Riding Across America on Dirt

Riding Across America on Dirt

In August 2015, my husband Tom and I left on the biggest adventure of our lives. We closed our bicycle shop of 5 years, moved out of our house in Southwest Ohio, and packed up our bicycles to ride the Trans-America Trail. The name may sound familiar to most as the popular paved bicycle route designed by the founders of Adventure Cycling for their Bikecentenial in 1976, following Route 76. The route I am referring to was originally designed by and for dual-sport motorcyclists to travel off pavement, East to West across the United States. These days, the route includes over 5,000 miles of dirt roads, gravel roads, forest roads, jeep trails, and paved back roads.

Tom and I had been riding on dirt roads for quite some time, but had only ventured on a handful of three to seven day tours. We knew the benefit of traveling by dirt roads: the more remote the setting, the less stress from high speed traffic, and the more relaxed and enjoyable atmosphere of riding and stopping along the route. We knew the TAT would be the ideal route for us to experience our country, and that it would be the biggest challenge of our lives.

From Morehead City, North Carolina to the Great Smoky Mountains, across Southern Tennessee, we dropped into Northwest Mississippi, pedaled across Arkansas, over the Ozark Mountains, and dead straight across Northern Oklahoma and the states Panhandle of No Man’s Land. We rode into the gulches of Northeast New Mexico, climbed up into Colorado, up and over the Rocky Mountains, before we dropped down to ride across Utah, and from basin to range of the Great Basin of northwest Nevada. We tapped California before riding northwest, across Oregon, where we came to the end of our western route in Port Orford, Oregon on Sunday, October 26, 2015. The final tally came in right around 5,000 miles, which we completed in 87 days (81 days pedaling with 6 days off).

For more on Sarah and Tom Swallow’s cycling adventures, check out https://www.swallowbicycleworks.com/.

Forbidden Fruit

After decades of work, American Whitewater succeeded in opening access to Yosemite National Park for paddlers. The park hosts a number of rivers ranging from Class I floats to multi-day Class V+ epics, including the Merced River above Nevada Falls. On June 1st, 2015, South African professional paddler Steve Fisher took the first steps in paddlers’ collective dream to paddle this long forbidden fruit. With him was Pat Keller, the southeastern expedition and waterfall guru. Both paddlers have made careers out of charging into the hardest, most remote whitewater expeditions they can find and completing them with style and grace. I joined them with a film crew to document the trip.

We approached the river from Tuolomne Pass, hiking 17 miles through alpine meadows, past icy cold lakes, and into the headwaters of the river. At the end of the first day, after hiking with a loaded boat on his back for nine miles up and over a 10,000 ft pass, Keller was still keen to explore. We scrambled up to a rocky point overlooking the Merced River valley, staring in awe at the massive snow covered peaks surrounding us. In the distance, I could just make out the trail the crew would be hiking the following day. I knew I needed a shot of that from this vantage point. The following day we completed our hike, arriving at camp thoroughly exhausted, but eager to see what the river had in store for us.

An early start on day three got the team into the action right away. The Merced River is truly a gem with crystal clear water, massive slides, a handful of stout boulder gardens, and truly unbelievable scenery. With heavy rains on the afternoon of the second day, tension reached a pinnacle as we waited to see what the river would do. The window for approachable flows is quite narrow, even just a little more water than what we had could make the holes at the bottom of some of the bigger rapids absolutely monstrous, and too little water would easily result in a portage fest around boulder fields. The river actually continued to drop, leaving just enough water for Fisher and Keller to complete the epic first descent of this amazing river. All that was left was a seven mile hike to the valley floor around the nearly 600 foot Nevada Falls and the 300 + foot Vernal Falls.

Scott Martin is an internationally published photographer who studied at the Cape Town School of Photography. For more of his work, check out https://www.scottmartinimages.com/.


Undercity Freeride

When a friend of mine, Kat, first mentioned that she had heard that the new harbor town she’d moved to had some sort of ‘mine system’ underneath it, I pretty much ignored her. In my head, I pictured a narrow bore hole supported by decaying wooden beams keen on collapse with the slightest motivation. If a cave-in wouldn’t get us, I was sure that our lack of canaries would catch up to us somehow. The truth is, I’ve long had Huck-Finn style fantasies of exploring an abandoned mine; a real Goonies type of scenario, you know? I was first introduced to the surreal underworld that exists beneath our feet when I started caving a few years ago. Immediately, I had sprung the desire to bring other types of athletic pursuits underground and started gathering beta on cave systems that might perhaps have waterfalls runnable by kayak. This fascination of course transcended to my first love, the bicycle, but the sheer ecological impact a bike had the potential to dish out in a delicate cave environment kept me away from pursuing that idea much further than the incredible images I had conjured up in my head.

After months of putting Kat off, the stars finally aligned. I gave in and we agreed to meet up and take a peek around the area she had heard where the mine entrance might be. About five minutes after we finally found a solid entrance, we came right back out of it. We were going directly to the store. This place was huge, much larger than the 5 foot wide passage that I had imagined and lazily prepared for. If we wanted to see anything past our outstretched hands, we would need some fresh batteries in our headlamps.

I came back to the mine every weekend for the next month or so after that. Bringing new people and getting them psyched on the creative potential down there. Huge sunken rooms begged to be wake-skated, over hanging columns of rock with continuous jug lines begged to be bolted for sport climbing, ledge after ledge that just wanted to be hucked… best of all, because the mine was man made, it was free to shred without the ethical concerns associated with natural caves.

Adam Nawrot is a filmmaker & photographer with a background in music and graphic design. For more on his work, check out https://adamnawrot.net/.

Seven Rivers, Seven Continents

Humans have always been drawn to rivers. The greatest civilizations in history have sprung and flourished alongside them. They flow through every environment on the planet, bringing us the essentials of life. But, what rivers give, they can also take away. They are powerful, frightening, majestic, and awe-inspiring. They are life.

Paddling the world’s longest and largest rivers is magical. Like climbing or trekking amongst mountains, you become a part of that place. You are connected to it in a way that travelling by other means just does not allow. It becomes, for just a short time, your natural environment. The people who call the river banks home become your neighbors, and you share their lives.

Dusk on the wide Amazon River, snow covered trees beside the Missouri River in Montana, watching the sun rise on the Volga River by a city a thousand years old, the sun setting over cowboys herding cattle across the Darling River in Australia; the images and stories are endless.

Descending these rivers provides a unique insight into the life they have built and sustain. The great waterways of the world have shaped the very existence of humans and the ecosystems in which they live. Bringing these stories to life is the reason to paddle them. From the fisherman, the hunter, the family and the power company worker, to the farmer, the trees, the predator and the prey. All have inspiring and thoughtful stories to reveal.

Days, weeks, or months on a river bring a paddler closer to the planet and its people. Understanding our place here is the wonderful outcome.

Mark Kalch is attempting to paddle the longest river on each continent from source to sea. For more on his project, check out https://markkalch.com/.