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.











How to ride 100 miles in a day

Bench sitting is a second job in the drudgery of bike touring. Just about the time when the imprint of the Broooks logo fades from the insides of my thighs, the striations of wood grain begin to make their mark. The bench job is, in theory, a nice distraction from the main occupation, but the pay is worse and the working conditions can occasionally be quite foul.

It is often at this time, as I air out the tent or some wet clothing, charge electronics, or prepare a cup of coffee that someone marches straight into my office. My secretary hates this.

Beginning with the obvious, “Looks like you got a lotta stuff.”

I know better than to argue. Diplomatically, “Yup.”

And then, “where ya goin?”.




“Wow, really?….no way. On that bi-cycle?”

Yup. (I refrain from telling him that I am doing this solely to impress small town couples and that eventually I am going to Mexico.)

“I could never do that. Not with one of them pedal bikes.” (laughs)

“Hey, Marge. This kid’s gonna ride his bi-cycle all the way to…where was that? Canada.” (now he’s proud of me, showing me off or something) “Hey Willis; Hey Red, this kid…”

Marge: “Ya don’t say.” (disinterested)

I fiddle with some things, desperately hoping to look like the workload is killing me– a figurative deskload of paperwork. I might stuff a sandwich into my mouth; wring my wet socks and hang some underwear over the bench; realign unmentionables– anything. Like raccoons at state park campsites, they are only drawn nearer to my heap of junk. Should I roll a few somersaults and ask for a buck?

“Where you gonna sleep?”

I don’t know, outside. (Is this an invitation to stay?)

“Hmm, what do ya eat? Do you have to eat special food?” (An invitation to dinner?)

Cheeseburgers, cereal, ice cream, beer, candy, chips, sandwiches, apples, milk, donuts, raisins, bananas, cookies, peanuts…lentils and rice. What do you…

“Lentils are gross. I couldn’t do that.”


“How far do you go every day?”

40 miles, or 100 miles. I don’t know.

“Wow, a hundred miles! Hey Marge…”

Do you get a lot of blowouts? You must go through a lot of tires? How much stuff you had to fix?”

Blowouts don’t really happen, but sometimes the tube gets a hole from glass and I fix it. Tires? None, but this one has over 8000 miles. My bike doesn’t really break.

“Well, my truck has 195,000 miles on it. Good thing you got an extra tire.”

Yup. (I hate carrying a spare tire because it feeds the image that bicycles are fragile, uncapable machines.) Now that I am a verifiable idiot, the abuse begins…

“You know, there are a lotta weirdos out there that you gotta look out for. It’s not really safe doin’ that. Are you gonna ride on the interstate?”

People aren’t so bad. And it’s illegal to ride on most interstate highways, not that i would want to, but there are a lot of nice smaller roads like Rte. 2. There’s even a paved bike trail out of town.

“Rte. 2! People drive crazy on that road. You better watch out. Bike trail? Not here. I’ve lived here all my life.” (Read: I drive crazy on that road. Look out for a rusted blue Chevy pickup. There is a bike trail, and this section of Rte 2 has a generous lane-sized shoulder. I don’t care if cars pass at 200 mph, I got eight feet.)

An interview for a job I didn’t apply for, the abuse is almost over.

“Oh, what kinda bike you got?”

Oh, well it’s an old Schwinn High Sierra from 1985. I love these old bikes. Old mountain bikes are really great for…

“Schwinn? Yeah, Schwinn’s good bikes. I got one just like yours; Marge does too. Matching, with spring shocks and a nice big seat, not like yours. Looks like it hurts, that seat and those racing handlebars. Got mine at Wal-Mart. Real tough bikes. Marge’s is a girls bike, though.”

At last, I am speechless and out of diplomatic gas.

“Well, be safe.” (Disapprovingly; this is termed ‘insult to injury’, and ‘getting the last word’.)

With wounded pride, cold coffee and half-an-hour less daylight I slowly pack up my things, the way the circus always takes longer to leave town on Monday than it does to unfold on Friday morning.

These days, I trade my wood-grained office chair for saddle sores. Some towns just aren’t worth the stop.

The trail: On the Mesabi Trail, which will eventually link Grand Rapids, MN to Ely, MN. The trail is composed of a wide variety of facilities, but is well signed and exhibits some neat iron-age towns, not unlike Michigan’s Iron Range (Marquette, through Ishpeming and further east). Connecting “the Mississippi headwaters with the Boundary Waters”, a full report of the Mesabi Trail will follow. Most people are real nice. I have this conversation almost every day. Although a bit of a chore, I mostly get a huge kick out it.

The Men Who Don’t Fit In

There’s a race of men that don’t fit in,
A race that can’t stay still;
So they break the hearts of kith and kin,
And they roam the world at will.
They range the field and they rove the flood,
And they climb the mountain’s crest;
Theirs is the curse of the gypsy blood,
And they don’t know how to rest.

If they just went straight they might go far;
They are strong and brave and true;
But they’re always tired of the things that are,
And they want the strange and new.
They say: “Could I find my proper groove,
What a deep mark I would make!”
So they chop and change, and each fresh move
Is only a fresh mistake.

And each forgets, as he strips and runs
With a brilliant, fitful pace,
It’s the steady, quiet, plodding ones
Who win in the lifelong race.
And each forgets that his youth has fled,
Forgets that his prime is past,
Till he stands one day, with a hope that’s dead,
In the glare of the truth at last.

He has failed, he has failed; he has missed his chance;
He has just done things by half.
Life’s been a jolly good joke on him,
And now is the time to laugh.
Ha, ha! He is one of the Legion Lost;
He was never meant to win;
He’s a rolling stone, and it’s bred in the bone;
He’s a man who won’t fit in.

Robert Service
“The Spell of the Yukon and other voices”


Leave your Hetres home…

My beloved Schwalbe Marathon tires are showing signs of wear after about 8000 miles, each mounted on both front and rear. One tire bares a yellow stripe down the center, flat resistent rubber I suppose (or simply yellow rubber) . I managed to order a CST Selecta tire, my new favorite Marathon replacement. The CST tire offers a moderately thick, inverse tread; reflective sidewall, and a Kevlar “flat resistent” layer, and comes in the two most practical tires sizes ever (26 x 1.75, and 700c x 38). Chris seems to have put about 3000 miles on one (all on the rear?). For less than the price of a Marathon, I am pleased to give it a try, but not until I run this Marathon to the ground. Avec plaisir et energie.

I will share, in short, the quality of construction and ride performance of the Marathon tire. 8000 miles?…check. Fifty miles of forest service roads this morning. Twenty miles pavement plus twenty miles local club ride?…check. Nuff said. A loaded bike that crosses country needs real tires. Suppleness, along with sidewall and casing deformation become catchphrase when real world factors enter. A tough tire is needed. A voluminous tire of any kind allows pressure to be optimized to conditions. A reflective sidewall?… a perpetual plus. Don’t be fooled, you need a real tire.

Unfortunately, the new Marathon tire has been “upgraded” with a 3mm layer of green stuff, much like the 5mm blue stuff in the Marathon Plus. This makes a significantly heavier tire, at a slightly higher price (does it’s e-bike capability have anything to do with it?) The old Marathon was too good to be true for a company offering an assortment of technologically advanced, $50-$90 touring tires. They offered lighter, faster tires and more durable, puncture resistant ones, but this did both things well for two-thirds the price.

Photos show the worn tire and new tire. Forest service roads and club ride. All in a day. Finally, a glimpse of the boundry waters of MN. Oh yeah, me and my High Sierra planed the day away on some worn out Marathons. If that means anything to you stop reading, dust off your bike and ride it.








Superior, in every way

Busy since last writing, I’ve seen a lot.

I entered Wisconsin from the north, through Land O’Lakes (the town) and Eagle River to stay with some family friends for a night. The area boasts a chain of 28 lakes, all connected by surface water. In addition, the lakes in MI, WI, and MN all seem to be running with blood. They are a deep rust color, which to me looks the color of blood that has begun to oxidize and darken, as it scabs. I believe this is due to a high level of tannins in the plant matter, specifically oak and pine, that finds it’s way to the waters from the shoreline of the area’s lakes and rivers. As the matter decays, the result is a reddish-brown color and low level of acidity, caused by tannic acid.

Eagle River, WI claims to be the snowmobile capital of the world, with hundreds of miles of snowmobile trails maintained privately and publicly. Some trails allow ATVs, but others prohibit their use as ATVs disturb the solid base that snowmobile trails require, causing a sandy, gravelly mess. The area welcomes vacationers from lower WI, IL and MN and thus has developed some paved bike trails to connect local towns and state park and forest facilities. A welcomed surprise, as my expectations of the area mostly included gruff, bearded northerners on ATVs. Contrarily, sun-kissed city folk from as far away as the U.K. flock to this summertime lake-haven.

I flew through the rest of WI, Duluth and the North Shore of Superior in a day and a half to make it to Grand Marais for a day of rest. Many thanks to the makers of high-powered dynamo lighting, broad-shoulders, tailwinds and my determined little legs. About once a week I get an itch to ride a little bit too much. I scratched it on my way here.

About 1800 mi from Annapolis to Grand Marais. About 1500-1600mi to Banff or Jasper, Alberta from here; then about 2700 mi from Banff to Mexico on the Great Divide…and a lot of time on Google Maps this morning.

Here, I have a friend that works at the North House Folk School, where city folk can escape the bustle for a few days of basket-weaving, timber framing, boat-building, etc. Grand Marais rests in an idyllic “maritime meets mountains” setting. Encapsulated on all landed sided by Superior National Forest and on all watersides by the lake itself; there appears to be much to do here. As seemingly perfect as it may be, sometimes even a place like this can’t contain me. Key West was almost perfect; Urique (Copper Canyon) as well, yet the march continues.

Coming up: A day through Superior National Forest to Ely, MN, to pick up the Mesabi Trail with 115 of 132 miles completed to connect Ely to Grand Rapids, MN. A few nice days it would seem. I blew into town on a wind from the SW and leave with light winds from the east. Life is working out right now.

I did not visit Mackinac Island as the cost of the ferry, headwinds, and the smell of high-season tourism steered me clear. I see so much, I never regret skipping “attractions” along the way.

One more reason to read Chris’ blog as he rides west: he not only saw June Siple’s Hemistour bike at ACA headquarters in Missoula, but Ian Hibell’s Sahara crossing Argos as well. His impromptu tour guide, Greg Siple.

The legendary, Ian Hibell.


I can see Wisconsin from here


A week in the U.P. leaves me wanting more. The scenery has been spectacular in the “east coast” sense. No towering rocky peaks and glaciers, deserts, basins or ranges, or rainforests. Instead, growing up in the east, I appreciate the subtle variety of temperate forests; of hills that may be called “rolling”, or “mountain”; and especially in the lakes regions of MI, WI, and MN, the lakes and ponds, fens, bogs, swamps, marshes, and vernal pools.

The C&O canal was lined with elderly sycamores and pole-sized youth. Into Pennsylvania’s highlands, several varieties of oak and pine came to prominence, giving way to the familiar sugar maples, beech, birch and black cherry of Central New York. The effect of latitude and altitude do not stand alone to affect the forest’s composition; centuries-old tales of labor and pioneering families and booming industries have shaped the land, no mention of how east coast waterways have changed as well.

I am told the Keweenaw Peninsula, once a mine of timber, was shorn of its timber to frame native copper mine shafts and other mine structures. Undoubtedly, homes, stores, saloons and wood stoves all contributed to the need for timber. New York State was at one point about one-third forest, due to timber industries fueled by growing east coast cities and land-clearing for agriculture. Thankfully, nascent “forestry science” paired with the Great Depression resulted in the reforestation of much of the state by the CCC. Today, about two-thirds of NYS is forested, although often planted with fast-growing pioneer species such as red-pine. Eighty years later, much of the old pine stands are withering (their natural life-span), presumably giving way to some native hardwoods.

Second-growth forests on the U.P. are at times thick, measly pines in wet, marshy soils (did I mention mosquitoes?). Elsewhere, white birch are prominent alongside aspen, tamarack and several pine varieties.

And the hills…anyone who says– likely raised in the west– that the east doesn’t have any hills or mountains, hasn’t climbed the equivalent elevation of several thousand feet in a day in the Appalachian, the White Mountains, or I am told the most challenging of all, the Ozarks. Elsewhere where hills are not mountains by name, constant climbing and descending may contribute to a sizable gain in one day.

No craggy peaks, but endless forested hills splattered with lakes define this north country landscape. Well, I just remembered that the U.P. borders three of the world’s largest freshwater lakes. That’s kind of a big deal.

Note: Ottawa National Forest, headed toward Eagle River, WI. For an excellent discussion of America’s water, namely western water, see Cadillac Desert by Marc Reisner. It reads something like a dime-store drama– ambition, betrayal, bribes, a womanizing beaurocrat, and eventual demise.

Spot is working again, link to the “Where in the world” page above for daily location updates.

The accommodations at Dreamland.

Adventures in Dreamland


Located along the shores of Torch Bay on Portage Lake– a section of the historic Keweenaw Canal, which connects Lake Superior to itself– lies a longtime summertime haven for one local family that I am visiting. The home has recently changed hands amongst family, and a less-aged generation is now charged with the task of revitalizing a much-loved and well-used home. At times, this average sized home would have sheltered and fed 13 children, and innumerable cousins; hence, eight beds in the large open room upstairs, nearly ten dressers, several dozen unmatched chairs, and a piano. The rest of the building wears the signatures of a tinkerer/inventor (self-closing doors: pulleys and weights) a Depression era reuse and repurposing mentality; and of course, thirteen or more children, aunts, and uncles. In it’s unimproved state, it has been described as “tenement-ish”. The task of repurposing this home into an uncluttered summer retreat, is mountainous.

Inverted, my head in a septic tank, I quickly decided I no longer needed to request permission to fix a snack from the fridge. My pedestal of guesthood had crumbled; I was now a tenant of the estate (in a tent, lakeside). If I am to be knee deep in this end of their business, I thought, I most certainly could help myself to their leftovers and a refreshing beverage in the kitchen.

Bedrooms have been framed and dry-walled; sanding, priming and painting have livened living spaces; water, plumbing and lighting– all working again– make all the difference; and a massive purge of stuff has made their house, a home once again. With equal parts optimism and sarcasm, they call it “Dreamland”, borrowed from another longtime, local establishment– the Dreamland Hotel.

Relax, breathe deep and avoid the dust. Welcome to Dreamland.

Coming up: Eagle River, WI; Grand Marais, MN; then west.

The Dreamland Hotel is now a colorful country bar; poorly lit and awash in wood-grain. The word Dreamland even appears up the road from here on a 1961 MI Dept. of Conservation map uncovered from a dresser drawer.


Marquette makes the list

For the the towns I’ve passed in the U.P. with closed groceries and defunct filling stations, Marquette is an anomaly.  Marquette is located on the shores of Lake Superior, which thrives under summer skies.  The lake, however, would seem a moody neighbor the rest of the year.  I imagine brisk winds and unsettled climes through the spring and fall with revitalizing sunbreaks.  In winter, an icy expanse.  At just over twenty thousand residents, the city offers the features of a larger city, likely because it is the largest on the U.P. (the “yoo-pee”, and the eponymous “yoopers”).  Like so many other post-industrial American towns, Marquette has undergone a renaissance.  It seems timely, well-conceived planning– as opposed to rapid development of slick condominiums and shopping plazas– is to thank for an exceptionally useful system of cycle and pedestrial trails, the Superior Dome (the world’s largest wooden dome) and a bevy of other recreation facilities, a municipal campground within city limits, and public access (via parks and trails) to almost all local waterfront.  The last means Marquette has more sandy beachfront than many more famous beach towns.  I have no complaints of freshwater either. 

Awoken by clear skies and a insistent sun to my eastern aspect, I challenged the day with a swim in Superior.  Surely, this routine is the shower of champions.  Cold and clear– superior.  A lack of mosquitoes allowed me to sleep simply, in only my bag.  It is a real pleasure to pack quickly, without fussing with other gear.  The greatest value of traveling light is not the ability to move quickly or travel far, but to live simply, being arm’s length from eveything I need, and nothing I don’t.  No waste or clutter to pollute the physical sphere, thus challenging clear, organized thinking.  I need water: I have water.  I need a blanket at night: I have a sleeping bag.  Food.  Shelter.  Lights.  Maps.  Internet.  

And the most trouble-free bicycle ever. 

Marquette also features a downtown from the Industrial Age, relics of industry along the waterfront, a thriving culture of restaurants, students (Northern Michigan University), adventures at sea, music, and a brewery– all for a low, low price of 21,000 people.  That’s a winning combination.

All in a day in Marquette: free music at Presque Isle Park, a lone kiteboarder launching off a sand dune amidst the shallows, a $3 concert at the UpFront by the Melismatics, swimming in more than three places; too few hours of sleep, thankfully on the beach; a Saturday morning Farmer’s Market and a bike trail out of town this morning.   

Negaunee and Ishpeming also feature industrial age boom-town architecture, in addition to a massive caved-in iron mine and a perfectly-portioned Carnegie Library.  George the Cyclist is well-travelled in many ways, including the visitation of Carnegie Libraries.  Libraries are a gypsy’s museum: gorgeous, free of charge and rich with offerings from antiquity to modernity.  Libraries are a touring cyclist’s best friend.

Lastly, about Marquette and the U.P.– people like it here, and they’ll be sure to let you know.

post script: The “list” comprises places I’ve been that I like.  Places that are livable and enjoyable, often small to medium sized cities with access to water and woods, and a splash of culture.  The short list: Marquette, MI; Ithaca, NY; State College, PA; San Luis Obisbo, CA; Eugene, OR; Key West, FL; and Savannah, GA.  I expect the mountainous west to offer up some gems.

Writing about riding, “While out riding”

Cass Gilbert, and Englishman, has been at it for over a decade, in giant fits of adventure.  His latest journey began in Alaska like so many others, but has meandered mostly dirt track through North America, and currently through Latin America, most recently Colombia and Ecuador.  He is being “overtaken” by travelers on a more direct route south, while he explores uncommonly traveled routes, and some entirely new tracks altogether.  Cass’ riding and photography should be considered the vanguard of adventure cycling and documentation.  This is not to be missed.  While out riding…