I'm starting to get more and more experience under my belt with bikepacking and enjoying every bit of it. Recently an old diving buddy bought a bike and started posting here on MTBR. He showed interest in bikepacking and I brought up the idea of a shakedown run. The timing is perfect, we could get a quick and easy afternoon ride, campout, and do some more riding in the morning; all while escaping the heat of the day. We live in Florida, and its HOT, pretty much 95F and 95% humidity every day this time of year.
St Marks Wildlife Refuge is a Park south of Tallahassee, Florida; bordering the Gulf of Mexico. It contains 68,000 acres of Wakulla, Jefferson, and Taylor counties and includes sandhills, beaches, tidal marshes, lowland hardwoods, islands, creeks, rivers, springs, and sinkholes. I actually did my first bikepacking trip traveling from the western side of the Panacea Tract off the Ochlockonee River and travelled east through the Wakulla Tract and St Marks Tract making it as far east as just past the Pinhook River, before heading back south to the St Marks Lighthouse. This short, shakedown, trip would be taking place only in the St Marks Unit.
I got out of work Friday afternoon at 5PM and drove south to meet up with Flying Monkey at 6PM at the St Marks Welcoming Center. From there we headed south to the lighthouse off the Gulf of Mexico, where we'd leave our vehicles over night. The bikes were unloaded off the vehicles and we were ready to go around 6:30. There were thunderstorms earlier in the day, but they had already blown over leaving slightly cooler temperatures and steaming roads. Just north of our departure, we took the obligatory lighthouse photos to anounce the beginning of our journey.
This is also where we saw the first of the huge population of American Aligators that call St Marks Wildlife Refuge home. The only populations greater happen to belong to teradactyl sized stinging insects of all kinds. The insects are typically horrible, but since we were just blessed by Tropical Storm Debby, the floodplains are flooded and the horrendous supply of insects have multiplied to levels of epidemic proportions. Sweet right?
We rode a short section of pavement north until veering off to the right on our first available levee trail. The southside of this tract of the Refuge is composed of tidal creeks and salt marshes with raised earthen dikes and levee trails scattered about as a means of traversing it all.
It was somewhere around this point when the learning portion of this shakedown run would start to come into fruition. The Monkey had packed several gallons of water for a relatively short ride over the afternoon, with the availability of water replenishment along the way, as well as at the campsite. He had also packed the gross majority of his kit weight in his backpack, rather than let the bike carry it. This would eventually take its toll on the Monkey, but thats what shakedown runs are all about. We started heading west and crossed the main road and started the transition from coastal marsh to lowland marshes, floodplains, and pine forests.
Our doubletrack eventually came to an end in a flurry of buzzing insects and not too distant crashing sounds in the woods(decidedly Sasquatch). There was also an overgrown scraggly looking trail heading off to the remains of the long defunct town of Port Leon, which was flooded over a century ago and the townshed moved inland to slightly higher grown. At the very end is a point which offers a good view of where the St Marks River converges with the Gulf of Mexico. A great place to be near sunset.
The rest of our Friday night went by slowly, trudging down grassy service road that hadn't been worn down in quite some time. Riding through grass with soft ground underneath was tough, it sucked the life out of you. It was impossible to hold any sort of momentum without continuous input, almost like riding in loose sand. Finally we hit pavement and turned north for Newport, where we'd be camping. It was 9:30 before we made it to Newport Parks(where we'd camp for the night). Just over the St Marks River was a bar & grill called Outz Too. I'm sure it contained the majority of the Newport population, I'd estimate about 20, and it was karaoke night. Suprisingly enough, the vast majority of them could actually hold a tune. The food was good, unless you tried the coleslaw and potatoe salad, aparently.
After some food, we headed back across the river to set up camp. We found a site with suitable trees so the Flying Monkey could set up his neat DIY hammock. Unfortunately the grounds had ponded up for the most part and I had to find higher ground... so I set up ontop of a playground, much to Monkey's enjoyment.
Photos from Saturday morning. I had a pop-tart for breakfast and the Monkey broke out a few DIY penny stoves he had made previous to the trip and cooked himself up some oatmeal and coffee. I'm not much on coffee anyway
We took a long look at all the stuff the Monkey had packed, ditched an oceans worth of water, and reshuffled more weight to the bike, with less in the pack. This proved to make the days travels possible!
We took a quick trip to the river to get a quick photo of the fog rising over the springfed waters.
We headed south on a few miles of pavement, recovered the sunglasses that Monkey dropped(and subsequently ran over), and eventually found a tram road heading east. Our goal was the Pinhook River. This forest road never ceases to dissappoint when it comes to wildlife. We spooked a black bear off from a distance and must have seen atleast a dozen deer. I also saw my first snake of the trip, a friendly little guy too.
This tram road was good well trodden doubletrack with a limestone base, it allowed us to eat up miles much faster than the previous day.
We were nearing the Pinhook in no time, but were stopped short of our destination by the ever feared Wildlife Sanctuary - No Entry sign. D'Oh! We followed the rules and turned around.
So with the Pinhook out of the question, we turned south and started heading back to the lighthouse. The pineforests made way to more and more water and finally we were back in coastal wetlands, and levee trails. It was getting later in the morning and shade just doesn't exist out in the salt marshes aside from the rare palm tree. The trails do offer some excellent bird watching(and gators) and a great view of the wetlands by being directly in the middle of it all.
We eventually neared an exit to pavement, and the Monkey promptly took the opportunity to get out of the grass and fly hard across the asphalt. His back was still aching from the previous day, and if you had seen his pack, you'd understand why!
I kept to the levee trails and finished off the planned route, then pavement and smooth sailing with the lighthouse in sight.
It was a great way to get some good peddle time in and beat the majority of the heat. Despite the fact that I heard the words "I hate you" about a million times over the two days it took for our little trip, I think the Monkey is hooked on bikepacking. He's already milling over maps and potential trails and routes for another overnighter within a month or two. He learned alot about what and how to pack things and I learned that silicon spray can do wonders on regular printed paper maps!
Looking forward to the next adventure, sounds like it may be at Blackwater State Forest