Thursday, June 18, 2009

From Duluth to Grand Marais: From Darkness to Light…

“…they shouted, sang; their bodies streamed with perspiration; they had faces like grotesque masks—these chaps; but they had bone, muscle, a wild vitality, an intense energy of movement, that was natural and true…they wanted no excuse for being there…” Marlow describing the locals from Conrad’s Heart of Darkness

I. The Rationale
“Now when I was a little chap I had a passion for maps…At that time there were many blank spaces on earth.” Marlow begins to spin a yarn for his fellow seafarers at the outset of Heart of Darkness

The rather spontaneous notion to ride the 150+ mile North Shore Trail stems in part from a strange stirring deep within as I worked my way through Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. The novel presents two men both of whom are inexplicably drawn into the late 19th century foreboding jungles of equatorial Africa for reasons that go beyond the usual motivations of basic Euro-colonial greed and fame. Of course, they are not nice people by any stretch of the word, in fact Kurtz is a mass murderer, but they are at least cognizant of the ironical and paradoxical evil of the so-called, White Man’s Burden. So after reading this really gloomy short novel, the thought of getting chewed up by blood-thirsty bugs, wading through swamps with a 50+ lb loaded Pugsley, crawling through thousands of downed trees again with my loaded Pugsley, combined with the hope of finding some quality trail sounded cathartic. Plus, while I recognized it would represent an arduous enterprise, I also knew that it would be concertedly slow and constrained so as not to wipe myself out for a month, like some of these other endurance events, for it was not to be a race, only a reconnaissance.

Apart from the adventure’s obvious therapeutic benefits for a troubled soul, essentially from a pragmatic point-of-view, I wanted to know firsthand, if this route could indeed hold the key to discovering the third leg of what I like to refer to, in my little world, as The Triple Crown of Self-reliant Endurance Races. Could these 155 miles from Duluth to Grand Marais via the North Shore Trail in the fall of 2010 act as an appropriate compliment to both the winter-classic Arrowhead 135 and the spring-transcendent Trans-Iowa?

In May, the Trans-Iowa tests ones ability to ride fast and furious on gravel for distances of over three hundred miles with the advantage going to those mounted upon cyclocross bikes. The Arrowhead 135 in February, tests ones meddle in frigid snow conditions for a 135 miles which favors Pugsley snow-bikes or the like. So, it stands to reason, that a logical additional leg of a “Triple Crown” could involve an October or November event that would measure ones propensity to endure via a backcountry trail for a comparable distance and/or time and upon perhaps a 29er equipped with a full measure of gears appropriate for Western mountain states.

Finally, no matter how contrived or insignificant, it would be amiss to discount the personal allure of completing what indeed may be the first of such an endeavor. Of course, just within the confines of little Duluth, I can quickly and easily name at least four or five that could complete this route sans support via bicycle, but apart from the Evingson boyz and Pierre Ostor’s effort some years ago in winter, of which there is little known in terms of “style,” I have not heard of any reports to indicate that there has been someone before this recent effort. Accordingly, In my case, I must say that due to the DNR’s most-excellent policy ban on ATVs (which does appear to keep some of that crew at bay) coupled with the massive numbers of trees down on some parts of the North Shore Trail; there were several segments of which I really did feel like I was in a remote wilderness locale, cut off from outside intervention, which had a liberating effect as well as affording a real sense of self-determination that is wholly lacking in most other cycling routes, that are by definition, artificial constructs.

So a plan was launched and I am happy to report that the trip went off without a hitch. Perhaps the inadequate size of hastily purchased mosquito netting was the only real complaint worth noting (hint: obtained from an outdoor store geared towards the “poser” crowd located down in Canal Park). As to the suitability of this trail as a potential “third leg” of a Triple Crown of No-Support Enduro Races…Read on and find out…

II. The Specifics
“Going up that river was like traveling back to the earliest beginnings of the world, when vegetation rioted on the earth and the big trees were kings…The air was warm, thick, heavy, sluggish. There was no joy in the brilliance of sunshine…” Marlow

Spirits soaring! I left Duluth under beautiful skies and favorable winds at 10:47 am on Friday morning on my Surly Pugsley dressed in fashionable Euro-cycling gear consummate with the season and my status. At my disposal I had a very light sleeping bag, bivy sack, inadequate 3’x4’ sheet of bug netting, iodine & Ibu pills, Petzl headlight, Brave-Soldier chamois lube, light jacket, light pair of nylon pants, two pairs of extra wool socks, wool hat, two filled water bottled, half-gallon Brew House plastic jug filled, head-net thingy, various nuts & energy bars & the like, daughter’s worthless digital camera, thirty-two year old Swiss army knife w/ one broken blade and malfunctioning scissor option, five delicious buffalo man-sticks, map & compass, “multi” tool, pump & tube & patch kit, wallet, and pair of almost-to-the-knee mud boots. I reasoned that the boots, while relatively incredibly heavy, would work magic on the few swamps that I expected to encounter early into the ride, saving my cycling footwear from becoming soaked, unwieldy, and thus unbecoming of a gentleman.

As I am quite familiar with the first stage of the trail (from Lester Park to the intersection of Jean Duluth and Zimmerman), I skipped the first ten miles or so, gaining the trail at the aforementioned intersection. The swamps represented a considerable challenge, especially in terms of energy expended. In all honesty, our intrepid adventurer was not more than fifty-five minutes into the contest before he was confronted with a significant swampy morass complete with ravenous and highly competitive biting flies that took him straight back to a particularly grisly scene from Heart of Darkness. “The earth seemed unearthly. We are accustomed to look upon the shackled form of a conquered monster, but there—there you could look at a thing monstrous and free,” Marlow’s insights rang true to my under-attack ears as I donned the mud boots and affixed my dainty cycling shoes onto the rear rack. It was about the eight or ninth step into it when suddenly a boot met no resistance and I went suddenly and uncontrollably into the muck nearly up to my loins. The situation energized me to forget any semblance of conservation or grace—I panicked. Willy-nilly plowing through the remainder of the swamp even though both boots were filled with swampy soup, the bike providing a crushing weight onto my shoulders, I resolved then and there the certitude of wet feet for the entirety and to therefore “cache” the worthless boots at the nearest gravel road intersection (note: look for my boots on the northern side of Fox Farm Road, just inside the DNR fence, on the right side, crammed into the slot of an evergreen trunk).

Thankfully, that particular swamp turned out to be by far the worst of the many that I was compelled to cross. In fact, I came to marvel at the Pugsley’s ability to toil through the majority of the swampy, high-grass lands that I encountered. Armed with twenty-six teeth on a granny gear and a thirty-two ring for use in the rear cassette, I was able to battle through such terrain with astonishing efficiency! I was running about 10 to 15 lbs. of pressure in both front and rear tires. So combined with the low gearing and a concerted effort at maintaining the crucial momentum factor, I was usually successful in staying in the saddle; getting enough traction, and thus keeping the whole enterprise moving forward. Although from that initial swamp dousing onward, I dealt with soaked, muddy feet for the entire episode. As stated above, I pitched the boots contemptuously away and never looked back, acknowledging that the boot idea was folly from the get-go. Note: Even had the boots worked, in a race situation, changing boots given the hundreds of swamps would be wholly impractical. Therefore, until a significant freeze-up in the late fall, wet feet is a for sure thing on this trail, unless a guy opted to use platform pedals which would, in theory, allow one to keep the boots on for extended periods.

Psychologically, the myriad of bugs represented the most significant barrier to enjoyment of the trail. According to Kurtz, the answer to dealing with these harriers of discontent is to go forward, “Facing it, always facing it, that's the way to get through. Face it.” But try as I might, the bugs quickly defeated my resolve to stay progressive, or even indifferent to their incessant attacks. I tried to reassure myself that it was nothing personal, that they were just doing their duty as defined by their role of providential pestilence. Again and again, as I slapped unmercifully at these raging insects, taking small fleeting delights in the death of even but a few, the words of Kurtz resonated deep within my ego, “Exterminate all the brutes!” and “The horror! The horror!” The worst was on the second night, as the first night was relatively chilly thus putting down the insurgency come nightfall and thus affording me a very nice, peaceful six hour slumber. In contrast, the second night was warm, humid, and so the pests responded with cruel attacks all night long. The head net was effective but stifling. The mosquito netting was wholly too small and would constantly be off the mark. It was too warm to retreat into the sleeping bag or even just the bivy sack, so the night time was spent suffering either from stifling heat or from the bites or from the buzzing. Come morning, I was full of itchy bug bites. To add to my plight, I picked off fifteen ticks! So it goes…

In mid-March, there was a significant ice storm along the North Shore which had the effect of forcing thousands of whimpy poplar trees to the ground. Most of these weed-like trees are about the diameter of a ten year old bottle of hand-crafted Stranahan Straight Rocky Mountain Whiskey, so the Pugsley had little difficulty ramming into and over these obstacles. But there were many instances where a tree had broken higher up on its trunk causing the wood to fall higher up, across the path, and then I would have to get off and either lift the bike over or pull the bike under the barrier. The very worst of this situation was confronted during the middle sections of the 155 mile trail. At first, I swore up and down at those blasted trees calling ‘em things like, “sissy trees,”weed trees,” and of course many other more colorful descriptors as well. But eventually I just accepted my fate and dealt with it as it came. I had worked out a time frame and I was well ahead of it, so I did not let the trees get me down and most of time, as stated above, I just rammed the Puglsey into the trees that had completely collapsed and blasted through. Again, I was incredibly impressed with the punishment that the Pugsley could both take and give out. It is my belief that given the conditions, the Pugsley was at it very best. With about forty miles to go, the trees became less and less of a bother, perhaps because the landscape drastically changed to one that is almost alpine in character.

III. Being apart of HISTORY
“On June 13, the All-Terrain Vehicle Association of Minnesota (ATVAM) will attempt to break a Guinness World Record for the world's longest ATV parade. Currently, Harlan County Ridge Runners in Kentucky holds the record with 1,138 ATVs in a parade. ATVAM encourages all ATV enthusiasts to join them in Silver Bay for a weekend of fun riding and other ATV-related activities. Organizers are aiming to have more than 2,000 ATVs participate in the parade.” From the Duluth Tribune, the local area newspaper

As near as I can tell, there is approximately an eight to ten mile segment of the North Shore Trail around Finland (about half-way to Grand Marais) that allows ATV use. I knew this because of the map, the deep ugly ruts in the trail, the discarded beer cans, the obviously recent ATV tracks, and also because as I neared Finland I started seeing a series of two maybe three amateurish posters urging ATVers to participate in a socially-responsible effort to get into the Guinness Book of World Records. At first I did not look too closely at the signage as I was too busy fighting the bugs and the trees, but as they became more frequent I suddenly realized that the date of the big record-breaking event was exactly NOW!!! Luckily, I passed through the ATV HOT-Zone early on from around 8:00 am to 9:30 am or so, but even at that early hour (very early in the day, I suspect for this record-breaking hungry, albeit hung-over community), I encountered hundreds of these weighty and most patriotic of Americans; a stalwart group that perhaps is surpassed only by the nice Harley Davidson people in terms of sheer and uncompromising patriotic devotion. As you know, this species is characterized by their need to run in socially-ordered packs. Often the Alpha Male leads the way on a particularly huge craft followed by the Beta Female on a slightly less impressive vehicle, followed by all the rest, including off-spring atop smaller rigs, etc. etc., From my observations, in both the ATV and Harley Davidson communities, degrees of horsepower is apparently contingent upon ones place in the socially-ordered pack. Even though most of them came by me going at “break-neck” speeds with all displaying looks of contemptuous bewilderment reminiscent of overripe vegetables, I spied on their persons the good ole Red, White, & Blue in a plethora of forms from beer cans, to cigarettes, to tattoos, to bandannas & base-ball caps, to cooler & gas cans, to sweaty halter-tops & greasy t-shirts, to assault-weapon carriers. The one shelter that lies within their lair was overly brimming with castaway beer cans of Red, White, and Blue (I took a picture, but the camera may or may not produce…more on this later). In any event, although only a bit player in this historic event, I felt proud to have been involved, if only for a short time.

IV. The Topography
“He had kicked himself loose of the earth…His soul was mad. Being alone in the wilderness, it had looked within itself, and, by heavens! I tell you, it had gone mad.” Marlow on the devolution of Kurtz

The first half of the trail is rather dominated by the swamps, at least in my memory, yet there are many beautiful streams and rivers that grace the landscape. Also there are some impressive overlooks. Essentially, if one were to minus out the bugs and the downed trees, which would be the case during the fall season, while the first half is not great stuff, it is passable for riding a mountain bike. Yet, again if my memory is at all accurate, the last forty or so miles are spectacular, even reminding me of cycling around Telluride, Colorado. One is afforded beautiful overlooks onto remote lakes and rivers surrounded by majestic pines. Here on the second half, the trail is in great shape for cycling, jubilation abounds; while on the first half there is a sense of fear and loathing, regret and lamentations, despair and forlorn hope. For those of you that are familiar with the Arrowhead Trail, this trail holds much more geographic relief from start to finish, but the real hills begin about fifty miles out from Grand Marais. The climbs are long, but not impossible to negotiate, although a granny gear would be a requirement. I saw lots of deer and lots of moose sign. Initially, after only a brief time out, I came around a bend and was shocked to see a huge bull moose standing in the middle of trail. I hit the brakes and just marveled at the size of the creature, but then I realized something was not quite right. It turned out to be a life-sized model of a moose that had apparently, from what I could gather, been dragged out there for the purpose of shooting it up with arrows? So it goes…

I also had an interesting encounter with a badger. It was my first encounter with a badger and from his perturbed response he was not at all impressed with me. I spotted him/her just as he/she spotted me; he/she took to running up ahead of me, so I gave chase figuring that he or she would quickly bail off the trail. As God is my witness, inexplicably he/she refused to leave the trail and I followed him/her for at least five minutes, riding at an easy pace so as not to get too close, until we came to a long descent. Deciding to pass the badger on the downhill, I cranked it up and started my move, but upon hearing me gaining ground, he stopped on a dime, rose up to some degree and challenged me to a manly round of fisticuffs. It scared the HELL out of me as he was only a matter of ten feet in front of me, but I’ve been around a bar fight or two so I knew that at this point a guy just can’t back down lest he invite a bottle to the back of the head, so I grabbed a handy waterbottle and chucked it at the badger. He saw it coming, made a deft move to miss it and then slowly with honor and integrity intact, waddled off the trail, finally giving rite of passage. It was, seriously, AMAZING!

V. Miscellaneous Musings and Conclusion
“…But it was a victory! That is why I have remained loyal to Kurtz to the last…” Marlow

A disclaimer, not that anyone is keeping score, but for the sake of posterity (and subsequent attempts) I must reveal officially that I did deviate somewhat from the route in the form of leaving the trail proper to access the town of Tofte via a connecting local trail so as to fulfill an obligatory phone call to my wife. From Tofte, rather than back-tracking and without guilt (it was raining), I rode along Highway 61 for several miles until I could access Highway 4 from which, after a huge climb back up into the interior, I was able to regain the trail. Therefore, I estimate that I probably passed up about ten miles of the actual trail due to this detour. Actually, the best place in terms of efficiency to access amenities would be Finland, but in my case, with the ATV record setting effort, I felt that Finland would be much too crowded (plus I didn’t want the guyz to make fun on my cycling shorts).

Also, it must be repeated that while I rode from my home in Duluth (a good five miles before the start) past the official start of the trail, I did not start at the official beginning point of the trail. Instead I rode on asphalt for probably what would have been the initial seven or eight miles of the trail. Of course, the mileage that I did achieve was certainly up to speed; but alas it would be unmanly to not disclose these deviations and to acknowledge that the distance covered on tar was many times easier than had it been on that trail, especially given itz condition. Also worthy of note is the top notch service I received from the shuttle service that is affiliated with the Lake Superior Hiking Trail (see They picked me up in Grand Marais at noon on Sunday and bought me back to Two Harbors where my wife and daughter met me.

I did bring my daughter’s cheap camera, taking many pictures including shots of the fake moose and also a shot of a dead moose that I came upon not far from Shelter #11, as well as many pics of the trail and shelters. As I work through this draft, the camera is useless as the battery is dead. My hope is that once a fresh battery is installed, I will be able to access the digital pictures and get assistance in putting any interesting ones on this site.

As to the suitability of this trail for the “third leg” of a kind of Iowa/Minnesota Triple Crown of No-Support Enduro Races, I think that it would indeed lend itself to act as a classic battleground for the experienced enduro-cyclists, but with several stipulations or caveats as follows:

a.) It is fundamentally remote, from a cyclists’ perspective, and therefore clearly a self-reliant course. Even in autumn, a racer would get wet feet and given the real possibility of cold weather this would be a concern. Therefore I would recommend bringing several pairs of warm socks and even some kind of neoprene over-sock? Bailing-out would be difficult as the trail intersects with remote gravel roads infrequently, especially on the second half. Thus overall the “no support” component would need to be greatly emphasized by the race officials. This course would be the most remote of the three event, without a doubt! Without forcing a significant deviation from the trail, really the only practical place to obtain supplies and establish a check-point would be Finland (which is strategically well placed at about the half-way point). However, I doubt very much that Finland would afford any amenities during those bewitching hours that can cause once brave men to crumble. Yet, there is amble water sources in the form of numerous and frequent streams and rivers. Also there are 14 shelters all in good repair that offer both refuge and well made fire rings (and access to lots of firewood).

b.) Fall would be the best time to hold the contest so as to compliment both the Trans-Iowa and the Arrowhead 135. Also, according to the DNR, crews normally take up the task of maintaining the trail in mid-Summer, so by autumn the trail would be in prime condition. Also, by around October, the bugs will have gone the way of Kurtz, roasting under the glare of Lucifer in Hades. Interestingly, this unique course may indeed be more easily ridden in winter or in late fall after the swamps have frozen. Of course, timing the freeze up is a crap shoot and would be near impossible to schedule in terms of a race date. Even though it would be colder, perhaps early November to mid November would be best? In any event, an October or November storm during the event would really make things interesting.

c.) One would certainly need a stout mountain bike to pull it off, probably a 29er with wide rims and tires would be the tool of choice for the top racers; although I found the Pugsley to be more than adequate, even outstanding, albeit comparatively heavy. The Pugsley is heavy, but itz ability to claw through the swampy sections counters the weight factor, plus the stability it affords allows one to relax on the down hills. Note: the last descent heading into Grand Marais, in terms of length, is unlike any other in the Midwest!

Although it took me nearly 44 hours, I went slow, hindered significantly by the downed trees, plus I took two substantial bivies, each for at least six hours. Hence, it would not surprise me in the least that a really fast hard-core guy, given prime conditions, could ride the entire route in under twenty hours, which is within the time parameters associated with both of the other classics.

So there you have it, I have done my part. It would be a great challenge, and in my opinion, comparable in breath and depth to the other two classics! Now, all we need is for someone to step up and organize it. Oh yeah, and by the way, count me in…FYI: that third weekend in October (MEA Weekend) would fit nicely with my schedule, but any date works for me…

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