Tuesday, July 17, 2018

In Which Monarchs Add to a Fantastic Creature Feature

North end of Sac and Fox--the seasonal frog is ready for summer.
On Monday, on a whim, I decided to do one last pre-RAGBRAI ride of the Sac and Fox Trail.

So I got out my Fancy Beast mountain bike, aired the tyres, and was off. I wasn’t sure how to get there—you can ride the Cedar River Trail to downtown and then go down Otis Road to Prairie Park Fishery, and from there access the south end of the trail, but that seemed like a long ride to get there.

Instead, I decided to head over to Washington High School and then take Cottage Grove to the north end of the trail.

Except I made the mistake, because the bike lane on C Avenue ended there, of heading east on 40th Street to cross First Avenue. I figured, badly as it turned out, there surely must be a way south in the neighborhoods east of First Avenue.

I ended up riding on streets behind industrial areas—streets that looked more like alleys. I had several dead end turn-arounds, one at the bottom of a hill, which mean I had to turn around and climb that hill again. At one point I crossed private property, riding by accident through an apartment complex.

For one block, I cut back west to a sidewalk on First Avenue and was met by this. Of course. But hose guy saw me and paused, which was nice. Below, when I finally find the elusive Washington High School, this is what greets me.

Anyway, about 5 miles later on a confusing, indirect route I’m sure I could never recreate, I ended up by Washington High School. And the street there was closed. The upside is that the sidewalk was open.

The rest of the trip to the trail was not eventful. I was questioning why I was going on this journey during a “rest” week, but it was too late to turn back. And then I got to the trail.

The day had started cloudy, but started to get sunny. It was warm, but not at all hot. And I found it hard to have any negative thoughts while riding a mountain bike south on the Sac and Fox Trail. Woodlands alternated with sunny meadows full of prairie flowers and butterflies. Birds sang and swept across the trail. I saw a few hikers and bikers, but for most of the ride I was blissfully alone on the prettiest nature bike trail Cedar Rapids has to offer.

Seriously, if you need some “me” time and have a mountain bike, get thee to the Sac and Fox. Your spirit will thank you.

Near one meadow, I happened to glance left at something glancing back at me. A buck, maybe 15, maybe 10 yards away. My heart revved a little, I tried to think peaceful, not threatening thoughts, but I also swung up my good camera and took a deer portrait or two or three—about five, I think. Eventually, Bambi got bored with man in the forest, and ambled off.

And then, less than a quarter mile down the trail, another face in the forest stared out at me—this time a doe, a bit better hidden in brush, but just as close as the buck had been. Deer me!

Two nearby deer have their portraits made.

Well, I had deliberately taken my good camera, and was glad I had, just for the sake of these images.

I had also spotted many monarchs in the prairie flowers, but they were quick and distant. Cone flowers were in full bloom, and for some reason, I developed a silly itch. I wanted to make an image of a monarch butterfly on a purple cone flower—I love that color combination, and I have not taken such a picture this year yet.

At one meadow, I caught a monarch on a cone flower, but at a distance. And I told myself I was being petty. The trail was dappled in sunshine, the day was turning heart-breaking beautiful—and I had seen both a buck and a doe up close. No matter what else I saw, the day would be perfect, and so I was at peace.

And then, around a bend, not even in a sunny meadow, but on an isolated cone flower plant—there was a monarch butterfly, sucking nectar. She let me get pretty close and snap a few images before she left, but I had fulfilled my goal and the ride was complete. I took a drink of water and prepared to depart—when what to my wondering eyes should appear but another wonderful, natural gender reversal. A boy monarch landed on the exact same flower the lady had recently vacated and man spread his wings to show his scent spots.

Female on cone flower.

Butterfly boy on the same flower, minutes later.

Restroom, water break at parking lot on trail. My ride.

Well, for a biker-photographer who loves the subtle beauty of Iowa flora and fauna, suddenly it was pretty much the best day ever.

Well, I reached the south end of the trail a bit later than I expected. All of the photo stops did not add up to a fast ride. And I had to decide—do I head back and try to climb that Cottage Grove hill, or do I push on to the slightly longer, but flatter Cedar River trail?

And it occurred to me that it was pushing noon and my son from Ames was visiting—so I texted my son and my wife, and invited them to a New Bo lunch at Fong’s. They accepted.

As it turned out, I got there maybe half an hour before they did—they were working on a home improvement project. Lunch was fine, and I headed home in the warming afternoon. And now I’m wondering how to talk the MMU bike club into a Sac and Fox adventure.

Lunch images. And one more of bike on trail.

Butterfly is upper left from bike, flitting over my ride.
All yield to horses.
Pizza sign.
Sunday had been cloudy, not warm, but muggy, and I thought I had done my last “long” ride that day when I went up to Robins and then looped down to Cedar Lake. Well, that was before the allure of the Sac and Fox seemed too great.

More nature images from these rides:

Thursday, July 12, 2018

In Which a Warm Ride Pauses at Police Station

Riding on boat pier at Ellis Park.
So on Wednesday, I rode over 60 miles on a warm Iowa day. My sister rode with me, but I had quite a few miles more due to riding for almost an hour before we met.

The ride was quite interesting. We headed down to Ellis Park, and my sister suggested we ride out on the boat pier, which I had not done before.

It was fine and kind of fun. Then, when we got to the end of the park, we didn’t simply turn around. Instead, my sister took me on a ride she does where you turn south at a street at the end of the park, bike up a hill and ride by the golf course—which I knew existed, but had not seem before.

We ended up riding through a Northwest side neighborhood I had never been in before, when our local contact with law enforcement began. Near the corner of J Avenue and Ellis Boulevard, eagle-eyed Cate noticed a cell phone laying on the curb. It’s battery was still good, and we figured out whose phone it was, but when she was going to call a contact, we realized it was a phone that charges for outgoing calls.

What to do? Since we planned to head over towards the Prairie Park Fishery anyway, we decided it was easy to pass by the CR Police station. So we stopped there and turned the phone in.

Looking down steps of Cedar Rapids Police Station. Had not been in it before.
We then rode out to the Prairie Park Fishery. It was getting warm and past noon, so next we headed to the New Bo neighborhood. We debated for a while about whether to stop at Parlor City or try Fong’s Pizza.

Well, I do like Parlor City, but I don’t regret lunch at Fong’s. The lunch special was two slices of pizza, so we each ordered two different ones, then cut them and shared, so that we each got to sample four pizzas—a cheese, pepperoni, steak and peppers and Polynesian.

I liked them all, although the Polynesian was my favorite.

Pizza at Fong's in New Bo.

Peaches and cream ice cream in Ely.

After that, we headed down to Ely for ice cream, and then turned for home. It was a warm afternoon, and included a RAGBRAI-like distance, as well as heat. It was a good practice day.

The next day, Thursday, was hotter. I wanted to stop on campus, but first rode down to Cedar Lake. I took the good camera, knowing it would encourage me to stop and snap some images—making for more frequent breaks, important on a hot ride.

My mileage was less than half, but I did do the four climbs of the MMU Hill.

The final week of distance practice for RAGBRAI is coming to close. My wife has unearthed most of my stuff. Next week I will ride, but deliberately cut back on miles. RAGBRAI is getting close!

Here are images of nature stuff I shot on today's ride:

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

In Which A Warm Day Bring 49 Miles

Nearly noon, atop the new levee trail that leads to the future new walk-bike bridge. Pretty sky on a hot, humid Iowa day.

I had some hopes of getting more than 50 miles today, and didn’t quite make the goal. But I rode over 40 miles in a warming morning, and went to and from campus this afternoon, bringing me 49 miles for the day.

The morning began around 8. I decided to do the run down the Ely, and then thought I might circle the Prairie Park Fishery before heading home for lunch. However, the humid day grew increasingly warm, and I didn’t have the energy to maintain enough speed to go that full distances.

Still, I did reach the end of the trail south of Ely. Given that they have renamed the Cedar River Trail and Hoover Trail to that point as part of the Cedar Valley Nature Trail, that means between Friday’s epic quest north and today’s shorter ride, I’ve done both the historic trail route and the new, longer trail.

Despite the heat and humidity, it was a gorgeous Iowa summer day. The sky was flecked with clouds, although it was mostly sunny. Wind was not a problem, although there was a bit of a breeze—if anything, I would have preferred a bit more movement in the air.

Mile zero on Cedar Valley Nature Trail.
I took a break at the last city park in Cedar Rapids. After riding down to Seven Sisters Road, I turned north. I was fading a bit as the morning grew warm, looking for a second break, but the park on the south side of the Bridge of Lions didn’t look too inviting. I rode on, pausing at the end of the short, new trail on the levee, before pushing on through downtown to Cedar Lake and civilized plumbing for my second break.

It was pushing noon, and I wanted time for lunch and nap before an afternoon appointment. However, I had slowed to the point that I only ended up with the lunch—still, I think in a hot, humid ride it’s more important to take some breaks and cool off than push.

Never ride in a hurry in the heat, that’s my philosophy.

Anyway, after meeting a colleague at work, I headed home, where I encountered my sister. We may ride together again tomorrow—but I don’t think we plan any epic century rides.

Heading north from Seven Sisters Road trail end--view seems like symbol of Iowa in summer.

Cedar Lake on the way home.

Sunday, July 8, 2018

In Which We Travel Beyond the Universe’s Edge

Friday morning, the bikers who rode for more than a century. And maybe felt like they had been hit with this thing.
We rather boldly went where no biker (on Team Joe) has gone before—on beyond Brandon, the known edge of the universe on the Cedar Valley Nature Trail, all the way to a sports bar in a suburb of Waterloo. And, like an Apollo mission, we came back, too.

Between Friday and Saturday of this week, CR Biker pedaled his “second” bike, the hybrid Clarence, about 120 miles. Six of the miles were Saturday, going with my wife to take a young grandson to several parks. But 114 of those miles (no, not a hallucination, as someone on my sister’s Facebook note suggested) were on Friday.

She posted a Map My Ride image on her Facebook news feed showing 109 miles. On joint rides, CR Biker will typically have more miles simply because I ride to and from my house—but in this case, I can’t post my own Map My Ride image to verify in the distance. My phone survived until 97 miles Friday, and then died. I am happy to report that, while my body lost power at about the same time my cell phone expired, my capacity to keep going in a bonking state apparently exceeds that of my cell phone.

Anyway, my sister once, several years ago, rode as far north as Brandon. Before this year, I had never gone far north of Urbana on the Cedar Valley Nature Trail. My sister has also started at the north end of the trail and ridden as far south as La Porte City—but there are miles between those towns she has never seen at all. We’ve taken to calling our new rides north of Urbana as “going beyond the known universe,” and Friday was the first day either of us did the whole trail—twice, both coming and going.

We’ve talked about a bike ride to Waterloo before. When I mentioned it to my wife in the past, because I wanted someone to then come get us, her reaction was always: “If you rode your bike to Waterloo, you can turn around and ride it back;” and my counter reaction was: “But honey, that means we would be biking into the night.”

We were both right. Cate and I were running rather slowly with lights on the gathering night by the time we returned from our grand ride, but we did indeed turn around and ride our bikes back. We were also both wrong, because just as the trail begins in Hiawatha, a suburb of Cedar Rapids, it ends in Evansdale, which I presume is a suburb of Waterloo although I’m a stranger in those parts. So it’s not really a Cedar Rapids to Waterloo ride—but at least it was, for those of us who started in Cedar Rapids, a CR to Evansdale ride.

Along the way, beyond the known universe, we encountered many strange sights:

  • Several places were the trail was “closed,” but like Elizabeth Warren, nonetheless we persisted.
  • The largest fry pan in Iowa. What a slightly odd claim to fame.
  • Blood-sucking moths that lurk in the pretty but perilous Mosquito Coast.
  • Actual remnants of railroad visible at a few street crossings at the trail’s north end—evidence that they didn’t lie to us when they claimed that this whole trail used to be a rail line. Perhaps the Earth is round, too.
  • The known universe’s largest serving of onion rings, a marvel that far outshined a non-functioning decorative piece of cookery.
  • Unexpectedly good plumbing. Center Point keeps its prize for having the best restrooms along the trail, but every little town—Center Point, Urbana, Brandon, La Porte City—has biker-friendly indoor plumbing and watering facilities.
Anyway, we began our expedition around 7 a.m. We headed north, casting longer than usual shadows on a cooler than usual trail. Neither of us is often to be found on a bike trail at 7 a.m. We chose this Friday to do the ride because a bridge project will close the trial north of Center Point as of Monday, so if you are planning to recreate our feat, you may have to act very quickly or wait some time.

Morning shadow on the trail.

I had coffee. We stopped in Lafayette.

Morning light at depot in Center Point.

Shadow on limestone trail north of Center Point.

Shadows get bumpier as trail gets a bit more primitive.
The morning was quite pleasant, and the first few miles passed uneventfully. Pretty birds were becoming active and we spied a few orioles. Cate saw a feral cat that I missed. We were doing splits of 11 and 12 mph on the miles heading north to Center Point, but that would soon change.

We knew from experience that our bikes are slower on limestone. More energy is consumed tossing up little rocks and sliding about just a bit, so as we headed north of Center Point, our miles became slower, around 9 mph.

About 2 miles north of Urbana, the trail does a sharp turn (which makes we wonder, a little, about the whole rail line thing—did this early 20th century rail line have this odd kink in it?). We call that change in direction “Half-Dead Man’s Turn” for reasons described in a previous blog post.

Approaching Half-Dead Man's Curve. Thankfully, devoid of the heart-broken bikers.
Luckily, no unexpected lovelorn travelers awaited us around the bend, neither when we were headed north nor south.

We continued on past the farm fields to the region where Linn County conservation signs gave way to Black Hawk County conservation signs. Although the trail goes through more counties, these two conservation boards seem to be the ones that sign the trail. And kudos to both. Black Hawk, by the way, gets the prize for the better scenery—the trail is just prettier and more interesting north of its mid point. Linn can be proud, too, however—trail maintenance is clearly superior in Linn land.

We got to Brandon, just a few miles beyond the far northern reaches we had explored before. A couple were breaking camp at a small park there, and a local was with them. I asked about the one distinction Brandon has—a giant fry pan—and the local kindly gave us clear directions, so we headed through town to the community center, and there we saw it.

Anything that bills itself as the “biggest X in Iowa” may be worth seeing, if it’s not too far out of your way, but don’t make a special trip. Sure, go see this giant impractical piece of public art representing the shape of something that is cooked with, if you’re in the area.

Brandon, if you’re fry pan proud, you might want to stick a sign on your bike trail, too. We met a rider from Cedar Falls at said pan, and got some interesting intelligence on the ride north.

Biggest fry pan in Iowa, but one that has never been cooked in.

Beyond Brandon, in the unknown regions, lies the Mosquito Coast, which Cate aptly named. The trail runs, for a time, along bottom lands of the Cedar River—marshy water and river to one side, low wooded bluffs on the other. Very pretty—and very buggy, and we were both glad we had made liberal use of insect repellent.

Eventually, the trail pulls away from the river and runs through pleasant, still woody, countryside until it hits La Porte City. There, we faced a choice. You cross a new, very nice bridge, over the Cedar River, enter town, and come to a fence where the trial is closed. You could do the official detour, which the native biker in Brandon had told us was a 9-mile, hilly ride on county roads. You could take a shorter route on nearby Highway 218. Not exactly a bike-friendly back road. Or, you could take the legally dubious action of putting your bike on the other side of the barrier, scaling the fence, and walk your bike 40 yards or so beyond the dip that caused the bridge over a creek to be closed several years ago.

I won’t say which choice we made. There is a Fifth Amendment.

The fallen tree just north of Brandon. Most minor barrier on trail that we encountered.

Crossing the Cedar River.

On the final bridge.

Passing under the interstate at north end of trail.

We carried on. As we neared the Waterloo end, we began to comment on the paucity of trail traffic. We were riding on the perfect Iowa summer day, sunny, in the 80s, much nicer than most of this summer has been. If you are 13 miles north of Hiawatha—that is where the Center Point depot is—you would see a fair number of other bikers on a day like this. But about that many miles out of Evansdale, it was quiet, too quiet.

And we passed a “trail closed ahead” sign. Oh dear. But a few bikers from the north did pass us, and we asked if the trial was indeed closed. One of them shouted out as she passed something like “they will let you through.”

They? What?

The trail ends, but we walk through. Then the trail continues.
And then we came upon it. A 30-yard gap where the trail simply disappears into nothing—a hole that construction equipment was moving about in. We edged off the pavement onto bare dirt, and a man in an earth mover gave was a weary look.

“Is it some kind of utility work?” I asked.

“Yesterday, this wasn’t here,” he answered. I only assume that part of the trail must have been destroyed or damaged by something—an asteroid strike or dynamite explosion, or something.

Anyway, we went through the hole where there is no trail and made it to the second Cedar River bridge at Evansdale. We had had made it, and then went on beyond the trail into town. It was well after noon, we had bicycled well over 50 miles, and we were hungry.

A yard sale attracted our eye. We stopped and had a chat with the natives, who directed us up the street two blocks to a sports bar.

Now, I am not a sports bar person. But this was mid-afternoon, the bar was fairly quiet, and it turned out to be a culinary wonderland. I ordered a grinder sandwich with coleslaw, while Cate opted for tacos. We both ordered an appetizer to share—me, onion rings; her, mozzarella sticks.

Our waiter was chatty and friendly and helpful. Perhaps he has encountered bikers before, because when he saw us and our water bottles, he not only brought us ice cold water, but an extra cup of ice for our bottles. He also kept a watchful eye and refilled us whenever the H2O containers got low.

His tip was good, and he deserved it.

The food was perfect for a long ride—tasty, filling and plentiful. Cate said she had never seen such a large serving of onion rings, and I agreed—it was way beyond what I had expected.

Lunch stop. Product placement.

Somewhat heavier, we stumbled into the warm Iowa afternoon sun. I had ridden almost 58 miles to get to lunch, and it was time to head home.

The homeward journey was everything in reverse. Quite stretch of trail near the Waterloo end. Hole in the trail where the worker gave us a sad look but did not object to our tromping through where temporarily there is no trail. Fence blocking the trial where we faced a legal choice (and made the same choice we had earlier).

One of the more northern road crossings--signs of the old rail line.
We stopped at each town and verified their plumbing was still in order, but we were sagging a bit at each stop. We had ridden one RAGBRAI day by miles and were well into our second. And when we got to the beautiful Mosquito Coast, Cate had another strange encounter. Two of what appeared to be moths landed on her arm and gave her painful bites.

Well, according to my internet research, they were probably large flies known as “deer flies” that can be mistaken for moths in shady light. Anyway, I’m glad the encounter was brief and with few insects, and I can’t say I regret that they appear to prefer a taste of Cate. Memo to self: Always dip in Bug Soother before braving the Mosquito Coast.

As we neared home, my store of energy seemed to give out. Cate eventually had me take the lead, as she was so outpacing me, which was nice of her. We weren’t moving fast, although we were moving with lights on, by the time we got back to Hiawatha.

Well, we did it. We also agree that it’s not likely we’ll do the 100-mile day this year on RAGBRAI—that’s a bucket list punch we both aren’t lacking anyway, and we have nothing to prove.

We can ride more than 100 miles. It takes a while, there may be giant bugs and misdemeanors involved, but we did it. And the next day, I took my grandson for a ride on my bike.

Late afternoon, headed south. Old grain storage, north of Brandon, I think.

My bike bag bangs in my spokes, forcing a quick stop. I shoot pretty image. We are between Brandon and Urbana, on return trip and growing very tired.

Beyond Urbana. Bike shadows growing long.

Almost to Center Point on return trip, the bridge that they are closing the trail to replace.

Last pit stop in Center Point. I am at nearly 100 miles, but my phone will die before I make the century which is too bad, I wanted to hear that robotic Map My Ride voice reel off triple digits.
Note: Post updated July 8 to correct name and spelling of Evansdale as well as location of bridge that is causing trail closing. My sister is a good copy editor. In my lame defense, I wrote this at 1 a.m. or so after putting a young grandchild to sleep.