In the summer of 2016, Jason Lowetz and Jon Throop made an attempt to ride their road bicycles around Lake Superior in 5 days, unsupported. Two and a half days and 500 miles later they stopped for a swim in Lake Superior then hopped on a bus home to Traverse City, MI. Lake Superior and the surrounding lands are quite lovely, but the trans Canadian Highway was not designed with bicycles in mind. Jason and Jon will tell you that no one should ever ride a bicycle on this road unless they are ok with becoming crow food.
February 26th, 2017
7 months later...
Alright, what's the next trip going to be? It's the inevitable question after completing any kind of bike packing tour, and our unanimous decision was, "something off road". We weren't sure what it was but we were going to avoid pavement, traffic and stress. What's the opposite of 200+ miles per day on the highway via lightly packed (think Trans Am) road bikes? How about fat bikes on snowmobile trails stuffed to the gills, and hauling a burley trailer on skis for however long we damn well please? Yeah, sweet... let's do it! That was my response when Jason mentioned he and fellow ERSB rider and awesome guy and photographer, Brian Beckwith were going to venture such a journey.
After (very) minor planning, we essentially one-upped each other from packing sustainably, into taking an 8 man tent and a propane heater with us on the trip. We met up at Breakaway Cafe & Coffee Bar before the journey, enjoying the cheesiest, most delicious breakfast burritos on the planet that would sustain us for the 5 hour trip to Marquette. Everybody showed up ready to ROCK, so as soon as Jason arrived from his 4 hour cat-nap after working on the new Bearclaw Bicycle Co. HQ and music studio, we quickly shoved off to the Great White North.
The trip North was as pleasant as any drive on the freeway in a Michigan winter can be. A school bus even paid our way across the Mackinac bridge!
Once we arrived in Marquette, it was all business. We had to:
Hit downwind sports before they closed
Grab a super quick "lunch" (it was about 2)
Check in to the hotel
Change into our spandex battle-garb to go SHRED the Noquemanon trails and show Marquette exactly what Traverse City is made of!
It was probably the most disciplined we were on the entire trip as we checked off the activities on our "to do" list. WE CAME, WE SAW, WE SHRED...ED? After a few brief verbal warnings that the Snow Bike Route (SBR) was in rough shape because of recent weather, we hit the trails on our Bearclaw Bicycle Co. Balthazars with an open mind. We decided Marquette must have a different standard for their winter trails, because the SBR was in great shape and a joy to ride! Honestly, our boys and girls in Traverse City do an absolutely incredible job keeping our trails as good as they can possibly be, they simply have more snow, and more elevation change to play with in Marquette. If you get the chance, GO RIDE THEM. Anyway, we hit a quick two laps and I took a 10th place on an aptly named Strava segment, "Brakes are for... meow". Sporting 8 pound pedals off a 50 year old fuji, half my camping gear, and some 10 pound (yet extraordinarily comfortable) woolrich boots, 266 other Marquettians were left looking like a... meow.
But none of that is important. All of that has led up to this moment. We finally settled on the idea that we were going to attempt the snowmobile trails (we weren't sure where exactly the hell we were going until now), and maybe we'd get to Lake Superior. The forecast was dangerously warm, but the morning was cool - so anything could happen. After pulling into a bustling Gordon's Food Service (Great work, Gordie) we parked the trusty Silverado and assembled our gear. The Burley trailer was the biggest enigma - would it float on the snow? How terrible is it going to be to pull? Is the bike going to handle it? Remember, we had this thing LOADED with probably 120 pounds of gear. I just about rattled my brains loose by chuckling and shaking my head at that trailer... After a promising stroll through the parking lot we hit the snowmobile trails and an ear to ear grin instantly appeared on all three of our faces - this was going to work! The trails were groomed immaculately, the trailer floated like a dream and the sun was out - it was on!
Within 5 minutes the industrial bustle was left behind us, giving way to dramatic river valleys, wide open skies, and picturesque winter scenery. All of us were clearly in shock at the magnificence of it all - stopping about 10 times within the first 2 miles for photo opportunities. Life was good, instantly. Job - gone. Significant others - gone. Those mortgages, bills, car payments and what ever other rigmarole we had on our minds, melted away, unlike the snow trails we were riding on. The scenery would continue this way for the rest of the journey. Viewsheds with a distance we simply aren't used to in NW lower Michigan gave way to deep hemlock forests, interspersed with open floodplain valleys and very, very rarely a home that the three of us would drool over the prospect of living in. If you lived in one of these places, not only did you get to see the incredible scenery we were seeing every day, you would have to ride your snowmobile (or fat bike) into town!
We could've continued like this for days - strolling up and down these hills on our bikes, drinking it all in. Places like this make me question what the definition of "rolling hills" really is. The frequency of the Marquette topography changes might typify rolling hills, but their length or grade were drastically different than what I'm used to. I've also heard northern lower Michigan has much more topography than southern Michigan. So, are "rolling hills" subjective based on where you live, or does Marquette, or southern Michigan simply not have as many "rolling hills" as I'm used to? I really wanna know. Anyhow - any grade above, say, 5% we had to push that burley trailer up. We quickly fell into a routine where we'd hop off the bike and push the trailer along shallow grades while the rider would keep pedaling, whereas we'd quickly jump off and do a 2 man push up the steeper grades. Other than that, the trailer pulled amazingly on the downhills and the flats, allowing for our blistering pace of 5.7 MPH AMERICAN on the trails. Every so often we'd pass, or get passed by a snowmobile'r on the trails and they'd slow down, wave, and continue on their journey - I can only imagine what they thought of our 'operation' under those heavy duty helmets.
Time wore on, and the heat of the day accumulated on the snow creating a slippery surface which was downright dangerous on the downhills for the burley trailer, so we began to look for a camp site. Less than 20 minutes from when we began looking, a perfectly picturesque site appeared with a flat, open space, side saddling a micro-oxbow in some unnamed creek invited us to stay. As Brian mentioned, "It's nice camping with other people who know what to do", referring to his kids not exactly being the most productive camp-mates, the 3 of us quickly broke out into setting ourselves up for a comfortable night. While we all did a little everything, Jason dove into shoveling out our corner of the world, Brian assembled the camping accouterments, and I began sawing wood. With the assistance of a couple beers and some whiskey in an abnormally large flask (thanks again, Brian) we were all set and comfortable within minutes. Incredibly, we enjoyed the best snow-riding weather imaginable (just below freezing) and then we had the best winter camping weather possible (just above). I must've let out 20 satisfactory sighs throughout that evening. For me, that's what it's all about - you can stretch your arms and your legs, and let out a big sigh of relief knowing that nothing you can do will make this moment any better than it already is.
As the sun set, we learned about different photography terms and techniques including the "magic hour", "prolonged exposure" "aperture settings" etc. as we fully documented the incredible job we, and mother nature had done with our site. After the photos had been taken, whiskey imbibed, the carrot cake demolished, and our eyelids felt as heavy as the burley trailer, we retired to our luxurious 8 man tent equipped with the propane heater we painstakingly pedaled in with us. The.Heat.Was.Incredible. That was as comfortable as I've ever been on a camping trip, and we were in the dead of winter in Marquette in the middle of nowhere - awesome. As they say, all good things must come to an end, and so did our heat. We promptly burned through our two propane tanks before 2AM, spending the rest of the night huddled and shivering in our tightly enclosed mummy bags - those 4 hours of comfortable sleep were totally worth it though.
We knew the forecast was for warm temperatures and rain mid-morning, so the heater failing actually helped us get up earlier than we would have otherwise, which would theoretically give us the best riding conditions possible (you always gotta look at the positive side when touring)! We awoke to what looked like a chicken massacre in our tent, which ended up being from a hole melted in my sleeping bag from the heater - again, totally worth it - the zipper was broken anyway. The hot embers and stacked wood prepared from the night before provided a quick fire for early morning warmth while we had breakfast and broke camp. Our dually camp cooker stoves churned out camp coffee, and biscuits and gravy like you wouldn't believe (I actually highly recommend both - the french press accessory for the jetboil and the Mountain House biscuits and gravy are both incredible). As we were enjoying our coffee, and biscuits and gravy we debated the plan for the day. Would we come back from whence we came, or would we head forward until we hit county road 510 which would quickly take us back to town. The trails had been groomed TWICE since we had set up camp, so the trails were in immaculate condition making the more adventurous trip via snowmobile trail more accessible... but the forecast was really bad. It was 8 AM and already above freezing, with a downpour of rain in the forecast within an hour. We decided to not push our luck more than we already had, and take the safe route via 510.
That was probably one of the best decisions of the trip. You know how when you're on a bike ride, you want to ride your bike? That decision enabled us to do so - the rain hit quickly after we hit the county road, but the light snow covering the sometimes dirt, sometimes pavement road made for perfect riding, especially for the burley trailer. The road itself was quite beautiful, if not quite as much as the snowmobile trail, and some time spent riding during the "magic hour" allowed for some nice photos of our return trip to Marquette. We still found our way onto some snowmobile trails, and on some less often traveled routes, so it felt adventurous nonetheless.
The trip was exactly what a bike-packing trip should be - one or more cyclists setting out to have an adventure. Maybe there's a goal, maybe not; maybe the goal is to find yourself while seemingly lost in the wilderness - either way you learn to roll with the punches, keep a positive attitude, and find a way to move forward.
Words: Jon Throop
Photos: Beckwith and Lowetz