…continued from part one
We awoke to a sunrise that looked remarkably similar to the hazey Mars sunset from the previous evening. After some oatmeal for breakfast, we loaded our packs and headed out under beautiful azure skies. We also had a nice tail wind blowing at about ten miles per hour that stayed with us for the balance of the trip! James discovered that he could find nice firm sand conditions on the sloped edges near the high water mark, along the edges of the dune grass. I followed James’ lead and we carved graceful arcs in a fun, flowy obstacle ballet over logs and the smooth undulations of wind blown sand. After a few miles, we came across a section of beach closed for Piping Plover nesting grounds that Tom Funke from trailspotters.com had told us about. We found the trail that would detour us around this environmentally sensitive section of beach and ended up pushing the bikes most of the way due to deep loose sand. Pushing the bike made me realize why some backcountry fat-packers have moved away from using panniers. They really got in the way, when I pushed the bike up hills in the deep soft sand.
The bypass trail led us to another long stretch of soft sandy beach that appeared to be our’s and our’s alone. Sweet desolate sand cruising on a warm breezy summer day was our reward for letting the piping plover get their swerve on, in private. Just when things seemed like they couldn’t get any better, James’ front brake decided to take a dump. One of his pads had worn down to nothing and the spring that separates the pads had gotten bent by the rotor. We bent the spring back (the best that we could) and got it to stop making the horrendous noise that alerted us to the problem, but James basically rode the rest of the trip with no front brakes.
Our next detour from the beach took us around Little Lake. The bypass saved us from having to swim across a deep channel that connects Little Lake to Lake Superior. It felt good to get our tires out of the soft sand and onto some firmer doubletrack. The area west of Little Lake had fallen victim to the Duck Lake Forest Fire just a month before we arrived. We found our way with only one wrong turn that dead ended at the spot where a house or lodge had been totally destroyed by the fire.
We eventually bushwacked our way back down to the beach and continued our journey along the shoreline. The next section of beach was all deep loose rock. One of the harder sections had to be three miles long.
We had our tire pressure down to 5 psi and crawled along at a snails pace. I had to stop and take a few breaks during the rock sessions to rest, under the guise of taking photos.
We started to see a few people on the beach, rock collecting, so I stopped and asked one of them if we were getting close to the State Park and where the trail to the Deer Park Store might be located. It turned out that we were about a hundred yards from the trail (marked with two rocks)! Our shuttle driver had stopped at the Deer Park store to show us during our van shuttle from Grand Marais to Whitefish Point. This where a little local knowledge, totally paid off in spades.
We dropped our gear at a pile of driftwood that looked a little like a kids fort and headed up the trail towards Deer Park. We pushed our bikes for awhile and then rode a bit of singletrack that led us to some sandy doubletrack that the guy on the beach, had told us about. In about a mile, we hit a paved road and in few minutes coasted to a stop in front of the UP’s version of a dessert oasis.
Beer, chips and a can o’queso, por favor! The folks at the Deer Park Lodge were super friendly and naturally curious about our mode of transportation. After we shared the details of our trip, they busted out the camera and started taking pictures of our bikes (for their blog). Mike (the owner) even got out his mountain bike and parked it next to our fatties and took more pictures. They told us that we were the first two cyclists that had ever ridden that section of beach. They also seemed delighted that we were riding there and writing about it. We asked if it would be cool if we sat outside the store at their picnic table and had a beer and they totally rolled out the red carpet for us. They filled our camelback and water bottles while James and I dove into that twelve pack of ice cold LaBatts along with the chips and salsa. After another beer and more friendly conversation, we tucked the rest of the twelve pack into James’ Oveja Negra Seat Bag (a crucial test of any bike bag is how well they carry cold beer) and began our retreat back down to our beach-side campsite.
On our way back to camp I took a digger…..well really more like an unscheduled dismount. When I realized that two days of beach riding had rendered my brakes pretty useless at the top of a steep sandy chute of singletrack, I bailed near the top, by running into a small pine tree. I landed on my feet and exclaimed, “I meant to do that!” a la P.W. Herman and then almost got run over by James who was operating with only a rear brake because of his mechanical, earlier in the day. We had a good laugh, and both rode away unscathed.
The spot that we stashed our gear turned out to be a perfect campsite. We affectionately named the spot ‘Camp Fun’! (That might have been the beer talking). There was a tee-pee made from driftwood and the perfect kitchen area that we lined with planks that we found washed up, nearby. Our only neighbors were a family of geese that paced (back and forth) and honked at us from down the beach. I collected a straight and tall piece of driftwood and added a flag pole to our beach fort.
We took our nightly swim and sipped fine Canadian Pilsner, beach-side in the shadow of our driftwood tee-pee along the scenic shores of Gitchie-Gumi. We had left our dinner (a foil pouch of lentils in curry) sitting inside my dry bag exposed to the sun for a few hours, so dinner basically cooked itself. We had the lentils on corn tortillas with chorizo beef sticks. It sounds pretty gross, to me, while I’m writing this, but it was really, rather delicious. After dinner we hung out while the sun started to give us a preview of the masterpiece it would paint upon the clouds later that evening. We played (Horse) using rocks and watched two cranes fly over us and circle back to spend the night, behind the dune over by the goose family. The sunset finished its show around a quarter till ten. It was the kind of sunset that gets tattooed in a man’s memory so he can pull it up like a picture post card when November rains turn the world dank and grey.
At first light, the pair of cranes, that had spent the night with the goose family (just down the way), let out a short croak and then flew right over us on their way to an early morning appointment. James and I got up and had coffee as the beach came alive with the pastel hues of another beautiful summer day.
Our early start allowed us to take our time getting packed up for the last leg of the trip. We ate breakfast and eventually gathered our gear back into the packs. It was hard to leave camp fun, but I promised myself that I would return, one day, very soon. The previous day had been one of the best days in the saddle in recent memory…It was time to see how we could ‘top that’ on our way back to Grand Marais. The tailwind that I mentioned earlier was still blowing in our favor when we took a last (self-timer) snapshot, with the camera balanced on the camp fun tee-pee.
We left the Hiawatha National Forest and entered Muskallonge State Park within the first mile or two of the start of the ride. We passed by a few people collecting rocks and taking in the panoramic beach views at the state park. We hit more beach rock, but our bikes floated over, a little easier, since most of our groceries were no longer part of their cargo.
We came upon a snag of downed trees and after a brief scouting mission, James decided that the best way to proceed was to go up the steep bank and try to make our way through the woods. We got the bikes up the bank and I started to follow behind. If James got more that ten feet ahead of me, I would lose sight of him. We could have really used a machete at that point. I got another lesson in why panniers are not well suited for this kind of back country travel. My panniers weren’t the only thing getting caught up among our dense forest surroundings. My pedals, bars and derailleur ran afoul a couple of times because the brush was so thick. Fortunately for us, this bike wrestling match only lasted for a few tenths of a mile. We slid down the sandy bank with our bikes, happy to see soft clear beach on the horizon. Tom had told us that we couldn’t ride the beach all the way into Grand Marais. Grand Marais = Great Marsh, so the way into town along the beach was described to us as swampy. We knew that we could exit the beach at a campground that we had scouted past the Blind Sucker River, but we decided to try to extend our beach route to some doubletrack that would take us a few miles closer to town. We refilled our water at the Big Bay Campground and then headed down the rocky beach. In a couple of miles, I caught up to where James had stopped to wait for me. I had begun to question if we would be able to find the new way back, but James convinced me that we should roll on, for a bit and see what was around the point. It was only a few hundred yards before we found a trail that looked good.
We pushed the bikes across the deep soft sand and then into the woods, where the trail went straight up a steep slope. Ripe blueberries adorned both sides of the trail. We’d push for a bit and then pick a mouth full of berries and then we’d push a bit more. We discovered a nice back country camp-site at the top of the dune accessible via a rustic jeep road. We hung out and munched berries and enjoyed the Lake Superior groove. Our detour had led us to another perfect little spot that 99% of the folks that visit the U.P. will never experience. It was here that we said good bye to the beach and hello to a rolling sand jeep track that led us on a twisting, sometimes hilly route to the gravel and paved road that we knew would lead us back to Grand Marais.
We stopped at the road and pumped up the tires back up to ten or twelve PSI for the ride back to town. The five or six miles of road riding went by very quickly compared to the beach miles that we had logged over the past couple of days. When we hit town we rolled right up to the Lake Superior Brewing Company and took a seat at the end of the bar. We ordered two pints of their delicious ESB and tried to explain our ear to ear grins. After a juicy burger, to celebrate the successful trip, we loaded our bikes and bags into the truck and headed right back to the spot where we had left the beach. Lake Superior drew us back for one more gorgeous swim and sunset. We camped at the top of blueberry hill under tall pines after spending the entire evening down on the beach.
Good fortune smiled on us at alost every turn on this trip. From nearly perfect weather and great local knowledge from trailspotters, to an ever pesent steady wind that kept the biting insects at bay, we had the absolute best trip that I could have imagined. I think this area could become a great fat-bike ride destination. If you’d like to come and see this incredible country for yourself, I’d recommend that you look up Tom at trailspotters to get set up with maps and shuttle services.
I still think that my idea about a group of riders tag-teaming their way along the south shore of the U.P. and Lake Michigan would be a blast! Who wants to join us for that trip and help us explore?