Friday, October 30, 2015

Possums On the Prairie: A MATAG Conference Recap

Both the possum and I screamed at the same time.  But we'll get to that in a minute.
“Have a nice vacation,” a seasoned coworker chimed in as my boss and I talked about my impending conference trip.
“Oh, I'm not going on vacation,” I replied. 
“I figured out a long time ago to combine my vacations with conferences,” he said with a wry grin.
“I'm going to Iowa,” I stated.
I was actually looking forward to attending the Mid America Trails and Greenways (MATAG) Conference.  I just wished it could be closer to home or in Colorado.  But I did my research and found that right in town in Des Moines there is mountain biking.  Okay, prairie biking. 
Y'know how I like to take biking and/or running lunches?  Yeah, I'm not sure if this was a prairie biking road trip disguised as a conference or a conference disguised as a prairie biking road trip. 
I drove West.  Somehow I veered north and missed Kansas and Colorado.  It wouldn't have been fair to my wife to visit Colorado without her though.  I've been through Iowa three times.  The first time I was on a road trip with my grandparents and I was somewhere between ten and twelve years old I guess.  We went out through Illinoising and visited family in the Quad Cities and then continued into Iowa and South Dakota.  I convinced them to make a detour over into Wyoming to see Devil's Tower too.  I had just seen Close Encounters and was all about seeing the Big Stump.
The only thing I remember about Des Moines from that trip was learning how to pronounce the name of the city correctly.  The second time I visited Iowa was a climbing road trip with a friend from Kentucky who had lived in Ames for a time.  We swung through on the drive back from Wyoming.  The third time I saw nothing because we were on the California Zephyr from Denver to Chicago and passed through most of western Iowa in the dark.  I remember an icy Ottumwa train station and a lot of wind and snow scoured corn fields speeding by the windows.
I opted to drive as I couldn't see the point in a two hour drive to the airport, a two hour layover IN ATLANTA and then all of the requisite hassle of air travel on top of that.  What's a mere ten hour drive across Middle America to stay out of an aerial tin can?
Plus, I could take my mountain bike.
A quick query over at MTB Project showed me what I needed to see.  There were at least three trail systems within striking distance of the conference hotel.  I was stoked.
My leisure time during my conference trip was assured!  Except...there was rain in the forecast for Tuesday.  The conference ran from Monday through Wednesday.  I had to think fast!
I rolled into town late in the day on Sunday.  It had been a fairly good trip through the Midwest with a really quick stopover at Kickapoo State Park in Illinoising for a reprieve from the tedium of the road.  Kickapoo was pretty kick @$$.  Right from the get-go I was impressed with the pit-toilet-turned-changing-stall.  The local mtb club had stowed a bench and stuck some nails in the wall for convenience.  The trails were well signed well maintained.  Despite some heavy leaf cover (it is the season after all) I was able to blaze through the system without blowing a single turn.  The trails are a lot of fun there, and I highly recommend Kickapoo for a quick sidetrip if you're traveling I-74 cross country.

So my legs were nicely warmed and then stiffened when I got to Des Moines.  I checked into the motel and saddled up as the light ebbed from the sky.  I cranked up the ole Lazer 7000 (actually a NiteRider 750) and tore off north from downtown along the multiuse path along the river.  As the nearly full moon climbed into the eastern sky I found my way onto the Sycamore Trail. 
I chose it for my first ever singletrack night ride because MTB Project showed it as an easy trail.  And that it was, while at the same time being fun an interesting.  Of course I'm interested in any new trail, and I realize if I lived in DM I might tire of Sycamore fairly quickly.  Still, it was a lot of fun to onsight it in the dark, cleaning obstacles and avoiding a plunge into the river while flowing over the trails and through the woods.

Met a trio of fatbikers in the dark
Monday dawned beautiful and the conference was underway.  How could it be a bad conference?  It was all about trails!  The keynote was really good.  And in the afternoon I headed out to Center Trails at Greenwood for my first daylight ride in Iowa.  It took me a few minutes to sort out where to start (the main parking area was closed for repaving) but once I was on the trails I found yet another fine system. 
The first few miles were pretty homogeneous though not like what I'm used to.  It was Midwestern floodplain and relatively flat with only some shallow creek crossings and levee railings.  But then I crossed over the railroad tracks and into the Greenwood section.  It started off with a stout climb like I would expect at Cave Run.  And then the trail rolled up and down like Skullbuster for quite a ways through autumn tinged woods backed up to suburban homes.  It was like Skullbuster rolled into Cave Run mixed up with Cherokee Park in Louisville.  In fact, the entire Center Trails ride had me thinking of Waverly and Cherokee.
Waterworks Park trail (Denman Woods)

Raccoon River

The singletrack was connected by paved multiuse trails

Ashworth Park

Ashworth Park
I had intended to do a dawn patrol ride before the conference on Monday but didn't manage to get up early enough.  Sunday had been a long day.  And I rode that afternoon about fourteen miles.
Monday night I passed out once my head hit the hotel pillow.  But I'd had the forethought to set an alarm for Tuesday morning.  And oddly enough, I woke up before my alarm went off and suited up for a dawn patrol ride out at Sycamore one more time.  See, that rain was forecasted for midday Tuesday, and I knew if I didn't squeeze in that last ride that there would be no more opportunities for riding on the trip.
I opted to drive up to a closer trailhead instead of riding out from the hotel.  That saved me a solid hour of riding and a few miles.  And it put me right on the south end of Sycamore at 6am.  Sunrise is at 7:40am this time of year in Central Iowa, so I had some time behind the light.  I rode the same route I had two nights before mainly because I was most familiar with it.  It was a lot of fun even the second time around.  I have to say, on the right trail night riding is a blast.  I wouldn't do it anywhere, and I wouldn't take off on a trail I knew wasn't well below my ability, but it is a lot of fun.
Except when you almost roll right over a possum.  Yeah, the first night I came barreling up on one in the dark.  I locked it up and the possum bolted into the underbrush, but not before scaring the bejeezums out of both of us.  I took it down a notch and had a great time riding after that while I was in Iowa.
I desperately wanted to detour to Brown County on the way home, but  knew if I stopped there I would likely end up being so mesmerized that I would have forgotten to go home.  Brown County warrants time to explore and enjoy.
Tuesday's sessions were top notch.  I attended Rural Complete Streets, Assets, Benefits and Solutions to Trail Tourism, Tools for Developing Regional Trail Systems (particularly good) and Incorporating Singletrack and Bike Parks in Master Planning which was an IMBA presentation.  I met a lot of good people.  I was sad to see Kentucky woefully underrepresented.  I don't know if there was anyone from the Bluegrass State besides myself. 
I look forward the 2017 conference.  I hope by then I'll have some great ideas and stories of my own to share.

'Tis the season!

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