Thursday, September 20, 2018

16-17 September: Attempted trip north - cut very short!

One of the big trips I wanted to do this year was 240 miles north to Superior, WI, where the Wisconsin Society for Ornithology has a "Jaegerfest" field trip the second-to-last weekend of September. A bunch of birders spend three days standing on the beach and scoping for jaegers, gulls, terns, scoters, and anything else that flies by. It would be one of my last remaining chances to add a bunch of new birds to my Wisconsin year list.

I had some travel in August and early September that kept me from biking as much as I would have liked, and I didn't think I'd be able to make the trip either fitness-wise or time-wise. But a week beforehand I decided I would give it a try anyway. My trip to Horicon had gone so smoothly (with only a little better fitness at the start) that I thought I might be able to pull it off. I planned 4.5 days to bike up there, with the half-day somewhere in the middle depending on weather and my energy levels. I'd spend three days at Superior, then bike back over 6 or so days to do a bit more birding in the Northwoods. It seemed doable, and it would have been great to make it to Jaegerfest.

I left home Sunday morning and had my first FOGY at 8am, just 8 miles from my house! It was a random flyover by a flock of Brewer's Blackbirds (#229), which are around in the fall but pretty sparse. I thought I might have to work pretty hard to find them. Nope, no trouble at all!

For my last trip, I'd packed everything into my bike trailer, and was surprised by how much it slowed me down! At least, I thought it was partly the trailer (two extra wheels) and not just the weight itself. This time I packed everything right onto the bike, and my average speed was about 12% faster than the first day of my last trip under similar conditions. That's substantial if I can maintain it over a whole trip! The bike still handled well; I'd previously had trouble on uphills when using only rear panniers, but adding front ones helped a lot. It was much harder to leave the bike standing up, though, either on the kickstand or leaning against a low object, so that was a little annoying (I hate laying it down and risking water leaks, junk in the drive train, etc). Overall, though, the pannier system definitely wins out.

Front panniers: food, bike cleaning and repair stuff, and more water. Improvised handlebar bag = camera bag. Top tube bag: binoculars, notebook, phone, wallet, misc. Rear panniers: camping gear, scope, tripod, clothes, misc. Top of back rack: tent and drying laundry. Total = 61 lbs (including water but not bike).

Unfortunately, I started having some knee pain after ~40-45 miles on the first day, and by the time I made it to my intended campground (53 mi), it was quite painful. I'd gotten there very early (2pm), so I had plenty of time to rest that afternoon and overnight. The campground was on a lake (which was the only good thing about that campground!) and I made use of the time to play around with my camera a bit. One of the subjects I captured was another FOGY! There were about 10 Franklin's Gulls (#230) hawking insects high over the lake. They migrate down the Mississippi and I was sure I would see some this fall, but it was good to add them to the list.

It's amazing how much earlier the sun is setting these days than during my last trip - I was in my tent by 7:30pm as dusk fell and the voracious swarms of mosquitoes emerged. I was pretty sure I heard two Snow Geese, which would have been another FOGY, in a flock of Canada Geese that flew right over me. But I decided I couldn't confidently rule out weird-sounding (possibly juvenile) Canada Geese, so I decided not to count it. I'll just have to keep looking for them over the next few weeks. I don't have an amphibian list for the year, but a toad kept hopping up against my tent to catch the mosquitoes that were trying to get in!

Camera test at sunrise

The next morning my knee felt stiff but not immediately painful, so I headed north... but had to turn around after about 4 miles because it was getting pretty bad again on the uphills. I was a little worried about how far I'd make it towards home, but I had a couple of backup campground options on the way (there was NO way I was going to stay at that same one again), and I ended up getting all the way home with no problem. Ibuprofen took away nearly all the pain, especially when I was going slightly downhill, which was most of the time (following the Mississippi downriver). If I'd already been taking ibuprofen for some other reason, I might have made it all the way to Superior as planned - but I also might have ended up with permanent knee damage without realizing it!

The worst part of biking home that day was the heat! 96 F heat index! The breeze was light and usually a tail wind, which I appreciated for my knee, but didn't help cool me off. By 11am I was taking frequent breaks to cool down, rather than for my knee. Luckily there were lots of little parks and waysides along that route.

One wayside provided a chance to test out macro mode.

When I was about 2 hours from home, the clouds starting getting DARK. I checked the radar and saw that a storm was approaching, but there weren't any severe weather warnings yet, so I kept going. The Brewer's Blackbird spot (<1 hr from home) is next to a bathroom, which I figured I could use for shelter if I needed it, but when I got there, I was thinking the storm might pass behind me. Well, about five minutes later, a wall of wind hit! So much dust! So many flying leaves! The temperature dropped 20 degrees from one second to the next! That bike trail has a row of young trees on either side and otherwise is surrounded by open fields, so wind is scary there. When that first wall hit, I was able to wait it out in a slightly open area where there were no trees upwind of me (there was very little lightning then, and plenty of taller trees not too far away to attract any that might decide to strike). I kept going when I thought the wind had started dying down, but it turned out there were plenty of additional gusts on the way. I never saw anything larger than a small branch fall, but it was pretty terrifying. Luckily the wind (sustained ~30 mph, gusting to 50) was pushing me along, so I made great time! (But never took the time to glance at my speedometer to see exactly how fast I was going!) 

As I left the trail for the residential streets that would take me the last 2 miles home, the wind died a bit and the downpour and lightning started in earnest. It's pretty much continued raining and thundering over the three days since then, which has helped me feel a little less sad about missing my trip...

Of course it was AFTER I was out of the storm that I realized that my phone was still in airplane mode (to save battery on long trips), so I hadn't gotten the Severe Thunderstorm Warning that came through right about the time that I decided not to take shelter in the bathroom building!

I've got big plans for local birding, though. Waterbirds are starting to move in (maybe I can even find my own jaeger! There's essentially no chance of that, but you never know!) and I'd love to find a Nelson's or LeConte's sparrow this fall (very sparse around here). My knee feels perfectly fine now after one rest day and a couple of commutes, though I'll pay closer attention to stretching my strong muscles and strengthening my weak ones before I try any long rides again. I worked with a physiotherapist when I had a different knee problem about 6 years ago and learned all about how my leg muscles tend to get out of balance with one another, pulling my joints out of whack, but I'm not always good about doing my exercises because they're not always necessary to keep me on my bike. I'll consider myself duly reminded! I also had this same knee pain in the other knee when I started riding a new road bike 4 years ago, and worked with a good bike fitter to fix that by turning my toe out slightly (which also means I need to stretch my calves!) and adding wedges under my insoles (which most humans apparently benefit from - biking isn't really ergonomic). I just ordered a new pair of those wedges because I'm sure my old ones have gotten a bit squashed over the years, which might have contributed to the problem. Anyway, I'm optimistic that it'll be an easy fix, but also kicking myself for not being more diligent about preventing the problem! Well, maybe next year...


  1. Sorry to hear that your trip was cut short, but I am glad you didn't suffer any major injuries or storm effects. Congrats on the 2 FOGYs despite all that!

    1. Thanks! Definitely could have been worse! Everyone's seeing some great stuff up there right now, though... sigh.