Friday, June 28, 2019

Howell Station Tiny Trailer Bicycle Basecamp

Howell Station Campground, on the Des Moines River, early morning

The Volksweg Trail at is about a ten-mile ride on Lake Red Rock, the largest lake in Iowa, and also a less less than four-mile ride to the city of Pella. I'm at Howell Station Campground below the dam, a beautiful campground with spacious sites, mature shade trees, and clipped lawn. The bike trail skirts the Des Moines River, and both trail and river form one boundary of the campground, which is maintained by the Army Corps of Engineers.

I mention that the park is maintained by the Corps because yesterday, at the prompting of another camper, I purchased a senior pass for national parks and federal recreational lands. For five nights at Howell, I had paid online $110; after the purchase, the park agent, since I had stayed only one in five nights, adjusted my payment to the half-price status, refunding my credit card. The pass costs $20 a year, so I'm already $35 ahead. Also, if I keep the physical card after it expires, that $20 paid for the year will also be used as part of the $80 lifetime card fee if I ever decide to go that route.

Sunday, Arrival Day

Arriving during the late afternoon, I'm leaving on Friday. The weekdays are pretty easy to book; however, the weekends are pretty much reserved in advance. It was easy to back my tiny trailer into the wide, spacious gravel trailer sites. Also, I think I'm getting the knack of not over-steering while backing my tiny trailer, which is my biggest problem when backing the short trailer. Sunday I just accomplished the basics: backing in, leveling, stabilizing, and securing the trailer. I didn't even remove my bicycle from its rack on the back of the trailer. The overcast sky brought an earlier darkness, and I went to bed early, hoping for good weather the next day and a long bike ride.

Monday, Day 2

Temperatures for today were the coolest of my stay at Howell--in the low 60s--so I decided to make it the day of my longest ride, out to county campground Roberts Creek West, about 10 miles from my basecamp. Before my day ride, though, I signed up for the Senior Pass.

A section of the Volksweg Trail is shut down abutting Howell campground, due to a hydropower project. The campground attendant had given me directions, so I locked up my tiny trailer and took off on my bike with water, a protein bar, and a fine sense of adventure on a day that was not too hot nor too cold--a touch windy, but not enough to daunt my spirits. Local roads, county roads, through a residential development, and I was on the trail, a beautiful trail that took me somewhere I had never been.

Red Rock Dam

Joy of joys, I traveled through North Point Campground just above Red Rock Dam, taking time to more carefully compare cellphone receptivity with campsite numbers. Then I crossed the dam and stopped to check out the visitors' center. Off once again down county road T15, I was on the lookout for a trailhead onto the Volksweg Trail. I pedaled and pedaled, nice country and the road not too busy, until I came to a junction to three separate directions of travel. Which to take?

Checking my map, I discovered I had blithely been traveling on the side of the lake opposite the trail and was heading out into the great beyond! I wasn't anywhere near the path to my intended destination! Now, if you don't know you're on the wrong road, and don't have to really get to your destination--are you really lost? I'm not sure how to answer that question, but I did know I had no desire to ride through any more fields of corn and beans. I turned around.

Pedestrian bridge across the Des Moines River, Howell Station

Back across the dam again, which was a hoot because I had to wait in line again for some dam road construction. While loafing, I decided that I was tired enough and hungry enough to just head back to camp and whip up a nice lunch. I took the main road instead of the trail in order to knock off some miles more quickly. Up and down some pretty big Iowa hills, and then I came to a "T" intersection. Which way to turn? Neither way seemed familiar? I sighed, found some shade, and pulled out my phone to ask Google Maps (once again) where the heck I was. You guessed it--I was a mile and a half past the turn I should have taken.

I was still enjoying myself because I had started the day just wanting a nice bike ride, and I was getting it. I'd planned on about twenty miles of riding and was going to ride about twelve when all was done. That was probably for the best, though, because I hadn't been riding that much to be in the best shape, I was hungry, and I had a headwind coming home. The bottom line is that I enjoyed the ride, scoped out another campground, and once again was reminded that I'm no Daniel Boone when it comes to trailblazing. I am reminded of one story about ol' Daniel, though. He was once asked, "Have you ever been lost?" Daniel thought about the question for a while and then replied, "Wal, I've never been lost, but once I was a might confused of my whereabouts for about three months." Mr. Boone, I know the feeling!

Tuesday, Day 3

I was a beautiful morning, and after cooking scrambled eggs for breakfast, I cleaned camp and decided to take the three and a half mile bike ride into Pella. In advance, I'll tell you I was more cautious, checked Google once, and did not get lost today. Maybe I need to find a coonskin cap that will fit over my bike helmet!

A beautiful walkway leading to an inner courtyard

Pella, Iowa, is known for its spring tulip festival and all things Dutch. As such, there is a touch of the tourist town about the place, but not overdone, rather in a good way. Attention has been placed on the aesthetics of the downtown with storefronts nicely painted and shops and caf├ęs in abundance. In too many towns, the building fronts in the old town square are boarded up. This is a wonderful alternative. I wandered the downtown area, snapping photos, gawking, and eating lunch. I took a selfie with the cook at the famous Jaarsma Bakery, which excels in breads and pastries. I enjoyed the downtown police station, which is also constructed in ye olde Dutch style. I'm sure they'll provide you with a pastry and hot chocolate while fingerprinting you.

Pella's canal, but no barges

The ride home was fun--more downhill than up; however, I noticed that my seat wasn't quite up to the saddle yet. I have a beautiful Brooks leather saddle, which over time is supposed to conform to one's (ahem) body. I'm wondering, though, if for me my body is slowly conforming to the saddle!

Tom (left) and pastry chef

I was looking forward to arriving back at camp and enjoying the hospitality of the Green Goddess. There had been forecast a chance of thunderstorms late afternoon, which eventually didn't play out until dark. A bit tired and a bit sore, I enjoyed later that night listening to the rain, snug in my bed, tucked in and cozy.

Wednesday, Day 4

Today I decided to enjoy my tiny trailer basecamp. I've ridden for two days but because of my time in the saddle, I hadn't taken the time to enjoy the campground. I slept in this morning, drinking tea and writing before cooking breakfast at ten o'clock. The rest of the morning was spent reading and enjoying the process of cooking lunch. Camp routines are soothing, and spending the morning just enjoying our camping set-up was a treat. I also enjoyed some photography while I was engaged around camp.


The electricity was off for the neighbors and for the restrooms/showers but not for my campsite. There must be separate lines for me and my neighbors. I could, of course, have gotten by without electricity. The sun was up, and with our Coleman stove and Yeti ice boxes, we were self-sufficient.


Afternoon was an easy time, too, on this rest day: lunch, clean-up, and then cruising the campground on my bike and taking notes regarding the campsite specifics. The notes should help a lot when I get home and reserve a spot again.

I think I'll take a nap this afternoon and then take some evening photographs. I've been working with my tripod and timer so that I can have a person (me) in some of the shots.

Beautiful evening light off the river

Geese at Howell Station, Des Moines River

Thursday, Day 5

I woke up this morning with the thought in mind to ride to Pella again today. After all, I was out of desserts! It would be best to ride in the morning because it was going to be in the 90s. I realized, though, that I had never actually ridden the bulk of the Volksweg Trail around the lake, just a bit near the campground and the three and a half mile trail into Pella.

I decided to ride the main trail, shooting again for Roberts West Campground. However, this time, because of the heat, I would have not only a destination in mind but also a turn-around time. If I were not very close to Roberts by 10:00 A.M., then I'd turn around. That gave me a there-and-back riding time of two and a half to three hours, and I'd be back at basecamp by 11:30, with the temperatures in the mid 80s rather than the 90s.

I was off by 8:45 retracing my route from Monday. This time, though, when I reached the fork in the trail, I stopped and checked my location on Google Maps. I believed that I had the local geography in my head now, but I wanted to actually get on the trail this time. Yes, right turn!


The Volksweg Trail winds up and down the hills which have been earth-dammed to create the body of Lake Red Rock, the main dam being concrete. It was not a difficult ride, the hills being neither excessively steep or long. A significant part of the time the trail was away from highways and even homes; however, there were times the trail skirted the highway. The lake was not always in view; in fact, much of the time the trail led through woods, the trees forming a canopy overhead. This helped keep me cool, although I made a point of taking a drink every time I stopped for a photograph.


At five minutes past ten, though, I was still about a mile away from the end of the trail, and the county campground was about two and a half miles farther down the highway past the trail's end. I'd ridden about eight and a half miles, almost the entire trail, and because of the heat and the desire to not put off lunch, decided to hold to my turn-around time. Good idea, Tom! I arrived back at camp not overheated or over-hungry. It had definitely turned hot and humid, though, so I showered and ate, rested and wrote, enjoying the effectiveness of the AC.

This situation does illustrate the effectiveness of a tiny trailer as a bicycle basecamp for day rides. When the weather is intensely hot or cold (or humid or windy or rainy), the intensity doesn't have to wear you down. You can get away from it until the next day. I've gone on week tours if not world tours with my bicycle, and part of the joy of bicycle touring is carrying your house and possessions in your panniers or trail (really tiny trailers!) These joys are not in competition with basecamp tiny trailer joys, though. Just choose which joy you want for the current tour.

Right now I'm enjoying taking day rides and then returning to my tiny trailer basecamp. The reasons are not complicated. One is that I'm just enjoying my tiny trailer and want to add the joy of bicycling to that. Another is that I want to include my wife in my meanders, and because of her business and predilections, we're not going to meander for more than day rides on our bicycles. At least not in the now. Incorporating bicycling and family successfully into one experience is very rewarding for me. And, to be completely honest, maybe I'm getting old enough to appreciate having the option of comfort if I want it!

Friday, Departure Day

I packed up most of camp last night so that this morning hooking up will be the only requirement. That gives me time to check out Wallashuck Campground, which is just four and a half miles away and also an Army Corps campground. I rode past it on yesterday's jaunt. I've been told its newer, and reviews say it has good access to the lake.

So I'm finishing up this diary report of my camping here at Howell Station Campground. It's been a fun, relaxing time. Last night the low temperature was 75 degrees, so this was the best opportunity since buying the camper to use the air conditioning. I found that for sleeping, setting the temperature and fan on the automatic setting worked best for keeping the temperature stable at around 72. The high yesterday was in the low 90s.

I had an experience while riding on Thursday for the 17 miles or so that in a way sums up this camping trip. I was riding but couldn't seem to settle down, my attention jumping from an awareness of the hills to my muscles to my seat, my mind having random thoughts and just being over-active in general. And then after about ten miles of riding, I found my everything just smoothed out. My muscles just did their job.

In this camping and bicycling expedition, I've enjoyed the opportunity to step back from societal routine and just live according to the weather and according to the rhythms of the moment, whatever activity I've been engaged in. "See the job, do the job, stay out of the misery." Such good advice! I think that's one reason people enjoy camping--enjoying the rhythms of nature. I hope you have enjoyed following the narrative of my tiny trailer bicycle basecamp expedition. This experience has been a good reminder of the basis or our lives and happiness, the role of nature in our lives.

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