Adventures North of Lake Superior’s North-Shore drive


A bike weekend in Minnesota’s Boundary Waters Wilderness


I’m sitting in my Fargo apartment Sunday night typing these notes - it’s been 16 hours ago that I started bike-riding from Ely, the old mining town in the far North of Minnesota. It is a wilderness described to be among the top 15 vacation destinations in the United States. The boundary waters wilderness is canoe heaven. Lakes, hills and forest! It offers only a few paved roads,which I had set my eyes on. Heading South from Ely, Highway 1 leads the first 50km through a fairy-tale forest so thick you can only see more than a few hundred feet when you get to one of the many lakes along side the road. One moment I was pedaling along peacefully, enjoying the scenery, the next moment something went wrong and I realized I was in for more adventure than I had planned for! How did I get there?


Friday, August 15, 2003


I tried to get out of the office earlier, but it took me until 6:00pm to finish all my work for this week. Finally at 6:00pm I take off heading East towards the land of 10,000 lakes. Following the highways like 1 year or 3 months ago, I know my way heading towards Duluth on the shores of Lake Superior. About halfway I stop at Walker near Leech Lake, the “fishing capital of the United States”. It’s slowly getting dark. So I decide to have dinner – pasta to load up on carbs for the next two days of long distance bike riding.


I continue driving after dinner into the darkness. The roads are good, no traffic, my only worry driving through the forest raods is wild life jumping out in front of the car. Eventually I get to the Duluth area and see a camp ground next to the road. I pitch my tent close to midnight and fall asleep.


Saturday, August 16, 2003


I get up at 7:00am, roll up the tent and take off. I continue another 15 minutes or so until I get to Duluth looking for the turn-off of Highway 4, which will lead me North towards Ely. I buy some drinks and cereal bars, the usual bike riding energy food. I park the car on a large parking spot overlooking Duluth and the shores of Lake Superior. I pull out my traveling chair and have some breakfast with a magnificent view, while the sun dries up the moisture off the unpacked tent. I study a new map I bought just minutes ago and put the bare minimum in my backpack for the next two days.


I start pedaling around 8:30am. Note exactly an early start, but then I have all day for the distance of about 200km. The beginning is uphill, and I start rather slow to warm up gently. After 1 hour or so, I leave the town and suburbs of Duluth behind and below.


It brings back memories of the trip 3 months ago from Two Harbours just 30km East of here. Every now an then there is a nice lake which offers sweeping views of the land. I take a short rest on a bridge over Island Lake, getting in the mood of the land of lakes, hills and forest.



The road has some long straight-aways with rolling hills, and the tall trees still offer comforting shade despite the approaching noon-hour.



Suddenly I get to a sign marking road construction work ahead. Well, there is only one road, so not much you can do about it. The pavement is being renewed, everything torn open for now. The heat and dry weather of the last weeks causes this to be extremely dusty when cars pass by. After initial gravel there is deep sand which makes it impossible to ride on my small tires. For a moment, I am reminded of the desert tracks in Morocco 2 years ago!



A little bit later I reach a store which serves as a meeting point for a distant relative of mine from Finland. This family lives up here and I recently learned about them. So I thought I give them a call ahead of time and stop by since my path virtually passes right next to their home. They pick me up at the store and we drive the next 10km or so to avoid walking and pushing the bike in the heat and dust.


The gentleman in the picture below is my cousin’s wife’s mother’s cousin’s son! My cousin (Rudolf), his wife (Leena, from Finland), her mother (Lisa), her cousin (Ruth), her son (Brad, in the picture). Sounds a lot like 6 degrees, everybody connected to everybody else through no more than 6 connections…



After 1 hour of talking and finnish bread and soda I need to move on. Brad comes along for some 10km or so. He is a big fan of the recumbent bike. Having had knee surgery and hip problems, he is not comfortable on the regular road-bike anymore. He marvels at the comfort and ease of riding with the recumbents! The mesh seat and integrated camel back look like the right outfit for this hot day. I stop periodically, eat a cereal bar and take a few pictures marveling at how much nicer the weather conditions are right now as compared to 4 months later in December!



After another 10km I reach a small lake and decide to go for a nice swim. The water in Twin Lake is so rich in minerals and iron, it looks rusty red! When you look at your own arms under water, they disappear into a dark yellow to brown to black caleidoscope - spooky! But the water is very warm, I  swim for maybe 30 minutes and enjoy the beautiful nature. On the shore my bike is parked next to the attendees of a wedding party, so I feel quite confident nobody is going to go for a spin while I’m swimming…


The first 10km after the swim are great: With water-cooled head the heat isn’t so bad! After ½ hour the heat is getting to me again. Maybe I haven’t been drinking enough? Maybe it’s the slight onset of headwind which makes me work harder. In any event, I am getting tired and exhausted, even though I have barely crossed the 100km mark. Too many stops, too much heat; I don’t find a good rhythm. So I decide to take a break in the next little town called Embarrass (no kidding), which holds the following distinction as per my new map: “Lowest average temperature in the lower 48 states.” Hard to believe: I am in the coldest spot of the continent, and I am dying from this heat! Next to a little weather booth I lay down in its shade and take a nap with the refreshing breeze. The booth features newspaper clips with stories about record cold temperatures. Just a few years ago, a century-old state record was broken: The temperature reached a new record low of 60F below zero (- 51C). It’s close to 90F today, so some 150F (83C) warmer than in that February - quite a big span!


I continue North in search of cooler air and cool drinks. I find a soda machine next to an outfitting store offering canoe tours. I stop for two cans of ice cold lemon drinks and chat with Brent, the owner of the outfitter store. He talks about the tourists he sees up here all summer. He speculates about my chances of finding a motel room in Ely, still quite busy with tourists this time of the year. He even offers a bunk bed and shower in his store, but I thankfully decline, as I still have another 40km or so to Ely.


After the nap and long chat the sun has come down and creates soft evening light. After the cold drinks and with the longer shadows across the road it doesn’t feel so hot anymore. The last 2 hours of the day often offer the best light. I find a good rhythm and feel much better than before. The km are rolling by, and before I know it, Ely is just a few km down the road. The sun is very low and I see a mailbox which creates the perfect position for a self-timed evening picture.



Good timing, perfect light; you can even see the shadow of the camera halfway across the road.


In Ely there are several motels, but all of them are full! I check at least five motels from a local tourist guide brochure. No luck! One resort is a bit out of town along a gravel road to the tip of a peninsula with little cabins right along the lake shore. Again, all booked solid for tonight! Some kind of fishing contest plus the nice weather has filled up all motels in this tourist spot. I chat with some guest at a boat deck who takes this picture at dusk.



So where am I staying tonight? Since I have to carry everything in my little back pack, I travel light and didn’t bring sleeping bag, not to mention a tent. The whole situation reminds me a bit of the motor-cycle trip to and from Morocco. Often we went for dinner and didn’t know where to sleep, but also didn’t worry too much. It seemed the less you care, the easier it is to find something. So for some reason I don’t worry much. I actually decline one offer for a small wooden cabin, because it is quite expensive, has no shower and smells bad!


After riding around for 45 minutes I still haven’t found anything. I stop at another motel, which has its “no vacancy” sign illuminated outside. I figure I ask in the office nevertheless. They don’t have a room, but they do know of a lady who offers private bed & breakfast! 10 minutes later I am at that ladies doorstep – so it did work out after all. I take a shower and hurry on over to the Italian restaurant for dinner. I am the last guest. More pasta for tomorrow…




Sunday, August 17, 2003


After a solid 8 hours of sleep I wake up at 6:30am. The elderly land has made breakfast already, so I start the day with orange juice, toast and some delicious homemade rhubarb marmelade. At 7:00am I am on the road. It’s a refreshing 60F, cool enough to start out with an additional sweater over the bike dress. I should have brought more water and maybe had more breakfast, as I would find out 2 hours later…


I leave town passing the International Wolf Center. I would have liked to stop and see the wolves in there, but I have a long ways to go today and need to leave early. So here I am in the fairy-tale forest watching the sun come up and slowly warming the fresh morning. The road winds up and down, left and right. I’m thinking this is an ideal stretch for motor-cycles, plenty of turns, rolling hills, and thick forest on both sides. This is what I came for all the way from the almost tree-less plains of North Dakota. A 65 year old somewhat rusty steel bridge tells a story of past heydays of Ely, the mining town of the Iron Range in the North.



I start to get tired and hungry again, even though I have ridden only about 50 km. I check on the map and look for Isabella, a small village with a café which I still remember from 3 months ago this May. I start counting down the km. To keep my mind of the hunger and discomfort, I am trying to think of the many good things, the quiet, peaceful ride, the splendor of the early morning and the glorious day our here in the wilderness. Strangely, I also think about what would happen if I had a defect which I couldn’t fix out here! But my bike has not given me any trouble other than one flat tire all summer.


All of a sudden, I feel a grinding resistance to turning the pedal which signals my brain in a split second that something major is amiss: The bottom bracket on my bike has come loose and is about to fall out! I can move the pedals with the axle about ¼ inch sideways left and right. The outer ring of the bottom bracket had come loose and everything else with it. I need to stop and think! I don’t have the tools to fix this, and what’s worse, there is probably no bike shop or similar within 100km from here! How could this be? Well, I had the bike in the shop a few days prior to check on a small play I had noticed in my bottom bracket. They opened it and put it back together; the play was still there, nothing they could do; I basically will have to buy a new replacement unit. They put it back together, but didn’t tie it down strong enough. The frequent bumps along these roads apparently were sufficient to rattle the outer ring loose. Unbelievable!


I barely stop and move to the side of the road when a vehicle is approaching. Still puzzled with what happened and not sure what to do, I signal the car to stop. I ask them whether they can give me a ride to Isabella, now maybe 5-8km down the road. I put the bike in their SUV and they give me a quick lift. 10 minutes later I get out at the café in Isabella. Even though they offer me a car ride all the way back to Duluth (150km) I decide to take my chances and try to somehow fix the bike up. I thank them and walk towards the café with a dysfunctional bike.


But first things first. I am HUNGRY. So I decide to ignore the bike situation for a moment, and order homemade blueberry pancakes with coffee. How many pancakes, the chef asks. I suggest to start with two. They taste delicious, absolutely perfect. So I immediately order another two, which makes the chef all smiles. When he presents the check sometime later, he quips: “Want another two?” I respond in best Fargo dialect: “Yeah, you betcha!” So he takes the check away and heads for the kitchen again. This time I get even bigger pancakes, still as good as the first four. After six pancakes it dawns on me that I had experienced the dreaded “Hunger-ast” – when you literally run out of fuel and start hitting the wall.


While eating there is a conversation about how we can possibly fix the bike. Various people and friends venture out scouring for tools. The bracket came loose on the drive side, which makes it hard to get to the ring without taking the pedal off. But that can definitely not be achieved without the proper tools. What to do?


It turns out I can screw in the ring holding the ball bearings with my fingers since everything is so loose. At the end we use a small pointy screwdriver to tighten the inner ring a bit more. The question now is how to tighten the outer ring securing the bracket to the bike frame. The only chance is to use a hammer and the screwdriver and carefully tap on the outer ring to “screw” it on tight. It hurts me inside to hammer away at my Titanium bike, but I don’t have much choice.


I leave the cozy athmosphere of the café. I hope the ring will hold locked and start pedaling again. I watch the ring while riding the first km and hope for the best. After about 4 km the ring comes loose again. Should I return to the café? Stop another vehile? What to do? I continue up a hill to get a better position to maybe stop oncoming vehicles. Luckily, on top of the hill I notice a farm house with a rather large garage next to it. I knock on the door and ask the people for help.


The old farmer walks me over to his garage and starts searching his toolboxes. I feel oddly out of place with my high-tech bike in the old barn with lots of old rusty machines and tools. But when you have nothing else and all day to figure out a way to get back you just have to get creative with whatever’s there. So I find a bigger screwdriver and bigger hammer. I realize that I need to give the outer ring a hard whack with the hammer, so it doesn’t come loose again. It hurts even more hammering harder than before, but if I want to ride back to Duluth this better gets tightened up good.


Again I start riding looking anxiously down while pedaling and hoping for the best. I didn’t know it then, but this fix held up all the way back to my car for the next 140km or so! The wind has picked up and blows in my face! But I am close to the edge of the plateau I have climbed yesterday, followed by a long drop down to the North Shore of Lake Superior.



Going down the slope is not quite as much of a rush as I remember from May, probably due to the headwind I am riding into, which slows me down considerably. Anyway, after passing the little town of Finland – aptly named after the many Finnish settles in this area – I turn right and head West. Now the wind is pushing me and I start accelerating down some long slopes towards Lax Lake, my next stop.



The next 15 minutes I dangle my bare feet in the warm lake water. At those rest stops its always tought to move on – how tempting it would be just to relax for another hour!


Back on the bike I continue downhill towards Lake Superior. I have gone past the halfway point and now the Easterly wind is pushing me from behind. Just like 3 months ago, the ride along the busy main road is a fast one. The wind and some long slopes allow for high speeds – and with it the first endorphine high of this weekend!


I pass the famous Split Rock Lighthouse but keep moving. I do stop at the bridge atop Gooseberry Falls Park. I eat another cereal bar, drink more Gatorade and take the same picture like 3 months ago of bike leaning on the bridge and the park below with the Lake Superior in the background.


Continuing the ride I notice there is a lot of traffic, a striking contrast to the first 1 ½ days of this loop. The scenery is great, and the wide shoulder makes the traffic somewhat bearable. Plus it’s a smooth surface and with the tailwind I am blazing down the North Shore, heading back to Duluth. I pass the Grand Superior Lodge, where I had coffee with a nice view in May. Another 20 minutes later I am almost in Two Harbours. I notice another large Resort, the Superior Shores Resort. A street sign promises spectacular dining! So I decide to check ot out. I order coffee and pecan pie with icecream. Take a look at the view for yourself:



There is a good breeze, the water stretches to the horizon just like the ocean, and I’m thinking to myself: Life is good! Another wedding is in progress along the park and beach of this resort. T’is the season for celebrating weddings, I guess.


Once I’m back on the bike I have to negotiate the crowded streets of Two Harbours. The heavy traffic backs up and I carefully scoot by the long backed up lanes of cars. On the other side of town most of the traffic takes the 4-lane Expressway, which means hardly any traffic on the old shore drive, now simply called the scenic drive.


With the tailwind it is a lot of fun, but still quite hot. I notice another bike rider far up front, maybe 1km ahead or so. For some reason I switch into comp mode and pound hard to close the gap. But it takes a while. Quite a qhile actually! Amidst the action I sweat like crazy and lose track of the many km flying by. Eventually I catch the rider up front and we start chatting. His name is Ryan, and he lives up near Isabella and heads for some family get together in Duluth. So he took advantage of the tailwind opportunity and decided to ride one way with the bike and then back with the car. He is trying out a new Specialized aluminium bike, his first ride on the shiny bike. The views are great, somehow reminding me of the shore road at Lago di Garda in Italy. Duluth harbour is getting in sight some 10-15 km ahead.


I explain to Ryan where my car is parked and he offers to show me the back roads via the Skyline Parkway. Less traffic, better views, who could resist that offer? We race each other up the hill climbing maybe 100m above the lake level. It’s 4:00pm and we are sweating like crazy. The route passes by the UMD - University of Minnesota Duluth – however I am hardly able to focus on the sight-seeing, too many turns and potholes to navigate.


Finally we get within 1km of where my car is parked and Ryan needs to turn into some side-street and says Goodbye. I continue on slowing down the last mile, taking in the sweeping views. Finally on the parking lot, I am within a few hundred meters of the 200km mark! I roll to the end of the parking spot which offers the best view of the Duluth harbour against a colorful flowerbed.



There is a bit of a Mediterrenean flair in this sunny and hot August afternoon. Looking down to Lake Superior from aloft reminds me of the Cote d’Azur or maybe the Lac Leman (Genfer See) in Lausanne. Who would think that you can take a picture with ocean tankers floating “above” the bike just a few hours from Fargo?



As nice as it is here, I still have 400km to drive back to Fargo! So I don’t waste any time and start driving. I stop halfway in Walker again, walking on the shore of Leech Lake and refueling at the local gasstation. The sun is setting slowly while I’m approaching Detroit Lakes.



I’m back in Fargo at about 9:30pm. I am always amazed how far the bike can carry me on a weekend. In this case, I have seen 400km of Minnesota roads in just 32 hours, mostly in fairly remote wilderness! What a great way to see the outdoors. Just make sure you have no screws loose…