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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Stewardship

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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.

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My Sporting Clays Journey Continues

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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.

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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

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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

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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Best Weekend Ever

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This was the best weekend ever.

The kids woke this morning and asked to have the training wheels removed from their bikes. This came as a complete surprise because they really haven’t shown any interest in the bikes since last summer, preferring instead to cruise around on their scooters. We’ve tried to get the training wheels off with little success but this morning they both wanted to  ride without the outriggers.

Within a few very short minutes, they were riding up and down our street with little or no assistance. It was as if they decided “today is the day I’m going to ride a bike like a grown up,” much like toddlers decide they’re going to be potty trained. It has to be their idea.

After lunch, we set out for a park with a long, paved multi-use trail for them to practice on. Sammy needed some assistance to get going, but Rob took off and was instantly at the head of the pack.

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Once going, Sam did very well, too, considering it was her first outing without the training wheels. What a joy having them ride beside me.

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Rob seems to have some natural talent. He’s very relaxed on the bike and has already figured out how to absorb bumps by lifting his butt off the saddle. He had a ball riding in the grass, and even got out of the saddle to tackle a little hill.

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I was amazed to see him ride in tight figure-eights to show off his ability to turn the bike by leaning. I wonder if all the rides on the Burley Piccolo have contributed to a sense of comfort leaning over.

We rode in the park for about two hours, ending on a nice stretch of gravel which they handled without batting an eye.

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I’m so proud and shocked by the rapid progress they made. It’s as if someone updated their “cycling firmware” overnight and gave them instantaneous skills. Their ability to ride opens up a host of vacation possibilities.

Last night, I spent my first night in my new Tarptent Moment, which I bought for bike packing. At just a hair over two pounds, it sleeps one and sets up in about 2 minutes. It’s easily the fastest pitching tent I’ve ever owned or been in. It is ventilated extremely well. I slept in a 40 degree down bag with a cap on my head in the low 40’s last night with both doors open and did not experience a drop of condensation. And I was plenty warm. I can’t wait to strap it to a bike and head into the woods.

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And finally, Friday wasn’t bad either. I successfully defended my doctoral dissertation. It took Way longer than it should have to get to this point, but I made it. I made it with a lot of support, encouragement and love from many special people in my life. Thank you.

Now I can finally plan a vacation without school work hanging over my head and making me feel guilty and nauseated about not having finished. Somehow I think the vacation will involve some form of cycling now that everyone can ride independently.

 

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In Search Of

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I’ve wanted to try bikepacking for quite some time now. I first heard of the combination of cycling and backpacking probably four years ago, inspired by such adventurous blogs as Lacemine 29, Republic of Doom, and Pedaling in Place.  The basic premise of bikepacking is simple: load your bike with the lightweight essentials and head out on a camping trip traveling by bicycle. Whereas traditional cycle touring involves road biking, racks and panniers, bikepacking usually involves off-road routes and bags fitted to the frame of the bike. One look at the blogs listed above and you’ll realize that those guys have access to some pretty incredible places. Me, not so much.

This winter I decided to stop procrastinating and actually try to do a trip. I have a couple of bins filled with camping supplies from when I used to backpack and climb and, as such, the gear isn’t holding me back. I have enough common sense to know not to try a trip like this into someplace “nice” like upstate NY without first taking a dry run locally to make sure I have the bike packed properly and assess what my mileage capabilities would be with a loaded bike.  With that in mind, I wanted to plot a route that could be navigated after work, either riding or driving to the trail head, with a camping spot within 90 to 120 minutes from the start. What is holding me back is a place to camp locally.

In my part of New York, wild or stealth camping is not allowed.  It’s called trespassing. In the county I live in, there are exactly two authorized campgrounds. One is at the beach (I’m not a beach person) and the other…..well that’s what this post is about.

This morning I set out in search of the public campground to be used in my trial bikepacking run. It wasn’t really a search as searches go since I knew where it was located, but I had never ridden there on a bike. I set out from a popular trailhead in Woodbury, NY and rode on rooty singletrack trails that parallel the Long Island Greenbelt Trail.

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The trail gets a lot of use by local mountain bikers and at times it crosses a paved multi-use trail maintained by Nassau County, hence the trail kiosk pictured above. I’m not a big fan of roots. I’d rather be riding a dried up river bed like some of the posts in the blogs mentioned above. You’ll notice that I did not pack any of my camping gear. Something told me to take a run to scope out the campground before committing to carrying the gear. It turned out to be a good decision.

You can see the darndest things while out on a bike. I was cruising along minding my own business when I came upon thirty people in street clothes in the middle of the woods.

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They were walking exactly 1.4 mph. One of them eventually realized I was following and they all pulled off the trail and cheered me on as if I were the one out-of-place in the woods.

A few minutes later I arrived at my destination, Battle Row Campground in lovely Bethpage. It derives its name, no doubt, from the obvious fact that it looks like it has been to hell and back! As you approach on the road leading into the park, you encounter all manner of trash and debris. And you get to see this

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The park is sandwiched between a semi-abandoned quarry, a fire academy and a landfill. Good times.

I pedaled into the park to check out the advertised tent sites. One look and I realized that tent campers are not the intended clientele. The park predominantly caters to RVers and, the best I can tell, it’s mostly a storage yard for RVs or people who live in their RV year round. The campsites looked pretty sad.

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I went in search of a campground and I found one, but not one I’d actually sleep in.  I suppose it would be worth the effort to load the bike with the camping gear and make a round trip to and from the campground just for the experience of riding the loaded bike, but I was looking forward to camping.

This trial run was not successful, although I suppose an afternoon on the mountain bike is nothing to complain about. I learned that the campground I pinned my hopes on is a mess. I learned that I may have to look elsewhere-perhaps Westchester–for a suitable camping spot for my first bikepacking trip. If you know of anywhere within an hour’s drive from Nassau County that has public camping not next to a landfill please let me know in the comments section.

 

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