Dakin Henderson’s Super 8 Trip Report

2021 Grand Depart Full 8, South Lobe First. 664 miles in 6 days, 7 hours

Day 1: Montpelier to Pete’s Camp

 

My goals going into the Super 8 were ambiguous. This was my second “adventure bikepacking race.” The previous year I did The Adirondack Trail Ride (TATR), which opened my eyes to this kind of adventure and made me want more. At TATR, I had been surprised and kind of awed to see how some of the riders just didn’t sleep at night. They’d ride right on through, maybe stopping for a nap here and there. While I knew that I’m too much of a baby about sleep to really compete in these kinds of events, that kind of intensity was alluring. However, a covid infection had completely derailed my training -- I was less than a week out of quarantine and still had some lingering malaise. Even so, at the start of Super 8 I was still toying with the idea of pushing my boundaries around sleep.

 

I was riding a new bike -- a Surly Midnight Special custom build with 2.3” tires, 2x gearing and hydraulic brakes -- which was a much lighter setup than the 29+ hardtail I had taken on TATR. I was also bringing less stuff, having opted not to bring a stove, pot and camp food, and was using a bivy instead of a tent.

At the start, I settled in with John, whom I had met and rode with for awhile on TATR the year before, and later linked up with Erik and Dave, and Jeff who had also done TATR. We had a good time reminiscing. It was raining, but it was warm and the weather cleared up by noon. Early on we encountered some spectacular trail magic. Some enthusiastic guy was serving hot food, drinks and various snacks from the back of his pickup truck. I wasn’t hungry but stopped for some hot ramen just because.

 

On the first of what would be many steep climbs, up Taylor Hill Rd, I took a cue from the other riders and got off and walked. This would become a defining aspect of these first days of the Super 8: walking up steep hills. The hiking got muddy, really muddy. One section in particular was just ridiculous, there was nowhere to step without sinking into mud up to my ankles. After we crested the hill, I was surprised to pass a caravan of off-roading jeeps and army vehicles, apparently heading to where we’d just come from. It didn’t look like much fun to me, to be trapped in a jerking vehicle on a road like this, but they were probably thinking the same thing about us.

We arrived in Woodstock around 4:00pm, ready for a meal. I was able to convince Dave to go a few more miles to Ramunto’s pizza for dinner, but Erik opted for the general store. Bad choice, Erik. That pizza was the best thing I ate on the whole trip. Fueled up on pizza and with an eggplant parmesan sub in my bag, I rode into the evening. 4 of us soon collected into a group: Dave, Erik, Jeff and me. It became clear that the rest of them were gunning for Pete’s Camp at mile 119, and I decided to try to hang on.

 

The last few hours in the dark were rough. The hills seemed endless, it was cold, and we were moving agonizingly slow. Finally we pulled into Pete’s camp at 12:30am. This was the longest day of riding I had ever done. I sat on the floor in a shed and ate like 5 reeses peanut butter cups and half of my eggplant parm sub, then crawled shivering into my sleeping bag and bivy. I was new to the bivy sack, and having zipped it all the way closed for warmth, soon felt like I was suffocating. My heart rate was doing weird things. Trying to unzip it for some fresh air, the zipper got stuck and I freaked out a little bit, ripping the mosquito netting. I will never zip that bivy all the way closed again.

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Day 2: Pete’s Camp to George D. Aiken Wilderness

I woke up at like 5:00am to the sound of someone getting on their bike and riding away. This was Erik, who I heard had been too cold to get much sleep. At 6:00 I emerged from my bivy, and Dave offered me a cup of hot coffee which he’d made on his camp stove. What a guy. I ate the second half of my eggplant parm sub, and started the day riding with Dave and Jeff. Then Dave pulled over with a mechanical issue, and Jeff pulled ahead. Tim, who had arrived at Pete’s Camp shortly after we did, came up behind me, and we rode together for most of the day.

 

We stopped at the Wardsboro Country Store for breakfast, and as we were getting ready to leave, John rolled up. John hadn’t gone as far as we did last night but he started riding at like 4:00am that morning and caught up. Tim and I set off to continue walking our bikes up steep hills. The road surfaces vacillated between hard-packed dirt roads and sloppy muddy rocky ATV roads which at one point was indistinguishable from a creekbed. Navigation was tricky, particularly as we approached Brattleboro. There was a fun network of singletrack north of Brattleboro, but my Garmin was hard to follow and I had to keep stopping to pull out my phone. We pulled into Brattleboro at about 3:00pm, ate at a fancy cafe, and stocked up for dinner at a the Vermont Country Deli. I ordered 3 huge sandwiches, which was overkill, but having them in my bag gave me a sense of security.

 

Some miles later I stopped to take a picture at the Green River Covered Bridge, joining a bunch of tourists, and let Tim cruise on ahead up a hill. He was biking faster than me anyway and I was glad to let myself stop trying to keep up. At the top of the hill, I sat down again, ate a sandwich and identified my goal for camping that night: some dispersed camping in the George D. Aiken Wilderness, right before a reputedly nasty section that approaches Bennington. An hour or so later I stopped again at the Jacksonville General Store for a coke and some chips, then somewhat reluctantly carried on into the night.

The short section on state highway 100 through Whitingham made me regret my relative lack of visibility to cars, as there was a fair amount of fast-moving traffic. I was wearing all black, I didn’t have any reflective gear, and my two rear lights were either partially obscured or covered in mud. One pickup truck actually pulled over to offer me a ride and scold me for being so hard to see.

 

I rode along the Deerfield River Reservoir in the dark, happy to be alone again on the road. I followed the GPS track past a “do not enter” sign and out onto the dam, where I encountered Tim and Kam, who was one of the documentary film crew who had been following us. We stood and chatted there on the dam in the middle of the water in the complete darkness.

 

I was glad to be riding with Tim again as the night deepend and the trail got more remote -- even if I felt that I was holding him up a bit. We slogged our way up a steep, wet and spongy scramble of a climb, then thrashed our way down through the woods and emerged back on route 100 near Heartwellville. Even though we were close to our target campsite, I insisted on stopping to eat another sandwich.

When we arrived at the GPS waypoint labelled “dispersed camping: GMNF (look for sites to the side of the road)”, we were sorely disappointed. Only a couple of sopping wet jeep trails led into the forest, no campsites. After some exploring we decided to keep riding, where we did find one legit campsite but it was occupied by a car. Finally, at 11:30pm, we found a flat patch of grass that was suitable enough for the night.

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Day 3: George D. Aiken Wilderness to Analog Cycles

[strava fail]

81.57 miles, 5,940 feet

Tim and I were up at 5:00am, and as we were packing up in the dark, John rode up, said hi and carried on. There is something reassuring about running into other riders when you feel like you’re doing something remote and scary and ridiculous. Then I discovered that my water purification device -- a SteriPen -- was broken. Note to self, I don’t think those things were meant to withstand the kind of jostling and abuse of bikepacking. Tim let me use his filter to fill up water from a creek, but from here on out I would have to be more careful about water.

 

The upcoming section before Bennington was notorious. Multiple people had told me it was steep, gnarly and slow. We plodded our way up the hill without incident, caught up with John, and proceeded through a section of huge puddles. The Stage Coach Road, as it was called, had been filled with large chunky rocks that probably served as great traction for ATVs but was quite uncomfortable on our rigid bikes. I recklessly attempted to ride across a river crossing (and almost made it!), and eventually started down the infamous descent down into Bennington. During this steep and choppy ~1,800ft descent, I really felt the downside of drop bars, and I should have lowered my seat. I reached the bottom with sore wrists and neck.

Brunch at Jensen’s, a diner in Bennington, was a triumphant stop. We would now turn north and head back towards Montpelier. The next several hours of riding were on beautiful hard-packed gravel roads and the sun was shining. We even dipped into New York for a spell. But the pleasant afternoon was dampened as my knee started to hurt. The pain was quite noticeable and I had more and more difficulty keeping up with John and Tim. On the next big hill (on the endearingly-named Chunks Hill Rd), I let John and Tim go ahead and limped up the hill at my own pace.

I linked back up with John again at Sherman’s Store in West Rupert and rode with him down the rail trail into Granville (tagging New York again!), which was fast and energizing. We stopped for pizza at Slate Town Brewing Company, I stocked up on sandwiches at Stewart’s, and then we rode past a deep quarry. John was talking about riding through the night, which I definitely wasn’t feeling up for. As the last of the light was fading, we passed the sign for Analog Cycles--a possible place to camp. It was only 7:30pm, but my energy was waning and my knee hurt. Also, since my SteriPen was broken, I wasn’t excited about continuing on with only the water I had left in my bottles. I said farewell to John and pulled into the driveway and was greeted in the fading light by a very friendly and helpful man, who gave me water and pointed me towards a cozy, dry campsite nestled in the woods out back. I fell asleep with gusto that night.

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Day 4: Analog Cycles to Montpelier

 

Having gone to bed so early, I was up at 4:00am and riding well before dawn. The Delaware and Hudson Rail Trail was an easy start to the day, although I was riding much slower without John pulling me along. The sunrise over Lake Bomoseen was gorgeous. I reached Brandon around 8:30am, and gladly sat down at Mae’s Place for a robust breakfast and endless coffee.

I left Mae’s Place feeling recharged and pleased that I already had 35 miles under my belt that morning. The weather couldn’t make its mind up, and over the next miles of quiet roads I stopped several times to take off or put on a layer. On one of these stops, Mike came up behind me. I hadn’t met him before, and I was impressed to hear about all the different bikepacking events he’d done, which included TATR, the Tour Divide and the Silk Road.

 

Mike took a break and I took off towards Brandon Gap, a big climb that I had been bracing myself for. My knee was still hurting, and with nothing much else to do, I was thinking a lot about my knee. Should I ignore the pain and push through? Or should I listen to the pain, ease up and maybe call the quits? If I pushed through, would I create a long-term knee problem for myself? I got meta and described this cycle of thought to myself as breaking down the line between pain and discomfort, and rehearsed a spiel that I planned to deliver to the film crew if I came across them again. That’s the problem with paved roads, it gets my thoughts spinning more than my legs.

 

I cruised down from Brandon Gap into Rochester and stocked up at the grocery store, spontaneously grabbing a “thanksgiving dinner” from the hot prepared meals section, which hit the spot. After another hour or so of pleasant country roads, I turned onto a rugged mountain trail called Braintree Mountain Road. This was the first rugged and steep climb since before Bennington, and somehow this one was rideable and fun. The grade was just on the edge of rideable, and if I stood up and cranked, I was able to pick my way up some rocky sections that I otherwise might have walked. I hadn’t felt strong like that in awhile. This energy carried me through the last 20 miles or so back Montpelier. Earlier in the day I had been toying with the idea of scratching in Montpelier and skipping the Northern Lobe, but as I descended on Montpelier in the late afternoon I put that thought out of my mind.

 

I got back to my car ready to pamper myself with a hotel for the night. It was surprisingly difficult to get a hotel room though, especially on a Monday night. I felt myself on the verge of tears as hotel after hotel told me they were full and I thought I’d be sleeping in the parking lot. Apparently it was peak leaf season and the town was overrun. My girlfriend saved the day by finding me an Airbnb right in town. It felt a little weird to put my bike on top of my car and drive there. I ordered Chinese takeout, checked into the Airbnb, took a shower, gorged on General Gau’s chicken and revelled in the soft, dry paradise of normalcy.

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Day 5: Montpelier to Brighton State Park

A friend had told me not to stop in Montpelier at the midpoint between the North and South lobes. It would be too easy to scratch, he said, too hard to keep going -- just ride on through and save yourself the temptation. For me, perhaps because I was happy to let the other riders pull ahead and get a full night’s sleep, the break in Montpelier was clutch. I grabbed my sunglasses and my headlamp, which I had accidentally left behind, and deposited the useless broken SteriPen, as well as a molding flannel shirt that somehow snuck its way into my seat pack on the first day. After a solid breakfast and cappuccino, I set off from the parking lot at 8:00am as I had planned to do.

I quickly felt my knee pain come right back, and after 5 miles of climbing out of Montpelier had to pull over to massage it out. I was frustrated and unsure what to do. Should I scratch now after all? Then I noticed that my seat pack was missing. I had left my seat pack in the car. Stupid! I did an inventory of what was in that pack -- sleeping bag, bed pad and bivy -- and actually considered riding on and just staying in hotels for the rest of the trip. Then I remembered the spot tracker was in there, and if I rode the whole Northern Lobe while the spot tracker sat in my car, I was sure no one would believe I actually did it. I turned around and bombed back to the car.

 

Somehow this head-slapping moment of stupidity made my knee pain go away. It wouldn’t really be a problem again for the rest of the trip. Instilled with an arbitrary sense of urgency and the need to make up lost time, I powered up the hills out of Montpelier and flew up into the Northern Lobe. It was a glorious fall day and the leaves were falling and the fields were lush green. I rode all the way to Saint Johnsbury practically without stopping. I thought, this must be why so many people opted for just the Northern Lobe. The riding is so easy and pleasant, and it’s beautiful.

 

At 4:00pm I sat down for a large pizza at Kingdom Krust Company in Saint Johnsbury and thought about where to spend the night. I was feeling good and had already ridden 75 miles (although 10 of those was looping back to the car). Maybe this could be a big day. There were multiple places to camp starting at Burke Mountain, and if I was really ambitious, I could ride through the night to Island Pond. I decided to play it by ear.

Darkness settled in as I was riding up Darling Hill, a familiar area for me as I’d been to the Kingdom Trails many times. I topped off water at Juniper’s restaurant at the inn there and headed towards the trails. Again I felt bad about my lack of reflective gear as several cars passed in the dark. I followed my GPS down trails by the names of Herb’s (why didn’t I take Kitchel?!), over to White School and Ware’s Davis and over to Pinkham Road. Navigating a network of trails continued to be tricky with my Garmin, so I mounted my phone on the handlebars and kept RideWithGPS running.

 

There was one creepy moment when I came up on a pickup truck parked right smack in the middle of the trail at the edge of a clearing. The thing had clearly driven across a field and was parked as if to block riders from entering the woods on the trail. The night was getting late and no one was in sight. With some trepidation, I stepped around it and rode on.

 

So began a big climb up and around the backside of Burke Mountain. The summit road was so steep it was an effort just to walk and push my bike. Then I turned onto CCC Road, which was just rideable in my easiest gear. The drainage ditches carved regularly across the trail were annoying but they did give me something to think about as I pushed myself up the mountain.

 

I came across the Burke Mountain Shelter around midnight, and smiled when I saw loaded bikes leaning against it and slumbering sleeping bags inside. That must be Bob and Mike. I rode on. The land instantly felt really remote and spooky. The air got colder and the forests denser. I passed waypoints for more camp options but didn’t see much, and by now I had gotten it into my head to push for Island Pond. I stopped and wolfed down my leftover pizza on a cold and spooky powerline trail. Feeling a little alone and afraid, I indulgently had my phone running RideWithGPS the entire time (plugged into my battery brick) so I could see exactly where I was and how far I had to go. As I approached a waypoint I clicked on it hoping to see something like “camping option” or “cool view”, but instead it said “remote logging area - watch out for black bears.” This was not what I wanted to read at that time.

 

After finally emerging from the woods and onto route 105, I encountered a freight train. The huge thing rumbled up alongside the highway and blasted its headlight deep into the forest. I felt a strange camaraderie with whomever was driving the train, to be out in this land at this late hour. I arrived at Brighton State Park around 3:30am. I was shaking and my toes were numb, but I was proud that I’d made it. At 145 miles and nearly 20 hours of riding with minimal stops, this was by far my biggest day on a bike.

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Day 6: Island Pond to Eden

 

I got up after 7:00am and rolled shivering into Island Pond around 8:00. It’s cold up north! I eagerly snatched the last egg sandwich from the general store there, ate a bunch of donuts, and burned my tongue on a cup of coffee. Island Pond is an industrial place, and when I was there it was cold and bleak. The weather was in the low 40s, and the forecast predicted it wouldn’t get above 50 that day. I lingered in the general store, trying to warm up.

 

I set out with aspirations for finishing. If I could do 145 miles yesterday, couldn’t I do 120 today? But the first stretch caught me by surprise and dashed my hopes. The riding was slow, rugged, muddy, and remote. Did I say muddy? I mean MUUUUDDY. The “roads” were often simply unrideable and my feet sank in several inches. I tried to ride through much of it and I probably shouldn’t have -- my whole drivetrain built up so much mud I was pulling it off in fist-sized wads. I had all of my clothes on and never warmed up. The highlight was seeing a black bear up ahead of me on the trail, which for some reason was a friendly and reassuring presence.

 

When I rolled into Derby Line it was after 3:00pm and I had only gone 35 miles. I was discouraged but still hoping to ride through the night and finish. I ate a couple of hot dogs at an Irving, waved to the Canadian border and rode to Newport along Lake Memphremagog, which was much more pleasant. My bike was squeaky and creaky from the mud. I found a spigot and tried spraying the chain with my water bottle and wiping it down with my handkerchief and added lube but it only seemed to make it worse.

The back roads and jeep trails heading into the Lowell Mountains were serene. This stretch really felt like quintessential Vermont with the rolling hills, fields, barns and back roads. As the sun went down, I started doing some math on the battery situation with my lights. That morning I had discovered that my battery brick was dead. Powering my phone through the long cold night had apparently sucked it dry, which meant that none of my lights had been charged since Montpelier. I knew that my primary headlight was supposed to last 10 hours on the low setting, and I had ridden approximately 8 hours in the dark the night before. As I was trying to psych myself up for another long, cold and spooky night of riding, the thought of all my lights cutting out in the middle of nowhere sounded like the absolute worst possible thing that could happen in the world. My energy was low -- I don’t think I had eaten enough all day. The batteries for my lights was the excuse I needed to stop for the night and finish tomorrow. I rode to a grassy campground in Eden. It was about 9:30pm.

Day 7: Eden Campground to Montpelier

I was up and riding by 5:30 on my last day. The Eden General Store was open early for a quick fuel up, and I made it to Morrisville by 8:00am. The squeaking and scratching of my bike was really driving me nuts, so I had the idea to take it to a car wash. I found the power washer and sprayed my bike down till it was sparkling clean. It felt very satisfying in the moment, but I think it just made the problem worse by driving the mud and grit into the bearings in the bottom bracket. For the rest of the ride, every pedal stroke felt like it was grating on sandpaper.

 

I had a much-needed sit-down breakfast at the Charlmont Restaurant in Morrisville. It felt so good to sit down indoors and warm up. I was feeling relatively good and there was a long flat rail trail ahead of me. The film crew was waiting for me there and I was probably a little too excited to stop and talk to them. I had hardly talked to anyone for days. The Northern Lobe was much more solitary than the Southern.

 

The “home stretch” seemed to take forever. I was moving so slowly and I could feel the bags under my eyes. There was just no power left in my legs. Bit by bit I plodded along. When I finally reached the singletrack trails outside Montpelier, I knew the end was nigh. Ripping some of those downhill turns was cathartic. I finished in front of the state house shortly after 3:00pm.

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