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