Tuesday, May 9, 2017

The Mysterious, Elusive Austin County Park


I'm gingerly riding on loose gravel, a few hundred yards from Kilbourn, Iowa. Down the steep hill to river level, I can see the road bend up ahead, probably rolling into Kilbourn and on to the bridge. A couple in a pick-up come from the wide-spot-in-the-road town and stop. They had just passed me earlier on their motorcycle.

"Like the gravel?" the man asks. 

He is, of course, being sarcastic. The gravel is a loosey-goosey concentration exercise, just to get down to river level on the newly applied gravel.

"I prefer it more hard packed," I reply.

"Where you headin'?"

"Austin County Park."

"Well, you can't get there from here. You'll have to go around, through Keosauqua."

"Why, the bridge out?"

"Been out since 2000."

"OK, so much for Google Maps."

"They've dug a deep trench cutting off the access to the bridge on each side. I guess you could throw your bike up on the bridge, go across, and then do the same on the other side."

"No, thanks. I'll just go back."

With a wave, my information source is gone, and I'm alone again, contemplating my next move. I wish I had traveled on around the bend in the gravel to see Kilbourn and the bridge, maybe take some photos. I didn't, though. I just disconsolately turned around and headed back up the hill, soon pushing my bike up the grade, feet slipping occasionally in the loosey-goosey gravel.

The Van Buren County Conservation website describes Austin County Park as follows:
Austin Park currently has gravel pads for primitive camping.  There is no electric or water available at this time. In 2008 this area was hit by large ice chunks.  These natural events plus several floods later has left it in a more primitive state. At this time the Conservation has no funding to rebuild it.  
I see it with my mind's eye--early spring on the Van Buren River and the splitting sound as huge chunks of ice crack, mass together, and move downriver, scouring the banks, wiping out the campground. I wonder if I heard the man in the pickup wrong. Maybe the bridge was damaged in 2008, not 2000.

My trip to Kilbourn had been made enjoyable because of a tailwind--riding with a push from the friendly north wind. However, my overnight trip took a change for the worse with my decision to camp at Morris Memorial County Park, fifteen miles away, most of the directly into the wind with one staight northern route on Stockport Road. I had my Rohloff gearing down to gear 2 or 3 out of 14 too much of the time, slowly slogging into the wind.

I had planned a short 16-mile overnighter as a start to getting in shape, but it ended up 30 miles, and my legs let me know it was a bit much. Adventure cycling!

The mysterious Austin County Park still eludes me, see only in my imagination as glaciated ruins and now-placid waters. I already have a new route planned, via the Douds bridge and along ten miles of Eagle Drive that skirts the Des Moines River, about twenty-five miles. It should be a great ride.

Of course, assuming those ten miles of gravel are still able to be ridden. But as I've found out before, sometimes my assumptions are presumptuous.



Tuesday, April 11, 2017

We Aren't There Yet


Public transit and bicycles. This is a photo of bikes at the train station in Maastricht, Holland, in April of 2015, by two bicycle tourers, Patrick and Rachel Hugens. (http://www.crazyguyonabike.com/doc/page/pic/?pic_id=2235524)

I strain to imagine a similar scene in my area. People would be so much more healthy!

Monday, April 3, 2017

I Fulfill a Greater Goal

What with the colder, wetter, windier temperatures, I didn't pop my tent for an overnighter this 2017 March. Now, I could have. There were some manageable days (and nights). There were a couple/few nights I could have been tucked into my mummy bag, wind buffeting the tent, waiting for sleep, satisfied and thinking, I did it!

Instead, I took a couple/three hours a dozen times over the month to spin some great rides with my wife on our local loop trail, some time to plant spring greens and work on my greenhouse, some great time with my wife and our grandson, playing in the neighborhood. 

Great memories. Good choice, Tom. 

The weather is slowly improving, the garden is slowly getting planted, and my bike is in the shop getting new brake hoses that fit a new Jones Loop Bar set of handlebars. 

Tulips and daffodils are blossoming. The trees in bud, and the grass is definitely greener on my side of the fence. 

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Will I Fulfill My "Somewhat" Goal?

If the road isn't too muddy, this is actually quite a smooth ride!
My "soft" goal is to see how many months of the year I can bike tour here in SE Iowa, the tour including at least one night of camping.

Last year I camped in March, missed April because of rain and a cold, missed May because my wife and I traveled, I don't remember June but know that I went to California to help family . . . and so forth. This year I've already camped in February, but this March has proven to be much colder and wetter--snow, temperatures in the teens, wet and dreary.

I still have a window, one or two days for an overnighter, if the forecast is accurate and I don't mind a little soggy. Hmmmm . . . We'll see--there's one camping site about ten miles away, primitive, but that's OK for an overnighter. I just bring my overnight gear and a Thermos of stew for dinner.

The trip does include about five miles of muddy gravel roads, so I'll just have to see how it goes. The temperatures promise to be around 40-60 degrees, which is manageable, since I'd mostly be either riding or in the sleeping bag.

Wish me lucky weather!

Friday, February 24, 2017

Round Prairie Park: First Bike Camping Trip of 2017

Once again, I was off on my bike for a camping trip, but this time in February in SE Iowa!

The fields were faded tans and browns and the trees were leafless skeletons, but the sky was blue and the temperatures in the high 60's. The next morning would be around 50, and the extended forecast predicted a return to more normal (lower) temperatures soon. One day for a quick overnighter.

This trip made the third year in a row that I started my bike camping season with an overnighter to Round Prairie Park in Jefferson County, Iowa. It's fourteen miles from my front door, and even the moderate headwind didn't faze me. The hills on Glasgow Road, the gravel on Tamarack Road, and the utter isolation of the empty campground in February were expected, almost old friends. The rookery of crows in the distant trees with their cacophony of raucous cries also brought back memories.

I remembered my first trip to Round Prairie Park, coming off a spring cold and still weak, struggling to get home the next day, having over-packed to "see how the bike handled with a load." Well, it handled like an over-packed bike! Lesson learned.

This year, my ultra-light tent set up quickly after my 3:30 P.M. arrival, and I even had time for some stretching asanas and meditation before dark and dinner. The sun sets early in February, but the fresh air and the glowing sky gave promise to an easy night's sleep. We'd see what the morning brought because a fifty percent possibility of rain and then later thunderstorms were forecast. I knew that when I was heading out, but the chance to enjoy an early trip balanced out the possibility of a few miles of riding in the rain. And I did bring my rain gear!

I woke at 2:30 A.M., having slept six hours. The soft glow of the campground's streetlight lit my camp spot, and I had the thought: "I'm awake, slept well and feel great. Why not pack up and head home now, before the rain?" Well, somehow I just didn't roll over and go back to sleep. Part of the surge of energy I experienced was the thought of my new bike's dynamo and lighting system. I'd get to use that!

So pack I did and took off, my light illuminating my way down the two miles of gravel road, the ten miles of Glasgow Road, and the two miles through town to my home. It was a pleasant temperature, the bike handled well, and one side perk of the early ride was having only three cars pass me on my twelve miles to town. I pretty much had the road to myself--and a tailwind. It was a much faster trip home than out, and I felt strong. I like to start my riding season with shorter rides, though, to give myself a chance to get in shape without excessive fatigue.

My one concern was that I was showing up home at around 5:15 A.M., and I didn't want to startle my wife with my unexpected arrival. I texted her when I got to the garage, but she didn't respond. I phoned our landline from the front door, left a message, and I could see her through the window coming to the door. She was sleepy but at least not scared awake by noises in the garage and house. In other words, she forgave me my perky, early morning sojourn.

It is now a week later--cooler, rain expected, but I've managed to spend a couple of days in the yard, working in the garden setting up some cold frames. Kale is sprouting, I've spent some good time outside with my wife and grandson, and in addition to that, I've headed off once again to start a new year of bicycle adventures. Bless our state, county, and local communities that maintain our local parks and campgrounds. They really add to the quality of life available for us to experience just outside our back door.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Riding the Rails on Amtrak Again



My latest trip to California from Iowa was a success and a learning lesson. It was my first experience with a roomette rather than a coach seat--three times more expensive but a definite easier experience with more privacy and a fold-down bed for the nights. My costs at senior rate for the round trip are this: $290, coach; $914, sleeper. At three times the cost, my frugal nature pegs the roomette an indulgence, but sometimes there's nothing wrong with indulging ourselves.

My bike once again had a safe trip, although I came home with a flat, so I’ll have to fix that and discover the reason why, pinch flat, puncture vine, or wire? As usual, the Montague Navigator is a cumbersome transport, but once I arrived in Oroville, it was fun to get some exercise, even though it was raining almost every day.

Everyone was glad to see me. My brother took a two-day vacation to the local resort casino to get some good meals and downtime. Good for him! I told Mom’s care-provider to take the day off for one of those days (she usually works some all week long), and Mom and I just had at least one nice, quiet day to ourselves.

My plan while staying with my mother and brother for eight days was to stay three nights on the sofa (about a year now of accumulated time with the piece of furniture!), four nights in a motel, and then one night on the sofa again before catching the bus out of town. Usually I just sleep on the sofa, but this time I was celebrating my 65th birthday with a little more privacy. Also, I’d get in about fifteen miles of commuting a day for those four nights in a motel.



I set it all up but didn’t figure on the rains. After two days of dodging rains and changing my visiting schedule (not good for my 92-year-old mother), I canceled my last two days and returned to the sofa. However, I did get in one hour’s ride a couple of days later in the area, which was great.

The trip home ended up being seven and a half hours late. That changed the daytime scenery of the usual ride back. I missed seeing the scenic canyons of the Rockies and got to enjoy much of Nebraska . Oh, joy! All the rain and snow really slowed the train down, but it was still a smooth trip home, just longer. I found out later that the mountains have also experienced road closings.


I left on a Tuesday morning, and the next Sunday early evening (around 5pm), the Oroville area and towns south were evacuated because of fear of spillway failure at the Oroville Dam. My mom and brother chose not to leave because of my mom’s frailty, her heart, and her occasional need for her oxygen machine. The evacuation announcement went something like this: “We are monitoring the spillways, and all is OK. . . . Oh, my god, the spillway may erode out within the hour. Flee!!!” Massive panic and traffic jams ensued, some people stuck on roads for over four hours. My mom and brother live on higher ground, and so they decided to avoid the traffic and living in a shelter for several days. They took a risk and survived, and I feel I have to respect their right to make a decision. I hope when I’m 92 that I am still lively enough to be allowed that freedom also.

Every trip I learn more about Amtrak bike travel. Amtrak is getting better and more experienced with bicycle travelers aboard, and for this I am grateful. It’s a great way to get to a new place to ride a bike!

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Making Bicycle Commuting an Adventure

Edward Mallory justified his attempt to climb Mt. Everest by saying "because it's there."

So why do I ride my bicycle when our culture makes it so easy to drive a car? Health, sure. Ecologically sound, absolutely.

I want to add one more reason: because I can. Every bike ride is a celebration of my health, of my continuing ability to be physically active. I can't say "because it's there" because, hey, I'm just riding to the store for groceries. However, how many years did I spend pursuing my career, spending my days inside a building? Commuting by bicycle, as far as I'm concerned, is practical recreation, utilitarian vacationing.

Commuting during winter weather is one way to enjoy shorter rides, one that can come with its share of adventure. I've found that stretching my bicycling capabilities is quite a bit of fun. It's a no-brainer to head to town on the bike when it's shirt-sleeve weather and I'm returning a book to the library. The bicycle can pack much more, though, and in quite diverse weather. Challenging the limits of commuting is the spice to the everyday soup of to-town-and-back.


One day of commuting, I bought a trash can at the local farm store and then delivered it to my son's house. Then I loaded a big bag of leaves to take home for compost. Would this have been easier using my SUV? Yes, but not more fun! I got the job done and had some enjoyable riding. In fact, I felt a little bit like a parade, cruising down the road with my unusual bike cargo.


I regularly ride to meetings at my town's private university. I decided to ride in the snow, and that provided a chance to stretch my experience and to test my new bike's capabilities. It was a great ride. I've ridden in the snow before, but this was the first time this year--and a wonderful chance to really enjoy the first snow of the season.



This was the largest load of groceries I've ever transported by bicycle. I could have taken a little more, but the folks at the grocery store were certainly surprised. They loaded up the two canvas bags and then said, "What do ya want us to do with the rest?" pointing to the still-filled counter. I pointed to the bike trailer, which the cashier hadn't somehow figured to be a bike trailer. The store clerk helped me out to my "vehicle," carrying the two canvas bags while I rolled out the Burley Travoy trailer. The added weight really settled down the bike and trailer, even with the ride home including a half mile of rails-to-trails route and even a bit of single track, graveled path. The cashier told me that the store could provide car delivery of the groceries, but I said, "No, thanks, I've got it okay"--a satisfying moment.


OK, 14 degrees and a stiff north wind provided me with the opportunity to test my cold weather gear. I actually over-dressed and got a little hot on my one-mile ride (one way). Coming home, I packed some of the clothes in my bag and felt more comfortable. It's amazing how having the right bike and clothing can make the commuting experience so much fun. I think I'm ready for the single-digit weather coming next week. It's also interesting how a bit of all-weather commuting accustoms one to getting out in the wind and rain and snow--or a combination of all three! It's a bit of a stretch sometimes, but I've really cut down my car driving and increased my bicycle enjoyment with just a bit of a commitment to ride in more extreme weather.

It may take a little longer to commute by bike instead of car, although the trip to our local university can be actually shorter because of a rails-to-trails shortcut and because I can ride right up to buildings rather than parking in the parking lot and then walking in. I think how long it takes to dress for winter commuting is the biggest difference in commuting by bike. Once dressed, I'm no colder while commuting and take not much longer to get anywhere. The experience is certainly more memorable--and no scraping ice off the windshield. Commuting becomes an enjoyable part of the day, not just a few minutes written off and forgotten. I like that. I like getting outdoors and enjoying the day, even if the weather isn't especially comfortable.

One day I won't be able to do this, but today is not that day.