Get That Saw Out Of Your Mouth!

Father and son, and Pete, head out to Illinois’ Hennepin Canal State Trail for bike travel, fishing, and all kinds of weather. A lot of great photos ...

Bicycle Adventurers: Chuck Walters and son, Charlie. Plus, Pete Brautigam, friend and coworker of Chuck.

When: May 13–15, 2016

Accommodations: Campgrounds along the Hennepin Canal State Trail.

Distance: Day one: 35 miles. Day two: 18 miles. Day three: 47 miles.

Bonus tip for this adventure: 

  • Take the time to research the interesting history of the Hennepin Canal State Trail. It will make your ride a lot of fun as you travel along it. 
  • My favorite parts of the trail are the canal bridges. The water is literally on a bridge spanning another stream below, and the locks and lift bridges. It’s amazing that the entire system is well over a century old and most everything is still standing. 
  • The fishing is very good in the canal as well. Bass, bluegill, gar, and carp are everywhere.

Since our previous trip last fall, I’ve been itching to go on another cycling trip with my two-and-a-half year-old son, Charlie. With several solo overnight rides on the Hennepin Canal State Trail in the past, I thought it would be a good route for pulling Charlie in the trailer and give us a chance to fish. Pete agreed to join us. 

Preparations 

Heavy rains postponed our original plans by two weeks. Finally, we went ahead with our two-night adventure May 13, in spite of an iffy weather forecast of cold nighttime temps, rain, and wind. Packing for an adult and toddler, while planning for a possible 40-degree temperature swing, proved difficult. I packed many clothes to make certain we were prepared.

Of course, our fishing rods went along in the bike trailer ... details below.

Day One

Heading out from Colona, IL, our plan for the first day was to make it to lock 21, a campground with water, bathrooms, and good fishing. I rode my Long Haul Trucker, loaded down with panniers, and pulled Charlie in his trailer. Pete was ready for anything with his Salsa fat bike and towed his cargo with his newly acquired trailer. 

Being familiar with the Hennepin Canal Trail, I knew it wasn’t in the best shape. However, I did not expect how much it had deteriorated in the past few years. At a few points on the trail we were basically riding in a pasture, and a few others we rode on a foot-wide path through shoulder high grasses. That’s normally not a huge problem, but with two wide trailers, it felt more like a tractor pull than a bike ride.

We hadn’t traveled five miles down the path when we ran into our first major issue. The path was closed for construction and no detour was provided. We walked our bikes to the road nearby and braved Illinois drivers until we could pick up the trail further down. 

Charlie was a trooper through the whole ride, and I think he even enjoyed bushwhacking with the trailer. When we came across areas where the canal had overflowed its banks, Charlie was very excited to plow through the water and hollered his approval. 

With the rugged terrain, frequent stops to allow Charlie to stretch his legs, and the slower pace of bikes loaded to the gills, we were way behind our intended schedule. The cold front gained on us and the winds started to pick up. We soon realized that in order to have enough time to set up camp and make dinner, we would have to cut the day’s miles short. Our map stated that Lock 22 had water and a place to camp and that’s where we decided to stay. We set up our tents just as the first raindrops started to fall.

We were surprised to find the well had an “out of order” sign on it. Luckily, we had carried water from an earlier stop and had just enough for the cooking and drinking and we ate a rain-soaked dinner beneath the roof overhang of the restroom.

The cold front came in two waves and after waiting the first part out, we explored, gathered firewood, and checked out the old lock and lift bridge. When the tail end of the front arrived, it became clear that having a fire would be impossible, so we settled into our tents and called it an early night.

constant barrage of wind began as the sun set and it was not a gentle breeze, but a 30 mile-per-hour freight train blasting our small tents, threatening to make us homeless. With a flashlight between my teeth, I went out in the dark to shore up the tent and hope for the best. Charlie, tuckered out from the day, showed little concern for the imminent peril, and snuggled in his sleeping bag. With great apprehension, I laid in the tent watching the poles flex and strain, but soon fell asleep.

Day Two

We awoke to a steady, cold wind and temperatures in the 30s. Pete woke up early, started the campfire, and we made a breakfast of bannock and bacon. Charlie juggled his desire to explore against his need to stay warm. He would sit in the camp chair by the fire while wrapped in a wool blanket for a minute, then take off to see if he could find the beaver that had attacked the trees down by the canal. 

With no fresh water at the campsite, staying and fishing for the day wouldn’t work. We had packed a water filter, but wanted to keep it as a last resort and decided to travel to our original destination, Lock 21, a campsite with better amenities, and hopefully a break from the wind.

With only 12 miles planned for the day, we took our time and stopped often to throw rocks in the canal, collect interesting feathers, and inspect the wildlife that the canal harbors.

We arrived at Lock 21 and to our dismay, realized the pump for the well at this campsite was out of order as well. Later that day, a DNR officer explained that all of the water sources on the Hennepin Canal trail were broken in some fashion. Apparently the Illinois budget impasse meant there were no the funds to repair them, drain the pit toilets in a timely manner, yuck, or maintain the path. 

A convenience store down the trail a bit in Wyanet provided water, but we burned a good chunk of the day that was meant for fishing, so we returned to camp and decided to split up. Pete would go fishing to attempt to catch dinner, and Charlie and I would hike through the woods to hunt firewood. Charlie loves tools, so he happily carried the camp saw with us wherever we went. He even carried it in his mouth like a buccaneer until he was urged not to. 

It was another very cold night, but with ample time to set up and prepare the tents, night number two was much more cozy than the first.

Day Three

We awoke and again prepared our breakfast over a fire. It would be a long day due to the path conditions, a headwind, and a rain softened trail beneath us. We stopped frequently and used wildlife viewing as an excuse to rest. An hour-long delay for flat tire repairs pushed us even further behind, but we managed to ride through the closed area, since construction had halted for the weekend, and we avoided the high-traffic detour. We arrived back at the boat ramp in Colona with an hour of daylight to spare. 

This trip was Charlie’s second bike overnight and his first multi-night trip. I don’t know of any other two and a half year olds that could go on a trip like this, let alone one who actually would enjoy it. He’s turning into one heck of an adventurer and travel companion and I’m very proud of him. 

This was also my second fun bike trip with Pete. I believe it’s important to have compatible personalities with the people you travel with, especially when it’s an activity like cycling, involving fatigue and occasional difficulties.

Overall, this trip was great. It wasn’t always easy, but combining bike riding, camping, fishing, and quality time with my son is one of the best things I can imagine. I can’t wait to go on another one.

Your favorite local bike shop? Healthy Habits, Bettendorf, IA

Bike overnight tips and tricks?

  • I rigged a fishing rod tube on the back of Charlie’s trailer with a piece of three-inch pvc pipe, a cap, and a plumbing hanger. It easily fit our two-piece rods, wrapped in fabric. I think we’ll be taking many more bike/fishing trips in the near future. 
  • A Grabber space blanket was the most useful thing we packed on this trip. It’s inexpensive and very sturdy, unlike most emergency blankets. We rigged it as a sunshade for Charlie’s trailer, used as a heat reflector when we sat by the campfire, and Charlie wrapped up in it to stay warm. We even draped it over a side of our tent under the rain fly as an additional windbreak — best 14 bucks I've spent.

HOW ABOUT YOU? Inspire others by submitting your own bike overnight adventure!

4 responses so far ↓

Vince Fergus - Jul 7, 2016 at 4:28 PM

I rode this trail about 5 years ago and it was in rough shape then so I'm sure the state has done nothing with it since. It is still a very interesting trail
I first took my son on an overnight trip on the Sparta Elroy trail in Wisc.when he was two and then we took him and his brother when they were 4 and 2. The older one rode his own bike and surprised us by riding 17 miles on the first day and 18 on the next. It was one of the highlights of raising to sons. Enjoy Charlie while you can!

Peter H - Jul 7, 2016 at 4:46 PM

Thank you for this charming insight.
You obviously have so much deep love for your son and are indeed a very wealthy man.
Charlie is very fortunate to have you as a father and friend.
Ciao
Peter.

Erin Snow - Jul 7, 2016 at 6:38 PM

Wow, what a fantastic experience for everyone. You're providing your little boy with such a great foundation for being out in the world exploring it. I also am inspired by your overcoming of the unexpected stuff that came up. I'm going to remember that if I ever travel by bike. Thank you!

Kyle Saunders - Jul 7, 2016 at 8:12 PM

I just rode the canal last weekend and camped at Lock 21 for the night, though I was headed west. It's unfortunate that the trail is in such incredible disrepair (I, too, was shocked), but it sounds like you guys made the most of it (as did I).

Great post! Thanks for sharing!

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