Thursday, March 24, 2016

Overnighter to Round Prairie Park

A pleasant evening at Round Prairie Park
A twenty-five percent chance of .015 inches of rain in a thunderstorm seemed like pretty good odds of having a pleasant overnight bike experience in March.

The possibility of a thunderstorm meant warmer temperatures from the south, and the 25% chance was a reasonable risk, especially since just a trace of rain was predicted.

And there I was the next day, 5:30 AM, in my tent at Round Prairie Park, having just experienced an hour of lightning, thunder, and drenching rain. The good news? My new Big Agnes Copper Spur one-person tent didn't leak! The bad news? None, really, just some in-the-moment concern when the lightning flashes and concurrent ka-booms were close.

A damp morning but a dry night
Knowing the possibility of thunderstorms from the south, I had erected the tent on a north-south axis to align it with possible winds. I had also guyed out the tent to keep the rainfly away from the netting. Worked well! Instead of the tent blowing down or leaking, I was able to check for rain for an hour while flinching at the sudden bursts of sound and light.

Last year in March I had taken the same trip, but it had not been so successful. Packing too much weight, still being weak from the flu, and the bike needing a tune-up, the overnighter had been a “well, I survived that” experience.

This year the 12-mile ride had the wind with me both ways, the night was warmer (low fifties), and all my equipment worked well. My Trangia alcohol stove rather than the Emberlite wood stove was a good choice, considering the dampness.

12 miles of travel, 10 on Glasgow Road
The two miles of gravel was smooth and packed from the winter, so the 10 miles on Glasgow Road and the gravel went quickly.

This is becoming one of my favorite overnighters. The prairie campground has trees and is on a crown of hill. It is clean with lots of sky. Close to town, it's not a long ride.

The sleep at night is quiet (excluding lightning strikes). It's a peaceful little county park clos to town.

Any time I feel the need to get out of town and stargaze, this is the place to go. 

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Overnighter to Lake Darling

I wake up in my tent at Lake Darling, Iowa. It’s a dark night in early March, and I wonder what time is it, and what’s the temperature.

Somehow, knowing the time when I wake up always makes it easier for me to fall back to sleep. “Oh, it's 2:30. I’ve got another three or four hours to sleep.” Knowing where I’m at in my sleep cycle is reassuring. I set my internal alarm clock and drift off.

Early March in Iowa is certainly adequate motivation to wonder about the temperature. The forecast had predicted temperatures just under 50 degrees. I'm pretty much a fair weather camper, so I was pushing my envelope some--in a good way--but rather than verifying my mild-mannered “roughing it,” I discovered I had broken my cold weather camping record of 45 degrees from the March of last year. It was 38 degrees out but still cozy in my sleeping bag.

I cinched the mummy bag a little more tightly around my head, rolled onto my side, and drifted off, the sharp, clean morning filled a serenading owl backed up by a trio of Motown coyotes.

Morning found me comfortable with the temperature, there being no wind and my having brought a good lightweight down jacket. My muscles were quietly suggesting I wasn't in peak condition this early in the season, but my 17-mile ride to the Lake Darling State Park was an early-season success. The forecast for the ride back home predicted no wind, and I’m happy to say it was correct.

I was glad to stretch my experience boundaries a bit. I was glad to realize that the overnight bike-camping experiences of last year had paid off in an efficient and enjoyable March trip this year.

Riding home in the cool late-winter morning, I wasn't bothered by mosquitoes or the heat. The bare fields on Pleasant Plain Road and Highway 78 were not yet planted, and the bare branches of the trees had a stark beauty, as did the flat grey of the overcast sky. There seemed to be more silence, as if I were catching the world before it was awake, not the wee hours of the morning but the wee hours of the season.

I fell into a rhythm that sent me flying down the hills and grinding up the other side. I was listening to the silence that underlay the subtle mechanical sounds of the bicycle.

I had my kit together, my momentum and balance, and have an entire cycling season ahead. Down one hill, up the next, spin or stand on the pedals--I’m literally riding down Pleasant Plain Road, and it's a great day to be alive and riding. 

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Emberlit Titanium Wood-burning Camp Stove Review

Folded Stove + Dryer Fluff & Fire Starter
 I bought the Emberlit camp stove after reading a bicycle touring journal of a guy who used a similar stove while riding across Siberia. I was inspired.

Using it about ten times over the summer, I found it works well. There are always twigs at a campsite, so fuel is not a problem. If rain or winds were predicted, I might bring my Trangia alcohol stove instead, or maybe both since they are both so light. Since the stove is Titanium, it cools quickly for packing. It folds flat and is very light.

The firebox is small, so be prepared with your wood, and keep an eye on the fire. Several times I had to re-start the fire. I don't consider this a weakness of the stove but rather a matter of campcraft.

Having this along with my Trangia would give me two burners, which could be useful for heating a soup/stew and noodles, for instance. 

Monday, December 14, 2015

20-Mile Day Ride to Turkey Run

I'm riding down a gravel road that is even smoother than asphalt--gravel and good ol' Iowa mud packed to a porcelain-like riding surface. The day is near 60 degrees, little to no wind, and I'm out and about on my bike in December for a day ride to Turkey Run Wildlife Area in Jefferson County, southeast Iowa.

Besides being out on the bike on a warm and rare December opportunity, I'm checking out how my Raleigh Detour 2.5 with its 35c wide tires handles on gravel. I don't think this was a good test.

The trip, though, was a good chance to experience how hitting the "ripio" or gravel takes one far away from busyness, even in rural southeast Iowa. Yes, I did meet a few cars, maybe a half dozen while on the gravel, and I did pass some farms, including a couple of CAFOs hidden away, but the silence and the openness and the distant horizon did wonders for my psyche.

The next day was even warmer but also windy. Two days later, it rained and the road would have been mud, so I had chosen the perfect moment to plumb the gravel roads of Cedar Creek bottom and to check out Turkey Run for the first time. My route out of Fairfield, Iowa, was Glasgow Road to Osage Avenue, which leads to Turkey Run. On the way home I branched off west from Osage to 256th St., which took me to state Highway 1, which I took north back to Fairfield, ten miles out and ten miles back.

Turkey Run is not a camping area. It is set up for primitive camping for equestrians, and the park service said it would be okay to do an overnighter there with a bicycle. No water, no restrooms, and no electricity. Pack in and carry out.

I wandered around a bit, ate lunch, took some photos, checked out the trail, and then headed home. Turkey Run is a nice refuge for wildlife, and I have to say that I enjoyed my time there, a refuge from civilization, even if only a small patch in the gridwork of Iowa farms.

Monday, December 7, 2015

A Grocery Run with the Burley Travoy

It's December, 46 degrees, and blue sky--time to take the Burley Travoy out to get some groceries.

This is my second post on a Travoy grocery run, the last about three years ago with a January test run. I have a different bicycle, but the trailer experience was pretty much the same. The trailer is just great for a grocery run. What I love most is unhitching the trailer and then using it in the store as a grocery cart while shopping. That's not only efficient but also a foolproof means of knowing everything I buy will fit in the Travoy!

The ride to the store is about 1.75 miles. Today it was into the wind on the way there, and I'm not sure yet whether the flat front of the Travoy catches the wind. Maybe it does, or maybe it was just a headwind.

Coming home, I had to climb the steepest hill in town with the 25 pounds of food, and made it with no problems--which means some time totally geared down, and then a bit of upshift and standing on the pedals. I think, though, that the trailer rides more smoothly with weight. At least it is more quiet.

I had a full load of groceries, which included a gallon of milk and some space-taking crackers and chips. I put the eggs and glass in the top bag.

Notice I have the trailer attachment that fits onto the rear rack. I have to use that because the rack is too long for the trailer to attach to the seat post. However, the rack still has space in front for panniers or canvas bags.

It's great to take a ride while doing a chore. I brought home quite a few groceries on my food run. Now I'll have to hope for more good weather to work off all that chow!

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Montague Navigator: Folding Bicycle Review

I bought the Montague Navigator primarily because I travel regularly by the Amtrak Zephyr from Iowa to California, and I wanted to take my bike with me. The Navigator folds and fits into a cloth carrying bag. It is allowed by Amtrak as one carry-on bag.

The bicycle works well for traveling on Amtrak. I've taken the bike back and forth across the country four times (8 trips), and have not had any problems with the bike or with the Amtrak policy. Once there was no room for the bike, but I just stood in the downstairs coach area and let the attendants figure the situation out. They placed me one car back, where there was more storage room.

I bought the bike online through NYCeWheels, and the bike came folded, well protected, and ready to go since I paid a little extra for a pre-tune from the shop. I also bought my wife a Navigator so we can load the bikes in our SUV and go for a day ride somewhere. On hers, I also ordered folding pedals, which facilitates folding. Mine I bought as an after-thought once I had the bike. The bike also comes with detachable fenders, which work well. I bought a different seat, since the Montague seat is very basic (basically, is was hard on my sit-me-down). There are screw holds for one lower bar (near the crank) waterbottle holder. Not really adequate. I keep more water in my panniers.

The gearing for the bike is not so much for touring--more for commuting--so when I ride the hills and mountains, I find I have to stand on the pedals more than some folks might like. Myself, I enjoy getting out of the seat, so the gearing is okay. The hills of Iowa let me do a little pumping, and then I can sit down again. However, if I were tackling some longer pulls, I would probably want a gearing combination that let me spend more time sitting and spinning.

The bike comes with stock 26mm width tires. I was getting many flats in California due to goatshead puncture vines, so I bought Marathon Plus tires, 28mm width. They work well and do not obstruct tire removal when folding the bike. One bicycle world tourist mounted 32 width tires, and her review stated she has to let the air out of the front tire to remove it.

I also replaced the basically worthless seat post rear rack that comes stock with a Topeak rack that allows me to use panniers when touring. This interferes with the folding function, but that is fixed by popping off the handlebars when folding. This sounds cumbersome, but go figure that I pack the bike, take it 2,000 miles, and then put it back together. A couple of weeks later, I repeat the process. This is acceptable. If I were commuting by train every day, the handlebar removal would be a pain. Now when folding the bike for the Amtrak long haul, I not only remove the handlebars but also the fender attachment piece for the front fender. The angle with which the attachment piece sticks out is just an opportunity for the bike to get scratched, gouged, or for the attachment to bend. Both pieces are easily removed with an
Allen wrench.

The bike is light and lively. I enjoy riding it. The shifting is not sloppy or sluggish, the Octagon adjustable height handlebar post allows me to be more upright most of the time yet to drop the bars when the wind whips up. I use a Bell Velcro strap-on mirror for the bike, so I can take it off easily when folding. I've used the Burley Travoy trailer with the bike, and the bike pulls it easily.

This 2015 biking season I toured on about 8 overnighters to county and state campgrounds in my local area--gone one day and back the next. The Navigator was a fun ride. I used rear panniers for the overnight rides, and the weight carried well. Riding the gravel had its challenges with the 28mm tires, but riding the lime chip loop trail around Fairfield, Iowa, was easy with 28's and even with my wife's stock 26mm tires. I plan to use my Raleigh Detour 2.5 next year when I'll be on gravel longer than three miles. As a hybrid, it should do better with its wider tires.

The Navigator has held up well for me with a season on short tours. One woman is currently riding the bike on a world tour. It has held up well for her. She did add stronger wheels and changed the gearing a bit. All said, this bike is adequate for touring, but the folding capability is its main positive feature.

I'm glad I have the bike to travel with and tour. There are better bikes out there for touring, but if you want to be able to have a touring bike with both 700c tires and folding capacity, I'd say that something in the Montague folding line is the way to go.

Friday, November 6, 2015

What I've Learned from Overnight Camping (S24O)

"Grandkids, the wife's new business, aging parents, the garden--no long tours for me this year," I told myself over the winter of 2014. And then I had a good thought, that there were about 20 state and county campgrounds within 40 miles of my house. Inspiration!

How about a goal of one overnighter a week? Well, I didn't hit THAT goal (see sentence 1) but did hit about 10 during this 2015 riding season.

Those overnighters, in addition to some great dayrides, provided a great opportunity for learning and for pleasure.


It was my great joy to discover the charm of local campgrounds. I had been to several and even camped in one local state park a couple of times (once on bikes with my wife several years s ago), but the detail of experience was so much intensified by arriving on bicycle.

Local campgrounds highlight the beauty of where I live. Arriving by bike and tent camping intensifies the experience. Here is Lake Darling State Park, 17 miles from my home.

A sub-24 hour camping trip is really two dayrides with the added spice of a night in the woods. The S24O also has the advantage that anything left behind or any miscalculation can be solved by a morning's ride home. Therefore, I was more motivated to experiment and try different equipment or methodology on each trip. My shortest overnighter was a one-way jaunt of 4 miles to local Jefferson County Park; the longest was a one-way distance of 35 miles to the town of Cantril south of Fairfield, Iowa. Actually, the shortest trip was camping overnight in my yard when I was testing tent and sleeping equipment. Ironically, my backyard camping was one of the more quiet campgrounds . . . and had a great toilet and shower!

Just learning about what gear to bring, how to load and pace the trip, camp set-up and cooking, and packing for the return home were all stimulating and rewarding. One unexpected negative aspect of overnighters was that I found myself working in the garden of spending time with grandkids and then jumping on the bike and riding off--finding that overnighters aren't the best way to really get conditioned. As a special note for someone old enough to be a grandparent, there is a special joy to be on the bike, doing activity which is a demonstration of fitness. For me there is the pleasure of knowing that I have chosen the lifestyle of bicycle touring and have not lost the opportunity.

The Bicycle

My father was an automobile mechanic, a very good one who actually had clients who would follow him if he changed shops.

"I've brought my car in for Harold to tune up."

"We'll get 'er done."

"Harold will do it?"

"Well, Harold's not here anymore."

"Where's he working?"

My tinkering was not with mechanical devices but with the mechanics of writing; I became a writer and English teacher. However, I've always wanted to be "mechanical," even though it takes more planning than for some folks, such as my son and dad, who are truly mechanically inclined.

Becoming more serious about biking and taking longer rides to places miles away from help have provided a very real opportunity for me to 1)get the right setup for me bike, and 2)to learn some basic bicycle maintenance and repair. I've bought some Parker tools and bike repair stand and am enjoying the experience.

I've also become more informed about what bicycle to ride, what seat I'm using, and other bicycle specifics. For instance, I've be riding a Montague Navigator, a folding bicycle that allows me to carry-on the bike when traveling Amtrak. I've replaced the seat with a Serfa seat with springs and the tires with Schwalbe Marathon Plus tires, a necessity when in California with its goatshead puncture vines. In Iowa, most county campgrounds are out on the gravel, so I found the 28mm tires on the Navigator (it came with 26mm) are not great for gravel. They are OK for lime chip trails, though. What I'm in the process of doing now is taking my hybrid Raleigh, a Detour 2.5, and making it more gravel-friendly and more comfortable for longer distance. The basic frame and gearing are great; I'm just looking for better tires (maybe the new Kenda Flintridge tires coming out in 2016) and a thinner seat, which will probably be a swap to my Serfa to try that out. Working with my current bike instead of buying a new bike is a hands-on adventure for me.

I fiddle with my bike, knowing if I screw it up, I can always take it to my LBS. Actually, I still take it in for the more complex stuff.

Cleaning chains, packing wheel bearings, adjusting brakes, fixing vine-punctured tubes--this has be, if not "fun" then at least fulfilling, a sort of homage to my dad, who passed away a year ago at age 94. There is the possibility of hiring my local bike shop pro for a few focused lessons over the winter months.

Equipment, Camping, and Packing

Overnighters are great practice for camping because it's "pack and get on the road" for evening and morning, and then "what will I do different next time?" Weight distribution, what to take, how dry should the tent be (how early to leave in Midwest dewy mornings), take a stove and what kind?, which sleeping bag, which tent and how many clothes. I read all about these decisions on CGOAB journals, about boxes being shipped back home, and now I'm enjoying the process myself.

I usually bring a Thermos of fresh stew from a local natural foods store; sometimes I cook some noodles to add.

These one-day trial and error expeditions allow me to experiment, to makes mistakes, and to know that I'll be back home in my head nice bed the next night if I've erred. I have some equipment now that provides me with possibilities, good equipment. But is it really the best for me? I've found that I've got to temper my desire for the best, most appropriate equipment with a little frugality. (Note my earlier decision to change out a few aspects of my Raleigh rather than buy a new $1,000 bike!) Yes, I've bought some things over the last winter and this 2015 biking season that probably weren't the best choice, but sometimes finding the best is a process. If it's good enough, though, I'm content at this point to wear the item out or to at least use it for a couple or few years. Examples? I bought an Emberlit wood-burning "rocket" stove in December of 2014 and then bought a Trangia spirit-burning stove in September of 2015. Each works well, but really I get by mostly on my overnighters with a Thermos of stew, a sandwich, and cold cereal for breakfast. It's more enjoyable, though, to cook some noodles to add to the stew and to then fix some tea for the early morning. My justification was the Emberlit is great for most use, but then later I realized, what if it rains? The Trangia is a great and light solution.

My ride to Cantril to an in-town park allowed me to buy a cantaloupe for a snack. The one-person tent prompted the habit of just leaving the panniers on the bike and tossing a tarp over at night to keep off the dew.

I've also been looking at tents. Tarptent Ultralight Shelters, for instance, has some great tents. However, I bought a $50 tent in December of 2014, a Texsport Cliff Hanger Three Season Backpacking Tent. The tent works well, even though it has drawbacks, such as being too short. Are there better tents? Yes! It doesn't leak, though, (I sealed the seams), it's not too heavy, and I plan to give it more wear before spending more money.

That's my motto now, actually. I've gotten through a season of overnighters, enjoyed myself immensely, and next season plan to use the equipment I've bought to extend my range, to increase the number of times I take off, and to perfect the use of what I've got. Honestly, though, I'll probably break down and get something this winter. I'm working for small stuff, though, little treats.

Last Thoughts

In conclusion, the realization that I don't have to do a trans-America or world tour in order to enjoy bicycle touring was very liberating for me. I enjoy discovering my local southeast Iowa camping gems. I enjoy a couple of days' riding and then seeing my wife again. I enjoy learning and growing. I could have passed this all up if I had felt that only long tours to distant lands were legit.

Whether I'm on my bike on a local country road or traveling on Amtrak with it and enjoying some dayrides, bike riding has influenced my life. I'll someday do some overnighters near my mom's California town of Oroville, but the current fee of $35 for the night (no hiker/biker!) had dimmed my motivation.

Next year I'll continue my local southeast Iowa dayrides and overnighters. I'll probably string a few together for a 2-3 day ride next summer. I might try a portion of the Mississippi River Trail, since I'm close to Ol' Muddy. I have many choices, I'm healthy, and I'm happy. And it all started this last season with me trying out my $50 tent in the rain in my yard. It's great to know that it doesn't have to be complicated.