These are the Times

” These are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country. But he, that stands by it now, deserves the love and the thanks of man and woman.”

Prophetic words from Thomas Paine, one of the Founders, which rings true today. We are all in a position to come together – although not physically with the “stay at home” rules, but mentally, in communication with each other, and prayers to the Almighty in these trying times. With social media, I-Phones and technology, we can stay in touch, communicate, send pictures, work from home and call and talk to each other. We can have some semblance of normalcy if we band together to beat this virus or at least stem the tide of its advancement.


Looking at pictures of our groups, we can remember good times and look forward to good times ahead. When you view a picture, sometimes you can see someone who you have not talked to in a little while. Text them. Email them. Call them. Ask them how they are doing in these unusual times. In many ways, that is the service to your country. It pales in comparison to military service or perhaps the service of our many first responders, nurses, hospital workers, but in many ways- bonding together even virtually for a time is service to us all.

Janet and I are trying to do our part by being responsible. Yes, I am getting outside but not in big groups. Most often by myself on the trails just to get some exercise and fresh air which is encouraged by the stay at home edict. Janet walks in the neighborhood and greets the neighbors from an acceptable social distance. We are trying to avoid large groups. Shopping when necessary but trying to keep Janet’s 89 year old mother safe. She lives with us and is most vulnerable.

So sure- we all are beginning to have some cabin fever. We need to return to some kind of routine with work, social life, restaurant outings, and in general an active lifestyle again. It will come. It may take a little bit but with some patience, understanding, generosity, and compassion and not being selfish, we can get through this. Stay in touch with your family and friends. Write an encouraging email, text or better yet- make a phone call. So important in these days of isolation.

We will get there again. Say your prayers, be kind and generous with others. Short and sweet but thanks for reading and ……….wash your hands.

Out of Disaster Comes New Life

I finished a book recently which told the story of the Big Burn forest fire that occurred in 1910. Three million acres were burned in Northern Idaho, W. Montana, Eastern Washington, and parts of Southeast British Columbia. Aside from the devastation to forest land, Timothy Egan tells the story of the origins of the US Forest Service. I am always interested in seeing the backstory on things and this book tells it.   The interesting tale related was how much the sitting President, Teddy Roosevelt, had valued conservation along with his associate Gifford Pinchot. Mr. Pinchot spent his whole life dedicated to the establishment and preservation of the National Parks and National Forests under the Roosevelt and Taft administrations. Timothy Egan spins an interesting side tale on the personality of Pinchot that is  worth reading.

Egan goes on to point out that the large forest fire and the resulting inquiries into the efforts of the rangers under the US Forest Service, were combative. Similar to today’s politics, there was national interest in conservation and the support of the USFS. The  opposition saw the USFS as a waste of time and government money.  In the opposition camp, were congressmen and senators who supported large scale logging and pillaging of the American West. Roosevelt fought hard against these lobbies and along with Pinchot, who later became Governor of Pennsylvania, kept the fight for conservation alive. In the end, the Forest Service was funded handsomely by congress and the lumber lobby eventually gave its support if only to keep the potential harvest in tact.

The compelling result of the fire, establishment of the US Forest Service and final support, let to the continued development of the National Parks Service and the continued development  of the National Forests and Monuments. The difference between a National Forest and a National Park is that the National Forests encourage use by the public to include skiing, mountain biking, fishing, and other outdoor pursuits. The National Parks are somewhat limited to public use other than observation with strict regulation of activities within the Parks. A little more stringent but a different ethos in preserving the pristine environment. However, with the foresight of people like Teddy Roosevelt, and Gifford Pinchot, we have these national treasures which are available to all of us.

I have had the good fortune of visiting Yosemite National Park with my wife and son a number of years ago and along with yearly trips to Mammoth Mountain Ski Area within the Inyo National Forest and visits to the Tahoe ski areas within the Tahoe National Forest,I am always impressed with the beauty and immense wilderness that is preserved. Janet and I also make use of the Allegheny National Forest near our home here in Pennsylvania along with use of many State parks along the way.

Recently I had the great experience of riding mountain bikes in the Deschutes National Forest in Bend, Oregon and was amazed at the quality of the trails and the maintenance of miles and miles of trail systems through this national forest. A lot of this maintenance in the national forests could not happen without the efforts of volunteers who preserve and develop trail systems for multi- use.

It all came together for me when I read this book ” The Big Burn” and realized that there was a lot of time, effort and anguish, in the establishment of national land and the need for preservation and conservation facilitated by the USFS. Not every available piece of land should be deemed for development. There has to be recreational opportunities for our children and grandchildren and I am grateful that men like Pinchot and Roosevelt, back at the turn of the century, had that same vision. If you get the chance to ever visit a State Park, a National Park, or National Forest, do it. You will see how a disastrous fire back in 1910 led to the conservation efforts which have served all Americans for well over a century. Hooray for Teddy Roosevelt- Bully!!!!!

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The Quintessential Pennsylvania Hunting Camp

If you are familiar with Pennsylvania, my home state, you will know that hunting is BIG around here. Especially this time of year. There are lots of white tail deer in our state and I mean lots, and this time of the season they are running! A tradition that has been passed on by hunters here in the Keystone State is the maintenance and upkeep of the classic hunting camp. So many stories about guys ” going up to camp” for the hunting season. Plenty of food, booze, and camaraderie to spread around for days. The camps are typically built from salvage material and over the years they are improved and additions made by family and friends. Marienville, Kane( the icebox of Pennsylvania), Bradford, and other central Pa. haunts have been the home of hunting camps for generations.

So it was a nice surprise when I was invited to come to camp with my friends Bob and Julie, and as I made my way on a cold Saturday morning with snow on the ground, I turned off I-80 and made my way eventually to the  double track that led to …..” the camp.” As soon as I saw Bob cutting wood for the wood stove, and smelled the smoke in the cold air, I was reminded of how much I like fires and fireplaces and wood stoves. I exclaimed to Bob, as I came into the camp, that this place was the classic Pa. hunting camp to which he had a big smile on his face and agreed with a wheelbarrow full of wood and told me to get to work. It was cold last Saturday and the main source of heat for the house was the wood stove. But as the other folks entered the camp, food and sleeping bags began arriving and placed in the kitchen and the living area near the wood stove. No matter what ever happens, a mattress and a sleeping bag is all you need at a camp for pure comfort at night. The heat of the stove is mesmerizing and you know that no matter how bitter the weather is, there will be warmth, wood, and plenty of craft beers and food to feed the guests for the weekend.

As Julie rolled out the breakfast sandwiches and Charlotte tended to her large pot of chili, I got ready to roll for a day of outdoor adventure in the Pennsylvania wilds. You see, I love cold weather, fires, snow and the smell of wood smoke. Did I mention I like fires? LOL!!

Hunting camps have been passed on for generations and the traditions of a day in the woods followed by a hot meal and some beers and discussions of the one that got away have been the stuff of legend for Pennsylvania hunters. Yes there is hunting in the surrounding states but when you talk deer hunting, and camps, you are most likely going to reference central Pennsylvania. Really no argument there because we do have the largest deer population and also a very large black bear population. The group had been down in the woods before I got there and were still marveling at the sighting of two large bald eagles by the lake. Dr. Jack came rolling in and the group was complete. As we made our way to S.B Elliott State Park and through Parker Dam State Park, we were treated to a scenic drive right into the parking lot. As we forded some rather deep stream crossings we came upon our friend John who mystically appeared out of nowhere and when I asked how on earth he ever found us, Bob responded that they all had ridden motorcycles up there for years and knew all the terrain quite well. You see, we were there for a mountain bike weekend and not a shot was fired. No ammo, rifles, or any mention of the buck that got away. But rather the buck that we saw while riding some of the more scenic trails this state has to offer. Most of us had orange or yellow clothing to distinguish ourselves from the running herd, but yours truly had on a black rain suit which I quipped, ” I will be mistaken for a bear which should be ok seeing that it is not bear season yet.” In any event, at the end of the ride, the merry band of riders settled in again by the wood stove and the beers started cracking. As the chili made its rounds and the rest of the nuts, chips and snacks were enjoyed, our pal Tom probably summed it up best when he said, ” You know, the best part of the ride is sitting around afterward, enjoying a cold beer, some good food and stories shared by friends in the woods. Yes, I was invited to a hunting camp. But the aura of the camp was just as good for riders as it is for hunters because it is all about the people.

Good friends getting together to ride mountain bikes, but so much more than the ride. The company is great, in a classic setting.  And the older we get, the more we appreciate it. Turning 65 this week was a revelation and it made me take stock in life and remember that there are people who care about you and like to be with you ……….up at camp. Thanks for reading and remember to follow the blog by entering your email address to the left of the page or scroll down to the bottom on your smart phone.

Youth Mountain Biking is Booming!!!

When I was a kid, I loved to be outside. Still do, and it was fostered by my mother who always encouraged us to get outside and get some fresh air. Playing army in the woods, unorganized baseball, kickball, football were only interrupted by the ringing of the dinner bell by my dad after all day outside. Eventually we got into organized sports and team play was everything. Today there are a lot of distractions for kids including video games,I-Phones, and TV which play havoc with a plan by parents to encourage kids to play outside. A lot of kids would rather play in the virtual world than play in the real world outside. Enter Trail Adventures- a program put together by Allegheny County Parks and Recreation here in Western Pennsylvania. If you go to the Allegheny County Website https://alleghenycounty.us and go to the Parks page and search for Trail Adventures, you will see a sign up for an amazing program coached by Drew Landefeld and Cody Pletz. These two young guys put their heart and soul into youth mountain biking at the North Park Trail System in Northern Allegheny County.

The program begins with kids as young as 6 years old all the way to 18 years old with different coaches and divisions teaching kids how to ride a mountain bike and safely tackle the trail system with its rocks and roots along the way. When you see the parking lot full of parents and kids all excited to meet at the big tree and get their instructions for the day from Drew and Cody, the wide eyed excited kids can’t wait to get started. This program begins in April and ends in late fall before the time change and the improvement and skill level is amazing for such a young group of kids. Drew and Cody herd the cats, so to speak, and before the summer is over, the parents and kids have huge smiles on their faces and a new generation of mountain bikers is on their way to a lifetime of enjoyment on the trails. You can also reference http://www.trailadventurespgh.com

Similarly for the competitive set, one of the hottest leagues in the country today is the National Interscholastic Cycling Association (NICA) which fosters high school racing and a genuine team dynamic. The charter states that NICA promotes skill development, healthy low impact outdoor recreation,coaches training, and environmental advocacy for the protection of trails. Aside from that, there is some pretty robust racing and it is not only huge on a national scale, but really huge for us locally. Jim Pottinger, who is department chair of gifted support in the Gateway School District, is the head coach of the Pittsburgh East Cycling Team which is based at Boyce Park in the eastern suburbs of Pittsburgh. Jim not only has his own kids racing,(daughter Riley and son Tobin- both tops in their division) but along with the 30 plus racers and 15 plus parents, they care and tend to the trails in Boyce which is one of our more beautiful parks in the county system. A robust race schedule happens late summer into fall with the championships held at Boyce Park. The team travels to races across the state of Pennsylvania along with local match ups with local teams. The team has strong support from Barry and Cindi Jeffries, the owners of Dirty Harry’s Bike Shop in Verona, Pa. Not only does Pittsburgh East get equipment support, but Barry and Cindi have funded a lot of the trail work and the race support for the team and park as well.

Lou Marshall, who coaches the Pittsburgh North Cycling Team, also has a strong connection with Pittsburgh Pro Bikes and together with a team of talented racers from the North Allegheny and Pine Richland School districts, they are very competitive both regionally and nationally, but they have a strong emphasis this year on training and riding for fun.   West Virginia has strong representation as well with over 130 racers currently competing and coached by Cassie Smith, a nationally competitive pro racer in her own right.

A disturbing statistic is that over 35 percent of teenagers today are considered obese. Youth mountain biking clubs and NICA clubs are battling this statistic and encouraging kids to get outside and play in the woods and mountains which they will be able to enjoy for the rest of their lives. Not everyone can play football or baseball on a team, but a lot of kids can certainly ride a bike and enjoy a sport that will last them a lifetime. Message being, get off the keyboards and play outside. Get involved as kids in a local program like Trail Adventures, compete or just ride with a local NICA club. And get your parents out to coach, train and be a part of a booming environment which is mountain biking. It is alive again folks. Be a part of it. Thanks for reading. Click on the tab to the left of the website and enter your email to be a follower. Also at the bottom on your smart phone. I will try to entertain and not bore you………once a week.

Photos courtesy of Jim Pottinger and “Coach” Lou Marshall.

” You see that trail? Don’t take it”

Please observe this picture of so called ” experts” trying to all repair a chain at a recent MTB event in West Virginia. Take a moment to take it in. Then PLEASE,PLEASE, take a moment to review this link. https://youtu.be/L6YrqZ7HZ-0 This is the opening scene from my favorite movie ” The Quiet Man” with John Wayne, Maureen O’Hara, Ward Bond, Barry Fitzgerald and the affable Victor McLaglan. Stop, take a moment and watch this hilarious scene where everybody’s an expert as in typical Irish fashion. Finished? Ok? Don’t skip it. You won’t get the rest of this drivel.

Now, fast forward from this iconic film from 1952 to the present day characters hovering over the good doctor’s chain down in West Virginia. Everybody involved is an expert. Initially, the issue is the Doc. His bike is used and abused as he makes a practice of riding over every log and rock pile he can and trashing his bike in the effort. He abuses himself too. How many guys fall and break their nose on the rocks only to put it back in place and keep riding? Dirty Harry’s Bike Shop always tells us that they could fix the Doc if only he would leave his bike long enough for them to do a thorough and well needed repair. Nonetheless, issues ensue and the repair is like a magnet to the confident crew of “experts”. First comes the ” Shark” who muscles his way in and takes hold of the chain and mumbles what is needed by way of a quick link which ultimately is the wrong one. Minutes, which seem like hours, roll by with the crew getting impatient to ride only to be stalled by the first attempt to quickly repair the chain.

The others, like the author here, making a funny face at the behest of our rider/photographer who laughs at the scene and makes detrimental and funny remarks about the Doc and his assistant trying to muscle the repair. The photographer’s wife here is disinterested as she longs to begin the ride so as not to put the afternoon’s activities any further behind. We are there to see the Mountain Bike World Cup Finals and the quick link issue is anything but quick.

Finally John, similar to the Barry Fitzgerald character who comes in to rescue John Wayne from the pile of Irish “experts”, brings the right link to the repair and silently and swiftly repairs the chain and the Doc is saved from further ridicule. Then the real fun begins. What trail to take? ” You see that trail over there? Don’t take it, it will do you no good.” In typical Irish fashion, the crew discusses where to go and the maps come out, the memories of the trails, and the GPS indicators which do absolutely no good in remote West Virginia. Finally the quick witted photographer and unofficial leader of the pack takes over and takes us on a repetitive route of rocks, roots, steep climbs and missed opportunities. Once again the maps come out and everybody’s an expert on where to go, and if we can ride to a place where we can take a chairlift out. The Doc takes the main group on a detour as he says he knows that the fractal group has gone ahead there. He turns left with no idea about where the “left” will take them.

Mountain bikers are funny people. Passionate in their pursuit of fitness, fun, great gear, and finally knowing how to survive and where to go on the wilderness trails which we all love. But everybody is an expert. We all think we know all the trails and don’t need maps or GPS. When we get lost, it is someone else’s fault and the resultant conversation of what trail we should have taken, fruitlessly leads us to conclusions of no consequence. The beers come out afterwards and the abuse continues with laughs, recommendations on what are better trails, and what we all will do the next time we ride together.

Newcomers are always pleasantly surprised at the variety of personalities and abilities on the rides and if nothing else, they will know that if they take the trail that they think is right, it will do them no good at all. Thanks for reading.

The Bike and the Box Turtle

So, I am pounding up the Bathtub Trail, kind of clearing my head on a solo mountain bike ride this week and I come upon a box turtle right in the middle of the trail. I did something unusual- I stopped. I checked him out and marveled at the way the color of his shell blended in with the rapidly changing leaves all around me. I looked at the texture of his shell and thought to myself, what a wonderful Creator who weaved this beautiful ecosystem we have to enjoy right in my own county park. As I made my way up the trail, I noticed the diversity of the leaves that were beginning to cover the ground. Flaming red maple leaves, brilliant yellow oak leaves, multicolored ash, chestnut, and other species of deciduous trees that spread their foliage like a patchwork blanket before me. Fall has arrived and I am contentedly happy.

Usually I try to ride for a good workout and push myself, even on solo rides. But this day was reserved for more pleasant riding, kind of like mobilized hiking enjoying the natural world all around me. At this time of year, the trails are usually dry and you can pretty much ride as fast as you can and feel “in the zone” as you rail the corners and pound up the hills. This is the time when most of us are in peak shape and the euphoria that you feel after a fast paced ride is intoxicating. But, there are days in the fall when I like to just ride the bike for relaxed transportation in a world that is peaceful, welcoming, and shelters you from the pressures of the real world. The changing leaves are all around and along with the shorter evenings, the cooler temperatures, and the smell of the tannin in the leaves displays something that Western Pa. has in it’s bag of tricks to entice travelers and natives alike. If you are out in it, close your eyes and take a deep breath of that musty, woodsy, cool air into your lungs. Only at this time of year does it smell like that. Summer fragrances, winter blasts of cold air,spring evening smells, are all good eye closing intakes, but the fall air is the best.

The mountain trails in our Laurel Highlands are coming alive with color, and arm warmers, vests, tights, are all practical wear as the cooler temperatures welcome in the coming winter season.

But back to the box turtle. Instead of using him as a speed bump, I took the time to examine him and notice how he fits in. The diversity of the changing flora seem to welcome him as part of their patchwork of color. The buck are starting to surface and as they stare at you with their fully grown racks, they are part of this diversified animal kingdom that makes up the forest in the mountains and parks of Western Pa. Turkey, grouse, groundhogs, raccoons, birds of all species, including the majestic osprey and red tail hawk, are busy preparing for the long winter ahead. Bald eagles are visible in the mountains and their wingspans continually amaze me as I stop to take in their flight pattern in the ridges to the east. I see open chestnut pods releasing their treasure to the scurrying squirrels and chipmunks. Acorns,and seeds of all kinds are being scooped up by very busy little rodents who take great chances using the trails full of hikers and mountain bikers. The come perilously close to losing their life as they dodge the knobby tires of the many bikes on the trails.

But as my mind wandered, I thought about how all of this fits together. The trees, the leaves, the animals, all form the ecosystem that we call the forest. As I ride along, not in anaerobic debt, I take in the smells, the sounds, and the sights of a changing natural world. Yet it is one entity created out of a patchwork of diversity. Kind of makes you think doesn’t it? Enjoy the fall. Thanks for reading.

Hot Time in the City

I have ridden my mountain bike in a lot of great places in this country. California, Moab,the Pacific Northwest, Colorado, but I have to tell you , last Saturday was one of the best days on the bike- ever! Aaron Shafer put together a ride to and through all the city parks in Pittsburgh,Pa. my home town. Don Cunningham encouraged me along with some others to attend. Aaron is the fit guy in the red jersey who had the bright idea and we all met at his instruction at the Grist House Brewery in Millvale, Pa at 8:00 A.M. After a cruise on the bike path along the Allegheny River accompanied by the early morning scull crews, we ascended Federal Street- one of the steeper climbs in the city to the entrance of Riverview Park. Now, the 25 or so riders had a variety of different bikes for the occasion. Guys showed up with road bikes but had no chance of riding a trail with them. Aaron, who is a skilled rider, had a cross bike along with some others. A good choice but personally, I was happy I had my mountain bike for many reasons including comfort with fat tires, dual suspension, and upright bar positioning. Lots of others had the same idea. Riding the technical trails of Riverview was a treat with the dry conditions.

Moving on to the North Shore Trail by way of Woods Run, we made our way across the river and rode around the beautiful fountain that is the showpiece of our Golden Triangle. The group pedaled along to the historic South Side with the intent of eventually making our way up Mt. Washington. We lost some folks along the way with that news and the group split with some of the hardier riders taking a twisty technical trail to the top of Mt. Oliver to Mt. Washington, while the rest pedaled the long climb up 18th Street. I have lived here most of my life but have never known there were beautiful parks on Mt. Washington with incredible views of the city. Emerald Park was one of them and we rode perfectly manicured trails and gravel paths with a stop for lunch at Red Beards Bar and Grill.

One of the cool things about Pittsburgh is the emergence of little outdoor cafes that are indigenous to the neighborhoods that surround the city. Red Beards is one of them and sitting outside at a table with a view of their outdoor “beach bar” was a relaxing experience. So much so, that I parted from my usual long ride protocol and had a cold draft with a sandwich to fuel the balance of the ride. After some further attrition due to family obligations, some of the guys departed after our visit to the mount. After a rapid descent down McArdle Roadway to the Southside, we made an additional stop at the OTB Cafe where I remarked to the young lady tending bar that a lot of us were patrons of the OTB in North Park. She said, ” Oh I see, you guys made a visit to the gritty, grimy OTB?” We laughed, I pounded a Coke with a lime, and we proceeded to climb into Panther Hollow near the University of Pittsburgh campus. Assembling at the iconic Phipps Conservatory, we made our way through the scenic trails of Schenley Park and Frick Park. Both of these parks are well ridden and maintained by city mountain bikers and offer some technical terrain that rivals any city park in the country.

After further attrition due to the fact that it was now about 6:00 PM, we were down to 8 riders to which Mark,” the Shark” Sauers, remarked, ” Hey – I made it to the elite 8.” We all laughed and although Aaron and Fred Fischer took an additional trail as the rest of us took a breather at the bottom of Frick, we all made our way to Highland Park for the final city park visit. Riding with the cool breeze and realizing that the fabulous day was coming to a close, we exited Highland Park and as Aaron and Fred took one more climb up Stanton Avenue which is one of the climbs on the famous “Dirty Dozen” ride of Danny Chew fame. The rest of us booked down Butler Street to cross the bridge back to the brewery.

Interestingly, the emergence of cafes, restaurants, and new places of business is evident as you make your way through Lawrenceville. Once a declining, post industrial neighborhood, the resilient community has emerged as one of the more trendy neighborhoods in the city and what better way to investigate all it has to offer than from the seat of a bicycle. Pittsburgh is no longer the dirty, dusty, steel town of old. Continually rated as one of the better places to live in the country for many reasons,our city parks tour could be an attraction to the outdoor set visiting or contemplating relocation.

At 7:00 PM with approximately 60 plus miles of road, gravel roads and trails, and 5700+ vertical feet of climbing behind us, the beers at the Grist House sure were tasty and the food trucks, which are a hallmark of the new style breweries popping up in town, had ample fare to satisfy the hunger of the Shafer riders.

Moral of the story, get on your bike and investigate your city. You will see things you never knew existed and if you come to Pittsburgh, get on a mountain bike and go for a ride. The city of three rivers will surprise you. Thanks for reading.

Photos courtesy of Mark “the Shark” Sauers and Pat McCloskey.