I woke up on Saturday morning still uncertain about whether to risk the forecast and forge on with my bike camping experiment, or to just save it for another day. After some waffling, we decided to go for it. I'm trying to channel adventure and was feeling somewhat brave, and besides, I didn't have anything more exciting to do anyway. We quickly assembled some gear and bungeed it to our bikes, scribbled down the times for the train home the next day, and we were on our way.
We only brought the bare essentials: tent (orange), sleeping pads (2), sleeping bags (in compression sacks on our handlebars), pump (on my bike), and a tool roll (on my bike). Smaller things (partial change of clothes, extra water, money (to buy meals later), Clif bars, extra tubes, a multitool, and a camera) were in James's backpack.
The route was easy. Leg one was a Metra from LaSalle to Joliet, IL.
Bonus: the space for bikes on the Metra is in the Quiet Car.
After we got to Joliet we used our best wayfaring skills -- Google Maps -- to figure out how to get to the I&M.
CanalFact: Finished in 1848, the canal was built to provide boat transportation between the Mississippi River and Lake Michigan.
I didn't have any grand expectations about the natural beauty of the canal, but it turns out I really underestimated how idyllic it is out there.
The path is made of crushed, packed limestone. It's fine to bike on, even with a road bike with skinny tires, but I couldn't go very fast. I think our max speed was somewhere around 15mph (although I'm not a very fast cyclist even on a good day).
We crossed bridges and rode between the canal and the Des Plaines River, and saw blooming trees, cattails, herons, and turtles, and massive power lines, and old barns, and places that used to be whole towns, where now only a single house still stands.
We kept passing wheat (this is wheat, right?), swaying hypnotically. I wanted to go touch it. I thought I could stand in the middle of it, but it was too dense and rigid.
About 30 miles in, the trail was barricaded. We saw a few houses so we biked over there, where a few kids manning a lemonade stand gave us directions to a state park. The ranger there told us that the April floods had washed out the path and taken down two viaducts. He said the only way to keep going was on a road with no shoulder, sidewalk, or bike path to ride in -- but that we could camp there at the campground for $6. The whole thing had an abrupt, eerie horror movie feel, but we didn't seem to have a choice.
So we went into town (Morris, IL) where I got something called "pizza bread" for $3, and two tacos for another $3, and stuff to make s'mores. I could feel the temperature start to drop, so we hurried back to set up camp and build a fire. It was weird to be camping and starting a fire in a wide-open field, but at least we were the only ones there.
The ground is cracked like that from the flooding.
After the sun set I started to get really cold and wished I had brought more clothes. I zipped myself up completely in my sleeping bag and stayed warm through the 30-something degree night.
In the morning it was still very cold. Dew collected on our tent and refracted light shot every which way. There's nothing better than waking up outside. The days are so long and almost always sunny from beginning to end. The sun comes up around 5:30am and doesn't set until after 8pm.
For breakfast, we biked to a diner in town before pedaling 30 miles back to Joliet to catch the 2:25 train back to Chicago.
After this experiment, I'm not in love with bike camping, but I think it would be fun to try it again in the future. The only thing I would add is a seatpost-mounted rack for my bike. We
had trouble re-attaching stuff the next day, and I ended up just
carrying my sleeping pad slung across my back like a quiver. It would
have been nice to have an place to put my jacket if I got too hot,
or something like that. I still prefer backcountry camping and would always prefer to hike ten miles into the woods with my things strapped to my back than be tethered to bike-navigable roads and have to camp at some campground. For now I'm committed to my one-bike lifestyle, though I'm pretty sure a mountain bike could solve this problem. (If I allow myself multiple bikes I can see this hobby getting out of hand very quickly.)