I've been wanting to get out into the woods for a few weeks now. Unfortunately, various responsibilities have continued to stymie my efforts. However, when I discovered that I would have this past Sunday and Monday to myself, I decided to take a quick biking trip out somewhere local.
After some consideration (all fifteen minutes of it), I decided on the Rice Creek Conservation Area. Duffy had mentioned the shelter there--the Rice Creek Hilton--and his desire to try and hang there at some point. I put up the planning thread for the trip, hoping that he and MightyMouse--among others--would be able to make it. Fortunately, they were. Others expressed interest at coming out, including skrewloose and Johnny Walker.
I left Gainesville on Sunday morning at about 8:40, headed eastbound into the rising sun. On the way out of town, the only folks I saw out and about at that hour were some of the soccer players at a nearby park and the local National Guard members doing their annual PT test.
I soon left the city behind, rolling through the Fall foliage, their bright flame colors mixing with the deep greens of non-deciduous trees. By 10:30, I'd entered the small town of Melrose, about 18 miles from my house and almost halfway to the campsite. Here, I stopped to refill the Camelbak and eat lunch at the Subway. I wasn't as hungry as I normally am on long biking trips, but that might be due to the fact that I hadn't found time to work out on Saturday.
Either way, after a six-inch sub and a refill, I continued on eastbound on SR 26. Here, I entered the most dangerous portion of the ride. From Gainesville to Melrose, the bike lane/margin is about five or six feet wide and has raised asphalt disks in the white separator line to cause a rumbling noise when someone crosses it. From Putnam Hall to the WMA, the roadway is very much the same. However, from Melrose to Putnam Hall (all within "Bike Friendly Putnam County" ; down on SR 20, to the south of SR 26, the sign for "Bike Friendly Putnam County" is precisely where the bike lane disappears altogether...), the shoulder narrows down to approximately three feet wide and has no rumble strip. On top of that, many of the hills are blind--none of them on corners, thankfully. Through this strip, I was a little on edge, keeping an ear open for cars doing stupid things at 60+ MPH.
I passed through it without notable incident, however, and soon came to the small town of Putnam Hall--the seat of government for "Bike Friendly" Putnam County. Here, I made a right onto SR 100 with a sigh of relief and continued on into the rolling hills along it.
It's been since my last trip to St. Augustine that I've ridden along 100. I almost forgot what a killer some of the hills along there are. There are a couple that rise seventy to an hundred feet in maybe three or four hundred yards--nearing the maximum grade allowed for major roads in the US. None of them are particularly long or tall, but, man, are they steep. And my bike is not designed for hill climbing, aside from my granny gear. My quads were a little tired by the time I spotted the FL Trail crossing of 100 and knew I was close to Rice Creek.
I rolled into Rice Creek at about 12:15, having been slowed down by the byproduct of my water consumption on the ride a couple of times. I quickly began to ride down the "bike path" that leads to the shelter area. Well, that didn't last particularly long. I've got fairly low-pressure, high-volume tires on my bike (I wind up on dirt roads a lot, which means patches of sugar sand down here), but the torn up loam and sugar sand that made up the "bike path" was too much for me in a few spots. Of the mile that the path follows into the woods, I walked the bike for maybe a quarter of it--which is saying something, considering my usual stubbornness.
It was about 12:40 by the time I rolled into camp, finding Duffy, MightyMouse, and Johnny Walker already there and setting up lunch. We chatted for a bit about gear and recipes, trails and times spent out there, and most of the other things that hikers jaw about when they've got time. It was good to see them; all three are wonderful conversationalists and fun folks to spend time with.
Soon after, skrewloose arrived. He'd just finished a NOBO through of the AT and was full of stories about it. Everyone spent a quiet afternoon socializing and eating wonderful food (MightyMouse, you're going to have to give me the recipe for that andouille and couscous concoction when I shoot my field shepherd's pie over...).
All too soon, though, MightyMouse, Duffy, and Johnny Walker had to head home: Johnny Walker had work and Duffy was fighting a cold. Skrewloose and I settled in for a night of chatting and fighting the mosquitoes (I'd left my bug net at home--definitely a bad call).
Some time around 7:30 or 8:00, I turned in for a night of sleeping under my top quilt to avoid the skeeters. Fortunately, my top quilt is a poncho liner and fairly moisture-insensitive. Some time not long after I went to bed, something circled the site. I think it was either a deer or a large bird, due to the lack of noise it made most of the time but the louder noise when it brushed something. Could be wrong, though.
The low for the evening got down to 58* but felt much cooler due to the 100% humidity. I woke with very little condensation on my Garlington insulator, surprisingly, given the conditions. I stayed warm enough. I was a little cool on my back, but I actually like sleeping a little cool.
I rose at about 7:30, made "coffee" and began packing up. Screwloose hit the trail a little before me, since I'm a little slow in the mornings. Soon enough, I had the load built on my pack and it strapped to the bike. I hit the hiking trail and tried to find my way out via white blazes instead of taking the "bike path". It occasioned a couple of close calls with tight corners and uncertain--well, I'd call it "footing", but it was my tires on it...maybe "tiring"? Anyway, I followed easily enough and caught up with screwloose just before the parking lot. We chatted for a bit and he gave me directions to the bike path that parallels SR 100 along the old rail bed. Too soon, we parted ways and I started on the long ride home.
I followed 100 until I hit the turnoff for Etoniah State Forest, and--just where screwloose said it was--turned onto the bike path that runs up to Keystone Heights. It was a much easier ride than the hills would have been, and I was topping 15 MPH through much of it. A slight tailwind made things easier, as well.
The ride home was much the same as the ride out, with one notable exception. After turning onto SR 26 and continuing on towards Melrose, there was an house with a fence that had fallen down on one side. Well, there was a reason that fence had been there in the first place: a rather aggressive German Shepherd decided that I was intruding on its territory and tried to run me down. Fortunately, I was on a downhill at the time and was able to show it my heels. More fortunately, the dog stopped at the end of its property, seeing as how the fence was down on that side. I sure didn't want to have to fight an 80-lb dog with nothing but a clasp knife. Wouldn't have been fun, for the dog, for me, or for the owner when the police arrived to take a report on why there was a dead dog. If you're going to train your dog to attack trespassers, make sure you keep it fenced in. Geeze...
After about three hours of riding and an half hour in Melrose for lunch (my appetite was back this time 'round, though that may have been the downslope of the adrenalin rush from the Shepherd), I arrived home, showered, changed, and got ready to go out with Mrs. FLRider for our Monday night date. A great trip, and just what I needed to clear my head before the week began once more.
Thanks to everyone who came out!
Bike: Since the last time I did an all-up biking trip, I've switched over to a BMX front sprocket, that's about 2/3rds the size of my old one. It makes climbing hills in my granny gear a treat, as it's very nearly a 1:1 ratio. That came in handy on this trip, as it's one of the hilliest in the local area.
Pack: I tried out a single-strap suspension for my pack on the bike this trip. I run a single 1" polyester strap (exactly the same kind I use for my hammock suspension) through one of the PALS array loops on my pack and then through the rear seat supports. I tighten it down and then tie off with a quick-release stopper knot (again, the same as my hammock suspension). It worked excellently, and I think that this is what I'll be using in the future for simplicity's sake.
Camelbak: I finally broke down and bought a Camelbak rather than making another front pack/Camelbak carrier combo (my old one has started letting go along one of the seams and it'd be a pain to fix in that spot). I liked how it carried, though the weight is a little more than I like. On the other hand, the acetate d-rings that are attached to the carrier will make attachment to my pack much easier via snap links when I want to carry it on my back. I wish I'd've thought of that...
Hammock: I strung the hammock just a little too tight and wound up with a bit of shoulder squeeze. Not enough to keep me awake, but enough to be noticeable. I think I need to reset my SRL just a little bit shorter. Something to do this week... Otherwise, the hammock performed perfectly--with the exception of me leaving the bug net at home. Not my smartest decision, but a bit of Picaridin and tucking my head under the top quilt took care of the majority of the flying hypodermic needles.
Tarp: I think I've finally got my tarp set up where I want it to be. BlackWolf's advice to use a pair of cheapo carabiners to hold the ends of the tarp in line with the hammock works like a charm, and I hit the height adjustment perfectly this time. The tarp was just barely touching my SRL when I got into the hammock, which means that it'd keep me dry through just about anything.
Insulation: My PLTQ worked like a charm, despite my continual exhalation of moisture-laden air into it all night and the 100% humidity that made it impossible for the top quilt to pass any of that moisture. It reinforces my intention to make the first layer of my modular top quilt system synthetic. I think that the advantages of having some warmth regardless outweigh the deficits of synthetic weight and pack size, at least for me. My semi-Garlington insulator worked well, too. I was honestly surprised that there was as little condensation on it as there was--and my back felt no damper than the rest of me when I woke in the morning. It was warm enough for me at 58*, for sure, and I'm almost certain that it would have been fine as low as 50* for comfort. For fitful sleep, I'm sure I could press it another five degrees or so, but the damp might have made that more difficult.
All in all, I was happy with the way my gear performed.