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May 2013: French Creek State Park

Spring came fairly late in 2013, and on top of that, my life was somehow cluttered with all kinds of things; whatever keeps you from getting out into the woods, I had going on. So it wasn't until the first weekend of May that I managed to load up the bike for a quick outing. 

This time, the destination was French Creek State Park. The last spring, I'd taken the bus to Valley Forge, and ridden along the Schuylkill River the rest of the way - into a fierce headwind, as I distinctly recall. This time I was taking a different, hopefully more scenic, route. The R5 train out to Downingtown would put distance between me and the suburban sprawl, and I'd enjoy country roads for about 20 miles before arriving at the park.

Google Maps makes it easy to sketch up a route. In this case I asked it for bike directions, then tweaked them to keep the route along what looked to me like quiet, scenic, and hopefully relatively flat roads. I then used the option (right there on the menu at the left side of the interface) to generate a KML file, which, using this handy site, I converted into a GPX that could be loaded onto my Garmin. That plus a cue sheet made navigation a breeze - though I did still manage to take one wrong turn - up a monster climb, no less.

The ride back was a bit trickier. I realized on the way out that the trains didn't run all the way to Downingtown on the weekends, so I'd have to find my way to Malvern, a few miles east, instead. It didn't end up being much of an issue - I took a lucky guess that route 401 would take me most of the way, and it did - I left it only when it turned from a pleasant country road into a busy highway, then pieced together other roads and streets to get me into town and to the train station.

All in all, the trip took about 27 hours. It didn't require me to wake up too early from a very late night, and got me back to Philly in time to shower and relax before Game of Thrones.


The setup this time around. No backpack required here, though the weight up front made 
handling a little untrustworthy for technical riding. Luckily, this ride involved very 
little of that

Just a few miles down the road from Downingtown, I was in the country. It was about 70 degrees,
 sunny and breezy. Absolute perfect weather for riding


This incredible tree caught my eye. I could not identify it, though the red leaves belong to it.
Edit from years later, with more tree knowledge: It calls to mind a sycamore or maybe beech, 
but neither of those would ever have such striking crimson leaves. Still a mystery


The scenery alternated between woods, farms and idyllic residences


Plenty of quiet, smooth country roads to roll down - and many of them fairly flat, which is 
not to be taken for granted in the Pennsylvania Piedmont


Nevertheless, the route still hit me with enough climbs to get my city-spoiled leg muscles working. 
This climb didn't turn out to be too painful at all, and the worst ones were all on route 401, on 
the return trip


Marsh Creek, just down from the road


Not much of a shoulder, but there was so little traffic that I hardly needed it


Made it to the park! It's located on some hills, so the entry into it dished out some more tough 
climbing. All for the best though; riding in Philadelphia does not provide much athletic challenge, 
unless you count the rough pavement


French Creek has campsites, but I'd heard horror stories about them - just gravel plots, very close to other gravel plots, all of them filled with screaming kids, yelping dogs, running motors, and other uninviting presences. As I rode around scouting the area out, the tales seemed to be true. On top of that, it was 20 bucks for a campsite. I hate to take advantage of the DCNR, but I think I can live with myself for heading into the woods to find a stealth camp instead. 


Much better than a designated campsite...just practice Leave No Trace


This was a trial run for some new pieces of gear I'd picked up. I was especially eager to use the Big Agnes Fly Creek UL1 tent, as I'd picked it up for just $100 used the previous winter - used, that is, but with a brand-new rainfly. Given that the retail price is $370, my Mennonite soul raptured in delight at this steal. The tent's not really intended to be used around my homeland, but rather in other climes where trees can't be found from which to hang my hammock - places like the Middle East, the American West, and so on. 

I did want to try it out though and see how I liked it. The verdict? Can't complain about its weight (2 lbs) and the setup is quick and straightforward, but there sure is not a lot of room in there. I can hardly sit up in it. There's enough room to sleep and keep a few items in with you, but God forbid you have to wait out a storm in there. That's the price you pay for light weight, though. Its double-walled structure comes with tradeoffs too. It's nice to be able to leave the rainfly off on a clear night, and this setup helps avoid condensation dripping into the tent, but since the tent body has to go up before the rainfly can be put over it, I don't know that there's any way to get the tent set up in the rain without it getting wet on the inside. Given that I mainly intend to use it in regions where there shouldn't be too much rain (at least, not for sustained periods), this hopefully shouldn't be a huge issue. However, I can still picture the nightmarish experience of trying to set up camp in one of the days-long torrential downpours that January can bring to the eastern Mediterranean - an experience I hope never to have.


View from my chill spot near camp

I was early enough arriving at the park that I could have spent a few hours riding around - it would have been fun to drop all my gear at the camp and take the bike out on the park's locally distinguished mountain bike trails, even with slick tires. But I was exhausted from lack of sleep the previous night and a recent few weeks of insomnia, so I just found a nice boulder to lie on and enjoy the last hours of sunlight.


I don't think I have full-blown seasonal affective disorder, but I'm starting to hate winter more and 
more. Not least, it's because of the lack of greenery. Once leaves begin sprouting, my mood makes a 
pronounced change


Back to camp. No rain in the forecast, so I took off the rainfly to keep the tent airy and let in the 
starlight


For those interested, my solo camp kitchen involves an MSR Pocket Rocket stove and 700ml pot. I'm pretty sure some ultralight fanatics find this very excessive, but it works for me. On this trip I was trying out Mountain House dehydrated food. It comes in (quite pricey) packets, but is pretty great for those who are a) traveling a long distance without the chance to resupply or b) lazy. I don't mind cooking at camp all that much, but I thought I'd see how edible this astronaut-type meal was.

Preparation is pretty easy; just boil water, combine that with the food, and wait. I think part of the reason the meal packet is so expensive is that it comes in an insulated pouch that can be zipped shut, in order to let the food and water mix together over 8 minutes. However, my pot has a lid (and I think most pots do) and I'd rather pay less for a less fancy pouch, and just let the combining happen in my pot. And for $6.50, there's really not that much food in the packet, despite it saying that it's "two servings" (I took this to mean "enough for two people").

However, I was pleasantly surprised with the taste. Quantity problems aside, it was a pretty good dinner. However, the price is enough to put me off dehydrated food unless I can get considerable savings by buying it in bulk.

Around 9pm, I had just closed my eyes for the night when I heard the unmistakeable sound of something large tramping through the leaf litter. Stealth was impossible in the woods for anything larger than a chipmunk, and this was something big. I really hoped it wasn't a human - even if most people don't mean any harm, being discovered in a stealth camp is a profoundly unpleasant experience, and unsettling. Worse, a park ranger could throw me out on my ear for camping outside the designated areas.

I got up and looked for a light. It was quite dark, so a person would need one. The sounds kept coming closer and closer to me, but I couldn't see anything shining. That meant either a serial killer with night-vision goggles, as seen in The Silence of the Lambs, or a deer - or maybe a man-eating boogeyman of some sort. I decided (as the steps got closer and closer, passing what sounded like just yards from my tent) that the deer was by far the most likely, and laid back down.

I slept in quite late the next morning - about 11 hours of sleep all in all, I think. The Thermarest air mattress wasn't quite as comfy as a perfectly-rigged hammock, but for ground-dwelling, the accommodations were nothing to complain about.

The next morning, I explored some gated-off two-track in a far corner of the park


The track ended unceremoniously at what I assume is a water tower for the rest of the area


A quick detour onto singletrack. French Creek's trails are known for being rocky and harsh, but this 
section wasn't too bad. That was good, since my slick tires and front-heavy bike setup would have 
made technical riding not only unpleasant but downright treacherous


I zoomed down from the high elevation where I'd camped, being passed by some road bikers on the way, 
to Hopewell Lake - an ideal breakfast spot


A tranquil morning by the water




I made an attempt to cycle around the lake, but soon gave up as the muddy crossings made it more 
hike-and-bike than I was in the mood for. I did find this presumable beaver dam - though I sure didn't 
know there were beavers in these parts




On the road back to Malvern, there was plenty more peaceful countryside to enjoy. I always 
compare rural Pennsylvania unfavorably to the Shenandoah Valley, but this area sure can be 
pretty on a perfect May day
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