pedally sections. I don’t think you could take a better bike on the Highland Trail, and every year I wonder why so many riders line up on rigids. Maybe I’m just soft.

Santa Cruz Tallboy CC features:
Fox 34 Performance Elite forks, 130mm
Fox Float Performance Elite rear shock
SRAM GX Eagle drivetrain, 10-50 cassette and 32t chainring
Hope Tech 3 X2 brakes, 180mm rotors
Hope carbon seatpost
Hope Pro4 hubs
ZTR Arch rims
Maxxis Ikonfront and rear, 29 x 2.35
Specialized Phenom saddle
Salsa Salt Flat Carbon bar, 750mm width, and Hope 70mm stem
Ergon GS1 grips
Shimano XT pedals

Revelate Designs Sweetroll

I used a size small Sweetroll this time around, as I needed a lot less volume than last time around, and the smaller roll kept the front end of the bike really nice and neat. The simple drybag-harness system is obviously light, and the fact that I didn’t have that much kit allowed me to unpack and repack the bag quickly while just keeping it on the bike.

  • SOL Escape Pro Bivvy
    After being too warm at night last year, I figured that I could lose a little weight from my sleep kit. First to go was the full-size eVent bivvy in favour of this SOL bivvy that I’ve been reviewing. It’s fragile and small for everyday use, but perfect for racing because it combines small pack size, light weight and bonus insulation from the thermally reflective coating. The fabric does actually breathe well, too. It weighs 220g and does the job of a few hour’s sleep perfectly.
  • Cumulus Quilt 150
    By the same logic, I decided my sleeping bag was too big for racing, and less down means cheaper! This quilt is fairly new, but after several nights I’m pretty sold on its 330g of warmth, as long as the temperature stays above 5 degrees Celsius. The only downside is that when racing without a mat it feels weird lying directly on the ground!
  • Montane Fireball Primaloft top
    My sleep layer and emergency warm layer for riding. There is no point using down in Scotland as the chances of getting wet are high, but this top has been all over Scotland and the world with me, and is plenty warm enough for summer in Scotland.
  • Montane Primaloft mitts and hat
    See above. Keeping your extremities warm keeps you happy, and the mitts just about allow me to brake while being perfect in foul weather (they get wet, but your hands stay warm).
  • Spare socks
    For sleeping in, to help my feet dry out
  • Arm warmers, Waterproof knee warmers, Light windproof gilet
    The forecast was warm and dry this year, but it’s still Scotland.

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Revelate Designs Vole seat bag

I LOVE the Vole. In hindsight, I’ve been waiting for this bag to exist for a little while, but it was worth the wait because the refinement and careful thought that have gone into it is obvious. The skid plate on the underside means that there is a rigid element enclosing the bag on all four sides, which I think makes it behave almost like a holster to keep its shape when packed with odd things or when run almost empty. It’s also got an enormous range of usable volumes, which is spot on for racing, and it served to carry a range of items while also being my surplus food silo between resupplies. Lastly, it’s by far the most stable seat bag I’ve ever used – when cinched down it’s solid.

  • Puncture repair kit, pump, GX Eagle jockey wheels and spare inner tubes
    I’ve started using Tubolito’s teeny tiny inner tubes (orange) – this is one standard weight and one ultra-light tube. Between them they weigh less than one standard 29er tube. The spare jockey wheels are in response to issues that I’ve heard of with GX Eagle mechs deciding they don’t need their jockey wheels anymore, mid-ride, although I’ve had no problems.
  • Toiletries and first aid
    Fresh teeth are always nice in the morning, and my basic first aid kit consists of a large wound dressing for trauma, two blister plasters, some tape and some ibuprofen. With those things and duct tape, you can fix most problems (apart from vomiting and heatstroke).
  • Waffles
    Because carbs.
  • Drinks mix
    Some sachets of recovery drink to have immediately before sleeping and help my body to refuel, plus several sachets of Tailwind nutrition for during the day, and a tube of High5 caffeinated hydration tabs.
  • Batteries
    For my Garmin, SPOT and a battery pack to recharge my phone, which was my backup nav option.


On the Bike

On the bars were a Garmin eTrex and Exposure Race light, with my SPOT tracker on my top tube (where it did a fairly poor job of transmitting my location, apparently).

I kept tools and spares fairly minimal, but did carry a spare for every bolt on the bike, plus valve core and basically enough to repair all the problems I’d actually experienced in real life whether personally or in a guiding situation. Example: those bolts that hold your jockey wheels in are actually very specific, and a spare weighs a couple of grams. I have seen one disappear mid-ride on a client’s bike before…. I had my tool roll strapped up and hidden at the front of the front triangle. If I had a frame bag (and that’s perhaps the only thing I would change about this setup) then it would have lived at the bottom of that, but as it was this method kept heavy things on the frame, and the Washboard straps kept it solidly in place.

I would usually use just one 750ml bottle (not pictured), but due to the heat and dryness in May, I took an extra 500ml bottle in a feed bag beside the stem. It was enough, as plenty of streams were still running, but I had to refill every couple of hours.

Snacks, multi-tool and chain lube I kept in my Revelate Designs Mag-Tank


On me

  • Nice bright jersey
    I like one with pockets to put rolled up pizza in.
  • Wool socks
    HT550 unofficial rules say non-wool socks equals a DQ
  • Giro DnD gloves
    Not pictured because I’ve lost them, oops!
  • Gore Windstopper overshorts
    I ride in these 95% of the time, but for once it was actually too warm for them, so they lived in a pocket.
  • Giro Terraduro shoes
  • Smith Session helmet
  • My comfiest pair of bibs
  • Oakley Photochromic glasses


So there you go. Less is more, and by my reckoning I was carrying about a kilo less than I did last year. I think the sleep system is as light as I could go in Scotland – I very nearly left the quilt behind as the forecast was so warm, but on the one night I did spend out on the trail a sea fog came in and it was pretty cold, so I was glad I chucked it in.
The food capacity I had for resupplies was ideal as well. The schedule I had in mind involved doing 2 stints of 24 hours between restocks, and until the point that I got ill that was working fine. Being able to put extra food in the vole rather than in jersey pockets was a nice improvement over 2017’s very warm pocket-based egg sandwiches.
A bike that’s packed neatly tends to ride a lot better, and the bags I used this time around allowed a bike that rode really nicely when loaded, especially due to the stable and collapsible/expandable seat bag. Like I said, the only thing I would change in future would be to explore the possibility of a frame bag – in the past I had always assumed that using the front triangle for just a bottle would be fine, but having seen other setups making good use of a bag on full-suspension frames, I could be convinced…

You can follow Huw on more adventures through Scotland and beyond at his blog Topofests.

“It’s smoky up this way, too,” I said, gazing out the jeep window.

Boberts and I were driving northeast, through one of those long, linear valleys the Appalachians are known for. Patches of smoke drifted over the ridge tops and spilled across rural farm fields. It was fall 2016—the weekend after the presidential election—and massive forest fires were finally contained around our originally-planned route through Nantahala and Chattahoochee National Forests. Even though the trails were re-opened, a hoot and hollerin’ ride through a clean-up zone seemed uncool, plus a respiratory nightmare.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

We’d scrambled to find a plan B. Boberts only had Friday off, while I was just passing through between projects. We needed a three-day ride, with moderate mileage and elevation—maybe 90 miles and 6000 feet of climbing—within a few hours’ drive of Chattanooga. Scanning the map, my eyes locked on Big South Fork Rec Area. A beautiful place, which I only knew from kayaking years before. An internet search revealed a slew of gravel roads and multi-use trails, plus river viewpoints and forested slopes that might still have some fall color. There was even a recently designated Epic ride.

I couldn’t find much online info about previous bikepacking. One guy in a forum said he was riding in with a sleeping bag to avoid campground fees—about ten bucks, about ten years ago. The guy was never heard from again… on this particular forum. Boberts and I had spent a month preparing for our first foray into cold-season bikepacking, and we were itching to go somewhere. I suggested, why not stick to our roving rider approach and explore. What could possibly go wrong?

“We’ll see,” said Boberts.IMG_5050

After stopping by Bandy Creek Visitor Center for info, we packed up and started around noon. The gravel Duncan Hollow Road led through fields and forests. The colors on the trees were, well…there were two: evergreen and brown. Sure, there were hints of crimson and pale orange. But, overall, it looked like the heat and drought had sent most leaves straight to brown and ground.

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We shrugged this off and focused on the route, which soon dropped off the plateau down a ridiculously steep dirt trace that made our brake pads sing until singed. In a shady landing, midway to the bottomlands, we stopped to cool our bikes and warm our hands beside the rotors. Continuing, we forded a pair of creeks with bare feet, and soon we rode next to the Big South Fork of the Cumberland. The trail was as scenic and flat as we’d hoped, but some spots were just roots stripped of topsoil by previous high flows. Other sections were pocked by thousands of cobblestones churned up by horse hoofs. We rode when we could, but often walked.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

“Baby heads,” mused Boberts.

“Bowling balls,” I muttered.

We dismounted to chat with a friendly woman on horseback, the only person we saw that afternoon. But after she passed, we scowled at her horse—which left us a little present dropped onto the choppy trail in reply. When the riverside trail ended, we turned up the ominous No Business Creek and followed that to the Kentucky Trail. This rugged singletrack, described as popular for hiking and biking, shot upward with almost as steep a gradient as our previous descent. We pushed until we could ride under remarkable hard-rock slabs through shady forests pocketed with great color.

But, when we reached the next junction, it was time to reevaluate. The first 12 miles, involving only 700-feet down and back up, had taken three hours. Slow going. If we continued on Kentucky Trail, we faced at least six more miles of similar terrain—through pleasant watersheds named Difficult and Troublesome Creek—before returning to guaranteed water at the river. Could take hours more than daylight offered.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe’d have to plan C to a back-up campsite, with nine miles on gravel roads. On our way, we stopped by Peters Mountain trailhead to inspect what could work as a camp. But with broken glass and trash strewn around a picnic table and outhouse, it looked like a sketchy backwoods hangout. Instead, we zipped down Peters Mountain Road into Rock Creek valley. The temperature plummeted as we descended. We were shivering as we rolled into Bell Farm Horse Camp—locked for the season, but fine for us to use according to the ranger.

This was our first cold season multiday bike trip, after years of milder season rides. We’d come prepared with highly packable layers, shells, puff coats, hats, gloves, and socks. When the long-term forecast announced dropping temps throughout the weekend, I’d called Boberts in a mild panic.
“I have a foot crisis,” I’d blurted, explaining that my increasingly poor circulation had led to near frost-nip situations on recent winter paddling and skiing trips. Extra wool socks no longer cut it.

“You have a foot crisis,” Dr. Boberts expertly diagnosed.

“Thanks, doc. And there’s no magic pill for that? Maybe something that can’t be transported across state lines?”

Boberts suggested shoe covers, so I now had a pair of those, too.
We had a fun night, catching up fireside. We rehydrated with water, dehydrated with whiskey, rehydrated with Mountain House meals. The ground was frozen by the time we called it quits. We were feeling lazy, and what with the season well over, we didn’t string a bear bag. Instead, we hung our food from the lantern post at an adjacent site.IMG_5031It was around five a.m. when I awoke to the huffing sound of nostrils near my head. Like a curious dog, but louder, deeper, throatier. And that would be a bear. It was probably only feet from my tent. I held still, determined not to startle it and end up with a few new openings in the tent or me. I heard leaves crackle as it moved off, hopefully away from Boberts’ hammock and not toward.

“Boberts!” I whispered. “There’s a bear in our camp!”

“Yeah, no shit,” said Boberts, fully awake.

“We need to make a lot of noise to scare it off,” I said, slightly louder.

“No, we need to be quiet, so it doesn’t come back.”

With increasingly loud voices, we argued about strategies, until the bear became frustrated by our poor interpersonal communication skills and ran off through the bushes.

The next day, we filled water and took off on the gravel road that followed Rock Creek. We passed a few homesteads but more collapsed cabins. Tiny graveyards, with bright plastic flowers offered by gravestones, reminded us of Appalachia’s booms and busts. Our goal was to use our lone full day to loop back on the Kentucky Trail and explore south toward the epic ride. Gravel led to a paved but steep climb. On the desolate ridgetop, one old and small Baptist church stood just down the road from another massive and newer Baptist church.

At the bottom of the hill, we entered a tiny hamlet with a dozen cabins and trailers. Most yards had a handmade sign, with similarly-themed questions, which made the whole town feel like a pop quiz. Things like:

“How will you meet THE END?”

“Can you welcome him into your heart?

“Jesus is coming. Are you ready?

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“I forgot,” said Boberts, slapping his forehead. “That’s the one thing we’re not prepared for.”

From Dick Gap trailhead, we rejoined the single-track Kentucky Trail. In some spots, it was steep yet passable. Soon the challenges and contradictions resumed. The forest was lush and gorgeous, but the trail included frequent bone-rattling erosion planks. We passed a remarkable waterfall, but had to descend several cliffs by wooden staircase. We even encountered a ladder over a down tree.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA“A real bridge to nowhere,” muttered Boberts as we carried over.Hoping to replenish water at the promisingly named Big Spring Hollow, we instead found an algae and bug-infested trickle. We climbed to the next creek, but no better. We couldn’t bring ourselves to treat this murky stuff, so now we needed a new plan. The river was hundreds of feet down a mossy cliff face. We were moving only 1-2 miles per hour. Despite temps in the low-50s, we were sucking water down faster than expected due to all the exertion. Thus, backtracking seemed out. We agreed to accept defeat, skip the epic ride, and return to the gravel ridge road. The easier riding would allow us to conserve water. And hopefully we could fill up along the way instead of returning all the way to Rock Creek.

Luckily, the climb to the road was gradual and soon we were on gravel, making good time. We passed a few settlements, but all were either abandoned or fenced-in fortresses, with no trespassing signs. We’d nearly resigned ourselves to returning to Rock Creek, when we passed a cabin with a three-generation family sitting on the porch. When I asked if there was a nearby water source, the grandmother stood up.

“Sure is,” she said warmly, pointing at the ground. “Got water right here.”
She explained they had a well and insisted we fill up in her kitchen, not with the garden hose. We spent a half hour visiting and chatting about our ride thus far. They had no phone, no TV, just a generator and probably a radio—though we didn’t see one. They seemed almost completely untouched by the circus of the 2016 presidential election. I wished we could say the same. Eventually, we pushed on toward an uncertain camp.

Clouds were gathering on the horizon. A stiff and icy headwind picked up, followed by drizzly rain. We squinted as we rode the scenic ridgeline between thick forest and periodic sandstone outcrops. When we passed the less-than-ideal Peters Mountain trailhead we’d spotted the night before, we doubled back. The smart choice was to build camp before the storm hit. Tent and hammock went up, and we rolled bikes into the outhouse. I cleared the kitchen area of broken glass and trash—a final pedal to the shins on a trip that hadn’t gone as hoped.

Temps were in the low thirties by the time we sat down at the picnic table for dinner. Snow flurries fell from a thick black sky. On the road below, truck headlights rolled through the junction and began ascending the sideroad to our clearing. The truck stopped, possibly spotting my headlamp as I burned water on my alcohol stove.

“Got company,” I said.

Boberts glanced around. With cinder block shadows and moonlight glistening off broken bottles, the clearing had all the charm of an impromptu car camp or an Appalachian meth shop.

“Turn your light off,” whispered Boberts.

“Turn yours ON,” I countered. “Let them know we’re here and this space is taken.”

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While we argued about strategies, our headlamp beams swung around the clearing in spastic movements. From a distance, they probably looked downright meth-induced. The truck occupants must have become suspicious of our behaviors, because the truck reversed down the sideroad and sped off into the darkness.

Our only remaining challenge was the dropping temperature. Boberts is a burly fella who doesn’t usually get cold, yet also doesn’t like the cold—his nickname isn’t Dr. Boberts Hawaii M.D. without reason. So, he never anticipated wanting an under-quilt for his hammock. I gave him all my extra clothes for insulation. Plus, I told him that if it came to it, we could turn my 1.5-man tent into a 2.5-man emergency shelter by lying straight as boards and holding our breaths all night. I was relieved when Boberts said that wasn’t necessary. And I slept soundly through the night, while Boberts was absolutely miserable and developed his own circulation condition.IMG_5045After hot coffee the next morning, we rode out along the Divide Road, plus a series of trails, steeps, and creek crossings. We were pushing up another insane slope, when Boberts offered an unsolicited compliment.

“You know,” he said. “When you’re on your game, you’re really on your game. But—”

“There was a forest fire,” I interrupted. “Should we have just ridden laps around your block a thousand times?”

“Just saying,” said Boberts, with a laugh.

“Well, thanks,” I replied, chuckling. “I mean, I did put a lot of effort into this plan B.”

“Can you imagine what might have happened if you hadn’t?”

We went on like this for a while, so busy joking about lessons learned that neither of us noticed we’d reached the top of our last push. Despite it being a few degrees above freezing, neither of us was cold anymore. And as we rode the remaining miles through a pit of sand—okay, who put that here? Are we being toyed with?—we started talking about where to ride next.

“Some place where we ride more than sixty percent of the time,” said one of us, can’t remember who, while the other said, “Agreed.”

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Photos by Boberts Hawaii and California Mike.

Mike Bezemek is a writer and photographer of books and blogs for Adventure Cyclist Magazine, Canoe & Kayak, Falcon Guides, Skyhorse Publishing, and more. Please find links to his work and contact info at mikebezemek.com.