Monday, October 10, 2011

Gator Country

Last weekend was the first weekend of October, and the first Canadian high pressure cell moved in. These high pressure cells are harbingers of the Canadians themselves, and I've been told to expect license plates from Alberta province within the next few weeks.

Reportedly, the Canadian high pressure cells are more welcome here in southern Florida than the Canadian overlords who summoned them. A number of folks here in Naples breathed a collective sigh when the humidity finally fell to below sauna levels ... or it sounded like they did. You can't really hear people breath when you're under water, and it had felt like that prior to the front's arrival.

Saturday was nice. Sunday was glorious. Monday I decided to play hooky and do a long ride.

One of the local bike shops here had a route that went from Marco Island to Chokoloskee. For those of you unfamiliar with southwestern Florida geography, Marco Island is south of Naples, and basically signals the end of a discernible coastline. There's a beach there, but it's mostly canals meandering through mangroves at the edge of the Florida Everglades. If you consider coastal Florida towns "civilization," then Marco Island is the end of civilization for a couple of hundred miles, until you get near Miami on the east coast. That's kind of where civilization starts up again ... if you can call Miami "civilization."

There are two roads that run between Marco Island and Miami: I-75 (this part is called Alligator Alley), or US 41 -- also called the Tamiami Trail, since it connects Tampa and Miami. Law enforcement frowns upon riding a bicycle on any interstate highway, and it really isn't all that much fun. So if you plan to bike east from Naples, you're pretty much stuck with US 41.

I rode to downtown Naples, first, to get a coffee and some breakfast. It was a little after 8 am when I then got on to US 41 for the 12-mile stretch to Marco Island. This part was fairly busy, with six lanes of a traffic, but it also had a bike lane. So long as you watched out for cars doing stupid things, like right-hooking you as they pulled into Publix or pulling out into you from a side street, you were okay.

Since I didn't want to go too far on this first trip, I decided to continue straight down US 41 towards Chokoloskee, rather than turn down Collier Road and go through Marco Island. That was dumb. Not that Collier Road heading out to Marco Island is exactly "quiet," but that part of US 41 was busier than the rest. Next time, I'll know better.

Past San Marco Road -- which is the "return" road from Marco Island -- things were a little better. US 41 is just two lanes there, and the shoulder isn't very good, with those little raised reflective plastic things glued to white chevrons along much of it. But it was quiet enough and straight enough that you could see the cars coming and only get on the shoulder when necessary.

Now, I've biked across some boring terrain, but it doesn't get much more boring than the 15.7 miles on US 41 between San Marco Road and Carnestown. Most of the entertainment there consisted of dragon flies -- it was like some kind of Biblical locust swarm of them. And, as you rode along dodging them, you couldn't help but think, "What do dragon flies eat that there could possibly be so many of them out there?" Yeah, that's right: They eat mosquitoes. I'm pretty sure that if you got a flat tire in that stretch, you would be drained of blood before you could get your tire levers out of the seat bag.

And I know what you're thinking: Did you see any alligators? Nope. None. Neither going down or coming back. Dead or alive. There were signs saying to slow down and watch out for Florida panthers, but I never saw any of them either. There was also a sign for a gopher tortoise crossing. Nothing.

Eventually, I got to Carnestown -- which is a gas station and an Everglades Park Information Center -- and turned south on County Road 29. About four miles later, I was in Everglades City.

The folks that named this town have grand aspirations. Dragon flies outnumbered people by a billion to one. But it does have a nice Subway and lots of airboats. If you ever want to extensively tour a swamp, you could do worse than to book a hotel room in Everglades City.

Passing through this metropolis, I continued on County Road 29 another four miles to Chokoloskee. This town turned out to be a bedroom community for those who can't stand the hustle and bustle of Everglades City.

From a map, you might get the idea that you're on the southern tip of Florida. Actually, there's big expanses of open water here, but it's very shallow. The horizon is more mangroves. The beach is ... well, just look at it.

The area is obviously a fisherman's paradise, judging from the number of boats, fishing poles, and sun-baked people there. It's the kind of place that Versus would tape a show that wasn't being narrated by Phil Liggett, Paul Sherwen, or Bob Roll.

Since I have hated to fish ever since I was forced to do it with my dad, brothers, uncles, and cousins off the bridge out to Fort Myers Beach, I spent about five minutes roaming the streets of Chokoloskee, and then headed back north. After a sumptuous Subway sandwich in Everglades City, I retraced my route and was on US 41 going northwest just before noon.

This time, I had pulled my iPhone out and was listening to music -- right earbud only! I wished that I had brought my dorkoscope -- the rear-view mirror that mounts on the right arm of my sunglasses -- since the tunes did make it a little harder to hear cars coming from behind. Fortunately, traffic going this way was even  lighter, and it took less than 45 minutes to make the turn on San Marco Road.

I had a glorious tailwind for the next five miles on this rather quiet road. Mangroves and canals were on both sides of the road, and they even had platforms for nests on the tops of the power-line poles.

After crossing a bridge over the channel -- the only climb on this ride -- I came into San Marco Island proper. I stopped at a store, filled bottles with ice and Gatorade, and then fought a cruel crosswind up Collier Road. Traffic on this section was also a little crazy, and the shoulder came and went.

It was after 2 pm and getting steamy as I came back into Naples and the bike computer rolled into triple digits. I had survived my little swamp sojourn without being eaten by alligators, panthers, or gopher tortoises. ... although I had picked up a few mosquito bites on my back. I also now had a good appreciation of how it can be more difficult to do a solo century on dead flat terrain than it had been in Tennessee, since my legs rarely got a chance to coast down any hills and my nether regions had enjoyed only sporadic saddle breaks.

Mostly, though, I now had hope that there may yet be some roads down here for a cyclist to explore. It's certainly possible to find roads that go nowhere -- I just may have to be willing to suffer that same road back to somewhere.


  1. The only cycling I have ever known is this flat, hot stuff. And how the wind will double cross you by shifting around so that tailwind you thought you had earned by riding a header all morning turns out to be a header on the way back in, too.

    But we get to ride year round.

    What kind of sub? I usually go for the teriyaki chicken on a long ride.

  2. I'm either a turkey and cheese guy, or the Italian.

    The winds were actually nice to me on this ride. They were out of the east most of the day, but were weaker in the morning when I was heading that way. But winds are just Florida hill training opportunities.

  3. I have a place up in Sarasota that I really enjoy visiting for the weather, and I ride a bit, but after a few days....zzzzzzz.

    I can get out into orange/cattle country, where the traffic is light, but so is the stimulation.

    Are you planning on doing any of the events in Gainsville, and such, this winter? My home is in CT, but I'm giving serious thought to doing a couple of 200km rides to try to keep my legs through the winter.