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By Jim Joyce
"Vermont's Finest." Let's see... Ben and Jerry's? Phish? Ethan Allen? Mike Gallagher? Wait a sec--who's Mike Gallagher? Join me for a look at this unique giant of the Vermont outdoors. I was fortunate enough to join Mike for a tailored mountain bike ride through Green Mountain National Forest while he was on his day off as scout and mountain biking guide for The Great Outdoor Adventure Tours (Rutland). The Irishman who penned "When Irish Eyes Are Smiling" on the Emerald Isle could have easily done so in the Green Mountains of the great state of Vermont. And he certainly could have been talking about the blue-eyed, fiftysomething laddie by the name of Mike Gallagher. My adventure began as such...
I knew the rest and relaxation of my honeymoon in Vermont was to be put on hold abruptly as Mike swung The Great Outdoors Adventures van into the parking lot of The Cortina Inn (nearby Killington and Rutland). I was stretching like never before, knowing my many weeks of nuptial planning had left me physically un-fit for any kind of serious mountain biking. But there he was, hopping out of the van and briskly walk-running toward me. With speed and sharp focus, he flashed a wide, pearly smile and shook my hand with a hard certain grip. He'd barely let go before he was on the roof of the van pulling off a beautiful new Cannondale mountain bike while quizzing me, "Do you need a helmet?...What size bike do you need?...How tough of a ride do you want to do?... How do you like this Cannondale, etc."
He checked my size on the brand new Cannondale. The fit was perfect. Best darn mountain bike I'd ever sat upon. We were ready to begin this special morning tour with just me and this premier guide from Great Adventures.
"Hey, I appreciate your doing this for me, and on such short notice."
"No problem," Mike shot back, full of energy at 7 am. "Somehow today, though, I've got to scout the river to find some trout for a guy from Montana who I'm fly-fishing with tomorrow."
"You do that, too? Fly fishing?"
"Uh-huh. And do you know how hard it's been to find trout in this heat? This summer' been so hot and dry they're not even interested in eating. It'll be tough to find some for him."
A Man of Many Talents
He's a mountain biking guide, primarily, but Mike also takes visitors to his neck of the woods for hunting, fishing and hiking excursions--among other things. Plus, he's a ski guide and instructor during the winter.
Mike's life has been as animated as his personality. His father, who trained with the ski troops in World War II, decided to move from New York City to skiing country after the war, when Mike was five. Vermont was the perfect place for him to raise a family and imbibe in skiing all the time.
Mike became such an excellent alpine skier that he was a member of and medaled on the US Olympic team. He starred in two Olympics during the 60s. His love of bicycling began as a method of cross-training for skiing. He was an avid road cyclist, but was bitten early by the mountain biking bug, which he finds "much more interesting." Now his frequent tours keep him in excellent shape and he is trim, but solid as a rock.
Not Just Another Jock
One thing that is clear from the beginning: Mike is not just another jock. He's a Vermont "renaissance man" of sorts, and whether we are driving along another farm and flower-dotted blue highway, or whether we are climbing a dirt forest road alongside a cascading creek enroute to a perfect single-track trail, Mike anxiously provides bits of fact and opinion on a collection of matters. He covers it all: a careful description and criticism of the costly attempts to bring back the native salmon population to the fairly narrow White River, which has lead to a sharp decline in native trout; stopping to point out "deer scratches" in the dirt road, where deer literally scrape the road for salt; admiring a large, perfect vegetable garden bordered by lush wildflowers and planted by two very elderly friends along the bike route; and dismounting so we can measure the size of our hands against the fresh tracks of a Vermont moose.
"See how spread out the toes are? And the distance between the prints?" Mike says intently. "You can tell he was trotting, not just walking. He must have heard something and got scared."
Make no mistake, however, that this maverick is here to bike and he's not taking it easy on a cream puff e-zine editor. Because we only have a few hours, Mike takes me on a test ride of sorts, the one they use on the first morning of a multi-day group tour. It shows him how varied the abilities of the bikers are and gives him and another company guide an idea of how challenging to make the next days' trips. Often, the group will be divided into two or three levels and each will get its chance to bike at the difficulty level that best suits the individuals' abilities.
Let the Ride Begin
For this novice-intermediate mountain biker not in prime shape, it was perfect. We parked the van at a gravel lot alongside the White River, unloaded, mounted our bikes (his a blue Specialized Stumpjumper), and road about two miles along a two-lane blue highway with very little traffic. Next we turned off onto a side road and began our two-mile ascent up a lush, shady dirt forest road toward the top of a ridge. Music was provided by the constant splashing of Pine Brook, filled with white boulders and marked by occasional, small waterfalls. An excellent place to pitch a tent or stop for a lunch, the canopy of trees and the rush of the cold water keeps the banks rather cool and comfortable.
The ascent is long and steady but the rewards during and at the end (the descent!) are well worth it. It is along here that Mike points out the deer scratches, moose tracks, and even moose-droppings. A real treat for this Western Pennsylvania boy who has never seen such things. At the end of the road, mainly a lumbering path at this point, we arrive at the trailhead, which is well marked with signs as "The Pine Brook Trail."
Mountain bike access to this trail and many others, says Mike, is hotly contested and is continuing on a "watch and see" basis. He says mountain bikers have a bad name in some Vermont circles and National Forest authorities are granting them access for a trial period to evaluate if they will continue to grant them access. Mike is hopeful that mountain bikers turn out in big numbers to use the trails but that they mind their manners and keep the area clean and in perfect shape so they don't spoil a good thing. This is still a real fear, he says, but he's adamant that mountain biking is a perfect fit for Vermont.
We then tackle the trail and--yes!--begin our rugged, and at times, downright steep descent. Two great miles of it! It's very green and full of trees but the track is pretty clear. With a few good tips from Mike who's calling back from in front of me, I make it just fine--but do wipe out about 20 yards from the end of the trail as I make my way around road block. Oh, well. This ain't Astroturf. I needed a little dirt to show my wife. Mike gets a good laugh, too.
The end of the trail dumps us right back onto the lower portion of the dirt road we ascended earlier. We coast pleasantly down the road alongside Pine Brook and make it back to the paved blue highway that leads us back to the van...
His Day's Just Starting
...It's almost noon as Mike climbs drops me back at the Cortina Inn. Me? I get to go eat like a horse, rest and enjoy the rest of my fine Vermont honeymoon. Mike? ..."This afternoon, I have to go find some good trout spots for that guy coming in from Montana," he says. "Tonight, my boy [19-years-old, one of two] and I will probably head out for a few hours of single track riding after supper. We like to get a good ride in together on my days off."
Whew! Gets me tired just thinking about this human dynamo. Thanks, Mike, for the inspiration, the perspiration, and the terrific experience. I've got no doubt that you are "Vermont's Finest."
For more information, contact Great Outdoor Adventure Tours at 800-345-5182
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