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Posts Tagged ‘Iowa’

Hey Barred Owl! You're going to need a permit!

Hey Barred Owl! You’re going to need a permit!

Summertime provides ample opportunity to get out and follow your Adventure Foot, and one of the very best ways to do that is to go camping!  Whether you’re tent camping with the kids out of the back of the mini-van or planning a backpacking excursion “off the grid,” a few simple steps can make your next camping trip a safe and fun adventure!

A Little Planning Goes a Long Way

Justin putting up a tent at Sand Ridge State Forest

Justin putting up a tent at Sand Ridge State Forest

We’ve all forgotten something important on a trip before, but when we forget something important on a camping trip, it tends to cause more inconvenience than usual.  I’ve found that the way to become a better camper and to forget fewer things is to make a list!  Make a list of the items you’ll need and lay the items all out on the kitchen table before you start packing them in your bag.  When all your items are laid out, you can make sure you haven’t forgotten anything crucial to the trip- matches, bug spray, sunscreen, toilet paper…   don’t leave home without them!

Just as important as what you bring is what you do not bring.  If you’re taking the kids, leave the Nintendo DS at home! Camping time is unplugging time and you will thank yourself for giving all the technology a rest.  Also look for things you can leave out of your life for a day or two.  Pare down the things you’re bringing to just the necessities.  Decluttering is part of the beauty of the outdoors. Besides, whatever you don’t bring, you don’t have to carry!

I like to keep a running list for camping trips.  At the end of the trip, I look to see if there are any items in my pack that I haven’t used at all, and I cross those off for next time.  It lightens the load and helps me to be a more efficient camper.  Likewise, if some item would have made my life easier, I add it to the list and next time I’ll have it!

Only You Can Prevent Forest Fires

Putting the Mmmmmm in Mmmmmarshmallows

Putting the Mmmmmm in Mmmmmarshmallows

Fire safety is every camper’s responsibility.  When building a fire, find out if the campground or space has any rules in place for fire building.  Check for dry conditions and don’t build fires any larger than necessary.  Fire pits or rings are great assets at campgrounds; use them!  They’ll keep the debris all in one place and also help keep the fire from spreading.   If there is not a fire pit, look for a campfire site that is downwind and at least 15 feet away from shrubs, overhanging branches, tents or any other flammable objects.

Please remember: do not transport firewood from one place to another.  There is plenty of loose wood around to collect and burn, and moving firewood is one of the main vectors of invasive species like the extremely destructive Emerald Ash Borer Beatle.

The Bare Necessities

I love Ryan's trail hammock.  Lightweight and even has a bug shield.

I love Ryan’s trail hammock. Lightweight and even has a bug shield.

Water, shelter, food, and waste disposal.  That’s what you’ll need for a camping trip.  If you’re heading out to a state park or campground, water might be easy to come by and all you’ll need is a few water bottles.  If you’re backpacking or going on an especially long hike you may need to bring water purification equipment or tabs.  Plan ahead and know where your water sources are.

Shelter is important too.  Check the weather forecast before you go and pack appropriate gear. In my experience, a forecast for 25% chance of rain turns to 100% if I forget my tent’s rain fly or my poncho.  It’s just the way it works.  Also, pack appropriate gear for the temperatures.  You don’t need that sub-zero sleeping bag if it’s not going to dip below 70 degrees at night.  Likewise, a nice day doesn’t guarantee a warm night, so check and double check the forecast!  It’s not a bad idea to look for safe places to go in case of a storm even if none are forecast.

Food safety is especially important on camping trips, and I’ve heard more than one story of a great camping trip spoiled a day later by intestinal distress.  Don’t forget your safe food handling practices just because you’re out in the woods.  Make sure you cook any meat you are eating thoroughly, be aware of opportunities for cross contamination (don’t touch the fish and then the apples!!), and store food safely.  Make sure you’re storing your food and trash out of the reach of wildlife too.  Even though there aren’t bears in Illinois, a cranky raccoon wandering through camp isn’t much fun either.

Check the Visitor Center for park rules and regs!

Check the Visitor Center for park rules and regs!

Waste disposal doesn’t often get much forethought, but it’s important to plan for too.  Bring trash bags and make sure you keep your campsite clean. You’ll often hear the phrase, “leave no trace.”  This basically means: bring everything out of the woods that you took into the woods.

And while we’re on the subject of waste… sometimes you’re by a porta-john or latrine, and sometimes you’re not.  If you’re in the back country, protect the ecosystem and other travelers by following trail rules.  This often means digging a small hole 10-15 feet off the trail and away from any water sources, doing your business, and covering it up.  If my cats can cover up their dootie, so can you.  In especially delicate ecosystems, you may be required to bring any solid waste with you out of the woods.  Obey rules and posted guidelines!

Maps, Flashlights, and Emergencies

My smartphone has Google Maps, a flashlight, and can call 9-1-1.  Guess what doesn’t usually work in the woods though? My cell phone!  Come on people, you knew that!

Trail tortoise at Fall Creek

Trail tortoise at Fall Creek

Make sure you’re bringing several light sources for your trip.  I’m a fan of hands-free headlights and small LED flashlights.  On longer backpacking trips, I like a hand-crank flashlight and radio combination, which can be used regardless of battery life.

Bring basic first aid equipment for emergencies and even consider a flare or other signaling device if you will be a long way from emergency services.

And bring a printed park map.  Keep the printed map in a plastic bag or have it laminated.

 Hazard Inventory

Riding and camping are a great combination! This is at RAGBRAI 2012

Riding and camping are a great combination! This is at RAGBRAI 2012

The last great piece of camping advice comes to you courtesy of my grandpa.  He said, “Beware of things that bite, sting, itch, or get you all wet!”  Make a list of the hazards you might experience in the area you’re camping.  Know how to identify poison oak and poison ivy.  Know how to identify and safely remove ticks.  Know if anyone in your party is allergic to bee stings and bring appropriate first aid materials for that person.  Know how to identify a potentially hazardous snake or a harmless one (clue: most snakes in our area are harmless).  And lastly, be aware of any water hazards, especially if you have kids around.  Don’t build your tent close to the creek; flash floods can happen whether it’s raining where you are or not.  Keep the kids away from lakes or ponds after dark.  Don’t cross flooded streams.  Just use your common sense!

Justin out on a long hike!

Justin out on a long hike!

So there you have the Adventure Foot Guide to Safe and Fun Camping!  Be sure to check out these related blogs about some of my favorite local state parks.  I highly recommend Wakonda State Park in La Grange, MO, (second winter Wakonda link here!)  Cuivre River State Park in Troy, MO and Siloam Springs State Park in Liberty, IL (second Siloam link here!) for local camping adventures.  You might also check out Sand Ridge State Park near Peoria.  This park is enormous and especially fun in the late fall and winter! Oh and don’t forget Mark Twain Lake!  There’s no excuse not to camp with so many great places to go!

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At the start of the New Belgium Cruiser Century

At the start of the New Belgium Cruiser Century

This past weekend I followed my Adventure Foot to Des Moines, Iowa to ride the New Belgium Cruiser Century with my husband and our two friends Ryan and Jayme.   Basically, when we heard there was an easy-going 100 mile bike ride featuring beer tastings at every stop we sad, “sign us up!”

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At Court Ave. Brewery

Our hosts showed us a great time in Des Moines the night before the ride.  Highlights included the Court Avenue Brewery where the beer and the food were both superb. I had braised duck with sweet potato hash… good lord. It was delicious.  And my husband and I partook in the Capitol’s Beer Flight, which was full of surprises and great flavors.  If you ever go, be careful with their 21st Amendment brew; its high alcohol content will sneak up on you!  We made one more stop at a really neat German-themed bar before we called it an early night.

Anyway, what was I talking about?  Oh, right.  Bike ride.

Jayme and Ryan on the High Trestle Bridge

Jayme and Ryan on the High Trestle Bridge

The New Belgium Cruiser Century, we discovered, was just conceived by 3 guys out having some beers.  They wondered if they could get guys on New Belgium Cruisers to go 100 miles.  Then they decided any cruiser would do.  Then they changed their minds a third time and decided to allow any kind of bike, so long as the rider knew this ride was about fun, friends and beer, but not speed.  Basically, this was a perfect first century for our friends, because it was very low pressure.

The route was a combination of 3 Iowa Rails to Trails projects- the Raccoon River Trail, the Great Western Trail and the High Trestle Trail.  These three trails combine to make over 80 miles of paved multi-use recreational paths through Central Iowa and are frequented by runners, walkers, bikers and more.

We rode to the start at a bar called Mullets (Party in the Back) that is just across from the Iowa Cubs’ stadium near downtown Des Moines.  The organizers of the ride had originally planned for about 30 riders… and then 150 showed up.  What a crowd! I’d say the mix was about 50/50 road bikes to cruiser bikes.  The oldest bike there was from the 1930s and was a true classic cruiser.

Justin "hydrates" with some Fat Tire by New Belgium

Justin “hydrates” with some Fat Tire by New Belgium

The route started out through Des Moines proper and over a gorgeous pedestrian bridge that’s suspended over the Des Moines River.  We were off to a good start and headed to an offshoot of the Des Moines called the Raccoon River.  The trail meandered with the river for 4 or 5 miles and the big group of bikes all stuck together.  It was lovely.  Until…

When we got out of the river valley, the route went up a climb and then out onto the prairie.  The windy, windy prairie.  The story of the next 45 odd miles was all about wind.  20-30 mph headwind.  The. Whole. Time.

The headwind wasn’t too hard to handle at first because our legs were fresh, but it can really start to wear you down mentally to pedal that hard and have such slow speeds into that wind.

There were stops along the way to resupply, but no organized SAG.  At around 15 miles we stopped at a gas station and then at 35 there was a bar called Night Hawks where we stopped for lunch and to wait out a short downpour of rain.  When the rain stopped and it looked a little better we hit the road until…

Kinda soggy after a downpour near the Flat Tire Lounge

Kinda soggy after a downpour near the Flat Tire Lounge

Not 3 miles out of the bar, another little black cloud decided to rain on our parade.  With nowhere to go, we just got soaked.  The water in my shoes was the worst.  Someday I need to find a pair of shoes with drain holes in the bottom.  Does that exist?

Anyway, we kept trucking until the rain stopped and shortly thereafter pulled into another bar called Flat Tire Lounge.  It was pretty neat to have so many bicycle-themed establishments there on the trail.  One of the best features of Rails-to-Trails projects is the impact they can have on local economies.  It’s neat to see the bike-themed restaurants thriving. I laid my shoes and socks out in the sun while we sampled New Belgium’s Shift Lager and then we hit the trail again.  Which was great…. except that the headwind had gotten even worse and it rained on us again.  Sigh.

It was a Century by a beer company, afterall ;)

It was a Century by a beer company, afterall 😉

On the High Trestle Bridge

On the High Trestle Bridge

The highlight of the entire ride had to be the High Trestle Bridge.  This artful half mile piece of trail spans the Des Moines River Valley from 13 stories above the water.  You can see for miles and miles in any direction.  The old railroad that was here before has been transformed into abstract squares over the bridge which give a tunnel effect.  It was my favorite part of the trail and I’m told it’s even more fun at night when the iron arches are lit!

Jayme and Ryan: Happy despite the rain!

Jayme and Ryan: Happy despite the rain!

The ride turned around in Woodward, Iowa at a bar called the Whistling Donkey.  Oh! It’s worth mentioning that somehow at nearly every single stop I ran into another rider named Jo and her husband. I told her she would make the blog- so Jo, if you’re reading, here you are!!

Ignore the grammar and embrace the beer.

Ignore the grammar and embrace the beer.

The whole ride was different when we turned around to head back to Des Moines. Excepting a few miles of crosswind at the beginning, once we turned around we had the wind at our backs and really flew.  We were riding 18-22 mph and barely pedaling. Our clothes dried out and the sun came up.  Ahhhhhh! Sweet, sweet tailwind.

When we arrived back in Des Moines a few miles shy of 100, we decided to head back up the Great Western Trail to finish the Century off.  I counted down the tenths of miles and shouted out 100 just as we were passing a pair of runners.  They clapped and I know it made us all feel good!

The 1st New Belgium Cruiser Century was a saga of ups and downs, but mostly I’m glad to have gone to Des Moines to share Ryan and Jayme’s first Century experience.  I presented them with Quincy Bike Club First Century Certificates and we celebrated with meatball subs and pizza at a restaurant Orlando’s on the Bike Trail.  I hope this becomes an annual event, and maybe sometime soon I’ll get up the nerve to try it on a Cruiser!

The Victorious Hundred!

The Victorious Hundred!

Jayme and Ryan finished their first century ride!

Jayme and Ryan finished their first century ride!

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Adventure Feet!

Adventure Feet on the ski lift!

In our little corner of Central Illinois, winter sports just aren’t high on our to-do list.  Really, I spend most of the winter trying to squeeze the proverbial square peg in a round hole by bundling up in 46bazzillion layers and riding my bike like it’s June anyway.  The lack of winter sports in our area isn’t too surprising though, as large quantities of snow are hard to come by and are almost always accompanied by a glaze of ice which makes a cup of hot cocoa and a movie sound better than most things you’d want to do outside.  But not so very far away… 4.5 hours from Quincy by car… exists a little pocket of wintertime fun tucked in the glacier-carved hills of northwest Illinois…

SKI TRIP!

Most of the gang!

Some of the gang! L-R: Adam, Jeff, Sarah, Sara, Laura and Justin

This past weekend I followed my Adventure Foot and took a trip with my husband and 12 of our friends to Galena, IL to check out the skiing and snowboarding at Chestnut Mountain.  Today is not Chestnut Mountain’s debut on my blog however.  If you recall, I biked up this very hill in June of last year during the Tour of the Mississippi River Valley bike ride (TOMRV).  I believe the exact thought I had was, “If you see a sign while on your bike that says “ski area ahead,” you really should consider turning around.”  But I digress…

Justin and I on the slopes around midday.

Justin and I on the slopes around midday.

This trip was a dual birthday celebration for my husband and our friend Jeff, so we decided to make it extra special.  Jeff found a wonderful vacation rental home [read: with a hot tub] in Galena, and we all made our way up north after work on Friday. It was early to bed, early to rise for us, and after a surprisingly winding and hilly road, we made it to the Chestnut Mountain lodge to grab our rental gear and lift passes.

Chestnut Mountain has 19 trails on 220 acres overlooking the Mississippi River.  The longest trail boasts a drop of 475 feet.  Now…I know you’re thinking “I’ve been to Colorado where 475 feet is the run-off for the bunny slope,” but in Illinois, this is respectable.

Weekend lift tickets are $40 for a day or $78 for two days, and gear rental of either boarding or ski equipment is $32.  Rates are slightly less during the week and they also have special rates in the evenings.  A neat feature of the rentals is that if you rent, say, a snowboard to try but don’t end up liking it, it’s only $5 to switch to skis instead.  Helmet rental is $8.  Lessons are available for $20 an hour in a group or a $50 for a private lesson.

This trip was only my third time skiing, and much like my previous outings, the worst part was sitting in the locker room sweating and trying to wrestle ski boots on.  In no time though, we stepped outside into the beautiful day, ready to roll.

About the beautiful day: it was over 40 degrees outside.  That’s not ideal.  Sure, it’s nice to not be so cold, but the mostly man-made snow was awfully slushy and got worse throughout the day.  At times, the slush was nice for me because it slowed me down a little, but at other times, it caused everything to be extra slippery and skiers would gouge the slopes making bizarre trench hazards.

Sara and her awesome snowboard!

Sara and her awesome snowboard!

Our group had mixed experience with skiing, so some of the more experienced members headed off to the blue trails while I tested my legs out on the bunny slope.  A pair of safe rides down the cotton-tail-trail and two trips up the moving carpet later, and I decided to go on one of the larger trails.

The first beginner trail was called, “Old Man.”  This trail butted up against the bunny slope in the beginning and then dog-legged to the left down the mountain.  I started out okay, but took the first turn down the steeper slope faster than I expected and ended up wiping out and sliding on my belly for ten feet.  My husband, who is much better at this than I am, skied over and helped me up, and we hit the trail again.   My friend Sara was right behind us on her snowboard and was finding her legs too.

Just before the steepest part of the trail there was a member of the ski patrol holding a “slide zone” sign which the slushy conditions necessitated.  I skied over by him, clearly a little shaken by my fall, and asked how I could avoid another fall in this slippery area.  His answer? Make the mountain bigger! He said to take long, sweeping passes more horizontally across the slope (while watching for other skiers, of course) and that it would help me not feel so out of control on the slush.

So that’s what I did.  And we made it safely (and slowly) to the bottom of the slope.  My husband and I waited in a relatively short line for the ski lift and headed back up the mountain to try some more trails.

We had lunch around noon at the restaurant inside the lodge.  I imagine locals bring their own food when they ski because eating at the lodge is very expensive, but I suppose that’s to be expected at a resort.

Some friends from Iowa City joined us too. Chestnut is only about 2 hours 15 minutes from IC!

Some friends from Iowa City joined us too. Chestnut is only about 2 hours 15 minutes from IC! L-R Jordan, Becky, Justin and Laura

After lunch, I made an equipment swap and upgraded to a half-size bigger pair of boots. This was the best decision I’d made all day, because I had more mobility in the larger boots.  Note to self: never suffer in ill-fitting equipment!

The group of us spread out over the mountain- some people took on the hardest trails, some stuck to medium or easy ones.  The bravest thing I did all day was to go down “Rookie’s Ridge” which runs alongside of some jumps, and I skied up the side of the jumps and back into the bowl a few times. I thought that was just the best!   I also tried out the little slalom course and finally felt like a real skier whooshing back and forth between the markers.

All in all, the entire group had a lot of fun regardless of skiing skill level.  Despite being so nearby, being in the hills of Galena seemed like a real vacation.

My favorite store in Galena

My favorite store in Galena

I should mention that downtown Galena is very cute and shouldn’t be passed by if you head up for a ski trip.  My favorite shop there is called Fever River Outfitters.  This shop is an outdoorsperson’s paradise.  They carry great kayak, cycling and general outdoor items as well as a nice line of merino wool tech gear.  They are one of the sponsors of the Fever River Triathlon, which I’d really like to participate in this year.  In addition to Fever River, there are lots of great specialty food shops, gift shops, a brewery and several bistros in downtown Galena.  It’s a fun place to spend a whole afternoon if you’re not on the slopes.

skitrails

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Justin, Jim and I will all be doing RAGBRAI this year. This will be Jim’s 5th RAGBRAI- he’s 73. Also: he’s awesome.

So it’s the Friday before RAGBRAI- The Register’s Annual Great Bike Ride Across Iowa- the weeklong trip now in its 40th year, and all week I’ve been trying to think of what to say on my blog as I embark on the journey.

Most of the last week has been spent trying to figure out how to deal with the heat on this ride.  My hopes were for mid-eighties during the ride and sixties at night, but that’s not going to be the case.  The 10 day forecast now includes the entirety of the ride and every single day’s high temp starts with a 9 and ends with a heat advisory.  I’ve ridden in high temps before and survived; in fact, one of our training rides had a heat index of 115.  That’s not the problem.  The problem is sleeping at night in a stifling hot tent when it’s still 90 at 10 pm and then getting up the next day to do it all over again.  I’d say in order to perform my best, I really need to recover with a good night’s sleep.  We’re doing everything we can to prepare, including bringing fans for the tent, but I have the feeling sleep is going to be tough at times.

RAGBRAI Map 2012

The route itself is going to be a challenge of course.  The quick overview is:

Sunday: Sioux Center to Cherokee, 54 miles, 1675 ft of climb

Monday: Cherokee to Lake view, 62 miles, 2173 ft of climb

Tuesday: Lake View to Webster City: 81.2 miles, 1657ft of climb

Wednesday: Webster City to Marshalltown: 77 miles 1,997 ft of climb

Thursday: Marshalltown to Cedar Rapids: 84.5 miles 3576 ft of climb

Friday: Cedar Rapids to Anamosa: 42.2 miles 1907 ft of climb

Saturday: Anamosa to Clinton 69.4 miles 2,811 ft of climb

The standout as “Toughest Day” is already looking like the stretch from Marshalltown to Cedar Rapids.  Besides having the longest mileage and far and away the most climbing, it looks to be the day with the highest predicted temperatures. At least at the end of this day I can look forward to the Party on the Island; Cedar Rapids is throwing a big celebration for RAGBRAI’s 40th Anniversary and is featuring the band Counting Crows on the main stage!

The stretch from Lakeview to Webster City also is making a good case for possible “Toughest Day” contention.  This day is the one where you have the option to do the Karras Loop.  Karras is a tack on loop that adds enough mileage to give you a full century (100 mile) day.  This particular loop features 2 enormous climbs out of the Des Moines River Valley and is billed as the toughest Karras ever.  Riders who take on the loop and succeed earn a patch and a lot of pride.  We’ll just have to see how we’re doing when we get there.

It’s not all worry for me though.  I’m very much looking forward to getting out of the office, unplugging, and seeing Iowa again.  My friends Jim Cate, Jeff Spencer and David Mochnig are joining myself and my husband for the trip.  We’re going with the Keokuk, Iowa Bike Club- which has been organizing this group for many, many years now and seem to really know how to plan for every eventuality.   I’m also looking forward to seeing friends on the road including Marinan, Scott, and Jen, who all cycled the Tour of the Mississippi River Valley event with me this year.

One of the things I’m really looking forward to is the food.  There’s no excuse like riding 500 miles to eat… well … pretty much whatever you want.  What do I want? Pie, mostly.  Lots of pie.

Photo Credit Christopher Gannon/The Des Moines Register

My hopes for the trip are kind of simple.  I hope everyone, first and foremost, rides safe.  There will be a ton of riders and a lot of hazards, and I wish for a RAGBRAI free of injury and flat tires.  I hope that the sun is tempered with clouds and a beautiful tailwind to push us across the Hawkeye state.  I hope the food is as good as I’ve heard, and I hope that we take the time to stop and enjoy it.  I am confident I’ll have fun with my friends and that I’ll make some new ones.  I hope that when pedaling gets hard friends will lift me up, and I hope I can do the same for them. I also hope I don’t get to cranky about camping and I apologize in advance if I do.

I was just commenting to a friend today about the interesting nature of club sports like running or cycling.  You train with friends, you ride with friends and there is always someone experienced to learn from close at hand, but when the rubber meets the road, every pedal stroke or footfall belongs to you.  Nobody is getting my bike across Iowa but me.  But at the end, if I can do this, it’s going to be a goal that was 20 years in the making and one I can really be proud of.

Now listen, I’m not making any promises, but since we should be hitting the road early and arriving midday at our destination most days, I am planning on doing some mini-blogging from my iphone in my spare time.  Conditions, charging my phone, and distractions like pie may change that, but I’d really love it if you guys followed along next week for updates.  And I always appreciate comments on my blog, but I would especially like them while we’re out on the road.

Only one way to end this blog:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l4ANP8g8wrE

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TOMRV Day 2- Laura, Justin, Stephen, Jen and Tony (left to right)

You know in the movie Forest Gump the way Tom Hanks describes all the ways that it rained in Vietnam (big rain, fat rain, stinging rain…) or how Bubba described all the ways to fix shrimp (boiled shrimp, shrimp gumbo, shrimp stew…)??  That’s the same sort of list I’d make to describe the hills of the 35th Annual Tour of the Mississsippi River Valley ride.

There were big hills, long hills, steep hills, false flat hills, round hills, hills with bumps, hills with more hills on top of them, barbequed hills… oh wait.  Strike that last one.  You get the point though. It was hilly.

TOMRV Route Map

The ride is presented by the Quad Cities Cycling Club and this was Justin and my first year to participate.  The ride gives you the option of doing 108 miles Saturday and 89 miles Sunday, or doing 70 miles Saturday and 50 miles Sunday.  Justin and I had originally signed up for the longer ride, but since he’s been fighting some IT band issues since he ran the Bridge the Gap Half Marathon (he placed 3rd in his age division!) a few weeks ago  and since we knew it was a tough route, we decided to check down and do the shorter route.  That was probably a good move for our first time at this event.

Crossing one of the first bridges of the day.

The ride started from the town of Preston, Iowa early Saturday morning.  We’d taken advantage of the Friday night check-in, so we had everything we needed to just air up our tires and get on the road when  we arrived at 7:30 am.  High temperatures were supposed to be in the 90s, so we figured getting going early was the best move.

Saturday morning is kind of a blur to me.  Let’s see.  The very beginning wasn’t bad and we warmed up on some low hills.  No big deal.  Then there was a nice section of rolling hills, and they were tough, but still not so bad if you got enough momentum going.  Almost immediately we got to cross a couple of pretty bridges with great views of the rivers (I think the first was causeway near Sabula and the second was the steel-grate bridge over the Mississippi into Illinois) and I really enjoyed the views at both of these locations.  When we hit the first SAG stop at Mississippi Palisades State Park (about 20 miles into the ride), I felt pretty good about everything.  I ate a banana and some grapes, some peanut butter on a bagel, and a little pile of fig newtons and we were on our way.

Here’s the thing about being in the bottom of river valleys: you’re going to have to climb out of them at some point.  The first major climbs of the route were not far down the road from the SAG stop.   They were tough but manageable- I don’t think I slipped into my easiest gear in this stretch.  But then…

We turned onto Blackjack Road: home of the Chestnut Mountain.  This little monster tried to warn us with a sign that said, “Ski Area Ahead,” but we didn’t listen.   Those hills meant business.  While at home, there are only 3 hills that come to mind that have me in my easiest gear- there were at least three climbs in this little stretch that had me there.   I did a little search on Google and found someone else’s GPS map of the ride- I bet you can spot the hills I’m talking about! http://ridewithgps.com/trips/313472

TOMRV Day One Climb. I wish I could credit the guy who made the GPS maps, but it doesn’t say on his website 😦

On the top of Chestnut Mountain… evidently near the Schwarz farm 🙂

This section was also home of the hill known as “The Wall.”  It’s one steep, mean, quarter mile climb.  Nothing to do but sit and spin for this one, guys.   Justin made it up to the top, but I ended up stopping in the middle with my heart rate that felt redlined… I walked a few steps and then thought to myself, “hell no, I’m not walking,” got back on and struggled up the thing.  It was super tough, but at least it was short.  At the top of the mountain, we were rewarded with gorgeous views over the river valley and a nice stretch of flat road to enjoy.  Justin started calling the hills “paying the toll for the view.”

I spent much of the remainder of both days of the ride deciding which was more difficult: short steep climbs or long low ones.  I think in the end, the one I like better is the one I’m not on when I’m thinking about it!

Justin and I on the Sebula Bridge over the Mississippi

Anyhow, it’s worth mentioning that when you climb up a crazy thing like Chestnut Mountain, you will eventually have to ride down it too- and ride down we did- at speeds well over 40 mph.  I hit a personal speed record of 45 miles an hour.  It was terrifying.  No, awesome! Or maybe terrifying.  But awesome!  Lol.

I believe it was at the second SAG stop that my college friend Marinan and her husband spotted me.  We caught up a while, soaked up some shade, ate some much needed food and the headed off for the next section.  Marinan has done TOMRV several times (6 I think?? ) so she knew that the route didn’t get any easier as we approached Galena and then Dubuque, but I had no idea what was still in store!

So, normally, I’d keep describing the route in detail but I’m going to give you cliff notes of the rest of day one:

–          There were bike races the same day in Galena that shared our course for a couple of miles and Justin and I were passed by the race peloton at one point.  It was amazing to see those tightly packed riders heading past us at those speeds.  I just tried to stay to the right and stay out of the way.

–          There was another huge climb and steep decent not far after Galena where I got over 40 mph.

Marinan and I spell out IOWA at the top of Victory Hill

–          We caught up with another friend, Stephen Rogers, at a SAG stop in a town called Menominee.  Steven did the longer routes both days- the only one of my friends to accomplish this.

–          At mile 60, we entered Wisconsin.  I didn’t find out that we’d been to Wisconsin until after the ride.  They should put up a welcome sign.  Silly Wisconsin.

–          There was another ridiculous hill carved into the bluffs 10 or so miles from the end of the ride.  Justin asked Stephen Rogers if this hill had a name like the other hills, so Stephen, taking a cue from a sign he just saw, dubbed the hill “The Weigh Station.”  We also met a guy we called Texas there.  Texas rode the rest of the way in with us.

–          The decent going into Dubuque was one of the most gorgeous things I’ve ever seen from my bike.  I wish I could show you a photo, but it wouldn’t do it justice anyway.

Justin enjoying a Fat Tire at the beer tent after Day One

–          The beautiful decent was followed by the second-steepest climb of the day- which also was the last quarter mile of the route.  I was so hot and tired by the time I got here, that it was really hard for me.  Half way up, Justin and Steven (who had already made the climb) started cheering me on, and at the top, Marinan was waiting for me to sing our college victory song: The Hawkeye Victory Polka.  (AKA “In Heaven There is No Beer!”)  It was a great moment.

–          The total elevation change for Day 1 of the Preston (shorter) start was +6554 ft. / -6365 ft.  Whoa. No wonder my quads were on fire.

–           At the top of Victory Hill (which is what I’m now calling it) was Clark College- our host for the night.  We enjoyed 2 Fat Tires apiece at the beer tent while we were waiting for two other friends to make it in from the long route.  Tony and Jen rolled up and we went and showered while they had a beer.  We dropped off our bikes in the tennis courts (all of those bikes in that tiny space made these the most valuable tennis courts ever!! )

–          Then we all went to the banquet!  I pretty much ate everything in sight.  Pasta, chicken, veggies, some really good coleslaw, corn, carrot cake…  Maybe it was just the heat and the exertion, but we all scarfed down a ton of food.

Most $ in a tennis court ever.

–          The accommodations we had signed up for were just sleeping bag space on the floor.  If we do this ride again, this wouldn’t be my pick because I had a hard time dealing with that many people moving around, snoring, turning on flashlights and the like.  Next go around, we’ll probably camp in a tent outside because it looked like fun and I imagine it would be quieter.  Barring that, I’d try to get one of the dorm rooms with beds.

Panoramic view near Bellview Iowa on Day 2

Day 2

I could hear people moving around and getting ready to go before light was even peaking in the window.  The heat had been pretty bad on Day 1 and was expected to be worse for Sunday so I guess everyone wanted to get an early start.  I was really exhausted from a long, restless night though, so I laid around as long as I could.  We packed up, dropped off our bags, retrieved our bikes and were ready to hit the road for Day 2.

Tony shows off his vintage Nishiki bike…

So Day 2 was 50 miles.  That’s chump-change for Justin and I anymore.  I mean, we do that distance regularly with no problem.  In fact, I had made plans for after the 50 mile ride (visiting a nearby cave) since I figured we’d be done in just a few hours.  But what I didn’t know was that Day 2’s climbs were even more gnarly than Day 1.

Justin, Jen, Tony, Stephen and I decided to ride as a group on Day 2.  We climbed a couple of decent hills coming out of Dubuque and had another beautiful, fast decent on to the floor of the valley (I got very comfortable with 35 mph on this ride. That’s pretty darned fast for me at home) but after that the climbs got crazy.

On the Mississippi River near Bellview, Iowa

And the crazy climbs? They were *not* helped at all by the straight-from-the-South headwind that started at about 10 mph in the morning but grew to 20+ mph by afternoon.  Every time you would crest a hill the wind would scream over the top and threaten to blow you back down.  In the late afternoon the wind was so strong that we’d have to downshift in the flats and even down some hills.  Talk about a momentum killer!  Anyway… what was I talking about? Oh, right, just the three hardest climbs ever…

The first climb out of the valley lasted for 1.7 miles and had an insane 7% grade in places.  Then we went back down.  The next climb out of the valley lasted almost 2 full miles and had a max of 6.8% grade.    I’m not kidding you- those were the toughest, slowest 10 miles I have ever done on my bike.  Then the last major valley climb was over the majority of a 4 mile stretch (one little downhill in the middle) and, frankly, I’m lucky to still have legs after the thing.  I stopped 3 times (walked none) to catch my breath and to make another go at that last climb.  It was so, so hard but I’m so, so glad we did it.  See GPS here http://ridewithgps.com/trips/313470

Day 2

More beautiful vistas were in store at the top of each one of these climbs, and the downhills all were over much too quickly.  I kept thinking that I’d never enjoyed a Midwestern landscape as much as I did at the top of these glacier-carved hills, but I’d never struggled uphill for a half an hour to earn a view either.

Tony at lunch!

We stopped in the picturesque riverside town of Bellveiw for lunch, where we once again were all quite ravenous.  We bypassed the Casey’s gas station where many bikers seemed to have stopped and found a lovely café in downtown Bellview that was serving a Biker’s Brunch.  We were treated to a leisurely and delicious meal before hitting the road. *My lunch, if you’re curious, was this terrific open-faced turkey sandwich on pumpernickel topped with charred tomatoes, béchamel (French-style milk sauce) and locally grown basil.

This is a pic from day one- all of us flashing W for the “Weigh Station” hill!

What else can I say about day 2?  It was great.  There were more hills, more climb, and more wind than I thought you could squeeze into 50 miles in the Midwest, but hey, we made it through just fine.  Catching up with my friends from far away and sharing a bicycle adventure made the weekend (and the sore quads I had on Monday) completely worth it.

The Quad Cities Bike Club deserves lots of credit for wonderful SAG stops, friendly volunteers, and a tough course that challenged every rider there.

And the views- earned the hard way- are something I’ll never be able to adequately describe;  their beauty makes me believe that the same farm-dotted landscape that inspired artists like Grant Wood will be around a long time to come.

As for my bike and I?  We’re feeling quite confident about our chances to complete the 500 miles of the Register’s Annual Bike Ride Across Iowa (RAGBRAI) which, as I write, is only 37 days away.   I’ve also vowed to never complain about the two hills on State Street or the ones coming up Hampshire again, because I’ve met their big brothers who live up river and are much worse!

Thanks for a great ride TOMRV!  See you next year!

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Young Bald Eagle near Macomb, IL

I’ve always thought of cycling as the intersection of running and flying.  There’s a point at which your bike’s tires seem to break the hold of both gravity and friction and you lift up in to the great blue sky and take wing.  For a brief instant, you feel like a bird yourself.  A particular moment like that sticks with me from this winter…

Great Blue Heron, Illinois

I was cycling on a blacktop road near Burton, Illinois, and in the distance a bald eagle’s white head stood out bright against the backdrop of a crystal blue January day.  He was sitting to the left of the road on an exposed tree branch, likely hunting for some rabbits or voles that were out in the empty farm fields.  I’m sure the eagle’s trained eyes saw me from much further away than I saw him, but he watched my approach with his head cocked to the side, and, excuse me for anthropomorphizing, his expression was one of bemused curiosity.  At some point, the eagle decided that maybe my approach was a little too fast, and he launched himself into the air and glided on his enormous outstretched wings across the field.  The field dipped away on the side he was on- so that he flew almost level with the road- and I saw the opportunity to ride alongside him as he flew to the east.  I pushed up to over 20 mph and the eagle ended up on my left side nearly at eye level as we raced down the road.  I had definitely increased my speed to get a good look at the eagle, but I couldn’t help but feel like the eagle had slowed up in a similar way to get a good look at me on my bike.  We flew vis-à-vis down the road for long seconds- maybe a quarter mile- until the eagle broke sharply upward, crossed overhead and issued a loud call as if to say, “Nice riding with you! See ya later!”  The encounter left my heart pumping with the feeling of pure exhilaration.

It’s moments like that one that keep me on my bike all year long, and compel me to find the backroad-less-traveled.

American Kestrel, Illinois 2012

Ha! I got so lost in thinking about the moment with the eagle that I got off the topic I sat down to write about in the first place: birdwatching from your bicycle!  Cruising down the country roads on a bicycle is a wonderful way to view wildlife – birds especially.  It seems that the speed of the bike and its relative confinement to pavement keep birds from worrying like they might if you were on foot.  Out on group rides, I’ve become our resident ornithologist, pointing out birds on wires and offering up a fact or two if I know something interesting.  I love to be asked, “What’s that one?” and love even more if I don’t know the answer and have to go home and look the bird up.

To that end, I’ve decided that this year I am going to fill out a proper birding checklist for cyclists.  The tri-state area gives road-warriors the unique opportunity to view several major bird habitats including open grassland or prairie, woods adjacent to agricultural fields , wetlands and marshes, and of course, the tremendously important Mississippi River flyway.  Did you know that nearly half of all migratory waterfowl in North America as well as many shorebirds use the Mississippi River to navigate?  That makes early spring and late fall a particularly great time to cycle along the river bottoms to view species that do not normally make their homes in Illinois.

Ring- Billed Gull, Illinois

In 2012 the birds that I’ve checked off my bicycle-only viewing list are:  Bald Eagle, Red Tailed Hawk, Common Grackle, American Robin, Blue Jay, Turkey Vulture, Great Blue Heron, Bufflehead Duck, Common Golden Eye Duck, Canvas Back Duck, Mallard Duck, Canada Goose, European Swallow, Tufted Titmouse, Killdeer, American Kestrel, Mourning Dove, Rock Pigeon, Downy Woodpecker, Red Headed Woodpecker, Red-Winged Black Bird, Herring Gull, Ring Billed Gull and Cardinal.

Red Tailed Hawk, Illinois (Light Morph)

In my fairly extensive internet searching, I didn’t find a suitable checklist to fold up and put in my bike pouch, so I made one!  This list is from the website http://www.illinoisbirds.org/birds_of_illinois1.html and I have reformatted it here to print on one page front and back. It’s got over 400 species, so it will cover most of the birds you’d see in Illinois, Iowa and Missouri.  You may download and print your own checklist by clicking below!  Enjoy bird watching from your bicycle and let me know if you spot anything unusual!

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This photo is from the Ape Cave in Washington State in 2010. Many caves east of the Rockies have been closed since 2006.

Publicly owned caves throughout the country from the East Coast to Colorado have been closed since 2006 when White Nosed Bat disease was discovered ravaging populations of bats in New York and beyond. I wrote the article below in the spring of last year talking about the disease and the cave closures. While it’s very true that this is a terrible disease with over a 90% mortality rate for affected populations, it is becoming clear that the bats primarily spread the disease among themselves.  There’s no evidence that responsible caving with clean gear will spread the fungus among the bats.

I’ve contacted the Illinois and Iowa DNR asking about the criteria for the reopening of caves, but no one seems to be able to say when or if the decision will be made to reopen the sites.  It would be wonderful to see states reopen supervised caves like Illinois Caverns where no evidence of WNBS has been found.  In supervised caves, users can be monitored for cleaning their equipment, and responsible stewardship of these delicate ecosystems can resume.   The loss of bats is certainly a catastrophe, but since no causality has been proved, it’s a shame that the state continues to ban responsible outdoors-people from these educational opportunities.

I believe it’s time to reopen caves slowly (supervised caves first), to monitor the situation, and to adjust bans to fit the scientific evidence available.  Further closure of the caves only discourages people from learning about this special environment and developing an appreciation for all of the wildlife that caves support.

Click here for a map of the spread of the disease. http://www.fws.gov/whitenosesyndrome/maps/WNSMap_10-03-11_300dpi.jpg

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UPDATE January 24th, 2012

I emailed the Illinois Department of Natural Resources the following question:

I think the main question we’ve got is what are the criteria for reopening caves and is opening the caves a priority in 2012?   I don’t think any outdoor enthusiasts disputes the need for protecting the bats, but it seems like the indefinite closure of the caves is counter-productive for protecting them.  Studies out east have shown that the primary vector of the disease is the bats themselves and that responsible caving (with clean equipment) can go on without spreading the fungus. I think all outdoors people are concerned with the safety of the bats, but the blanket closures with no criteria for reopening the sites can only decrease awareness of caves and the special ecosystems they provide. Couldn’t supervised sites like IL Caverns require clean equipment and be reopened in 2012? 

And received the follwing response. It explains part of the IDNR’s plan for research, but does not address the question of when they may consider reopening caves.

Thank you for taking the time to contact me regarding cave closure and related WNS issues in Illinois.  Please know that we will be conducting a comprehensive, state-wide survey of many Illinois caves throughout the month of February with partners from the INHS, USFWS, USFS, etc.  This is part of a large Federal grant to monitor for the presence of WNS in Illinois – it is absolutely crucial that all Illinois caves remain closed.  IF WNS is found in any Illinois cave, it will require careful and strategic media coordination so the public is provided with precise and factual information. During the entire month of February, I will be working with a team of colleagues sampling a sub-set of caves throughout the State of Illinois for the possible presence of WNS.  Our comprehensive sampling efforts will involve sampling both animals as well as cave substrates.  All samples will be analyzed under strict laboratory conditions.  To date, we do not have any confirmed signs of WNS anywhere within the State of Illinois – we remain hopeful that we will not find any infected animals this year, but unfortunately I feel the odds are against – time will tell.   Joe Kath, Endangered Species Manager/Bat Specialist IDNR 

ANOTHER UPDATE! 1/25/12

I also contacted the Iowa DNR and got some positive news from Maquoketa Cave State Park!

Laura, We had a meeting yesterday.  Nothing is finalizes yet from the meeting but things are looking hopefully for this summer.  I wish I could tell you more but we just need to finalize all of our discussions and no which approach we will be taking.  But I will say there will be something different this summer than just having all the caves closed. 

Respectfully, 

Scott Dykstra, Park Ranger, Iowa Department Natural Resources, Maquoketa Cave State Park

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Let’s talk bats.

These much maligned winged mammals have long been typecast in horror flicks and nighttime terrors, but the truth is, bats are an integral part of the world’s ecosystem, and indeed, are important in our own backyards. According to the Department of Natural Resources websites, there are around 12 species of bat in Illinois and Missouri; including three species on the endangered species list.

Each individual bat in the state can eat up to 3,000 bugs in a single night. Thanks to just the gray bats in Missouri and Illinois, there are 1,080 TONS of flying insects that are not bugging you all summer long. All of the bats in the area are insectivorous, and this massive bug buffet is our best defense against dangerous mosquito populations and diseases they carry, like West Nile Virus. Bats are also important pollinators, and with decline in honeybee populations, they become more important in that respect each year.

But something is killing our bats. White Nosed Bat Syndrome was first documented in 2006 in Albany, New York. There, cavers began to notice bats acting strangely, some dead or dying, and many with a strange white fungus around their muzzles. Since the fungus has been discovered, there has been an unprecedented spread of the disease. The cold-loving fungus appears to grow on the bats in the winter and disrupts normal hibernation. The bats awaken too early or too often and exhaust their fat stores and essentially starve to death. In some hibernating populations, the mortality rate is more than 90 percent. The bulk of the cases of WNBS have been in New York and Tennessee, however, the epidemic appears to be spreading and has been seen in nearly all of the Eastern Seaboard and into the Midwest, including Indiana and Ohio.

It is believed that the primary spread of the disease is among the bats themselves, however, people who go caving (also called spelunking) may unknowingly spread the fungus between populations on their boots or equipment. Though the fungus itself does not pose a threat to humans, bats are so crucial to our ecosystem that the Department of Natural Resources, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and state authorities closed most caves on public land in all of the affected states in 2009, and the closures are still in effect this year. The closures do not affect privately owned caves, however, the DNR urges landowners to be aware of the problem and report any dead bats found on their properties.

So, as outdoor enthusiasts, what can we do to help?  Besides abiding by the closures recommended by the DNR, outdoorsmen (and women) should always be aware of the possible contaminates found on their clothes, equipment and boots. The White Nosed Bat Syndrome, along with fish and game related diseases and invasive and the spread of non-native plant and insect species can largely be avoided if we take some basic precautions. These include: Wash all boots and equipment when traveling between different ecosystems, states, bodies of water, etc. This can be as simple as wiping the bottom of your boots with a bleach and water solution. A bleach solution also works well to clean waders and fishing equipment. Also, don’t move wood or plant products. Bugs and disease can easily hitch a ride on firewood or plants and a new ecosystem may not have the ability to fight off a foreign invader. And never, never, never move plants or animals from one place to another. Ever. The best advice is to use common sense. The cleaner you are when you’re in the great outdoors, the better. As the saying goes, “Take only memories (or photographs), leave only footprints.”

For more: www.fws.gov/whitenosesyndrome

Original Post from April 26, 2011

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