It’s been a while, too long maybe, since I’ve either updated this blog, or gone for a bike ride. Well, I made the decision to remedy that on both counts. My friend Mat, creator of the Facebook page Tallahassee Bikepacking, proposed a two day trip riding around within the Saint Marks National Wildlife Refuge, with an overnight stop outside the refuge at a local campground, then continuing the next day within the refuge again.
It seemed a simple enough plan. The proposed route was to total about 50 miles or so. Starting at the lighthouse, we’d head north, east, then west, then out of the park to the campground. Something like twenty miles the first day. With the follow up of about thirty miles the next, leaving the campground to reenter the refuge, making a loop east of the main road, southerly, back to the lighthouse where we were parked. It sounded easy enough, I hadn’t been riding in about two months, but how hard could that be?
I was, much to my dismay, about to find out. Mat, unlike myself, had been riding, throughout the heat of Florida’s summer, just about daily. His more robust appearance is merely a tool of deception, to lure any would be riders into a false sense of security that riding with him would be a leisurely activity.
While I did not prepare by the traditional methods, such as riding, or some other fitness plan, I did get the comforts of camp life ready. I had been researching camping hammock designs, and successfully assembled my own. As well as managing to build a couple “beer can stoves”. Both a penny stove design, as well as a double walled one. These run off alcohol. Many of the guys use a product called HEET, (only the stuff in the yellow bottle. I guess the red bottle stuff has additives that you don’t want near your food.) which can be found in the automotive section of your local Walmart.
The basic “penny stove”
A double walled variant that has a better design for self priming.
The day of the trip had arrived, and my bike was packed, and I was ready to go.
Two and a half hours of driving and I had arrived at the campground, soon to be followed by my arrival at the NWR. (A note of explanation, long drives tend to aggravate a back injury induced during a road bike accident a few years earlier… just a fore shadowing comment that will rear it’s ugly head later.)
I gave our planned accommodations for the night a once over while waiting for Mat to arrive.
The honor fee station for paying your park entry.
A tree across from the visitor center parking area.
After a short wait, Mat made his appearance. The red bull can in his hand, and the several empty ones on the floor of his car should have been a warning. The man was operating under the influence of an enhancement drug…
We made our way to the lighthouse parking area. Got our gear together, and headed out. We did have to stop for the “obligatory” lighthouse image or two.
Your’s truly, before I started hating both that backpack, and Mat. (Image shot by Mat)
The first of many alligators to be seen while pedaling. (Image shot by Mat)
We turned off the pavement, and started riding one of the service roads that were just the tops of the levees. I grew to hate these levees, almost as much as Mat and my over packed back pack. Finally we took a rest at a draw down gate.
A helmet at rest, tends to stay at rest…
Gator on low side of gate. (Image by Mat)
Posing Bikes (Image by Mat)
Eventually we decided that we had enough resting, and we made our way back to the dam levees. Why did I hate these levees so much? Well, I admitted to Mat, they “weren’t the trails I was expecting”. I liked my single track trails, tree lined, and shaded. Like a wheeled hike through the forest. This was open and exposed, and for me, less visually appealing. That, and the grass. The terrain was level, not too bumpy, but that darn grass. It sucked the life out of you. It was like riding into the wind, with your rear brake applied. That grass was nothing but rolling resistance.
Every once in a while, some double track would appear, where the crushed shell and stone base defeated the grasses attempts to completely cover the earthen mounds. These were a pleasure to ride on.
But the rest of the time was grass. I hated that grass, and I still do.
We made our way about another mile before crossing the asphalt road, and entering the western half of our trek. We rode along a while, when I noticed I was being pelted in the scalp by something like mini marshmallows. The biting flies were attacking. While this wasn’t something exactly new, I hadn’t experienced it on the top of my head before, since my helmet protected me from… MY HELMET!!! Remember it, sitting nice and pretty?
Yeah, well, now so did I. A mile back, along one of those dam dams, through the hateful grass. Mat waited patiently while I added two miles two my travels.
Image shot while waiting… (Image by Mat)
He at least documented my triumphant return. (Image by Mat)
We didn’t go far, before I had to take a stop to get this shot. It was our first spillway. I thought it was interesting.
We entered an area more to my “liking”. It had trees on either side, but it was one of those painful stretches where you can see what seems like miles of straight unending trail ahead of you. Finally we came to a stopping point, where we had to decide to push on, or turn around.
(Image by Mat)
The trail “ended” and an unkempt looking path led to our destination. Mat left it up to me to continue, or push on. At this point, I was starting to hurt. My lack of riding, as well as the 25+ pounds on my back, compounded by the aggravation of my back pain during the two and a half hour drive was really bothering me. The flies were trying to carry us away, and only being kept at bay with a dousing of DEET. Add to all of this, the sounds of what we were sure was a Sasquatch in the woods I hated to get this far, without seeing this Port Leon Mat wanted to show me. So we pushed on. I was surprised to see that what appeared to be unruly brush parted quickly to a nice little single track that went maybe a quarter mile to a point on the river. We passed the remains of some long lost structure. A single piece of proof that this area was once a lively port town. I regret I didn’t take a picture of it. Maybe (HA HA HA HA) next time.
An image by Mat from a previous trip, that explains about the town of Port Leon. (Image by Mat)
Mat at the point.
Another shot, looking north.
Mat’s camera made it look much darker than it actually was… (Image by Mat)
(Image by Mat)
We turned here, and started the seven mile trip towards the campground. This is where my lack of physical preparedness started to really wear on me. About three miles in, I had to stop and walk the bike several times. My back was burning so bad I couldn’t keep riding. A few curse words were used, especially when either my seat post slipped down some, or the seat post rack did. The rack started rubbing on the rear tire. Finally we broke free of the woods, now fully after dark. We exited at the honor fee station, and made our way the last three miles toward the campground, and hopefully a hot dinner at the restaurant across the river.
At this point, while relived that we had finally stopped, and was able to get something to eat, I still hated the man who talked me into this death ride. The eatery, OUZTS TOO Oyster Bar and Grill proved to be an interesting place.
Darn you, and your smug appearance! Oh look, salsa!
I on the other hand, had the appropriate look of despair and exhaustion.
After passing on both the coleslaw that Mat gave me, and the potato salad that came with my meal, both of which tasted like they had been left in a warm room all afternoon, and were only chilled to tempt out of towners into believing it was safe to eat, I managed to enjoy my cheeseburger, and we made our way back across the river, to the campground. We started our two hour ride around 6:30 pm, eastern time. It was now past 11:00 pm.
While technically at “site #34” morning showed that Mat attempted to avoid the saturated ground, by seeking some that was higher…
High ground by the playground. (Image by Mat)
I was quite pleased with my hammock. Although I was not terribly happy with my tarp. The hammock and bug net performed flawlessly. Mosquitos were abundant, but I had no bite marks when I woke up.
Hammock under tarp.
(Image by Mat)
The tarp was unfortunately a failed experiment in making my own SilNylon. The initial application didn’t work, so I tried smearing it on with both a putty knife, then a thinned down mixture with a brush. While certainly waterproof, it was about a pound heavier, and it tended to stick to itself after being carried all day inside a compressed bag. I got rid of this extra weight, in a way that gave me some satisfaction…
Goodbye bad tarp.
Get in that hole! (Image by Mat)
Oddly enough, there were no images of breakfast taken. I didn’t think to get any, being too busy enjoying a nice hot cup of coffee, and a hot bowl of oatmeal. Mat didn’t take any, because he was jealous, only having a cold crumbly pop tart to sustain him.
I did get a couple shots of my packed gear, and Mat getting his together.
We made a side trip down a boardwalk to the river, and got a couple foggy shots of the scene from the end of the dock.
The entrance to the boardwalk.
The view up the boardwalk from the dock to the campground.
A view north.
A view to the south, and the dock at OUZTS TOO.
A ride like this really let’s you know where the sore spots are. I took a moment to make some seat adjustments. It was too late to prevent pain, but it might help keep it from getting too much worse. These seats really give meaning to the term “saddle sore”.
I took a picture of this sign as we were leaving the campground. It seems like this area of Florida is littered with failed towns and townships.
We took back to the pavement down Lighthouse Road, aka Co Rd 59, and stopped to find my poor sunglasses. The night before, in a haze of pain and suffering, I had dropped my sunglasses, and managed to ride over them. I was surprised to find them in as good of condition as I did.
After picking up the pieces, we finished the three miles + to the ranger station, got permission to enter the park (Mat has an annual pass, well worth the money, which got us back in for “free”.) and we continued riding. Another mile or two down the asphalt we turned east onto another service road, and pushed on until seeing our first and only snake.
A little closer…
Mat’s view. (Image by Mat)
We picked up our bikes, and carried on. We passed the turn off to “Deep Creek” and headed off to find the Pinhook River Bridge, our main point of interest of the day. Only to be met with this sign, about a “mile and a half” (everything was a mile and a half, when you asked Mat how far.) from the bridge.
None shall pass!
The destination for this leg of the trip, as shown in an image from a previous ride by Mat. (Image by Mat)
Another from his previous trip. (Image by Mat)
After some discussion as to the ethical dilemma of not wasting this section of ride by turning back, versus my obligation, as a park ranger, to follow the rules as posted, we left my morals unbruised, much unlike my posterior, and we made our way back to the turn off.
We left the nice hard packed trail, for, you guessed it my mortal enemy, the grassy trail. After riding a few beautiful wooded miles, where we encountered what may have been the offspring of a bear mating with a hog, and several deer, including a herd that rode the trail in front of us for half a football field’s length, we ventured into this sort of scenic vista.
Where are the ROUS? (Princess Bride movie reference…)
“Hey Mat, how long until that bench you said we could rest at?” “What? Another mile and a half? Ok, I believe you.”
Finally, the bench! No, really, I’m having a great time…
Ok, I’m up, I feel great, almost ready to go again… It looks like I’m wincing just from opening a bottle of vitamin water. Thinking back, I probably was.
Yay, from the swamp, to the mixed marsh.
(Image by Mat)
And more grass covered levees. Yes, I love this terrain for riding, no, really, I do. It’s easy, fun, and entertaining. And just look at the diverse landscape. Water, grasses, water, earthen dams, water…
For some reason, I really got a kick out of the concrete spill ways. They were something I just had to photograph, and not just as an excuse to stop for a moment or two.
We rode along those darn levees for a couple more miles, until coming up to the Kayak No Impact Campsite. I noticed a couple “mystery bikes” hidden down in the marsh grasses. I tried to warn Mat, thinking there might be some less-than-fully clad people around, but he pushed on towards his goal, another bench.
Oddly enough, we never did see the owners of the bikes. There was no one else around, we didn’t pass a couple anywhere along the trail, and riding miles of levee like that, it’s not as if there were many places they could be we wouldn’t have seen them. I did later notify one of the federal Fish and Wildlife officers, just in case.
Matt found his bench!
Mat’s bike, against Mat’s bench.
Once again, into the fray! We saddled back up, and travelled across more levees. I was getting hot, the back pain was returning, my “winter” helmet was absorbing solar rays and converting it to brain baking heat. Mat would point things out, and I honestly couldn’t see them. I had been spending too much time indoors with air-conditioning. I was paying for that now. We crossed over at the same locations where I had left, then retrieved my helmet from. We then took a new service road from there, to a split near the Lighthouse Road. At which point, I politely told Mat what he could do with the rest of his grass covered levees (which by now had become even harder to ride, since we had crossed to an area that hadn’t been mowed as recently.)
Goodbye Mat, and good riddance. My salvation is just beyond that gate!
Mat, a sick and twisted man, kept going along the jungle topped dam, and I made my way to sweet sweet pavement. I followed the hard smooth trail to a rest area at a lovely little place called Picnic Pond. I took off my gear, had a snack of a chocolate Cliff Bar, and some more vitamin water. I took my time knowing that Mat would have a slower go of it, pushing through all of that grass, while I had the much easier, and saner route of asphalt. Finally, I repacked, got back on my bike, and pushed for the last section of my ride to my truck.
The end is in sight!
Mat had the same idea as I did, once he was within sight of our “goal”. (Image by Mat)
Finally, we were back at our vehicles, the bikes were packed, and it was time to call this trip done! I looked as good as I felt!
Next time, I’m picking the route!
Top Ten lessons learned.
10) Mat is in much better shape than he looks.
9) Do not comment on this to Mat, he is a mean sadistic man, and it only fuels his need to punish those who ride with him.
8) When someone admits that no one will do a bike packing expedition with them, and that you’re the first, take this as a warning that maybe there’s a reason for this.
7) Mat pretends sympathy fairly well. He gloats even better.
6) Weight on the bike is easier to carry than weight on the back, while riding a bike.
5) Take only enough water as necessary. Ten gallons (or what feels like it) in a backpack, while on an “two hour” ride, is excessive to the point of searing lower back pain.
4) Before going on an extended ride for multiple days, don’t take a two month break from bike riding.
3) If you insist on taking a break from riding, or it’s forced upon you, do not try to tackle a bike packing trip, without getting in some reintroduction rides first. Try riding an hour or two with the expected weight and load distribution once or twice before the actual trip.
2) Bring some sort of pain medicine, Tylenol, Aspirin, Ibuprofen, something. You will appreciated it.
And the number one lesson learned from this trip.
1) There’s a reason I haven’t been on an “Adventure with Mat” for over five years!