Words: Matt Falwell of Gear Up Cycles in Kentucky
My granny’s people lived on the banks of the Tennessee the river and were forced out by the TVA during the reclamation of floodplain areas in order to usher in the advent of affordable hydropower for the common man. When dammed, the Cumberland and Tennessee rivers rose to create an unintentional recreational area that resulted in 170,000 acres of “Land Between the Lakes,” home to a wealth of outdoor activities, such as water sports, cycling, fishing, hunting and the like. I spend most of my time on the bike solo in these woods, on lonely back roads poking around the remnants of often-forgotten communities and homesteads. The plan for this trip came about while on these back roads–the idea of bridging together the two worlds of bikepacking and hunting. Squirrel hunting does not require a massive firearm. In fact, you can legally hunt them with a slingshot if you have the dexterity. It is also a social activity that can have several people out together walking the ridgelines and hollows, sharing conversation and stories that continue post-hunt back at the fire.
I truly love traveling by bike. It is often with the mindset, though, to get to and from a destination with the minimum amount of equipment as fast as possible. This trip would be in the winter months with temperatures hovering in the 30’s. So slower, more comfortable travel was made with the intent of riding to an isolated primitive camp. Said camp hopefully would be full of squirrels to provide a meal and tales of daring bushwhacking and the eventual outsmarting of our prey. I invited my longtime friend, Nathan Brown–artist, and avid outdoorsman, and Rockabilly music legend–along with my eldest son Isaac, also a musician and accomplished adventure paddler, to come out with me and wander the woods. It had been a long time since we last camped together. We packed light, as far as equipment, although, I carried equal the weight in fresh food. With the potential of possibly not shooting any squirrels, my “Be Prepared” attitude kicked in. Loaded, we rolled off into the forest. With a few water crossings and pauses to watch our bushy-tailed prey flit back and forth taunting us, we made our way into a series of remote glades that typically are flush with rabbit, squirrel, and birds. We rode overgrown roads, past remnants of farms, further back into the hollows.
Once we arrived at our destination, we set to the business of making camp, filtering water, gathering firewood, and building our cookfire. It was clear and cold with the temperature just above freezing. We warmed ourselves by the fire and had an appetizer of Brie and crackers with hot tea and bourbon. We are not savages after all. Foil packs of roasted veggies and a squirrel I had shot and marinated beforehand were our supper. That would be the last squirrel we would see for the rest of the trip. The freezing rain that night drove all the wildlife deep into their winter burrows. We awoke the next morning and shook off the ice. Strong cups of coffee were made while bacon warmed in the skillet. The sun began to show its face above the ridge, setting the glade ablaze in golden warm light. We spent the day wandering from hickory tree groves to tall stands of oaks, finding piles of empty eaten nut shells and worn entrances to hollow trees. Our bushy-tailed friends eluded us.
As the day drifted into dusk, we loaded our bikes and rode back to the trailhead, eyes at the ready for signs of movement in the trees, just in case. We had returned empty-handed with no meat for the pan. Yet the time away from the hustle of daily life was reward enough. A day in the open and a night on the ground, the song of the wind in the trees, or the laughter of a friend while feeling the warmth of the fire growing in your toes is what we really brought back. I remember my granny always ready to set a place at the table for family or friend that came to her house, with a gesture of time and a warm plate. I believe it is the shared experience that is the meal that feeds the heart–the meal oftentimes skipped in our daily rush. There will be future days riding in the woods with lone solitude or with the harmony of friends. Till then, I look forward to the abundance of nature and the freedom the bike provides, while I roll my way through my granny’s land between the rivers.
TVA: Tennessee Valley Authority
XL Kona Wozo stock
MD Kona Big Honzo
54cm Kona Sutra LTD frameset, 27.5×2.8 WTB wheels w Arisun tires, Sram Freagle 12 spd Eagle drivetrain with 11 spd microshift thumb lever set on friction, Crust Jungle runner bars, Brooks C17 saddle with Specialized CGR seat post. Shimano hydro disc