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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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?”.

Banff…Alberta.

“Huh?”

Canada.

“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.”

Ok.

“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.