Early Sunday morning, thirty-two teams boarded buses from the host town of Clarion to the Fraternal Order of Eagles in downtown Punxsutawney, where they received race maps and were treated to a buffet breakfast as they planned their route. At 10:00 a.m., racers gathered for a ceremonial send-off, with Punxsutawney Phil, the state’s most famous weather forecaster, leading them to the town green.
Groundhog Day, dating back to 1887, features the renowned Phil, who predicts the duration of winter every year on February 2 by the presence of his shadow. The start of this year’s Endless Mountains brings similar excitement to the town, as competitors race through the streets in search of fourteen Phantastic Phil statues before making their way to Gobbler’s Knob to pick up their bikes and begin the five-day and 550-kilometer journey.
The first twelve hours of that journey are fast-paced and straightforward, belying Pennsylvania’s challenging terrain and the technical navigation emblematic of Rootstock Racing events.
After the prologue, racers will enjoy a twenty-mile ride through bucolic farmlands and forest tracts en route to the small village of McGees Mills, where they will transition to the water and launch their packrafts onto the West Branch Susquehanna River.
The river, meandering for 243 miles, bubbles up in the Allegheny Mountains and zigzags through central Pennsylvania. The region’s earliest recorded inhabitants were the Susquehannock people, drawn to the river’s drainage basin and the steep valley’s rich hunting grounds. Until the early nineteenth century, the river provided the main canoe route connecting the Susquehanna and Ohio Valleys. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the West Branch carried timber to the many mills lining its bank. At the height of the timber industry, these mills produced 5.5 billion board feet of lumber.
During the 2022 Endless Mountains, racers will float 25 miles of the corridor, ending at Curwensville Lake. There, they will encounter their first strategic decisions of the race: whether to secure the seven remaining CPs of the section by boat or by foot. Racers are using packrafts here because unpredictable summer water levels create potential hazards for canoe travel.
Now sufficiently warmed up, racers leave Curwensville Lake for the first of two long bike stages on the course. The leg offers something for everyone: small towns, remote forest roads, grinding climbs, steep descents, and a bit of winding single track. The highlight of this section will undoubtedly be a stop at Bilger’s Rocks in Clearfield County, a sandstone playground of scrambling, climbing, and even a touch of caving.
Racers will drop their bikes and, using a bouldering map, embark on a unique navigational and technical challenge to claim twelve checkpoints before continuing on their journey into Moshannon State Forest. The Bilger’s Rocks Association is staying up late to offer hot dogs, mac and cheese, and tacos for hungry racers.
From Moshannon State Forest, teams will embark on a fifty-mile rogaine through the Quehanna Wild Area, which includes more than 48,000 acres of protected land, spanning three counties and two state forests. A symbol of Pennsylvania’s complicated historical relationship between industrial development and green space, the land was home to a nuclear research center in the 1950s and vestiges of that infrastructure still remain, now reclaimed by the forest. Following the dissolution of the nuclear facility, Pennsylvania reacquired the land in the 1960s and established it as a protected wild area in 1965. It took eight years and more than $30 million to clean up the nuclear waste.
Quehanna is now home to new growth forest and creatures ranging from bobcat to elk, black bear to turkey, and the prolific timber rattlesnake, which racers are likely to encounter during this strategy-focused, navigationally-intensive stage. Here, teams will be rewarded for sharp route choice decisions and efficient off-trail travel. For the fastest teams, they may be able to escape the wilds in 24 hours – if they nail the navigation. For some, they may spend a full 48 hours in what is one of the most isolated areas of the state.
When they return to TA, they will retrieve their bikes and pedal into Elk Country, the stage for which the race was built.
The 2022 Endless Mountains Adventure Race began to take shape in November 2020, when – needing an escape from Philadelphia but with state borders shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic – race directors Abby Perkiss and Brent Freedland decided to rent a little cabin over Thanksgiving. That weekend, they encountered the Pennsylvania elk herd, and they never looked back.
Once a bastion for eastern elk, the state saw the demise of its natural herd in the second half of the nineteenth century, the result of industrialization and overhunting. At the turn of the twentieth century, the newly-established Pennsylvania Game Commission conceived of a program to repopulate the state’s endangered wildlife populations, including elk. In 1913, as part of an effort to relocate the expansive elk population of Yellowstone, Pennsylvania welcomed fifty Wyoming elk and released them on state lands across Clinton and Clearfield Counties. In the century that followed, through tensions with farmers, contests over hunting rights, and seasons of disease and blight, the state’s elk population has grown to upwards of 1,400 animals. During this 90+ mile bike ride, racers will travel through the heart of elk country.
And if scouting visits to and through the region are any indication, many of them will hopefully be treated to company along their route.
Once racers exit the state forests, they will travel through St. Marys, home of the Straub Brewery and the famous eternal tap – we’ll see if anyone stops for a pint! – and onto Ridgway, the birthplace of Taylor Swift’s grandfather, where they will transition to the Clarion River for the final stage of the race.
The US Congress holds the power to designate a river as Wild and Scenic, an honorific reserved for waterways that are considered to have remarkable scenic, recreational, geologic, fish and wildlife, or historic value. The Clarion holds this accolade, and racers will see why on this meandering sixty-mile canoe paddle, broken up by two fifteen-mile trekking sections.
Their first stop will be Clear Creek State Park and State Forest, a pocket of woods along the river known for the sweeping Clear Creek valley and the steep, rocky hills cradling it. From there, racers will continue on to one of the highlights of the course: the old-growth forest of Cook Forest State Park. Here, racers will travel among the towering pines of the Forest Cathedral, a registered National Natural Landmark. And if they’re lucky, they’ll also encounter local high school students cooking up burgers to fuel them for the final push toward home.
Participants will end their Endless Mountains journey at the boat ramp in Clarion, where they’ll pull out and trek the last two miles through town to the finish line. There, they will be greeted by cow bells, Clarion River Brewing beer, Blackbird moonshine, and family and friends, eager to hear the stories they’ve gathered along the way.