Religion on the River
Written By – Mark Sirek
Photos by – Nathan Swanson
I’m Mark and I live in Minnehopelessness, Minnesota. My lady, The Instigator, and I try, whenever we’re going to be in town for the weekend, to assemble our friends on Sundays and spend the day in the woods, near rivers, and under bridges. We’re lucky because there’s an abundance of these three things here unlike any other city we’ve ever lived in. It’s kind of silly not to ride knobby tires here year round since there are so many ways to include dirt in everything from floodplain exploration to crosstown sprints to the liquor store.
Our favorite dirt here is The Riverbottoms, a system of double and singletrack trails that follow the Minnesota River. Ask 50 people what their favorite parts are and you’ll get 39 different answers. The section we love best goes from Bloomington to Mendota Heights, and includes parts I hear referred to as the Riverbottoms, Sibley Side, Bird Sanctuary, and Low Road. It doesn’t really matter since people generally know what everyone’s talking about. I can never remember what the distance is either, but we rarely talk about being down there, in any other unit of measure, than time. We choose to ride our fat bikes whenever we head down because, like coon hounds, we have a tendency to just follow an opening in the trees and see where it goes, and we’re never limited going fat. But hey, you probably kinda knew that.
The trails themselves offer a variety of challenges that change every year as a result of flooding. Those floods also dictate how soon in the spring you get to go play down there too. The wait can be unbearable. They’re not hilly or terribly technical, but sections of sand and whole bike swallowing mud bogs (I’ve experienced that first hand) keep things interesting. It’s not just the dirt, but the total overall vibe and the sheer size of explorable terrain, the river hobos, sprinkled urban decay, and remnants of what was a community back in the day, that make it feel different than your typical singletrack park or walk in a nature preserve.
So back to these Sundays. If we have our get-up-and-go together, we’ll have enough time to swing through Everett’s grocery store and hit up their meat department. This place feels like 1956. Not that I’d really know what that was like, but if I saw Wally and The Beaver in there, it wouldn’t blow my mind. Some of the best brats and sausages I’ve ever had in that place, I tell you what. I carry a telescoping meat roaster and spork in my bag at all times, and The Instigator makes these sweet firestarters out of egg cartons and dryer lint. If there’s a sausage to be had, we’ll be ready to cook it. I have this killer collapsible cooler that you store in the freezer and when out, it thaws super slow, and fits perfectly in my backpack. I’ve had ice-cold beer 6 hours into a ride on a 90-degree day, and it eliminates any worry about said brats or anything else from cheese to salsa. You’re probably getting up to speed here that this is some pro shit.
We meet at 1030ish at this little dump called The Cedar Inn. I say that affectionately despite the fact that I wouldn’t eat their food unless I could get a police escort back to our house and defibrillator-equipped bathroom afterwards, and if I couldn’t sit outside, I probably wouldn’t go there period. But the people are nice and always happy to see us. We’ll have a couple 2-3 beers while we wait for everyone, and tell the same locals every Sunday that yes, those are some big tires, no they’re not hard to ride, and yes the bikes cost more than $500. But like I said, we’re all friends.
Depending on how late everyone is, we’ll ride a slog around Fort Snelling and the airport to the Bird Sanctuary – it has an official name but I don’t know what it is – or we’ll take the light rail as the second to last stop is right where we need to be. Either way, the second our tires hit the steep gravel hill that descends down to the river, there is a noticeable, peaceful easy feelin’ (our hair naturally feathers, our jeans get too tight, and the trail becomes shag rug) among the group that will carry on the duration of the time we’re out in it. Never, ever fails to deliver what will more than likely be the highlight of the week.
We have an ever-growing number of favorite spots to stop along these trails. There are a bazillion perfect riverbank sections and outcroppings that are reachable only by foot or by fatty where you can just sit in the breeze and watch the occasional boat or barge go by, and plenty of little valleys or depressions on the floodplain itself that provide an “extra-hidden element” for a fire and a longer lunch sesh. These are also only reachable on a fat bike as there’s no network of trails to reach them, and if there were, they’d be gone after every spring flood. You really get a feel for the contour of the land when natural landmarks like unusual twisted trees or stream inlets are the only ways to describe the location of these hidden gems.
And as I mentioned, there is also an abundance of scattered urban decay to hang out on and around. Couple of old cars and foundations of homes from what was once a neighborhood before the City Of Bloomington made everyone move years ago due to water damage every spring. There’s an old fenced up trestle bridge too that provides a connection to the suburbs if you’re willing to climb around and descend through rotted and rusty deck supports. Another great place for lunch and watching Herons and Egrets stand around, and it keeps most Mechanized C.H.U.D. Divisions on the city streets where they belong. We once saw some mouth-breathing window lickers on homemade mini motorcycles make their way across the bridge to the dirt, but they were just as fascinated by us as we were them, so no cannibalism occurred.
It doesn’t matter how many hundreds of times we’ve been down there alone or with hordes, we never get sick of it. There’s a current threat of a paved trail being put down there, but it is so ill-conceived and so shortsighted, that despite the collective vacuous skullspace of the city council, I’ll kind of be surprised if it gets built. Losing the natural beauty of this place though will deal a serious blow to our tolerance of living in a large metro area and affect the happy place of like-minded riders for decades to come. If you want to make your voice heard – even if you don’t live in the Twin Cities – follow https://www.facebook.com/SaveTheRiverBottoms?fref=ts to instill a little logic in the powers that be. Those of us that call these our home trails would be most grateful, and make room for you on any given Sunday.
Editor’s Note : I kept on seeing photos of Mark and his amigos having fun riding and hanging out together along the river, so I pestered him till he wrote this piece for us. These are the articles that I really like on our site. I’d choose a bike culture or adventure piece over a new tire story every time. I hope you enjoy this little view into one of the cathedrals of fat-bikes – The MPLS Riverbottoms. ~gomez~
“yes, those are some big tires, no they’re not hard to ride, and yes the bikes cost more than $500”
Ha, ha, same the world over. Prop my pug outside an Auckland bar and I’ll get those same questions over and over.
Great article. Fat bike owners do attract the attention of the curious. I have a group of friends that go for a ride on Sundays where I live, and we have this great local pizza place we tend to end up at after words. Some of us are now known by name, even! “Hey, you guys always show here on Sundays,” they say. “What’s up with that?” The company, the ride, the pizza later on—it’s great.
Earlier this summer, while I was eating a slice of pizza, a woman walked up to our table and asked “who the Mukluk owner?” I raised my hand, and we had great little chat about it! Fat bike fraternity!
Then, there’s the solo ride where you can just decide to stop and look and listen. In Spring, and again in Autumn, I love to take a pair of binoculars with me and watch for the passing warblers. (In fact, today I saw 4 Eastern Bluebirds in some wooded sections I was in.) With road riding, you don’t get to see such things. Fat biking is more like hiking, and you see things you wouldn’t other wise.
I like the idea of taking some hot dogs and other stuff, and cook it out along a twisty, single track trail some place! With Winter coming on, the icing issue would be an easy one. Thanks for sharing this experience with the rest of us.