For the next year, and likely the foreseeable future, I’ll be working on a series of trips focused around the Superior National Forest in the Northeast corner of Minnesota. The following route is the first ride I’m counting towards this project. The trip began in Ely, MN where I met my friends Levi and Kellen. For both, this would be their first trip on a fat bike and their first bike- powered overnight. Both have tons of all season camping experience so packing the bikes I brought up for them to use went smoothly and felt intuitive. The next day we drove Levi’s truck from Ely 40 miles down Highway 1 and left it at a fork in the road. The day was rising sunny and gusty.
In planning our route, I used my usual strategy. Looking at satellite images, finding intriguing roads and then comparing the digital images to the physical forest service map. There was essentially no snow on the ground in Ely, but in Isabella near to where we left Levi’s truck, there was still almost three feet. I had assumed most of the unplowed forest service roads would have had recent enough snowmobile traffic that we could ride their pack. Fortunately, I was right except for one short stretch on the return leg that saw us riding two miles of pavement on Highway 1. Shortly after we started pedaling away from his truck, Levi broke his chain. Temperature wise it was somewhere in the single digits, so not the most ideal time for contact between metal and skin. Despite not having a quick link, I fixed the chain quickly, and we were back in motion. The first part of the ride followed an old rail grade originally part of the Duluth and Iron Range Rail Road that once connected stations like Kelly Landing, Sawbill Landing, Alger, and Two Harbors. The sun was out blaring, and a stiff wind from the north kept us hurrying though the pine shadows to keep warm. One of the most interesting things about the Superior National Forest is that the Laurentian Divide passes right through it. The backbone of an ancient mountain range, it cuts the forest into multiple watersheds ultimately deciding whether rain and snowmelt run to Lake Superior or Hudson Bay.
We left the railroad grade at Sawbill Landing, the site of an old family logging camp and post office. Here we headed up into the contours of the divide and eventually to our camp at Divide Lake. Levi is convinced that Giardia comes not from bacteria in the water but poor camp hygiene. Having never had it, and having drunk from many unfiltered water sources around the country, I tend to agree with him. We stopped by an open stream to refill water and eat some thick slabs of bacon that he had baked off the night before.
After a bit, more climbing and winding through row planted red pine, stream crossings and a ruffed grouse management area we reached the Wanelss Road, a county gravel road that is maintained year long. I never like leaving the smaller roads, where the trees lean in, the sight lines short and fragmented by branches and shattered light. The climbing ended at Divide Lake which is aptly named because it sits at the top of the Laurentian Divide on the Superior watershed side. We gathered firewood and set up camp in the last couple of hours before losing the sun to the horizon. Much of my vision and inspiration for doing trips up here stems from a desire to help more people experience its under-visited offerings. I want to speak to the notion that we don’t have to always travel incredibly long distances and to incredibly exotic places to find adventure. In truth, I have come to believe it’s more profound not to leave home, but instead to find the untracked in your back yard. In working to share what I have discovered about this forest, I also have come to recognize there is a responsibility to introduce it with specific intention.
It’s important to remember that even though it is now designated as the Superior National Forest and managed by the federal government, there are trees here whose roots reach back to the time when it was lived on and cared for solely by the First Nations people who were here long before Europeans came for its timber, minerals, and furs. In using this land for recreation and exploration, it is important to acknowledge our presence upon it and to see our movements as part of an endless web of relationships connecting all that resides here, people, animal, plant, rock, and water. It is too easy to simply come into a place for the “stoke,” not leaving much but steam in your trail. I want to encourage a different perspective, a way of using the bike to move through these landscapes that foster connection and appreciation. Seeking the stories and mystery of the under-explored while offering something back in return. A commitment to reciprocal relationships with everything else living here.
As the stars settled into the blackening sky we dug holes in the snow to get closer to the fires heat as it slowly sunk into the earth below. We stayed up longer than we wanted to, for no other reason than for the flame’s warmth. After a lull in the conversation, Levi pointed out that in the summer he only builds a small fire and that after cooking puts it out because otherwise, you end up looking at the fire all night instead of the stars. This was a good reminder to look skyward before turning in for the night. Around 4 a.m. I woke up and checked the thermometer. It read -9. Not unbearable, but given the mild winter it felt colder than that. Perhaps it was overshadowed by the fact that highs for the coming weekend were predicted to be in the mid 60’s. After breakfast as we packed the bikes in the cold, I was reminded of how easy we have it back home. Heat at the touch of a finger, hot water, and all the other conveniences of civil life. A phrase kept running through my head, something I hear people say to you when you come back from the woods: “Welcome back to reality.” It doesn’t seem to matter if you’ve been gone a day or a year. They still say it.
Rolling up my sleeping pad and stuffing it into its sack with cold fingers I thought: Here; in the woods, in the cold, in the elements, whatever challenges they present, this is reality. Civilization is the smoke screen, the instigator of disconnect. Cold, wet, sun, wind, these are reality, and the inability to close the door on them the true test of making peace with that reality. As we rode back to Levi’s truck both he and Kellen expressed how thankful they were to have been given the opportunity to experience a landscape they were so familiar with but now from a new vantage point, that of a bike in winter. On the last stretch shouldering a few miles of pavement along Highway 1 through Isabella, a big pickup truck towing a trailer full of snowmobiles came careening around a corner. The driver laid on the horn and flicked us off as they sped by. It was a strange shift in vibe. Not one I wanted to go out on. It reminded me how disconnected we are, not just from the reality of living outside vs. inside, or the landscape, but from each other. We are divided into these groups that are defined by visual codes of recognition, yet in many cases, our intentions and motivations are more similar than different for venturing out into the places that we do.
On the one hand I was filled with rage for these guys and their ignorance and aggression towards us, on the other hand I recognized a new perspective that helped to shed some positive light onto the conclusion of our little adventure. This entire ride would not have been possible if not for snowmobiles, the history of logging and railroads of the past. The very thing we were relishing being away from was, in the end, the thing that made being here possible. Industry. Civilization. Snowmobile packed snow. I wished I could find those dudes that flicked us off in a bar somewhere down the road and share this connection with them. Thank them for their tracks. I’ve come to believe that the future is made of many small steps and to protect places like this, a balance and understanding is going to have to be reached. In loading the bikes back into Levi’s truck bed, I couldn’t help but think, if given the opportunity to share a beer with these guys, talk about the trails, we would quickly recognize the simple fact that no matter what we do for work or who we voted for, we would all much rather be out on the trail than stuck at a job or reading the news.
You can learn more about Ben here -http://salsacycles.com/people/ben_weaver and here -http://www.benweaver.net/