I like doing things that sound utterly crazy at face value. “How about biking to Duluth, in street clothes, on a 3-speed bike with 16” wheels?"
I told this awesome idea to my old friend Mike, and invited him to join me as a way for us to mark (or perhaps, combat) the fact that we were both about to turn 40, he about five weeks before me.
Since both of us take our busyness in bursts that always seem to be out of phase, we booked time on the calendar about five months in advance, for the middle of the week in late May. The idea was that by then we’d surely have some Fine Spring Biking Weather. Surely.
To further add to the craziness, as the date of our departure approached I kept deferring the maintenance I knew my bike needed, and, as it turned out, I started the ride with a threadbare, pockmarked rear tire and a chain that was so stretched out that it seemed like an extra link had been added.
[I won’t remark too much about the need to fish said chain out of the trash due to the bike shop selling me an incorrect chain, or the time spent getting that filthy mess of a chain back into one piece – just know that swears and tools were thrown liberally about.]
For the unaware, “The Skally” is the old nickname for the first railroad to connect the Mississippi River to Lake Superior, unsurprisingly named the Lake Superior and Mississippi Railroad. Apparently, dem Svedes dat built da railvey often made an utterance that sounded like “Skally go hoot!” which roughly translates to “I’m going to Duluth”.
The line, incredibly important when it was built since it was the first connection between the headwaters of two major waterways, opened in 1870 and lasted about 100 years under a few different periods of ownership, the longest of which was by the Northern Pacific, but by the early 1970s, it had become redundant, and the dismantling began. As was typical of the times, the line was first severed, turning a through route into a set of branchlines.
The first segment to be removed was Hinkley-Moose Lake, followed by Moose Lake-Duluth, Hugo-North Branch, and finally, St. Paul to White Bear Lake. Each of those segments are paved bike trails today. The remaining two segments – White Bear Lake to Hugo and North Branch to Hinckley – are operated by a pair of local railroads, and by all accounts are successful, so it will probably be many many years before the whole line becomes a bike trail.
Our route to Duluth, therefore, would be over the three trail segments, interspersed with two segments on the shoulder of old Highway 61, which is more or less continuously adjacent to the Skally. We finally set off from the Black Dog – apropos, since it is housed in a former Northern Pacific warehouse – at 10:30am, May 21.
After some unpleasant riding on city streets, we hit the Vento Trail just before it passes through the Seventh Street Improvement Arches and started uphill out of the Mississippi Valley through the hidden gem that is Swede Hollow.
In spite of the threats of bad weather, at that time, at 56 degrees and a low overcast sky, it seemed like a perfect day for biking. A slight drizzle started, but that didn’t really faze us. We were on our way to Duluth!
Once out of the Hollow, the trail follows along the now-decade-old Phalen Boulevard, which was more or less built on top of the Skally grade east of Payne Avenue. Heading north toward Lake Phalen, the tracks used to swing up onto a substantial earthen berm (originally a trestle) , which was needed to put the railroad through the swamps that drained the lake. Most of the embankment has been removed; only the section that separates the neighborhood north of Maryland Ave. from the lake remains today.
We recounted memories of goofing around on that embankment when we were kids, back before the tracks were removed in the mid 1980s. After abandonment, the old track signals were left behind, so we cannibalized them for the lenses. I wonder whatever became of those?
About a half mile past the lake is the location of the community of Gladstone, which used to be the location of the major shops of the LS&M; today, the site of those shops, in the southeast quadrant of the intersection of Frost St. and English Ave. is a nature preserve. One would never guess the scope of the industry that used to be present there. The Gladstone name virtually disappeared when the town was absorbed by the city of Maplewood in the 1950s.
Cruising north through Maplewood, we made what will likely be my last trip across the bridge over Highway 36; it will be demolished very soon as part of the project to eliminate the stoplight at English Ave. Yet another piece of the Northern Pacific, vanishing into history.
It was an easy, straight shot up to the end of the trail, just north of I-694. After that point, the tracks still exist, and so we shifted over for our first leg of travel on Highway 61. Of course, now we lacked the benefit of tree breaks or light gradients, and the going was tougher out in the wind. We didn’t get to Hugo, which contains the next trailhead – the Hardwood Creek Trail – until noon-thirty.
About 22 miles into the ride, somewhere between Forest Lake and Wyoming, Mike’s saddle post started slipping. On every bump, it would notch down a few millimeters – perhaps one of the must frustrating failures possible on a bike.
After taking the thing apart, the bolt didn’t seem stripped at all – and that’s when it dawned on Mike, to great chagrin, that that post wasn’t the correct post for his frame!
After much harumphing, and an offer to do the whole ride standing, I suggested maybe wrapping some thin packing tape around the post and ramming it in. We tried it, and what do you know? It stayed, and it held.
Unfortunately, the good weather did not hold.
As soon as we got back on the trail, the rain started falling. It started out light, but got heavier. The wind, which had constantly been in our faces all morning, wasn’t dying down either; if anything, the gusts were getting stronger. But we persisted. Fourteen miles later, at the end of the trail at North Branch, we pulled into a pizza joint, and attempted to recover our faculties.
The decision was made, since it was now 4:20 in the afternoon, that it wasn’t realistic to reach Hinckley by nightfall, so we set our sights on Pine City instead, only another 22 miles away. As we ate our food and tried to warm up – difficult, since we had been seated directly under an AC vent! – we became hopeful, over frequent checks of the internet weather radar, that the rain would stop. And it did! We quickly got onto the road – along old Highway 61 once more – and not five minutes after starting out, the rain started again. Bah!
From that point on, we were really only thinking of one thing: how to pull off stringing up our hammocks in the rain without everything getting soaked. This mental drumbeat, useful for masking out perceptions of coldness and wetness, was only interrupted near Rock Creek: At that point, the tracks bridge over the road at a slight angle. As I went under the bridge, rather slowly for a momentary respite from the rain, I noticed, through the rusting, peeling paint on the side of the span just a tiny bit of old lettering for the Northern Pacific!
Our speeds decreasing dramatically, we finally topped the small hill that leads into Pine City, and saw the streetlights of civilization. Standing still for five minutes, though, we realized our situation. We were soaked through, it was now well after dark, and, according to a bank sign just up the road, it was now 44 degrees. Shiver!
Okay, well, camping in these conditions would not have been terribly conducive to sleep – but maybe hypothermia! – and, due to all of the delay, we were still about 90 miles out of Duluth, so, in an exhibit of what can only be described as pure, unadulterated Common Sense, we turned into the driveway of a motel that was about ten feet away. Just our luck, the woman that runs the place was just turning out of the driveway to go home for the night, and she rolled down her window and asked if we needed a room.
That sealed it. We spent the next hour rationalizing our choice, convincing ourselves that we hadn’t wimped out. Part of that rationalization was that we had just biked 63 miles, about 36 of which were in a cold rain. Nothing wimpy about that!
Day Two, out of Pine City, we encountered more headwinds in open country, but at least the rain held off. We were still on the highway, and therefore didn’t have the benefit of the light grade of the still-active piece of the Skally just to the east of us, but, somehow, having the tracks nearby was a motivating factor.
About three miles before Hinckley, my rear tire started feeling a little mushy, so I put some air in, went about 500 yards farther, felt more mushiness, put some more air in, and went about 250 yards farther. I had become the arrow of Zeno’s paradox.
I walked my bike up to the first intersection, and turned and got off the main highway a bit. No point in complaining; I just started tearing the back wheel off and got on with changing the tube out. The coldness made it tough to get the damned bead over the rim of the wheel; the skin was practically torn from my thumbs.
Watching all of this was a chap named Steve who lived in the house nearby. He’d come over and said that he’d seen us down the road when we first stopped, and wanted to know if we needed any help. We didn’t, but, in the 40 minutes that it took to change out the tube, the guy pretty much told us his life story, which at least was a welcome distraction. Of note is that he actually makes some money doing trapping, and he seemed to think he was a rare bird in his age group (late 20s) for doing so. The rest of his peers, he said, just sit around and play video games.
A northbound train came by, a few hundred yards away, and that started him off complaining about all of the increased train traffic due to the new frac sand transloading facility that the railroad built in Rush City. He had a lot to say about the railroad, but very little of it was positive or accurate. Rather than argue with him, I kept at my work.
Just as I got everything back together, the rain started again, and it was coming down quite nicely by the time we pulled into Hinckley. We had only come fourteen miles since breakfast, but the headwind had really sapped us. Thus, we both ate breakfast number two, at Tobies.
Here I began to notice a pattern. At each successive dining establishment, the demographic of the clientele seemed to be skewing older and older. I didn’t want to come to a definite conclusion here, though, since the presense of a large casino nearby was likely highly impacting the numbers.
We glumly sat there for a while until the rain stopped. Already after noon, I think we both knew that we weren’t going to be hitting Duluth that day, but since Mike needed to be back the following day – which was his fifteenth wedding anniversary, as it happened, a fact he had neglected to mention until that morning! – we proceeded onward as if that was still our goal.
We biked back through the heart of town, and swung onto the fourth and final trail, the Munger Trail, which would take us the last 63 miles into Duluth. Our hope was that the trail, now cutting through pines, would be relatively sheltered from the wind, but alas, this wasn’t really the case. The temps dropped into the 40s, and the rain came back, and this time it couldn’t really be called “light.”
The next 14 miles were by far the most difficult of the trip, but having no choice but to press onward, we said things like, “We’re lowering the bar here! On any future bike trips we take, we’ll always be able to say, ‘Remember that trip to Duluth? This is nowhere near as bad as that!’”
At least we had rubber wheels on a paved trail! The following snippet from a journalists’ account of a tour of the partially completed Lake Superior and Mississippi in 1869 adds further perspective:
“Weather cold and drizzling. Roads this day worse than ever, though worse had seemed impossible. Every little while a wagon sticks in the mud. Now a whiffletree breaks, now a king-bolt; now a baggage-wagon upsets, or a horse is down; and now we just wait for a gulf of mud to be bridged with logs and brush.”
Pulling up to Finlayson, however, and growing weary of shoots of pain emanating from my thumbs and going all the way up my arms, and knowing the next town was quite a distance, we simply had to stop. We limped into the cafe there. I think about a half an hour went by before we could even begin speaking again.
There isn’t much to be found in that town – the cafe, a gas station, a bar, and a couple of small businesses – but it had the one thing that would be most useful to us at that moment: a laundromat! We went over there, and tossed everything we had into a dryer. The place was fully coin-op, and completely deserted except for a couple of teens having sexy times in the back room.
Thirty minutes later, we thought we had a triumph on our hands. All of our stuff was dry and the rain had stopped. Maybe now we’d have some clear sailing!
And we actually did, for a time. Just as we were about to cross over the Willow River, I gasped, pointed at the trail, and exclaimed, “Mike! Holy shit, you’re casting a shadow!”
The sun had come out! The birds were singing! Life was good!
But, this was not to last. Prior to the next town, I started sweating, and it gradually occurred to me that I was sweating much more than I should have been. When I finally stopped to take a break, my hat was soaked enough to wring out! I was completely damp again! Aw, I’d let myself get dehydrated!
I drank the last of the water I had, but I then suddenly felt very fatigued, and I didn’t think I could make it too much farther. Luckily for me, “too much farther” turned out to be Moose Lake, only a few minutes away.
But now we faced a new dilemma. Mike had to be home in the morning, and my car was parked in Duluth. Discussions and apologies and cockamamie proposals ensued, but in the end, we were saved by Mike’s wife, who was able to make arrangements such that Mike wouldn’t have to be back until later in the day. She said she knew all along that we’d never make it in two days. Touche!
So, due to my shaky physical condition, we decided to get a room in Moose Lake, get up at dawn, and still bike into Duluth as planned.
Day Three, at breakfast at a Moose Lake cafe, I finally decided that I had seen enough evidence to answer the main postulation of the trip: The farther north we traveled, the older the demographic of the locals seemed, and, at the same time, the weaker the coffee became.
It is unclear whether or not there might be some correlation to those two facts. One possibility is that a rather large number of those elderly people could be Finnish, and the Finns are known for brewing extraordinarily light coffee, apparently due to the high quality of the water in Finland, which, one can imagine, is also in good supply in northern Minnesota. I am not a coffee snob by any means, but supposedly, brewing with high quality water brings out the subtler flavors of lighter roasts.
On the other hand, I had left my mass spectrometer at home, but I’m fairly certain that the warm, brown water presented to me at that final establishment did not merit the label “coffee”. I had to stifle an urge to offer our waitress $20 to dump out the current batch, and replace the obviously multiply used grounds with, here’s a idea, new grounds!, and at least five times the normal amount of them at that!
It’s just as well that I didn’t, since her attitude betrayed perhaps just a small bit of bitterness at having been trapped in a town of hundreds her whole life, and probably wouldn’t have appreciated anything thing other than an “Oh, very good now, you betcha!” to any inquiry about the quality of the swill she loyally kept pouring into my cup.
The food was very good though, and, fully carbed up, we hit the trail, at long last in full sunshine. It was a beautiful morning. We made very good time up to our first break, at Askov.
The town seemed to have about two buildings: a used book store, and a general store. The proprietor of the latter, after inquiring about our journey, informed us that it would all be down hill after Carlton. “Brother,” we told him, “we’ve been dreaming of that hill for the last 70 miles!”
Back on the trail, as we turned to the northeast toward Carlton, we started to notice changes in the landscape that told us that we had entered into the Canadian Shield. Cuts of rock began to jut from the ground. We crossed several swollen streams, stopping to admire the clarity of the water.
After Carlton, the trail crosses the St. Louis River into Jay Cooke State Park. Due to severe damage by the Flood of 2012, the bridge was closed for reconstruction, so, we were forced to cross the river via the highway through Thomson, but then, even in Thomson, the trail had been completely stripped of its pavement for rebuilding. It wasn’t clear where the pavement picked up again, and, so, the promise of pure down hill travel after Carlton dashed, off we went on the rollercoaster of the local highway, finally reconnecting with the trail in a dead end off East Palkie Road.
It’s worth remarking that the remainder of our travel to Duluth would be over the grade of the former Duluth Short Line Railway. The original LS&M; line closely followed the St. Louis River, and due to severe grades and the need for extensive trestlework, the line was a maintenance headache, and so, in the late 1880s, the Duluth Short Line was built, a literal short cut between Duluth and Carlton that spread the decent into the Lake Superior basin over a much larger distance.
The original line was severed and mostly abandoned in the 1920s. I’ve always been told that much of the old grade is still hikeable today; however, I strongly suspect that the Flood erased a great deal of it.
Now, whereas I started acquiring knowledge about railroads practically before I even knew how to read, Mike has done the same thing with birds. He knows more about birds than anyone else I know, and so, while he got to hear more historical details of the railroad as the trip went on, he provided me with the identification of many species of birds, some from their sound alone.
As we were coming down the DSL grade, we heard some squabbling birds. Mike gleefully dashed off into the woods to try to get a glimpse of them, and also possibly what they were fighting over. I stayed on the trail and rested, thinking that what had just happened was quite similar to breathless runs I’ve made when hearing strange locomotive horns.
He came back about ten minutes later, fairly scratched up by the underbrush, but, a smile indicated it had been worth it. “Ravens”, he said. They had been fighting over a deer carcass, the odor of which, once pointed out, was definitely noticable.
Heading farther along, toward Ely’s Peak, around the base of which the line curves, I was hoping to see a train on the former DM&IR; Spirit Lake branch, noisily conquering the hill toward Proctor, but as our path bridged over that line, I saw that this wasn’t going to happen, since a large crew was at work below us, replacing the rail. One machine was lifting the old rail off the tie plates with a magnet, while men ahead were manually pulling spikes.
Just slightly farther downgrade, after going through a pair of rough-hewn rock cuts, we came out into an open, treeless area with a superb view of the St. Louis Estuary, as well as Downtown Duluth, still about ten miles away. There is always something magical about that first view of Duluth after coming over the hill, perhaps half due to the discernible change in climate, and half due to the realization that Duluth is an international seaport.
The magic was slightly broken, however, when I suffered another flat, just after we crossed Highway 23. I had fully expected it, given the condition that my rear tire was in, but the fact that we were only about a mile from the end of the trail made it much more annoying.
Once again things ground to a halt while I fixed it. And once again, a passerby stopped to talk to us. She asked us where we’d biked from, and we told her we’d biked from St. Paul to celebrate turning 40. She replied that she was going to turn 65 soon, and was planning a bike ride from Duluth to Madeline Island and back, which made us feel feeble in comparison! Here’s to hoping we’re still able to bike like that in another 25 years!
The fix went much faster that time, and we were soon moving again, albeit, now rumbling over the moonscape of Duluth’s maintenance-impoverished – but still highly traveled – streets.
I would soon receive an answer to the last mystery of the trip: How much would it cost to rescue my car from the parking ramp in which it had sat for 3.5 days? I lucked out, since a human was involved in the calculation: The attendant looked at my ticket, and said, “six fifty”. My guess is that, after looking at these things hour after hour, the brain stops looking at the date portion of the timestamp, and only pays attention to the time portion.
Awesome! I was expecting it to be at least $30.
As we buzzed home on the freeway, the names of all the communities we’d been through flew by on the various exit signs. We now have new appreciation and imagery to attach to those signs.
All in all, I’d say it was a good trip; an application, if you will, of the adage, “That which does not kill us makes us stronger” – and in fact, now I’m emboldened to try even longer trips.
Mileage: 157 total miles of biking, 53 in rain.
Confirmed bird sightings, in no particular order: Great blue heron, green heron, bald eagle, ruby-crowned kinglet, american redstart, american robin, common raven, goldfinch, yellow-shafted flicker, hermit thrush, rose-breasted grosbeak, scarlet tanager, yellow warbler, rufous-sided warbler, myrtle warbler, connecticut warbler, swamp sparrow, song sparrow, cooper’s hawk, red-headed woodpecker, baltimore oriole.
Cups of tasteless warm brown water consumed: More than I care to admit.