Day 2 – First Annual Cross Florida MTB Challenge

October 20, 2009 Day 2 – Astor to Ocala

This morning was again a perfect day for any outdoor activity. We had no compelling reason to stay in our cell block any longer than necessary and quickly packed our stuff, left the key on the table, and hit the road looking for an open store to get some food.

Astor had nothing to offer for breakfast so we stayed on SR40 for the short distance to the equally small town of Astor Park. Once there we found an open BP station that had a built-in Subway sandwich shop that also served breakfast. Ken and I ordered a surprisingly good breakfast of eggs, cheese, muffins, etc. and then loaded up with water, ice, Gatorade, and candy bars. We met two old guys setting on a bench in the front of the store and they volunteered directional information that was very useful for anyone driving a car or truck but a bit scary for anyone on a bike. We explained that we wished to stay off paved roads and planned to cross the Ocala National Forest on the forest roads or on trails. They did not seem too hopeful and repeated their paved road route.

From the BP station the planned route lay just south of SR40 and followed an old railroad grade that has been converted to a powerline. We made several attempts to get onto the grade but we always found our way blocked by either a fenced yard full of junk and bulldogs or by tall brush and horrible trail conditions.  We decided to move on and stayed on SR40 to CR445A and from there were able to pick up the desired route as it entered the Ocala National Forest on FR528.

Ocala National Forest Entrance
Ocala National Forest Entrance

Travel on FR528 was excellent. It felt great to be off the hard road and into the forest. After a few miles we crossed SR19 and then arrived at Camp Ocala, a 4-H center on the shores of Sellers Lake. The place looked abandoned except for a guy kicking the side of a full-sized van. He didn’t look like a car thief but maybe we should have been more suspicious. At the back side of the 4-H center the road ended at a fence with no-trespassing signs. We could see that the road continued on the other side of the this property but we didn’t want to make a 400 meter dash without the cover of trees.  So we backtracked to the nearest southbound trail and started searching for a way around. It didn’t take long to find the west-bound FR595-2. This road had a good clay base and I was confident that we would now get across the forest without trouble. However, we saw an interesting sign and had to explore.

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Getting very comfortable jumping gates

The sign told us that Buck Lake campground was down this road and that a reservation was necessary to use it. We had to crawl under the gate but since we were on public land I didn’t think anyone would mind. The campground was beautiful, the lake was gorgeous, and I would like to come back and camp here someday.  Maybe, if we can get a larger group of riders for next years Challenge, we can reserve the campground. The map showed that Buck Lake had lots of hiking trails around it and we planned to take advantage of them. Now that we had taken the road to Buck Lake we could not possibly backtrack to the nice clay road that we had left. Instead the new plan was to take the trails until a secondary forest road could be found that headed west and was not hip deep in sugar sand.

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Buck Lake
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Ken waiting for Craig at Buck Lake

At Buck Lake I noticed that both of my tires were going flat! Ken was forced to wait for me as I changed one tube and then discovered that my second tube was defective. Actually, the second tube had been in my bike bag for so long that it had a hole worn through it. I took one of Ken’s, fixed the problem and we headed down the hiking trail to the west of the lake. These trails were fun and had good traction, lots of shade, and an occasional view of the lake. Alas, these trails quickly stopped heading west and we had to make other plans.

Ken on the Buck Lake Trails
Ken on the Buck Lake Trails

We hopped on a secondary forest road but found that it was too sandy for us to make any real progress. My topo map showed a few trails in this area and we figured that a trail would have less travel and therefore be less sandy. We did find less sand but also found that the less traveled trail, although interesting and beautiful, had a few hurdles to negotiate.

Very tired of hurdling the fallen trees
Hurdling the fallen trees

We lifted our bikes over a thousand blown down sand pines while the living trees, blown by the wind, popped and moaned above our heads. Finally, we broke out onto a trail that, although a bit sandy, could be rolled. In the sandy spots we could see an array of animal tracks: raccoon, opossum, deer, fox, dog, human, and even bear! No other sign of bears was found but it was discovered that raccoons tend to poop in the middle of all roads and trails.

Bear Track
Bear Track

We were now officially in the Big Scrub of the Ocala National Forest. Although we were not more than five miles from a paved road, this area had a very wild feel to it.  The signs of human impact were everywhere but the place was dry and unforgiving and did not make you feel welcome. Getting this feeling has to be the best reason to do a ride such as this one and I did not have it anywhere else during the entire ride.

Fighting through the sand we finally made it back to the planned route on FR584A. This road was the expected well maintained clay based road that traversed the southern border of the Navy’s Pinecastle Impact Range. This range is the only place on the East Coast that the Navy can do live bombing practice.  The area is unfenced but the signs posting warnings such as “Unexploded Ordnance,” and “Active Laser Ranging” are enough to keep me out.

The planned route had us leave the nice forest road and start to cross the western side of the forest using secondary roads and trails. The first trail we hit was terribly sandy and we had to push our bikes for the entire half-mile. Once back out onto a real road, we swore to never do that again. But the next secondary road looked like it had a solid clay base and its temptations were too much to resist. It lead us down into what the map called “The Volusia Bear Hole.” How can you resist a road that takes you to a place with that name? The “Bear Hole” indeed had many bear tracks but at its center there was nothing but a dried up mud hole and the remnants of several weekend parties: beer cans, bottles, burned wood, and trash. However, the worst sight was that to the west of the “Bear Hole” the road had been destroyed by logging equipment that had recently clear-cut about five square miles of forest. The road was still there but it was a plowed up mess of clean, dry, powdery sugar sand! One point five miles of the stuff. We trudged through the shadeless clear-cut pushing our bikes wishing for death. But death never came and the sand did end. And this time, when we finally hit the next good road, our “never do that again” oath stuck.

Miles and Miles of Sand
Miles and Miles of Sand
Recovering from "Bear Hole" Sand Pit
Recovering after “Bear Hole” Sand Pit

The sand had taken its toll on our energy stores so we took a break to eat, drink, shake the sand out of our clothes, and I had to fix another flat tire. Swearing never to get stuck in sand again, we bailed on the proposed route through the lakes of the western forest and just hammered down the clay and lime rock forest roads until we made to our first paved road in many hours. 182nd Ave Rd is a paved forest road on the west side of the forest but it was our only way out. Fortunately, we only had to stay on it for the three miles to the Sunnyhill Restoration Area.

I expected Sunnyhill to have water and at least a port-a-john but was sadly mistaken. Our water was getting low but since we knew that a store was probably only five miles away and that the route through Sunnyhill would only take twenty minutes, we stayed on the planned route. Or, we thought we were on the planned route. For some reason Ken and I were unable to reconcile the Sunnyhill trail map with our view of the world. We followed what was thought to be the Red trail and hoped something would start to look familiar. At this point another of my tires went flat and I sat down in the grass and bitterly fixed the problem. It was now that my bitching and whining began and the flats were beginning to be not only a pain in my ass but also a legitimate impediment to the success of this ride. The sun was getting low and we had many miles until we reached Ocala. Getting a flat every three miles was not going to get us home in time for dinner!

Okay, flat fixed and we are off. Yes, off the trail! Why can’t we follow our own advice? And the irony is that Ken and I are the most conservative travelers of anyone in our little group of friends. No sooner did we give up looking for the trail shown on the map than we went off on another bushwhack to find it. Fortunately, this bushwhack ended quickly when our trail dead-ended into a nasty marsh on the edge of the Ocklawaha River.

Once back on the main trail, we took it to its northern extreme and found we had the Ocklawaha Marsh to our left, a huge ditch in front, and a giant ditch to our right. Dude, we were screwed. But let me tell you that practicing the Golden Rule my entire life totally paid off on this day for just as I was about to call a retreat, Ken discovered a large oak tree conveniently growing over the giant ditch and it offered us its one big limb to use as a bridge.

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Ken uses the miracle tree to carry the bikes across the giant ditch

Once over the ditch, there was an easy trek out to 182 Ave. Rd. Still scratching our heads as to how we missed the trail that the Sunnyhill map so clearly showed, we rode to Moss Bluff and licked our wounds at Meador’s Corner Grocery. We topped up our Camelbacks with water and Gatorade, made sure we had enough energy bars, and ate a delicious bag of potato chips.

The only store in Moss Bluff
The only store in Moss Bluff

We took SR314A to the west but were quickly stopped by both of my tires going flat! I’m out of tubes so we pull off into the Moss Bluff Baptist Church parking lot and begin to patch all the tubes.  Ken found a working water faucet and then two wonderful ladies came out of the church and gave us a bucket. With a bucket full of water, finding and patching the leaks was a breeze. I finally realized that my flats were caused entirely by sand spurs and only appeared when I had been riding on a paved road. My theory is that the sand spurs stick into the tire while on the trail but do not puncture the tire and tube until the hard road hammers them home.  My tire choice was obviously a poor one. Thinking that we would mainly be on well maintained dirt roads or pavement, I selected my best rolling but thinnest tires. Never ride offroad with mountain bike XC race tires!

After wasting about an hour between a food stop and fixing more flats, we finally got out of Moss Bluff and headed toward the Ocklawaha Prairie Restoration Area. The original plan was to explore the extent of the dike road and determine if a future ride would be able to cross the small ditch to the north of the Prairie and then proceed across Heather Island and through Marshall Swamp. But it was about to get dark and we had to modify that plan. We did find time to explore the Prairie entrance on SE 137 Ave. Rd. and visit the boardwalk that takes you out into the Restoration Area. This boardwalk stretched a half mile out into the prairie (actually more like a wet marsh). Since no other person was seen, we rode our bikes to the end of the walk, snapped a few pictures, and continued on our way. This day was starting to get very long and we were still had ten tough miles before it was over.

Ocklawaha Prairie Entrance
Ocklawaha Prairie Entrance
Ocklawaha Prairie Boardwalk
Ocklawaha Prairie Boardwalk

SE 137 Ave. Rd. is a very nice dirt road that has unexpectedly fine scenery. Besides the Ocklawaha Prairie, this road also borders the National Forest and a wildlife management area. Whether by bike or car this road is worth the trip. We did not tarry on this road and hammered toward the Marshall Swamp with hopes of getting across it before darkness made it more difficult. When we hit Hwy 314 the sun was just barely above the trees; we crossed the Ocklawaha River at Sharp’s Ferry and dashed into the Marshall Swamp via the excellent hiking trail found where the Carr Greenway crosses Hwy. 314. This hiking trail is another must-see section of the Greenway but because we would be battling the coming darkness and the fact that biking on this trail is not very polite, it was difficult to enjoy.

Bridge over Ocklawaha at Sharp's Ferry
Bridge over Ocklawaha at Sharp’s Ferry
Craig in the Marshall Swamp
Craig in the Marshall Swamp

But the lime rock path through the Marshall Swamp was enjoyable and the dense, wet forest has a spooky-old-tree feeling that is hard to resist and I soon began to see and hear the ghosts that must be living in this small remnant of Florida wetland. Once finished with the hiking trail we had a little trouble finding the entrance to the Baseline paved bike trail area of the Greenway. With our usual luck and guess work we finally stumbled upon the hiking trail heading west and followed it until the paved trails appeared. This paved trail area is surrounded by neighborhoods and I hope the residents appreciate the treasure they have in their back yards.

Even with darkness closing in, we saw many groups of people enjoying the cool evening. This was the first time in two days that we had seen more than three humans at a time and it was nice to have them enjoying the outdoors with us. Now our problem was to find a place to sleep. At the Baseline Trailhead darkness became complete and we stopped to use the facilities, put on our bike lights, and plan our route through the streets of Ocala. To be assured that we could find a motel, we planned to head west to US301 but did not want to travel on the major highways. From the maps we had, it appeared that none of the secondary roads went through to US301 and we were all done with jumping fences and crossing railroad tracks. Using his strips of Gazeeteer maps, Ken found a sure-fire route that took us halfway back up the Baseline trails and exited at the Banyan St. trailhead. From there we could zig-zag to the northwest until 17th street could carry us to US301 in the middle of Ocala. It was a bit out of our way but gave us a 100% chance of finding a motel. Before we even got to the Banyan Trailhead, my bike light started to dim and my front tire started to go flat! At the corner of Baseline and 28th St. we stopped again so I could sort out my light problem and fix my flat tire. It turned out that in my rush to leave the Baseline Trailhead and the stress of not knowing which route we should take, I had put a battery in backward. Once it was flipped around, my light was going full strength. Fixing the tire had become a dull routine and I’m sure Ken was sick of riding with someone who not only whined about flat tires but also delayed our travels. I’m fairly certain that my flats not only prevented us from exploring many of the areas we planned to explore but also cost us two hours of travel time.

Finally on the move, we hammered down the hard roads and quickly find ourselves on US301 and directly across the street from the Ocala Inn. The lady at the desk was briefly startled when I walked in but once she saw my smile and small stature, the dried blood on my legs and arms no longer caused her concern. We booked a room and thanked our lucky stars that Ken’s route took us through some nice areas of Ocala and not through the ‘Hood. The Ocala Inn is a dump and probably typical of low end hotels in Ocala. However, had the air-conditioner been able to keep the air quality at a level slightly better than “damp armpit”, I would have been very comfortable. After a quick shower and a change of clothes we walked to the “Ocala Ale House” for a very pleasant meal and a few beers. We did not arrive at our hotel until 9PM and did not get to bed until 11:30PM. This was a long adventurous day only slightly spoiled by the constant chorus of flat tires.