Monday, May 21, 2012

Beer Blogging

As you may be aware, I recently started homebrewing.  It's something I had thought about trying for a while, but wasn't sure if I could pull it off.  Kristal probably got tired of me talking about it and not doing anything, so she bought me a Mr Beer kit for my birthday, which is a fool-proof way to get into brewing. From there, the hobby has grown and along with a few friends I am slowly advancing up the scale of complexity.  There are a lot of good beer blogs out there, but the internet is big enough for all of us.  I by no means want this blog to become exclusively about beer, but brewing is a fairly regular event at my house and so blogging about it will help keep me in the flow of writing.  I also take a very scientific approach to brewing, and want to write not just about what I brewed and how, but why.

To begin with I will be working on a series of posts about the four fundamental ingredients of brewing: Malt, Yeast, Hops and Water.  After that I will probably give a summary of the beers brewed to date, then we will get into more detailed descriptions of the brew days as they occur.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Thule Urban Assault

Today I rode in the Thule Urban Assault mountain bike race.  The event is part of Dominion RiverRock, a weekend festival of outdoor activities.   It is my home course, run on trails in the James River Park System that I regularly ride, so it seemed liked a good occasion for me to enter my first race.  Apparently the event is quite a draw for professional riders on the East Coast.  The pros would be doing two loops of the course, I would be doing just one, ten miles in length.  I think to most non-mountain bikers that doesn't sound very far, but on technical single track - trust me - it's a good distance.

Then send the pros off first, then there is actually an hour wait before the people doing a single loop set off.  This gives enough time for most guys to get around.  Unfortunately it meant sitting around on a hot afternoon waiting to get going.  I guess I could have showed up later but there was supposed to be a 'competitors meeting' at 12.30pm, which I thought might give some useful insight into racing etiquette but actually involved the announcer admonishing us to 'keep the rubber side down'.  So then I had to wait around until my wave start time at 2.11pm.

My wave, the beginner group ages 19-29, only had about 10-15 people in it so I was hoping that the trail wouldn't be too congested.  However, not only were there some people coming around for their second loop and catching up with us, we also had to contend with the fast guys in the 30-39 group that started a few minutes behind us.  My theory is that if you're in the 19-29 range theres a good chance you're in reasonable shape and just want to give it a go.  If you're in the 30-39 range and you've entered this kind of event it means you're a serious mountain biker.  Really, they need to adopt a wave start more like running races based on predicted time, not age.

Some of the more seasoned riders were very nice about trying to pass.  Others were down-right rude.  The biggest issue was that the beginner group had a lot of complete amateurs, so they would stall out on even the less technical hills but not really get out of the way.  If you did pass them they'd then come flying up behind you only to skid off the track at a tight turn.  I had one guy crash into the back of me when I was at the back of a traffic jam.  Basically it was carnage.  It was also exhausting, as it is much harder work to get off and push, then remount the bike and get going again.  I wanted to continue at my own pace but it was difficult to tell when the person behind you was legitimately faster than you rather than just tail gating.  The strange thing was, not matter how often I pulled over to let people by, there was another group on my tail in no time.  I guess I was going pretty slow!

Despite all the traffic, the race was a lot of fun.  There were several groups of spectators at a few of the obstacles, cheering people on and growing nuts when somebody successfully negotiated a technical section.  The course is great and it was awesome to be a part of a race that showcases my favorite trails.  Overall I think I am pleased with my performance.  I rode in one hour, 18 minutes, coming 6th in my age group from a total of 14 finishers, and 51st out of 96 who rode the 10 mile course.  I think I could do better but not sure if I enjoyed it enough to take another crack at it.  Maybe next year I'll marshall this race and run the 10K scramble instead!

Saturday, May 19, 2012

The Ten Thousand Islands

So like I said, I stopped at the Gulf Coast Visitor Center and was talked into talking a boat tour.  Two different tours are offered.  One goes through the mangroves in a small boat but can be buggy and didn't fit with my schedule.  The other was on a larger covered pontoon boat which suited me because I was still trying to stay out of the sun.  The timing would leave me just enough of the afternoon to get back to the bike shop.  The tour was excellent and the guides gave a lot of information about the ecology, geography and history of the area, some of which I will try to recollect here.

The Ten Thousand Islands are an area where the Everglades meets the Gulf and there is this almost esturine geography as the land breaks up into many small islands of mangrove trees.  They really tried to count the islands on several occasions using aerial or satellite photography, but depending on the height of the tide the number can increase as small channels fill with water and one island becomes many!  But the ten thousand moniker is definitely in the right ball park and may even be an underestimation.

The mangrove tree is the only tree that can tolerate the saline waters of coastal areas, so it has the place to itself.  There are actually three kinds of mangrove, black, white and red, and all three are present on the florida mangroves.  They are an evergreen tree, so they do not lose their leaves in winter but rather they continually  drop leaves into the water.  The leaves contain tannins, so the waters around the mangrove islands are like a tea.  Although the water looks murky because of the decomposing mangrove leaves, it is very healthy and supports the second largest area of oyster beds in the U.S. (behind the Chesapeake Bay - woohoo!).  However, no-one eats the oysters from Florida because the waters stay too warm and bacteria abound.  There is no solid ground on the islands, but in some places there looks like there is a beach.  It is formed by oyster shells.  Since they are not harvested, they build up in large numbers and during a storm are pushed up against the islands.

The ten thousand islands is home to several species of fishing bird.  The osprey is there in large numbers, as well as the snowy egret and several types of heron including the tri-color heron, which I don't think I'd seen before.  The most impressive bird to see is the swallowtailed kite.  Like all kites it is amazingly agile in the air, and it spirals through the tree tops eating bugs off the branches as it goes!  I was really hoping to see a manatee, but had to make do with dolphins.  The dolphin we did see were practicing the art of love. Yes, that's right, copulating dolphins.  Dolphins also engage in coitus for pleasure, like humans and there three seemed to just be enjoying a bit of afternoon love-making.  Three, you ask?  Well, you see their mechanics is the same as ours (they are mammals, not fish) but they don't have arms, or beds, so the male has to get his buddy to lend a flipper and hold the female in position.  The overall result is a writhing mass of sleek grey flesh splashing around in the water with the occasional flash of a large pink member.  We were apparently very lucky to witness this event, but it was a little uncomfortable.  The dolphins were not easily distracted from their task, and we ran out of time before they ran out of steam.

On the way back in one of the guides rambled through some of the history of the area.  Tales of the spanish trying to move in and being beaten back by skilled indian warriors.  Stories of lawless settlement where the villagers meted out justice with a variety of makeshift weaponry according to their own feeling of what the facts might be.  I guess the Everglades has been a good place to dump a body for a long time!

So, if you every get down the the Everglades, definitely take the short detour down 29 and check out the Gulf Coast Visitor Center.  The staff will happily talk you out of your money but it will be totally worth it!

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

The 'Glades

I had to get the bike back to the shop by 4.30pm and I had no idea what might be in store for the day ahead.  So my plan was to ride most of the distance back to Naples and see how the time was going, then decide what Everglade related activities to engage in.  The ride out of the Keys was fun.  In many ways the area between Key Largo and Miami is the most beautiful.  The waters are an unreal shade of green-blue and fill numerous channels between the wooded islands and peninsulas.  On the way back I managed to find the road that skirts the urban areas back to Tamiami Trail.  I was really glad I did as I got to see another facet of Florida's countryside.  The road was lined with nurseries and orchards growing lemons, oranges, limes and a variety of other fruit that may have been mangos and similar that I'd never seen on the tree before.

I turned onto Tamiami Trail and made short work of the first 50 miles or so.  The road essentially forms a dam across the Everglades than prevents the natural flow of water.  Lake Okeechobee empties into the Everglades and instead of forming a single river channel the water meanders across the entire landscape as a swamp but is inexorably progressing towards the gulf.   Route 41 halts that progress.  To remedy the situation, they are converting an entire section of the road from a dirt mound to a causeway bridge so the water can flow underneath unimpeded.  This is a mammoth task which was bought home as I watch a truck arrive at the work site with a single massive concrete cross beam.  It had driven the 50 plus miles from Miami, but that was just a single component and hundreds like it would be needed to support the roadway.  The point is, the first third of the trail consists of a construction site on one side and a manmade canal on the other, which is basically the ditch left behind when they piled up the earth to put the road on. The you get the the Indian villages which use garish billboards to advertise airboat tours and alligator wrestling.  Finally you get to the Everglades National Park and Big Cypress National Preserve.  Right before Big Cypress is the Shark Valley Visitor Center.  I pulled over to see what was up but there was and admission fee and I didn't feel like messing with it.  I pull a quick U-turn and stop to check my phone when I realize there is an alligator sitting next to me in a drainage ditch.  Well, that was easy!  Check off 'alligator' on the wildlife spotting list.

I went a little further to the Oasis Visitor Center which serves Big Cypress.  It was kinda small but had a lot of good information about the wildlife and the off road trails you could drive through the 'Glades.  I considered checking one out, but wasn't sure how the rental shop would feel about me going offroad on their shiny Softail.  Plus the trails are rumored to be crawling with alligators than have become accustomed to humans baiting them, and didn't want them to think I was offering my feet as a snack.  Apparently it is quite dangerous to get out of your car.  On I went to Kirby Storter Roadside Park.  I had stopped there on the way down to put my earplugs in and had made a mental note to visit more thoroughly on the way back.  There is a very nice boardwalk out to an alligator hole.  By this point I had seen so many gators that it didn't hold quite the same attraction but I still wanted to check it out.  It's a great way to see the Everglades habitat up close.  The boardwalk goes through a stand of cypress trees, which all have air-plants and orchids growing off of them.  I had heard someone explaining that although people think of the everglades as a big swamp, there is a base of limestone right beneath the surface, and where the boardwalk crossed over grassland you could see patches of the white stone peeking through.

After enjoying a rest in a thatched shelter, I still had plenty of time to kill, and was beginning to get hungry for lunch, so I decided to hit the road and head towards Everglades City.  The city, if you can call it that, is just a few miles south of U.S. 41.  I was expecting something more substantial and had ridden through almost before I realised I had arrived.  I continued on to the end of the road, to the small village of Chokoloskee.  There wasn't a whole lot there either.   The only attraction was some historic local store.  I stuck my head in and could tell it wasn't worth the admission price, so retraced my tracks to EC.  Right on the southern edge of the city is the Gulf Coast Visitor Center, part of Everglades National Park.  I stuck me head it and the lady at the counter got straight to work on me, convincing me to go on a boat tour.  It turned out I had just enough time to fit in a tour of the Ten Thousand Islands.  The islands are comprised completely of mangrove trees.  The boat tour was so excellent I think I might have to dedicate an entire post to it.  See you next time!

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Really the Florida Keys

OK, so we just about got the the Keys last time, but what did I do there?  I really only had two activities in mind.  One was a kayak trip and the other was sitting on the beach.  For reasons I will explain in due time, I achieved one of these!  I had a hotel room booking in Marathon, which is about halfway between Key Largo (the first Key) and Key West (at the end of the line).  Right before you arrive in Marathon there is a state park called Curry Hammock.  I had read that you can rent a kayak there, and preferred to do that than try to find a commercial outfitter.

One of the joys of motorcycle travel is getting to change clothes in parking lots.  I had cleverly worn a pair of swim shorts under my jeans, so didn't have to go butt naked to get ready for water sports but the park ranger probably thought I was cuckoo as I stripped out of my riding gear and emerged in shorts and flip-flops ready to hit the beach.  The particularly attractive thing about renting a kayak at this state park was that you could paddle though a mangrove tunnel.  The ranger gave me a laminated map and showed me the best way to go around the island with the current tidal conditions.  Unfortunately I had arrived at the beginning of low tide so it was hard going in shallow water.  I kept scooping up seaweed and flinging it into my hair!  However I was making much better headway that a pair of couples that were in tandem kayaks and drew too much water to negotiate the shallows.  After a period of basically punting myself along I finally reached some deeper water at the back of the island.

You can see in the second photo the entrance to the tunnel.  Other than a small sign you would have no idea there was a path through the trees.  The ranger had set me right, there was a good current flowing through the tunnel and I was able to ride along making small course corrections but not really having to paddle.  A good thing, because there was no room to be swinging the paddle around.  The picture is a more open section were I was able to snap a picture without crashing into the jungle.  The craziest part was that there were thousands of crabs on the mangrove roots.  I mean, they were everywhere!  I feared that if my kayak brushed against a root then an army of crabs would board my vessel and devour me.  This really was one of the coolest experience of my life.  It was like a carnival ride but completely a product of nature.

Once I reached the tunnel exit I was almost back to my starting point.  I had about half of my allotted time left, so paddled out to a sand bar about a quarter mile off shore.   Beaching my kayak on the white sands was like arriving at my own private island.  After relaxing for a few minutes it was time to return.  I did make a short detour down a channel that the ranger had mentioned in relation to iguanas.  Sure enough, on the top of a well weathered telegraph pole was sitting a content iguana.  Apparently they are escaped pets that have started a colony in that particular area.

Once I had returned my kayaking equipment it was about check in time at the hotel so I figured I would go there and take stock of my situation.  I was only a few miles down the road so after swapping my flip-flops for trainers I rode in shorts and a vest feeling very biker.  On arrival at the hotel it became apparent that I may had gotten every so slightly sunburned.  I certainly had a bad case of panda eyes, and my arms were a little tender, but worst off were the backs of my hands from being on the bike with no gloves on.  Anyway, sitting on the beach was definitely out of the question.  I had hoped that some fun activities would be within walking distance but this was not really the case.  Luckily there was a tiki bar right across the street, so I stopped in for my tropical beer of choice, Red Stripe.  After some lounging around it had begun to cool off so I took the bike out to ride some more of the overseas highway.  I wondered if I would be able to make it down to Key West, but didn't really want to ride after dark since without a visor I was relying on sunglasses to keep the bugs out of my eyes.  I got as far as Big Pine Key, maybe a little further, but the sun was sinking fast and it was clear Key West was going to have to wait to another day.  I got back to my seat at the bar in time to watch the sun set and enjoy a dinner of grilled yellowtail and a fruity rum drink.

The Florida Keys

The second part of my adventure involves me, a Harley-Davidson Softail Deluxe and the open road.  It has been an ambition of mine to ride a motorcycle along Route 1 in the Keys.  I've never been particularly attracted to the Harley-Davidson brand, but I felt it would be wrong to judge without a proper trial.  A little investigation on the internet led me to Everglades Motorcycle Service in Naples.  I went for the cheapest option of the two bikes they rent, a 2005 Softail Deluxe.  The motor is a 103 cu in V-twin, meaning each cylinder was larger on it's own that any bike I have ever ridden before.

Since the fishing trip wrapped up a little early, I was able to pick up the bike the evening before I had planned to leave.  Not only did that give me a nice early departure in the morning with the paperwork out of the way, it also allowed me some city riding to acquaint myself with this beast.  I was pleasantly surprise with my ability to handle such a large bike, especially since it has been a year or two since I last rode.  The guy at the shop helpfully recommended that I ride down the access road for the industrial estate we were on, and I made a neat U-turn at the end, instantly boosting my confidence.

The vibration from the engine was hardly noticeable, thanks to a counterbalanced twin cam design.  The seat was enormously comfortable.  To be honest I was more embarrassed than exhilerated by the exhaust noise, it just doesn't make sense to me.  Having said that, when you ease off the throttle you get an awesome throaty spluttering sound.  Its very hard to describe, but I confess that I rather enjoyed negotiating the suburbs of South Miami on a joyless road with stoplights every block.  Normally it would be a torment, but with that soundtrack the discomfort of the heat and traffic was almost forgotten.

As I said, I got an early start.  I wasn't sure how long it would really take, nor how many things I would want to do in the Keys, so I motored through the Everglades on the Tamiami Trail.  I made a mental note of places I might like to visit on the way back.  I had not ridden with anything other than a full face helmet before so wasn't sure what a long period at speed would be like.  I was surprised to find that earplugs helped a lot, as I always thought that it was the noise of the wind over the helmet that was loud.  But with my ears open to the air it was actually quite painful after a few miles at 70mph.  I pulled over and stuck the plugs in and was quite comfortable after that.

When I hit the urban sprawl I got a little lost trying to find a way down to the Keys without having to take  the toll road.  Florida has completely done away with cash toll booths on some turnpikes, so you have to stop and buy a pre-paid card or something.  I wasn't really sure how it would work on a rental bike, so just decided to avoid the toll.  Lucky I had my iPhone strapped to my belt, so could stop and check the map.  Not like my previous riding experience which usually involved stopping at a gas station and trying to subtly look at an road atlas without having to buy it!

Before too long I had located Route 1 and was quickly at the start of the Keys.  The nice thing about being on a loud bike is you feel like you have a license to scream your head off because the chances are no one can hear you!  Woohoooooo! I'm in the freakin' Florida Keys!

Thursday, May 10, 2012


I have just returned from a trip to Florida.  Even though it was a relatively short trip I packed a lot in, so I think I will split the vacation into a few episodes.  In this first installment, I will focus on a fishing trip on the Enterprise.  The Enterprise is a 34-foot sport fishing boat captained by Capt. Rich, ably assisted by 1st mate Russell.  We set off out of Marco Island, just South of Naples.  After a short idle to get out of the marina area we were on the open sea and Capt Rich opened up the throttle.   It was amazing how much water is being moved by the bow even when planed out (that is, the boat is moving fast enough to rise partially out of the water, reducing drag).  After a few minutes we had reached the first fishing spot and Russell had the rods ready.

At first we did not even use bait, just a lure.  We were fishing for Spanish Mackerel.  They are a streamlined fish that likes to chase their prey, so one good technique to use is the fast retrieve.  The concept is to cast the line and wait a few seconds for the lure to sink a little so that it is at the depth that the fish are swimming.  To get the attention of your quarry you have to give it some 'action'.  This entails jerking the rod back and forth a couple of times, but you must also keep the line taught by winding the reel a little.  I is a bit like trying to pat your head and rub your tummy at the same time.  Sometime I felt I my action was good, other times I was woefully uncoordinated.  Next comes the fast retrieve.  The rod is turned so you have a comfortable angle to reel and you reel like hell.  If you feel a strike, you must pull on the rod to make sure the hook firmly embeds itself.  The Mackerel put up a small fight, enough to make it fun but it is not really a challenge to land the fish.  More difficult is leaving the correct six feet of line so that you don't swing the thrashing fish into the face of the mate as he comes to extract the hook!

The fish came easily for a while.  I was chastised for catching fish that we too small, but wasn't given any useful advice on how to hook larger specimens.  Apparently a good fisherman will be able to tell if it's a small fish and allow it to unhook itself by slackening the line, but I was so excited every time I got a bite I didn't care.  Russell seemed perfectly happy to unhook them and toss them back, so long as I left the requisite 6 feet of line!

All of a sudden, the fish stopped biting.  We would see a few following our lures but they had gotten wise seeing their friends plucked out of the water.  No matter, Captain Rich gunned the engine and in no time had us over another school of willing participants.  When another lull occurred, we tried baiting out lines with shrimp, but this seemed to result only in us catching Jack Crevalles, a pretty fish with yellow highlights but not worth keeping.

It has to be said there is a lot more skill to fishing that first meets the eye.  Obviously there is the talent in finding the fish.  They often school around some underwater object, a reef or wreck for instance, and Captain Rich had a few waypoints in his GPS so was able to put us right on the fish.  But the art of casting a line and getting a bite was clearly more complex than I had initially thought.  We were in a dry spell and frustration is setting in.  Why aren't the fish biting anymore.  Captain Rich comes down from the tower and grabs a line.  Casts.  Hooks a fish and hands the line to me to land it.  Says, 'lemme see that again', cast, strike, another Mackerel.  He shows me the trick: he casts in a certain direction, but the wind is catching the line a preventing the lure from sinking.  So he holds the tip of the rod down by the water so that the line is submerged and cannot be ballooned by the wind.  Well, I copy him exactly but have no more luck.

By this point the rough seas are starting to take their toll.  The tide is running one way and the wind blowing the other so it is difficult to keep the boat from lurching around unpredictably.   Also, my knees are beginning to complain about being braced against the rail, so we decide to call it a day.

Still, I can hardly complain, we have a fine haul of Mackerel.  Once back at the Marina, Captain Rich expertly fillets the fish, feeding the scraps to the attendant pelicans and egrets who know it's feeding time.   It is sublime raw, and delicious when fried up in a light breading.