Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Starved Rock III -- July 11-12, 2014

This past weekend the PUMC Cycling Group completed its third annual ride from Plainfield to Starved Rock State Park along the I and M Canal Trail.  Although work and other commitments kept away a few people who really wanted to participate, our turnout this year still was great considering we are not a large cycling group.  In total, seven members joined the trip.  The five returning attendees from past journeys were Eric and Eric, Jon, Tim, and Melissa (who by the way is lobbying for more women to join this ride), and the first-time participants were Scott and Richard.  Once again, we were blessed with beautiful, cool, dry weather; and more importantly, everyone again completed the trip safely and with only one minor maintenance issue.

As in 2012 and 2013 we gathered in front of the church for the blessing of the bikes by Pastor Eun Hye Choi.  Unfortunately, someone in the group (perhaps the person writing this) forgot to give Pastor Eun Hye a reminder ahead of time.  No matter, because after an early morning phone call she graciously agreed to meet us in front of the parsonage which is right along our route.

Many of us are not experienced long-distance riders, and for most of the first-timers this is by far the longest they have ever ridden.  For those reasons, the blessing of the bikes is a moment of the trip that everyone seems to appreciate.  We are glad Pastor Eun Hye also is very enthusiastic about doing this for us, even if she does think we are all a bit crazy for wanting to ride that far.

Gathering on a beautiful morning for the blessing of the bikes.
Many thanks to our pastor (and guest photographer) for helping start us off right!
Along the ride there are two scheduled breaks before we stop for lunch in Morris, and three afternoon breaks before we stop for refreshments in Utica.  After we left Plainfield via Drauden Road and worked our way down to River Road, our first stop of the day at the 8 mile mark was the Walgreens at Jefferson and River Road.  On this morning we were very happy to see a little fan club waiting for us (or for Scott at least).  Holli and the boys would join us again later in the day for camping at Starved Rock State Park.

One brother was a bit more camera-shy.
After departing the Walgreens, we followed River Road to where it meets Shepley.  From Shepley we got on the canal trail where it crosses under I-55.  The second stop of the morning came at the Subway in Channahon, making this trip segment, like the first, about 8 miles.  Those who rode with us the first year when the high temperature hit 104 degrees will never forget how relieved we were to reach this location and how long we lingered in its cool air-conditioning.  Last year and this year the weather was incredibly more pleasant, so we hardly needed to go inside at all except for water and restrooms (and for someone, perhaps the person writing this, to buy a cookie).

Second stop of the day: the Subway in Channahon.On the trail out of Channahon.

Arriving in Morris -- lunchtime!!
After riding 15 miles from Channahon, for lunch we stopped in Morris and selected the closest restaurant to the trail: the Tully Monster. If you weren't aware, there's a helpful website that explains: the Tully monster is the official state fossil of Illinois. The Tully monster was a soft-bodied prehistoric marine animal which lived 280 to 340 million years ago. So far Tully monster fossils are unique to Illinois - more than 100 Tully monster fossils have been found in the state.  Amateur collector Francis Tully found the first in 1958.  (The more you know...)

Aside from a courthouse wedding reception, we were definitely the largest group in the place.  Most of us weren't too comfortable sitting on the hard chairs after riding 30 miles, so we mostly stood around while waiting for our food...ordering many drink refills and trying not to get too stiff.

Tim taking a rest at the Tully Monster.A colorful group heading out of Morris after lunch.
Like the morning ride, the trip from Morris through Seneca (11 miles) and Marseilles (6 more miles) was mostly uneventful.  This is quite a testament to the hard-working people of the Illinois DNR who maintain this trail.  Just over a week before our trip, strong thunderstorms knocked down countless trees along the canal, more than 30 of which blocked passage along the trail.  If the DNR had not been so diligent about clearing those out of the way, we either would have needed to cancel this trip or find a less desirable and less safe route along some nearby roads.

In one location along the 7 miles between Marseilles and Ottawa a large tree had not yet been cleared, because it was well beyond the capabilities of the equipment carried by the DNR.  Bids are being issued soon for this tree and another near Joliet on the east end.  Fortunately we were able to lift our bikes through the tree and continue our trip.

East of Ottawa we had our first encounter with a significant trail obstacle.
Scott seems to be taking a different route than the rest of us.

Upon reaching Ottawa, our last break of the day before Utica, we pulled into the Triple J ice cream parlor which sits right next to the trail as you come into town.  Not only do they have great ice cream (well-deserved after riding 55 miles) but they have these cool looking ceiling fans that never seem to be running when we come through all hot and tired.  Even the year it was 104 degrees they were not running.  This continues to be a great mystery.

The ceiling fans at the Triple J in Ottawa look great but never seem to be running when we really need them!
Before departing Ottawa it has become a tradition to take a group photo in front of the bank sign across the street from the Triple J.  During our first year this served as solid documentation of the brutal 104 degree conditions we were enduring.  During our second year we were amazed and delighted that the reading was only 85 degrees.  Imagine our gratitude to have our third year be even one degree cooler than that!

The traditional photo in front of the bank thermometer in Ottawa.
In what is hopefully NOT a new tradition upon exiting Ottawa, a certain member of the group (perhaps the person writing this) discovered that during the ice cream break his front tire had gone completely flat.  Earlier in the day this same individual, the trip planner, had faced criticism from other group members for only scheduling an hour at Duffy's Tavern upon reaching Utica.  In response to the grumbling, he explained his reasoning:  the ride needed to finish before dark, and early enough for Eric W to cook us dinner, so we did need to depart Utica for the state park at a reasonable time, but the sooner we reached Utica, the longer we would have at Duffy's.

It may not show up in the track log, but the pace noticeably quickened after this remark.  In fact, we were so far ahead of schedule by late afternoon that we were departing Ottawa at the time we were supposed to be reaching Ottawa.  We were sugared up on ice cream, excited for the last leg of the trip, imagining the tasty beverages that awaited us at Duffy's...and then we discovered the flat tire.

Jon reported later that he conducted a vote on whether to keep going without one member, but the vote failed.  Instead the tired and thirsty group gathered around a picnic table to watch me try to fix a flat.  Pardon the pun, but talk about pressure!  Luckily I had a patch kit and a pump, so I pretended to know what I was doing.  Had the effort failed, Ottawa fortuitously is home to one of two bike shops along the route, so it would have been just a few-block walk to get the tire serviced.  Instead, we were back on the trail before too long, and the patch held for the rest of the trip.

Very sad about a flat tire.  This means less time at Duffy's.
A good portion of the last 10 miles of the trail between Ottawa and Utica is officially not open.  Apparently there is a little yellow diamond sign sitting right next to the trail that says, "Trail Closed," which not one of the seven of us seemed to notice, or at least heed, as we nearly ran over it.  So we continued into the unmaintained wilderness.  But great rewards are found along this section of the trail.  For one, tall grass and high bluffs line the path, which is a considerable change from the tree canopy that covers the majority of the trail.  For another...well...we've already mentioned Duffy's at the end.

West of Ottawa the trail starts to look much different than near the eastern end.
The problem with riding on an officially not open trail is the understandable lack of maintenance along the trail.  The reason this part is officially not open is because of a large washout that occurred during the extensive floods of April 2013.  These nearly forced last year's trip to be cancelled or re-routed, but fortunately someone had created a temporary bypass out of long boards, so we were able to use that last year and again this year. 

Carefully negotiating the creek crossing at one of the washout areas.Some opted to carry their bikes instead of walking them.
Unfortunately, this portion of the trail was also hit by the nasty storms of June 30 this year, but unlike the officially open part of the trail, this section had not yet been cleared.  We somehow managed to climb over or through or around all the fallen trees, and some group members even reported that they found this to be kind of fun.
Luckily the whole trail was not blocked by trees like this.This portion of the trail felt a bit like a cyclocross course.
Before we knew it we were on the home stretch into Utica.  The trail offers a clue (and prompts us to ride even faster) by changing to an asphalt road just outside the town.  For cyclists not used to riding distances like this, reaching this destination is a great feeling of accomplishment and relief.

Jon and Eric W appear to be quite serious about getting into Duffy's.

The celebration!
After relaxing and celebrating at Duffy's, the group headed back out for the final leg of the journey from Utica to the Starved Rock campground.  This 5-mile coda introduces a new theme for the trip: steep terrain.  After 65+ mostly flat miles, there is tall bridge over the Illinois River and a switchback hill in the state park that must be tackled in order to reach the lodge and parking area.  Not fun for tired legs, but we always manage to make it.

One reward along the final leg is the view from the bridge over the Illinois River.

We estimate the total trip distance to be 70 miles from the church to the campground,
but upon reaching the campground what are the odds of totaling exactly 70.00 miles??
The day ends with a wonderful meal prepared by Eric W, which all of us appreciate greatly since none of us can imagine wanting to stand over a hot campfire cooking for a group of hungry and tired people immediately after riding 70 miles on a bike.

These tasty wings were only just the appetizers!
For the first time in our three-year history of this trip, the spouse and kids of one of the riders joined the group for dinner and camping.  This actually was the original idea behind the decision to camp instead of just coming home that evening.  Cyclists would ride from Plainfield to the state park and then families would meet us there to enjoy the great outdoors.  It is possible that this idea was not clearly communicated, or perhaps there was an overestimation of how excited families would be to hang out with smelly cyclists and get munched on by mosquitoes while eating dinner.  Hopefully in the future we can convince more brave families to join us!  After all, the food is delicious!

Young men greatly enjoying their first campout!
Fun, fellowship, and fitness are the goals of the PUMC Cycling Group, and all three are accomplished on a trip like this one.  We do not claim to pursue profound spiritual learning and exploration, but there are in fact many aspects of group cycling that shed light on the importance of a strong Christian community.  Even the act of cycling itself, with multiple hours doing nothing but peddling, provides plenty of time to meditate on these thoughts:  a long and difficult journey is much easier when accompanied by others; you can not get stronger by only riding downhill; the knowledge and experience of others can be a critical resource when facing a challenge; and with the support and encouragement of others you are capable of much greater things than you might at first believe.