Completion Of A Dream: Michigan Off-Road Expedition

Text and photos by Matt Acker...

The year started out looking promising. I had my busiest year scheduled yet as far as racing, event directing, coaching and traveling. From the get-go I was on the road to Colorado for Fatbike Worlds, then flying to Oklahoma for a video shoot for the Salsa Stormchaser launch, and then back home for more fatbike racing. Life was good.

Leading up to The Mid South, headlines on the news became worrisome with stories about a highly contagious virus traveling the globe. It all seemed so far away though, with not much more than a few rumbles locally. That all changed dramatically on the drive down to Oklahoma. In the span of just a few days, discussions went from the possibility of making some adjustments in the schedule to cancelling everything! We were already in Oklahoma by the time it was evident things would be getting strange very quickly.

Fast forward a few weeks after The Mid South and we were in full lock-down back home. All events and gatherings were cancelled. We went from being gone literally every weekend to staying at home for weeks on end (our dogs loved having us home all the time). As it slowly sank in that the pandemic wasn’t going away anytime soon, my mind began to drift to other projects. I like staying busy, having work to do, and goals to accomplish—whether it’s on my bike or other forms of work. I made do during the lockdown by working on trails, fixing up the house, and riding around for fun by myself.

I’ll admit I was stuck in a bit of a rut and feeling a bit downtrodden by having to cancel all the events I host and the ones I had planned to attend. My livelihood comes from not only racing, but also putting on events for others; this dominates my life. I had to change my thinking from what could have been to what could be. One of the side effects of a busy traveling lifestyle is that there is little room for anything else. I tend to over-commit myself and I have no shortage of ideas and projects that I’d love to tackle—including one particular project that had been years in the making.

I’ve been slowly working on a bikepacking route that traverses Michigan. I didn’t want it to be just a direct route across the state though. My vision was to create a route that used as little pavement and as much singletrack as possible. I pictured a route that crossed through places very few people had ever been, let alone thought of riding their bikes. But if you’re looking to go places no one goes, odds are you won’t find much information to help you plan. It’s a trial-and-error process involving satellite imagery and topo maps to plot a route and then getting out there to explore it for yourself to see if it’s any good.

In the fall of 2019 I got the chance to test out the lower-peninsula portion of this route and boy howdy was it a doozy. Spanning more than 550 miles with nearly 200 singletrack miles, it was a grand adventure. It took three days without sleep to get it done, but I could finally say I had checked over the whole lower peninsula section.

I knew the upper peninsula would be much more difficult, as it’s more rugged, remote, and sparsely populated than the lower peninsula. Despite being 30% of Michigan’s entire land mass, the UP only has 3% of the population. Every year, the Department of Natural Resources reviews a portion of the forest roads to make sure they even exist, and this often leads to hundreds of miles of “roads” being “deleted” from maps. All of these factors pose huge challenges to crafting a route that traverses the 320-mile length of the UP while staying off major roads. The silver lining is that the remote area is ripe with opportunities to find hidden gems—but the only way to find them is to get out there.

As the lockdown ended and restrictions lessened, I hatched a plan with friends for a bikepacking adventure on my preliminary route across the UP from the Mackinac Bridge to the Porcupine Mountains. At nearly 500 miles long, the route was a combination of stuff I had ridden, local knowledge, and pure map and satellite image scouring.

Jake and Neil stand with their bikes on a front porch after prepping them for the days ahead.

When you’re dragging people into unknown terrain it’s best to have a hardy crew that’s up to the challenge. Whenever I’m planning bike trips in the UP I always hit up my buddies Evan, Brian, and Jake. They’re strong riders, great company, and just super tough people in general. I had also been hoping to adventure with Neil Beltchenko, fellow Salsa rider and highly experienced bikepacker. I reached out to him with the idea and before too long we had the final member of our crew.

We set a date in early June to rendezvous in Marquette and shuttle to the Mackinac Bridge. Unfortunately, Evan had injured his knee so he wouldn’t be joining us for the ride but being the awesome dude he is, he took up the task of shuttling us to the start. Brian also wouldn’t be able to make the whole journey but was planning to latch onto the crew when we passed through Marquette to ride the western half with us. Piling bikes, gear, and bodies into Evan’s van, we set forth with high spirits. We camped close to the start so that we’d have a full day of riding to start the journey the next day. We expected to deal with bugs since it was prime season but it wasn’t until we pulled into camp that reality struck. Mosquitos were in full force, and with the eastern half of the UP being largely marsh, swamps, and creeks, the odds were good that they would only get worse. Nevertheless, we sat around the fire, prepped gear, and laughed about the adventure to come. Now only a night’s sleep separated us from embarking across the rugged Upper Peninsula!

DAY ONE

A view through the trees of the Mackinac Bridge on a beautiful sunny day with blue skies.

After a quick shuttle to the bridge and a light breakfast, we unloaded in Straits State Park, snapped some pics of the “Mighty Mac” from the overlook, and said our goodbyes to Evan. Jake, Neil, and I then began pedaling through the town of St. Ignace, which wasn’t quite awake yet in the early dawn hours. It always feels good to get those first few pedal strokes in and leave worrying thoughts behind—for the next several days, it would just be us, the bikes, and whatever gear we had strapped to them. Turning west from St. Ignace, we hit our first dirt and the excitement level jumped up a notch. Light conversation filled the air as the sun shone down on us and each turn revealed a fresh view. The ATV trails, forest roads, and a bit of pavement made for smooth sailing—at least until we hit the sand. The first section of pushing presented itself by Brevoort Lake and I knew it was coming. It was loose sand and no shade as far as we could see. The heat of the day beat down on us as we trudged onward.

Matt, Neil and Jake ride side by side down a gravel road early into their journey.

As our route traveled deeper into the wilds, it varied from somewhat sandy seasonal roads to damp but firm ground encompassed by beaver ponds. The hours ticked by with little to no sign of other humans and we didn’t mind one bit. The only constant was being surrounded by bugs. We traversed one forested section to another with the occasional lake or creek and open prairie. A highlight was traveling through mature hardwoods offering desirable shade and a blanket of trillium to please the eyes. Neil documented the trip with his camera, often sprinting ahead or dropping back to get the perfect shot. Jake and I kept pedaling along like metronomes maintaining the overall pace.

Jake rides his fully-loaded Salsa Deadwood bicycle down a gravel road as the sun sets behind him.

As the afternoon grew longer, the heat, bugs, and terrain began to take their toll. Conversation dropped off a bit except for lustful discussions of cold beverages and bags of chips. The forest roads relented in favor of maintained gravel and then pavement. As we approached the hamlet of Curtis, we were hit with a cool breeze generated by the air traveling over Lake Manistique. As Jake would later muse, the gas station stop in Curtis was a lifesaver after a hard day of forging through tough terrain. After a stint relaxing, airing out feet, and refueling we ventured onward. The good news was that our prospective camp was within striking distance. Making our way through the last question mark of the day, an old snowmobile trail, we emerged from the forest to some much-needed pavement and easy miles. The next stretch of the route was a known commodity, so we elected to push past our intended camp down by the mosquito-laden creek in favor of better prospects.

The back of Jake’s salt-stained t-shirt is covered with hundreds of blood-thirsty mosquitos.

After a water stop on the Manistique River we made the final push deep into the baked plains of the Seney Wildlife Refuge. We made a rough camp near the two-track and it wasn’t long before the mosquitoes discovered us—the only refuge being in our in bivvies and tents. The bugs’ constant droning made me wish I had remembered ear plugs but it was a wonderful feeling to be tucked away in a bug-proof shelter. Day one was a success and by pushing later into the day we managed to knock off 113 of the 500 miles. Needless to say, we slept well.

DAY TWO

The riders stretch out in the morning in their camp made in a rough opening in the forest.

We started off much the same as the previous day ended: battling the bugs to ingest calories and sort out camp. We’d spend the first half of the day deep in the Hiawatha National Forest navigating old forest roads. Leaving the Seney Refuge behind, our route took us into jack pine forest surrounded by large, swampy tracts. All was going to plan with the roads being mostly where the map said they were, which was a bonus. This section of the route had the most unknowns of all, so we made each turn with some trepidation. Going deeper into the swamp, we came across a shrine of sorts assembled from old dolls and empty liquor bottles perched upon hay bales; it was to be a bad omen for things to come.

Neil uses his bike to test the depth of an old forest road, now a waterway after being reclaimed by the forest.

A rider heads up a narrow, shallow waterway that was once a road, now reclaimed by the forest.

The rain began as we turned south onto an unknown stretch of road. There was little sign of use and soon we were pushing under, over, and through downed trees. A little hike-a-bike is never a bad thing, and I take it as an indication of a good adventure. The rain picked up and we faced a large underwater section of “road,” slowly picking our way through the tag alders along the dry edge. Eventually we were forced to wade in and carry our bikes. The water wouldn’t have been so bad were it not for the deadfall. Progress was slow as we lifted bikes over trees and the mosquitoes persisted in the heavy rain. We later dubbed that section “Hannibal Connector” and I made a note to remove it from the route. Finally, we emerged from the swamp and into the mature hardwood forests of the Hiawatha. Pedaling smooth gravel roads, we rejoiced in the freedom of movement.

Neil smiles as he rides his Salsa Cutthroat bicycle up a rocky singletrack climb through the woods.

Our first proper singletrack section was Bruno’s Run and it was a hoot. It felt great to have a change of pace from the ATV trails and dirt roads. Then we hit the Valley Spur trail system, our next segment of singletrack, and rolled through the stunningly green flora on flowy trails. Spirits were high after the earlier battle with Ma Nature and we were giddy to make it to Munising and see the Big Lake for the first time on the route. We bombed down a large, paved descent into Munising and, as respectfully as possible, we sprawled all our wet gear on outdoor picnic tables, ordered some tacos, and assessed the situation. Several unknown sections lay as hurdles between us and the next town of Harvey, where we would be able to resupply at Jake’s house. We elected to push on as long as we felt good and sort things out on the road.

The route out of Munising was quite rude, with a steep climb up to the surrounding ridge, but at least it was on single track. The Munising Bike Park was a fun little gem worked into the route and it offers a break from roads. Heading farther west, we blasted down some rowdy ATV trails laced with sand pits and ruts. Nearing Au Train the roads were sublime, with a massive hardwood canopy and sunlight dappling the dirt road. We were now getting into hillier terrain and Jake was second-guessing the gearing on his single speed.

Crossing Rock River road, the route ventured into an unknown section skirting the Rock River Wilderness. The two-track slowly deteriorated as we pushed farther and it ended abruptly, leaving us with the choice to bushwhack or backtrack many miles. Being stubborn folks we forged onward and located an old “road” that skirted the boundary of the Wilderness. With daylight fading I knew I had to navigate as efficiently as possible to get us out of this mess to somewhere suitable to camp.

The riders carry their bikes up from a forest bushwhack to regain a washed out forest road.

The old road had long since disappeared and I was following old blazes on trees hoping for a break in the terrain. Much pushing and carrying commenced and we were soon swarmed by the thickest patch of mosquitos I’ve ever seen. You couldn’t even breathe without ingesting a mosquito or two. The situation was grave and spirits hit a low as we dragged our bikes through deadfall and tag alders. Descending toward a swamp, my hopes dimmed and I was fearful we may reach an impasse. Thankfully, a massive beaver dam held back a beautiful lake and afforded us a safe crossing. On the other side we located a usable road and I sighed my relief. The sheer beauty of this wild spot with the golden hour light shining down on pristine lakes was breathtaking. While Neil documented the scene, Jake and I pedaled ahead and spooked a black bear sow and cub. It never ceases to amaze me on these long trips how you can go from being so low one minute to the highest high the next minute.

Arriving at the next intersection, we were faced with a decision: do we follow the route into another potential bushwhack or re-route on roads? I already knew I’d have to re-work this section so we elected to go with the latter and take a known route to Harvey. Already 100 miles into day two and running on fumes, we also needed to decide whether we would camp or push through to Jake’s house. The prospect of frozen pizza and Ben & Jerry’s ice cream sealed our fate and a course was charted for Jake’s. We navigated back roads both paved and gravel to the Iron Ore Heritage Trail, which cuts a direct path into town. It was close to midnight by the time arrived at Jake’s and awoke his partner,  Kate, with laughter and excitement. She graciously welcomed us as we ate junk food and relived the day’s adventure. Our original plan had us arriving in Marquette on day three but by covering 131 miles on the day two, we were mere miles away. Since we had overcome many obstacles and weather, we unanimously decided we would sleep in on day three.

DAY THREE

We got off to a slow start, but a hearty breakfast and extra sleep were just what we needed. We planned to meet up with Brian, who would join us for the remainder of the journey, and Evan planned to tag along from Marquette to Ishpeming. It was great to have a few new companions and the infusion of fresh blood was immediately noticeable. Soon we were in Ishpeming where we would bid Evan farewell and continue up into the Huron Mountains. Situated between Marquette and L’Anse is an expanse of fairly rugged and wild terrain with the exception of logging activity and camps.

A view of forest for miles around from the top of Michigan’s highest point: Mt Arvon.

The peaks, ravines, and waterfalls were a welcome change from the dense forests and swamps of the eastern UP. Our pace for the day was easy as we aimed to recover from the prior days’ efforts, and the sunshine and relaxed pace were a nice break. We made camp on top of Mt. Arvon, the highest point in Michigan, at a simple rustic site with a scenic overlook and protected camping. The final ascent of the day was a real dandy—it’s never easy when you’re going for a high point. Arriving with ample daylight, we set about making a fire and enjoying one another’s company. Despite taking it easy, we managed to tick off another 70 miles, putting us well past the halfway point of our journey. We now had high hopes for making it to the end in two days’ time, which was crucial as two members of the crew needed to return to civilized life.

DAY FOUR

We started the day with an adventurous descent from Mt. Arvon on an old, eroded ATV trail. Our first objective was to make it to L’Anse for a resupply and hot meal. The terrain between us and the town was a known commodity so it was simply a matter of pushing the pedals. The skies had clouded up a bit and there was a hint of foul weather in the air. Upon pulling into a convenience store in L’Anse, the rain prompted us to hustle with the resupply and get moving to stay warm. It would be a day of rapidly changing weather, from heavy rain to dropping temperatures to sunshine. It was one of those days where you put on a rain cape only for the rain to abate, then strip back down to get hammered by a storm.

Making our way through the Sturgeon River Gorge Wilderness, then farther north into the Keweenaw proper, we battled the wind and the terrain. Temperatures dropped considerably as we headed northward and we required more frequent stops to stay fueled and warm. An unknown section lay ahead, connecting Donken to Misery Bay on remote two-tracks. The roads became much rockier, looser, and brushier as we plummeted down toward Lake Superior. Winding our way through old logging routes, we encountered three old bridges over small creeks that required some hike-a-bike and scouting. The rain became a downpour as we neared Misery Bay, and it was hard to not get a bit downtrodden. Without a great spot to hunker down for lunch we simply snacked on the side of the road as the storm broke and the sun shone once again.

The riders ride the firmest path on a sopping wet dirt road filled with small puddles.

We then turned south for the journey toward Greenland, where we hoped to make camp for the night. This section was also un-scouted and quite long at more than 20 miles. The heavy rain had softened up the clay- and sand-based roads to the point of a peanut-butter consistency. As we pushed farther south and away from any signs of civilization, the road turned to heavy red clay and began wreaking havoc on the bikes.

The riders carry and push their bikes through terrible, knee-deep mud puddles on a dirt road through dense forest.

Just as we began to get a groove going we arrived at a three-way junction with fading roads in every direction. My route pointed us down the middle—and least hospitable—track (of course). Sliding down an overgrown gully, we did our best to control the heavy bikes in the slippery clay. A creek crossing greeted us at the bottom and afforded a quick shoe and bike wash. It would be for naught, as the next ten miles were heavily rutted clay “roads” and bad conditions. Vacillating between low-calorie bonk and slap happy laughter we forged quietly southbound, only looking around to check on one another. Finally we reached the Firesteel River and pavement, and we celebrated our victory over “Snowmobile-Logging Road” and cracked a couple of beers Brian had stashed in his frame bag.

The riders resupply their bikes outside a small roadside bar in Greenland, Michigan.

We were only a handful of miles from Greenland with a few hours of daylight remaining. The final stretch of road had one heck of an incline and a steady headwind. Using every last calorie, our ragtag crew arrived in Greenland and found a small roadside establishment promising cold beer and fried delicacies. Burgers and beers were our primary source of fuel, and we even bought a few roadies for camp. After some deliberation and wandering, we located a prime camp high on a bluff overlooking Mass City. It was another big day—we covered 110 miles of everything the UP could throw at us. Spirits soared as we enjoyed a fine sunset and subsequent display of stars. Less than 60 miles lay between us and the finish, and the best news of all was that it was known terrain!

A beautiful sunset colors the sky above a pine forest.

DAY FIVE

We awoke to pleasant weather and clearing skies. Our resupply for the final stretch lay only a couple miles away, so we made haste to break camp and roll into town. We knew the day would be a hot one so we stocked up on hydration before setting forth.

Neil stands with his bike at an old, weathered log building in the once booming mine town of Old Victoria.

The final stretch across the far western UP felt a world away from the terrain we started on out east. Massive rock outcroppings and ridges speckled the landscape, and our route traversed the beautiful Victoria Road which rolls through the Trap Hills. We also took in some of the region’s history as we passed through Old Victoria, where a booming mine town had once been. We were exhausted from four days of hard riding and pushing but the prospect of the finishing had us moving steadily. We emerged from the Trap Hills onto pavement for the remaining miles to Lake of the Clouds. With the heat pushing past 90 degrees, we stopped in White Pine for ice cold water and ice cream to prepare for the exposed climb from lake level to the finish some 800 feet above the lake.

Neil rides the shoulder of a paved road on the shore of Lake Superior on route to Lake of the Clouds.

Our pace slowed a bit as we focused on staying together on the last seven miles to the top. We had been through a lot the past five days and it only seemed right to finish as a group. The last half mile up to the overlook kicks up to a nearly 20% gradient, and everyone was pushed to their limits just to stay on their heavy bikes. With one final effort we arrived at the summit parking lot, parked the bikes, and celebrated. A short hike from the parking area revealed the grandeur of Lake of the Clouds and the Porcupine Mountains Wilderness. 

MORE REFLECTION

After nearly 500 miles of everything the UP could throw at us, we had arrived relatively unscathed. Friendships were galvanized through physical effort, great conversations, and a mutual appreciation for adventure. We had seized an opportunity amid the adversity of 2020, and that in itself felt like a huge victory. I had finally completed the route I had envisioned across my home state after years of work. Had it not been for the pandemic clearing my schedule it’s likely that it would have taken much longer to finish this project. I suppose even the darkest clouds have a silver lining somewhere within.

A loaded bikepacking bike rests against the railing of a wooden bridge crossing a narrow creek through marshland.

One of the riders pushes his bike down a deep sandy stretch along a powerline cutaway stretch through forest.

Three of the team ride a flat gravel road, bordered by pines on one side and deciduous trees on the other side.

This route covers more than 1,050 miles of amazing terrain from the Indiana border to Lake of the Clouds on the western extreme of the UP. More than 230 of those miles are singletrack, with the remainder being gravel, forest, and paved roads. The details of this route—which I’ve called the Michigan Off-Road Expedition (or MORE, for short)—are available for anyone who wants to experience everything Michigan has to offer. For me, this adventure was more than a bikepacking trip—it was the completion of a dream.

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This post filed under topics: Bikepacking Cutthroat Deadwood Gravel Matt Acker Mountain Biking Road Sponsored Riders

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