Day 1 – First Annual Cross Florida MTB Challenge

October 19, 2009 Day 1 – Ormond Beach to Astor

This says it all
This says it all

Not wanting to start such a long bike ride without a good breakfast we rode south on A1A to Alfie’s Restaurant. It is just a little breakfast place about three miles south of the Ocean Crest Motel. The food was the usual stuff but it filled us up.  Here is a picture of poor Alfie. Legend has it that he swam across Bulow Creek to get to the beach and the easy living found among the nesting sea turtles only to be run over by a vacationing Canadian! Hopefully this short allegory does not hold any predictions for our bike ride.

Poor Alfie
Poor Alfie

Now the challenge begins! We rode north on A1A until the entrance to North Peninsula State Park was located. Turning west we traveled through the park and into Bulow Creek State Park. Bulow Park has beautiful scenery along its only paved road. This road is often included in the route of this area’s bike rides. Bulow Park was quickly behind us and we began to get into the dreaded and gated “Rich Yankee” communities. I am still wondering which is worse: poor trailer trash with the requisite broken-truck lawn ornaments, leaking septic tank, and bad attitude or the rich golf club member with the boring over-fertilized over-watered lawn, sense of entitlement, and bad attitude.

Happy in Bulow Creek State Park
Happy in Bulow Creek State Park
North Peninsula State Park
North Peninsula State Park

We connected to the Old Dixie Hwy., merged with US1, and briefly headed north until my GPS let me know that it was time to get off the pavement and enter the Relay WMA. Relay is a Florida wildlife management area but is privately owned by Plum Creek, Inc. Formally Georgia/Pacific Timber Company, they must have figured that polluting Florida’s rivers with dioxins from their paper manufacturing was too much for their good name and decided that a moniker as sweet as Plum Creek would be unassailable.

It is ironic that almost all the recently acquired open patches of land in Florida are preserved not because of forward looking and persuasive environmental and recreational leaders but because private land owners, donated large tracks of land to the state in order to prevent inherited estates from being wiped out by taxes. I had sought permission to legally cross the Relay tract from both Plum Creek and from the Florida Fish and Wildlife department. Plum Creek said it was okay with them if Fish and Wildlife agreed. However, Fish and Wildlife refused my request for a special use permit. Crossing Relay illegally would just add to the excitement of the day. Many is the time I have crossed private property without permission but this is the first time that my trespass was premeditated.

We entered Relay as inconspicuously as is possible from the side of US1 at rush hour while wearing blaze orange and florescent yellow jackets and breaking down enough branches to allow room for our bikes to be lifted over a five strand barbed-wire fence.

Once over the fence a railroad track was crossed and then another fence had to be handled before we finally stood on our first dirt road. At this point I realized that the two fence crossings had broken the strap on the ball cap I had tied to my backpack and dislodged the red lens from my spare flashing light. This was my favorite running hat and it should never have been packed as it was never needed.  The flashing light was a spare but still it was annoying to lose it.

I don’t think we had been on the dirt for thirty seconds when Ken says, “Stop! Its a truck.” With fresh guilt from just breaking into Relay and with months to let our premeditated gall hollow out our pride, we did what had to be done and quickly scampered into the bushes and hid like the delinquent children we wished we could still be. But we quickly decided that hiding was not going to get us to Astor and since the truck “must be gone by now” we continued on down the road. Probably a mile later another truck appears in front of us but this time we play it cool and wave at the guy as he drives by and he smiles and waves back and we pedal just that much faster. The planned route had us take a road that went through a fenced off cattle pasture. The gate was locked and slightly smashed down so we jumped it and continued on only to run into a herd of cattle guarding the one open gate into the pasture that contained our road. Not wishing to disturb the cattle or the gun toting cowboy that was potentially around the next corner, we did what Ken and I usually do in this situation and took the most obvious route around the obstruction. Below is a picture of our alternate path.

mtbacrossfl_027
The Ditch

So we had already jumped three fences why not crawl through a ditch.  The forth fence was waiting for us on the other side.

Once over the ditch the road continued as planned but then suddenly petered-out into a swampy area. Before the ride I would have sworn that the road continued through the swamp but do acknowledge that planning a route via Google Earth photos is not completely safe. Here is the beginning of our first “disappointment.”

mtbacrossfl_028
First Disappointment

We, actually Ken immediately sensed that this road was doomed, bushwhacked around looking for the road to pick back up but the swamp just got deeper and the brush just got thicker. This road looked so good on the satellite photo that no alternate was proposed but Ken pulled out his Florida Gazetteer cutouts and I scoffed at their huge scale and laughed at his confidence in their portrayal of roads on private land in the middle of no-where.  But he quickly found a way around and I had to eat crow and admit that his maps actually had more roads on them than the 7.5 minute topos on my GPS.

At this point we finally started to move at a good pace and I was able to relax a bit until a giant spider that had been hiding on the top of my helmet decided to move onto my face. I slapped and swatted and cursed but never saw a dead spider; however, my sunglasses where completely destroyed and had to be abandoned in the woods.

Once we got out of the northeastern section of Relay the roads got better and the forest was less dense and had pockets of clear-cuts, bridges over ditches, power-line roads, some sand, a little mud. One powerline had such a large cleared area around it that the clearing looked like a wet prairie with fantastic flowers, tall grass, a cool breeze. It was worth a few pictures.

Powerline Prairie
Powerline Prairie
Powerline Prairie
Powerline Prairie

As we approached the Relay watchtower area, we feared that hunters and possibly game wardens would be there laying in wait for evil trespassers. But we pedaled past the camp, saw lots of cabins, trucks, and even a few people setting around enjoying the beautiful weather. A very cool old wooden bridge crosses Haw Creek at the Relay hunt camp.

Ken crossing Haw Creek
Ken crossing Haw Creek

After the hunt camp, we blasted down the good dirt roads and quickly found ourselves at SR40 and at the end of the great trespass of ’09. At the corner of SR40 and SR11 we expected to resupply and have a nice lunch but we were disappointed to find that no infrastructure existed at this intersection. Ken was promised a pork sandwich after we exited Relay but he was denied and is still bitter.

But getting off private land and onto the legal bike trails and dirt roads of Heart Island Conservation Area was its own reward and we took a much deserved snack break and looked forward to riding in areas both new and guilt free.

dscn2685
Heart Island Entrance
dscn2686
Heart Island Entrance

Nothing much happened in Heart Island Conservation Area except the usual wrong turns, back tracks, and explanations of why poor decisions were not stupid but actually the most obvious choice based on the information at hand. We cruised through this area with nothing to complain about but the tall trees, the soaring hawks, and the grass waving in the cool breeze. If Ken would just drop the pork sandwich miscalculation, all would be right with the world. The trail dropped us back into civilization just south of Barberville on the intersection of SR17 and SR40. Seeing a convenience store at the corner we bolted to it and purchased food and water, both of which I was without. Gatorade, snickers bars, potato chip! Yum! Junk food is so good when tired, thirsty, dirty, and looking forward to many more miles of biking.

From this store we checked the maps to find the easiest way back onto the proposed route. When the route crossed SR17, it suggested a bushwhack that did not look fun and was completely unnecessary. As we explored the available options, Ken discovered “The Pioneer Settlement for the Creative Arts” (www.pioneersettlement.org). It had lots of recreated 19th and early 20th century buildings and some modern classroom facilities. It would make a great place for a school field trip or a vacation one-day stop over.

dscn2689
Country Store

dscn2693Once we found our way back onto the route, we entered Lake George State Forest. This area supposedly suffered heavily from the wild fires of 1998 but the last decade has been good to the forest and everything looked great. Our route took us down Fawn Road until it intersected with Truck Trail 7 and we stayed on this well maintained limerock road across the entire forest. Many inviting and grassy trails and roads tempted us to stray but the sun was starting to get low and we forced ourselves to take the easy way. Truck Trail 7 passes by Jenkins Pond where a covered picnic pavillion just begs to be used. Too close to the St. John’s river to stop, we completed the last bit of forest road and found ourselves on River Rd. To the north would be Astor, our day’s destination. To the south would be Bluffton Recreation Area. As is usual when Ken and Craig do anything, the original route and goal is just a suggestion. So we headed south to Bluffton to see what there was to see.

The Bluffton Recreation Area is small but nice.  A floating dock sets in a channel of the St. Johns River that flows behind an island once used as a steamboat launch. Ruins of this launch are supposed to remain but none could be seen from our vantage point. A nature trail was available for hikers or for mountain bikers that do not mind breaking the rules. Since it was late in the day and no cars were in the parking lot, I did not think we would bother anyone.

mtbacrossfl_038
Bluffton Recreation Area
mtbacrossfl_039
Bluffton Recreation Area

The nature trail was okay and certainly worth a trip if visiting this area. There used to be a giant shell midden at Bluffton but it has been completely removed and used as road building base. I wonder for what purpose future generations will use our trash dumps?

Hungry and a bit leg sore we got back onto River Rd.  and headed for Astor. Astor was funny in that it had plenty of motels, marinas, restaurants, and gift shops but none of them were open. I’m not sure when their “high season” might be but we definitely hit town at the lowest. Our host motel in Astor was “The Astor Bridge Marina and Hotel at the Port of Call Yacht Club.” I kid you not! With a name like that wouldn’t you expect a giant neon sign with some famous headliner’s name across the marquee? No, we rode over the Astor Bridge and searched the most likely looking places. We could not ask anyone since the town was empty and the stores were closed. The place could have been in a slasher movie or even a “Twilight Zone” episode. Crossing back over the bridge we did notice a small broken and faded plastic sign that said, “Astor Marina and Hotel.” Fortunately, the manager had left our key in the restaurant as he had promised and the restaurant didn’t look too bad. However, the motel was basically a concrete block prison cell.

mtbacrossfl_043
Outside the cell block
dscn2695
Inside the cell block

At the restaurant we watched the sunset, stared at the “famous” Astor Bridge, ate a big pork-chop dinner, and drank several beers. Ken exchanged text messages with Ron and they both compared their day’s adventure: Ron shot a buck on his lease in Georgia and Ken risked being shot on a lease in Florida. That night I fixed a tire that was beginning to deflate during the last few miles of the trip and then we dropped into bed at 8:30 PM.