Category Archives: Outdoor Adventures

Day 5 – Epic Bike Adventure

Annawan to the Mississippi River    34 miles

20160611_121355_001_resizedOur last day on the Grand Illinois Trail was supposed to be easier. We left our heavy saddlebags at the hotel and planned to pick them up as we drove back.

We didn’t even get out of Best Western’s parking lot…and Dot got a flat. Luckily, a gas station was next door. We were eager to test our  new tire-changing skills and must have been a sight….four colorful women with our heads together over a stubborn tire. A number of men stopped to offer assistance, but we said it was a “girl thing” and wanted to do it ourselves. A curious store clerk came out to offer us water. Kathy, an unofficial Annawan representative, stopped to watch our progress and asked about our trip. She took our picture for a newspaper article. Continue reading

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Day 4 – Epic Bike Adventure

Spring Valley to Annawan on the Hennepin Canal Trail – 40 Miles

20160611_121355_001_resizedMy day started at 4:20 AM when my husband texted to say Hello. Arrggh!  I didn’t reply, but saw a news article pop up…..  “Men rape women at Spring Valley motel.” There is only one motel in Spring Valley, and we were in it. I didn’t share that bit of information with the girls until later.

Breakfast consisted of leftover pizza and a granola bar. We got on the road about 7:30 and had to pedal like mad back two miles south on Rt. 29, fighting with semi-trucks, school buses, and dump trucks in a hurry. Rt. 29 turned west, but the traffic let up only slightly. Near DePue, the road became dangerous as it got hilly and twisted through wooded areas, in and out of sunlight. We frequently stopped or rode in the gravel. A truck passed Nancy S. and me, leaving us little room, as we wobbled up a long hill. He gunned his engine and apparently didn’t see other Nancy and Dot ahead in the shadows. With a school bus in the opposite lane, he slammed on his brakes to avoid hitting them. His truck shuddered and his tires smoked. We took a long break.

After about thirteen miles, Rt. 29 became more rural as it turned southwest through Bureau County. We spotted a rustic lodge, Jonesy’s IMG_0706Ranch House Lounge and Motel, and stopped in hopes of having a real breakfast. Two men were working on building repairs and informed us that the restaurant part was not in business. At first they seemed leery of us, but then invited us in to fill our water bottles. Nice guys. Their location had a beautiful view of Lake Rawson. It may or may not be open the next time one looks for a place to stay in Bureau County. I wish I had known it was there.

20160524_095410The Hennepin Canal trailhead was a short distance away. There is a well-kept parking lot and good bathrooms on site. Postings on the bulletin board listed the closed portions of the trail. I had been warned on FB by a Friend of the Hennepin Canal (Bruce Perry) that law enforcement sometimes issued tickets to bikers who ignored the closed trail signs. We all voted that we’d handle the ticket rather than change our route. 

The first lock is well kept with a good bridge over the canal. We rode around the Trail Closed sign onto the gravel trail. The fishing must be good in along this stretch. Fishermen stationed themselves at almost every lock and a bald eagle kept watch for his chance at a fish from the top of a tree across the canal.

When we came to the first serious wash out, Dot slowed down in front of me on what was left of the trail. I had the choice of hitting the hole and concrete slab, tipping into the IMG_6746canal on the right, or heading for the ditch on the left. I chose to glide gracefully into the ditch and rolled through the waist high weeds for ten feet before stepping off my bike. Nancy was kind enough to take my pictures as I hauled my bike back onto the trail.

The Hennepin locks, canal, and the water flow are in better shape than the I&M Canal. I suppose because the canal was built late and used less commercially. It has been maintained as a recreational asset for almost all of its existence….and it’s beautiful. I understand why Friends of the Hennepin work so hard to campaign to have it maintained and funded. I very much enjoyed the profusion of wild flowers along most of the route. Spring cress, spiderwort, cow parsnip…..interspersed with poison ivy and nettles.

Riding was fairly easy, though I believe for several miles it was a slight incline as the water flowed from west to east. I had hoped that the water flowed west to the Mississippi. At each of the 29 locks and at some road crossings, the trail went up steeply. Each of those inclines were made difficult by the addition of deep sand and/or gravel to the surface. 

20160524_115201My favorite site, about four miles west of Tiskila, is Lock 16, which has been restored and is made of huge wooden beams. Other wooden locks have rotted out and allow water to gush through gaping holes.

The eastern part of the Hennepin has few towns and fewer amenities. I had assumed water would be more available. Wrong. The day was hot, and we ran short on water too soon. A passing cyclist told us we had already passed several restaurants in Tiskilwa, but we hadn’t seen any indication that the town was there. 20160524_123955We continued on to Wyanet and the promised BBQ shop. A friendly jogger pointed us into the town about a mile north of the trail, but said the BBQ place was gone. The Disaster Shack and their handmade burgers and chocolate milk shakes made a great substitute. We loved the place and the owner, Donna.

Donna saved us a mile or two by directing us west on Rt.6/34 about two miles to catch the trail, rather than backtracking. Seven miles later and again looking for water, we stopped at the Hennepin Visitors Center in Sheffield, but was disappointed to find it closed. Their hours vary, so call ahead. (815-454-2328)  I scouted around the building and filled our water bottles from a garden hose spigot.

IMG_6771Tunnels were another interesting aspect of the trail. Large metal culverts brought the trail under many roads. They provided relief from the sun, but the difference between sunshine outside and shadows inside the tunnel made it impossible to see what the trail surface looked like. In one such tunnel the surface was corrugated mud ruts. Just in front of me, Dot lost control of her bike and, to warn me, yelled quite calmly, “I’m going down!”  Her bike hit the side wall, but she hopped from her bike without falling.

The Grand Illinois Trail website gives good maps and cue sheets for the route, including bridge numbers and streets that cross the trail. That would have been useful to know beforehand. The bridges have green signs on them stating their number, but not all streets have signs. Instead, I kept track of mileage to get our location. We stumbled upon the correct road and climbed out of the trail to Rt. 78 into Annawan to find our hotel for the night.

The Best Western Annawan is terrific. The host greeted us nicely, gave us two great rooms, each with two queen beds. He also opened the food area to give us water, juice, and fruit. Much appreciated.

20160524_192827After a hot, eight-hour, forty-mile day, we didn’t feel like getting on our bikes again, so for dinner, we walked a half mile to Mick’s Place (connected to Z Best restaurant). Friendly waitress,  great margaritas, and tasty fish and fries. Later, we played cards in the hotel lobby, but called it a night at 9:00.

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Day 3 – Epic Bike Adventure

Day Three. Morris to Spring Valley – Fifty miles 

After yesterday’s blow out, we patched Nancy’s tire so she could ride to the bike shop20160523_100007where she had both tires replaced. Upon leaving the store, other Nancy suddenly got a flat and had to get a new tube. We didn’t ride out of Morris until 10:00 AM.

The inebriated cyclist we met yesterday showed up at the bike shop, still under the influence, and gave us useful information about a trail collapse in Gebhard Woods. We rode residential streets to by-pass the problem and get to the next access point. 

The Nancies opted to stay on the Old Stage Coach 20160523_102416_001Road for the ride to Seneca, but the traffic was too intense for me and Dot. We chose to follow the I&M Trail. Tranquility and shade were our reward, but we also struggled over long stretches of loose, teeth-chattering gravel.

 

The going was tough, so we rolled into Seneca fifteen minutes behind the others. In20160523_113110_001 Seneca, a little pavilion next to the trail was perfect for our needs, and a Casey’s convenience store next door provided water, ice, air, and bathrooms. Lunch consisted of a buffet of snack foods we carried from home: PB&J in a big jar, Slim Jims, prunes, Goldfish, candy, cookies, and my granola bars. Not everyone tried to travel light.  I was disappointed we were unable to find Seneca’s advertised canal museum and continued on our way.

We had planned to visit every town to get a feel for each, but time became a constraint. 20160523_131115Someday I’ll get back to Marsailles. An attractive mural on a building next to the trail says it’s a great place to visit. We met a young cyclist weighed down with huge saddlebags. He said he had ridden from Chicago and was headed for Buffalo State Park, camping along the way. Dot lectured him about the evils of body piercing, but he took it with good humor.

On the other side of Marsailles the trail became less well-maintained. A signed stated the trail was closed due to high water. We found the ground was slippery and muddy, but passable. Further on, a large tree lay across the trail, but we hoisted our bikes over and moved on. Another seven miles brought us to the outskirts of Ottawa where we promised ourselves lunch. It was about 2:00 and I was famished. A young female jogger directed us to the best route into town and advised us on the choice of restaurants. We left the trail from a bridge overlooking a large park. A steep ramp brought us down to river level where an attractive water playground enticed Nancy S to take off her shoes and socks and join the children under the sprinklers. Ottawa’s downtown is very attractive, but we were short on time. After a good lunch at Obee’s Deli, we headed for the trail and promptly got lost by following two different GPS units. Several people offered directions, and after we finally listened, we found the trail easily.

IMG_0703We had been warned by several people about a completely washed out bridge near Buffalo State Park, four miles out of Ottawa. To continue on the trail, one had to cross the creek on a wooden plank. We envisioned a rickety plank over rushing water several feet below. A route on Dee Bennet Road was suggested to detour around the scary prospect of walking the plank, but we opted to stay on the trail to see what would happen. The bridge was indeed gone. To cross the creek we had to maneuver down a steep, rutted embankment. As I walked my bike down the hill, gravity and the weight of my gear took over and my bike got away from me. I got entangled with the bike and sustained a number of bruises. In comparison to the descent, walking the two planks over shallow water was nothing. 

Utica welcomes cyclists with shelters, places to sit, and a bike repair station, complete with an air hose and tools. A water fountain would have been wonderful. Water can be found at a spigot outside the restroom building at a nearby baseball field. Four plus miles 20160523_180352_001further, I was thrilled to see a full-size 1850‘s canal barge moored to the dock in LaSalle. Re-enactors were closing up for the day and had already put their mule into the nearby stable. We visited with the costumed barge crew (two twenty-ish young men) who talked about what they do and how the barge tours work. They confirmed that we should leave the trail at that point and gave us directions through LaSalle. 

On maps the route through LaSalle and Peru looked easy. Boy, was I wrong. Odd turns, extremely steep hills, and fast traffic gave us a hard time. On the west side of Peru, a pizza delivery guy at Casey’s warned us to stay off the suggested Rt 6 into Spring Valley because police would stop cyclists for their own safety. He confirmed what my map showed… a short cut to by-pass Spring Valley and take us to our motel a mile or two north. The short cut was quieter, but miles of hills had us gasping for breath.

All the while I worried that IMG_6737the Spring Valley Inn would be closed or full or unacceptable. Communications with them had been poor and they didn’t take reservations. After a longer than expected ride through farm country, we found the motel with only fifteen minutes of daylight left. We were too exhausted to care about the quality of the inn, but it wasn’t bad.  No amenities were nearby, so we ordered pizza and enjoyed the canned margaritas Dot picked up at the last Casey’s. After fifty miles and a ten hour day, we were ready to turn in early.

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Day 2-Epic Bike Adventure

 

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We had ridden thirty-seven miles on Day 1 of our bike ride across Illinois, so we decided forty miles per day was our goal as we continued our journey 200 miles to the Mississippi River. The map didn’t cooperate. Towns along the Grand Illinois Trail in central and western Illinois, were not spaced in neat forty-mile increments. Many towns had no motels or restaurants, or the amenities were more than a mile off the trail. Plans changed and made me question by abilities. I was worried! Could I bike a fifty mile day? Ouch.IMG_6656

Day Two. (38 miles. New Lenox to Morris) – Helpful husbands send us off.

The next leg of our epic bicycle adventure began in New Lenox on the familiar Old Plank Trail on a cool, sunny day in late May. We chose a Sunday morning so that the streets of Joliet would be quiet.

 

I was nervous about the whole trip, but need not have worried about Joliet. 20160522_094141_001Traffic was light. Friendly, helpful people were curious about the four colorfully-dressed ladies riding loaded bicycles through their neighborhoods.

I also enjoyed the historic buildings and amazing bridges over the Des Plaines River.

 

Beyond Joliet, we picked up the I & M Canal Trail. I loved the natural beauty of the canal and towpath as we rode from Rockdale to Channahon, where we stopped for lunch, and then rode on to Morris. 20160522_132029

The trail was in good condition and had good access points, information kiosks, and many users. We enjoyed seeing the locks and reading about their history all along that section of trail.

 

 

After about eight hours on the road (did I mention we were slow?), we celebrated with a cold beer at a biker bar before being guided to our motel by an inebriated cyclist. Perfect!IMG_0652

But we celebrated too soon. On the way to Walmart for supplies, Nancy S. discovered a large tear in her bike tire. Walmart had no tires and the only bike shop in town was closed until morning.IMG_0657

We had tasty gyros in the Morris Diner and then played cards in the tiny eating area at the Super 8 before putting our tired bodies into bed.

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Epic Biking Adventure

Have you ever felt the need for an epic adventure to spice up your life?

20160415_142326That’s how I felt last November when I met Nancy S. for a dainty lunch at the tea shop in Frankfort. We decided to bicycle across Illinois even though bicycling was relatively new to us. (First, I had to buy a bike.)  The Grand Illinois Trail sounded like a perfect route for beginners, and I figured the two-hundred mile trip could be broken up into forty-mile segments to be doable. Right? Not quite. Continue reading

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