Ken seems to be starting a new tradition. Last year, on his birthday, he soloed 100+ miles on his road bike. It must have been painful because this year, on his birthday, I was lucky enough to get invited to his second annual “Birthday Party Century.”
There is nothing special about 100 miles on your road bike but neither of us has ridden 100 miles in over a year and the air temperature was going to be 96 degrees. We decided to minimize the potential trauma to our bodies by staying off the roads and doing the ride almost entirely on the Withlacoochee State Trail (A wonderful rails-to-trails project). 108 Miles on Withlacoochee State Trail
We met at the southern end of the trail at the Owensboro Junction Trailhead at 6:20 AM and were heading north by 6:35 AM. The air temperature actually seemed a bit chilly and we both commented on how nice it felt. Ken tried to work the pace to 20 MPH but I resisted and dragged back at 18. We had a long way to go.
It seemed that in no time at all we were at the end of the trail, 46 miles from our cars. At this point we needed to add a few miles in order to get 100+ for the day. So we did a ten mile loop through the Citrus Springs subdivision. Citrus Springs does not have any citrus or any springs but is the typical Florida real estate bubble neighborhood from the 70’s. There are more houses than trees and more abandoned roads than usable ones.
At mile 55 we ran out of water and asked a nice man for a fill up from his hose. At mile 60 we found a convenience store and stopped for a picnic. I bought a large bottle of gatorade, a gallon of water, a bag of Fritos, a Payday bar, and a granola bar. I consumed it all except the granola bar and half the water. Ken had a similar level of over consumption but we where starting to get hot and dehydrated and had to work hard to prevent it.
Uncle Don’s farm is only a mile from the corner of US41 and SR491 so we stopped by to say hello and got lucky enough to catch him just as he came out to get his mail. This saved us from having to navigate his sugar sand entrance road. I never felt great during the entire ride but by this time I was mentally preparing for some suffering and stopping at Don’s helped me to gain some mental strength.
After our socializing was complete we hit the road and tried to keep an 18-20 pace going. The heat was making me suffer even at this pace but luckily Ken did not seem affected. He pulled me, when I could even hold on to his wheel, for 80% of the ride.
We stopped in Floral City for a quick break and water bottle fill-up and then I girded sternly for war. With only 23 mile to go I should, even with this heat, be able to maintain 20 MPH for that long. But it did not work out that way. At mile 97 I broke. Soft pedaling at 16 MPH for the next 5 miles did not help much as we entered the dreaded hot zone of Croom’s Silver Lake. For some reason unknown to science or tired cyclists, the Withlacoochee Trail is hot, dry, and exposed in this area. Why can’t they plant a tree! At the Ridge Manor trail head I collapsed on a picnic table and Ken didn’t complain much when I forced him to stop. We stretched our backs, splashed water on our faces, and went out to finish this ride.
I tried again to go hard and finish strong but was denied with only a mile to go. Hot and tired we limped back to the Southern terminus and I welcomed my car’s cold air-conditioner. Ken looked strong all day and he had just finished whipping my ass at last weekend’s Urban Crit in Lakeland. I’m going to have to start riding if I plan to take him at the Trail-To-Trail or at Fool’s Gold.
The Withlacoochee Trail is a great ride if you do not wish to bother with the traffic and heat of normal roads. There are very few road crossings so even serious cyclists can hammer away without being annoyed. Approximately half of the trail is well shaded and there are several road crossings that provide bike service and refreshment opportunities. Don’t miss this trail; it is a must-ride location.
Next year I’ll be more prepared for Ken’s birthday party.
Here are some interesting facts The Withlacoochee State Trail is the longest (to date) paved rail trail in Florida. It occupies approximately 46 miles of an abandoned railroad right-of-way, passing through three counties (Citrus, Hernando and Pasco) en route from Citrus Springs in Citrus County to Trilby in Pasco County. The Withlacoochee Trail State Park starts just north of Dade City on U.S. 301, a mile south of Trilby and continues through the Croom Tract of the Withlacoochee State Forest, runs close to the Withlacoochee River, past the Silver Lake Campground, then continues north through Nobleton, Istachatta, Floral City, Inverness, Hernando, Holder, Citrus Springs, and ends at Gulf Junction just south of Dunnellon. The rail bed traverses six distinct natural communities, and provides visitors access to the central Florida landscape in both developed and natural conditions. The most prominent natural feature within the Withlacoochee Trail corridor is the flood plain of the Withlacoochee River. The trail intersects this flood plain in several locations, allowing visitors to observe flood plain habitats and lakes. A unique natural vista occurs along the trail corridor, south of the Withlacoochee State Forest/Croom Tract. Other important natural features of the trail corridor include scenic Lake Henderson and the Tsala-Apopka chain of lakes.
After years of planning, the “Cross Florida MTB Challenge” finally happened. This first edition of the “Challenge” went off without a hitch: the weather was fantastic, the route was about 85% correct (which left plenty of room for route finding fun), and we didn’t get arrested for trespassing! The main goal of the “Challenge” is to cross Florida on as much dirt as possible. The route was selected so that travel could be on bike trails, horse trails, hiking trails, forest roads, the occasional bushwhack, and unfortunately some paved roads. I know that it is wrong to use single use horse and hiking trails for an offroad bike event but to prove or disprove the feasibility of this project, rules had to be broken. In fact, a large portion of the first day was spent trespassing on private land. This is nothing to be proud of and the risk of being ticketed or even arrested was very real. But crossing Florida on as much dirt as possible is a difficult task these days. Florida has experienced uncontrolled growth for thirty years and finding a non-paved section of public forest is always difficult. Taking a risk to fulfill a dream is what life is all about and since we traveled as quickly as possible, stayed on the maintained roads, and did not loiter, litter, or vandalize, I don’t think anyone minded us being there. Here are the links to the .gpx and .kml data files created during this event. atb_across_florida_2009.kmlatb_across_florida_2009.gpx Here is the link to the MapMyRide website that has the .gpx drawn on a map. ATB_Across_Florida Below please find the play-by-play action report with a few photos for emphasis. October 18, 2009 Trip to the starting point. Sunday morning all participants met at the “River House” and loaded themselves and their gear into the caravan vehicle. Yes, only one vehicle was needed. Only two Wetsocks team members, Ken and Craig, where available to make the inaugural event. All the rest failed to show siting such poor excuses as, “I have a full time job,” “My hip needs to be replaced,” and “I’m not comfortable trespassing on a hunting lease during hunting season.” Lame!
The caravan rolled out and after stopping for a large meal of Sonny’s BBQ, arrived at the Ocean Crest Motel , our host hotel, in plenty of time to unpack our gear and take a walk on the gorgeous Atlantic beach. The Ocean Crest is a ’50s style motel in Ormond-by-the-Sea on a bit of lightly developed Atlantic Beach front north of Ormond Beach on A1A that reminded me of childhood vacations with the family. Our stay was brief but enjoyable and I would recommend the Ocean Crest for future events.
In the early evening the pre-race party was kicked off when team Wetsocks was picked up at their hotel for a trip to an Ormond Beach sports bar. Several pitchers of beer, piles of chicken wings and good company made for a great time. After being dropped back at our hotel we decided that the liquor store was only a couple miles away and that a bottle of wine would be nice as we sat on the porch and listened to the surf. Ken was getting romantic on this cool clear evening but I made sure he knew we could only ever be friends. The chianti finished and the sun set. We decided to call it a night.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
Once 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
After our visit to the park, darkness was complete.