Saturday, July 14, 2018

Starved Rock V - Return to the I&M Canal

On Friday the 13th of July 2018, the PUMC Cycling Group successfully completed its seventh annual daylong ride.  During the past two years our trip had taken us along the Fox River Trail to Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, but this year we returned to the I and M Canal Trail and again cycled to Starved Rock State Park.  The total distance from the church is just over 70 miles, which for all of us is always a significant accomplishment.  

This may have been even more true this year since the Wisconsin trip is longer and also can be adjusted to 100 miles, or a Century Ride.  There also is a bit more terrain on the Wisconsin route, whereas the canal trail is quite flat.  Naturally for some of us, our mindset was, "It's ONLY 70 miles this no need to go crazy with the training."  Translation: "I wonder if there's air in my tires."

One group member achieved an even higher level of awesomeness by purchasing his bike at Walmart on the evening before our trip.  Discussions during the early part of our journey went something like:
Us: Do they lubricate the chain at the factory?
Him: I'm not sure.
Us: Do they fully inflate the tires?
Him: I may need to borrow someone's pump.
Fortunately he made it with no problems, and was quite happy with the bike.  He especially enjoyed the retro stem shifters which, instead of locking into a certain gear, let you fine-tune the adjustments.
The trail itself was pretty much as expected, which unfortunately meant great in places and awful in others.  The first section from around Channahon into Morris is always in pretty good shape since it seems to get a lot of use and therefore some reasonable care and attention.  (Or perhaps the care and attention promote a lot of use!  Hint, hint, State of Illinois!!)  The path is mowed and the crushed limestone base is wide enough for two-way traffic or side-by-side riding.

We elected to do things a bit differently with the ride this year, including leaving an hour earlier and stopping for lunch in Seneca instead of Morris.  This allowed us to do much more of our riding during the cooler morning hours and left less of the trip for after lunch when we were hot, tired, and stuffed with food.  

Doing it this way seemed to work really well.  Instead of having a long stop in Morris, we were able to enjoy a shorter break at the delicious and very welcoming Morris Bakery (after enduring a lecture from their city parking enforcer about baby giraffes and not riding our bikes on the sidewalk).  Lunch was spent at the Sandlot restaurant in Seneca where the staff was incredibly hospitable.

The portion of the trip after lunch was much more challenging due to the increasingly poor condition of the trail.  We were happy that it was at least passable, unlike in recent years when we were forced onto the roads, or forced to abandon this route altogether in favor of the Wisconsin destination.  In many -- actually most -- places, however, it was down to a single track through overgrown weeds and grasses.  In addition to considerable worries about ticks, this makes for some pretty unsocial riding.  You can't travel side-by-side, and conversation mostly consists of calling out hazards to the cyclists behind you:
Biker up!
Walker up!
Dead thing!
The small positive is that it's kind of fun and certainly requires your full attention, but I think we'd all prefer a well-maintained trail that sees a mower more than annually.

Another challenge and difference this year was the closing of our favorite Ottawa ice cream joint, the Triple J.  They never did seem to get their ceiling fans working, but it was located right next to the trail and offered a really nice place to refresh with a cold treat before our last leg of the trip.  We can't help but wonder if the lousy maintenance of the bike path in that location hindered their business.  They must have assumed that this trail would be a popular destination and would draw traffic to their store, but then the state failed to maintain it.  So it goes.

For us it meant that a new ice cream destination would have to be selected.  We identified Tones Cones as the best option, even though it is a few blocks off the trail through the streets of Ottawa.  Our group seemed pleased with the ice cream selections, but the facility itself was less roomy and comfortable than the Triple J.  They even made us pay $1.50 for ice water!  Fortunately the Tones Dog House was right next door, and the girl there had not gotten the message about fleecing dehydrated cyclists.  She was very happy to replenish our ice and water -- on the house.  (Hopefully we're not getting her in trouble!)

As expected, the last section of the trail into Utica was poorly maintained, or perhaps not maintained at all.  There is still a washout where someone constructed a makeshift wooden bridge.  Amusingly, the bridge is in a slightly different location each time you go through there, as water from the creek pushes it around.  But at least there is a way to get through without soaking your feet.

Our final resting place before the trip up to the campground is always Duffy's Tavern in Utica.  (That sort of makes it sound like we die and are buried at Duffy's, which probably isn't far from the truth considering how we normally feel at that point in the journey.)  A great thing about Duffy's is that it attracts cyclists of both types -- motor and bi.  Our type has fewer tattoos and more colorful clothing, but generally we integrate quite well.  Upon leaving the bar there was a prototypical leather-clad cyclist of the other variety also getting ready to head out.  He looked us over and said simply, "Be careful."  We appreciated his empathy.

The camping part of this trip was also different than in past years.  For one thing, we reached the campsites earlier and had everything set up well before it got dark.  As we enjoyed a delicious dinner prepared by our cyclist-chef-drummer-director (with large contributions from other families) we started noticing some clouds approaching from the west.  A check of radar on the phones showed a line of storms moving out of Iowa. 

As it got darker and the kids started to get a bit nervous about lightning in the distance, we began to weigh the pros and cons of riding it out versus packing up and heading home early.  As much as we would have enjoyed the brunch at Starved Rock Lodge in the morning (and as much as our group meteorologist would have enjoyed the light show that night) we thought the best course of action would be to play it safe and not press our Friday the 13th luck.  In short order we had all our tents and gear packed up and loaded back into the vehicles.

The initial line of storms may have ended up weakening before they reached the park, but there were additional storms off and on all night that probably would have made for some nervous campers (of all ages).  The radar loop below starts at 7 PM Friday and goes to 9 AM Saturday.  The approximate campground location is shown by the white star near the middle of the map.  It suggests we probably made a good call to head out early.

In summary, a group trip like this may be organized by one individual but it is made special by the contributions of everyone.  Despite the abbreviated campout, the dinner was wonderful as always, and the fellowship was as enjoyable as the ride itself -- with less leg and butt pain!  We are grateful for a safe journey, dry weather for the seventh year in a row, and no real maintenance problems.  We were also pleased to show off our brand-new jerseys, and to be joined by a 15 year-old who did very well completing a ride of this distance for the first time.

As always we are already looking forward to next year's trip and thinking about how to make it even better.  Perhaps we will even consider training a bit more beforehand!