Tuesday, August 29, 2017

An Up and Down Tour of SE Iowa

Oakland Mills South Shore Campground, just arrived
“Slow down” said bicycle touring writer Willie Weir in an Adventure Cycling magazine article, because it’s not how many miles you travel; it’s how well you enjoy the miles you travel.

I decided to embrace that philosophy on a four-day trip, a loop through southeast Iowa, traveling 20-30 miles each day, making camp in time to rest and enjoy.

Day 1
Fairfield to Oakland Mills South Shore Campground, 23 miles

I had packed up during the eclipse of August 21, taking it easy in the living room with my gear, panniers, and bike, so I was all ready to ride the next morning after breakfast, watering the greenhouse, and heating some lentil soup for a Thermos. It had rained, easily but steadily, most of the night, so it was a cool and rain-washed morning when I took off. It took about six miles of riding until I got into a groove and just chugged along. During those first six miles, I usually ask myself at least once, “Now, why am I doing this? I could be home, sitting on the sofa.” This take-off was no different, but I enjoyed the morning, enjoyed being healthy, and thought positive thoughts until I got into the zone.

The ride was twenty-three miles--approximately sixteen asphalt and eight gravel. The asphalt was enjoyable. Through Fairfield and then out Glasgow Road is a familiar route, the best bike route south and east of Fairfield for a bicycle. (Earlier post on Glasgow here.) There is no designated lane, but grass verge allows one to ditch if necessary, and traffic is generally light and respectful. I even had one young man in a pickup slow down behind me, turning on his flashing hazards as I was grinding up a steep hill. I always make sure to give a friendly, appreciative wave when these kind souls finally pass.

I made pretty good time, which is great because once I hit the gravel, my speed slowed way down. This is always generally true for gravel, but it had rained last night. Good news: no dust; bad news: although not muddy, the gravel was soft underneath. The eight miles east was hilly, so progress was quite often on a gravelly, soft, hilly surface. I even walked a few hills just to get a break from the molasses dragging at each push of the pedals. Whereas Glasgow Road was agriculture viewed at a good clip, 250th Street was ag at a snail’s pace. Reaching 255th, though, the surface firmed up, and I was able to choose a line through the gravel that had been packed by traffic--although when, I’m not sure. I’m not totally sure, but I don’t remember having a single car pass me the entire gravel trek.

Reaching Oakland Mills South Shore Campground at 12:15 PM, I found a tent campground entirely in the sun--then set up my tent about thirty yards away beneath the shade of two cottonwood trees. First I laid down my tarp, put together my Thermarest camp chair with my mattress, and then cooked noodles to mix with my lentil stew. After lunch, I napped for a while in the shade on the tarp. Erecting my free-standing tent without the canopy, I just rested on the tarp a while longer, then showered, did asanas and meditation, and then wandered over to the camp host to register, since he had been gone all afternoon.


The sun was lowering, so I moved the tent to the sunny campsite which was now in shade. I’ll have sun tomorrow morning. Then dinner, some photos of the area, a general clean-up of the campsite to discourage critters, and some work on this blog. It’s pretty deep dusk now, so I’m putting the computer up and getting ready for bed.

This was an enjoyable day. The Skunk River is peaceful, the evening is cool with low humidity, and I am not excessively tired. What a wonderful day!
Day 2
Oakland Mills to Geode State Park, 24 miles

I’d never been to Geode on my bike before, only by car many years ago, so I didn’t know what to expect. Google set me a route that was so wiggly that I knew most of the route would be on gravel. Now, southeast Iowa is rural, so any route by car is still rural, so I asked Google for a car route, and traffic was no problem.

Looking back on a hill just climbed.
The big surprise was that as the trip extended, the terrain became more hilly. My bike has a 14-speed Rohloff hub, and the last half of the trip was hitting gear fourteen going down the hill, and then quickly hitting my granny gear going up the hill. The hills were steep and long, something Iowa is known for, and today I rode the roller coaster! Luckily, today was all hard surface, so although I chugged a lot, I didn’t have yesterday’s challenge of steep, soft, and gravelly roads.
As usual, heading into the state park included the steep roads. I suppose the state parks consist of land that can’t be farmed in corn and beans. The Geode campground is clean and well-maintained. I’m camped right now on a lawn that will have access to morning sun, having moved my tent from beneath a sycamore when the sun dipped behind the trees. That sycamore was my haven today!

Today’s trip was about the same as yesterday’s in terms of time. What I gained in speed with the hard surface I lost spending all that time climbing hills in first gear. I had plenty of time to rest and to explore a bit today, though.

Setting up beneath a shady sycamore
I was able to use my little Emberlit wood cooking stove today, which was fun. I wanted to save my alcohol fuel, since tomorrow I will be camping in a primitive campsite in Shimek State Forest, and I wanted to keep all my options open.

Cooking with wood.
All is tucked away now except my tarp and Thermarest chair as I type outside, sitting on my tarp and watching the sun set. I want to get an earlier start tomorrow than 10 AM, since I have farther to travel, about eleven more miles. We’ll see how easy the route is tomorrow. I plan to follow today’s plan and to keep to hard surfaces as much as possible. Heading into Shimek, though, will mean some gravel, but it’s okay to hit gravel when heading into the deep, dark forest!

Day 3
Geode to Bitternut Lake Campground, 40-45 miles

First of all, the trip to Bitternut should have been about 35 miles, but stuff happened--and I hope you enjoy reading about my adventures.

I wanted to get an earlier start this morning because I had a little farther to go. Having decided to travel to Bentonsport today instead of Farmington, I took off in high spirits, leaving about an hour and fifteen minutes earlier than my first two days. I wanted to arrive early so I could enjoy the afternoon at the campground, as I have been doing these last two days, so I started off, got in the groove, and found myself in Middleton, which I didn't remember being on the route. I was right! The turnoff was three miles back, and I'd missed it.

Skunk River . . . and another climb!
Adding six miles to my day right at the start wasn’t optimal, but I pedaled back and on. The early morning consisted of corn and bean fields--big surprise! I pedaled on and on, and found my car route contained a four-mile stretch south on Interstate 218, the Highway of the Saints freeway. Routing around it via the car route was mile-heavy, so I switched to the bike mode of Google, which included (you guessed it) a nice hunk of gravel, about six miles. The first four miles were terrible, “improved” gravel newly laid and very tough to negotiate. I’m glad I had my new bike with the two-inch tires. Finally I was routed to a less-used gravel road that was older gravel, hard-packed with tracks where traffic had brushed the gravel aside. That was fun riding!

Heading onto hard-surfaced roads, I endured long stretches of straight highway, some with lots of traffic, including trucks, but the traffic was respectful, slowing and waiting to pass only when the way was clear. I finally made it to West Point, a small town of probably a little over a thousand. The town had a great park in the center of town, so I charged my cellphone and cooked lunch with my alcohol stove on one of the picnic tables under a pavillion. I topped off my water and headed on. Still lots of traffic and long straight stretches, so I gave my rear-view mirror a heavy workout and listened to a lot of Bob Dylan. I think his song “Hurricane” was especially a great riding rhythm.

Then I reached a sign that said “Bonaparte 4 miles,” and another sign for a left turn that said “Farmington 6 miles.” Now, I knew that after Bonaparte, there was still a goodly stretch from there to Bentonsport. I also knew that Bitternut Lake Campground was before Farmington, so it would be closer to ride to Bitternut, and I hadn’t ever seen it, anyway. Unexpected left turn, change of plan!

I was getting tired by this time, not excessively tired, but I could feel that my stamina was fading. It was a good choice. Bitternut Campground was only a quarter of a mile down the turnoff from the pavement, and it’s a nice little primitive campground, having only tables, firepits, and pit toilets--not even water. It’s real woodsy, though, just what I wanted to experience after two days of camping on lawns and riding through miles and miles of corn and beans.

Bitternut Lake Campground
Bitternut camp. Wood smoke to keep away the bugs.
Used an insect net for a bit. Worked great!
Setting up camp was a hoot! These small flies must have liked my sunscreen scent because I was swarmed. I used some wet wipes to clean up, added bug spray, and then for added measure donned a mosquito net over my hat--I bought one and keep it in my first aid kit. It’s the first time I ever used it, and it worked great. Dinner, and then to bed at dusk because I still had to do a little dance to keep the insects away. Today was a longer trip, but I persevered, kept my spirits up, and ended up in a nice spot for the night.
Day 4
Bitternut Lake to Lacey-Keosauqua State Park, 20 miles

It was a warm and dry night at Bitternut. Since I was in a state forest, I spent a little more time securing the camp against critters. The primitive campground was a “pack out your trash” arrangement, so I bagged my trash and placed it in a fire ring at a campsite about thirty yards away from my camp in order to discourage an animal invasion, such as those masked raccoon bandits. I also parked my bike (with panniers) at the far side of the campground table, so my tent was reclused from all food. I was pleased to find out in the morning that nothing had been disturbed.

Bitternut Lake
I started out early, since the tent didn’t need to be sun-dried. Riding three miles to Farmington, I stopped at a little country café. Funnily enough, people were inside eating, and the entrance door was completely off its hinges, leaning against the wall. I thought, “People were really eager to have breakfast here!” I sat at the counter, had eggs and toast, and then started on my way again.

Farmington is on the Des Moines River, so I crossed the river on Highway 2 and immediately had a big hill climb to get out of the river basin. That was a common occurrance on this trek--cross a beautiful river or creek and then have a gut-busting climb immediately after. And the pattern of zooming down a hill and then grunting up the next continued on this leg of the journey. Ah, Iowa!

Two route choices to Keosauqua were available: Highway 2 and 1, or Highway 2 and county road J40. I chose the latter because it routed through Bonaparte and Bentonsport, a more rural course and closer to the Des Moines River. (Both towns are on the river.) I could have even chosen the gravel river road on the south side of the river out of Farmington; I rode it last year, and it’s a nice ride. However, I didn’t feel like gravel today, so I kept to hard surfaces.

Bonaparte is a pretty little town, coming off a hill and descending into town. J40 crosses the river and continues through town. It was still morning, so the light was softer and the colors more saturated, a pretty view. I stopped out of town to apply more sunscreen, then continued rolling on, both spinning the pedals and heading up and down hills. It wasn’t too hot, thank goodness, but it was still August--so I guess it was hot and humid, even if a little cooler than normal.

Bentonsport is even more rural than Bonaparte; its main street just off J40 is gravel. While in town I checked out the sandwich shop but discovered it is only open on weekends. I also saw a former student and her mom, who owns a pottery shop in town. I asked my former student if her children were in school, and she said, “Oh, no, my daugher’s thirty, and my son’s twenty-six. In fact, my daughter just told me I’m going to be a grandmother.” Time passes . . .

The Des Moines River after leaving Bentonsport
Down the road, J40 connected with Highway 1 for about a mile before the state park entrance. I passed on down the road, though, crossed the river, and stopped in Keosauqua for a sandwich since it was lunchtime. Fortified, I re-crossed the river and headed into the park. Finding I was too full to tackle even the first climb, I walked the bike for a while, then hopped back on the bike and rode until reaching “The Hill,” a hideously steep climb into the main part of the park. I pushed the bike up the hill, just slogging up the hill one effortful step at a time, finally making it.

Paying for my camping space, I called my wife to tell her I had arrived. Our plan had been for my wife and grandson to visit the next day (Saturday) and then we’d rack my bike on the car, play at the Keosauqua river park, and then go home. My wife said she thought she’d bring him this Friday afternoon to see my campsite and then to go and play at the park, maybe to have a campfire. I suggested that we just pack my bags and come home on Friday night--and that became our plan.
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In Keosauqua, we bought ice cream cones, fed my grandson his dinner, and watched the boy swing and slide. Finally, we took him home, and I slept in my “there’s no place like home” bed. It was a good trip, an athletic workout and a few new sights to enjoy. I’d like to try something new, though, maybe to ride the Mississippi River Trail route some, say from Burlington to Keokuk. It might be fun to schedule more time in an area, too. Shimek State Forest has another primitive campground. I could set up camp there and spend a couple of days exploring instead of just riding through. We’ll see what happens.

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