Chainlinker Tim Heckman recently loaded up his Surly Cross Check and took the I&M trail to parts unknown for a little bike camping. We here at the Chainlink are always excited to hear about new weekend bike adventure options (especially when they involve stops at local breweries), so we really appreciate Heckman's recap of his ride!
By Tim Heckman
I've been an occasional car camper for years, but this was only my second time bicycle camping. My tastes in camping are more rustic than most-- I prefer isolated spots, preferably with tents only, and sometimes even a few neighbors are too many for my taste. This makes my options in Chicagoland rather limited, to say the least. Since my previous taste of bicycle camping, I've upgraded my ride (from a Schwinn Suburban to a Surly Cross Check), my tent (from an excellent old 80's tent my wife used in Girl Scouts to a Marmot Limelight), my carrying system (from a Wald wire rear basket and soft frame full sized backpack to Ortlieb panniers and an Osprey daypack).
Previously my destination was Channahon State Park-- this time it was one of the scattered walk-in sites further along the I & M canal. These sites are not shown on the DNR website, but I had seen evidence of them while one the trail between Seneca and Morris for an event earlier this year. I had a list of mile markers where they were supposed to be at, confirmation from a park ranger that they did exist, and a strong since of optimism. I took a half day off of work, but getting started late with my packing, and an urge to get a few last things done meant that I wasn't on the road until slightly after 2.
The first twelve miles of the trip are mostly on streets, although familiar ones that I've ridden before on the way to Willow Springs and the I & M trail head. It is Friday afternoon traffic, so a quick stop at Imperial Oak Brewing for one pint of hydration is in order. Fill the water bottles at the trail head, and sixteen miles to Lockport, which is really the next location of services of any type (no street crossings either). After that, it's a few miles to the Joliet Iron Works site, and about five miles of tolerable street riding in Joliet. At one point, I pick up a series of white pavement blaze marks, probably from a Joliet Bicycle Club, pointing me to the trail head. From there it is about ten miles to Channahon State Park, which I get to around 7 pm. I want to go further, but that is uncharted territory. My desire for adventure wins. I go three, five, seven miles further. The view of the Des Plaines River, and later the Illinois is impressive. I stop at McKinley Woods, and later the Aux Sable crossing to refill on water, and check my phone to see if I can find more details on the sites. Cellular internet is slow, and I keep pedaling. My back tire starts to lose air. Between mile 56 and 57, I see one of the sites, albeit with it's camping sign and fire pit pulled out of the ground and halfway into the woods. This is it.
Tent goes up, mosquitoes are bad (as expected). I realize that I am going to be eating my two remaining energy bars for dinner (and they are delicious). I know Morris is two miles away. Any other plans are quickly replaced with exhaustion and a few Facebook updates. The bullfrogs are rather loud.
The most useful camping gear? My RAVPower 13000mAh battery to recharge the phone, and a head mounted light.
I'm up at 5:30 in the morning. I pump up the not quite flat tire, and it seems to be holding air. I go into Morris, where a snack bag of Ruffles and a bottle of Gatorade is in order. I ride around town, and find the bakery, where I pick up a large coffee, a large cinnamon roll, and two glazed donuts to go. The tire is not holding air as well as it should, so a tire change is in order before re approaching the canal and the mosquitoes. It is worthwhile to note that when tired, you can be stupid. It is important to ensure that your brake is reengaged and your chain is firmly on your chain ring before starting to ride again (downhill). The impact is minor, and it is back to the campsite to finish breaking camp.
On the way back, I'm intending to take it slow. There is no set time for me to be back, and about sixty miles to travel. About six miles back, I see a side path to the river, cycle in, and find four bicycle campers with hammocks. We talk for about an hour, as one of them has a Cross Check as well, so there is plenty to talk about. Then it is back on the trail... This time, Joliet seems to be much more difficult to travel across. Somehow, there are also no convenience stores nearby as I travel through, either. Time to eat the glazed donuts! I change shirts in the restroom at the Iron Works site, and that helps too. First Lockport-- than Lemont (even though I don't know how to leave the trail and get there)-- and then Willow Springs. In Lockport, a woman waves and says, “We meet again!” I realize that I had just changed back into the shirt I was wearing when she saw me yesterday. Good thing I am married already...
Outside Lemont, I still can't figure out how to leave the trail to get into town, which slightly sucks, because I wanted to stop at Pollyanna Brewing. I figure I will drink two at Imperial Oak in Willow Springs instead. Once there, air conditioning, ice water, and a refreshing beverage is wonderful. I spent a good half an hour talking to a fellow wearing a 2014 Palos Meltdown T-shirt. Four miles down the road, and nine miles from home, Blue Nose Brewery in Hodgkins is having a grand opening, but I decide to pass. About six o'clock, I make it home, just as my wife is finishing grilling pork chops in our back courtyard. Just enough time to shower and open a bottle of wine...
Notes of interest:
This route is remarkably free of convenience stores. I'm sure they exist-- I know there is a Casey's a few blocks of the trail in Channahon-- but if you are in a zone, you will probably not want to take the time to find them. There are two in Willow Springs. The route is also often remote by Chicagoland standards. It is about 16 miles between Willow Springs and Lockport, ten between Joliet and Channahon, and then another sixteen to Morris. Bring more food than you need, and be aware of water, particularly on hot days. The trail was good all the way to Morris, with no trees on the trail, or notable washouts (One fell overnight on Friday around Lemont, but that is Dupage County Forest Preserve jurisdiction, and I'm sure it will be addressed quickly). There are also minimal bailout options-- a Metra stop in Joliet, and one in Willow Springs, and I think that service for both is spotty on weekends.
The Morris Bakery is highly recommended.