By Tim Heckman
I always start thinking about bike camping early in the year, and then never manage to reserve the time until the fourth weekend of July. It always seems to be hot that time of year, and this one was no exception. I've had the idea of making a three day loop, starting in Oak Park, staying in two separate isolated camping spots on Friday and Saturday night, and returning home on Sunday for a few years. This year, I was able to make it happen.
I like isolated camping spots, so I wanted to get out a little further from the city. While looking at maps for the Prairie Trail prior to a long ride last year, I noticed that McHenry County allowed bicycle camping at a location off the trail, and just south of the Wisconsin border. $10/night, reserved at least seven days in advance. I called, they took down my information, and sent me a link to pay for the site. The route to the Prairie Trail is fairly clear. Illinois Prairie Path to Elgin, Fox River Trail from Elgin to Algonquin, where it shifts seamlessly to the Prairie Trail. I had done everything but the last few miles once before, so I wouldn't have any large surprises.
I load up Friday morning, and ride into work, where I'm planning on a half day. A manager there is both surprised by my plans, and amused by the foot long submarine sandwich I have sticking out of my backpack. Yes, I know there is a heat advisory for most of the next forty eight hours. Yes, I've bicycled in this kind of heat before. This is the weekend I cleared for the trip, and if I could control the weather, I would be paid a lot more than I am. Yes, I'm carrying plenty of water and know plenty of places to resupply. Time passes quickly, and I'm on my way. Of course, the afternoon is hot. The first chunk of the ride is also rather sunny, as the Great Western Trail is fairly fast, but low on shade.
The nice thing about this route is that it is really difficult to get lost. It takes about two hours to get to Elgin (water can be found on trail right next to the casino). A short transition back to the trail from the riverfront at the north edge of downtown, and I'm moving up the Fox River Trail. At Dundee Depot Dogs in East Dundee, I stop for a hot dog, some electrolyte balancing fries, a cold lemonade, and complimentary and unlimited ice water bottle refills. Next stop, Crystal Lake!
Ahead of Crystal Lake, I make myself a deal. If I can make it to Crystal Lake Brewery by 5 pm, I'll stop for a pint (or two). My legs are not enough to counteract a loaded bicycle and the heat, and that stop will need to wait for another trip. Crystal Lake has really the only non path portion of this leg, with several blocks of on street riding which is not terribly difficult to follow (The McHenry County map of the Prairie Trail is rather good). Stearns Woods is on the north edge of Crystal Lake, and has a half dozen short, steep hills. With a loaded bicycle, I'm walking every single one. After Crystal Lake, the trail starts to transition from the urban park sort of feeling to a more rural feel. The sun and heat has subsided somewhat, but I'm also starting to slow down from several hours of exertion in the heat. I know that some serious re-hydration is in order in McHenry before my last push. I raid a park district vending machine for two bottles of Gatorade and an Orange Crush.
At this point, it is fairly clear that I will make it to the North Branch Conservation Area and be able to set up before sunset, which is what the permit rules state. The remainder of the trail, north of McHenry to the Wisconsin border, is some of the most scenic country I've ridden in Illinois. It transitions back to screenings/gravel, but is still fairly easy riding. At this point, I notice that my Garmin Edge 25 that I was planning on recording my weekend rides on is out of batteries after not more than eleven hours of use. I had brought a portable battery, but not the charge cable for the Garmin. Not terribly happy about that, as my phone is not really up to the task, but the ride is more important than the electronic record. I pass a busy roadside bar in Ringwood, ride through Richmond, and come to a sign pointing the way to the campsites. Can't go there quite yet because I need to cross the state line several hundred yards ahead. After that, I return to the sign, and find that the campsite is a little over a mile away, on the other side of the park.
The sites are nice. A clear field, a well maintained toilet, and a water fountain that appears to have a municipal source. After setting up the tent, and considering my granola bars that I have left, I decide to make the very short trip into Genoa City (on the low traffic paved road at the west side of the park) to pick up convenience store dinner. Stores in Wisconsin also stock a beverage that you cannot buy in Illinois. The clerk is rather surprised when I tell her I biked from Chicago to get it. A tasty end to a long day of bicycling!
Dawn comes soon, but my sleep was fairly good. Camp breaks fairly easily. Today's ride is a little different from any I've done before, as I don't have a trail route, or even an exact route on streets planned. There is a several mile trail heading west from the campsite to Hebron, and from there I plan to head to Woodstock (last bailout option and full service bike shop), then to Genoa, and finally to MacQueen Forest Preserve outside of Kirkland. The weather is also looking a little iffy, with inconsistent chances of afternoon storms.
Somehow, I lose the trail before Hebron. I come to a cross street, the trail appears to end, but in retrospect it looks like I missed a slight offset. So I start heading south towards Woodstock. My first few roads have a little too much traffic for my taste, but I find Queen Anne road after a few false starts, which is a beautiful low traffic road that takes me almost all the way to Woodstock. I also realize that taking my paper copies of the Illinois bicycle road maps with me in my daypack was a good idea. Woodstock is a nice Saturday morning oasis, with their Farmers Market in full swing, including live music, baked goods, fresh smoothies and fruit. I do stop at Outdoor Recreation, a solid old school bike shop south of downtown for a bit of conversation and air conditioning. They help me plan the next phase of the day, taking Davis/Collins Road west, and Deerpass Road south into Marengo. Marengo is another hydration stop. I swear I fuel myself on these rides with Gatorade and Cheddar and Sour Cream Ruffles.
It doesn't take me long to realize that Highway 23 south of Marengo is still a little too busy for my taste. Heading west and south, I cross I90 on County Line Road, and realize that I'm in the fifth county (Boone) of the trip (so far). Harmony Road and Genoa Road take me into Genoa at about 2:30, with only about fifteen miles of riding planned for the rest of the day. One of the stops I wanted to make on the trip was Cademon Brewing, which had been recommended to me by a friend. I manage to find a place to lock my bike, although Genoa is a little low on bike racks. After two pints at Cademon, I head down the street to the Corner Grill on Main, where I get a healthy sandwich and more fries than someone who has ridden fifty miles on a loaded Cross Check can eat. Both places are recommended.
Continually checking the radar on my phone, storms have been developing and passing by to the north for most of the last hour. I return to Cademon to attempt to wait them out, but they continue in the same pattern. I make the decision to start heading west, and hope I don't get too wet.
Highway 72 is tolerable to Kingston (the next town west), but sprinkles develop, and then get a little harder. I hop over to the next road to the north and put on rain gear. That does the trick, and within a few miles, the rain dissipates. With that out of the way, the cruise into the campsite is pretty easy. I think I'm seeing nearly as much corn as the folks out in Iowa on RAGBRAI.
MacQueen County Forest Preserve is a nice park, with an onsite ranger, a tent camping area and two covered shelters available for rent. The Kishwaukee river runs through the park, and it is two miles outside the town of Kirkland. The rain looks to have cleared for the moment, I register, and talk to the ranger. There is still a little daylight left, and I debate firing up my campstove and cooking some ramen, or riding into Kirkland to the convenience store. The convenience store wins again. Of course, once I'm halfway there, it starts to look like it might rain. I get to town, make a quick run inside, and return to an increasing sprinkle, and a lot of thunder and lightning in the direction of the campsite. With the panniers off, I'm quite a bit faster, and it looks like it might be a dead heat. A few hundred yards away from the park, moving at 15-20 mph in a light rain at dusk, a juvenile raccoon decides that it is time to cross the road, WITHOUT looking both ways first. I yell, he looks, stands and yells at me like an angry cat, and then gets out of my way. I make it back mostly dry, right as the storm breaks.
After waking up Sunday morning, taking a few more pictures, I'm back on the road. A little late this time, leaving around 8:30. The weather is predicted to be warm, and I've told my wife I will be home sometime around 5 pm. The first stage of this trip is fifteen miles to Sycamore, where I plan to pick up the Great Western Trail back to St. Charles and Chicagoland. There is a fairly strong headwind out of the south, and it is going fairly slow. Actually, really slow. I keep checking my phone to see how far away I am from Sycamore, and it is always too far away. I expected to be there in a little over an hour, but it is running much closer to two. I also make a fairly bad call by sticking with what appeared to be the most direct route, which leaves me walking the narrow shoulder of busy Route 64 for a half mile west of town. Taking a longer route and avoiding that stretch would have been a good idea.
Convenience store breakfast in Sycamore is a very cheap sandwich, potato chips, a Mountain Dew Slurpee, and plenty of re-hydration. There are quite a few people on the Great Western trail, including a couple guys in Axletree kit that quickly distance me. I'm rather happy about all the people, as the heat index is probably close to 100. At one point in time, I'm enjoying drafting behind a family of three at about 9 mph, before they leave the trail to go look for a bar. It really is a fairly fast trail, with decent shade, and before too long, I'm back over the Fox River, into Geneva, and onto the switchback boardwalk that starts the Geneva spur of the Illinois Prairie Path. It is also really, really hot. While traversing south of the Dupage County Airport, I pass the first horseback riders that I've ever actually met on a trail. By the time I reach the railroad bridge outside of West Chicago, I need to finish my water, scavenge available food, rest, and be very, very happy when I get into town and decide to take advantage of air conditioning at a Taco Bell.
From there, everything is fairly standard Prairie Path summer adventure. Water fillup in Wheaton, sunshowers in Villa Park, hustling through Hillside, and knowing that I will have finished off the trip under my own power. Making it home, it appears to me that the leather of my Brooks saddle has darkened by two full shades. My traveling average is still really close to eight miles an hour while fully loaded. I'm already wondering if I can do a four day trip, and if that trip should attempt to make it the entire way to the Mississippi river.