Northwest Trail - Day Three: The Day The Little Men Crawled

Today we conclude the Northwest Trail adventure with guest blogger Hansi Johnson. Click here to see part one. Click here to see part two. -Kid


I have not had the pleasure of meeting any of the fine folks that design weather forecasting models. My gut feeling, however, is that they fall into one of two camps: optimist or pessimist.

Sunday morning, was the last day of the Northwest Trail tour. I rolled out of the sack and checked three weather sites while having breakfast.


One said doom and gloom. A raging blizzard was coming. The other two said it was going to miss us, and that the day would be warm and possibly windy.

Majority rules and as an optimist, I was also an easy sucker.

We shucked a good chunk of our gear at my house in Thomson. I also decided to wear as little outerwear as possible. The temps had warmed up considerably to nearly 33 degrees when we were rolling out.

Moisture and heat management are key components of winter biking. Because of that I went with an ultralight shell and some lightweight Capilene under that. As an aside I decided to toss in my ski goggles.

While we had been enjoying the sun of the "Scandinavian Riviera", Lake Superior had been busy puking lake-effect snow on the Duluth area. The snow pack was significantly deeper the closer to Gitchee Gumee that we traveled. Because of that, many of our classic routes were not going to be passable. With that in mind we decided to travel via snowmobile trails and chose Munger to Mission Creek to access the St. Louis River at Fond Du Lac.

Fond Du Lac is also the former site of the historical Ojibwa summer village, and then later the John Jacob Astor Trading post, so it was a key point of reference of our  portage experience. Fond Du Lac is where most of the actual trading and commerce went on during the fur trade. It's where the shouldered burdens were dropped and the trinkets counted. Fortunes were made and lost at the head of the lake.

I knew we had underestimated our day as soon as our Big Fat Larry's hit the Munger. We had to hunt and peck through the soft snow to find the firmest lines. Talking was at a minimum. Our legs were two days and 100 miles into this thing at an average speed of around 5 mph.

After about the first hour we passed near the Buffalo House. It was Sunday morning, slow going, we had all day. "What the hell, lets get a Bloody Mary."
Eventually we retook the field and dropped into the paradise that is Mission Creek. The former aches and pains, thoughts of tedium, all went away. It's a stunning place and I get weak in the knees when I think about the fact that COGGS is about to put 15 miles of singletrack in there this summer.

Riding conditions on Mission Creek were fantabulous. As many small streams do, it had overflowed during the lake-effect snow and the subsequent warm up. Instead of deep snow pack in the stream itself, there was ice or slush and it made for easy riding.

I can remember EXACTLY when the storm hit. It was that kind of storm. The kind that seems like it was shot out of the barrel of an oversized gun. Boom! One minute, overcast and cloudy, then bang, next minute nuking snow with extremely high winds. The weird thing was how warm it was. It was like a huge, wet, sloppy, warm kiss, 32 degrees, and one step away from rain.

At that point it was snowing hard, but nothing too concerning. Once we hit pavement we decided to juice up the tires for the city streets. It was at that moment that I think we both realized how hard it was snowing, how high the wind was getting, and how far we were from Lake Superior.

Before riding towards our goal however I had to haul Eric over to see the landmark that signified the historic trading post.

It was not a scenic moment.  Standing over the monument in the screeching wind and the driving snow, I still had to think about how crazy it was that just over 150 years ago, on that exact spot there was a thriving native population. None of the infrastructure around me existed and nobody in their right minds would have ever dreamed about how big Duluth would grow. We would be struggling through that urban environment for the rest of the day.

At this point our destiny was set. We had to ride Grand Avenue all the way to the middle of town. Grand is an extremely busy road that has sections of 35 mph along with sections of 55 mph. Grand is the main artery for travel in the west end of Duluth. Even in the summer in good conditions it is a little un-nerving to ride a bike on. In a howling gale it was downright terrifying.

Immediately upon getting on Grand I realized that all hell was breaking loose. There were cars in the ditch, cars swerving and fishtailing into oncoming lanes. People were stuck in their cars at intersections. Sirens were blaring.

It was chaos and I felt calm. I am at ease in chaos. I feel comfortable there (now you know a bit more about me than I would like to admit). I have always felt that way.  I felt that way when Elmo was buried (I also felt total panic too) and I felt that way during the flood.  It is normalcy that scares the hell out of me. Chaos? Chaos means anything goes and I can deal with that. I was right at home.

Getting to the city of Gary was like trying to reach the moon. The wind was so strong it was stopping us dead. It truly reminded me of the time my little bro and I got weathered in on Mount Washington while skiing the Gulf of Slides. Movement was calculated and falling had consequences.

The snow itself was piling up so fast that when I would look back for cars, my track was literally disappearing as I rode. We finally reached Boy Scout landing and decided we should check the river. Maybe the snowmobile tracks might be safer than dodging cars? Not so.

At this point the shit was hitting the fan and going to hell in a hand basket all at the same time. I was wet right through and my camera gear needed a good solid drying out as well, so we decided to stop at our second bar of the day: the Alpine Bar in Gary.

When we rolled into the Alpine, the looks we received were somewhere between the look the Park Manager gave us on the Portage and amusement. There were only a few locals bellied up to the bar. The rest were hunkered down for the duration. We ordered the biggest pizza they could give us and got some beers. It was easy to linger. Outside the storm was ornery and conditions were deteriorating by the minute.

It was 2:30 and we had a long way to go. We powered down the drinks the friendly regulars bought us and headed for the door.

Luckily the only thing stiffer than the face-peeling wind on our faces were the Alpine's drinks so we were semi numb and ignorant of the butt kicking we were about to receive.

If Grand had been scary before, now it was petrifying. We could not longer ride on the shoulder as the snow was way too deep. We were forced to ride in the car tire tracks or if a plow had been through, in the plowed lane itself. Cars were nearly clipping us the whole time. Every once in a while one of us would go spinning out of control and go sprawling left or right. I went down hard once and was so happy it had not happened as a car was passing by. I decided to let a bit of air out of my tires. Once we had done that however the valve froze open and I lost all tire pressure and was forced to re-pump in the middle of the storm.

As we were pumping up my tire, we joked about what we would do if a plow came while we were riding. Eric had several escape plans, most involving getting off his bike and running.

Well, when the plow REALLY came we had no time to react.

I heard the scraping noise before I saw the plow. I glanced under my arm and I all I saw was the blade and a huge boiling wave of snow in front of it. I had no time, I just yelled at Eric and braced for impact. The first round of snow actually pushed me away from the plow. It felt like surfing a wave. I managed to balance and even think to myself, 'Hey this is not so bad!'  Then the second wave of snow, from the second plow blade hit me and sent me flying. As I went down I watched the plow catch up to Eric and the sick little monkey inside of me wondered if he could ride it better than me and stick it. He couldn't.

Finally we made it to our next stop: the North Pole Bar. It seemed only fitting to keep drinking and at this point the conditions were so bad, we might as well get fired up and turn this into a bar hop.

The irony of the riding conditions was not lost on us. We had managed to avoid conditions exactly like these in the backcountry because of careful planning and route finding. Now we were being tossed into nightmare conditions on city streets. Go figure.

At the North Pole Bar we were about just over halfway to our goal for the day: Lake Superior. But the big lake was what was causing all this havoc. The storm was coming directly off the Gitch and because of that, the closer we got...the harder it got.

Duluth was getting rocked harder as well. If we had seen pandemonium on the way to West Duluth, we saw double that upon arriving at West Superior Street.

This was also when we began to see A LOT of cameras pointed at us. Nearly every car that passed us had a phone or camera pointed out of it. People were cheering us on. Several folks popped their heads out of second story apartments to yell at us. A father and his son asked Eric if they could have their pictures taken with them.

Some folks took it the other way. A guy flipped us off from his buried Acura as we rolled past and others tossed obscenities at us like snowballs. Yet we kept trudging on.

At this stage in the game I had made up my mind that I did not care what it took to get to the lake, I was going to get there if I had to walk the full way. Because of that I truly felt like I was on a mission and I was able to ignore all of the BS that was going on around me. I am sure there were plenty of people that were annoyed with us because they thought we were just out joy riding in the storm, but in reality we had a goal and a place we were trying the reach.

By now my camera was totally getting wet. I could not keep the lens clean and because of that I started to get some really crazy image quality.

Eventually we made it to the vicinity of Canal Park. It was totally deserted. The wind was so strong here that when we passed over the caged bikeway above Highway 35, we were both blown over. We struggled down the causeway to the Canal itself.

By this time I was struggling to shoot any sort of shots. If I saw something I thought I wanted to shoot, I had a millisecond to pull it off. That said, I admit I had one shot in mind and my frames reflect that. Not a lot of creativity in a 40mph gale with snow coming down at an inch an hour in the dark! But I did try!

The final trudge to the lake was surreal, mainly because you could not SEE the lake. It was just a screaming, searing, blasting ice-covered maw. It was so anti-climatic. Eric tried to haul his bike over his head but even that proved to be nearly impossible. But eventually he did it and we had finally made it.

Game over. Three days. The first bike crossing of the Savanna Portage, a long introspective ride nearly half the length of the St Louis River and an urban assault of Duluth in the worst storm of the winter.

All in all I give this trip a 10. It was hard, it was imaginative, it was historic, and it was remote. It was also urban had a lot of colorful people and experiences. It was just out my door, yet it was mind-blowing and educational. Will I do it again?  Soon as possible!

Thanks to all the folks that made it happen, including Eric for being a trooper and coming along. Thanks also to all the killer folks who loaned me the gear to survive it. That includes Todd McFadden, Mike Riemer, John Gaddo, Jason Boucher, The Ski Hut, Continental, Mick Dodds, and Dave Cizmas.

This blog post series was originally posted on Hansi's blog Universal Klister. Note that his original posts include additional images that you may want to check out.

Thanks for sharing your adventure Hansi. -Kid

This post filed under topics: Bikepacking Explore Fatbike Guest Blogger Mukluk Snow Biking

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cmherron | March 15th, 2013

What an awesome adventure!  I love that you guys cozied up to the bar on several occasions - I would have done the same!  Thanks to the Salsa crew for sharing the story with all of us on the Salsa blog.

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David | March 16th, 2013

Greetings from the golden heart city Fairbanks Alaska.  Hope you all get to snowbike in Alaska someday.  Way cool.  I snowbike using a regular 26 wheel with studded tires, a Marin Bolinas Ridge.  I keep my tires fully inflated and special oil in the hubs good until 40 below or so and then the pedals just spin.  Enjoyed the story especially the observation about normalcy.  The pictures I get of the frosted trees and frozen river and winter sun on the horizon are fantastic.  My goal is a Beargrease man I would fly around town.

vik | March 16th, 2013

“It seemed only fitting to keep drinking and at this point the conditions were so bad, we might as well get fired up and turn this into a bar hop.”

Smart move! =-)

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