Today is Tuesday November 18th 2014. As I sit Indian style on the floor on the lower deck of the Tampa airport looking out the window at the small pair of planes operated by Silver Airlines, I wonder if the oversized box that contains my only mode of transportation for the next 8 days will fit through the cargo door. I am on my way to Jacksonville to start the Florida Divide Mountain Bike Route from Fargo Georgia to Flamingo Florida. I had been training for this ride since March of this year when I took part in the initial expedition with route creator and close friend Karlos Bernart. I was able to take part in over 400 miles of the route, at that time over the course of 4 days, and vowed to take a stab at the entire route as soon as it became logistically possible. Karlos, owner of Singletrack Samurai Productions, has been working on the North to South Florida Divide Route for several years, and I was honored to be a part of it. As fate would have it my schedule permitted and I calendar’d 8 days from November 19th through the 27th with a goal of finishing the ride before Thanksgiving at my fathers home in Big Pine Key. Over the course of the last 6 months I have participated in every organized bikepacking trip I could attend, and logged countless miles on my 29er in an effort to strengthen my legs and lungs for the long days in the saddle that the Florida Divide would require. I have become somewhat of an anomaly around my local neighborhood as the typical spandex clad rider who sports a 17lb carbon fiber road bike and scoffs at the idea of a fat tire 29er sharing his local beach routes. But there I am fully loaded with almost 50lbs of bike and gear looking like a doomsday prepper cruising the beach. Some would inquire as to what I was doing, others would smirk as they rode by and others would wince as I passed them mashing up the Belleair bridge. IMG_0988That was the entry in my phone notes that I made thinking I would continue the journal on my trip. I had good intentions but in all honesty that was the last time I wrote anything. I never had the time or the energy to put my thoughts and observations into type. That is not to say that the myriad of experiences I had the next 9 days were not worth recording, I just never got to it. Part of it was pure exhaustion, part of it was necessity due to the fact that I had to conserve battery life on all my devices as I could only charge them about every other day. If I had to sum up the ride in one sentence, it would be that this ride was a test of resolve. Resolve to get to the end of the route, resolve to get to the end of the day, and resolve to get to the next preserve – and sometimes just to get out of the current trail. The conditions for the ride were at times less than optimal. I started with a temperature of 26 degrees and for the rest of the week I would encounter frequent showers, ground water, and high winds. The payback for my resolve was getting to see Florida from its northern border to its southernmost mainland point in Flamingo. I would get to see Florida’s countryside in some of the most natural and raw state. Over the next 8+ days I would pass through some of the most spectacular wilderness preserves Florida has to offer. I was constantly reminded of the diversity of Florida’s ecosystem. Some days I would pass from hilly pine forests, to palmetto scrub, to rain forest like cypress swamps all within a few hours of riding. image02The route makes use of large multi use sections of the Florida Scenic Trail, forest service roads, The Florida Water Management Levee System, and a few pavement connectors. It passes through as many as 15 separate Wilderness Preserves, State Parks, and State Forests such as the Osceola State Forest, The Ocala National Forest, Big Cypress, and Everglades National Park to name a few. The Florida Scenic Trail is a remarkable trail system that is very well marked with orange blazes on trees and posts spaced frequently enough so that I never got off the trail unless I just stopped paying attention. The few times that I did get off trail, I was able to quickly get back on by going back to the last blaze I saw and locating the next one. For the most part I spent over 8 days deep in the Florida wilderness by myself. I rarely saw anyone else with the exception of hunters along the route in Ocala and towns people when I would stop for supplies or a motel. My original intent was to spend as many days camping as possible. I only ended up camping 3 out of the 8 nights, I was traveling mostly for strategic reasons related to the weather and the necessity to dry out my gear. At the end of the trip looking back, I wouldn’t have changed a thing about my choices of where to sleep, as I made the decisions based upon the present situations I was faced with regarding dropping temperatures, soaking wet clothing and the simple convenience of nearby services and supplies. I also greatly valued the ability for recovery with a decent nights sleep. I was expending a tremendous amount of energy and wanted to make sure my muscles would be fresh for the next days adventures. The best night I had camping was at the entrance to Bull Creek where I set up just outside the entrance by the trail head. I had the evening all to myself and fell asleep listening to the rain on my tent fly. The worst night camping was at Juniper Springs due to the fact that the campground was busy with weekend visitors and I was right next to a site with a couple of drunks who carried on till the wee hours of the morning. There were a couple key moments in the ride besides showing up at the start and of course finishing in Flamingo. The first was when I reached the point in the ride where I had started the expedition ride with Karlos back in March. When I reached that trailhead just after Rt 50 in Fort Christmas, it was the point at which much of the route would be familiar to me as I had already ridden it. The second was completing the 21 miles of singletrack in Bull Creek. I had a real bad day in Bull Creek the first time as it had been a long day, I ran low on water, and had suffered from severe leg cramps the better part of that section. I was anxious about going in there again this time by myself so it was a big confidence builder to emerge from Bull Creek on the Florida Trail still strong and hydrated ready to tackle the next section that would be 3 Lakes Wilderness Preserve. There were many moments throughout the week that took my breath away. I was always in awe at the beauty of the Florida wilderness. I saw countless species of wildlife such as deer, bears, coyotes, and various predatory birds. Most times the only sounds I could hear were the sounds of my tires crunching through the brush and the wind blowing through the trees. I was constantly amazed at the magnitude of the Ocala National Forest. Though we do not have mountains per say here in Florida it is by no means flat. I did a fair amount of climbing and descending while traversing the rolling hills and sweeping trails of the forest. IMG_0955 The challenges I faced came in ways that I had prepared for but was not necessarily expecting. I knew the temperature and the forecast going in and did the best I could to pack the appropriate clothing, but I had a hard time warming up on the first two days of the ride. My core, legs, and arms were fine but my toes and fingers just didn’t want to play along. For the first few hours I swung them in circles, slapped them against my thighs, and stamped up and down on the pavement trying to force the blood into my fingers and toes. They did eventually warm up but I was quite uncomfortable for the first few hours of those first couple days. The next challenge I faced was not only the rain that came but the wet trail conditions that came with the water. I rode in the rain for at least three half days. This contributed to my decision to motel rather than camp due to the fact that my gear got a thorough dousing three days in a row and I simply needed to dry it and myself out and not risk getting sick. Riding in the rain is not so bad if the surface is hard and packed but if it’s soft and muddy it makes for slow going. It also contributed to a lot of ankle deep wading through much of Lil Big Econ and Tosohatchee Preserve, as well as flooding in Kissimmee, and Big Cypress. These flooded areas made it necessary to take alternate routes around the affected areas. Though I was able to re-join the route fairly quickly and easily, is was a big let-down for me to not be able to connect the sections of the route through Kissimmee Prairie. IMG_0974 Karlos and I had made 2 prior attempts to get through here, and now my third attempt was a failure as well. I wanted nothing more than to be the one to connect that link for myself and for the Florida Divide. My heart was heavy as I made the 60 mile pavement ride around River Ranch over to Okeechobee to rejoin the route. It was also the lowest point of my morale during the week as I had experienced so much life and seen so many beautiful creatures. This re-route was on 441 and all I saw was road kill. Mile after mile of animals that had met their fate trying to cross the busy road. At one time I saw a gopher tortoise in the middle of the road and I thought “wait, I can save this one” I stopped, laid my bike down, and got ready to go out and pick it up and move it to safety only to witness the next truck that came by reduce this innocent turtle into pieces no bigger than a golf ball. I stood there in disbelief of what I just saw, and though I knew it was quick and that it didn’t suffer, I still had the feeling that industry and mankind is evil and wanting nothing more than to get back to the solitude and peacefulness of nature and the Florida Trail. Had I only been a few minutes before I could have made a difference. When the water wasn’t giving me a challenge, the wind was my next obstacle to overcome. In the woods the wind wasn’t so much of an issue but up on the Florida Water Management Levee System you are 100% exposed to the sun and the wind. I spent 2 full days on the levee’s and rode into a full on (or three quarter 15 mph) head wind just about the whole time. I did get 20 miles of an honest down winder when I finally turned due south off of the Tamiami Trail when I made my final approach to the entrance to Everglades National park. It was beautiful to finally be able to sit up and let the wind push me along at 20 mph without having to give it all I had just to stay moving. IMG_0963 The challenges were not all weather related. A mechanical challenge came for me in the form of a broken saddle on day 5. My Selle Anatomica saddle has a design that allows you to adjust the tension of the leather as it breaks in and stretches. At some point on day 5 the tensioning mechanism snapped and left me with a saddle holding no tension and no way to adjust it. Mind you I could still sit on it, but I was dangerously close to bottoming out on the top of the seat post and it was quite uncomfortable. I had to figure something out as I could not afford the extra miles or the time involved in going off route to buy another seat and if I had one sent or brought to me I would be disqualified from an official self supported status. As it turns out I was able to utilize 2 of the oversized zip ties I had with me – in order to wrap them around the nose piece of the saddle and the top tube of my frame giving me enough tension on the saddled to proceed. I rode this way for about 400 miles all the way to Flamingo. Luckily I was done with the really bumpy singletrack sections and only had flat ground to cover the rest of the way. Never ever go bikepacking without zip ties of all sizes and lengths. I never would have thought that I would use them the way I did but as they say, necessity is the mother of all invention. So Let’s talk now about the good stuff. You’ve heard plenty of how hard it was and how challenging it was, etc. It was challenging and it was hard no doubt, but it was also one of the most rewarding experiences I have ever taken part in. I was so content with being out there that I didn’t even use my headphones until day 5 when I was on the pavement. I had a goal going into this to get out of my comfort zone and spend as much time alone in the wilderness by myself as I could. I wanted to camp, to ride, and to just be me with no one to judge or be judged by. I did just that and found that I was actually really comfortable out there and that I was never really anxious about it. Don’t get me wrong I was smart about my choices when traversing black bear country, and made enough noise to allow anything bigger than me plenty of opportunity to get out of the way. The last thing I wanted was to surprise a bear on a blind corner and be coming at him at 14 mph. I got to see them just fine as they were going into the woods 50 yards or so in front of me. That was close enough. I also, with the exception of my saddle had zero mechanical issues. My recent purchase of a Titanium Salsa El Mariachi proved to be a wise choice. The bike was very capable on the terrain I rode and I had zero flats. My tires of choice Schwalbe Racing Ralph Evo Snake Skin 2.35’s run tubeless on my Stan’s Flow Ex rims worked flawlessly, they gave me just the right mix of float in the soft stuff and speed on the flats. My Revelate Designs bags held my stuff all where it was supposed to be and never gave me an issue. I felt that my gear list was complete and I never felt like I over or under packed. This was the first trip that I brought a pair of sandals and street clothes with me and I was very happy that I did. Each night I changed out of my clown suit of spandex and lycra, and into a flannel shirt and long sports pants. I was able to relax and it made a big difference in my overall comfort level. IMG_0954 A couple of trail conditions smiled upon me as well. The notorious Maggie Jones Road that is reputed to be a soft sand peanut butter hell of a few miles had just received a fresh grade and I was able to clean it in the aerobars! Now that’s a gift from the gods! I was also very pleased to find the pitcher pump at the entrance to Bull Creek running clean and with the complementary bottles left full from the previous hikers to prime the pump. This was good fortune as the last time Karlos and I used it the water was like chocolate milk and clogged our filters up solid. I was able to get 6 full bottles out of it in no time with little effort. Above all the sweet successes of the finish are the fruits of 8 days 10 hours and 32 minutes of travel in the wilderness. I dipped my tire in the Gulf Of Mexico at the campground in Flamingo. There were no news crews, no cheering crowds, no cameras. It was just me and my bike meandering across the grass to the water. A passerby was gracious enough to take my picture and congratulated me when he asked and I told him what I had done, but other than that it was an anti-climactic way to establish a record. In my mind, I was walking on air. Dead tired but on an adrenalin surge Redbull would love to bottle and sell to the masses. I had finished what I set out to do. I rode the Florida Divide from Fargo, Georgia to Flamingo solo, self-supported right down to the water. I could not be happier with my accomplishment regardless of the challenges or the time it took me. The biggest thing I found on this trip that I want to mention that had a positive effect on me was the people I ran into. For the most part everyone I came across, and there weren’t many of them were genuinely interested in what I was doing and wanted to be part of it in some way. A man named Joe at the Lochloosa Fishing Lodge, where I stayed on night #2 took a picture of me on my bike and wouldn’t let me leave until he laid his hands on it, and blessed it asking for a barrier to be put around me and to keep me safe. Even if you’re not into that sort of thing it meant something to him and his kindness moved me. The ladies in Paisley at the roadside BBQ stand who would not let me pay for my lunch and brought me soda and enough water to fill up. The guys who were out on the trail cutting firewood who gave me water in the Ocala Forest, and countless others who asked and listened to my tale and wished me good fortune. The people on this route made it that much more enjoyable to experience even given the challenges in conditions and terrain. I believe that when you get people away from negative influences they want to be good, they want to be helpful, and they want to be happy. I hope I put a little joy in their lives as they watched this crazy biker dude pedal off into the forest. They sure put a little joy in mine! Pale Rider Out If you are interested in participating in the first Florida Divide adventure, mark your calendars for February 28th. More information can be found here. Florida Divide

2 Comments

  1. Charlie, great write up. Honest and insightful and well written. I will have to add this on my list. I think many people miss the beauty of Florida but you have shown it in a new light.
    Thanks.

  2. Inspiring!! Thanks for sharing

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