Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Fear and Loathing on the North Shore Trail

Riding the beautiful North-shore Trail both as a cathartic mental and physical exercise and as a platform from which to relish an authentic Irish Coffee Stout exquisitely handcrafted in Stillwater, Minnesota.  

The shelters along the North Shore Trail are top notch.
In an effort to comfort myself for being forced to bail on the upcoming epic that is the Trans-Iowa (April 27/28) due to a myriad of unexpected complications in family schedules, I took up the authentic and as yet unaccomplished challenge of trying to make it to Grand Marais from Duluth via the 150 mile North Shore Trail (NS Trail) on a bicycle, unsupported, on snow. 

Note: There is an account of Pierre Oster and the brothers Evingson doing the route perhaps ten years or so ago, but they may have received some kind outside assistance or did it over the course of two separate efforts…Farrow did the route unsupported several summers ago in good style, but did not access the trail until the Jean Duluth Road and Zimmerman Road intersection and left the trail briefly to resupply at approximately the midway point.  Bragging rights for completing the full route, unsupported from the Lester River Pavilion to the Grand Marais parking lot is waiting for the right man or woman!   

My plan was to be fully packed and ready to leave right away after work on Friday, (my wife had agreed to pick me up in Grand Marais on Sunday afternoon), as I figured I could reasonably do the full 150 mile route in approximately two and a half dayz.  But a huge snowstorm forced me to reconsider. 

Burnin' daylight on a beautiful Sunday morning
It started to snow heavily on Thursday night and did not end until Duluth had received over a foot of fresh snow and Two Harbors, nearly two feet of heavy wet snow. The whole North Shore corridor received record snowfalls.  For a record fifth time this winter, my school where I teach was forced to call off classes on Friday due to difficult traveling conditions.  After shoveling snow for much of the morning, I grabbed my trusty man-dog, Hondo, and drove out to the Martin Road where the North Shore Trail officially originates.

Note— For purists the route actually starts at the parking lot just off of Superior Street where the bridge crosses the Lester River and thus to be considered “untainted” and/or unabridged and therefore recognized by the DBD Honor Board, one would need to leave from that specific Lester River Access point.  

At the Martin Road access point, I was not surprised to see that the trail was un-ride able.  Hondo and I slogged up the trail for a mile or so, and sadly with each “post-hole” step, my resolve weakened. But as luck would have it, just as I was getting Hondo back into my car, a huge truck pulled up complete with a trailer carrying four snowmobiles.  Feigning allegiance to the NRA and local snowmobile tribes, I was able to engage and ultimately ingratiate the occupant of the mammoth truck. During the course of our conversation, I ascertained that he too was checking on trail conditions.  The rotund, but amicable fellow conveyed to me that given the fact that the parking lot was closed at the Martin Road, he was on his way to Two Harbors with sleds for himself and three buddies coming up from the Twin Cities. Due to the new snow, they had changed their rendezvous point to a motel in Two Harbor. Their new plan was to access the NS trail via Hwy 2, (due north of Two Harbors) Saturday morning.  He thought that while snowmobile traffic would be very low, if-at-all near Duluth, there would be sufficient snowmobile traffic once one got past Two Harbors. He said that he knew of several other guyz that were eager to get one last ride in. I let it be known that I too would be heading out for one last ride…I did not let on that I’d be on a bicycle…

The condition of the trail was mostly pretty good.  Yet there were a few spots that made for bushwacking...
Renewed with a sense of possibility, when just a few minutes before meeting the snowmobiler, I had none, I optimistically resigned myself to wait until Saturday morning and then ride the asphalt to Two Harbors. The problem with this revised plan was, of course, twofold: 1. The purity of the effort would be compromised and; 2, I would lose at least six or seven hours of ride time.  The fact of the matter was that I knew that if I waited until Saturday, I would lose the time needed to make it all the way to Grand Marais by a reasonable time of day (so as to allow time for my wife to pick me up and then the drive time back to Duluth).  Yet, also I reasoned that any effort was better than no effort.  Therefore I resigned myself to a less ambitious goal: To make Finland (about the half way point to Grand Marais) via the NS Trail from Two Harbors and then ride home on Sunday via Hwy 61.  The plan would still involve near 160 miles of riding and would negate involving my wife’s drive time.  Yet of the total distance covered less than half would be on the North Shore Trail.

Leaving at 8:00 a.m. on Saturday from my humble abode on my fully loaded and trusty Moonlander, I rode up to Two Harbors on the scenic highway, and then headed up Hwy 2 where I gained the North Shore Trail. The weather was perfect complete with a vibrant blue sky, a robin-egg blue Lake Superior, and a full sun. My heart soared as I broke the bounds of domestic responsibility, if only for a day or so. The temperatures were in the low 30s. Riding the asphalt segment was uneventful and I found the NS Trail to be in relatively good shape (Alaskan-style).  
My new Big Agnes (extra wide) integrated bag and pad make for a great set-up

By Sunday morning, I had ridden all the way to where the trail runs parallel directly north of Finland (by something like ten miles). From Finland I took a fun access trail back down to Finland.  On Saturday night, I bivied in a top notch trail shelter after riding nearly fourteen hours, including a nice break in Two Harbors. It got quite chilly that evening, but I was warm and slept well after enduring a very bizarre encounter with a most peculiar man. The following is a recollection of that fantastical meeting.

Found this sign next next to an abandoned trailer
It was just about the onset of darkness, approximately 9:00 p.m., when he came flying by the shelter, of which I was making ready for my bivouac. As is my usual response, I waved and smiled at him as he passed in a gesture of amicability. Inexplicably he slammed on the brakes of his sled-jet and made an athletic move off of the vehicle’s couch that belied his massive girth.  As he ambled toward me, I quickly began to take stock of any defensive weapon that I may have at my disposable—my little Leatherman was my final thought as he was on me. 

“You need help?” he asked in a confused, slightly agitated voice.

“You were waving at me like you needed help?” He continued.

“No sir,” sez I.

“I was only waving to you to be friendly,” sez I.

“Well you sure look like you need help!” he states as he pulled off his fully encased helmet, revealing a creased, wrinkled face belonging to a man probably in his late sixties or seventies.

“What the hell are you doing out here on that thing? Is that a motorcycle?” Apparently looking at my two panniers on the rear of my bike, he stated “Is that an electric motor?”

“Nope, itz just an oversized bicycle, those are where I keep my camping gear” sez I as I nonchalantly moved towards the bike and my frame pack where my little Leatherman was stowed away. Upon hearing my explanation, his erratic eye movements suggested an effort at rudimentary cognition.  After an exceedingly long and awkward silence, whilst he stared at my bike, he finally volunteered that he had, at an earlier time in his life, been a good downhill skier.  That he had won a bronze medal at Afton Alps back in the early 70s.

Quickly determining that— 1.) He was relatively harmless, and; 2.) He was incapable of comprehending the conceptual aspects associated with winter cycling, I did sense a chance to develop a rapport with this strange man. Thus I replied that my daughter enjoyed alpine skiing at Spirit Mountain in Duluth.  Apparently not hearing me, he then embarked on an agonizingly long-winded, albeit benign narrative regarding the several occasions in his youth, that he had camped out in the winter.  Maintaining that tents and shelters were for sissies, he boasted of how he had camped out one particularity wintery night in which it had gotten so cold out and snowed so hard that he had built up three fires around his sleeping bag and that even with the heat from the fires he had still melted down, down, down five feet into the snow.  So deep had he melted down into the snow when he awoke in the morning, he had to dig and climb out of a significant chasm. 

The Moonlander fully loaded and ready for anything...
I robotically continued to nod and feign amazement at his stories, all the while hoping with all my heart that he would soon grow tired of his own voice and remount his snow machine and leave.  During the course of his lecture, I learned that he had a hunting shelter just a few miles away.  Finally he commenced with the words I had been so longing to hear. Namely, “Well I suppose I better be…” THEN he had an original thought,  compelling him to stop dead midsentence! He even stopped putting his helmet on, an instead looked me in the eye and excitedly exclaimed, “I have a great idea, I am gonna head back to my cabin, get my girlfriend and some sleeping bags and some firewood and head back here and camp out with you!”

Taken aback, stunned, dry mouthed, astonished, astounded, bewildered aghast, horrified, I could only produce, “Sure it’s a free country.”

 As he sped away, I was initially dumbfounded, numb, inconsolable and then I hastily began to develop a plan to move out and find a different spot to camp….but after a few minutes of racking my harried brain, it dawned on me that there was no way he would come back.  The guy was just blowing steam, living back in his glory dayz, I surmised that I would never see him again…

Soon I was back to arranging my sleeping bag and pad, getting my stove going, and making everything ready so that I could lay back and relish and cherish and savor my authentic Irish Coffee Stout exquisitely handcrafted in Stillwater, Minnesota by the artisans of Lift Bridge Brewing Company. I had been saving this piece of liquid art for weeks, waiting for just the right ambiance.  I love solo camping now more than ever because it is the only time in my hectic life where I can truly relax. Imbibing this singular fermented nectar comprising adelightful combination of whiskey, coffee, and cream…aged in whiskey barrels, then blended with a big Milk Stout, and finally infused with locally roasted coffee,” would act as a perfect complement to a day well played.  Such was how the initial hour or so after my strange encounter with the once semi-great downhill skier, holder of a bronze medal, was spent.  Just as I took the last measure of the fermented barley elixir of the gods, I heard that familiar high pitched buzzing sound of approaching snowmobilers.
Netcar of the gods
I could not believe that he was back and was accompanied by another sled.  They pulled up, he alone dismounted and labored over to my humble abode.  For some perplexing, incomprehensible reason, the first words out of my mouth were, “Do you guyz want some jerky?”

“No, no, and don’t worry we’re not gonna stay, I just brought my girlfriend here to prove that you are really here on a bike,” came his reply.

I could tell from his mannerisms that he was exceedingly pleased with himself; no doubt sensing that he had surprised both the woman and me. He did not introduce the stout woman, nor did the woman make a move to leave her snowmobile or remove her massive helmet.  It was dark out and so I could not discern much of her appearance. Yet, her mannerisms toward me implied repulsion as if I were something vile. She just stared intently at me as if I was the ELEPHANT MAN.  I felt naked, unloved, and vulnerable. 
I am not an animal!
Well now that you have seen IT, letz get back home,” he shouted to the woman.  He stepped back onto his sled and started it up. And just like that, the whole strange encounter lasting less than ten minutes, they were gone.  It took me a good hour to once again recapture a sense of complacency and relaxation and then I laughed out loud!

Once in Finland @ 8:45 am on Sunday morning, with a heavy heart (for I know that I could have made it to Grand Marais as the trail was in ride-able shape, if I had just another day to ride North) I gained the asphalt and headed for Hwy 61 and then back to Duluth. It was a good effort with 20+ hours of ride time and probably 165+ miles of riding with at least 70 miles of that on the North Shore trail.

Note: If we are Men...the DBD must ride this entire route from Lester River to Grand Marais early in the winter next season before the interlopers from the south upstage us, I know for a fact Dittmer, et. al. have their eyes on this jewel of the North Shore! It is only a matter of time before someone makes this entire route! We need to be the ones that do it!! We need to be first!!!

For more information about that Coffee Stout: