What Constitutes a Lesson?


Yes, I’ve gone down another rabbit hole! At least temporarily.

I love learning new things. And I love reflecting on the learning process; in particular, what it takes to develop new skills and apply those skills consistently. I took an archery “lesson” (more on why I put the word in quotes in a moment) this past week as an exploratory step to see what it takes to bow hunt. I did my first bird hunts this year using the shotgun to harvest the quarry. It was fun, challenging and I rather like the idea of harvesting my own game. Oh, the birds are delicious, too.

The bird hunting led me to a variety of books and websites to learn how to prepare game birds for the table. My reading inevitably took me into the subject of bigger game; namely venison. The recipes looked good and I started wondering what it would take to harvest a deer next season. More reading followed, and I realized that big game hunting would be foolish, and unethical, if I didn’t actually like the taste of venison. So last month I found a butcher that stocks venison and I picked up a leg cut, followed an online recipe and made my first venison steaks. They were good….not quite delicious because the marinade was a bit heavy-handed in the soy department. But I liked the meat. It was lean, easy enough to work with, did not have a nasty taste ( I had some bad venison as a youngster) and, most importantly, the other members of the family ate it. There’s no point hunting if your family won’t eat the fruits of your labor.

I read more about big game hunting. I watched lots of videos of hunts, wondering if I could pull the trigger on a bigger animal, would I have the patience to sit quietly, break down the animal etcetera. The answers kept coming up “yes.” The next item to tackle was how to hunt: firearm or bow? I have no particular need for another firearm, and learning how to use a compound bow seemed like a good personal challenge for the year, so I decided to take an archery lesson. My goals were pretty simple: first see if I could even do it and, second, see if I was any good at it. A little Googling revealed three options for lessons in my general area and I chose the one closest to home. I paid a casual visit to the shop/range a couple of weeks ago, and booked the lesson for the middle of the week when it would be quietest and I could get some 1:1 coaching.

Learning a new skill can be fun and challenging at the same time. With most skills, learning the proper form and technique in the beginning will lay the foundation for success later on. That was my experience with sporting clays and bird hunting, and I had every reason to believe it would be the same for archery. I had watched enough YouTube videos (not always the best source of proper technique) to realize that proper posture and form are very important and, as such, I was eager to learn the proper set-up.

Which brings me to the question posed in the title of this post. What constitutes a proper lesson? What are your expectations when you lay down your money to learn something new from someone more experienced than you? Are the expectations different if the instructor is older than you and, by insinuation more experienced, versus one-third your age?

Yes, that last question smacks of ageism.  But I think I’m onto something.

My 90 minute archery lesson commenced with the shop manager telling the young instructor (my guess is he was a high school student), that he had to do the lesson before doing some other activity they were discussing. The lesson started with a 7 minute safety speech reminding me not to run with the arrows in my hand and not to skip on the lanes. Yes, “No Skipping.” Then we went to the lane where he spent about 15 minutes showing me how to stand and where to position my shoulder and elbow. I took a few shots and there was a comment that the sight needed adjustment.

Whereupon another customer came up and asked the instructor to help him with a trigger release. I never saw the instructor again. He walked away to help the other customer and within a few minutes they were both at the other end of the range shooting with each other. I completed the balance of the 90 minutes shooting independently.

Is this a “lesson?”

As a professional educator, I don’t think so. Almost no effort was put into coaching me beyond telling me not to skip down the lane and how to position my elbow. There’s a world of technique (how to properly sight, how to release, follow-through etc) that we did not touch upon. I didn’t have unreasonable hopes of leaving an expert marksman, but I expected more from something billed as a lesson. I expected the instructor to lay a proper foundation and to build enthusiasm in me so I would want to move forward and even spend more money at the place. None of that was done.

I suspect age played a role here. An 18 year old simply doesn’t have the life experience to understand what customers expect and what is required from a safety standpoint when they pay for a “lesson.” Particularly if that lesson involves a lethal instrumentality such as a bow or gun. An 18 year old also has a world of other things going on: school work, girl friends, social interactions with others at the range that inhibit the ability to remain customer focused. Now I’m sure there are exceptions to this, but in my life experience I’ve not had good experiences with youngsters giving “lessons.”

You might be wondering, “Why didn’t you say something to the manager?” Good question. I didn’t have to. She was hanging out with the instructor, fully aware that I was shooting on my own. On a positive note, the 1 hour plus that I had to myself allowed me to experiment and figure some things out on my own, but that’s not the point of a lesson. The point of a lesson is instruction, practice and feedback. I got a tiny bit of instruction and a lot of self-directed practice. For all I know, I practiced incorrectly for over an hour. I’ll never know. Until I take another lesson….somewhere else.

As you can see in the picture, I don’t totally suck. But some of that is beginner’s luck, I’m sure. And I think I was only ten yards away from the target, maybe closer. I’ll almost certainly take another lesson somewhere else, but the experience made me realize that there’s no agreed-upon definition of “lesson” in the world. My definition (instruction-practice-feedback) was definitely not the archery shop’s mental model. Going forward, I know to ask specifically:

What constitutes a lesson?

What do I get in exchange for my money?

Will this be 1:1 and will the instructor stay with me or wander off to check customers out at the cash register?

What should I expect to accomplish by the end of the lesson?

What should I do after the lesson to continue growing in the activity?

These things, by the way, are commonly part of a professional lesson plan in the academic environment. Consumers of “lessons” would be well-served to ask these questions before laying down their money. I know I will from now on.


Posted in Fieldsports, Hunting | Leave a comment

Upland Bird Hunting


We proceeded in silence. Silence that was only broken by the sound of a dog’s collar bell and the occasional discharge of a shotgun.

I had my first upland bird hunting experience on the 13th of this month. The chukar partridge pictured above was one of the first birds harvested during that experience.  I harvested seven others like it that day, under the watchful eye of a guide instructor whom I hired to teach me the proper way to hunt birds over dogs. How I got there requires a little explanation, particularly if you are accustomed to reading about my cycling or sporting clays activities.

If you’ve been following along, you know that I took up sporting clays a little over a year ago. Shooting at fast-moving, sometimes small orange and black clays is exciting but I was losing interest in the score-keeping aspect. The truth is, some of the targets are just ridiculous and don’t represent anything that happens in real life. I was getting “up in my head” about scores and not really enjoying the experience. Two things converged over the summer to make me consider a guided hunting experience.

First, I changed my practice habits to focus more on relaxing and shooting more instinctively than worrying about a score. I also practiced not thinking too much about a shot plan; rather shooting “trapper’s choice” where the shooter doesn’t know which trap will be thrown. My scores improved a bit by shooting more instinctively and not dwelling too long on hold points and shot plans.

The second thing that happened was that I started looking into bird hunting opportunities. I had always wanted to hunt birds at least once just to see if I could do it and to experience a true forest to table experience. Yes, I imagine this has its roots in primitive-man programming to catch and eat one’s own food and, since taking up shotgunning, I certainly had the means to do it. And, as such, I started poking around the internet to learn all I could about upland bird hunting.

Why Upland? Reason one: duck hunting involves getting up way before sunrise and sitting in the cold and wet. My work and lifestyle don’t allow for that. You also need a boat or dog to retrieve the downed bird. I have neither. Turkey hunting, as I learned in my hunter education course, is the most dangerous thing you can do in the woods with a gun because a lot of people shoot at things they think are turkeys but are actually other hunters. No thanks. Also, I dont look good in cammo!

My research uncovered a treasure trove of books, magazines, websites and podcasts geared toward helping new upland hunters get started in the field. Project Upland was a tremendous resource, packed with useful articles and gorgeous films. Reading the articles and watching the films, I realized that upland hunting has elements of everything that I enjoy: finding interesting places to visit, spending time in the field and, of course, shotgunning. Somewhere along the way, I found Reid Bryant’s excellent podcast. Reid has been very helpful to me both through the podcast and on the phone in conjunction with the friendly folks at Orvis Sandanona. If you are remotely interested in upland hunting, I cannot recommend Reid’s book enough. I’ve read it cover to cover three times since receiving it; it’s packed with useful advice.

One of the useful bits of advice is to find someone else to hunt with at first. There’s a lot going on during a hunt and being safe with a firearm is only one aspect. As such, it’s an activity that you probably should not undertake without some form of guidance. I do not come from a hunting family and none of the people I socialize or work with hunt, so I had to make some connections to figure this part out. My researching led me to the Ruffed Grouse Society, where the Northeast Regional Director, Tripp Way, suggested I hire a guide and do a controlled preserve hunt before heading afield on my own. And that is how I found myself in fields choked with sticker bushes and dead corn stalks on the 13th.

My guide for the day, Tom Fiumarello, is a hunting and sporting clays instructor based in the Hudson Valley. We talked on the phone a few times prior to the hunt to set expectations and discuss options. We settled on a preserve-style hunt, meaning that we would be hunting in an area where birds had been released into the fields prior to our arrival. This takes some of the guesswork out of a traditional upland hunt, where you can hike for hours and never see a bird. Tom wanted me to see and shoot birds, and learn how to conduct myself in the presence of  his dogs. The birds were free to move around, or even fly off; just because they had been released into the fields did not guarantee I would find them all.

We had a few false starts prior to the 13th due to weather. It was bloody hot in NY during October. The heat isn’t good for dogs and it also makes birds sit tight and conserve their energy.  The morning of the 13th was miserable with rain and scattered snow but the weather cleared just as we got out of our cars. Tom ran through some shooting basics, reviewed safety measures and other helpful advice before we set off into the fields behind one of his Brittanys.

I should note that if there is one thing I learned, it’s that bird hunting is very nearly impossible without a dog! I wouldn’t have found a bird (even if it were sitting on the hood of my car) without the dog. The birds are invisible and their self-preservation instincts cause them to sit still even if you are standing directly over them.

Tom warned me going into the hunt that bird hunting would make sporting clays look boring and he was correct. He also warned that I would be captivated by watching the dogs do their work. He was right about that, too. Within a few minutes his dog Ginger came to point on a bird. We whacked the brush and the bird took flight. I instinctively lifted the gun to my face and felled the bird on the first shot. On command, Ginger brought the bird back to Tom and we inspected it. I waited to see if there would be some sort of bad emotion from inside me in response to killing a living creature. There was none. I felt some vague feeling of honor and respect for the creature, but it certainly did not trouble me. I was concerned about that going into the hunt; that maybe emotionally I wasn’t cut out for the work.

We hunted together with Ginger and Meg, Tom’s other Brit, for about four hours. Other than an occasional question about where to stand in relation to the dogs, or a reminder to swing through the shot, there wasn’t a lot of chit-chat. It wasn’t necessary. Honestly, I could have put down my gun after the third bird and just watched the dogs work, it was that eye-opening and educational.

Back at his truck, Tom showed me how to field dress the birds and gave some recipe suggestions. My promise to myself was that I would cook and eat the birds and–if I did not like the taste of wild birds—never hunt again. I can’t stomach the idea of taking a life and not using the meat. Chukar does not provide a huge amount of meat from the breasts, so I used the medallions to make partridge Marsala over pasta.


It was darn good! I was skeptical that I could get my family to try it. My kids declined because of some sadness that it was from wild birds (yet they eat chicken three times a week). My wife enjoyed it as did my coworkers who sampled the leftovers.

That day in the field was life-changing. I’d often wondered what it would be like to hunt, prepare and eat one’s own food. Now I know. I wondered if I’d be any good at it. I brought home about 60% of the birds I shot at. Some were boneheaded misses due to hasty gun mounting. One bird hovered directly in front of my face for ten or so wing beats, and I was so mesmerized that I didn’t mount the gun until it flew away!

It was a huge learning experience to say the least. I learned to slow down (something I struggle with on the clays course). You never know where the bird will flush to, so step one is getting your body positioned properly and mounting the gun cleanly. You can’t be hasty with this step in the field because you could fall over. I learned not to wear fleece. My sweater was covered with briar stickers that I had to comb out of the fabric when I got home. I learned that hunting is a quiet activity, even if you are with others.

The hunt also reinforced what I learned in the hunter safety course and from Reid’s book. Namely, wait for the birds to flush into the sky; do not shoot “low” birds because the dogs are down there. And do not shoot outside the 40 degree arc if there is someone standing next to you. You can’t appreciate why these two safety rules are so important until you are out in the field and the birds are flying. It’s easy to get distracted or tempted to violate one of the rules, but safety comes first.

I hate to say “I’m hooked” but I think I’m hooked. The experience was, as Tom predicted, more enjoyable than shooting at clay discs. Walking behind the dogs was reward in itself; taking home tasty bird meat was a bonus. I’m not sure how to continue, since I cannot imagine doing this without a dog. I’ll figure it out I suppose.

Post Script

Not long after my guided lesson, I was invited to join a group of very experienced hunters on the same property. There were eight of us, hunting in two teams with two or three dogs per team. I was the newbie, an outsider to the group, yet the seven men welcomed me and were gracious with their advice. We hunted for the better part of seven hours. I could have done better. I seemed to be always standing in the wrong spot in relation to the flush and the other guns, and I think having others with me caused me to be a bit hasty and sloppy with my mounts (slow down!). But that’s life, it’s a learning curve. We had a very productive day…..


A mix of chukar, Huns and pheasants. I took my turn field dressing the birds with two other guys, finishing after sunset and thankful we didn’t cut our fingers off in the low light. My freezer is now stocked with bird meat and I cannot wait to do it again.

Thank you to all of the people mentioned above who made these two upland experiences possible.


Posted in Fieldsports, Photography, Upland Bird Hunting | Leave a comment

The Joy of Books

I spend a lot of time reading and listening to content on the internet. I get most of my news and current events from websites, and most of my leisure reading comes from the net or as digital subscriptions to magazines and newsletters. And, of course, there are message boards specific to whatever I’m interested in that month. On top of that, I listen to about ten hours of podcasts weekly, while driving to and from work and doing chores around the house. When I reflect on my total screen time, including time I spend in front of a computer at work……I spend a Lot of time looking at digital content.

Which is why this summer I made a half- hearted promise to myself to read some books. You know, those things made from wood pulp and sold in bookstores. Part of the promise was about getting away from the screen for a few minutes each day, and part was about setting a better example for my kids who are similarly screen addicted and need to understand the value of sitting quietly with a book. I’ve only been partly successful on both accounts.

In a strange way, the books pictured above are the result of my digital consumption. All of them were chosen because I saw or heard them referenced somewhere on the web. The “Old Man” book, for example, was the result of listening to an Orvis podcast reviewing outdoor and hunting books. The description of it appealed to me, so I bought it. As such, I’m allowing my digital consumption to guide my book buying. Maybe that’s how the internet is supposed to work, but I find it curious that my digital consumption is actually driving me away from digital and toward actual books.

….and I’m okay with that!

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I dipped my toes into sporting clays almost exactly a year ago. I’ve been fortunate to shoot at some amazing venues since then, places where the annual membership quickly approaches the price of a small automobile. I’ve also shot at a number of public venues both privately owned and owned by a local municipality. One of the things I like about sporting clays is that it is done outside, usually in vast wooded spaces or rolling hills far enough away from the rest of civilization that the sounds of gunfire do not become a nuisance. Even on days where my shooting is lackluster, I enjoy being in the environment where shooting takes place.

In Britain, as far as I can tell, shooting and hunting are treated as hallowed activities. There is a respect for the quarry and the land. People dress nicely for the clays course and wear suits for hunting out of reverence for the game. Sportsmanship and stewardship for the land are the rules of the day.

Sadly, I don’t always see that where I shoot. Leaving aside the folks who dress in shorts and wife-beater t-shirts for a moment, there is a horrible disrespect of the land and the landowners in some of the places I visit. The image above was made earlier today at a public course about an hour from my home. That’s one of sixteen stations that were all polluted with shells, boxes and empty water bottles. Not very respectful of the environment or the people who operate the place.

Is it so hard to catch your shells as they eject from your over-under, or bend over and pick up the shells ejected from your semi-auto or pump? Would you want this mess in your backyard?

I believe stewardship of the land in this context consists of two elements: respect for the land and respect for others. We should respect the land because, without it, there’d be no place (nice) to shoot. That garbage will eventually get compressed into the ground and take a million years to decompose. The land will eventually become toxic, meaning we won’t be able to enter onto it to shoot. It’s also unsafe. People can trip and fall on that garbage.

Stewardship also requires us to respect others. Someone eventually has to clean up all that mess. The time and effort to clean up those 16 stations is much greater than the effort to pick up one’s shells at the time they are shot. That time will either be passed onto the consumer in the form of higher prices or….as I think is happening at this course…the owner will just let the shells sit there on the ground until enough people complain or there’s a lull in activity. Do you really want to be in an environment that looks like this?

We could take a page from our British brothers and sisters and respect the land and show some self respect by cleaning up after ourselves.

Posted in Photography, Sporting Clays | Leave a comment

My Sporting Clays Journey Continues


The blog has been quiet for a while as I keep busy with work and trying to get better at sporting clays. If you read the last post, you know that about a year ago I started shooting sporting clays. It’s basically golf with a shotgun. The challenge is that no course, or even targets at a particular station, is the same moment to moment. Wind, lighting and the shooter’s state of mind all influence the shot plan and execution. As such, the learning curve is pretty steep and that is probably why I’ve been so engrossed by the sport. I enjoy learning new skills and learning how to learn new skills, if that makes any sense.

I haven’t been posting my adventures in the woods because, unlike cycling, you don’t see many people with their cameras out at a sporting clays tournament. When I bike, I always have my eyes open to find the next picture, and have my camera or phone handy to capture the moment. When I shoot, on the other hand, my eyes and mind are focused on one thing and one thing only: where the clay target is coming from and going to. I’m not thinking about making pictures. I’m also aware that not everyone on the course with me wants their image captured or shared. There’s an element of privacy to be respected because some people do not want the whole world to know they shoot.

I’ve been reluctant to make and share images for the last reason mentioned.  I don’t want to “out” someone as a shotgunner who wants that kept private. There is, you see, a social stigma to being “a shooter” that makes some uncomfortable. I get it. Before last year, I could not understand why people owned guns other than to hunt game. To be honest, I thought gun owners were something of a fringe group mostly because of the way they are portrayed by the media often in response to some horrendous incident. Now I shoot and see things from a different perspective.

Pictured above is the main lodge at Ten Mile River Preserve in Dover Plains, NY. It is one of the most bucolic places I’ve ever been in the great state of New York. You get to it by driving 90 minutes from the city, the last 20 on a single lane dirt road. It would be a great road to cycle on but, in a car, you wonder if your GPS has led you astray. You drive through the woods, then out of nowhere there is a clearing and you see this giant valley and the lodge sitting in the middle of it. You wonder, “How the hell did they build this here!”

Scattered around the preserve are various shooting venues, including this 5 stand site.


Yes, the field is that big. I wasn’t being lazy with my camera.

I spent the day here yesterday trying to smash clay targets with BBs fired from my shotgun. I didn’t do so well. Remember the learning curve. But I spent the day in a place that I didn’t know about this time last year, with like-minded perfectly sane people. The sporting clays community is friendly and welcoming, though few outsiders even know that such a community exists. I have been lucky enough to join the community and visit places like TMRP and countless other courses tucked away in NY, CT and NJ.

People ask me why I like going out to shoot, particularly since I’m not all that good yet. It’s because it is a journey. Part of the journey is developing the skill to shoot well and consistently. Part of the journey is represented by these pictures: being outside in the wonder of nature for a few hours. Hiking (I’m cheap so I don’t rent a golf cart!), seeing the sights and breathing the fresh air.

My journey has taught me that my preconceived notion of gun owners was wrong. They are not “nuts” or radicals, at least not the people in the woods shooting at clay birds. They are professionals, parents, spouses, upright citizens who enjoy being outside and pursuing a sport that happens to involve a firearm. They realized that the sport takes them to places that others don’t get to see.

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Educating Myself


The blog has been dormant for too long. My job has grown considerably busier and more complex over the last six months, thereby limiting my ability to bike commute. Weekday evenings are now dedicated to cooking and third graders’ homework. As a result, I’ve fallen a little out of shape because my weekends are predominantly occupied by the chores that used to get done during the work week. The weekends are also occupied by a new sport.

Since Father’s Day, I’ve taken a new recreational path: sporting clays or, as some refer to it, golf with a shotgun. Those who know me or have read the blog know that I’ve never mentioned guns and have never had any particular interest in them. Both of those statements have been true up until this past summer when a co-worker mentioned that I should “check out” sporting clays. And so I did.

My first encounter was during a lesson at Sandanona in upstate New York, one of the oldest shooting preserves in the country. The lesson began with a review of firearm safety and instruction on how to operate an over & under shotgun. I shot rifles in high school as part of an intramural squad and a I vaguely recall firing a shotgun at scout camp and, as such, I understood the basic rules of handling a gun. The instructor then taught me how to align the gun with my eye so I’d be shooting where I was looking and, voila, I broke my first clay target (the orange discs in the picture above). The first time you break one you are hooked and want to keep doing it over and over!

From the lesson, we set out on the course. A sporting clays course is similar to a golf course but, instead of greens and holes, you have stands and traps. The picture at the top of this post is a stand and trap at an event I completed this morning. You stand in the wooden frame, call “Pull” and a clay launches off the trap into the air (or onto the ground), you point your gun at it and fire. You may do this several times at a station, shooting different presentations of the clays; sometimes one at a time, and other times in pairs. You move from station to station around the course until you’ve shot at 100 targets.

I practiced on my own for  several weekends before taking another lesson and eventually committing to regular participation in the sport. I’m on the proverbial journey of novice to expert. Each station is a complex and complicated physics problem that you have to solve almost instantaneously in order to break the clay. On stations with pairs, that means two different sets of physics problems. Part of the allure of the sport, to me at least, is just that: It’s a problem that requires deliberate practice in order to solve. You may break a clay every now and then by sheer luck but you must work hard to break them consistently. When you break them…..that’s joy and accomplishment.

I reached the stage–back in September or October– that practicing on my own was not good enough. If you want to educate yourself at anything worthwhile you need help. You need a coach and you need to hang around people who are better than you. I contacted a not-so-local club and asked to join them as a guest but an early winter storm ruined that plan. So I did the next best thing and registered for a competition. I figured I’d be assured of meeting people better than me at a competition and could pick up a few pointers while also getting some experience “in the box.”

This morning I completed that first competition at an exceptional course in New Jersey, M&M Hunting Preserve and Sporting Clays.  The facility is owned by a national champion shooter, and he runs monthly competitions that attract sportspeople from the entire country. I had the extremely good fortune to squad with two shooters from Maine, and they were gracious enough to offer some pointers. I’m not exaggerating when I say I was shooting better by the end of the course as a result of meeting Kim and Earle.

Make no mistake, my score was awful and that’s to be expected at this stage of learning. But at least I did not earn lowest score!

The experience of traveling to a world class facility to compete with others who are further along the learning curve was very rewarding and empowering. I’m hooked more than ever and understand what my next steps should be toward improving.

Lessons Learned (it’s not learning if you don’t reflect afterward)

  1. Get to the course early. I did. Get to the course early enough to practice. That I didn’t do.
  2. Don’t leave your gloves and hearing protection in the car overnight. They’ll freeze.
  3. Poly-pro fleece underwear and insulated shoes are essential gear in January.
  4. Find pleasant people and ask if you can join them.
  5. Listen carefully to advice but also understand that some of it might be wrong. Vet the advice based on what you already know and the person’s performance.
  6. Practice requires a competent coach. Find one who specializes in your sport/discipline and set up a coaching plan.

Needless to say, I’ll be shopping for a coach who is an expert in sporting clays and thinking more deeply about how I practice. Educating yourself should be exciting and challenging. After today’s event I’m more excited than ever about getting better at this sport.

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First S24O


I completed my first Sub 24 Overnight (S240) this week after years of procrastination. The purpose of an S24O is to get outside for a short camping trip using the bicycle as the vehicle for fun and exploration. The concept was popularized by the folks at Rivendell Bicycle Works,  who suggested that a quick overnight into the woods is just as enjoyable as a multi-day loaded tour and, in many cases, more attainable by people who work Monday through Friday. In it simplest form, you leave work Friday, ride to the campsite, camp, and return home Saturday morning. As such, the entire adventure is completed within 24 hours. Depending on the campsite location, public transit or a car might be used to get within reasonable riding distance of the campsite.

I heard about S24O’s before I learned about bike packing, probably about 3 or 4 years ago. The S24O was attractive to me because I like cycling and enjoy camping, although I haven’t done any serious camping in many years, but I don’t have the time to undertake a multi-day loaded tour. Heaven knows I planned to do a big tour many years ago; I have the over-built CoMotion Americano as a result of my lofty touring goals. But life got in the way as they say and I never took that long tour. The S24O, on the other hand, is intended to be quick, easy and not require special equipment beyond basic camping gear for sleeping and eating. Many people, by the way, skip the cooking gear altogether and eat on the way to and from the campsite.

I never got my act together to actually do the S24O, predominantly out of guilt over having an incomplete doctoral dissertation hanging over my head. When you’ve wasted so much time not doing your academic work, it’s hard to justify riding into the woods on your bike and sleeping in a tent. That burden was lifted this month when I finally completed my doctoral degree. Time to have guilt-free fun!


I chose to mash together two concepts: the S24O and bike packing for my first outing. Bike packing is basically off-road bike touring with frame mounted bags instead of racks and panniers. I just didn’t want to ride on the road for my first trip, I wanted to be in the woods. It took me awhile to find a suitable location to do this because there are no nice public campgrounds near my work and home. Eventually, someone suggested the Taconic-Hereford Multiple Use Area, also known as the “909” to locals in the Catskills.  The 909 has everything you need for a simple S24O. It is accessible by car, is well mapped, has designated campsites (public camping in NY State is limited to certain designated areas) and a mix of riding surfaces. I made a recon trip to the 909 a month prior to my S24O to scope out the trails and campsites, and communicated by message board with the locals to make sure the campsites are not used for drinking parties at night.

After years of procrastination and delay, the trip came together very quickly. I monitored the weather forecast early in the week and decided on a Wednesday to “go for it.” I packed all my gear on Thursday evening and pre-loaded it into my car. I brought my gear and bike to work with me Friday so I could drive to the park entrance after work. At the appointed hour, I stripped off my business clothes, put on my riding shorts and shoes and drove the 90 minutes from Long Island to the 909.

I was on the trail by 5:45 pm. I started off on the jeep tracks, just to get the hang of riding a loaded mountain bike. I patrolled around to see who else was in the park and scope out the camp sites. One site had some empty beer bottles, suggesting it was a popular party spot, so I eliminated it from my list of places to camp. Another site had a mattress in it. Odd thing to see in the middle of the woods, so I scratched that site, too. I then decided to try my luck on one of the single track trails, just for the sake of putting on some miles before setting up camp.


The trail I chose was at times too technical for my first loaded bike packing trip. It started out nice enough but soon turned very rocky with several roller coaster ups and downs. On an unloaded bike it would be a fun trail but with a giant dry bag strapped to the bars it was a bit nerve racking. If I had to do my first ride again, I would not go on technical single track and would stick to the jeep and snow mobile trails. Live and learn.

I rode around for nearly two hours to shake down my rig. I had a seat bag, Camelback, top tube bag and a giant dry bag strapped to the bars. I purposely did not invest in a frame bag or handlebar roll because I wanted to make sure I enjoyed this method of camping before buying specialty gear. You can get by with minimal gear, but the specialty gear no doubt makes things easier. Here’s a summary of my packing strategy:

Revelate Pika seat bag:

  • MSR pocket rocket stove, small pot with lid, cup, utensils
  • rain jacket
  • small pouches with toiletries and repair kit, head lamp, first aid kit
  • camp towel
  • food: freeze dried dinner, oatmeal and tea for breakfast

Revelate Gas Tank top tube bag:

  • snacks while riding
  • small camera

Camelbak pack:

  • first aid kit
  • toilet paper, hand sanitizer
  • pump
  • repair kit
  • phone and wallet
  • 70 ounces water
  • gorilla pod
  • more snacks

30 liter Eastern Mountain Sports Dry Bag

  • Tarptent Moment
  • 40 degree Marmot sleeping bag
  • Thermarest air mattress
  • sleep clothes, ski cap

Gear shot

I secured the dry bag to the handle bars using a pair of Rok Straps. The dry bag was the weak link in the system. It was too bulky and my rigging method was nothing short of craptastic! The bag sagged and rubbed against my suspension fork producing an irritating noise. I plan to replace it with a purpose-built harness. I managed to duplicate some items because they were already in my Camelbak. I brought more snacks than I needed and I never used the tripod. Interestingly, I used all my water (70 ounces in the pack plus two water bottles) both drinking and cooking. I usually don’t drink that much but it was warm and muggy.

I’m not a big fan of wearing the backpack. I don’t like the weight on my shoulders and I think it facilitates carrying stuff you don’t really need. I also feel that it makes me sweat more. Going forward, I  will try to ditch the backpack and shift the water and other items into a frame bag.


My gear worked fine. I was concerned that I’d forgotten how to camp because I’ve been dormant for many years but there were no serious issues. I should have paid more attention to the patch of ground I pitched the tent on. It was not flat and, as such, my pad kept sliding to one side during the night. The 40 degree bag was spot on for the weather Friday night. The night started at about 60 degrees and dipped to the upper 40s by about 2 am. I used the mummy bag as a top quilt; I’m done with zipping into mummy bags.


I awoke Saturday morning at 5 am, which is when all the birds in Pleasant Valley wake up and start chirping and signing. I tried to go back to sleep but couldn’t so I packed up and rode to the trail head. I drove home with the goal of being back in time to cook breakfast for my family. I was back home by 8:15 only to find that the power was out and I was unable to cook. Ironic that I left the woods to go back home where the power was out.

One thing I learned from a visit to Army University last year was that every mission should have a Lessons Learned component. Here are mine from my first S24O:

  1. Wet Wipes for cleaning up before bed are great, provided they are actually wet. Check them before you leave home
  2. Don’t forget bug spray
  3. Don’t take your first S24O ride on technical singletrack
  4. Sweep your tent site for sticks etc and make sure it’s level. It might look level in the fading light but it probably isn’t
  5. Re-check all your gear when packing and eliminate duplication
  6. Have a water management plan

My first S24O was a success. I had a peaceful evening in the woods and got to shake down my gear. I got to get away and ride my bike and still be home in time to cook breakfast and spend the weekend with my family. If you are on the fence about whether to do an S24O, just do it. If I can, anyone can. It’s fun and does not require a ton of gear.

About the 909. It’s a New York State DEC multi-use area. It has trails for hiking, cycling and snow mobile use. I saw a couple of vehicles deep in the woods, so don’t assume you have the wider trails to yourself. There are two official campsites with fire rings and space that has been cleared for camping. As a general rule, you can camp anywhere on DEC land so long as you’re not on the trail, next to water or in an area marked “no camping.” In the 909, there aren’t many flat places to pitch a tent beyond the designated campsites. Bring your own water. The only water I saw was in giant puddles in low lying spaces. The 909 is sandwiched in between residential communities along a major two lane parkway. You’re probably not riding your bike to the 909; you’re arriving  in your car and then riding. The nearest food establishment is several miles away by car. Riders from the Fats in the Cats mountain bike club frequent the area and are very helpful with local beta. The area is patrolled by NYS DEC rangers.



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