Friday, February 21, 2014

Trip Report: North Shore State Trail - Duluth to Grand Marais

January 30, 2014
Hey Charlie,
Finally completed the North Shore State Trail!  Jay Giddings and I left Duluth last Thursday night and rolled into Grand Marais Monday evening.  Rode about 30 miles per day and camped at shelters along the way.  We went self-supported with no stop in Finland.  Finally!  Congrats on your Arrowhead finish, you must have been flying!

Farrow, Charles

Jan 30

Dear Mr. Finch:  Congratulations on solving one of the great final problems associated with our craft.  I would be lying to you if I conveyed to you that your news does not elicit a slight tinge of bitter-sweetness for I always hoped to be the first.....But alas a better pair of men could not be more deserving!!!!!
Bravo Mr. Finch!  Bravo Mr. Giddings...Your names are now secure within the annuls of Northland adventure.....
Best regards,
Ever since I started participating in the Arrowhead 135 in 2006,  I've wanted to ride the length of another state trail located right in my backyard - the North Shore State Trail. After a couple of failed attempts, I was really hoping everything would fall into place this time around.  And it did.

Jay Giddings (aka Cousin J) and I had been planning the trip for about 6 months.  Approximately 146 miles, self-supported from Duluth to Grand Marais.  The word in the local ultra community was that this hadn't been done before.  Friend and DBD'er Charlie Farrow and I have been keeping each other posted throughout the years as neither of us had succeeded in our attempts.  So, along with my personal obsession to complete the trail, Cousin and I were motivated to be "the first ones" to make it in an unsupported fashion.

 Our plan was to  ride about 30-35 miles a day and camp at the shelters located along the trail. We would carry all of our food and avoid stopping in Finland or anywhere else for a re-supply.  Giving ourselves a generous window of travel (departure Thursday night - Tuesday pick up in Grand Marais) would ensure a successful passage no matter the conditions.  I can't tell you how many times I found myself smiling thinking just how fortunate we were to have good trail conditions.  Since this was a self-supported trip, we made a point of taking care of ourselves.  This meant stopping mid-day for lunch and a snow melting session to fill up thermoses.  We primarily used my BioLite stove to melt snow for water and to rehydrate meals.  Although a bit heavy, the ease of gathering an unlimited supply of biomass to burn made it a great choice for this type of trip. Cold temperatures (-25/-30 F) were not a problem.  We also had a fire every night but Sunday, to dry out gear. We were on a mission to complete the trail, but wanted to enjoy some bikepacking as well.

Day 1: 8:30 pm Departure: Martin Rd. Trailhead to Sucker River Shelter- 20 miles
I met Cousin at the Martin Road trailhead where the State Trail officially begins.  He rode from his home about 13 miles away and picked up JK on the way.  After saying our goodbyes to JK who would be riding the Arrowhead 135 in a few days, we headed up the trail to the Sucker River shelter which is about 20 miles from Duluth. This was our prologue of sorts; we ate brats, steak and potatoes and had a large fire to celebrate the anticipated 4-5 days on the trail.

Sucker River Shelter / -20 Below Rodeo Headquarters.

Day 2:  Sucker River Shelter to Split Rock River Shelter - 34 miles 

We left Sucker River shelter with light snow and fairly warm temperatures (around +28 F).  The trail held up pretty well despite the warm temps.  We ended up making it to Split Rock River shelter around 7pm.  We found the nicest shelter of any along the trail here.  It couldn't have been built more than a year ago. The shelter is located right next to a State Trail parking lot, which seemed odd.  About 20 minutes after we arrived, the winds starting howling and a fire was out of the question.  We crashed early that night and woke to much colder temperatures than the day before.  I was happy to hear the groomer go by in the wee of hours of the night.  Fresh groom and cold temps = Fast, hard trail!

Mukluk and Beargrease rested and ready for another day.

Day 3:  Split Rock River Shelter to Caribou River Shelter - 29 miles
The winds from the evening before brought the cold front in, and we were feeling it this morning. The trail was in great shape and the sun was shining. We started out this and each morning pushing our bikes for about 20 minutes or so to warm up our feet.  This strategy also help facilitate a conversation about the mileage goal for the day and other logistics.  While we were riding we didn't talk too much, the crunch of snow and the surrounding landscape occupied our ears and thoughts.  I anticipated this being a tough day on the trail due to the hilly terrain in the Finland area, and it was.  The difficulty of the hills was overshadowed by the awesome trail conditions. The highlight of this day was riding right on past the Finland spur trails, (where burgers and beers await 2 miles away) and feeling confident that we would meet our goal of Grand Marais.

Stumble Creek
We had a nice fire at the shelter that night and met a DNR employee who was grooming the trail.  He was enthusiastic about the fact that we were traveling on fatbikes and camping at the shelters. On his return trip by the shelter he asked us if we knew the lows were forecasted to be in the -20/-30 below range the next two days. We did, assured him we were prepared.  We had nothing but positive experiences with snowmobilers on the trail as well.  We followed the basic protocol: Stay on the right side of the trail at all times. As soon as a snowmobile is heard or seen, move as far to the right side of the trail as possible and stop. Hand signals are then given to let them know how many riders are in the group. I encourage anyone riding on the state trails to follow these basic rules.

Day 4:  Caribou River Shelter to Barker Lake Shelter 30 miles
I awoke to light snow in the middle of the night and proceeded to drag myself and bivy into the shelter for cover.  The trail was set up from the groomer, so the inch or so of snow on the trail didn't slow us down much.  Today would be the day we would travel past the Temperance River and into the hills of the Lutsen area.  We knew the Beargrease sled dog marathon started today (Sunday) and started to see checkpoints getting ready for the teams to come through.  A large bonfire at Sawbill Landing checkpoint was tempting to cozy up to, but we needed to keep moving to make our mileage goal for the day.  After this point, a few different things happened that made the traveling difficult. 1) The Lutsen hills 2) No recent groom on the trail 3) Winds gusting to around 40 mph and plunging temps.  Arriving at the drifted in Barker Lake Shelter several hours later felt like victory, if not survival.  We melted snow for water, ate, and fell asleep listening to the wind howl through the cracks of the trailside shelter knowing that there were only 29 miles between us and our goal of Grand Marais.

Cousin is tired of his MRE's on the last day.
Day 5:  Barker Lake Shelter to Grand Marais - 29 miles
A cold and sunny morning seemed like a perfect finish for our last day on the trail. I had contacted my wife the day before to let her know we would be finishing in Grand Marais Monday afternoon or evening.  She booked us a room at the Best Western which we were looking forward to after 4 nights out on the trail.  The Best Western is also a short walk to the Gunflint Tavern which had been occupying our minds quite a bit on the trip. The trail was firm, but slow going because of the cold temperature.  Cousin's free hub appeared frozen for awhile, but he nursed it along and managed to make it work using certain gear combinations eventually.  I know we were both fully prepared to walk to Grand Marais if we had to.  We finished up our ride, just after 6:00 pm, on a long rolling down-hill right into town.  We hauled our bikes in the hotel room, defrosted our beards and headed to the Gunflint Tavern for a well deserved meal.  Local arctic explorer Lonnie Dupre happened to be there as well as a few other outdoor - minded locals.  It was great to be able to share stories from the trail with these guys. What a great ending to an amazing trip!

Fueling up inside Pike Lake Shelter before the last 20 miles to Grand Marais.

Almost there! Self-portrait on the last day.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Mid-Week Backpack on SHT

 Cousin J and I went on a sub-24 hour backpack on the Superior Hiking Trail last week.  We didn't have the trip planned until the day before.  It was a nice 3 mile walk from the trailhead to the campsite, which was a perfect distance for a quick overnighter.

I picked Cousin up at his workplace near the trailhead Tuesday afternoon around 4pm.  He had found a nice campsite while on a "training walk" on the SHT a few weeks earlier that he was excited to check out.  It was a great site with access to the Knife River and plenty of hammock hanging trees.

View from my hammock.  A nice place to "hang out."

The campsite is located on a bend of the west branch of the Knife River.
The temperature only got down to about 55 degrees at night and the skies were clear, making for great stargazing.  We were up and out of camp by about 7:30 am the next day. I really appreciate having quick access to places like this close to home.
One of several small streams to cross on the trail.

Responsibilities await....Heading back to the trailhead in the morning.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

North Shore Bikepack Part Two - Sawbill Trail to Finland

I came across this creek shortly after recovering from a near bonk on the trail.  "No more stumbling for me," I thought!
After a great nights sleep in my bivy sack on the picnic table, I heated up and ate my last bacon, cheese, bagel sandwich.  It rained that night, so I hung my wet gear up to dry and had a couple of cups of coffee while the morning sun did its work.  After filling up with water and packing up, I set off to travel the 31 miles to Finland.

Rested and ready for Day #2. 
Less than 5 miles into my ride that morning I turned onto a gravel road connector and saw a large gray wolf.  He stood and stared at me for a few seconds and then trotted off into the woods.  Unfortunately, I didn't get my camera out in time. Once I past the Cross River, the next 24 miles would be trail I hadn't ridden before which was pretty cool. The trail was less overgrown the further south I traveled into the infamous "Finland Hills."
The trail offers a great opportunity to see the North Shore rivers with no tourists around.

After about six hours on the trail, I came to the connector trail that would lead me into the town of Finland.  I parked my bike outside one of the two local bars and asked if they were serving food and ordered a beer.  The bartender informed me that they served until 9pm and it was 8:55, so I better hurry.  After a good meal, I grabbed a six-pack of Premium and brought it down under the Baptism River bridge and reflected on my journey while I awaited my wife and kids arrival.
  Even though the conditions were tough at times, the solitude, wildlife and scenery made it a great trip.  I'm excited to ride the whole route from Grand Marais to Duluth this winter.

It was all downhill from here.

This shirt was hanging on a sign post near the connector trail to Finland.  Fair warning before heading to town, I guess.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Bikepacking The North Shore State Trail - Grand Marais to Finland

Fully loaded Mukluk
 For the last couple of years, I've gone on a solo bikepacking trip over Fathers Day weekend. This year, I decided to ride the North Shore State Trail from Grand Marais to Finland and camp along the way.   I knew the trail conditions and bugs would be pretty bad this time of the year, so I prepared for the worst and hoped for the best. I got a little of both... 
The view from Caribou Shelter.
Cousin J was heading up north to do some backpacking Thursday night, so I was able to catch a ride to Grand Marais with him.  After splitting a pizza, we headed our separate ways. I didn't get started until about 6:30, but this close to the summer solstice, it didn't matter.  After some riding and mostly pushing up the hill from downtown Grand Marais,  I decided to stop at the Caribou Shelter for the night.  It was a great spot with an awesome little lake close to the shelter.  The sky was clear and the stargazing was exceptional.

Caribou Shelter and Mukluk
After a quick breakfast of oatmeal and coffee, I was packed and on the trail by 6:30 am.  The trail started to head into some swampy sections that included a mosquito escort.  As long as I kept moving they weren't too bad, but any time a stop was required it got pretty ugly and a headnet  and a fresh dose of 98% DEET was mandatory.  I was really hoping I wouldn’t have a mechanical or that anything else would go wrong that would requiring stopping.  The trail followed a steady pattern up and down and my attitude coincided with this.  Low lying, swampy areas had me feeling frustrated and wondering what the hell I was doing there, but after a couple of miles I would climb a ridgeline, hit some rolling hills, see an incredible view of The Big Lake or the forest and feel great about everything.  I didn't have a GPS or bike computer, but I think I averaged about 5 mph for most of the trip.
Plenty of water on this route. Filtering and filling up at Barker Lake.

Moose and wolf tracks appeared often in muddy, rutted sections like this.
At about mile 32 on the trail for the day I came to the Temperance River bridge next to the Sawbill Trail. At this point, I had enough for the day and needed to cook some food and think about camping for the night.  I remembered from a trip that December with Deathrider that the next shelter about 1 mile up the trail was not that great and had no water source close by.  I decided to head up the Sawbill Trail about 6 miles where I found the Temperance River Campground empty.  I picked the best site, scrounged some firewood and and took a much needed break from the trail. I would return tomorrow.
Temperance River Bridge - My tooth fell out here last December!
A great place to take a break from the trail.  Temperance River is in the background.

To be continued...

Monday, April 29, 2013

Chester Creek

Duluth is blessed with several streams running down its hillside.  I feel lucky to live close to Chester Creek.  In fact, I consider it an "extension" of my backyard.  Below are a few photos of one of my favorite, and most frequented spots in Duluth.

November Morning
Summer Colors

After Spring Storm 2013
Colorful Cedars
Sanctuary Falls Bridge

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Korkki Nordic Fat-Bike Race

When I found out that Chris White was hosting a fat-bike race at Korkki Nordic I knew I had to attend.  Korkki Nordic is a privately owned nordic ski trail system north of Duluth.  It's known for it's scenic, technical and hilly trails which are groomed for classic skiing.  It's some of the best "singletrack"skiing you're likely to find. Korkki is not open for bike use, so this was a great opportunity to ride the trails. The event was also a fundraiser to help purchase a new brush mower for the facility.  I knew these trails would be a blast to ride, but the six inches of fresh snow that fell the night before turned this 20k race into an adventure.

Hanging out was as much a part of this event as the race itself.
The race started with a short jog to the bikes and into the woods.  Almost immediately, riders were falling off their bikes, trying to find a line in the soft snow.  "Snow Angels" could be seen all along the trail.  Small hidden bridges (hidden under the snow) were at the bottom of most of the downhills.  Several people crashed on these, myself included.  Riders were dropping tire pressure in an attempt to ride the rare flat parts of the trail.
This type of event tends to attract a rough crowd.
It was fun checking out all the sweet fat-bikes in attendance.
JK sporting a vintage sno-mo suit.
"Apple Pie" shots or a penalty lap!
Steep downhills and fresh powder required riders to assume the
one-legged outrigger position.
 Todd McFadden finished up a great winter season with the win.  JK and I ended up with the red lantern award finishing DFL after 2 laps and 4 + hours on the trail.  I think several riders elected to hit the beer and brats after 1 lap, but there was still plenty left for us.  It was a fun event that I hope will return next year.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Arrowhead 2013

On several of our training rides this year, I had told JK that it was about time we had a tough weather year for the Arrowhead.  The last couple of events had seen above average temperatures and pretty decent trail conditions, as well as a high finish rate.  Perhaps a snow event would spice things up a bit. As the old saying goes, "Be careful what you wish for!"

The first half of the race was uneventful.  I didn't even take any pictures because we were cruising along pretty well and focused on getting to the first checkpoint.  The trail was in good shape and mid to back of the pack racers such as ourselves had a nice line to follow.  I'm always anxious to get this section of trail over because it is mostly flat and kind of boring.  We made it to checkpoint one (Gateway store) by 12:30 and were out by 1:10pm.  We were feeling pretty good about our time at this point.

I always feel a lot better after the Gateway checkpoint.  The trail is generally more scenic and the  rolling hills start to appear.  We kept up a good pace and really started to feel good and settle into the event.  We arrived at Blackduck Shelter at about 7:20 and had some food and hot cocoa.  It was during this break that I noticed freezing rain, and then snow starting to fall.

We arrived at checkpoint two (Melgeorges) at around 9:30.  We stayed long enough to have our gear dried out (Thank you Mary and other volunteers!) and eat a few grilled cheese sandwiches, soup, and drink several cups of Coke.  We managed to leave by about 10:40 and headed back out feeling pretty good about our chances to finish in under 34 hours, which was our goal.

At this point, the snowfall had picked up quite a bit.  Looking through the beam of the headlamp, it was difficult to see the trail.  We couldn't quite tell if the trail was going up or down at any given moment.  We just kept soft pedaling in our granny gears and focusing on what little of the trail we could see.  I hadn't experienced such a heavy snowfall in a long time.  We were able to ride for another hour or so and then we just couldn't.  We followed the tracks of a couple of bike pushers in front of us and trudged on into the night.

Eventually, we came upon another rider, (Singlespeed Jill).  We were both impressed by her tenacity and bike pushing skills.  We leapfrogged back and forth with her for awhile and then came across Sam H. who was taking a break and evaluating the situation.  He asked if he could join us in the death march.  No problem.  We pushed on for a couple more hours.  We knew the Myrtle Lake shelter was 5 or so miles ahead if a bivy was necessary, but that meant at least four more hours at our current rate of travel.

I kept hoping a snowmobile, groomer, or any large object would come cruising by and pack the trail somewhat, but besides the steady snowfall, it was really quiet out there.  We were all soaking wet and tired at this point and decided to make a plan.  At the next available spot off the trail, we would bivy until a snowmobile came by or morning arrived, whichever came first.  An area where a groomer had turned around provided a perfect spot to bivy.  I was soaking wet from both sweating in the warm temps and the freezing rain and snow.  I took my gloves off and got a little freaked out at how pruned up my hands were.  I crawled in my bag with my boots on, (something I typically never do) and shivered for awhile before I dozed off.

Just before daybreak, I called out to JK and Sam that it was time to get moving.  I rushed over to the seatbag on my bike and hastily put on a fleece jacket which was the only dry clothing option I had.  My bivy and sleeping bag were soaking wet as a stuffed them back into the compression bag.  Not good at all, I thought to myself.

The snow was starting to fade as we continued our bike push.  The sun started to peek out a bit and our attitudes were pretty good.  The trail, however, was just as bad.

We were able to ride down the hills slowly, but pushing the bike through the 8-10" of snow was exhausting.  During a break at the Myrtle Lake Shelter we decided to make a plan.  Even though it was possible that the southern half of the trail could be better, it seemed doubtful.  We figured that it would take us at least 30 or more hours to push to the finish if the trail didn't improve.  We had enough calories to get us through, but with soaking wet sleeping bags it didn't seem like a good idea to continue.

We came to Hwy #23 and knew that it was one of the last places until checkpoint #3 to bail if we were going to.  After talking about our options for a few minutes, Jim Reed from Duluth arrived and said he had decided to scratch and ride the highway to Orr about ten miles away. Jim is a pretty tough guy, so I guess I felt a little better about a scratch.  Minutes after that, another racer arrived with the same plan.  The five of us rode towards Orr until we had cell coverage and alerted the race officials that we had scratched.  We continued riding the longest ten miles I have ever ridden in my life into Orr and settled into a local bar while we awaited pick up from our significant others.
Orr Municipal Bar/Liquor Store; not Fortune Bay, but they had pizza and beer!

After a good nights sleep in a warm bed and a break from bike pushing, I felt some regret over not finishing this year.  We had enough time to start a fire and dry out our gear if we had to.  Our group assembled at hwy #23 probably could have worked together and made it to Fortune Bay by the 60 hour cut-off Wednesday.  But, in the end I have no regrets about Arrowhead 2013.  Events like the Arrowhead are tough and complex.  They teach you so much about yourself and your abilities that one has to realize that it is an ongoing process of learning, even through defeat.  I'm looking forward to continuing my education again next year.