Day 3 – First Annual Cross Florida MTB Challenge

October 21, 2009 Day 3 – Ocala to Yankeetown

The stale air in our room made the day seem long in coming. Once up, we grabbed some dilute coffee and a stale bagel from the lobby and started to pack our stuff. Problems started early as I awoke to the sight of both of my tires being completely flat. We had planned to ride to the Santos bike shop so I could buy more tubes, and some Tuffy tire liners or new tires. But now I was going to have to scramble just to get my bike to the shop. Unfortunately I did not have enough patches to fix the several leaks found and had to run around the streets of Ocala in my flip-flops looking for a patch kit. The AutoZone and CVS where closed but I did find a patch kit at a locally owned convenience store. This kit was a bit odd as all the patches were very stiff and thick. Fortunately, I was able to patch a tube with this kit and had my bike rolling by 9AM.

Craig rushing to fix tires
Craig rushing to fix tires

Because we had decided to go into downtown Ocala to make sure of finding a motel, the Santos bike shop and the Santos bike trails were five miles to the south on US301. US301 had a sidewalk for a few miles but we where quickly forced to ride on the shoulder of this busy high-speed highway. After about 2.5 miles of US301 madness, Ken did find some side streets that could get us to the south. Just when we thought we were home free, the only street that seems to go through ended at a gate with a no trespassing sign! But again our luck held for as we paused to figure out our next move, a lady came out of her house to collect the little yapping dog at our feet and told us that the street did go through and that most people just ignore the gate and sign. So we did the same and quickly made our way to the Santos bike shop.

Arriving at the shop was such a relief, for even though I had put tremendous effort into patching my tires this morning, my front was slowly leaking the entire way down US301. I had to stop several times to add more air. Once at the shop I knew my troubles were over. I bought six tubes, two patch kits, Tuffy tire liners, and energy bars. The tire liners where not the width I wanted but I thought they would work. Spending the next thirty minutes in the bike shop parking lot, I threw away all the old tubes, outfit both my tires with new tubes and liners, and restocked my bags with new tubes and candy bars. With the burden of flat tires removed, I was beginning to relax again.

The girl at the shop directed us to a trail that left out of the back of the shop and connected with the main Santos trails. This was news to us and it was much better than riding the roads back to a trail crossing. Since it was already 10AM, we didn’t bother to look for breakfast and decided to take the most direct route through the Santos and Greenway trails so that we could maybe make up some time and have a little sunlight for exploring areas unknown to us.

About to cross the landbridge
About to cross the landbridge
Land Bridge over I75
Land Bridge over I75

Being familiar with the Santos trails, nothing exceptional happened and we smoothly made our way to where the trails cross CR484, our previous furthest west on these trails. From here on we had never been on any of the Greenway trails and no actual bike trails yet exist. Hiking and Horse trails do exist and a limerock road is available. Not wishing to bother any hikers or sample the joy of riding on the sandy horse trails, we stuck to the limerock road.  The road made for a wonderfully relaxing and enjoyable ride. This road would make a great place to ride with cyclists of all levels and the scenery is worth the trip. From CR484 we headed through the Greenway looking at the forest that clings to to ridge lines that border the old barge canal diggings and finally came upon sweeping views across Ross Prairie and SR200. At this road crossing we could see a convenience store to the north and rode up to get more food and water. We were not on the hard road more than 100 meters when both of my tires started to go flat. I did ride through a few patches of sandspurs and I guess the hard pavement pushed the thorns the final little bit into my tubes. By the time we reached the store, I was riding on my rim.

Craig at SR200 fixing tires
Craig at SR200 fixing tires

We purchased lots of food and water and while Ken patiently rested in the shade of an Oak tree, Craig fixed both of his tires, finding many sand spur thorns embedded in them. The tire liners had worked but since they were about a centimeter too narrow, the thorns were able to find a home on the outer edge of the tread. Why didn’t I buy new tires at Santos? New tubes in and we are ready to go. Back onto the Carr Greenway and across the Ross Prairie, we initially had to search for the trail and we wiggled and weaved through the trees and dried up marshland until we stumbled back upon our limerock road. It is clear that the road hits SR200 south of where we hit SR200 when coming from the East. Once back on the road, we found one of the old canal digging areas had stayed treeless and was a very pretty prairie.

Pretty little Prairie in the canal diggings
Pretty little prairie in the canal diggings
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Ken on the prairie

The road now traveled over some amazingly beautiful areas with clumps of large oak trees, cypress trees in the low spots, and Slash pine on the canal ridges. Several spots had ancient live oaks forming cathedral-like clearings under their heavy branches.  Ken took this picture of a magnificent spot that has Live oaks growing over a shallow creek-like depression. These oaks form long canopied tunnels with soft under growth that was tempting us to take a break and fall asleep for forty or so years. This grove is something out of a fairy tale that could be part of Narnia or even Alice’s Wonderland.

Wonderland in Florida
Wonderland in Florida

We next stumbled upon a Stonehenge like memorial to a twenty-something Pruitt that had died in the crash of a small airplane. A ring of boulders just off the road and under the canopy of several ancient live oaks, memorializes the young Pruitt whose promising life was cut short. He must have been much loved as the Pruitt family has donated this property to the state for use in the Greenway Project.

Pruitt Memorial
Pruitt Memorial

After the memorial, the trees gave way to open pasture and to the end of the lime rock road at the Pruitt trailhead of the Florida Greenway. The Pruitt trailhead is the most westerly Greenway trailhead on the east side of Dunnellon and is made up of a parking area, horse corral, port-a-john, and a trail notice bulletin board. This trailhead marked the point where we had a difficult choice to make. Should we leave the Greenway and head into the legendary dangers presented by CR484 or should we try to work our way through the unknown roads and trails of the Halpata Preserve? The SR484 route would be fast but not much fun and the Halpata route would slow and fun. Or, at least it had some potential to be fun. Unfortunately, all my flat tires and our underestimating how long it would take to get to the coast answered the question for us. If we hoped to get to Yankeetown before dark, we had to take the fastest route and leave the Halpata route for another day. So we got onto CR484 and the tremendous number of high-speed trucks, trailers, and cars did not give any relief until we arrived at the Rainbow River just east of Dunnellon.

Rainbow River
Rainbow River

At the bridge over the Rainbow we paused and took a few pictures of the beautiful blue waters of this marvelous spring fed run that during the summer is packed shore to shore with swimmers on inner-tubes drifting on the cold water in the hot sun. We continued on for about a quarter mile but I again had a flat and we decided to retreat to the cool shade on the banks of the Rainbow so I could fix my tires in relative comfort. While waiting, Ken distracted himself by studying the local teenagers as they beached themselves and he tried desperately to understand their not so subtle verbal and non-verbal attempts to attract the attention of the members of their peer group while simultaneously staying completely invisible to spandex wearing old men on the shore.

On the road again and we do not get out of Dunnellon before I have another flat! At this point I’m a crazed maniac and can just barely bring myself to fix the tire. But we rode to the gate that guarded our best non-paved road, sat in the shade and again fixed my tires. I was so mad that I would have been happy to jump the gate and trespass on this hunting lease and dare anybody to try to stop me. Ken however was more calm and after talking with a local decided that we should abandon the “damn-it-all” route and stay on the hard road until we got to the next public access at Goethe State Forest.

Luck was on our side as we hammered down SR40 to the west of Dunnellon. The traffic was light and not nearly as scary as CR484. This road was the usual Florida highway with the usual oak and pine forest along its edges, pretty but nothing special. Taking a turn to the north at CR336, we expected logging trucks and boat trailer but only got a few cars and pickup trucks. Now we were heading into the “The Gulf Hammock” famous for moonshine, lumber, and good-ole-boy police and politicians. We had no trouble finding the road that ran along the southern edge of Goethe State Forest and it was nice to be off the pavement and back into the woods.

This forest had a different character than those we had previously traversed. Maybe it was the setting sun but the woods seemed more ominous, darker somehow, even a little bit mangled. Somehow the forest did not seem natural but was more like an inadvertent result of man’s activities. Probably all Florida forests are the result of man’s activities but, except for the wetland areas, this one had a twisted look and feel. However, the road through the forest was straight and well maintained and we made good progress. About halfway across the forest, we came upon a dark, dank, dreary hunting camp filled with old molding campers, trailers, and mobile homes. It appeared to be inhabited and was tightly packed under the gnarled limbs of 80 foot pines and 200 year old oaks. This decrepit collection of temporary shelters had not seen the light of day for many years and now it was too late for the light to do anything but make more obvious the grouping’s condition. We pedaled faster in hopes of getting past the camp before any of the resident trolls noticed us. My front tire began to slowly leak but I refused to fix it and just stopped every few miles to add more air. :-( As we began to get close to the west side of the forest, we could hear in the distance the noise from the vehicles on US19 and knew we would soon be done with Goethe.

However, the road suddenly became rough, narrow, and closely covered by overhanging limbs (not a good sign!). Then the road ended at a gate with the requisite signage: No trespassing – Trespassers will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. At this point I was ready to just jump the fence and get out of the woods before the sun set and the werewolf or whatever gave this forest its crooked vibes came out out to play. Ken, as he is known to do, made an amazing navigational leap of faith that was both crazy and incredibly intuitive. We had seen a small unmaintained road split off to the northwest about half a mile back and Ken suspected that this road would be forced to stay in that direction because on the west it had private property and on the east it had a tremendous swamp. If it stayed in this direction, then it would surely intersect with a clearly marked road to our north that would lead us out to US19. I again suggested that we just trespass. Amazingly, the road did continue in the same northwesterly direction, it had been recently mowed by someone that probably uses it to gain access to his hunting lease, and it sure enough took us directly to the clearly marked road to our north.

Popping out of the forest at Cedars of Lebanon Cemetery we thanked the pioneers of long ago for build a cemetery in the woods that would later require private landowners to allow public access to the cemetery thus granting us a legal way to escape. The proposed route had us staying on US19 for only a half mile before heading into Gulf Hammock on the many dirt roads that criss-cross it.  But having never been on these roads, and since a local told us, “Don’t go that way”, and with darkness about 45 minutes away, we decided to just get this trip over with and hammer down the hard road into Yankeetown.

The trip down US19 was not as bad as I expected. We had a wide shoulder and not much traffic. Turning right onto SR40A we cruised that last few miles into Yankeetown without a problem. I figured we would look for a bar and have a drink to celebrate but Ken noticed the entrance to the Withlacoochee Salt Marsh Park. We had never heard of it before and it was a pleasant surprise and a great way to end our trip. The park road carries you out into the saltmarsh and has a visitor center with facilities and a board walk. At the end of the road is a observation tower and picnic area. It is a beautiful park with great educational opportunities for young and old. It does an excellent job of showing off the transition from the freshwater tidal swamp into the coastal saltmarsh. The sunset over the marsh from the top of the observation deck was worth the trip.

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Salt Marsh Park Observation Tower
Ken on the tower
Ken on the tower
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Withlacoochee Salt Marsh

After our visit to the park, darkness was complete.