Saturday, June 11, 2016

DS ride: Montague Township, Lanark County

The route data with pics, etc. is published here on Garmin Adventures. Haven't tried this option before, so curious to hear how it works out. 

This is good afternoon dual sport ride leaving from Almonte, just west of Ottawa. It features a mix of paved, gravel, and rough bush roads suitable for all types of DS bikes. Skid plate and knobby tires, or at least 80/20 road/dirt tires, are recommended--especially if the route is wet. I rode it recently after a month-long dry spell and 99.9% of the route was bone dry. But some sections clearly fill up with long stretches of water that can hide rocks, culverts, and mud to trip you up. I wouldn't recommend riding the southern end of the route if there's been a lot of rain recently.

Total distance is around 150km and, if you slow down and take your time, it can be ridden in under 3 hours. My WR250R used one tank of gas (7.2l). You can ignore some of the side-blips in the GPX; my RotoPax fell off when I didn't tighten it after refueling, and I had to go back and find it.

If leaving from Almonte I recommend riding clockwise so the hard section is near the start and you have more time to get yourself out of a pickle. The bush section starts at the intersection of Heaphy Road off Upper Dwyer Hill Road. As far as I can tell it's all on publicly-accessible land, so there shouldn't be any issues as long as you don't deviate onto side trails which are clearly marked with no trespassing signage. 

The bush section is remarkably rugged and isolated considering how close it is to downtown Ottawa. The area, in Montague Township, was one of the first to be settled in Lanark County, originally by Irish Catholics and Protestants. They tried futilely to scratch an existence out of the unforgiving limestone and scrub before wisely giving up and migrating west to the Prairie frontier. Along the route you'll pass a few lonely log homesteads. It must've been insanity-inducing trying to live here with no soil, endless bugs, and rare sightings of neighbours. You'll certainly get a sense of that as you ride along. 

As some historical trivia, the "Montague" in Montague Township was pronounced as "Mon-tag" in the early days. Also, the hamlet of Numogate got its name from the local postmaster who discovered that his first choice of name was already taken and so made up Numogate as an anagram of Montague. 

This is essentially a route to "nowhere" and sees very little traffic as a result. When I rode on a nice Saturday afternoon, I passed only a handful of vehicles in 3+ hours. You are advised to ride with someone else and have a solid plan to deal with emergencies or being stranded. Access to the bush sections requires high ground-clearance vehicles so you could be pushing a motorcycle a long way. 

Friday, June 10, 2016

2012 Fox Float 29 FIT CTD damper upgrade

In 2013 I upgrades bikes from a five year old Giant Trance XO with 26" wheels, that I built from the frame up with a Fox Talas RLC (adjustable 100/120/140mm travel), to a state-of-the-art 29er: a 2014 Santa Cruz Tallboy 2 Carbon. The sum of many small--and big--technology improvements in the Tallboy took my riding to a whole new level of fun.

Once the honeymoon period ended and I understood the Tallboy's personality, I began to question the performance of the Fox suspension components. The bike came specced with Fox Float CTD front and rear, with a sweet Kashima-coated version of the FIT CTD fork and a less-sweet, non-Kashima shock under the seat. Both components were a clear improvement over the RLC and RP23 on the Trance: they responded better to bumps, were easier to adjust, felt plusher and, in the case of the fork, were noticeably stiffer and lighter--not least because of the thru-axle design.

But I found it hard to get the fork feeling totally dialed. It was either too firm and bounced off small obstacles like roots, or too squishy and prone to diving. I could get it feeling good, but not great, no matter what settings I tried.

Some online discussions revealed similar complaints with the 2012 and earlier models. And it turns out my fork is a 2012 model--which certainly explained its performance. This was a surprise because I'd bought my bike in the summer of 2013 as a just-released 2014 model (no discount there!) and I reasonably expected a 2013 fork.

The good news is that the problems were tied to the damper design and Fox introduced an improved damper in the 2013 model. All reports indicated that the new damper performed really well, solving the damping problems of the 2012 and earlier CTD models. Even better, since the fork body remained the same, the 2013 damper can be installed into the 2012 fork. Fox even offers an upgrade path on their website. If you're in the US, you can deal directly with Fox. In Canada, you need to arrange the upgrade through your local Fox dealer/bike shop, who will send it to Outdoor Gear Canada for the swap. It's not cheap (I think I paid around CAD$250 for the upgrade, and OGC kept my old damper) and it's best done at the same time as a fork service (e.g. seal replacement).

This is what the adjustments on the new damper look like (apologies for the poor focus).

The red rebound knob now has a very satisfying click.

Is it worth it?

Yes! I immediately noticed a significant performance improvement in the form of better tracking and control over stutter bumps and roots. This is where tight damping control is absolutely essential to keep the front wheel planted on the trail so it can do its job of traction, braking and steering. With the old damper, I was never really able to eliminate the tendency for my wheel to either bounce off small obstacles or just pack up, no matter how much I played with compression and rebound damping. Cornering on rough ground felt sketchy, especially at high speed. With the new damper, the fork just sucks up roots and square-edge hits, keeping the rubber planted. This is especially noticeable on off-camber turns where traction is critical. Now I'm able to ride significantly faster while maintaining control.

Here's how I set up my suspension:
  1. Set tire pressure. I weigh about 195-200 pounds ready to ride, without water in my pack. I'm running Schwalbe Hans Dampf tires (29"), tubeless, on 19mm rims. Most of my riding is on hard pack and/or mud with exposed limestone and granite, sharp baby heads and rock gardens, and lots of roots. When it's wet, it's very slippery. I tend to ride 22 psi front and rear, but may air down to 20 psi if wet. 22 psi gives my tire enough lateral stability that it doesn't squirm, but isn't so hard the suspension can't compensate or traction suffers. At 20 psi I find the rear wheel tracks less predictably through rocks and roots. I've also run other tires but the Schwalbes seem to give the best overall performance for my conditions.
  2. Set sag. This is really important: your suspension needs to be able to travel down as well as up so it can track into depressions and maintain traction. I aim for 25% compression when fully kitted and sitting on my bike. For my rear shock this means about 160 psi although for me that still feels hard, but any lower and I get too much pedal strike. For my fork, 75 psi is about right. Focus on the actual sag, not the numbers, because your pump gauge is small and hardly accurate, and temperature and elevation can affect results. Another way to gauge pressure is to see if you've used your full suspension travel after a hard ride. No? Then your pressures are too high and you're wasting available travel. If you find you're bottoming out on moderate obstacles where you shouldn't, then air up. Make adjustments in 5 lb increments. 
  3. To start, set rebound and compression damping in the middle of the range. The goal is to find the sweet spot so that when your wheel hits small obstacles like roots, the wheel doesn't bounce up and off the root but rather tracks right over it and plants back on the ground. I run my compression damping a click or two above the middle setting, and rebound damping a click below middle setting. This slows the sudden diving action my fork makes when hitting square edges (because I'm heavy), but allows the fork to return a little quicker so it doesn't pack up.  It may not be scientific but it really works well for me.
  4. Ride and adjust. Are you still bouncing up off square edges? Turn down compression damping. Do you feel a little "kick" when coming off the top of a root? Turn up rebound damping. Make one-click changes and ride the same section to feel the difference. Try riding fast over roots and other stutter bumps, and rough or loose off-camber corners to get a good feel for your settings. Then write them down! 
This upgrade has breathed worthwhile performance into my shock, extending its useful lifetime and making riding more fun for much less cost than upgrading the whole fork or bike. Now it's time to address the shock. The Float CTD only has adjustments for sag (air pressure) and compression damping. Despite having its damper serviced at the same time as my fork, it still feels harsh over small bumps and bottoms out easily if I lower the pressure. Running it in the "open" setting (the only mode where your compression settings take effect) helps somewhat, but is not efficient for pedaling. I'll be looking into an alternative shock, perhaps a Fox X2, to see if performance can be improved. It's interesting to see how prices on my CTD shock have plummeted to as low as $80 new. It's not worth servicing again, and I would get better value by upgrading.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

New exploration: The Lost Quarter of Lanark County

There's a whole story to be told about Montague Township in the southeast corner of Lanark County. I spent a good chunk of Saturday exploring this rugged, sparsely populated area only 30 minutes from our nation's capital. Might as well have been in Siberia. Here's a teaser of what I saw:

For me, riding through an area like this is much more than a technical challenge. I also need to understand what I'm seeing. Who lives here? What's their story? How did it get this way?

Lots to research on this one before I post a route and historical context. For now I'll say that you don't want to head into this area when it's wet, or if you are lousy with directions. Last weekend, conditions were perfect following a month of no rain. It would be epic under usual conditions.

Lost Mines of Lanark County - Part 4: The Places and the Players

The mines we’ll look at in more detail have connections to the following communities just west of Ottawa. All but Calabogie fall within Lanark County.

The area east of a north-south line running through Almonte and Carleton Place consists mainly of exposed limestone formations, including the unique Burnt Lands Alvar a few kilometers to the east of Almonte. The limestone here reveals only a few of the most primitive marine fossils (e.g. shellfish and trace fossils) but lacks the spectacular fossils of later eras because the glaciers long since ground away all the more recent fossil-bearing layers.  

To the west of this line rises the Canadian Shield, which forms an obvious ridge just outside Almonte and runs north to Pakenham along the Mississippi River valley. This ridge once formed the western shore of Lake Champlain, an inland sea that connected to the St. Lawrence River valley and the Atlantic Ocean after the last ice age about 12,000 years ago. Visible evidence of the ancient shoreline today includes the broad sand deposits along the Old Perth Road just west of Almonte, which were once beaches probably teeming with seals, walruses, and other creatures. Today the Lanark highlands is full of swamps and lakes that formed in the pits and valleys scoured out by the glaciers in the hard, impervious rock.

The geology of Lanark County promoted the formation of mineral deposits with industrial value. In the early 1800s, government surveyors exploring the area discovered this extensive mineral potential. They noted that compass readings were affected in some areas where the geology was known to be conducive to iron ore formation, suggesting the presence of significant deposits.

Mapping studies over the next few decades revealed a trend of north/south strikes, particularly along the area that eventually became the route of the K&P Railway. Some of the major mines that we’ll examine are indicated with red dots in the picture below; the dots along the left follow the K&P. For the most part these are iron mines, but deposits of silver, gold, copper, and other minerals were also identified. The discovery of potentially rich mineral deposits, combined with the waning square timber industry and the rising pulpwood industry, set the stage for developing roads, rails, mines, and settlement in Lanark County.

By 1871 construction of the K&P was well underway. As it pushed north, small communities around the pulpwood and mining industries sprang up. Some politics was involved as well: the original route of the K&P was well to the north of its current route in the area of Lavant Station. 

Note on the map the location of "Iron Mine" in the bottom left corner. This is the Wilbur mine. The community marked "Lavant" is not to be confused with Lavant Station, which was  incorporated by William Caldwell as "Iron City" in 1881 when the railway arrived.  

The influence of one of the local industry magnates—probably Boyd Caldwell or his nephew William (who was pursuing a mine near what became Flower Station)—got the route pushed south to its present location. Compare with the map above. 

Who were the Caldwells?

To understand the mines you need to understand the people behind them. The Caldwell name is unavoidable in this context. There were many Caldwells: they were movers and shakers, and many of them had the same name—which creates a lot of confusion when trying to understand exactly who did what. The Caldwells must’ve recognized this ambiguity, because sometimes they added or changed their names to help distinguish each other. As best as I can figure out by correlating reliable dates for births, deaths, and reports, these are the key Caldwells with respect to the mining story.

A key insight is that it was the cousins Thomas Boyd Caldwell and William Clyde Caldwell who had the main mining interests. Fortunately, both had distinguished political careers (federally, Thomas; provincially, William), which means there's a good public record on their activities. Unfortunately, their political record overshadows their personal business record and makes it hard to sift out any details about the mines. My sense is that their interest in mining was very much a sideline activity, with politics and running their main timber and woolen mill interests being their main focus. 

Thomas’s father, Boyd, began mining the Wilbur site in January 1880, before the arrival of the K&P in 1881. I haven’t been able to find much detail about mining activity at Wilbur before 1880, although some test pits were probably dug. Indeed, mining reports for 1884 note that early development had long since been abandoned and that little was known about prior activity beside some anecdotes from speaking with the Caldwells. The Wilbur mine will be covered in a lot more detail in a future post.  

The ambiguous names also create some mysteries about which descriptions relate to which mine sites. At the time, everyone knew who “Caldwell” was and understood the proper context when referring to “the Caldwell mine”. The available record often doesn’t clarify which mine is the subject; there’s just a reference to yet another “Caldwell” mine. This is further compounded by the frequent change in ownership of different mine sites, some eventually bought back by earlier owners. Throughout this evolution, even a mine that is named in a contemporary record may not reflect the true ownership. Locals probably knew it by one name, and people elsewhere may have used different names. Figuring out which descriptions relate to which mines requires building a timeline of activity at each location, reviewing ownership records, and correlating with other dated information. I’ve attempted to do this where possible and my story reflects my best understanding of the record.

In addition to their timber operations, Boyd Caldwell and his son Thomas ran the Appleton woolen mill, the ruins of which are still visible today at the falls in Appleton.

Alexander Caldwell, Boyd’s brother and himself a timber baron, built “Clyde Hall”, a beautiful stone home in the town of Lanark. 

An interesting footnote to this story is the dispute Boyd Caldwell had with Peter McLaren, another timber baron in the region. At issue was who could access waterways for the running of squared timber which was sent down the rivers to eventually reach the Ottawa lumber yards. At the time, waterways such as the Mississippi, Fall, and Clyde Rivers in Lanark County were privately owned—usually by the timber barons. The dispute eventually reached one of the highest courts in England and was finally won by the Caldwells, establishing the principle that waterways are open to all. As a result of this case, Canadians today enjoy access to most waterways and lakes across the country.

Here’s a picture of the K&P locomotive #9, the “Boyd Caldwell”, which probably dates to around 1886-1887. Boyd Caldwell died in 1888 so it’s likely this locomotive was named for him rather than his son Thomas Boyd, who would only be in his early 30’s and probably not yet wealthy (or socially established) enough to have his own eponymous toy.

Not to be outdone, in 1887 William Caldwell (who was 14 years older than his cousin Thomas and already an MPP) also scored himself a personalized locomotive, the K&P #10.  By this time the K&P railway to Renfrew had been complete for three years, so what better way to celebrate?

In the next post we’ll look into the mining technology of the day because it serves as another important basis to understand the historic record, and to interpret site features.