younger moments came to pass while visiting my grandparents along the St. Croix River in Solon Springs, WI – a tiny and emblematic North Midwestern river and lake town if ever there was one. The smell of the arborvitae, hemlock, and Norway pine trees, the micro-fine sandy red dirt, dark-pink rocks of granite and ore, and the clarity of the waters up there, took possession of a huge chunk of my senses at an early age. It still pulls at me and fuels my imagination like few places.
Funny to me that a vast majority of people in the States call this “Fly-Over Country”. I’ve traveled quite a bit, and see the people of the Upper Midwest and stereotypical “mountain town people” as one in the same. The heartiness of the terrain, the devotion to it, and the demands of the land are no different. No snowy peaks maybe, but it’s the same reliance and respect, the same lifetime of dirt under the fingernails, and the same magnetism, that makes them get outside regardless of the weather’s temperament. But the lighter population and lack of fanfare very well might be what makes the Upper Midwest feel so vast and uncharted, and just evoke its own definition of “alone”.
...with a high probability of not knowing what the hell we were getting into.
I’ve wanted to explore up there on a fat bike since I started riding one. Over a weekend in October, schedules collided perfectly for a trip north with my friend Benton, to meet our friend Hansi, and do just that.
During the final days leading up to the weekend, it rained. A lot. So much so that all the local trails in Duluth where Hansi lives got closed. He called to let us know. He said if we still wanted to come up, we could travel about two hours further north, and head to Grand Marais, gateway to the better-known Boundary Waters,and home to the Gunflint Trail. He’d been up recently, riding around on some really remote land, and had a good friend in town there that had helped introduce him to it.
He’d get a feel for what we could potentially do from him. We looked at the weather. Rain pretty likely with a chance to see the first snow of the season, a low of 28° at night, mixed with a high probability of not knowing what the hell we were getting into.
But the bikes were already packed, and there’s not a whole lot that’s more demoralizing than unpacking an obsessively kitted out expedition machine. Benton and I hit the road Friday afternoon.
Sure enough, we drove through more rain and watched snow accumulate in spots the further north we went.
We met Hansi Saturday at 6 am for some giddy-up juice at the corner McDonald’s, transferred gear, and started the two-hour trip north. Once we arrived in Grand Marais we sat down at a local coffee shop with his friend Adam who he’d suggested earlier would be able to give us some insight into where to go and where not to.
It wasn’t until he laid out a big map, but only concentrated on a 3 x 3” square of it, did the size of the area really kick in. Huge. Like Eastern Russia huge. It was about t-minus 60 minutes until we would thoroughly understand what his comments like, “That’s high ground, you can’t get through there, that’s gonna have some water, and there’s some climbing” meant to him, a guy from the area, that was out there all the time.
To get on the Gunflint Trail you have to go uphill for a long time. We eventually picked a gravel and mud road that would take us to the general vicinity that Adam suggested, and parked Benton’s truck. This would be my first time manhandling a Blackborow, and as I pulled the deceptively light fatty off the bike rack, my imagination kicked into overdrive about what this earth crawler and I were about to discover over the next two days together. Hopefully we’d become fast friends. Everything unnecessary stayed behind, and a few nervous chuckles later we were off.
We had decided we were going to find Northern Lights Lake, hopefully by dark, and camp there. Based on what we knew, we had the choice between a couple miles of gravel roads that would lead to a “thoroughfare” comprised of logging, ATV, and snowmobile trails in various alien states through the forest, or take a nearby “this might be a shortcut hike-a-bike” section over some elevation. This “shortcut” sounded better, so we pointed our bikes downhill a ways. Soon we encountered a huge and unrideable boulder field that caused us to dismount and scramble over, only to find another one yards away. This repeated enough times for Benton and Hansi to comment that the boulder placement almost looked intentional, perhaps done to keep traffic off what was probably once a logging road in a now logged-out area.
Like a bunch of white people in a horror film, we ignored this hunch and kept proceeding forward for about 45 minutes, bikes on shoulders, leaping over ankle snapping rocks and then over creeks to harder ground in what was now a marsh. Beyond the marsh we came to a clearing that, in every direction, was just brush and downed trees blanketing vast, steep hillsides. We looked at a map and contemplated which direction to push on. During our “It’s gotta just be over the hill, I mean, seriously” debate, Hansi found an old bucket and we plinked off a couple rounds in it from his ancient .32 caliber pistol he had inherited from his grandfather and brought along for the ride in case we saw grouse.
The likelihood of hitting a bird with that thing was about 100 to 1, but it was a nice diversion while we stood in 35° on-again-off-again rain and snow, trying not to think about turning around and crossing that marsh once more.
We had convinced ourselves that up and over a hill to our left had to eventually get us to either a trail or down to a nearby river. We pushed, lifted, and tossed weight around for over an hour to get to the top, only to realize it just got thicker with impenetrable growth. Meanwhile, the crotch of Benton’s wool knickers had blown out during the climb, and we found our snacks were almost frozen solid.
Moose tracks and wolf poop reminded us who’s really boss in those parts
We were going to wait to crack my bottle of Bulleit around a torqued-beyond-spec campfire, but now seemed like a good time for a nip of the creature. Dejected but still constantly smiling, we headed back down the hill and through the marsh to get back to where the truck was. We pedaled past it hoping it wasn’t laughing at us. The second attempt towards our chosen lake was underway.
A long and steep uphill section on gravel led us to an old quarry and path that would become the beginning of almost two hours of descending on everything from ribbons of ATV and snowmobile trails to openings through light-blocking new forest growth on foot-thick beds of red pine needles. We would hit puddles and mud three Chevy Suburbans long and pause under full canopies of soon to be falling, flame-colored leaves. Moose tracks and wolf poop reminded us who’s really boss in those parts, and we soldiered on in the same “seems like the right way” fashion. Eventually at another water crossing we saw our first fellow woodsmen on ATVs, and they confirmed we were actually on the right track. They told us we’d more than likely see them again in a little bit at the “river” we’d be crossing to get to our lake, dinner, and much needed drying out and warming up. There was still no let-up in the snow and rain.
Sure enough, after a dark, ripping downhill scattered with large wet rocks and logs, the unmistakable sound of a rushing river overwhelmed the scene, and there stood the ATVers. Turns out the elder of the bunch had cut the trail we just rode by himself years ago, and used to come down to this very spot to camp for five or six days at a time with his family.
He and Hansi shared stories and names of people and places in the area while the other guys just asked questions and shook their heads in wonderment about our bikes. They were even more amazed when we told them we were going to camp when we got to our destination, not realizing we had everything we needed in our framebags. All the while the Brule River never escaped the corner of my eye. It’s definitely a river.
We all talked for about an hour, and it was now 4 pm. The fellows fired up their machines and we watched them drive about 35 yards across wheel-covering, quick-moving water, fishtailing in deep mud on the other side. The whole package was now waiting there for us and our bikes, and how much further beyond that sat our lake was unknown. The ATVers couldn’t really speculate how long it would take us on bikes, just to expect more water. We decided to pitch our tents right there while we still had an hour of light, and get that fire going. There was a good amount of fallen but damp wood lying around, and with a homemade firestarter and plenty of birch bark, we did just that. We all had our own versions of dinner and ruminated about just how many layers we’d need to get through the night, all while killing off the rest of the whiskey. We went to bed early in the brisk night air anticipating a river crossing at sun up. We were still going to find this lake come hell, OR high water.
Light crept through our tents around 7, and I was soon hearing one of my favorite camp sounds—tent zippers and deep, post-cocoon breaths. Hansi was stoked to see the sun breaking through and looming opportunities for killer photos.
We scrambled to eat oatmeal and drink coffee, and congratulated ourselves on choosing to stay at such a sweet spot, leaving this cold, watery feat for morning. We got our camp torn down and packed, and Hansi grabbed his camera and ventured out into the water before us to document the crossing with the now available sun. It was go time.
Benton headed out first and tried to ride. He stayed up for a bit, but the buoyancy of the tires took a little getting used to so he took to portaging. The Blackborow has a lot of great built in handles and curves for shouldering, so I wasn’t distracted carrying it, and I could look for the riffles where the water was shallower. The water wasn’t too cold for October, surprisingly, and after a couple minor stumbles, I was across. Benton became convinced that with a little more careful surveying, he’d find a line to cross the whole thing riding. He’d have his chance again later in the day.
The trails on the other side of the river were some of the most dense and beautiful trails I’ve ridden in a long time. They reminded me of what I rode when I lived in Bellingham, WA in the early ‘90’s with the soft and loamy forest floor, huge snarls of always-wet roots and rocks, and a full coverage of thick foliage overhead. As we’d roll over it all and tires would slip, we just waited for a Hero Knob to grab on and pull us through. We all just kept telling each other how cool it all looked, and merrily took it all in despite our waterlogged socks and shoes.
There wouldn’t be much of an opportunity for anything to dry any time soon as we came to the ongoing water the ATVers spoke of. In order to keep going, we had to cross a beautifully engineered beaver dam. Those resourceful builders know their stuff, and provided us with a perfect land bridge to make the crossing. I could have spent a good chunk of time just staring at the thing while hoping to maybe catch the masters in action.
We kept discovering more and more intersections, and as we rode the trails off of them we’d keep getting treated to different surfaces. It truly was like a buffet of a lot that the Gunflint has to offer—total dark and lush almost rainforest sections, to open meadows, to mossy rock and granite-peppered singletrack, to no trail at all. We just kept commenting on how amazing this region was. We finally came to a dirt road and figured this must be the way to the lake we were in search of, but it just never materialized. We pulled over hungry and tried to plan the next leg. I was pretty beat, and Hansi said if we kept going we might run into a highway that would take us back to the area the truck was parked in. It was a thought, but after a bacon jerky install and some roasted peanuts, we decided (well, Hansi and Benton decided) to head back to the river and climb out on the trails that took us there yesterday. I was grateful for their determination, and of course, it was an obvious choice over any sort of paved option.
When we got back to the river, Benton got his second chance to try and ride it. Starting with the fishtail blended mud bog, he dropped in and went for it. That rascal was picking a great line and got about a third of the way out before his front tire bounced off a rock and changed his direction. He still stayed upright but was heading out to deeper water while hoping for a chance to correct his course. The tires started to bob a little and it was just a matter of time. Full splashdown with a Blackborow floating on its side and Benton scrambling to get up and minimize the soaking. Still never lost the smile on his face though.
The space blanket came out and the dry clothing stash was dug into. We made coffee and ate, and boiled water to drink for the trip back up that two-hour-long descent we did less than 24 hours earlier. Hard to believe you can find climbs like that in the Midwest, but more than 2 billion years ago, northern Minnesota and Wisconsin were home to a mountain range that rivaled the Alps, and the undulating hills we were on are what’s left of the tops. At this point in the trip I knew I was on the right bike. The combination of where the Blackborow positions you between the wheels and a 5” span of rubber aggression made for times I wasn’t sure if I was clawing my way forward, or sitting still, pulling the earth towards me. Traction like that is a gift. You keep pushing just so you don’t appear ungrateful.
We finally got back to the roads that would take us to the truck. We rode together recounting the things we saw on our short trip that seemed like it was spread out over a week. You know it’s been a good trip when you and your friends forgo any questions about returning and just straight up declare, “We’re all coming back here a lot.”
A bottle of regional Broken Bell Whiskey was waiting for us and we celebrated while we stripped gear off bikes, put on dry clothes, and looked to see what kinds of messages we got while we were checked out coexisting with the Gunflint Trail. Hansi and Benton thought it was a good idea to get in the lake we were parked at, but once I heard the wind get knocked out of them when they made contact with the water, I was happy to keep getting ready to hunker down for the four-hour drive home. A dinner of bangers and mash and a couple of beers at The Gunflint Tavern and Brewpub wrapped up the weekend superbly.
Before and after dropping off Hansi in Duluth, the conversation continued about when we’d next get up there, and how much bigger we’d go on that trip.
People are welcome to keep flying over that country, but they’re missing out on one of the most beautiful areas I can think of, and will never tire of visiting.