Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Hill Creek Run

I traveled to Belgium for a sad occasion, my dad's funeral, and helping my brother sort through the associated formalities. I decided even before boarding my flight that I would use my jogs to revisit some of the places with happy memories associated with my dad, many of which involved hikes around my old neighborhood and the forests south of town. While I could easily reach many of the places, the High Fen (Hohes Venn, Hautes Fagnes) required some transportation. I toyed with the idea of repeating a trail run I had done in November 2010 starting at Baraque Michel and following the Hill Creek valley back to Eupen and which I had done quite a few times as a hike. Some segments I had done in the company of my parents, too. It requires a ride to Baraque Michel, which my brother Arnulf provided last time around and 2-3 hours for the run.

This time, I did not want to impose on Arnulf and looked into taking the St. Vith bus (TEC 394). The first bus leaves at 7:05 and gets to Baraque Michel only 20 minutes later, that way I would be back in town around 10:00, ready for another day of working through funeral preparations, estate questions and a visit to my mom.

I was at the bus station just as the bus pulled in and boarded along with a mixed bag of students heading to school ("where?" I thought since when I attended high school, kids from the south of the German-speaking region came north to go to school) and folks heading for work and paid €3.40 for my fare. By the time we were out of town, the bus was about 2/3 full. 15 minutes later I signaled for a stop at Baraque Michel, the only passenger to get off at this currently unpopulated place.
As the bus rolled to a stop I had noticed the red flag hanging limply from its pole, indicating that access to the fen was barred due to high fire danger. Disregarding the warning I climbed the fence next to the padlocked gate. After only a couple of minutes of jogging I came across another barrier, this time prohibiting access to the board walk crossing the bogs. Again, I ignored the prohibition and continued. Soon, the boardwalk was in very poor shape, much rougher than when I had proceeded 20 months earlier. I thought to myself that I could not understand how the park management would not maintain such a resource to the tourism industry of the area, as the park attracts thousands of visitors from near and far. Only when I got to the southern end of the board walk did a sign opposite to the one I had ignored at the beginning of this section reveal the reason for the dramatic deterioration: last year's fire had finished off the already compromised structure. Since the living vegetation left and right of the trail had been left mostly unscathed I had not paid too much attention to the marks of fire on what was left of the boards. I now also remembered big stacks of lumber and a backhoe near the start of my run, likely to be used to rebuild the structure.

"No Trespassing" 
Right at the beginning I came past one of the spots I had visited several times with my dad and of which he had told us stories, the Kreuz der Verlobten (“Cross of the Fiancees”). The location epitomizes past dangers of the area, especially during the long and dark winter months.

Hiking the fen in 1965 and 2012

As it was, the initial 4 km of the run were slow going. The impossibility of using the boardwalk made me follow the ruts left by the backhoe track right next to it and within less than ten minutes of starting I had wet feet. The ground was extremely uneven, with grassy humps on spongy bog ground. To avoid sinking in, I hopped from hump to hump, occasionally crossing Hill Creek. Gradually I descended along with the valley that had been carved into the plateau. The bog grasses became interspersed with copses of trees and bushes, some showing signs of the fire that had raged here during the previous spring. I recall reading about it in the online version of my hometown newspaper and thinking at that time that the reporting sounded over-hyped. Indeed, judging from the cover of yellowed grass which must have grown after the blaze, the fire had not managed to kill the plants and even the shrubs and trees looked like they had survived.

The trail followed the creek and surviving pieces of boardwalk as well as the bog landscape had a slight coat of frost. I finally reached the end of the blocked area and was welcomed by better trodden trails and actual newly constructed and freshly overhauled sections of boardwalk. My pace quickened considerably from this point on. Still, I needed to keep watching my step as the trail started to become a jumbled mess of roots of the adjacent trees and jagged rocks protruding from them. I did not want to take a tumble and have my head, elbow or knew make an acquaintance with those.

I'd rather not stumble and tumble coming down this trail

Hill Creek began to resemble a real stream with boulders of all sizes and the sound of rushing water became the soundtrack for my trip as soon as the trail moved closer to the creek. However, as soon as the trail veered away from the stream, the rushing was swallowed by the trees and replaced by bird songs.

I ran through sections of coniferous and deciduous woods or rather forests. I recall that when I took Lynn on our first trip to Belgium, she commented on the fact that the woods had been planted and trees were standing in neat rows. Here, the firs and beech and oak trees did not give that impression any longer but this may have been only because I was traversing stands of mature trees. In fact, some of the firs at the bottom of the valley must have been measuring 40-50 m. They reminded me of the majestic conifers I traversed near Portland, OR a few years back. Still, numbered white cornerstones divided what I believe to be forestry plots and they contained trees of the same species giving them definitely a cultivated feel.

Eventually, the single track trail turned into a forestry road. I tried to keep to areas where leaf or needle litter dampened my step. About three quarters through my run I came past the Hill Creek dam and tunnel. Part of the water is being diverted to help fill Eupen's Weser Reservoir (Wesertalsperre). During the construction in the 1950s, several workers perished because of a flash flood.
Hill dam to the left and entry to Hill tunnel to the right

Clear cut just south of the Hill dam. The swimming hole may be straight
ahead by the small group of trees.

Just past the dam I had a bad surprise: the entire bottom of the valley had been clear-cut. Just a couple hundred meters below the dam is a nice bathing hole where the creek eddies around some huge boulders. It used to be hidden under some crippled firs. The water was really too cold to stay in for very long and horse flies and mosquitoes made lounging on the boulders difficult but when on a long hike on a hot summer day it promised relief. I guess now in the absence of trees it would be inviting sun bathers …

I noticed that about two thirds of the stretch between the dam and a favorite destination for Sunday walks, Schwarze Brücke (“Black Bridge”) had been logged. I checked in with a forester friend of mine who oversees another district in the area and he thought that the area had been logged because the trees were staring to be overly mature.

Die Schwarze Brücke, 1964 and 2012

I quickly covered the remaining short stretch to Eupen Kabel's pipe division, Wetzlaer Bad (the outdoor pool), and the edge of town and promptly ran into a familiar face. My cousin Christoph's wife Christiane. We exchanged a quick hello and promised to catch up after my dad's funeral.

During the entire run I dropped from a maximum elevation of 676 m at Baraque Michel to 264 m when crossing the Weser river in Eupen, climbing only about 96 m but now after 23 km I was facing the longest uphill of the trip, the steep climb to Bergkapelle, after which I had only about 500 m left, which were all downhill. Glad I decided to do this, awesome weather in gorgeous landscape with a lot of good memories.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Four NYC 10K Jogs from Times Square

Spring Break in the Big Apple, with a family that likes to sleep in. I am the only early riser and therefore have the morning hours to myself. What better way to spend them than to engage in some sight seeing by way of jogging.

Running in a big city brings some unique challenges, like traffic-related interruptions, dodging pedestrians on congested sidewalks, etc. Another issue is catching a good signal for the GPS receiver of a fitness watch.  Our hotel (The Muse, very nice, like other hotels of the Kimpton group I have visited) is just half a block from Times Square. While you can't really call Times Square an open area, it shows a little more sky than other intersections, so that's where I went at the start of every run for my FR305 to grab a signal.

March 13: Central Park

Always nice to return for a jog in Central Park, which I have visited for jogs on many previous occasions. Due to work-related constraints I was never able to get beyond the southern half of this beautiful park. No such concerns during this trip, I set rounding the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Reservoir as my goal.

From Times Square I ran up Broadway and followed the Central Park Loop clock-wise to the reservoir. I did notice a few things:

(1) There was quite a bit of running going on
(2) Peletons of cyclists going in the same direction
(3) 95% of runners were on the Loop, not on any of the many other trails crisscrossing the park
(4) Almost all of them were going counter-clockwise

I was definitely bucking the trend. I did a loop around JKO Reservoir, counter-clockwise, like a good boy, and then moved to the much less traveled and in my opinion much more interesting trails meandering through the park. Yesterday I noticed daffodils on the way in from LGA, today it was more daffodils, forsythias  and some pink-flowering tree (cherries? crab apples?). I am definitely not in Minnesota though I recall when I spent my first two weeks in the US here 20-some years ago in mid-April and from my vague recollections nature seemed to be at the same stage I see it now in mid-March.

I concluded my park loop running along the Metropolitan Art Museum and through the zoo, returning to the hotel via the Avenue of the Americas.

March 14: Hudson River and Central Park

After running in unseasonably mild weather yesterday, it was downright warm this morning. After my obligatory five minute GPS lock-on period at Times Square I headed down 46th Street towards the Hudson River, where, when I reached I turned right, going north along the bike path. First the path went right along West Side Highway which soon started to climb to elevated level. The stretch between city and river widened into Riverside Park, a pleasant, apparently freshly redone green space. The bike trail users weren't as fortunate as the trail kept following under the elevated road.
69th Street Transfer Bridge
Trump Place condos behind the West Side Highway
I took a few opportunities to take pictures, like of the 69th Street Transfer Bridge, Trump Place and others. At around 78th Street I began looking for a way up and back to the city. Earlier, I had noticed some bridges and tunnels that connect pedestrian and bike trails to the other side of the express way and now I was looking for such an opportunity to cross. My first attempt was unsuccessful as I erroneously entered in a tunnel-like public works storage area. Soon, I found a place where a steep road provided access to the city. I ran across the Westside to reach Central Park. By now, the temps were downright balmy and the forsythia and daffodil blossoms seemed to lag behind the season indicated by the temperature.
Daffodils and forsythia in Central Park
I noticed that the Central Park Loop was now carrying regular traffic and only few joggers. The bicyclists were now limited to commuters everyone was either at work or on the way. I quickly reached Broadway at Columbus Circle and followed it back to Times Square, admiring the dedicated bike path.
Broadway Bike Trail between Columbus Circle and
Times Square
March 15: Queensboro Bridge

After the last two days' temperatures this morning felt much more seasonable at 9 C, which is still about 5 C warmer than average. Queensboro Bridge is the nearest bridge I could reach and cross on foot from our hotel. Today's jog had the most amount of city travel of all I would do.

I left Times Square going zigzag diagonally through town, always picking the pedestrian "go" light, which evened out over the course of my run to more or less two city blocks north and two east. The GPS track is somewhat random due to running in those deep canyons between the skyscrapers. Just as I reached the bridge, I was hailed by a NYPD copper who asked me if I had a suggestion for a running route for a woman jogger she was helping. I suggested to do like me and run across the bridge but she was adamant on wanting to run downtown. Unfortunately, I could not help her.
East River with Roosevelt Island on left and Queens with Con Edison East
River Electrical Power Plant on right.
On Queensboro Bridge, there are two levels of traffic, the pedestrian/bike path is along the north side an the lower level, the traffic is noisy, not a very pleasant run. From Manhattan, there is the Roosevelt Island (aerial) Tramway and on the Queens side of the bridge, the yellow subway line emerges from the tunnel and goes elevated. The bridge was well traveled by pedestrians and bikes, most westbound on their way to work in Manhattan.

Riding, running or walking just a couple meters away from
noisy and stinking traffic. But a good transit route for
bike and foot commuters

March 16: Hudson River to Chelsea Piers

On this rain-wet and cool morning, I returned to the Hudson River and ran south this time. about half of the distance was right along West Side Highway: not so fun, especially when I passed a NY Transit depot where a dozen or so buses were warming up their engines and belching out their diesel fumes. Still, I do appreciate that it seems quite easy to get around by bike in this huge city.

But then there were pedestrian and bike friendly areas with a little more distance to traffic. I took advantage of the many piers and boardwalks jutting into the river and ran to the end of a few of them. When I approached the northern edge of Chelsea Piers, a large entertainment and shopping complex spanning several piers. I heard a wood thrush call from the bushes, almost within arm's reach.

On the way back, I saw a big cruise ship come up the river, fully lit in the dark and readying to moor at one of the piers. I noticed a big sign on top of the ship spelling out "Queen Victoria." I was not sure if this was the Queen Victoria or a cruise ship line of that name but when I checked later, it was indeed the ship, readying for a trans-Atlantic voyage with destination port of Southampton. Quite a bit of smaller boat traffic on the river, too, some looked like ferries, others like fast police launches. On the way back to Times Square, I passed a construction site where dozens of workers were arriving for their shift.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Sisu Year-End Party at Green Body

Last time getting together with our Tuesday night group and many others at the Green Body Gym in St. Paul. Too bad not everyone could make it.

Dayton, Kitty, Christian, Ben, Shirley, Kathy, Roy and Dan
It was a good year working out together. Important upcoming event: Greenbody's Go Green 5k/10k trail run at Battle Creek.