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.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

From Waterloo to Coralville, Iowa

The Cedar Valley Nature Trail runs from Evansdale (a suburb or Waterloo) to Hiawatha (a suburb or Cedar Rapids) in Iowa. I rode this trail, and further south through Cedar Rapids and Ely, down to the Coralville (a suburb or Iowa City).

The entire ride included paved trail, lime chip trail, road, and even a little dirt that Google maps routed me onto. It was a good ride of three days: 40 miles, Evansdale to Urbana; 53 miles, Urbana to Sugar Bottom Campground, Lake McBride; and 10 miles, campground to New Pioneer Co-op, Coralville. I was going to continue the 60 miles on home with another day or two or travel, but the weather was threatening (and delivered!) rain . . . and I was familiar with the last leg of the trip home. Therefore, my four-day trip became a three-day trip, and I had my wife, who was shopping at Iowa City Cosco with her daughter, meet me for lunch at New Pi and give me a ride home.

Cedar Valley Nature Trail. Sometimes nice and shady.

CVNT. Sometimes not so shady.

Most of the ride was on the CVNT, a "corridor park" from an old rail line. It's an interesting experience, sometimes seeming deep in prairie trees and then seeing corn and beans to each side when a break in the trees occurs. Good riding time was also spent skirting the Cedar River, and, surprisingly, some of my most fun riding was on the Cedar River Trail the spun me through the Cedar Rapids urban area. It's one thing to see the Quaker Oats mill from the elevated freeway when roaring through the city--and quite another to pass by the mill by bicycle on a quiet bike path with the milling towering overhead.

Crossing the Cedar River. A paved trail runs through town.

Below are some photos of the trip, and you can also go to my Crazy Guy on a Bike (which I use with thousands of other bike tourists) and read my day-to-day journal entries.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Local Tour: Oakland Mills, Farmington, Bentonsport

89 miles over 4 days from June 28, 2016 to July 1, 2016 

Day 1:
Ten miles of today's ride was the familiar Glasgow Road, "Gateway to Adventure," because the road leads to so many campgrounds south and east of Fairfield. I got a late start because I was watering the greens in our garden--and also because we trapped a chipmunk and I had to take him to his new lakeside home. Leaving at 10:40, I arrived at the Oakland Mills county campgrounds at 1:20, which includes photo stops and about 8 miles of gravel.

Along the fields to Oakland Mills

Then I had to survey the campgrounds and wait for the camp host to return from somewhere. Since I had brought a Thermos of lentil stew, I ate that and a bagel for lunch. Of the 3 campgrounds, I finally chose the newest and cleanest with showers (pay) and flush toilets. I had to pay for an electrical site, but it was pretty, had afternoon shade and will have morning sun, and is on a bluff above the Skunk River, so I think it will have more breeze and fewer mosquitoes.

Tomorrow I'll start earlier. That's my plan, anyway. I had three moments with dogs: one chained, two who came to the road but were mostly just bored, and one black dog with yellow eyes that watched me pass with mellow curiosity. The two barkers were called back by the owner, which was nice. I gave a big smile and thank you.

Day 2
Today was a long day, mostly because most of the journey was on straight roads running through fields of corn and soybeans. Sometimes (oftentimes) the fields would extend beside the road out to where the horizon met the sky. Or a different perspective, that of the fields lowering to a line of trees that marked a creek.

The good news is that the roads were paved and smooth, much of it cement without the repetitious bump-bump of the sections. About half of the trip included a slight headwind. And of course the Iowa rolling hills. Cornfields and beanfields, some mature oats, hay and pasture, and some cattle were my companions. I found myself mooing at the beasts, and they'd look up with a "What the h---?" expression.

I stopped at Agency and Houghton at gas stations for water. Small bottles were all they had. The land grew more rolling as I neared Farmington, and then I passed through a two-mile corridor of trees, Shimek State Forest, Farmington Unit.

I couldn't help myself and turned onto a gravel road to Bitternut Lake, proceeding far enough to be enveloped by green silence. Then I noticed the route was all downhill and I was going to have to return, so I headed back to the highway, walking the quarter mile to rest a bit and to enjoy the forest even more slowly.

Indian Lake camp

At Farmington I met a former student clerking at the grocery store and met a former teaching colleague who ran the Crazy Girls Boutique (and cafe) during the summer. I ate a chef's salad and chose not to eat ice cream, only because I would have had to take a nap after the ice cream.

I'm at a nice, shaded site at Indian Lake. It might rain tonight, so I'm buttoning up camp to keep everything dry.

Indian Lake at sundown

Day 3
Today was the shortest leg of this trip and also the most interesting so far.

Leaving Indian Lake, I immediately crossed the Des Moines River and routed onto Eagle Drive, a gravel road that name-changes to River Road when nearing Bentonsport. This road follows the river, providing some nice water views in between the longer sections where the view is blocked by trees and brush.

Clouds while rolling into Bentonsport

Clouds rolled in as I advanced, so I finally saw a spot that had been developed into a private river camping/summer RV spot. No one was there, so I pulled in and put rain covers on the panniers and donned my rain gear. This included putting away my sneakers and wearing my summer rain footwear--flipflops. I draped my tarp over the rear of the bike, pinning the tarp with the pannier leaning against a picnic table. When it began to rain, I hunkered down under the front of the tarp.

After about a half an hour to forty-five minutes, the rain tapered off. Unsure when the rain would actually stop, I took off, finding the gravel a little soft but still okay. It was a nice ride in the rain, cool and quiet. About a mile before connecting with paved J40, a grader came from the opposite direction, “smoothing” the road and consequently churning it to a morass inches thick. Luckily, only the opposite side was being worked, so I boogied on to the asphalt.

When I arrived at Bonaparte, the sun came out, the asphalt glistened, and the air was fresh . . . followed by humidity. It was still a nice ride to Bentonsport, with some climbing and then a drop down to the Des Moines River. It was one o’clock, so I bought a nice hoagie at Forever Sweet Creations--and then a cup of ice cream.

I returned to Bentonsport County Campground, set up, “showered” from a faucet spout using a cooking pot to splash myself, and then tried to nap. Too muggy! I jumped onto my bike for an ice cream cone and air conditioning, then browsed the historic Grief General Store.

A few photos of the river, and back to camp I go.

Dark clouds and rolling thunder as I ride back to camp. Prepare for rain again! Humidity is 100%. My reading glasses fog when I put them on to write this. My Big Agnes Copper Spur tent is a good one, though, and I’m battened down for wind and rain.

For my four days of riding and three nights of camping, I’ve experienced a real variety of weather and riding surfaces. It's been a good test of my equipment--and my intent to tour, I suppose.

KABOOM! Okay, here we go!

Day 4
Since it had rained significantly the night before, I had planned taking blacktop all the way home, skipping the soft gravel of my original route. I punched in my GPS to find the quickest route to J40 and was surprised that I was given a path on Hawk Drive to Highway 1--and I was on Hawk, a gravel road. The surface was fine, even after the rain. Yesterday's trip along the river was wonderful, so I decided to go for it, a third possible route home! Little did I know the adventure I was taking!

The road continued out of town, straight and smoothly graded, with no dust because of the rain. Out of town was the river to one side and homes, then farms, to the right or north. Then Hawk Dr. turned to the north with the river, and the road narrowed. Farms fell away to more scrub forest along the river, and hills covered in scrub. The road narrowed more, becoming more rough with a greater mix of red earth and larger stones. The scrub crept in on both sides with no homes or cultivation or river visible. Grass grew in the center of the road. I was obviously off the beaten track.

The road forked, and I took the better track, one that climbed steeply up a wooded hill. Coming to a rough shanty (for lack of a better word) the GPS told me to flip a "U" and take the other fork. Down the hill, turn the corner, and I quickly realized I was on a section of the Hawk that used to be a road but was now no longer maintained. I could see the two tracks of the road, some gravel showing through the weeds. I'd say the trace was used now and then by 4WD enthusiasts and 4-wheelers--occasionally, and not recently.

I started wondering, but it got worse!

The GPS congratulated me by informing me that this section was one and a half miles long. What to do? I could backtrack a few miles and then take a route five miles longer, or I could push on. I chose the later.

The road deteriorated to faintly discernible traces of two tracks. The scrub thickened and formed--not a tunnel, too tight for that--a "culvert" through the vegetation. I pressed on, busting through the weeds, walking the bike around puddles, avoiding tire ruts dimly seen in the gloaming. I was thrilled, a little scared, and definitely too focused to stop and take some pics of the Hawk at its abandoned worst. Cattle gates cut the path, by-passed by 4WD tracks. I followed, figuring I'd end up somewhere--and did, eventually crossing a rusty, abandoned bridge, climbing, turning a corner, and pushing my bike up a verge to maintained gravel, a home, and a gentleman pruning his grape vines.

As I was exiting the bush, I said, "Google GPS shows Hawk Drive goes all the way through! It doesn't, though, does it?"

"Took you out into the wilderness, hey?"

We shared a laugh, and I continued on.

Riding Hawk Drive to Highway 1 included climbing the hills out from the Des Moines River, and a good stretch still of backroad country.

Highway 1 was a more business-like ride, keeping an eye on the mirror for cars. Highway 1 is a state-maintained road. From Keosauqua to Birmingham, there is a 16 to 24 inch space to the right of the sleep rumble strips for bike riding--and then also a strip of gravel. From Birmingham to Fairfield, the edge of the road only has gravel to ditch to if necessary, sometimes with a couple of inches drop off--not highly dangerous since this is rural Iowa, but a road to be vigilant on. I used my mirror a lot.

I bought a reflective safety triangle at AJ's Bike Shop in Fairfield on my way home. I mounted it on my dry bag above my rear panniers, letting it flap to increase my visibility.

This was a good day, a good tour, ending with my pulling into my good home!

(Coming up next: my ride from Evansdale to Iowa City down the Cedar Valley Nature Trail, the Cedar River Trail, the Hoover Trail, and the Iowa River Corridor Trail.)

Monday, June 13, 2016

Amtrak with a Bike Again

I had planned a three-day bike trip in southeast Iowa, and then my brother asked me to come out to California to visit--now. Mom needed some company, a change. 

That was on a Tuesday when I had planned to start my trip on a Wednesday. I unpacked my bike-camping duds and boarded the Zephyr on Thursday. And, of course, I brought along my Montague Navigator. I'm sitting curbside now, waiting for the Amtrak Thruways bus to arrive. What better time for a bicycling blog post?

I spent eight days with my mother and brother, and managed dayrides for three of them, usually a couple of hours long. My first ride was to town for food for my vegetarian self--about twelve miles, the length of all my rides, as a matter of fact. 

For my second ride I just rode to town again, and when I found out a high school friend I was going to drop in on was golfing, I rode over, using Google gps, to locate my uncle's new home. That included a little hill climbing, which was fun (because, I suppose, of the little and because it was still morning-cool.) 

My third early-morning ride took me to the Saturday Farmers' Market to buy a few veggies for my last couple days' visit. I added some ripe strawberries and blackberries to my bags! 

Having my bicycle made my trip more healthy and enjoyable. I'm glad that Amtrak, in conjunction with the Adventure Cycling Association, is creating a more open and accessible program for bicycle travel. It helps me keep on rollin'!

Posted from my iPhone 6+.

Saturday, May 28, 2016

Glasgow Road: the Gateway South

Riding out of Fairfield, Glasgow Road slants off Burlington Avenue at the Little League baseball fields. Extending thirteen miles south and east, this country road is one of the bicycling gateways out of Fairfield and into adventure cycling. 

A short mile or so of rural, residential housing quickly transforms to farmhouses and then to bean and corn fields, pasturage, and some wooded areas, which are mostly bordering creeks. The two-lane black topped county road is maintained, and although there is not much verge, traffic is usually light and drivers courteous. I keep an eye to the mirror for safety, and to be aware when vehicles coming and going are going to meet near my line of travel, especially at the crests of hills. Speaking of those lovely hills, there are plenty of them for your enjoyment, although there are also sections of flat farmland.
Up and down the hills will get you to the first Glasgow “gateway,” Osage Avenue, a gravel road that leads to Jefferson County’s Turkey Run Wildlife Area, about nine miles from Fairfield. Enjoy almost four miles of Glasgow Road before grinding gravel for the rest of the ride.

Just past the Osage turn lies Zillman’s Hills Recreation Area, four and a half miles into the ride.

A touch over seven and a half miles is the intersection with Stockport Road, Route W30. This paved road leads south to turn-offs to Morris Memorial County Park (about 15 miles SE), Van Buren County, and, of course, the small town of Stockport (15 miles south).

Ten miles down Glasgow Road heralds the turn-off to Round Prairie Park on Tamarack Road, two miles of gravel getting you to the county park. If you wish, traveling further on Tamarack will also get you to Morris Park, the two parks being close together, Round Prairie in Jefferson County and Morris in Van Buren.

At mile thirteen Glasgow Road ends, but traveling east on gravel surfaced 250th St., destinations in Iowa’s Henry County await. Most notable (and closest) are Oakland Mills County Park (21 miles from Fairfield) and Geode State Park (38 miles).

There are, of course, alternative routes south and east from Fairfield, since gravel roads abound, but good old Glasgow provides easy egress from town to country for day rides, overnighters, weekend excursions, or longer treks east or south that just begin in SE Iowa. 

Glasgow Road, take me home . . .

--from my iPhone 6+

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Bicycling Week in Traverse City, Michigan

My wife and I decided it was time to get away for a week this May, and we decided that the Leelanau Peninsula in Michigan was our destination, based on articles we'd read in a couple of Adventure Cycling magazines (May 2015 and March 2016).

Traverse City is at the southernmost point of Lake Michigan's Grand Traverse Bay. We chose to stay for a week in a condo on TC's "Magnificent Mile" of beach resorts. It was busier than we expected, with US Highway 31 right there along the beach, but it was quiet in our little apartment, and we had a great view of the beach. 

Even though the streets were busy with cars (and it wasn't even the busy tourist season yet), the town has a number of off-road bike trails and designated bike lanes on streets that made commuting easy. Our first bike trips were for food supplies, and we soon were familiarized with the routes. 

Branching out after that, we rode the Boardman Lake Trail, and later the bike trail out of town to the north. 

We wanted to explore more, though, so we took a day ride out of town to see the big lake. 

We also visited some of the little towns on the peninsula, Suttons Bay, Glen Arbor, and a couple of others on our car ride. We think maybe next year we'll stay in a smaller town like Glen Arbor, which is close to the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. TC is only about a half an hour away for supplies. 

Our day in the car also included riding about 12 miles (6 miles out and back) on the 17-mile Leelanau Trail, a rails-to-trails paved bike route between TC and Suttons Bay. We started from Suttons Bay. 

It was a great day and a great week. We were comfortable in Traverse City and would stay there again, yet we also would like to try some time in a more rural village, if such is possible with the tourist development. 

It was great for Sandy and me to get away and spend some time together--on our bicycles! 

Composed on my iPhone 6+

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.