North To Grand Marais: Part One

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat. 
-Theodore Roosevelt

I noticed my two partners’ headlamps slowly disappearing into the distance until at last I was completely alone. Too tired to ride, but too cold to stop, I stumbled on, my weight heavy on the handlebars of my loaded Mukluk fatbike. My boots dragged through the loose snow as the strength to pick my feet up had left me long ago. I had been riding and pushing my bike for close to 16 hours in temperatures that hovered at ten degrees below zero. I was wet, exhausted, dangerously dehydrated, and freezing cold. A safe place didn't exist where I was. I had accepted that fear was my new companion.

Some months ago my training partner, Charlie Farrow, had suggested that we attempt a winter cycling trip from Duluth, Minnesota to Grand Marais, Minnesota via the North Shore snowmobile the winter! To our knowledge no one had ever completed this feat in an unsupported fashion. We wanted to be the first to cover the 146 miles of rugged terrain on our bicycles, promising to accept assistance from no one. The planning began in earnest with both of us agreeing that nothing could stop us except the ultimate authority on the matter, Mother Nature. Luck would play a vital role on this adventure; hopefully it would play to our favor.

While planning and organizing the complex trip, I found a great deal of irony in the fact that as a whole the basic idea was very simple; ride the bike and carry all of your stuff. However, I must admit that I am a complete novice when it comes to winter bikepacking; in fact I had never done it before. Also, I must admit that riding on snow is not my strong suit. It seems that the bike and I are often locked in a desperate struggle as to who is actually in charge. Nevertheless, I would do my best and follow the leadership of my best friend Charlie, as well as glean as much information from the newcomer to the expedition, Eric Peterson. Eric was brought in late and had already proven himself as an accomplished winter cyclist.

I knew that winter cycling was not my strength, but physical and mental toughness were and I hoped to utilize those two assets to the best of my ability. It didn't take long before I realized that efficiency was the name of the game. Inexperience had me hauling extra weight to combat situations that might happen, but most likely wouldn't. I really believe that one rarely gets it right on their first try in things like this and I certainly missed the mark in many areas.

My chief concern was the temperature and how I'd fare during the overnight hours. I knew deepening cold was destined for us the further north we traveled, but I found it hard to believe the numbers I was seeing when reviewing the weather forecasts. There wasn't much my nerves could do to change the temperature, sometimes one just has to take a deep breath and go for it. So we did. I snapped a picture at 7:40 a.m. on Friday morning, checked the temperature one last time and confirmed a minus 11-degree reading. We mounted up, and started pedaling. It wasn't long before we were stopping to add air to under-inflated tires as well as to let air out of over-inflated ones. Soon, the rhythm of the trail had us in its grasp as we ground through those early miles.

As the trail unfolded before us I noted the sun's arc in the sky. The day was passing rapidly. Soon it would be dark and all of my fears would be realized. However, my present situation found me wet with sweat, slightly fatigued, with a hard chill beginning to penetrate my clothing. I quickly noticed that breaks on the trail needed to be short, as any stop would allow the subzero temps and opportunity to exploit a chink in the armor of my winter cycling clothes. Old Man Winter always found a way in; no matter what I did to keep him out. Continual motion was the name of the game despite the slow emergence of exhaustion. Frustrated with how difficult things were in the cold I began to neglect my hydration hose as well as the plastic bags my food was stored in, as my fingers just couldn't seem to do what they were told. Like a rookie I decided that I was tough and could push through on fewer calories. This ultimately proved to be one of the biggest mistakes I've ever made on a bike as I entered a danger zone of fatigue and what felt like a complete body shutdown. As my partners rode off into the darkness I began to fall further and further behind, my body slowing as if it were beginning to literally die while my conscious mind watched. Dizzy spells over took me as I fumbled about with things like lowering my tire pressure and other meaningless tasks designed to make my life better.

My early struggles were compounded by a strategy that had us launching full bore into a monster leg of the trip on the first day in order to set up for easier second and third days. However, the previous week's snow dump left the trail full of loose, dry snow that caused the front tire countless washouts and sudden breakthroughs of the rear as it crushed through the groomer's six-inch base. These sudden stops only meant that I had to regroup, reposition, and get the heavy rig moving again. This took a great deal of energy as the process repeated itself over and over. Meanwhile, in the setting sun I began to succumb to the difficulties of accomplishing the simplest tasks in the extreme cold.

The initial hard day's effort had us forgoing lunch and pushing into what most would consider dinnertime. The next shelter would be where we would stop to cook up a hot meal and get some much-needed calories. However, I feared that I had crossed the critical line where food no longer seemed appetizing to me. I would need to force down every bite, while the frigid air worked against me, robbing me of what little fuel I had left in my body.

My eyes strained for the next of the many emergency shelters positioned along the North Shore Trail. At this shelter we would not only top off our fuel, but also gather ourselves for the final push to our bivvy spot for the night, two shelters ahead or roughly16 miles away… we thought. This distance would equate to about 40 miles of hilly singletrack in the summer. It was not to be taken lightly. Eventually the structure appeared, as did the chance to feed my engine some precious calories. Consuming the meals was just as critical as staying warm during the stop. The cold air held us in its icy grip while we stood still eating our meals. Quick jogs up and down the trail were necessary to keep our wet base layers warm.

Nighttime had settled in as we plodded further down the trail by headlamp under a hazy full moon. The hot meal and the sandwich I consumed seemed to have taken root in my system and, although my legs were tired, I was for the most part myself again.

The miles wore on and at the pace we were holding it was apparent that we were ticking off the distance at a more than acceptable rate. However, there was no sign of the second shelter we were looking for. Something seemed wrong. Charlie and I rationalized that we must have been going slower than we thought and that all of the pushing through the loose snow probably had skewed our perception of the distance. Suddenly the trail merged with a logging road that was packed firm. Immediately, we went up into harder gears and began to blast through the section, determined to knock out some critical miles that would bring us closer to the shelter. To our amazement the 2.5-mile road ended and we were back into the deep wilderness grinding through the soft snow.

Pedaling gave way to pushing as weariness had overtaken both Charlie and I. We were approaching three hours since we left the last shelter and it was getting late. It was then that we first discussed setting up our sleeping bags out on the trail. Eric had pushed on ahead of us long ago in search of the shelter. Would we be able to have the wherewithal to set up our sleeping systems in minus 15-degree temperatures in the state that we were in? It was then that I began to worry.

Charlie noticed it first. In the distance, there was a rectangular shape on the trunk of a tree. It was clearly a shape that didn't belong in the woods. "Is that a sign on that tree?” he asked. Quickly I put my light on the shape and made out the words, ‘Shelter One Mile’. Our eyes locked..."YES, we made it!" were the only words that came.

...To Be Continued...

This post filed under topics: Bikepacking Fatbike Mukluk Snow Biking Sponsored Riders Tim Ek

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Tim (Eki) Ek

Tim (Eki) Ek

Tim Ek was born and raised in Duluth, Minn., and still calls it home. He’s always had a passion for competition and seeking his own extremes. Tim's true love is the woods: Out in the wild is where he clears his head and finds his peace, and he prefers getting there by bike. Tim Ek: The Eki Chronicles,


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Daniel Kindstrand | April 10th, 2014

That’s real “To Build a Fire” stuff right there.

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