Northwest Trail - Day One: A Gift From Misshepeshu

Today's guest blogger is Hansi Johnson, our Regional IMBA representative. He's got a heck of a tale to tell here, along with some incredible photographs, so sit back and enjoy. -Kid

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It's all just residue. Detritus. Layers upon layers of dirty time I thought to myself.

As soon as Eric and I hit Big Sandy Lake I was already daydreaming about what the portage must have been like 250 years ago. If I burned all these big lake houses down and tore the signs out and ripped the roads away, all those modern layers, I would be looking at the soil all those ancient travelers staggered upon. It's still there; the watershed, the corridor, and we were traveling on it while the modern world hummed around us.

I had thoughts like those a lot. How ironic that the Northwest Trail actually still physically exists? Oh, it has been brutalized, tortured and raped, but due to its timeless inaccessibility its core remains, tucked between powerlines, homes, highways, railroads and Duluth's city streets.

One thing was for sure that first day; Missshepeshu the Ojibwa Water God was smiling upon us.

The ice on Big Sandy Lake that morning was thick and fluffy with snow and hoarfrost. A weird sun and fog mix blew in and out and it only added to the mystical sense that we had entered a special place. It was an awesome way to start the tour.

The lesson learned on Day One of the tour was that those who show up get the goods. I had a demonic smile on my face all the way across Big Sandy. The sun was shining warmly on my body, the riding, while slow, was not physically taxing. I had all I needed in the world on my bike: food, shelter, booze, and my camera. And I had three days to do nothing but ride and explore with a like-minded buddy. For a moment, I even felt a bit sorry for the poor suckers who passed on coming along. Well, not that sorry.

The first time I met Sandi Weller, the Park Manager at Savanna State Park, she gave me one of those looks that I seem to get from time to time…that 'concerned' look. I am sure she gets her share of whack jobs that want to cross the Portage and I am also sure she has had to bail a few of them out. With all that in mind I am even more sure that when presented with a sweaty-looking guy, grinning like an idiot, and covered in mud and snow, sporting a fatbike in February, she was thinking she was about to have to do it again.

Luckily this first meeting was on one of my recon rides, so when Eric and I rolled up on Day One of the tour, she was pretty excited to see us. However, nobody was as excited as us after she told us that the first six miles of the Portage had been groomed for snowmobiles the day before, another gift from Misshepeshu!

If there were another word for flying, a better word, one that exuded the idea of glide and the sensation of levitating, then I would use that word for how we traveled through the hardwood forest for those first six miles. It went too fast. We blew over and past the Continental Divide. We darted down sharp, quick downhills and shot up short, smooth uphills. Eventually we stopped and brewed up some ramen and reflected upon our gift.

Deep down inside though, we both knew that it could not last. The hardest part of the day was coming up soon, and we contemplated the challenge. At some point the grooming would stop, we would leave the park and we would be at the heart of the matter.

When looking for a partner in this kind of endeavor, you need to find a few core qualities: physical strength and consistent short-term memory loss.

You want somebody who can take a good solid shellacking, then forget about it and move on, and hopefully laugh about it at the same time. Eric Peterson was perfect in this regard and I have to say I was really, really lucky to have him aboard. There were moments where we were moving negative miles an hour for miles, and when you looked down the trail, you were looking at an hours work or more…pushing. Grass, alders, tree branches, knee to waist deep snow drifts, all things that like to grab pedals and snag handlebars.

Yet we soldiered on, looking for better conditions. Because that is the golden rule in a winter bike tour, wait a few hours and conditions will change, and heck they might even get better! You need to forget the pain of the past few hours and enjoy the fun for the next few minutes if you get it.

The middle of the Savanna Portage was an exercise in believing, in having faith that all the recon and the research would pay off. I had faith, but man there were some moments where I had my doubts. Eventually we saw a wide open clearing and our hearts started hoping.

In the early 1900's a bunch of Scandinavian dreamers decided that they would move to Minnesota and create an agricultural paradise in the great swamp that the East Savanna River flows through. The US Government decided to help them and began to drain the swamp to create farmland. This was done by bringing in massive coal and steam-belching engines to carve out “Ditchbanks”. Talk to any local in these parts and ask them about Ditchbanks and they will have a story about them. Ditchbanks are as straight as a two-by-four and full of the water from the swamps they drained.

To me they were potential Fatbike Super Highways.

My whole trip plan was hatched on hoping that these Ditchbanks were rideable. In my earlier recon rides, I had only been able to get on the tail end of one of them and I left that ride with mixed impressions. Now, we were at the crux of the crossing.

Regardless of my past experiences, Eric and I were high-fiving and giddy when we arrived at the Ditchbank. The open scale, the feeling of space after being pinned in that tight claustrophobic trail was so amazing. On top of that, the sun and wind had really sublimated the snow cover and the riding was euphoric. It was perfect backcountry riding and to me this seemed the pinnacle of the whole trip. To have guessed, plotted and theorized that this “could be awesome riding” and then to have worked hard to find out that it indeed was, was sweet nectar.

This payoff was as good as any powder day I have ever had, as good as any fish I have hooked up, and as good as any sweet singletrack I have ripped and we gulped it in like a fine beer for miles.

Alas, as the golden rule of fatbiking states, conditions will eventually change and they started to deteriorate as we neared Floodwood, Minnesota. The snow was getting deeper and finally we decided to make camp.

It was quick and easy to set up “home” as we had minimal possessions. We tossed up our single-walled tent and threw our bags in on top of our thick sleeping pads. Eric started up a raging fire and we ate like animals for what seemed like an eternity. It was a gorgeous, star-filled night and relatively warm (20's). We sat close to the fire and dried out and told tales.

We also raised our flasks in thanks to Misshepeshu for the gift he had given us on that first day of our tour.

Sleep came fast, but I had some unbelievably vivid dreams. It was like the spirits were talking again and this time it seemed like they were warning me.

A storm was brewing somewhere on the east coast…

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To be continued Wednesday…

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

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