The ride began in Two Harbors, Minnesota at Granite Gear headquarters on the North Shore of Lake Superior. I was headed to Ely where I would meet my friends Dave and Amy Freeman. They’d been living in the Boundary Waters for the past 12 months supporting an effort to stop the construction of proposed sulfide copper mines at the edge of the wilderness boundary.
Earlier this winter I visited Dave and Amy to deliver them a resupply via fatbike and pulk sled. I brought in my guitar and banjo too to resupply their spirits with some music. This summer, they asked if I would consider coming up to Ely in September to sing at a celebration planned for the completion of their year in the wilderness. Dave and Amy didn’t have to try too hard to convince me. It seemed like a great opportunity to plan a route through the woods and play some songs.
In outlining the route, I reached out to my friend Jeremy Kershaw who runs Heck of the North Productions. This past summer he put on a two-day bikepacking style race from Two Harbors to Ely, and back, called the Heck Epic. I knew he would have some good feedback. My route ended up using sections of his race route mixed with other pieces of road I found on Google Earth that I hoped would be interesting and challenging. The first 40 miles were straight forward, and mostly from the Epic route. Maintained and well-travelled county gravel roads. It was midweek and having left before sun up I did not see a soul until I came across a grouse hunter walking down the road, head ablaze in an orange hat, shotgun on his shoulder.
Around mile 37, I turned east on Forest Service Road 204. I hoped it would help me connect a hypotenuse and keep me off blacktop. From satellite images it had been hard to tell if the road was still in existence. When I asked Jeremy about it, he said he had hoped I went that way. He’d always been curious and wanted a report. Two giant boulders marked, or more truthfully blocked, the entrance to 204. A routine practice the Forest Service uses when they close a road down. Aside from a few deer, no one seemed to have passed through anytime recently. I bushwhacked in a ways curious if the blowdown and overgrowth might thin. It didn’t. After a couple hundred yards I took a second look at my map. There was a road I had overlooked a 1/4 mile up the blacktop. It appeared to connect at a right angle back to 204 north of where I currently was.
In addition to skipping out on blacktop, I was bent on riding 204 because it crossed a set of train tracks and an abandoned trestle bridge I wanted to explore. I had the incentive to find a connection. The map was right. I was able to reconnect to 204 via this alternate road and from there intersection 204 was clear and rideable for a few miles. But then I reached a swamp that swallowed the road up in alder and cattails.
Admittedly, I had a moment here where I contemplated turning around. Thankfully a voice in my head, the one I trust, spoke up loudly and reminded me why I was there. I wasn’t trying to keep my feet dry; I wasn't trying to go fast. I was there to see what the landscape had to share. I was there to listen and observe. I remembered the waist deep glacial water we waded our bikes through in Alaska this past summer, and I kept moving forward. Within 150 yards I was out the other side of the swamp and found the train tracks and old trestle bridge strung up over the Cloquet River. Well worth the muddy push. My contention is that the smaller the road, the more interesting the ride. The bigger and straighter the road the quicker I get antsy and bored. After the swamp and train trestle, I had a 15-mile stretch of straightaway on well-maintained gravel. It was the most challenging section of the ride simply because it was the least interesting.
I was thankful when the next turn came. It pointed me down a jumble of doubletrack that would string together 50 miles of remote ATV and snowmobile trails, and leave me with 13 or so miles to Ely. From this point on I would only see two more people; a pair of hunters riding in the same truck, lit up in orange, trawling for grouse. They rolled down their window as they passed and said, “So, you having fun then?” After they disappeared around a bend behind me, I was alone again. The light was dusty and grainy from the falling leaves. A piney smell in the wind. Porcini mushrooms coming up under the pine needles. Lake waters cut up like diamonds between the tree branches. I didn’t care if I ever reached Ely. I could ride these roads forever.
Ely is surrounded by water, the Superior National Forest, and The Boundary Waters. There are limited roads going in, particularly from the east. When planning my route, I scoured Google Earth looking for a way across the Kiwishawi river that would keep me off pavement. My search turned up a snowmobile bridge that crossed the river just east of the highway. I called the Forest Service to make sure I wouldn’t be trespassing if I used the bridge. They told me it was part of an existing route they were in the process of developing for multi-use and that I was welcome to cross on it. Just past mile 93, I found the trail. It was grassy and rocky. More like a portage. After descending a small hill and rounding a bend, any hope of riding to the bridge quickly disappeared. I was hub deep in muskeg and swamp. Sighting down the trail, it went on like a power cut, the swamp stretching farther than I could see.
What keeps me going forward in times like this is how much I have grown to dislike riding on pavement. Particularly when I have spent my entire day alone in the woods. My strategy for getting through the swamp was to follow the treeline at the west side of the trail. A mile and a half later I reached the bridge. A stand of white pine rose up on the other side. Standing on the bridge peering down into the molasses-colored and bubbling Kiwishawi river, I was within a handful of miles from the BWCA boundary.
Out of the swamp and across the river, I passed through a huge clearcut populated by aspen regrowth that was just high enough to make it impossible to see over. Unfortunately, due to summer storms, what few mature white and red pines the loggers had spared were blown down across the trail. I was on and off my bike every few minutes lifting it over these huge trees. At one point, the trail completely disappeared. Again I considered turning around but instead followed my gut instinct and ultimately my desire to be in the woods rather than anywhere else. In a few moments, the trail revealed itself again from the tangle of regrowth and slash. Soon, the mostly matted down grass trail I had been following began to fade back into two-track and eventually the Kiwishawi road which led out to Hwy 169 and on into Ely.
I experienced a sort of culture shock during the last few miles into Ely. The solitude of my route had allowed me to crawl deep into my head and back to what I like to think of as the real “real world”; the land, water, animals, and trees; the speed and arc of the sun passing up and over all of us. I’ve ridden my share of woodsy miles, but in pedaling out onto Hwy 169, I felt a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction I hadn't experienced before. I suspect the feeling was related to having completed this new route with my guitar and banjo on the bike. I am used to carrying my instruments with me, but it’s typically on roads which feels utilitarian. Riding in the woods feels exploratory. But until this ride I hadn't been fortunate enough to combine the two things. The challenge and exploration that a wilderness route offers while carrying my tools (instruments), essentially riding to work (in this case a show).
Later that night, retracing my steps from the day and eager for more miles on the ride back to Two Harbors, something dawned on me. In 106 miles I had only seen three other people on the trail, and I was less than four hours (by car) from home. As that sunk in, it quickly reinforced what I’ve already been coming to realize. We don't have to travel faraway to exotic places to be alone in the woods. We can do it at home.
Ben was riding up to the BWCA to help celebrate Dave and Amy’s return from the wilderness after their yearlong stay. He made a trip up in winter to deliver a unique resupply that you can see here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VEelBhcu4E8
You can find out more about Dave and Amy’s triumphant reception here. https://vimeo.com/186292609