Transportation

Hennepin Canal State Park Trail - Lock 2 to Lock 13 by Erin Wade

In rural northern Illinois there is a hidden gem of a state park. It’s long and narrow, and follows along the man-made waterway known as the Hennepin Canal.

Narrow to be certain - the park is generally the width of the canal and it’s towpaths, give or take a few expanded recreation and/or information areas. But also long to be sure. The Illinois DNR website indicates that the park occupies 104.5 linear miles, with 155 miles of towpath for riding/walking, etc. The canal runs from from the Illinois River just east of Bureau Junction to the Mississippi River near Rock Island. There is also a feeder canal that runs from Rock Falls southward and meets the main canal near Sheffield. The feeder itself runs nearly 30 miles, and provides water from the Rock River to the canal.

The eastern trail head is located in the tiny town of Bureau Junction, at the site of Lock 2.

Catrike Pocket at Lock 2 Trailhead

There is a Lock 1, apparently a little further to the east, but the towpath was not maintained between Locks 1 and 2, and Lock 1 is underwater during the summer months, making it hard to access and hard to see.

Driving to the trail head brought back a lot of memories. When I was a kid my family spent a lot of time on the Illinois river and its tributaries in this area. This included fishing trips with my father and grandfather, and weekend days at a beach along the river, swimming and waterskiing and watching the barges pass by. We’d marvel at the (relatively) tiny tugboats pushing row after row of shipping barge ahead of them. We’d have to stop and marvel because they also kicked up a significant wake that made you want to clear out of the water until they passed. And each trip we’d have to have at least one discussion about how it was odd that they were called tug boats, when they were actually pushing their cargo...

Driving to the trailhead brought back these memories. The geography of the roads changes as you get into river country - the formal grid of farm country yields to the twisting nature dictated by the rivers and streams - and the smell of the air shifts to reflect the presence of the waterways even when you cannot see them.

The trailhead is set at Lock 2, and it literally begins at the lock.

Catrike with Lock 2 in full view

Lock 2 facing west

Lock 2 facing east

I decided to ride from the trail head to Lock 13 and back, a round trip a little over 22 miles. The surface of the trail varies considerably over that distance, from what appears to be older asphalt to crushed stone to dirt. One section, maybe 3/4’s of a mile long, is white chip gravel, with all the slow-going that entails for any cycle without wide tires (even a trike - you don’t worry about falling over, but you do still get to experience all of the bone shaking joy). Portions of the trail had late spring grass growing in abundance.

The trail ahead - taken at Lock 3

Traveling this direction takes you past the locks in ascending numerical order. As such, Lock 3 is the first you encounter, just a short ways down the trail. While Lock 2 is the beginning of the trail, Lock 3 may be the preferred starting point for the non-completist. This point in the park has a large cement parking lot (compared to the small affair at the trailhead).

A couple of weeks ago I ventured out on the Illinois and Michigan Canal Trail, which was part of what made me think of this trail, which is a little further from home. Given that both are trails that run along the towpath of a canal, you’d expect riding them to be similar experiences. This is true, to some degree, but there are important differences between the two, at least for the sections that I’ve ridden.

The I&M Canal runs through multiple towns along its course. The section I rode began in LaSalle, went through Utica, and I stopped just three miles shy of Ottawa. Each of these locations offers opportunities to stop and eat, have a drink, all within a short distance from the path. As a result, you are also riding, albeit briefly, through settled areas.

The Hennepin Canal is decidedly more remote. Though the towpath crosses roads, for the 11 mile stretch that I rode it was mostly just me, the trail, and the canal. People fishing were encountered along the trail, typically within walking distance of the road crossings, but otherwise I was mostly alone.

The Canal itself is still almost entirely open water. This means that riding along it provides a view that includes water throughout, including the requisite wildlife; And the wildlife abound. Fish surface and jump in the canal, frogs wait alongside the trail, and I saw more herons in this single two and a half hour ride than I’ve ever seen on a single day before. I also frequently caught sight of a small dark yellow bird I did not recognize - not bright enough to be a goldfinch, but of similar size. My best guess, based on my Peterson Field Guide, would be a Common Yellowthroat. If so, common or not, it was new to me.

The Canal is almost entirely open water. There were multiple sections with land bridges intersecting the canal. The canal still flows past them, through culverts, but they appear frequently along the way.

Land bridge

If you look at the satellite view from Apple or Google maps you get a sense of how these re-occur along this section of the canal.

Satellite pic of land bridges

In some cases roads run across them, but in others they are simply grass covered. One assumes these were filled in to allow easy passage perhaps to farmers and others attempting to cross from one side of the canal to the other. This has little impact on biking other than to provide a short variation to the scenery. However, if one were canoeing or kayaking along this section of the canal, between the land bridges and the locks one would have to expect to portage frequently. Looking at the map the feeder canal appears to be free of either land bridges or locks, so that section might be the better choice for paddler.

In fact, at one point I did have to do my own, cycling version of a portage...

Tree Down!

One might expect a canal towpath to be mostly level. However, on this section there are elevation changes, some of them abrupt, particularly as one goes under bridges.

Trail under bridge

It is also the case that, from Lock 2 to the point where the feeder canal joins near Sheffield, the canal is rising. This isn’t easy to see, but one can feel it when riding. I was definitely faster on the way back.

In most cases the trail rises up to cross roads, but in one case it has a tunnel that runs under the roadway.

Tunnel

One wants to take care entering the tunnel. It’s not long, but the trail surface inside is dirt, and considerably less dry than the surface outside. I had to pick my way along it carefully to not end up with a back full of muddy water.

The other distinction of this canal is the locks themselves. Perhaps because it is younger and was in service later than the I&M Canal (still an active waterway until the early 1950’s) the locks are present and visible along the way. Their presence gives a feel for something very different than just riding along a river, and they provide more interesting markers of distance than a simple mile sign. Each of them has been set up now with a cement wall in place of the old lock hardware, causing a waterfall at each transition.

Lock waterfall

And the locks are each marked with depth measurements, likely to guide the lock tenders as they filled the lock in.

Depth Marker

Depth Marker circled

When you reach Lock 11, you’ll find a picnic area, as well as some weathered information signs to give you some of the history of the canal:

info sign

More info sign

And still more info sign

While I rode out to Lock 13, my actual goal was to reach Lock 12. This is due to a personal connection there - as I understand it, my Great-Grandfather Percy worked as a lock tender for this particular lock. I’d heard this before, and always pictured him coming from his home to work at the lock, one of probably multiple shift workers tending to it to facilitate barge traffic. It turns out this was a much bigger job than I’d imagined - the lockmen lived on the canal, provided with houses and outbuildings to support their work there. It was a year-round job, and in the winter they would cut ice from the canal and sell it to help fund its operation.

Trike at Lock 12

Lock 12 was also the site of one of the canal’s aqueducts - essentially a huge cement water bridge that carried the canal over existing natural waterways. In the case of Lock 12, it carried the canal over Big Bureau Creek. According to Wikipedia, of the nine original aqueducts, six remain while the other three were removed with piping put in to carry the flow of the canal water under the waterway it crossed. Lock 12 is one of the three that were removed.

On the western side of the bridge you can see the water reach its end...

Canelus Interruptus

...and there is a large drain gate for the water to descend.

Down the water goes...

Looking closely at the eastern side you can see the water burbling up inside the lock.

Water burbling

Bureau Creek is far below, with some of what must the the original pilings to support the aqueduct still present.

Bureau Creek and Pilings

Bureau Creek is actually a recurring companion along the trip, often visible on the trail opposite the canal. It is visually distinct, being a winding, twisting affair as it works its own path down to the Illinois River. This periodically gives one the sensation of riding along a causeway just above the water, which is a pleasant experience.

Bureau Creek Pano

There are campgrounds along the trail. They must be well-hidden, as it appears that I passed two of them, at Lock 6 and Lock 11, and did not see them. In both cases it appears they are on the opposite side of the canal from the cycling trail. If one wanted to do a multiple day trip along the canal, it appears it would be friendly for bikepacking.

If you go, you’ll want to bring along your own supplies. I’ve already mentioned that it’s remote, and the DNR website notes that the only drinking water available on the route is located at the visitor center. I actually wished I had brought along a second bottle of water for myself on this go-round. If you look at the canal along the map, it’s rare that it travels through settled areas of any size. You are on your own for drinks and snacks.

However, if you are looking for an opportunity to ride out alone in the wilderness - something that can be challenging in our well-settled times - this trail definitely offers the opportunity. You’ll come across the occasional fishing folks, and the sighting of them generally signals that you are close to a crossroads or trail entry point. Otherwise, if my trip was any gauge, you can expect long stretches of solitude in company of nature.

Detroit by Erin Wade

Over the Fourth of July weekend we were in Detroit for the 2017 National Tae Kwon Do Championships. Aside from the martial arts extravaganza, one of the things I've always enjoyed about these types of events is that it can provide an opportunity to see places you otherwise might not.

But seriously - Detroit?

We all know that Detroit is The Motor City, and the home of Motown. But honestly, most of my mental picture of Detroit is formed from the movie The Crow and the various works of Eminem.

Still, that's where the tournament was, so that's where we were going. I pictured spending a lot of time in the hotel room in-between formal events (the hotel was a different story - is there a Crowne Plaza in the nation that has been re-decorated later than 1987...?).

Turns out that Detroit - or at least the broad downtown section that contains the Cobo Center - is under revitalization. And it shows. While there are a handful of buildings that are in very poor condition, those that we encountered are under construction. And the city has built a downtown park - called Campus Martius Park - which puts a lovely central focus point on the region.

Michigan Soldiers and Sailors Monument

The Michigan Soldiers and Sailors Monument sits at one entry point to the park. The park itself contains many of the things that one would expect - trees, tables, fountains, a bandshell, people reading, talking, playing chess. It also contains a huge sandbox (called "the beach") and an outdoor bar. This, as one might suspect, makes it a lovely space for people of all ages to congregate, and the park was well attended. This was lovely enough that we chose to spend time there on a couple of different days that we had open.

This area is also very bike-friendly, and the city has recently incorporated a bike-sharing system similar to that found in other cities. There are multiple restaurants within a short walk of the park, including a Hard Rock Café, a marvelous breakfast place called The Dime Store, and a little further down, the Detroit Beer Company, a local brewpub.

Detroit Beer Company

We also took a ride on the Detroit People Mover, did a walk-thru at the General Motors building, and spent a short period of time walking through the small Greektown the city offers.

The experience wasn't flawless. The city does have a homelessness problem, and when walking to breakfast we encountered one man laying splayed on the sidewalk such that it was unclear whether he was sleeping, or waiting for someone to make a chalk outline around him. He was gone when we passed back that way, so it was likely the former.

The city probably benefitted somewhat from low expectations - I wouldn't recommend it as a vacation destination by itself - but all in all, the experience was much different than I expected, and far more pleasant.

2016 Chevrolet Volt by Erin Wade

As anyone who comes by this spot with any type of regularity will already know, transportation issues - whether it be roads, cars, bikes, trains, etc - fascinate me. In part this is because I believe that our approaches to transportation have a significant impact on the lives we lead; and, in part, it's because I'm a person who lives in a rural area and must travel considerable distances both for work and personal activities.

To the latter end, automobile efficiency has a significant impact on my life, and I've often tried to select my cars accordingly. When the original Chevrolet Volt came out back in 2011 I spent some time trying to understand how to figure out whether it would be a good choice for me. This turned out to be more complicated than I thought it would be:

The Chevy Volt has a problem.

Confusion.

This past February I had the good fortune to attend the Chicago Auto Show with the inimitable Ted E. Dunphy. We go to the auto show every year or two, but this year I was particularly interested in seeing and having the opportunity to ride in the Chevy Volt. The ride was fun - around a short track inside McCormick Place, the cars running entirely on electricity.

What was more interesting - and perplexing - was trying to figure out what kind of mileage I would get with the car. Usually this is a relatively straight-forward thing, published clearly on the window sticker of each new car. But if the Volt were treated the same way, it's sticker would just say "it depends".

In a nutshell, because the car has an electric only range, how much gas a person would use would depend upon how far they drive - the more driving done outside the range of the electric motor, the less attractive the Volt becomes.

In that original post I compared the 2010 Volt to two of my own cars - a 2007 Mini Cooper S and a 2010 Honda Fit - as well as the Toyota Prius, which is probably its primary competitor. I also included the original Honda Insight, a car I have always been interested in, albeit one that is very different than the rest of the group.

For the original Volt it turned out to best all of the others in real-world mileage for people driving less than 25,000 miles per year, over which the two hybrids - the Prius and the Insight - caught up with it. Even then, though, the Volt was still competitive in terms of mileage.

Where it suffered, though, was overall cost of ownership:

But gasoline is not the only cost of owning a car. Most people buying a car will borrow, and that cost will always be a relevant factor. If one compares the same cars, including the monthly car payment assuming a five year loan with no down payment for each new car, and the blue book value and a two year loan for the Honda Insight, and my current car payment for the Mini, one gets a considerably different picture... Because of it's relatively high purchase price ($32,780 after government rebate), adding in the car payment ramps up the cost of Volt ownership considerably.

I found then that, ultimately, the cost of monthly payments completely reversed the situation, and the Volt moved from least to most expensive to operate. The price of entry was a more relevant component than the fuel costs.

Several important things have changed since 2011:

  • The electric range of the Volt has increased considerably - from about 35 miles to 53 miles.
  • The MPG rating of the gas generator - the mileage the car gets after it runs out of battery charge - is also much higher, rising from 37 mpg to 43 mpg.
  • The original Volt required premium fuel, while the new one gets by with less expensive, regular unleaded.
  • The price of the Volt has dropped. With the government rebate in place, the purchase price is now $26,495.00

So the question is, what kind of a difference do those changes make?

This time around I compared the 2016 Volt to the 2016 Prius and the 2016 Honda Fit. I also included my 2010 Fit as a comparator to evaluate against a fully paid-for, relatively efficient compact car as an option. Assumptions made were:

  • An average fuel price of $2.183 per gallon, based upon the Midwest price on 5/2/16 from the US Energy Information Administration website.
  • Mileage ratings of 34 mpg for the 2010 Fit (based upon my personal measurements), 37 for the 2016 Fit, 52 for the 2016 Prius, and 43 for the 2016 Volt.
  • To account for the Volt's all electric range, the number of miles it traveled was reduced by that range, assuming overnight charging only (e.g. no opportunity for additional charging during the day). For example, a yearly travel amount of 10,000 miles was averaged out to 200 miles per week, or 40 miles per day over five days (a work week) for the other cars. The 40 miles per each day was decreased by the electric range of the Volt - 53 miles - to calculate the remaining average miles traveled per day, and that remaining mileage was calculated against the Volt gas generator mpg of 43 miles per gallon.
  • The same price of $26,495.00 for the Volt and the Prius. This decision was made because there are so many option levels for the Prius that it's price ranges from about $24k up to well over $30k. This seemed simpler and more straightforward.
  • The 2016 Honda Fit model selected was an EX with a handful of options based upon my personal preferences (The EX is the highest end Honda Fit that is available with a manual transmission) for a purchase price of $19041.00.
  • Monthly payments were based upon a 5-year loan, with no down payment, a 6.25% sales tax (Illinois), and 3.26% interest, calculated on the car payment calculator on Cars.com.

With all of this done, what I found was this:

The Volt is still the hands-down winner in terms of fuel cost:

Low Fuel Cost

If you drive less than 10,000 miles per year, odds are good that you will pay virtually nothing for fuel over the course of that year, and the cost for folks at 15k/year is less than $100. Back in 2011 the Volt's advantage leveled off with the Prius's for people who traveled 25k or more miles per year. With the improvements in range and fuel efficiency the 2016 Volt maintains a considerable advantage in fuel economy all the way up to 30k per year. If you are a high mileage driver deciding between a Prius and a Volt, on average the Prius will use $1259.42 worth of gas per year, while the Volt comes in at $850.35.

As in 2011, things change when we add in the cost of purchase:

Economy cars are cheap to own

What we see here, unsurprisingly, is that your cheapest option is still to own your own economy car outright (the 2010 Fit), and that the amount of fuel savings of neither the Volt nor the Prius is sufficient to compensate for the difference made by buying a conventional economy car that is several thousand dollars cheaper. If you must buy a new car, and you are looking for the least expensive overall cost of ownership, something comparable to the Honda Fit is still your best option.

What is pleasantly surprising to learn, however, is that the improvements made for the 2016 Volt make it less expensive to own than a price-comparable 2016 Prius, even for very high-mileage drivers. If you must buy new, and you are comparing hybrid options, the Volt is your best bet. General Motors has come a long way down this road, and it's worth noting that this is only the second-generation of the Volt. Toyota is on it's fourth generation of Prius, and has been building them now for nearly 20 years (the first Prius came out in 1997).

Of course, one does not have to buy a price-comparable Prius. The Prius comes in at a lower base-price, and one could opt for that car, which costs $24,200.00, according to Toyota's website. But it turns out that the cheapest Prius comes out to mostly be comparable to the Volt:

Base Prius

So - if you are selecting between the Volt and the Prius, you aren't really saving much in terms of overall cost of operation by opting for the base Prius to get in at a lower initial purchase price. Given Toyota's head start on this I'd still call this advantage Volt.


And Now for Some Speculation

I noted above that the fuel savings of neither the Volt nor the Prius were enough to make them less expensive than a conventional economy car like the Honda Fit. This is the case, in part, because gasoline is relatively inexpensive in the US at the moment. Out of curiosity I adjusted amounts to see what gas prices would need to be in order for that savings to make the difference.

The Volt takes the advantage here as well. It starts to become cost-comparable with the Fit for low mileage drivers at a gas cost of about $4.75 per gallon:

$4.75 per gallon

And it's comparable or better for all drivers if gas rises twenty-five cents to about $5.00 per gallon:

$5.00 per gallon

As can also be seen here, the Prius is still more expensive to own than the Fit, though it's getting closer to comparable for super-high mileage drivers. The Prius reaches a comparable level for those at 40k miles per year if prices rise to $5.75 per gallon, but at that price the Fit is still the better deal for anyone driving 35k or fewer miles per year:

$5.75 per gallon

For the Prius to reach a point at which it was comparable or better for every mileage point on the graph I had to ramp the cost per gallon up to $20.00:

$20.00 per gallon

And, at this (hopefully) unbelievable cost level, buying a new Volt is actually a better deal than keeping your old economy car, regardless of how many miles you drive per year. Or it would be, except that it seems likely that, were gas to reach $20.00 per gallon, we'd be cruising the wastelands in Police Interceptors, heavily modified dune buggies, or gyrocopters searching for food and a bit of juice... But I digress...

The larger point to this last bit of fiddling with numbers, I suppose, is that the Volt becomes the most economical new car choice in this mix at a fuel price not that far above prices we've seen in the past decade. This suggests that, from an economical standpoint, General Motors appears to be, at this point, far ahead of Toyota in terms of having a realistic financial savings based upon fuel economy.

Perhaps the only remaining caveat here is that the Volt's purchase price continues to include a federal tax subsidy, and things would be somewhat different - the Volt loses its cost advantage over the Prius under those circumstances. But the current reality is that the tax break is in effect, so it remains a part of the calculation here. And, given the progress GM has made on all fronts with this car, and its ongoing work on the electric side with the upcoming Bolt as well, it doesn't seem too optimistic to believe that they will reach a point of unsubsidized price parity with Toyota in the not-too distant future. This all leaves me far more excited about American - and specifically GM - vehicles than I have been in a very long time.