“If I had taken five minutes to look up the tour route on Google earth, realistically calculated my expenses or browsed a single weather report, I would probably not have gone.”
When I heard that two acquaintances of mine were planning to ride their bicycles around the shoreline of Lake Superior; the largest inland freshwater mass on the planet – I put aside the fact I owned neither a suitable bike or had any long distance riding experience and pleaded with them to let me inhibit their journey with my obvious inexperience.
The details were sketchy but our main objective was crystal clear. We would be propelling ourselves, a vast and heavy array of camping equipment, and probably some useless luxuries, through Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Ontario to complete the (sort of) famous 1300 mile Lake Superior Circle Tour.
Popular with RV and motorcycle enthusiasts the tour winds through most of the lake shore’s most notable towns, cities and national parks. It is a certificate worthy achievement to drive a warm vehicle with power steering along this route, but to ride a bicycle is considered by many to be a stupid and somewhat frivolous waste of time.
We would begin our journey in Marquette, Michigan on September 10th and spend three weeks heading clockwise to complete the loop.
In order to achieve our goal we would have to be travelling 60-90 miles per day, every day.
The furthest I had ever ridden in one go was 35 miles; I was seventeen at the time, it took me a whole day, and I was carrying nothing except a cd player and some lip gloss.
Despite my complete lack of knowledge and probably stamina I discussed with great ease the prospect of lugging forty pounds of equipment, twice the distance of anything I had ever experienced, up hilly peninsulas, in what would likely be a chilly fall.
Over the five month preparation period I did no cycling whatsoever; preferring to frequently announce the tour as opposed to train for it.
“I’m surprised you haven’t practiced more,” noted my partner three days before I set off. No one was more surprised than me, typically a worrier; I had managed to ignore the astounding physical, emotional and financial implications of my chosen journey. Focusing instead on getting all the equipment I needed for the trip- which was everything- a suitable bike, bike components, panniers, clothing and spending money.
Inso’s departure (from the ride, not life)
When loaded up, my bicycle was so heavy I could barely lift it. I began to see myself for the fraud I was and became fearful. Luckily my fellow tour mates both possessed bike repair and bike tour experience.
Tara Inso, a keen bike polo player, and Jill Martindale a long time bike lover and employee at Ada Bike Shop, had both completed a 900 mile tour around Lake Michigan the previous summer and knew at least some of what it entailed to be on a bicycle for 6-10 hours a day, carrying all the equipment you need to keep yourself kind of warm, sort of dry and adequately nourished.
However, Lake Michigan’s shoreline was mainly flat, and in the hot July that Martindale and Inso chose they were able to wear shorts and t-shirts; they bathed most days in the lake and returned sun kissed and beautiful.
Lake Superior was not kind to us- In fact, it swiftly stripped what beauty I did have away and replaced it with second degree burns from both the sun and the wind.
Our first challenge was the Keweenaw Peninsula, a scenic but hilly stretch that tested our joints and our wits. Inso’s right knee began to complain and became progressively worse over the next 300 miles until Duluth, Minnesota, where she made the difficult decision to take a Greyhound bus back to Grand Rapids.
This left Martindale and I, relative strangers bound together by our one rather obscure shared goal, faced with the prospect of a 1000 mile journey through the vast Ontario wilderness and back to Marquette with just one another for company.
We decided with two sentences worth of discussion that we wanted to finish what we had set out to do. My body was responding surprisingly well to the intense schedule and the thrill of our self-sustained journey through new and beautiful landscape was more than enough to persuade me to carry on.
As we entered Canada our until then mostly non-perilous bike ride morphed, suddenly, into a gruelling pilgrimage. The weather was taking a turn for the worst and the hills grew longer, higher and more hate-able. We climbed and climbed, our bodies ached with the cold and lashings of rain frequently forced us to take shelter.
Amusingly, I had somehow found myself without any waterproof outerwear; emergency ponchos are great value if the emergency is only scheduled to last forty five seconds and you remain motionless. Otherwise they are a false economy.
The lake shore through Ontario was desolate and it was often many hours before an opportunity to warm up (and in my case dry off) presented itself to us. Our cell phones did not work and the $9 charge for the first minute of a payphone call to America meant we were unable to let our loved ones know our location each night; a promise we had made primarily to protect ourselves.
Now instead of anyone knowing where we were camping each night we had, by way of protection, a small foghorn and a bright orange paring knife.
Robins and Matthews
There is a fast food chain in Ontario called “Robins.” Robins’ primary goal is to supply the people of Ontario with donuts and other deep fried shapes- 24 hours a day. Under ordinary circumstances it might not be my first choice for a snack; yet Robins became an unexpected bastion of hope and solace. It was the only business we found consistently present in the dribbles of civilization we passed through, a tiny, hot oasis of cholesterol and weak coffee. Robin’s tagline read, “the best part of your day,” It was with heavy hearts that Martindale and I agreed that this was true.
We hitched our first ride on the 20th of September, just outside of Red Rock, Ontario. A charming gentleman named Matthew Rodgers, on a special journey of his own, pulled up, casually, in his 38 foot RV and asked if we needed help as we struggled to readjust my saddle and keep our spirits up against the ever present headwinds.
As we climbed into his warm, dry motor home and sat on our first couch in two weeks, Martindale declared “I don’t consider this cheating.” I was glad because I had already decided to live with Rodgers forever. He whisked us away from our low point and took us forty miles to the Rainbow Falls Campground, we shared food and stories and he greeted us the following morning with a hot cup of coffee.
We were back on track and thoroughly replenished despite the gathering rain clouds and the promise of more bitterly cold nights.
Over the next two days we rode the hilliest stretch of the journey, stopping to rest in motels and diners where we consumed undercooked potatoes and BBQ flavored items. The locals were anything but impressed by our endeavors, comments ranging from “stupid girls,” to “aren’t you cold?” turned us into our own personal, and abrasive, cheerleaders.
Faced with rudeness, Martindale’s naturally cheery disposition grew even cheerier, a juggernaut of optimism her ability to accept rejection became indispensable; as I explored the darker depths of my psyche, Martindale asked smart questions, charmed gas station attendants and let me borrow her stuff- not once asking why I hadn’t brought my own.
In Wawa we were warned of a black bear problem, “there’s a particularly huge one that lurks behind the general store,” a waitress whispered to us. Despite our pleas we were offered no safe places to stay. We attempted to exchange money for the safety of a fenced in backyard to pitch our tent. We eventually had to resort to the lake shore, figuring the police would be driving the bears into the surrounding parkland and not to the beach.
Our perceived vagrancy unfortunately caused most Canadians to shy away from us. When we tried to ask for directions, everyone told the same often implausible lie “we are just visiting.”
It is true my sweater was snagged to oblivion and my weathered face gave the impression I had been on the road for decades and not 13 days, but I had been sure Martindale’s healthy complexion, goretex jacket and specialist cycling glasses would convince them of our authenticity; nobody wears that shit for fun.
The morning after our night on the beach we were greeted by 25 mile per hour winds. Instead of black bears people now warned us about the gusts, “terrible day for riding,” patrons at a local cafe helpfully observed. We made it thirty five miles that day before we were literally pushed from our bikes by the gales, both lying in heaps on the shoulder of road we reminded ourselves that this was an entirely self-imposed predicament.
“We chose to do this,” Martindale pointed out, not for the last time, her brows fused in a display of intense puzzlement.
A police officer took five minutes out of his day to pull over in his squad car and make a useless joke about the weather.
We attempted to hitch another ride; turning our backs to the cruel wind and sticking out our thumbs in futile optimism. Truck after truck whizzed by, drivers staring coolly at our predicament, their empty flatbeds obviously reserved for better things.
We eventually attracted the attention of a Tim, a friendly Wisconsin native and fellow cyclist whom drove us thirty miles to the Sunset shores campground.
Tim was a rampant carnivore who developed a crush on us over lunch during which he consumed five bratwursts and laughed at our lentil soup. We had not anticipated that crushes on us would be a possibility considering our state of appearance and general aroma, but Tim saw through the extra hair and overall crustiness to our gleaming personalities.
He did become offended and angry that we declined his offer to share a cabin with him that night and I did sleep with my paring knife underneath my sleeping pad.
On the bright side, as long as the winds died down we would be back in Michigan by the next afternoon.
Homestretch/escape from Canada
Never have I felt so patriotically inclined towards the United States. The day we crossed back into the Upper Peninsula was a day of great personal celebration. A retired fireman bought us lunch, a native American gentleman rubbed sweet grass onto our hands to ward off evil spirits, nobody cared about the holes in my sweater except me because it was beginning to make me cold.
The next three days were, to us, a victory tour. By this point our thighs were so awe inspiring that we spat on mountains- asking if that was all they had. Or at least Martindale did, I was always a bit behind due to my “no cycling” training schedule, but her frequent need to urinate meant the gap between us remained manageable.
By the time we made it back to Marquette we had ridden 1250 miles. We hitched 70 miles worth of rides and without them I don’t think our dwindling morale would have survived. We saw enough bald eagles to actually become complacent about them and at least one wolf.
The sense of achievement was monumental; we were suddenly thrust back into a world full of seating, memes and hairstyles. I owe it all to my uncharacteristic lack of research, If I had taken five minutes to look up the tour route on Google earth, realistically calculated my expenses or browsed a single weather report, I would probably not have gone.
Next year I will attempt Lake Ontario- if you know anything about that lake that will be hard- do not tell me- I would rather it be a long and tiring surprise.