Across the Northland from West to East
The plan was to leave Wednesday night as soon as my wife got home from a late shift at the hospital. She usually gets home around 11:00 p.m. on such nights, but sick and/or injured people rarely watch the time-clock, so it went long and she did not get home until well after 1:00 a.m. on Thursday. So I opted to sleep in and thus did not leave Duluth until 6:30 a.m. The initial 35 miles or so involved rolling asphalt following basically Hwy 9 to Hwy 7 to Alborn, but the roads leading northwest from Duluth are for the most part scenic and the weather was perfect.
My heart soared as I embarked on a four-day sojourn, to be free and on the road…I hope I never lose that feeling! At Alborn, I was able to access the Alborn to Pengilly State Trail which is an old railroad grade that runs right through a series of rather amazing swamps and bogs that are home to large stands of cedar and tamarack and a plethora of wildlife including large dorky-looking cranes. Indeed, I must say that I was pleasantly surprised at how interesting this 40+-mile trail turned out to be with many and varied sights and sounds including zillions of frogs croaking, birds chirping, and a quadzillion bugs buzzing. There were aspects of the trail that provided fast going on hard packed dirt and yet on other parts the going was tough and slow, as I had to plow through deep unconsolidated gravel. I remember thinking that it would really be hard to ride this trail on a cyclocross set-up. An army of motivated deer flies, in the hundreds, (later it became much much worse) began to harass me nearly as soon as I left the asphalt, but as I could ride at a relatively steady pace of ten to twelve miles-an-hour, they seemed to be content to just fly along in my draft and yell insults at me. Not long after reaching the Meadowlands and continuing onward, two older local fellows passed me up on ATVs. They stopped at a picturesque bridge over looking the St. Louis River and we had a nice conversation. It turned out that they were counting cranes for a group of geeky ornithologists from the University of Minnesota. They would pass me and then I’d catch back up as they often stopped and armed with binoculars they would scan the bogs for the big cranes. Near Pengilly, I caught back up to them and in the course of our conversation they suggested an alternative route that was “better,” “much drier,” with “more ATV traffic,” than the snowmobile spur trail that I had planned to use to access the Taconite Trail (The Taconite Trail is 160 miles long and takes one right into Ely).
Following their suggestion was also good for me as it allowed for a more direct northern route to the Taconite Trail (TT) as well as putting me only five mile out from Nashwauk as opposed to twelve miles from Coleraine. (Originally I had planned to go a more north by northwestern path that would have led me to Coleraine and an access point to the TT). So I followed their advice and the going was good on solid double-track dirt and gravel all the way to Nashwauk. Once in Nashwauk, around 3:00 p.m., I stopped at a grocery store and loaded up on some various forms of sustenance including the tried-and-proven Cherry Pop-Tarts and Nut Goodie products. As I loaded up my mount, several of the locals commented on the size of the tires on the Pugsley, this became a theme. “Those are some big tires!” was the common salutation I received upon engaging the civilian population through out the journey. Leaving town on Hwy 65 (asphalt) in search of an access point to a spur trail to the TT, I spied a group of ruffians smoking cigs outside a motorcycle/ATV repair shop that was well past itz prime. Somewhat lost, taking a chance, I stopped in and asked for advice in terms of accessing the Taconite Trail. To garner acceptance amongst these wary, simple men, I passed myself off as a motorcycle aficionado, who’d been forced to ride a bicycle due to several run-ins with the Law. Feigning a passion for all things Harley Davidson, I even took the time to photograph one of the men’s newly painted “Hog” in an effort at building solidarity. When they inevitably commented on the size of the wheels and tires on the Pugs, I told them that they were motorcycle rims and immediately further increased my status within their cohort. I had won them over! They enthusiastically conveyed the best route to take, with good cheer, and I was off again with a plan in hand.
So from Nashwauk following an ATV trail, I was able to gain the TT proper about eight miles due west. The TT at that point had obviously seen recent ATV traffic and while the going was much rougher than the earlier trails, I was able to average about eight to nine miles an hour. The difficulty was in the ever-increasing numbers of deer flies giving chase and the intensity of their ruthless attacks upon my personhood. I stopped and dowsed myself in DEET, donned a bug net, and cursed them with great feeling all to no avail. It was madding but it did have the effect of forcing me to ride as hard as I could for to slow (or worse, to stop) meant a total over-run by the voracious little beasts. I was up against it and rather frantic, waving my arms around like a lunatic, completely harried, disheveled, ungentlemanly-like. It went on like this until approximately 6:00 p.m. (or an estimated three hours) when I crossed Hwy 65 again and salvation.
I’d like to write that choosing to leave the Taconite Trail was a difficult decision (the stated DBD mission was to forge through to Ely, so to leave the route meant, among my peer-group; “disqualification from the race”, “dishonor”, and even could be considered “traitorous conduct”), but the truth is that I never looked back. I was so desperate to get away from those little nasty hellions that the repercussions of my actions never entered my frenzied mind. So with nary a thought of the abandonment of Honor, I left the TT and took off, riding scared, heading north on Hwy 65. Even on the tar, the deer flies gave chase but it seemed that if a man could maintain twelve miles per hour or better, they at least had difficulty landing and giving their painful bites. I was too agitated to consult the map; I just rode northward in full retreat. By then it was getting well towards dusk and I began to consider stopping to bivy, but I did not want to just pull off on a regular tar road. As luck would have it, I came upon a sign indicating that a MN State-Forest Campground lay four miles down a gravel road. With little hesitation, even though it involved an eight-mile detour as the road headed northwest instead of northeast, I made the left turn and headed down a beautifully forested gravel road. That night I set up my little bug net shelter and rested/slept, bug-free next to Thistledew Lake. The same Thistledew Lake that is home to Thistledew Correctional Camp (where my good friend Guy Evans used to work as a trip coordinator).
Day 2: With respite came reflection and the onset of guilt. I knew that I must once again try the Taconite Trail (TT). Having purchased a detailed comprehensive map of all of the Superior National Forest in Nashwauk, I was able to discern a route that would afford me access to the TT and yet also allow me the option to still complete a northern loop to Ely and then back to Duluth following mostly gravel should the TT continue to be under the control of the deer fly insurgency. Early morn under a beautiful clear-blue sky, I rode tar and gravel roads in a southeastly direction to McCarthy Beach State Park where I again was able to get back on the Taconite Trail. I was not twenty feet into the trail, which was heavily overgrown with grass and showed no evidence of ATV travel, when I came under a vicious attack from my arch rivals, the Deer Flies. As I quickly dismounted and began to lather myself in DEET and fumble for my head-net, I heard their commander call out, “Take no prisoners, give no quarter, to the victor go the spoils!” And then, in an instant, they were on me! Several squads went for my face, as a platoon attacked my lycra-clad buttocks, a full brigade went for my ankles; one group of Special-Ops even bit my naughty-bits. Without orders, without a plan, in total disarray I turned and rode away in full flight. For me, the Taconite Trail clearly belonged to the enemy!
I backtracked nearly all the way back to Hwy 65 and turned northward. From Hwy 65, I turned east onto Cty Rd 22, which is a wonderful gravel road that takes one into remote country that looks to have been farmed many years ago for the landscape is dotted with old broken down barns, farm machinery, and the like. At one point I came upon an abandoned farmhouse that piqued my interest. So I went in and investigated. As I looked around I wondered about the place, the history, the people that lived there. I conjured a vision of a simple, but fruitful life with strong, lean, and tanned men and women and children doing chores by day and listening to the radio at night…there were still books and magazines laying about including an old copy of Little Women by Alcott and stacks of old 1930s and 40s National Geographic. The human condition…such an absurdity, but undeniably captivating!
The psyche of a cyclist on the move is easily mended and it was not long until the Deer Flies and the Taconite Trail were just fleeting memories. “Let them have the Trail for the time being”, I reasoned, taking solace in having read that the Deer Fly is lucky to live but four to five weeks and they are already at least three weeks into it! I relished in the thought of them dying en masse in a week’s time. Sitting on the steps of the old house, I pulled out the map and put together a new route. A route that would take me to Cook, then Buyck, and then across to Ely via Cty Rd 24 and the Echo Trail (Cty Rd 116). From Ely, I would check out the Tomahawk Trail.
I made good time as I was riding solid gravel and benefiting from a consistent tail wind. In Cook, I stopped for a solid portion of corn-beef hash, eggs, and life-giving coffee. In Buyck, I stopped at a quaint little bar and ordered a Grainbelt Premium beer from a well wore barkeep, then another one, and felt like the Lord of all My Dominion. A few miles up from Buyck (like in BIKE), I took a right onto the Echo Trail and was immediately impressed by the hills, the lakes, and depressed by the re-emergence of the deer flies. But, as stated earlier, if one can maintain a speed above about ten miles an hour, they don’t seemed to be able to physically attack. On a positive note, their constant efforts at biting acted as a catalyst for me to keep up a steady pace of about ten miles an hour. It became a kind of game as I’d attempt to drop them on the descents and then they would yoyo back up and catch up to me on the climbs. The little devils would actually fly in my slipstream, so I’d purposefully try to zigzag on the descents in an effort to throw them into the wind and force them off my draft.
Getting good water was not a problem on the Echo Trail as there were many campgrounds along the way, which were equipped with running water. I felt good and rode for a total of twelve hours that day, bivying about a half-mile off the road up on the Bass Lake Hiking Trail near Ely.
Prior to entering downtown Ely, I had stopped at a new fancy DNR-type headquarter and spoken with a knowledgeable guy about the Tomahawk Trail (the snowmobile trail that connects Ely with the Northshore Trail). He then generously called a friend that is charged with mowing the trail and the news was not good. Accordingly, the trail segment immediately south of Ely involved several miles of deep bog and would be near impossible to even hike through. He conveyed that when mowing they had to wait until mid-December and freeze up to prepare that section of trail. Although he did add that the trail became much better south of the little town of Isabella and that I’d be able to ride that section to points near Finland. Given that my route (heading south) passed right next to the access point of the Tomahawk trail, I did make the effort to check it out for myself and it was indeed basically indiscernible from the immense bogs that surrounds the south side of Ely on the east side of Hwy 1. My heart sank for I knew that I was defeated. Kershaw was right, I was wrong! The DBD membership would all have a good laugh at my expense.
As I left Ely on the rolling asphalt of Hwy 1, it was obvious that a big thunderstorm was brewing. Not far from the Kawishiwi River (spelling?) it started to rain hard and the wind picked up. Finally the intensity was such that I had to find shelter for the rain was so heavy that I was near blinded from the spray. Salvation came in a most extraordinary way. Once again running away from forces of which I had no control I took a hard left off of Hwy 1 onto a gravel road hoping against hope that Lady Luck would shine on me. Surprisingly, I came upon a picnic area complete with a majestic CCC-era log pavilion. I made for it and to my great satisfaction it was populated by a crew of older Duluthian ladies that were there in the vicinity for a picnic and had taken shelter in the old log building to wait out the storm. They had delicious chocolate chip cookies and heavily calorie-laden bars, which they generously shared with me whilst I regaled them with tales of great feats of DBD exploits from yesteryears when I was a MAN to be reckoned with. The time passed quickly amongst these kindly folk and before I knew it the sun shined through, and I was back on the road again.
To be honest I had begun to grow fatigued and the miles began to wear me down. My Manhood-area had become extremely raw and chapped, as I had foolishly elected to save the weight and carry but one pair of cycling shorts. Even the magical elixir, Brave Soldier Chamois Cream, had begun to lose itz rejuvenating effect. Especially now that I was drenched through and through the discomfort gave way to a mild degree of suffering, but such is the life of the long distance cyclist! At least the Deer Flies had moved on…or at least that was how I placated myself as my nether region became engulfed in flames. Finally I reached Isabella and left the asphalt for the beauty and intimacy of gravel, but not before I took an extended break at a small saloon where I enjoyed a pair of ice-cold Leinenkugels’ drafts and all was once again right with the world! The gravel road led me to the Tomahawk Trail and it was indeed in a lot better condition than up in Ely. I jumped on it and rode hard for a good ninety minutes before I crossed another gravel road. But alas the Deer Flies were back and I had no stomach for fighting the good fight, so I bailed and took refuge on the gravel where I could at least stay a little bit out front of their venomous bites. I had planned on camping at Nine-mile Lake, but I got there at 7:00 p.m., the weather was fine, I was out of food, and so I figured I’d might as well push for Finland, where the camp host (@ Nine-mile) assured me there would be camp sites available because of the fact that the bridge was out on the main thoroughfare. He also assured me that I’d be able to cross the river on an ATV/Snomo trail that was just a few hundred yards down from the main bridge. His advice turned out to be spot on, which unfortunately is rather a rare occurrence. I am always amazed at how little the majority of locals really know about where they have lived their entire lives! Of course, being a “camp-host” he probably was not a local.
In any event I arrived in Finland just at dusk. I was starving, but I made for the campground initially to ascertain if there were any sites available, and found that the place was empty except for a raging party of about twenty local losers that were already so drunk that many could hardly walk. “Hey come over here and let me ride that bike!” snarled one particularly obnoxious old drunk in farmer’s overalls that looked like the grandfather from the Walton’s. Another old fool screamed, “You must be from Canada!” which had the strange effect of causing all of them to break out in a cacophony of hooting, shrill laughter. Disconcerted, I made haste to the other side of the campground and found a discrete site, fairly hopeful to not be discovered. I quickly set up my modest little bug shelter, put on my pair of long pants and made for the bar via the other end of the tiny town.
Did I mention that I was starving, had no food left, and so had to go to the only bar that looked to be open. I was thinking that there was a gas station and even a general store in Finland and there are, but both were closed. Just a few (maybe four at the most), stoic and feeble old townies were ponied-up to the bar, otherwise the place was empty. So I sat at the end of the bar, like a gun-slinger would do. I ordered up a Budweiser (in an effort to fit in) and inquired as to a menu. The homely, albeit buxomed barkeep, a washed out blonde with a big hairy mole on her neck and her best years well behind her replied, “We stopped serving at 9:00…and itz past 9:00.” Forgetting my manners I beseeched her, “Surely there must be something? I am so hungry” In obvious disdain, she disappeared through a swinging door only to return moments later with the following deal, “There’s an extra large ‘hot and spicy” pizza in there that got ordered but nobody picked it up…you can have that if ya want it, but itz uncooked.” I patiently explained that I had no way to cook it and thus could they be so kind as to cook it for me. All the while the old men silently, expressionlessly, looked on. Again she disappeared through the swinging door and then reappeared within a millisecond. “Yeah, we can cook it but it’ll be awhile.” So I sat there alone for what seemed like an hour. The townies never looked up from their drinks, never spoke. Looking around I noticed that there was no TV, not even a radio or jukebox, and yet found that lack of amenity to be rather pleasant. But soon I noticed, even became obsessed with the fact that the room was so quiet, so quiet that it felt weird. The men sat statue-like and the woman, behind the bar, stared into nothingness. The only movement was her right forearm moving cig back and forth between lip and ashtray. By the time the pizza arrived I have downed four Buds and was ready to gorge myself, but to my dismay the pizza was nearly raw. The crust was obviously under cooked, even runny, like eating Elmer’s Glue and the ingredients were cold. But at that point I just went with it and ate it. I ate it in silence as the townies looked on it silence and the woman stared into nothingness. It was so strange, now it seems funny, but then it was so so strange. It was a big pizza, one of the biggest I have ever seen, so I decided to ask for a box along with the bill. I don’t know why I asked for the box, but it seemed like the right thing to do. The bill came and I nearly fell on the floor. They wanted $37.00 for four watery rice-brewed Budweisers and a barely warm pizza. I said nothing, remained silent, silently paid the bill, and limped out of the bar. I was a broken man devoid of any semblance of Honor. The men watched me as I walked out into the twilight. As I crossed the river via the ATV bridge, I opened up the Styrofoam box and threw the remaining pizza into the abyss below. I barely slept that night for I knew that I was not a man, not even close. The party raged late into the night, complete with fireworks, and instead of going over there and shutting it down, like a real man would have, I cowed in my little bivy all the while suffering from heart-burn, hiccups, and the like and wishing that I was home in my comforty bed with my blankey.
Day 4: I awoke with significant cotton-mouth, a messed up tummy, and a bruised ego. Luckily, I had Tums on board and it was not long before I had Finland in my rear-view mirror and I had that Pugsley chugging towards old Duluth. Homeward bound. The rest of the route was straightforward and uneventful. Just seventy miles of asphalt back to Duluth. I did stop for a good coffee at the Mocha Moose, which was nice. So it goes…my odometer read 398 miles. That Great Divide Race is gonna be a tough one…but every time I’m out in it, I make mistakes, but I also learn some things, I get a little bit better prepared….
Note: Look for pictures from this effort in a few dayz time, once I figure out how to load them on the computer.