Throughout the past couple of years, it’s become a tradition for me to play a show in La Crosse, Wisconsin, the Saturday following Thanksgiving. I usually get down there early in the day and wander through the frozen backwaters, islands, and floodplain forests that lay between La Crosse and Winona, Minnesota. This year I was looking forward to exploring these winter landscapes on my Blackborow, with instruments in tow.
When that last Saturday in November came around, however, winter had failed to show up. I found myself riding in a short sleeve shirt. It felt like early September. The sun blaring through the cloudless blue sky like a ringing anvil, plenty of geese and other birds still hovering in the wetlands.
My traveling companion and I paused for some ramble beers and snacks at the water's edge. I leaned my bike against a piece of driftwood and took a photo of it with the ancient, driftless bluffs staggering behind. Later that night, I was looking through my photos from the day. As I scanned past the image of the Blackborow bearing my guitar and banjo attached to the Alternator rack, it occurred to me: Could this possibly be the first fatbike to carry a guitar and banjo?
I’m shy about making big claims, and I’m not sure it matters much anyway. But in a funny and humbling way, it felt like an accomplishment, seeing the ways my ability to travel by bike with instruments in tow has evolved over a few years of experimentation and adaption.
Having spent the warmer months of 2015 on long tours, playing shows, and sleeping among the trees, I found myself looking to the approaching 2016 winter with intentions of taking it easy and making time to process what happened in the busier months. It didn’t take long for my good intentions to vanish like a covey of flushed grouse. I have come to accept I am a rambler, and slowing down doesn’t seem to fit into my landscape for long.
This year the lake ice came in late. Record late on some lakes. The first snow also came late. Much of the snow that did fall, never stuck around. At least not in the Twin Cities. I decided to go back and retrace some tracks from my trip around Lake Superior the previous summer.
One of the highlights was Thunder Bay. En route, I stopped in Duluth to give a presentation for the Duluth Climbers Coalition. The next day, 15 miles from the Canadian border, I realized my passport was two weeks expired. Despite fears of not being let back into the United States on my return, I pushed ahead into Canada.
A good friend, Nathan Petrie of Petrie’s Cycles in Thunder Bay, along with other friends in the area, had arranged a ride for us on the Fort William First Nations land. This would be the first time fat bikes had ever been ridden on this land. Before the ride, we gathered at the Fort William Community Center for a fatbike demo, allowing people the chance to take a test ride.
After the demo, our group followed a trail that snaked between the shore of Lake Superior and a drive side cliff rising high up into snowy blue raptor and raven territory. Eventually, the trail dropped down to the lake shore. We gathered near the place where the Carp River emptied into Lake Superior, taking in the open expanse of the lake. I gave a performance with the surrounding cliffs at my back.
In returning to the start point of the ride, we were met by two women from the Fort William community. They performed a drum song and made an offering to the water in thanks for its power and bravery. We shared a snack of puffed wild rice and dried cranberries they prepared for us.
This group ride was among a handful I participated in throughout the winter. Hearing stories and witnessing people’s excitement while sharing with me the places they ride every day was incredibly refreshing after a year of so many solo miles. I am filled with happiness when encountering people who truly love to explore and share their home ground.
For some reason the first question border patrol officers always ask me is, “What do you do for work?” For years my answer was always “artist” or “musician.” Either one of these answers never failed to incite further questioning, searching, or overall delay. In griping about this to one of my friends in Thunder Bay when traveling around the lake this past summer, she said, “Why not just tell them you are an athlete?” I have since taken to using that as my stock response, and it has brought surprisingly good results. Thankfully, I was welcomed back into the U.S. despite the invalid passport.
My next stop was Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, where I revisited Houghton/Hancock and Marquette communities. We got in more beautiful riding along Lake Superior and up in the Marquette woods. In the U.P., it truly felt like winter. Snow banks piled six feet high along the roadsides in the Keewenaw, and temperatures dropped well below zero. The day I played in Marquette a blizzard rolled in. It was also the start of the UP200 sled dog race. This made for a sparse turnout at my show but I was honored by the presence of “Honey Bear,” the first human stuffed animal in an audience of mine.
The last of my winter rambles took place in mid-March when I rode to Snowbank Lake, an entry point to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, 28 miles North East of Ely, Minnesota. The purpose of this trip was to resupply wilderness explorers Dave and Amy Freeman.
Dave and Amy have been living in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness since September 2015 as part of a year-long campaign to raise awareness about the need to protect the Boundary Waters from proposed sulfide-ore copper mining operations.
Since September, different groups have been carrying in resupplies to Dave and Amy. I wanted to bring them a resupply that would honor a connection between the restorative value of art and the restorative value of wilderness spaces like the Boundary Waters. I carried my instruments in with me to offer them songs in addition to delivering food and other supplies.
I was accompanied by Bill DeVille, a DJ from the Minnesota Public Radio Station The Current, Nate Ryan, their media correspondent, and Levi Strauss, a trip coordinator for Save the Boundary Waters. Bill and Nate were coming along to document my concert for Dave and Amy and help tell their story of living in the wilderness for a year.
Bicycles are not allowed in the Boundary Waters. As much as I love traveling by bicycle, I think there are some places that they don't need to go. I left my Blackborow in Levi’s truck and we crossed frozen Snowbank Lake on foot pulling our gear and supplies behind us in pulk sleds. Dave and Amy met us with their dog team in the middle of the lake near the wilderness boundary and we continued across to their camp. After setting up our tents, we gathered in their shelter, circling the wood stove to share food, conversation, beer, and music.
I never feel a shortage of thanks or gratitude for the experiences, people, places, and events that the bicycle cultivates in my life. Spending most of my winter miles on the Blackborow left me feeling I had finally found a missing piece. I am most often pulled toward the blank spaces on the map, the trackless and map-less rambles, and the quiet places where the animals meander at the pace of sunlight and rain. The ability to explore these types of spaces on two wheels while also carrying my instruments has left me full of inspiration.
I can hear spring chewing its nails just around the corner. In hindsight, I can’t imagine having sat still all winter as I had momentarily considered early on in the season. It’s been proven time and time again, the best place for reflection is out there on the trail. Any chance to ramble is a blessing. As “Kid” likes to say, “Rubber side down!”
Watch The Current's Boundary Waters Canoe video:
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Ben Weaver is a songwriter and poet. He has released eight studio albums of music and four books of poetry.
Listen and purchase his music here.
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