What's Flat And Warm And Has A Beard?

The view of Alachua Lake, part of Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park, near Gainesville, Florida. The "lake" was, indeed, once covered in about 5 feet of water. Today, buffalo roam where low-draft steamboats once traveled.

I should have made my first attempt at a century in Florida.

Daisy, Emma and I flew to Gainesville, in central Florida, on Oct. 22 (Daisy's birthday) to visit Daisy's parents, and to take Emma, who's 7, to Disney World and Sea World during her fall break from the International School of Prague.

We had a great time. Gainesville's a cool college town, and the University of Florida just happens to hold the national football and basketball championships simultaneously at the moment, the first time that's ever happened in college sports. It's also a bike-friendly city, with cycling lanes gracing most of the city's streets. And the weather was warm -- around 75 to 80 degrees Fahrenheit (around 25 degrees Celsius) -- and humid, although overcast for many of the days we were there.

I did manage to ride one day during my visit, borrowing a mountain bike from Daisy's father, Paul, who had a nice Mongoose Maneuver hanging in his garage. I pumped up the tires, gave the gears and chain a few squirts of oil, and I was off to tackle the Gainesville-Hawthorne Trail State Park, which everyone had recommended.

The trail used to be a railroad line. The tracks were removed, and the line paved, and it's now used by cyclists, rollerbladers, walkers and folks on horseback, who ride in the grass along the pavement. Before it was a railroad, it was a trader's path that the website says dates back to Seminole Indians and Florida's first inhabitants.

The trail starts in Boulware Springs Park in Gainesville and ends 16.2 miles (26 kilometers) later in the town of Hawthorne. In between, it passes through Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park and the Lochloosa Wildlife Management Area.

The 16-mile trail follows an old rail bed.

It was warm and overcast on Sunday (October 28), and it felt great just to be out on a bike in a T-shirt and shorts, after enduring the frigid temperatures in Prague. It's was also cool to be biking in such an exotic environment, past swaying palms, Southern live oaks dripping with long beards of Spanish moss, and cypress trees oozing upward out of primordial swamps where alligators are known to dwell.

It was also both wonderfully refreshing, and rather odd, to be cycling on a path that was 16 miles long but which was completely, entirely, and totally flat. Rob and I should have come here to take our first stabs at a "century" -- that is, 100 miles in a single ride. All centuries are not created equal.

I saw a red-shouldered hawk (right) sitting in a tree along the trail, and what I believe was a flock of wild turkeys. I passed a few cyclists, and one woman on horseback. Other than that, I had the entire trail to myself. I had a great time. It would have been cool to have seen a 'gator, though.

(We did paddle past four or five alligators during a canoe trip on the Oklawaha River, about an hour outside Gainesville. Not only that, we also caught a glimpse of the wild rhesus monkeys that live in the forest along the river, as well as innumerable turtles and herons and a few kingfishers.)

The highlight of the ride occurred when I took a spur off the main trail that said it led to the Alachua Lake Overlook (see photo at top). I expected to see a lake, of course, but what I found at the end of the spur was a wooden platform that looked out on the vast Paynes Prairie State Park -- all 21,000 acres (8,500 hectares) of it. It's 8 miles (13 kilometers) long and 1 to 4 miles wide, and is home to bison and sandhill cranes and alligators and almost 300 species of birds.

I borrowed this Mongoose Maneuver from Daisy's dad, Paul. It did the trick.

Apparently, the sinkhole that drains the prairie became blocked back in the late 19th century, causing the prairie to flood, creating an immense, shallow lake. Difficult to imagine today, but low-draft steamboats used to ply the waters of Alachua Lake until the sinkhole opened again in 1892 and the lake drained dry. It's said that the event triggered massive fish fries by the locals, but who were eventually overwhelmed by the stench of thousands of dead fish rotting in the prairie.

Florida is a lovely state, and it was a great pleasure to get out in it, and there was no better way to do that than on a bike.

The folks running the Gainesville-Hawthorne Trail just need to consider putting a pub or two along the route!

Length of ride: 53.5 kilometers
Distance ridden so far in 2007: 1,744.5 kilometers

The boardwalk above led off the paved trail to an overlook (below) amid lush cypress trees and wetlands. This is where I thought I might see an alligator or two, but no such luck.

A picturesque picnic spot at the end of the trail in Hawthorne.

Some local color seen along the trail (above and below).

Dangerous curve ahead.


It's obvious how much you enjoyed the ride. I have been pondering wether or not to do a night ride this Thursday. There are a couple of other things to consider, a football match, the gym. But when you mentioned pubs it got me thinking. Thursday night, riding in the dark, drinking beer???? I'm doin' it.

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