Acceptance; Welcome to Havre

Small towns on ACA Routes, mostly in the central part of the country, offer camping to cyclists in city parks. Most often free, water and toilets are always available, along with some picnic tables, trash receptacles; and sometimes power outlets, showers and even the city pool. In general, people seem to understand what’s going on with “the sweaty, sunburned bunch on overloaded bikes” and are quick to offer directions to the library or the ice cream shop.

This system begins with acceptance on the part of city officials and planners, but further promotes acceptance by community members of this peculiar, and numerous visitor. I am less often asked the kind of uninspired questions such as, “You got a lotta stuff?”; and more likely to hear stories about a large group of cycling teachers from Seattle, or “one guy that was from Japan or something”. I listen patiently to these stories– it shows how others can feel connected to your journey, whether simply curious, or proud.

Rail-trails connect towns where industries have  passed–towns in obscurity, and occasionally, desperation such as in southwestern PA. Cross-country routes– like those designed by the ACA– select smaller county, state, and interstate routes that may service similarly obscure towns; areas where the transportation needs of industry never required the modern interstate highway projects such as Hwy. 90, 80, or 10. US 2 is a lonely little road with all it’s history intact, not yet swallowed up by a few extra lanes and exclusive entrance/exit points. The northernmost east-west highway in the US, traveling from Everett, WA to ME, the road follows the Great Northern Railway much of the way; they are collectively referred to as “The Hi-Line”. The route ends in St. Ignace, MI, and resumes in Northern NY, connected by Canadian Highways in the interim. Major interstate highways such as US 66, US 40, and US 2 were all finalized, on paper, in 1926 and soon thereafter made complete.

As romantic as interstate vehicular routes were in 1926, intercity and interstate cycling routes are growing today. With a culmination of varied facilities, long-distance bicycle travel could be embraced by the masses. First, exclusive pedestrian/cycling trails such as rail trails use existing “right of way”, purchased or donated from rail companies, funded through grants, as well as local and state money and private donations.

Safe on-road facilities have broad shoulders, or low traffic volumes. Signage communicates to motorists that cyclists may be present, are encouraged to use this roadway, and are acting in concert with the law. Maps, such as those published for free by the states (Oregon has a great map) or for a small fee by the ACA can facilitate travel and can benefit local services such as groceries and bike shops.

The final ingredient are those welcoming small towns that offer camping and basic services in the town’s center, or within proximity. This encourages money to be spent in the towns themselves, not only at the roadside truck stops and chain stores. People meet, and share with one another. Idealism? Absolutely! But it’s happening in a lot of “red” states, so don’t be fooled, it’s American.

Update: Chinook, MT provided a free hot shower. I obliged, ate dinner, and rolled on to Havre in the closing hours of the day. Of twenty miles to Havre, all were under construction and half were gravel. With cooler air and a hot meal, I surged through broken roads and gravel right along with traffic. Winds subsided, and Havre was only a dusty hour away.

In Havre, I made quick work of finding beautiful Pepin Park, where I was allowed to camp. I spent the night dodging sprinklers that were programmed in sequence. I awoke on the only unwetted plot of land in the entire park, tucked up against the wall of the maintenance building.

I am informed, by a North Dakotan trucker, that the town is pronounced “Have-er”. It’s French, he says.

Canada today. Medicine Hat, Calgary…mountains!

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Harlem, MT. City pool, showers, tables.

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Chinook, MT.

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Chinook, MT. Pavilion, tables, water, bathroom and hot shower. Orzo, red lentils, yam, tomato, garlic, caraway, and green onions fueled me to Havre.

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Mountains at last. The peaks of the Bear Paw Range, underserved by this photo, they stand at over 6000 ft.

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Pepin Park, Havre, MT. Beautiful, but deceiving. Complimentary cold showers offered mid-night.

Devils Lake; US 2

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Devils Lake was a big puddle in 1940, with a maximum depth of about two feet. Snowmelt and spring rains bring seasonal flooding; a lake with no natural outflow and many consecutive wet seasons, makes for a much bigger lake. Devils Lake will naturally drain to the Sheyenne River if it rises four more feet, however, drainage would only serve to stabilize the lake level at 1458ft (it was 1400.9 in 1940, about 1454 right now). Considering how flat the topography is nearby, four more feet of water would spread for miles, swallowing several towns on the verge of a slow, flooded death. 30,000 acres have been lost and two towns have already been evacuated.

I couldn’t help thinking how beautiful this was; pleasing to my eye, and to my cynical sense of justice. These wetlands spread for miles, unencumbered by typical definition and confinement (fences, roads, signage, and they aren’t on maps). Wetlands arise rapidly out of, simply, some water. Within years, and now about three decades since the most serious flooding began, plants and animals are in abundance. Sportsfishermen and boaters flock to the area. I rejoice at the growth of wetlands, while local residents try to find solutions. The solution is before us, says my inner Abbey, let it be. For every housing development or Wal-Mart overlying previously soggy ground, there is Devils Lake.

Nearby Minot has recently experienced flooding as well, a combination of seasonal rains and poor water control management. The often modest, although potentially mighty Mouse River begins and ends in Canada with a quick stop in ND. North Dakotans blame Canada for this one.

US 2, west, for many hundred miles. Right now I’m not sightseeing, just riding, so this’ll do.

This is also the ACA Northern Tier Route. Oddly, I’ve only seen one cyclist since Bemidji, MN (350 mi). Town parks offer free camping, and most people around here are accustomed to seeing sunburnt bums on bicycles. I’m not the first.

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Mesabi Trail; Big Sky Minnesota

Ely, the terminus of the uncompleted Mesabi Trail, was swollen with tourists and vendors for the blueberry festival. Ely, like Grand Marais, is a gateway to the boundary waters and seems to know what to do when tourists come to town; evidence is in the many shops, restaurants and lodges, in addition
to the Internatiomal Wolf Center and the Bear Center. Ely plays to its north woods locale, although the town itself could have been anywhere, U.S.A.

The Mesabi trail begins in Ely with a few miles of pavement, and shows up once more near Tower, but for practical purposes, the northeastern termimus is near Giant’s Ridge Ski Area. I purchased my $5 trail pass at the Ely Bike Shop and found my way out of town.

From Ely to the trailhead on Rte 135 I found both good riding, as well as broken, unridable shoulders. SW of Embarrass and about 5 mi south of the junction known as Salo Corner, the trail intersects 135 without a peep. This section was paved within the week, and had yet to receive signage. I rode about a mile of fresh tarmac through the forest before I decided I was not on someone’s driveway. This section, as would others, rode like a roller-coaster which was at times challenging and exhilarating. An uncompleted bridge required a detour through an eerily unfinished Pleasantville, called “Voyageur’s Retreat”. Finally intersecting the main artery of the Mesabi Trail, I looked forward to over 80 miles of traffic-free touring.

The Mesabi Trail was unique for several reasons. First: eighty miles through sparsely populated country, the trail did not simulate a wilderness experience. It took in small towns along the way, exhibited many old mining and railroad facilities, and crossed paths with more than a few of the area’s ATV and snowmobile trails.

The GAP/C&O trail does try to offer a sense of wildness, but that trail does pass through more state and federally protected lands. Similarly, the GAP and the Mesabi both pass through old mining country, much like the Ore to Shore trail from Marquette to Ishpeming. This means that towns have seen better days (a common theme on rail trails) but also preserve architecture from the boom-town era. Old Woolworth and J.C. Penney stores, alongside Carnegie Libraries and main street facades from times past are all frozen in time, especially in towns like Virginia, Hibbing, and Grand Rapids.

The riding was widely varied: shallow grades and broad turns marked old rail beds; while other sections wound furiously around, up and over terrain that previously had been accessed by ATV and snowmobile. Through towns, the trail was well signed, utilizing painted on-road arrows that were especially helpful and are easy and cheap to maintain on an annual basis. Signage may go missing, but painted arrows will remain. Several times quiet city streets and broad sidewalks were incorporated; I am glad to see the use of existing facilities. The expense of a dedicated trail alongside a quiet street is unecessary. Good trails allow people to get places, not to shield them
unnecessarily from
safe roadways (although a relief, sometimes from
unsafe roadways). These “town crossings” are suitable for teaching children how to ride on roadways; stop, signal, and ride predictably.

The trail is a little more difficult than some, but the local topography isn’t changing, and the challenge will give confidence for real-world riding elsewhere. In all, a pleasant, unique trail that managed to take me where I needed to go.

Don’t stop there: Some basic signage upon entering town could list local businesses: especially food, lodging, outdoor outfitters and bicycle shops. The GAP/C&O displays these signs when entering trail towns, and I often find reason to roll into town. Could local businesses fund signage? Without some information, I might just suppose another sleepy little town when there is actually a great bakery around the corner. My iPod Touch and WiFi in towns like Hibbing allowed better perspective of where I was.

Please, please, please include camping along the trail. The ACA (Adventure Cycling) Northern Tier Route passes through Grand Rapids, and camping facilities for hikers/biking would be a huge attraction. These typically include a water source (pump), pit toilet, and a patch of grass, perhaps with a picnic table. Pack out your garbage, and the site has relatively low maintenance costs. On the GAP trail, several sites were Eagle Scout projects; basically a donation of one’s time, and some resources from the community. Small towns have a lot to benefit from trails like this. Places like Embarrass, MN will finally have something to be proud of.

Consider connectivity to other trails by designated on-road routes. The Paul Bunyan, Mesabi and Gitchi Gami will someday make trail riding in northern MN exceptional. More importantly, suggest safe on-road routes fir unfinished sections of trail. Don’t advertise how great and long the trail will be, only to leave stranded on unsafe roads. The Gitchi Gami did a splendid job of this; the trail followed near Hwy 61, which also had a generous shoulder, but the trail and the shoulder disappeared for the last 15-20 miles into Grand Marais.

And the trail fee, while seemingly unenforced, is a little discouraging. I hope the state can cough up some dollars soon.

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