Over the past few years I’d heard so much about a little place called Copper Harbor, Michigan. A place where one could ride for days without riding the same trail twice. I was told it was a place so peaceful that there was really no need to even bring a bike lock. The picture in my mind was of a small hamlet on the shore of Lake Superior. I needed to see it, ride it, and most importantly, feel it.
My wife Amy and I marked it as the focus of our ten-day vacation. We’d spend six nights exploring the nooks and crannies of the Upper Peninsula’s best-kept secret. Well, maybe not such a secret anymore, as the trails have found their way into almost every major mountain bike magazine as the reviews pour in.
The drive north from Amy’s hometown in northeastern Wisconsin seemed to last forever as the scenery around us became more remote. I sensed the quick draw down in copper mining that must have overtaken the region some years back as the abandoned buildings in the small towns begged to tell their stories of grander times. As we got closer to Copper Harbor, it occurred to me that maybe I shared some of the same excitement that those early settlers had. Biking on those trails wouldn’t make me rich. Or would they? I couldn’t wait to find out.
It wasn’t long before we were slowly cruising through downtown. I quickly noticed the cycling atmosphere. There were many bikes leaning against buildings throughout town. It was true. I’d come to the place that cycling fairy tales are made of. Soon I’d be digging up my own fortune as I pushed my limits on Copper Harbor’s singletrack.
I woke up early the next morning, running through a checklist in my mind: lube the chain, check shock pressure, grab multi tool, fill hydration pack, and don’t forget the sunglasses and map.
A quick check with Amy about what time we would meet and I was off. The first ride in unfamiliar territory for me is never a good gauge of what the place has to offer, as I seem to constantly be stopping to check where I am on the map. It’s as if I can never just knock out some miles without ruining the flow of it, because I think I’m lost. I became increasingly frustrated with my need to stop versus my desire to keep riding the trails that felt too good to be real.
I chose to bring my Horsethief on this trip due to what I understood to be a more rugged, gravity-inspired style of riding throughout the trail network. In fact, what I’d heard most people talk about was the specific downhill runs the system held. I was born to keep both wheels on the ground, but have been forcing myself to get more comfortable leaving terra firma occasionally…enter the Horsethief.
Aaron Rogers, lead designer of the Copper Harbor trails, explained to me that "The trails were designed around two high points." He went on to add that there was a shuttle available for those that don’t want to ride up. Hansi Johnson, IMBA rep for the Upper Midwest, and Duluth native, happened to be in town for the annual mountain bike festival taking place on Labor Day weekend. It was Hansi that introduced me to the legendary trail builder, and it was Hansi who took me on a guided tour of the trails on my second day.
My ride with Hansi was everything I hoped it would be. I didn’t want to look at maps, I just wanted to feel the trail under my wheels and feel the vast expanse of nature that the Upper Peninsula has to offer. I rode his wheel while he explained the popularity boom the area has recently experienced since Aaron and his buddies began to knock these trails out of the park. A few key moments seemed to happen for the trail system that launched them into notoriety. Those moments came in the form of visits from big shot, celebrated riders from famed areas such as Vancouver’s North Shore. These riders went home to tell stories of their experiences in a little town called, Copper Harbor, Michigan. Those same riders also shared their stories with the cycling media, and the rest is history.
I appreciated being brought up to speed on the development of the area, but mostly I appreciated the trails we were riding. Hansi went on to tell me stories of first riding the infamous Red Trail, while I quietly railed through bermed corners and did my best to spot the approaching whoops, and to catch a little air when I could. I couldn’t always hear what he was saying, but I loved it nonetheless. The smile never left my face.
The following day a co-worker of mine arrived at our campground. We agreed that a ride together was in order. He’d be riding a downhill rig, while his buddy rode a hardtail. They were interested in doing some gravity riding, and with limited time available we opted for the shuttle up to the high points. I let them know that I was not that skilled at catching air or shredding downhill runs. We all agreed that we were there to have fun and nothing more. We set out on the On The Edge trail, which possessed views that reminded me of my experiences last year on Colorado’s Vapor Trail. A bench cut ribbon of 18-inch wide singletrack on the side of a mountain that held spell binding views. Of course, the were views that could only be enjoyed for a second or two while on the move as the trail required constant attention. My Horsethief seemed to float over the rough stuff as my confidence grew. We were off the bench cut now and heading into the trees toward a spiraling bridge system that seems to make everyone’s photo collection. Five minutes into the ride and I was letting the bike go, laying off the brakes as my front tire bumped up onto the first boards of the bridge. The corners were banked allowing the rider to hold considerable speed through the turns.
As the mountain fell away to my right I noticed that the elevation of the bridge seemed to be growing under me. Approaching the final left-hander and running high on the wooden berm, I noted the shade lying precariously over the final section. In a nano second I thought, ‘It’s morning. Shade on wood equals dew. Dew equals slippery’. Just then, my front wheel began to slide down the berm toward the flat part of the bridge as gravity snatched me from my momentum. ‘NOOOOOOOOOO!’, I thought as I fought to force the front wheel back up the berm.
The slippery bridge had different ideas as I fought its pull. My front wheel cocked right in an effort to get back up, my body leaning right as the force of the turn pushed it there, and gravity combined with the dew seemed to laugh at the incongruent nature of the situation. My front wheel skidded straight ahead, vibrating against the angled slats, despite being turned 45 degrees to the right.
Unfortunately for me, just then the turn leveled out and the berm was gone, leaving nothing but open air and a 12-foot drop down to a scree field of volleyball-sized rocks mixed with logs. My greatest fear came true, my front wheel caught traction and I changed direction. My feet were still clipped in and my hands were still holding the grips when I simply rode off the edge. The intensity of my final seconds on the bridge was over now and I had entered a surreal slow motion world of peace, mixed with fear. I targeted what I suspected would be my impact point and it didn’t look good. I felt my body and bike rotating toward a point of being inverted, all the while still clipped in. As the rocks rushed up to me I turned my head to the right at the last possible second while my face and fists simultaneously smashed into the scree. An explosion of noise blew up inside my head as my helmet absorbed some of the impact.
‘That’s my pump. Why is it over there? And why is it broken in half?’ was the next thing I remember thinking. Then, the ringing in my head took over. I was consumed by what can only be described as a gong being struck and the note sustaining indefinitely.
I began to put together what had just happened. My bike was strewn across my lap, while I sat upright. My hands felt as if they had been repeatedly slammed between a door and its jam. I had no idea of how I ended up in the seated position when I had just done what must have looked like a perfect dive into a swimming pool while riding a bicycle.
My world was eerie as I took in the scene in silence, save the continual note in my head, until I heard something that seemed to be echoing from the distance, "Tim! Tim…are you okay!?!" ‘What is that?’, I thought. The distant voice kept repeating itself. I wanted to answer, but the words wouldn’t come. I looked behind me and up to the left to see my co-worker’s friend who had been behind me leaning over the precipice. Suddenly, his voice snapped into my head. "I think so", I said as I wiggled my way out from under the bike. Rotating both shoulders and running my hands across my joints I surmised that I was sort of okay. I tried to push my bike up the slope, but it was too steep. My new friend reached down and pulled the front wheel up while I pushed from behind. He extended a hand and pulled me up next. His face was as white as a ghost. "I just couldn’t hold it on that corner", I said. He let me know that he had seen the whole thing and it clearly had shaken him to his core. He went on to add that when I wasn’t answering him right away he feared the worst. We nervously made light of it in order to leave the seriousness of the moment behind us. I’d been more than shaken…I’d been scared.
Various parts of my body cried out in pain and vied for my attention. My eyebrow spilled blood and grew in size by the minute. My hands were buzzing in agony. My right calf had suffered a tremendous blow from what I don’t know. The small toe on my left foot was most likely broken upon impact and blood oozed from cuts and scratches all over my body. The three of us spent about ten minutes making sure my bike and I were safe to ride. Once we felt things were going to be okay we cautiously continued our descent. My muscles quivered as I navigated the trail ahead. I felt like it was the first time I had ever ridden a bike.
I made my way into the local bike shop to inquire about a new saddle, when the shop owner asked about my well being, stating, "You don’t look so good". The fine crew at Keweenaw Adventures set me up with some first aid supplies, which we applied at the top of the mountain before our next run. These trails were just too good to call it a day.
I barely slept that night as I replayed those moments over and over in my mind. It could have been so much worse. I could have broken my neck and never ridden a bike again, or worse yet, never done any of the things that we all take for granted so often. I thanked my lucky stars and told myself ‘Just be careful, and move on’. After all, I had a race to do the next day.
The Copper Harbor Mountain Bike Festival hosts several races over the weekend and I was signed up for the long version of the cross-country race. My body was racked with pain and my right hand looked like I was permanently wearing a mitten. I accepted that it would not be my best race, but I would go out, do the best I could, and enjoy the trails.
I finished the race safely and with a satisfying result. I met a lot of new people at the festival, enjoyed some good music and tasty beverages. Most importantly, I left Copper Harbor with memories of trails almost too good to be true. In trade, I left a little bit of me down on that scree field. Maybe it was my way of saying, "Thanks, I’ve earned this".
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Tim (Eki) Ek
Tim Ek was born and raised in Duluth, Minn., and still calls it home. He’s always had a passion for competition and seeking his own extremes. Tim's true love is the woods: Out in the wild is where he clears his head and finds his peace, and he prefers getting there by bike. Tim Ek: The Eki Chronicles, ekichronicles2.kinetic-fitness.com