Thursday, February 14, 2013

Riding the Gauntlet Thrown: The Northwest Trail Route 2013

Planning the tour

To go, or not to go?

That was the question four days out before our tour.  For two years I had been planning and looking for a  window to ride my bicycle across the infamous Northwest Trail.  Now, one week out, after nearly a month of totally perfect snow biking conditions, we were getting snow and a LOT of it.  As a skier I should have been stoked.  My friends were, they were dancing around gushing about how sweet the new snow was.  The skiing they said, was PERFECT.  Damn. Perfect skiing is awesome, but not when your about to ride your bike 110 miles off trail!

The idea to ride the Northwest Trail stemmed from my geeky fascination with learning and experiencing history.  Its hard not to be inspired by history when you live in a place like Thomson, Minnesota.  The ghosts of the past, trip by your door on a daily basis, you almost have to kick them out of the way to get to your beer cooler.  Who knows, maybe it was one of those Banshees that whispered this trip in my ear?

Sieur Du Lut at the start of the Portage (Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society)

The Northwest Trail is one thread of a colorful local tapestry.  The trail was the main path of commerce both for the Ojibway and the Fur Trade between Lake Superior and the Mississippi River until the last recorded expedition in 1878.

Since man has had the need to trade and to travel in this region, they have toiled over this path.  Then later, the French came stumbling across it starting with Sieur Du Lut in 1679.  I have traveled on a few historical Fur Trade routes and I have always been in awe of the Voyageur.  But the Northwest Trail has been even more interesting to me because it has such a reputation for being an ass kicker.  In doing the research for the trip I read a lot of historical accounts and in every one of them there was reference to the cruelty this route exuded. There is and was, no hiding from suffering on the Northwest Trail.  Who knew a route with such a storied reputation existed just across the street from me and behind my neighbors house, where they parked the trusty Oldsmobile for the last time...

I have always been and always will be a passionate skier.  However the past two ski seasons have been challenging to say the least.  Challenging enough for me to huck the skis aside and throw a leg over a Fat Bike.  You see at some point as you stare out the window at a dirty, icy and windswept nordic trail, you start to ask yourself some questions about your motivations. I decided to be the jack of all trades, a fun hog, and because of that the past two years I have rocked the Fat Bike as it has been the best tool for our anemic winters.

Testing a theory
Snowmobile trails are fun to ride on the Fat Bike, groomed trails can be a gas as well, but fat ice with a skim of cold smoke and your talking total freedom. That is quintessential backcountry travel and that to me is where the imagination starts to wander and eventually mine wandered to the Northwest Trail.

You see the majority of the "Trail" is actually water.  Coming from the east, you cross Big Sandy Lake, hit the Prairie River, take it up to the West Savanna River, then up to the Savanna Portage.  Cross that on land, actually the Continental Divide,  then hit the East Savanna River and take that to Floodwood, MN which runs you into the St. Louis River and on south, 70 river miles, to Lake Superior.  Lots of ice, lots of snow and lots of awesome, fairly remote, backcountry miles on a Fat Bike.

Consider that.  Rivers as ice roads, now look at a map of where you live. Wow....

Loaded for Bear
This trip ticked off a lot of boxes for me.  It has a great historical and environmental story (Timber industry, growth of Duluth as a city etc).  It has physical adventure and even some risk and it is literally out my door.

A "StayVenture".  I wish I had the money and time to do similar trips in exotic locations, but I don't, so I am forced to look at what an exotic location I actually live in and truthfully it has been inspiring.

As person steeped in the Outdoor Industry, I have watched from afar as expedition after expedition has gone to the arctic or to the glacier to expose global warming.  However a trip like this, in my back yard, has perhaps illustrated this change in climate for me more than any adventurer in a far off place could.  I  mean lets face it, 10 years ago, there is no way I would be talking about riding a bicycle on this route, the snowpack would not have allowed it.

Just right for Fat Tires on Big Sandy Lake, Minnesota

The key however for a tour like this, is in the conditions. There is a fairly narrow window of opportunity that you need to hit to optimize this ride.  The components of that window being safe ice and low snow conditions and the colder the temps the better (dry snow rides better than wet snow).

Once I picked the Northwest Trail as a winter bike tour,  the planning of the trip became almost obsessive for me.  I did a lot of great rides on all the different sections of the route.  I kept running track of the weather and  snow conditions and finally plotted the time I could make the trip happen.

Of course as soon as I did that, the conditions flipped me the bird and spit in my face.

We went from being locked well below zero (-20F at night) and lacking snow to a warm-up and frequent Alberta Clippers.  One inch of snow here, two inches there, four inches......then unlimited Lake Effect.  Every inch meant that much more work on the bike and I started to fret about wether or not it was worth it.

Eric Peterson, fresh off the Arrowhead 135

Finally, after discussing the trip with my buddy and trip mate, Eric Peterson, I realized that F*ck it, we were going to have to give it a go regardless of conditions.

We had planned too much, talked too much and borrowed too much gear to turn back now.  Instead of worrying I started planning alternative routes in case we were not able to run the route "clean" meaning riding as much on the portage proper and not using roads.

Our original posse started out with 8 people on board.  One by one however they begged off as the weather changed.  Eventually it was down to me, Eric Peterson and Rudy (Shawn) O'Brien.

However the night before D-day, Rudy was gunned down by the flu and finally he had to bail as well.

That left a two piece chicken dinner..........


samh said...

"However a trip like this, in my back yard, has perhaps illustrated this change in climate for me more than any adventurer in a far off place could."

Well put, Hansi. Stoked to continue reading about this backyard adventure.

Ken said...

More, please.