Duluth – Ely - Lake Superior North-Shore



Friday, June 18, 2004


The boundary waters wilderness area has a special draw on me: Its remote country and its hills, forest and lakes are a very rewarding scenery for long-distance bike riding. I had come here last August (2003) and still have great memories from that trip.

So I decided to come out here once again for a long weekend bike ride. I left Fargo on Friday just after 6:15pm due to some work in the office and a brief meeting with a colleague afterwards. The 400km approach drive takes about 4 ½ hour. I stop once to take in the views at Leech Lake near Walker.

It’s a beautiful evening, except it will be quite cool over night and tomorrow morning. The radio weather report said something about it going down to 32 F (0 C) !! This will be a good test environment for the long pants and long-sleeved bike shirt my parents bought for me last Christmas.

The sun sets after 9:00pm and it slowly gets dark. I see 7 deer either on the road or less than 10m away from it. Luckily none of them decides to jump out right in front of my car, so I arrive without incident in Duluth at around 11:00pm. As always, it helps tremendously if you have been at a place before and know your way around. I drive right down to the area next to the tall bridge connecting Duluth with Superior on the Wisconsin side. I park my car and get to a grill bar, where I pull out my PC and write the first lines of this trip report. I also look at the pictures from last year’s trip to get into the mood for the next two days.

As an additional extra, tomorrow morning they have the annual Duluth Marathon run with almost 10.000 runners! So there is a lot happening even at this late hour – as the bar is right smack next to the finish line outside. I end the day by calling my parents in Austria after midnight – I chat with them during their breakfast (7 hrs timezone difference!). After finishing the last cup of coffee I decide to drive out towards Two Harbors about 40km NE of Duluth. My main motivation is that the weather report has a 20-30mph SW wind in store for Sunday afternoon – which means heavy headwind and some very tiring 40 km into the wind after 2 long days of cycling. So I prefer to do those extra 40km in the morning with little or no wind. I roll up in my sleeping bag inside the car and get some shut-eye around 2:30am. Let’s hope tomorrow morning will not be too cold to ride comfortably…


Saturday, June 19, 2004


The day dawns clear and cool, near 40F (4C), but with the intense sun it is rapidely warming up. I drive up to a gas station to wash my face, change into the bike cloth and stock up on Gatorade and an improvised breakfast. I notice several school buses transporting and unloading runners – wait: This must have something to do with the Duluth Marathon! (duh) Ok, I was somewhat slow in making the connection, but now I realize that the marathon starts here in Two Harbors; the race follows the old highway (“scenic route”) along the shores of Lake Superior while the traffic is routed on the parallel 4-lane Expressway. Very smart. So I wallow in the spectacle of thousands of runners preparing for the race, with music, 2 F-16 fighter jets flighing by and lots of logistic announcements. They finally take off at 7:45am; I take some pictures and then ride along side-by-side with the lead group.


The runners are very efficient and fast (~ 20km/h). I hear later that an athlete from Kenya won the race and that some 7000 runners made this the largest Duluth marathon ever (since 20 years).

Finally the organizers pull me aside and make me leave the scenic route – only registered bicycles with VIP passes are allowed to ride side-by-side. (Back in the 80’s in Munich this was much less formal – whoever wanted just came riding along…) I understand, and finally I decide to move on and focus on my original goal, the long-distance bike ride. After all, my overall distance will be almost 10 times the marathon at around 400km.

Negotiating Duluth is a bit easier than last year as I know the directions a little better by now. However some road constructions, detours and lots of steep hills slow me down quite a bit. Eventually I’m at the right turn-off with the “Wild Rice Lake Road” leading straight North towards Aurora and Ely – my final destination for today. My first impression of the road is a double-whammy negative: The wind is NW and thus diagonal headwind rather than the forecast SW (diagonal tailwind) and the road is very bumpy! Every 5m or so there is a fault line in the road which sends a magnified bump through my body due to the 100 psi (10 bar) high pressure in my thin tires. Boy – I sure didn’t remember this being so bad! So I’m trying to find a rhythm, but after 3 hrs in the saddle, with lots of hills and wind, but barely 50km, I am just at the start of the ~200km compared to last years trip and already hurting… One of the moments were patience and endurance are supremely important!

Relief comes in the form of reaching Wild Rice Lake and resting along its shores – just like a short stop last year. This time I’m taking a ½ hr break and also try to get some nap time – I guess going to sleep at 2:30am with <5 hrs sleep is not exactly the best preparation either! At least the weather is fully cooperating now (except for the wind) and so I revel in sunshine up here “in God’s country” and dry out my bike jersey.

This break refreshes me quite a bit. The road has also improved and so it is a lot easier to find a rhythm. Speaking of rhythm: I also use my iPod to get into the groove – something which has worked very well for me 2 weeks ago on the looong day ride down to Alexandria.

I come to the point where the road was under construction last year; thankfully this year they are largely finished and so I get to enjoy a smooth surface for a little while. I stop at the “JT” store where I got picked up last year by my cousin’s wife’s mother’s cousin’s son. (No kidding!) I had again called my distant relatives who live up here yesterday evening and informed them of my passing through the area. Brad unfortunately was doing shift work and would not be at home. But Ruth would be there and as always happy to have me stop by for a chat. So much like last year I stopped in to say Hello and chat about family and the life up here in the North.

It is always nice to know some people along the way – this adds even more color to an already nice trip and creates long-lasting memories. I sure hope Brad will read this trip report and lock forward to more of his entires in my guest-book ;-)

Well, this was refreshing. I continue on North. This time it is much cooler than last August when the 90+F heat was almost unbearable. It is around 70F and almost a bit chilly when you start riding after a break. But soon you warm up and it gets very comfortable, at least temperature-wise.

Due to the lack of sleep, the added “marathon” distance, the bumpy road and the head-wind I am now considerably more tired than last year. I realize that 200km can be pretty hard, always depending on external conditions. When I blew through the 200km mark at 10:30am on my Fargo-Winnipeg down-wind hammer-fest I wasn’t tired at all. Now I am struggling at the 150km mark and need to rest a lot more often. But then again, it is the weekend with the most daylight of the year and I can take plenty of time to relax. So relax is what I do at the Four-Corner Café near the turnoff to Embarrass.

A couple of cups of coffee and a large warm apple pie with two bowls of vanilla icecream give me the much needed energy boost for the last leg of the trip. And oh what a joy: After getting back on the saddle I turn on the road straight East towards Embarrass and later NE to Ely. With the 10-20 mph NW wind this means good tailwind for the first time today! What a difference: Without much effort I can coast along at 35km/h. This boosts my morale significantly. As always on long trips you have these intense ups & downs; usually none of them lasts too long so you always have some change to look forward to.

The obligatory stop at the Superior National Forest sign comes up now. My location based memory is fairly good and so I recall many features of the geography like the watershed divide separating the drainage basin of the Hudson Bay (and Arctic Ocean) to the North from the Lake Superior (and Atlantic Ocean) to the South-East from the Mississippi (and Gulf of Mexico) to the South-West.

As I’m counting down the last km and approaching Ely I also remember some turns in the road as well as the place where I took a self-timed picture last year! This year it is earlier in the day when I pass the same mailboxes, but the same brilliant evening light, so I need to take the same picture again:

Shortly after taking this picture I roll into town at 7:00pm. I am happy to get off the bike after 205km and slighlty over 8hrs in the saddle. The second motel has vacancy and after the receptionist gives me a slight rebate I waste no time looking for a cheaper place. I need a shower and hunger for dinner. In classical bike-trip fashion, I exchange my bike jersey for fresh shorts and T-Shirt after the shower. With some slippers I make for a half-way decent tourist and can get admitted to restaurants who might balk at my outfit or otherwise take offense with sweating bike riders…

Note the warm evening light. I am walking through the streets in Ely until after 9:00pm just enjoying the last rays of sunshine for the day. I stock up on some groceries for tomorrow morning’s breakfast – how convenient to be able to shop until 9:00pm on a Saturday! Then I stop by in the same Italian place called “Sir G’s” where I also ate last year. I end up in the exact same booth, and naturally, I take the same self-timer picture with nearly the same pasta dish for dinner J

You might say, what a boring routine! But trust me: It would take many, many rides up here to make a long day like this boring. Sometimes those weekends feel to me like a 16 hr movie where you don’t get to leave the theater until the entire weekend is over! I get back to the hotel and sleep soundly within minutes of laying down.


Sunday, June 20, 2004

Today is Father’s Day. And it is as sunny and crips outside as ever. My back and leg muscles are aching a bit, but then I have less distance today due to the Tow Harbors – Duluth leg which I did yesterday already. I start out with an extra long-sleeved bike jacket due to the temperature in the mid 40’s F (5-10C).

Soon the muscles warm up and I can shed the extra jacket. The first 50km or so to the SE of Ely are among the finest roads I know for bike riding. Lots of windy road and hills through a dense forest , occasionally opening up for a little stream or lake. Throw in lots of wild life, deer, even wolf and moose, lots of birds and hardly any traffic. And a nice smooth road on top of that. Going E to N on a map this is the only road for a long while, it is fairly remote up here. At one point I actually get to see a moose maybe 5m to the side of the road. When the animal notices me it bolts away into the underbrush. Too fast to get a picture – just a passing glance. Later I get to see a deer right on the road as well as another to the side. No wonder there is occasional road-kill with either deer or some smaller animal up here in this area.

Back to the fairytale forest road: I really enjoy this scenery just like I did last year. This is the reason I came all the way driving across Minnesota to get to a place so wonderfully different from the flat and tree-less former Agassiz lakebed of Fargo. Look at the forest and rocks in this picture!

You won’t find that anywhere near Fargo! This is also at an elevation of almost 2000ft (600m), about 1300ft (400m) higher than Lake Superior. This also contributes to the cold in the winter and to the general delay in vegetation during the season. The water in the lakes is still blue and the trees are still green up here, as the pictures clearly demonstrate:

I stop in a little coffee house in Isabella to get a second breakfast. The folks there remember me from last August, in part because there are very few long-distance bike riders up here, in part because I had that defect last year with the lose bottom bracket which they helped me to fix. (Few riders, even fewer with their screws lose…) The trip goes on and I need to apply sunscreen for the umpteenth time to avoid sunscreen.

In total I will log almost 15 hrs in the saddle, and a few more out in the sun. Enough fresh air and UV light for a while, that helps me sit back in the office during the week. I stop at the Lake Lax in a little detour around Silver Bay which was recommended to me last year. Everything feels oddly familiar and I remember every rest-stop from last year. This also helps me break the long distance into smaller segments which are easier to manage mentally. Only ½ hr to the next stop. Only so many km to the next significant point along the route. All these things and number games are on your mind during a long physically tiring exercise like an all-day bike ride. I finally get down to the Lake North Shore. Instantly the air is about 10F cooler and the strong SW wind sends a bit of a chill down my spine. As expected, this is now full blast into the 20+ mph cold head wind! Expectation management is everything. I braced for the worst and thus find it bearable. But it is definitely hard work and no fun. Frustrating long straight-aways with plenty of traffic on this main MinneapolisCanada through-way make this the worst part of the entire loop. Even 15km to the next stop seem endless! But then the views at Split Rock Light-house make me soon forget the hard labor.

And then of course the trade-mark photo shoot with the Split Rock Light House and my Colnago Bike:

Today the air is extremely clear. Upon descending from the hills down to the Lake I already noticed that the opposite shores of Wisconsin were clearly visible some 50km away! Later in Duluth the same brilliant views would fascinate me and make it hard to leave for the long drive back home.

Another stop at the Gooseberry Falls State Park helps me to break the monotony of fighting the headwind.

I try to follow the bike path next to the road. At times this is a great path, w/o traffic, somewhat separated from the main road and often winding picturesque through the forest and offering nice views of Lake Superior. Other times the path turns into gravel or at one point you have to climb high over the cut-out road among the rocks, only to find that the bike lane ends in a foot path! After a few of those “dead-ends” I decide to stay on the road. I don’t feel in the mood for additional energy-consuming experiments with this wind and all the miles in my legs from the last two days.

It is a great relief when I finally get back to Two Harbors and reach my car there. I switch back out of my sweaty bike cloth and re-fuel at the local gas-station with Gatorade, coffee and some sweets and cereal bars as well as fruit for the drive. I stop in Duluth at the lookout point where I parked last August to take in the exceptionally clear view of today.

The drive back is done mostly in daylight and evening sun. I stop in Walker at Leech Lake near the half-way mark. Some last sunshine before clouds come in around 8:30pm to end what has been a very long and sunny weekend for me. When it’s over, it always seems like  a short time looking back. But it has been quite intense and deeply satisfying seeing all this forest, the lakes, the little turns in the road, the same stores and places, and even some familiar faces along the road. Definitely, I don’t see this getting boring anytime soon…