St. Louis River Paddle-Portage-Bike
Trip Plan: Drive to Chamber’s Grove Park, paddle on St. Louis River out the Aerial Lift Bridge to Leif Erickson Park via Lake Superior. Portage my paddleboard up 7 blocks to the shed at my house. Bike from my house back to my minivan via Skyline Parkway and Mission Creek Boulevard.
Start Time: Friday, August 2, 2019 – 7:44am
- Paddle: 4:33:26
- Transition 1: 0:03:00
- Portage: 0:14:12
- Transition 2: 0:13:00
- Bike: 1:29:22
- Total time: 6:33:00
I had been dreaming up this plan for several months, all summer really. And once August hit I realized that the time to execute was dwindling. I checked the weather, checked my calendar, and saw an opening the very next day! Go time.
This idea of a sweet triathlon of paddle-portage-bike festered so much in my mind that I bought a paddleboard on kind of a split-second decision. What started it? I don’t know. But I think I was just staring at the Duluth Outdoor Recreation Map and the loop stuck out to me. I had done some recon on the St. Louis River, which served me very well.
On Friday morning of August 2, I wanted to head out at 7am. I made some oatmeal, made a wrap for lunch, packed some various exercise food like gels and chews and bars, a bladder full of water, and threw it all in a pack and then that into the van. I loaded my life jacket, paddle and paddleboard. The trusy 11’6” Surftech Generator will get me there, I thought to myself. My bike was, in theory, ready to go in the shed, along with my bike shoes and helmet. I had my house key, phone and car key. I was wearing my sandals, all set to go. This was an equipment, intensive trip plan, and the weak link in the chain, no pun intended, was my bike. More on that later…
After the calm morning drive, I put the paddleboard in the water at Chambers Grove Park on the very West end of Duluth at 7:44am. It was later than I’d hoped, and I thought I could maybe finish at Leif Erickson by 1:30 or 2pm. I started paddling smooth and purposefully. I seemed to be moving pretty good, and noticed a few 16 minute miles right away. The water was glassy. It was humid and even a little warm with the sun up, but felt pretty comfortable right away. The miles flew by and I passed landmarks like Boy Scout Landing, and saw the Oliver Bridge up ahead.
It struck me at the Oliver Bridge that I should sit down, maybe eat a bit of food. I took my time at the Oliver Bridge and it was my first real break in paddling for just over an hour. I was quick to get back going, excited to make it to Clough Island. Into the Mud Lake area, I was wading through the weeds, which was really frustrating. I was bogged down by the weeds dragging from my board leash. I tried to get them out, nearly losing my balance by turning around backwards and trying to fish those pesky weeds out with the paddle. It was a useless task and just a waste of time, since the board came to a stop in lilly pads.
I seemed to be going so slow and the frustration was setting in for sure. Through that weedy patch, I made it to more open water and noticed my fin seemed to be awry. I didn’t have any tracking at all, so one paddle on one side would twist the whole board around, another paddle on the other side would twist it the other way. Ugh. I wondered if I nicked it on a rock or log or something and the whole fin busted off. Probably should check, I thought. I got down on my knees and reached under my board, causing the back to sink into the water. Carefully, very carefully as not to flip the entire paddleboard long-wise…. I felt a huge glob of weeds on the fin. Cripes. I got all the weeds off everything, EVERYTHING! and set my sights on Spirit Island and Clough Island.
The open water was a little daunting, just mentally strenuous to travel through. I felt a bit exhausted despite the wind and waves being with me. They didn’t seem to add anything, but paddling against them would be devastating.I made my way to the slot in Clough Island, but had to sit down beforehand. I was spending a lot more time drinking from my pack, kneeling, eating food, and resting, than I had the first hour. I had to check my phone for the correct path to take, as the correct narrow channel between Clough Island was hard to see and there were multiple options. Once I passed through, it was like night and day from Spirit Lake. The water was still, the breeze was at my back and cooling me down a bit, and it was great to have land on both sides of me. It’d been really sweaty, sticky, hot the whole day. The sun was baking hot, but luckily hidden behind clouds frequently. I was on the other side of Clough Island in no time, excited and nervous to explore sections I’d never seen before. I was making really good time, and thought that I was about halfway through the paddle portion at about 9 miles and 2 and a half hours.
Next stop was the Bong Bridge. It looked close but the cars were tiny. Instantly the landscape changed from remote nature to industry. It was kind of cool: all sorts of piles, machines, metal and wood. The open water was again tough. I thought I changed direction slightly, or the wind had, because I felt like the waves were crossing sideways past me. I didn’t know exactly where I was to go under the Bong Bridge but just kept paddling to where the most straight line seemed to be and it kept being the right way. Before the Bong Bridge, I could see the Blatnik and Aerial Lift Bridges as well, all three in my line of sight. I saw the line I needed to take…
The Bong Bridge was a mammoth structure, and cool to go under. More industry… a lot of hustle and bustle as I paddled into the late morning on a work day. The cranes and trains were going, and time seemed to go right on by. I kind of got past the frustration and into robot mode. Paddle paddle paddle. I seemed to be moving really good, and I saw a few sub-15 minute miles flash on my watch. It took forever to get close to the Blatnik Bridge, and I was looking back to the Bong Bridge to compare the sizes of the cars and determine how much longer it’d be until going under the next one, then on to a straight shot to the Lift Bridge. When I could clearly see the line to get under the Blatnik, I also spotted a huge freight ship coming straight towards me. It was really cool to see. I knew it was so far off, but I still wondered if I was in its way, in a critically dangerous situation head to head with a 700-foot ship. As it got closer to me, and I got closer to the bridge, it turned and I turned and had a sizable gap between the massive ship.
I noticed the Vista Fleet carting people around in the bay, the big ship honked loudly to its final destination, and I was crossing under the Blatnik Bridge in no time. It seemed like a long ways to get there and make the corner, but it was also very cool because another docked freight ship was right at the corner. I got very near it, paddling right alongside a shipping yard, and my attention was on the industrial area and not on the monotonous nature of paddling and paddling and paddling. And paddling and paddling. GAH. I saw a hefty 14 mile marker beep on my watch.
The bay was getting super choppy, with sea birds seemingly swarming me. I got a bit anxious in this section. The first two bridges were straightforward but the Lift Bridge is something else. What if another freighter comes through?? I got near it. No big ships. The blue bridge had gone up and a charter fishing boat arrived behind me, awaiting the bridge to lift. I just went!
Under the Aerial Lift Bridge and there were tourists everywhere. It doesn’t take a ship coming through the bridge to bring people out to the pier! I paddled out towards the end of the shipping channel, taking in the experience I had thought about many times. I didn’t know what to do… wave to all the people? I could tell they were looking at me. A guy yelled to ask if I was going to Michigan. Maybe, I told him. A lady at the very end of the pier, as I made the turn, congratulated me and said I was brave. Y’all don’t even know what I done done! I didn’t say that… Her friend asked if I fell in yet. I said no, not on purpose, but might jump in because it’s HOT. I laughed, I think they chuckled… I didn’t break my stride. Then I jumped in the cool Lake Superior water. It felt great. I climbed right back on and looked towards the North Shore of Lake Superior to Leif Erickson Park. I thought I spotted it, and set off.
On the big lake, the water was perfect. There were really light roller waves, a very light chop pushing me right towards Leif Erickson. The wind was at my back and it felt good to be soaked in cool Superior water. I noticed my hands were pained. I took a moment to look. No blisters, really. But they felt blistered. My back and shoulders and lower side abs were getting sore. Oof. I couldn’t believe I made the trip. It was a pretty wild endeavor to go that far after not having paddling even close to that distance on a paddleboard. I felt elated coming in to Leif Erickson. There were people on the beach at Leif, and I probably looked strange just coming right ashore and walking off into the park. I didn’t know what to do there either… wave to them? I stopped my watch, clocking about 4 and a half hours and over 17 miles.
I put my hat down and tried to hike the board home as quick as possible. I knew I looked strange. I saw my friend Tina on the opposite corner of Superior Street and she said I looked weird. I said she looked weird. I didn’t mean it… A couple blocks up, I heard someone yell at me and then stop at the stoplight right next to me. “How far do ya got?” “How far do ya got to go still?” I noticed the person… who was it… OH! It was Jared Munch, a local paddler who had recently completed an insane paddleboard trip to the Arctic Ocean from Duluth. I followed along online after seeing him on the news. I said four blocks. He said I could strap it on, motioning towards my board and towards his roof rack. I said no. I also said he was a legend. Then I told him I was paddling then schlepping my board up to my house four blocks away, then biking back to my car. He said it was a triathlon (“paddle, uhhh… portage, and bike!”), and cool, then the light changed and he sped away. I yelled “YOU’RE A LEGEND!” It was cool, and very random, to see an adventure paddleboarder by happenstance as I complete my own adventure paddling excursion.
I stormed home, switching the board between my arms to alleviate my sore hands. My grip was very shaky. I got home and couldn’t be more happy to set the board alongside my shed. I rushed inside, let the dogs out, grabbed my lunch wrap and cold fizzy water, and almost didn’t know what to do. I changed my wet running shorts to bike shorts. Then I started to eat. I ate the wrap in record time as the dogs looked on in confusion. Before long, I started mobilizing for my bike leg. Bike out of the shed, shoes out, board in, paddle in, keys and water and snacks in my bike bag, phone in the bag, shoes on and out the door. I locked up and walked my bike up to the alley.
My rear derailleur had broken weeks prior, and I was too lazy to get it fixed until the day before. That point in time happened to be mere hours after I decided I’d go on the trip the next day! So I went to my local bike shop Ski Hut. They didn’t have the part. Dang. They suggested Continental, another local bike shop. I said I’d just order it from them to be picked up anytime after noon the next day. On my way home, I just needed to call Conti because I couldn’t shake the idea of not going on Skyline the whole way. I was so obsessed because I’d read an article on Duluth’s history of Skyline Parkway on Zenith City Online. They outlined the now defunct Mission Creek Boulevard as one of the early sections of Skyline and home to the original Seven Bridges Road. That met up really close to Chambers Grove Park and also was some cool off-road biking as it was now essentially double-track trail through the woods. I just had to ride the gravel bike! My call to Conti was a success, and they had the part. I rushed down. They had the long cage version, but my 1x front setup wouldn’t be ideal with the long cage. Hmmm. I left empty handed, stopped back into Ski Hut after calling to cancel my order, to re-place my order. Ross was laughing and said it’s OK. Gah, what a debacle. Tri bike was the only option. Unless….. I set up a singlespeed. So, late into the night, I tinkered around in my basement trying to get it to work. I ultimately did, but the chain was absurdly tight and the cranks didn’t turn very well. I felt nervous with the first few pedals on my sketchy setup. But so far so good onto the bike leg. Up to 7th Street, across Mesaba, up a big hill and onto Skyline headed East towards Enger Tower.
The view to my left of what I’d just paddled was great. I felt so accomplished and happy that I was going to get this done, barring a mechanical issue or major accident. It was no time before I was passing Enger Tower, and the singlespeed was working perfectly. I didn’t notice the tight chain when I was pedaling, and the gear ratio was actually really good for the rolling ups and downs mixed with flat. I was having a blast, despite being really hot right away.
I didn’t enjoy starting and stopping, partly because of the tight chain, and was happy to cross Piedmont headed West towards the open road. I cranked past the neighborhoods and got into the more remote countryside section of Skyline. It was a flash before I was climbing up towards the cemetery and Highway 2 intersection. The climb up Thompson Hill was brutal, but I was making really good time. I crossed I-35 without a hitch and got a little jostled past Spirit Mountain on the rough road. Down the other side of Spirit was extreme, and I was scared for my bike and scared for my life screaming down the steep and rough road. The heat of the day was getting to me into the Magney area as the pavement turned to gravel. I drank water, and realized that my one bottle was going to have to be rationed. I climbed up, knowing there was a big downhill ahead. The big hill down to Beck’s Road was paved and much calmer than by Spirit. I knew the intersection of Mission Creek Boulevard was near and I saw the Skyline sign with END ahead. I thought I was on the Voyageur 50 Mile course and took a gander that the road we ran on for that was also the one I was looking for. I had to unclip to go up a little incline, then down and around and across Becks Road like I recall from the map and from Voyageur. On the other side there was a parking lot and gate. The gate had a tiny sign alerting construction along the area and mentioned Mission Creek so I figured I was on the right trail. It was definitely part of the Voyageur course, and I predicted it would make for a very fun biking section if my memory would serve me correctly.
It was rugged and pretty slow going on the Mission Creek Boulevard, but cool to see the bridges that I’d read about and to think about the history of this path I was on. It was fun for sure. My fatigue was nonexistent on the bike but I was definitely hot. All I could think about was root beer and white Gatorade. I’d get that at the gas station, for sure. The Duluth Traverse mountain bike trail criss-crossed with the double-track trail I was on and so I thought about the same trip but on the DT instead of Skyline. Nah, this is better. I got to a crossing of Mission Creek itself and in my haste, went right through the water, totally submerging my left shoe. I kept plugging along, noticeably traveling downhill the whole way, which was nice but a lot of braking. I crossed a few familiar sections of the Superior Hiking Trail and eventually popped out at Highway 210. It was a great ride back down because it was smooth downhill and I didn’t pedal. The wind was through my hair and I knew I was done in once piece and in great time. I rode straight to the landing at Chambers Grove Park that I’d put my paddleboard in hours before, stopped my watch, loaded my bike back into my car and drove home.