20 Sep 2020
Trip Plan: Launch paddleboard at Sawbill Lake BWCA Entry, paddle in a loop. The loop looked to be about 27 miles, and I hoped to finish within a full day’s light.
Start Time: Monday, September 14, 2020 – 7:11am
GPS Data: Stand Up Paddleboard 29.9 miles
Total Time: 11:55:40
As most cool adventures go, I was thinking of a big paddleboard loop in the BWCA for a while. It was kind of on my summer checklist, but I’d never really put pen to paper, so to speak, until September rolled around and I realized my window for a trip was kind of closing rapidly. I noticed a warm day in the forecast and figured I should pull the trigger and just do it. Well, the warm day looked windy, so the day before was on on my target. It looked like 60s. Well, maybe 60. That’s warm enough… I thought.
I pulled out the maps I had and first thought about Kawishiwi Lake, because I knew there was a campground there and I could camp the night before then hit it bright and early. Well, I couldn’t figure a loop. I maybe had a 40 miler. Yikes, that is too long. I looked at other maps in my arsenal, and saw the Sawbill map, with a campground at the entry point, AND the campground was open! I started plotting, and found a pretty good-looking loop. I did some measurements, it looked like 25 or 30 miles, which was right on target for a really long day, but not impossible given the limited daylight. Perfect. It’s a go. Gotta go for it.
Sunday night rolled around and I just couldn’t get out in time. I decided I’d wake up around 4 and make the 2 hour drive the next morning, with hopes to arrive around 7am to start paddling. I woke up early and got there right at 7. Perfect timing. That was nice, because I slept in my own bed, and was able to enjoy oatmeal and coffee on the drive up. I saw the sunrise over Lake Superior heading north on Highway 61… beautiful. I burned my tongue on the coffee, though. That was not beautiful.
When I got to Sawbill, I knew there was an outfitter and rather large campsite, and I thought I remembered looking at a map or satellite image and seeing a launch and parking lot. Well, I saw the launch but no parking lot. I thought maybe there were several docks… maybe a public one with parking nearby. I drove around the campground area, which was interesting to see… and looked like a really fun place to camp… but felt anxious that I was burning daylight. I took a wrong turn–no public access beyond this point. Crap. I figured I’d just go back to the launch I saw and drop the board and park at the big parking lot next to the outfitters that I saw. If there is another option, I missed it and I don’t care because this will work.
So I pulled up to the landing, took out my board, my paddle, my lifejacket, my tote and dropped them nearby. In my tote bag was a gallon ziploc bag stuffed with various food items, and another gallon ziploc stuffed full with various survival items. I though it smart to bring an emergency blanket, headlamp and batteries, lighter, small screwdriver, a piece of foam for random flotation, fingerless gloves, water filter, microfiber towel, and a small safety kit, at least. I might be forgetting to tally some of the items… I just threw a bunch of random crap that I figured I may need, especially in the case of an emergency, in a gallon ziplock bag and it barely all fit.
I drove my car to the lot, which said PUBLIC PARKING, so I figured I was in a great place to leave my van. When I locked the vehicle, the honk echoed so loudly in the dead quiet morning. I noticed metal grating over the trash dumpsters, to discourage bears. On my back was a small pack with two water bottles on front, and my phone in a baggie in the back, plus the all-important map. In my hand was my dog leash and on the end of that was my dog. I grappled with bringing Diamond. Em and Jack told me that I by all means should not do it. Why? Why take her? It’s a huge risk to have her out there. What if she gets injured? Or what if I have an issue? It’s just a big risk to have her, not to mention the weight on the board, which would inevitably slow me down. I figured that it’d be fun. She’s so good on the paddleboard, and loves running through the woods on a trail so would probably love the portages. But 12 hours doing both over and over? Meh, who knows. But she likes being with me, too, so she’d probably enjoy it. And I could use the company. Just having her out there with me would be nice, to share the experience. I don’t know, it just felt like Diamond had to come, despite the obvious downsides. So as we headed away from the car towards Sawbill Lake, she was yankin’ away, excited to get on the water.
It was cold. My car thermometer dropped steadily as I drove away from Highway 61 and Lake Superior and I definitely saw frost on the way up. The last reading on my car’s thermometer was 31. It was a little precarious setting the board in the water, carefully placing the lifejacket and my crucial supplies under the bungees, and stepping on. Then to get Diamond to carefully hop on! With Diamond carefully aligned in the center and fog everywhere, we were off!
The lake was glassy calm, with low visibility due to the fog. I was wearing running shorts, socks and low profile trail shoes (Altra Superior), a tanktop and 3/4 zip running long sleeve, plus hat. I wasn’t cold, surprisingly and luckily. I knew I just had to paddle straight up Sawbill Lake for the first several miles, one of the longest unbroken paddles of the day. I was pretty scared to somehow fall in or get wet, or for Diamond to jump in in excitement, or to get any of the water surrounding me on all sides on me in any way. That could be devastating in this cold. We neared a land mass up ahead and I had to check my map, even though I knew I just needed to keep the land to my close right for a couple miles. I knew I’d eventually get a really good sense of the scale of the map and the shape of the land, but for now I was unsure what I was looking at.
While shuffling around on my knees to get my phone and map out, my paddle dipped into the water, and I got water on my hands, and they got really cold. I was breathing trying to get them to warm up, it didn’t work. I pleaded with the sun to rise higher and burn off some of the lake fog and warm up the air. In between a narrow strip of water between and island a loon popped up. Diamond was locked in… she would have jumped in. I held her back, then made her sit down and tried to paddle away quickly. It was cool to see a loon super close up, though.
I cranked away further and further down from the Sawbill entry point and was amazed by the beautiful lake in the morning mist. I finally made a turn and got into a bit wider area dotted with islands. Looking at the map, I thought I knew where to get to, but I second guessed myself every 100 feet. The sun was burning off the fog, as I’d hoped just a quick hour before, and it was becoming a beautiful day.
I neared the final bay of Sawbill Lake before our first portage to Ada Creek and Ada Lake. I saw a campsite with people at it, stirring about and enjoying the perfect morning. I paddled by and neared the portage, finding it with ease. I took a moment to relax and let Diamond wander, then contemplated my strategy for portages. I left my lifejacket strapped on the board and grabbed the tote and paddle, then took off with the board down the 80 rod portage. The board was hard to keep level. We made it through to Ada Creek in no time, and put back in to paddle down the narrow waterway leading to the more open Ada Lake.
After another portage, I made it to the beautiful Ada Lake. The sun was out and shining bright, it was warming up and I took my long sleeve shirt off. I saw something to my right swimming along. As I wondered if it was a beaver, it slapped its tail and swam under the water. Cool! Luckily Diamond didn’t see it, but we were far enough anyways, where she probably wouldn’t try to chase it. The third portage was hard to find. It was getting narrow and swampy. The map said a one rod portage and a 12 yard portage with a swamp in between. I was paddling where I could, which was a narrow river-like stretch of water. It was really shallow. I had to get out after getting stuck on logs. The big fin on my paddleboard made it tough to glide over obstructions in the 6-inch water.
I got to Skoop Lake easy enough, and knew that I had a pretty long portage then a questionable paddle down Cherokee Creek. If Cherokee was as shallow as going through Ada, it would be a long, long stretch. I knew that there were two route options at Cherokee Lake, which is at the end of Cherokee Creek, and told myself that if I got to the lake after noon, I would take the shortcut. It was still really early, though.
The long portage to Cherokee Creek wasn’t terribly difficult, although pretty overgrown. I made it without too much trouble and was excited to check out the creek. It was nice and deep! Great! I stood up, and me and Diamond enjoyed the narrow waterway with a different vibe from the lakes. There was one beaver dam that was challenging to get around. Lots of mucky mud. A few more bends in the river and there was Cherokee. I was there way before noon, so we paddled right out into the lake, and stayed left to take the long loop. Cherokee Lake had a lot of islands, lots of bays, lots of campsites so I had to check the map frequently. I saw several campers right away. The wind was increasing a little bit, there were a bit of choppy waves on the big Cherokee Lake. It was good paddling, though. I was generally going with the wind, so we made good time. I was cranking.
There were a couple of paddlers on the lake, too, and those were the first people I’d seen on the water all day. When I got past an island I knew it was the last one and I was close to the portage. The lake narrowed then opened to the final bay before my portage to Town Lake. I couldn’t see the portage, but paddled right towards shore. I pushed Diamond off so she could swim in to shore a little bit and wash off some of the mud from the beaver dam back on Cherokee Creek, and paddled closer into shore but couldn’t find the portage! I circled around a bit, getting frustrated. I figured I could just go straight in then bushwhack. It’s a 10 rod portage… but decided not to bushwhack and quickly found my portage shrouded in shrubbery, then schlepped my board and dog right through. I was getting hungry, and decided to stop for a bite to eat after that portage, on the banks of Town Lake. I hadn’t eaten anything, and barely drank any water all day. It was tasty to eat some potato chips, hazelnut uncrustables, gummi frogs, some candy. Diamond was looking around and sniffing and exploring. I was enjoying the sunshine. But not for too long, and we set off onto the beautiful Town Lake after just 15 minutes. Town Lake was short, and we got to the next 90 rod portage quickly, then a series of short lakes and long portages. The portage to Vesper Lake was brutal. Lots of rocks, terrible footing.
My hand was getting a little sore from carrying the board, and I noticed that my forearms were burning after getting to Vesper Lake. It was all worth it, though, because that lake was incredibly beautiful, with cool exposed rocky slopes with trees precariously hanging on the hill, no soil to be seen.
It was around noon once I got up and over the next challenging portage from Vesper Lake to Gasket Lake. Gasket was a tiny lake, but with huge rocky cliffs jutting up from the shores. Then another tough portage to Cam Lake. These portages were frequent and tough, but also getting the board in and out of the water was tough. At the shore of Cam Lake, there were no rocks, no sandy beach, just a shallow landing. I put the fin-end in first, but the board wouldn’t budge. I figured that my shoes were pretty much wet as could be anyways, I’d just put my feet in and push off. I jumped in and sunk into the mud up over my knees! Oh MAN!! I hoped I wouldn’t lose a shoe, but the sucking muck let me free and I coaxed Diamond on the board just after I clamored on. I was getting frustrated with Diamond because she wasn’t as prompt as I’d hoped, and when we did get all on and all ready to hit the lake, legs coated in black specks of mud, I had to paddle really hard because the wind was blowing straight onto us. It was a tough go, and seemed so, so windy all of the sudden. I was really looking forward to getting to the end of Cam Lake where the land would block the wind. When I got closer, a less risky area for the wind to blow me around, I took off my wet shoes and dunked my legs into the frigid water to wash them off. That answered my question about if I’d want to jump into a lake. Nope. Luckily I’d taken my socks off hours and hours ago. Also, I luckily wasn’t cold. Perfect temperature, in fact. When I got to the opposite shore of Cam Lake, I was a little frustrated. Oh man, how am I way out here? I’m not going to get back until after dark, I thought. I miscalculated. I’m going so slow, it seems like the wind is blowing directly from the south, and I have to travel many miles practically straight south! This will be an arduous journey to complete. Nuts. Dang wind. I finally turned a corner to go south, then this. A south wind right in my face.
My arms were getting really tired. Mostly my hands and forearms. Luckily paddling wasn’t too difficult yet, besides having to rely on my hands to grip the paddle. I think the paddling and portaging were having a dual impact on my hands more than anything. I thought about grabbing my fingerless bike gloves to lessen the impact, but skipped it. I psyched myself up for the long 100 yard portage to big Brule Lake. I was excited that I’d be paddling west for a while once I got out into Brule, given that the wind seemed to be coming straight from the south. I made the portage with no incident, but was so frustrated once again with an extremely shallow and difficult launch into Brule Lake. Diamond had to go way around, and I shimmied for 100 feet to get out of the swampy shallows. The blowing wind did not help at all, and I was yelling and swearing at it. There was more wind now than ever. Just more time lost.
When I finally got Diamond on the board, I had to look at my map. Even 30 seconds was enough for the wind to push me backwards, sideways a little bit. It is so much easier to move with no wind, or downwind. This was terrible. Luckily the waves weren’t bad, just seemingly the wind itself. I tried to kneel, but that didn’t strike me as a good method right away so I stood back up. Oh well, what can ya do? I just utilized my legs and hips to try and stroke as powerfully as I could, making my way little by little, excited to see a campsite on my left which meant I could turn westward. It seemed like forever, but I got a big view of the Brule Lake to my left, an island with a campsite, so then I could turn in between these wonderful blocking islands and head towards a small portage onto South Temperance Lake. That was a relief, and I immediately felt better turning from the south to the west, especially because the wind seemed to be not just a cross-wind, but actually pushing me towards my destination. I decided to try and make up some time and really crank. It was easy navigation, just aim for the back edge of the lake with a small island nearby. I definitely made good time, thanks to the wind that I’d just been cursing. I was nervous about after Temperance Lake, because it’s really all south from there. Maybe the wind would change direction, or die down…
I saw a paddler from afar, then when I got closer and closer to the portage I noticed packs on shore. I saw a person, but before I landed on the big slab of rock to start the next 10 rod portage they were gone, schlepping another load of gear. I coaxed Diamond off and quickly grabbed my things to sneak past this party. When I turned the corner, it was by far the shortest portage of the day. 10 rods? Yeah right! I asked if this was it, just this little portage, in a friendly tone, and he angrily said yes. He had Diamond by the collar and said that he’s grabbing her because they have fish in a bag back there and he doesn’t want this dog getting in there. Whoops! I apologized profusely and said we’d be out of here in a flash. He let her go, they left to get their fish and packs, and Diamond and I were out of sight onto the South Temperance Lake before they rounded the short corner again. Yikes. Oh well, no harm done.
Getting into the fair sized South Temperance Lake first meant navigating a meandering river-like waterway. It was great! It seemed to be flowing in our favor, or at least the wind was pushing us in the right direction. Hmm, I thought, maybe it’s more of an east wind than a south wind. The river opened up to the lake, and I saw several paddlers fishing. One canoe was filming me, and we got close enough where the guy hollered about Diamond being such a nice doggy on the board. Yep! Yahoo!! I saw one other group, plus campers at a site, and a canoe right by the mouth of the Temperance River itself. Cool! I saw a bald eagle hovering high in the air, and made it to the portage in no time. I stopped for a while here, and contemplated my biggest portage of the day of 240 rods. I, for once, unfolded my map fully and looked at where I was in the grand scheme of things. I figured that I was at least 2/3 done with the route. The next few lakes would be the crux, for sure. After Kelly Lake, it’s a pretty straightforward route back home. 3 portages, 3 lakes. Boom. They seemed to be right in my favor, wind-wise, as well. So if I could make it down Weird Lake, Jack Lake, and Kelly Lake in good time, I’d be home soon. That is still a lot of paddling…. I also filtered some water. I was feeling parched, and realized that it was probably a deficit from earlier in the day and that I should actually focus on drinking water. The water was crystal clear out of my filter. Tasty and cool. Mmm. I ate a few bites of food, too. Then on to the portage. Diamond was chasing around a small critter, a chipmunk or squirrel. But when I was ready to go, she bounded in the woods ahead of me on the nice buffed out trail alongside Temperance River. What a relief, to have a trail that wasn’t completely strewn with rocks.
It was a long portage. My hands and arms were getting really sore, and I banged my paddeleboard on several rocks because my grip was slipping. My fingers hurt so bad, and I was constantly scanning the ground for a nice spot to set down my board, and had to rest every couple of minutes. I would count the number of steps before I could stop, or pick a spot up ahead, like over a hill or past a rock garden. I tried to grip with the tips of my fingers but that hurt, so I’d dry to curl my fingers under my board but that hurt my palm and the board would slip around. Gah. I would hoist the board up and try to tuck it under my armpit and against my hip, but my shoulder would burn so I’d drop it down and let my arm be fully extended, and my forearm would burn. I switched hands half way through, but needed several breaks. The whole time, I could see the Temperance River to my left. It was cool to see this iconic river so far inland, in such a remote place. To think it flows all the way from up here down to the visitor-strewn state park was pretty neat.
I was happy to see an opening, and I launched my board as the river opened up into a marshy area filled with lilly pads. The map showed a short, sweeping bend and then another 80 portage. Ugh. I made it through, then more carrying of my paddleboard, then on to Weird Lake, which was full of lilly pads and vegetation. There almost was no open water at all. I saw people at a campsite at the end of Weird Lake as the lake narrowed. I wondered where the next portage was, and figured I should hop over a beaver dam instead of trying to carry my board even further. I saw open water ahead. It was an easy carry-over on top of the dam, and I was glad to be still paddling and not walking. The next brief portage led to Jack Lake, which was super shallow for a long long ways. I had to get off of my board, and luckily found hard ground below my feet, in a foot or less of water, instead of sinking muck. I lifted Diamond and my board so the front could float and the back fin was out of the water, hopped back on, then had to do it again 100 feet down before the water appeared to deepen. Luckily I didn’t have to do that again, and luckily my feet weren’t too cold and seemed to dry out OK.
Jack Lake was full of vegetation. It was this angel hair-like weed, with clumps of tangled strands of vegetation floating on top of the water every now and then. The wind was a light steady headwind, and I was going so slow. Just keep paddling, I told myself. I was pretty sore, my hands and forearms the worst off, but I still had a lot of energy to paddle, which was good. I had to just belt out this Jack Lake, and the narrow and snaking Kelly Lake, and I’d be pretty much home free. But it was a major struggle right now. There were beaver dens left and right, and I wondered if I’d see one. Whyyyyy am I going so slow? I yelled out. I looked behind me and a huge mass of weeds caught my eye, I was dragging an armful of vegetation that was trapped on my fin. Ugh, that’s worse than a parachute. No wonder I was slowing down so much. It was actually relieving, that I had a reason why I felt like I was going so slow. I leaned over the back of my board and tried to reach under my board to shake off the weeds. It worked and I kept going. Then, I was really sensitive to what I was paddling over, and spent too much energy trying to avoid weeds. They were unavoidable in Jack Lake. The narrow lake narrowed further, which meant that the next 65 yard portage was next. It was nice to have a little break from portaging, despite generally hating Jack Lake, and I was ready attack the big, long Kelly Lake head on to the waning wind. There were rocks everywhere, I scraped the bottom of my board on a few. I slowed way down trying to navigate the boulder field, and again hit shallow water and had to get off my board to shimmy over. Then Jack Lake opened up a bit more before the actual portage. I stopped there and ate a bit of food because my stomach was rumbling. Then on to the portage to Kelly Lake.
The portage went well enough, but they were becoming by far the hardest part of my life. I was losing time by having to stop, and my arms and forearms just killed. I still had the second longest portage of my trip upcoming, plus a 90 rod and 100 rod portage to finish it off. Not easy. But before that is Kelly Lake, a long, narrow seemingly endless paddle. I was hoping that the roughly southwest travel would help with the wind. I got to the other side of the portage and just started hammering on Kelly. There was still a lot of vegetation, and it was getting caught on my board. That was frustrating. The sun was starting to get lower and lower, and there seemed to be a haze in the sky, perhaps from widespread fires in the western US states. I was getting cold out there. My long sleeve was wet, being at the bottom of my tote bag all day. I tied it around my waist in hopes it’d dry a bit.
It was slow going, but I was on a mission. Eventually the Kelly Lake opened up and I was happy to turn ever further westward and go with the wind a little bit. I stuck to the right-hand shore, aiming for a point up ahead. I thought maybe the portage was before the point, but it was not. I rounded a corner and saw a canoe and a couple of guys looking at a map. I got closer and closer and then hollered, wondering if I’d spook them. I didn’t. They told me to sneak on in. I chatted with them a little bit. They said I had a long way to go, as they came from Sawbill earlier in the day. I kind of knew well enough where I was… and had been through so much. So I took their comment of being really far away with a little grain of salt. I told them that if I got to Smoke Lake in an hour, then I could make it back to the dock in another hour. It was 5:30pm at the time. I was just talking to myself at that point. So, I blitzed onto the portage, the second longest of the day at 230 rods. It was fairly buffed out, and I made good time. I had to stop several times, and switched arms halfway through. It was grueling, but I made it, feeling super excited to just have two lakes to paddle until Sawbill, and I’d be paddling northwest, seemingly perfectly aligned with with wind.
I had a straight shot across Burnt Lake. The water was a weird green color. I wondered if that was from the burning of Burnt Lake. Probably not… I was going right with the wind and it felt so good. I crossed really close to a campsite, then into a back bay. I was in autodrive mode, and just hopped off the board, Diamond and I trucked through to the next lake, and right back onto the water.
Smoke Lake was another easy paddle, with simple navigation. I just had to follow the left hand shoreline. I saw several loons ducking in and out of the water. The very end of the back bay, near the portage somewhere, was marshy. Right in the middle of the bay I nearly stopped dead after smashing into a rock under the surface. I fell onto Diamond, thankful that neither of us went in. Yikes. I spotted a channel in the tall weeds and cattails, turned into it and saw a dock-like structure, which was interesting and unique. It made for a really nice landing. I was nervous Diamond would go off of the wooden dock because there were a few shoes on one of the planks, presumably sucked off my the extreme mud just off the dock. One more portage then I was home free! I made it through, but with many stops to relieve my arms and hands.
The other side of Sawbill Lake was very rocky, and I was on my last straw with Diamond because she wouldn’t climb over the rocks to get on my board. Since when were rocks an issue for you!?!? I screamed at her, and she finally lumbered on board.
The sun had definitely set, which was a bummer. I was looking forward to a great sunset. Clouds had rolled in, or maybe I missed the sunset. Or maybe I saw it. I was glad I had my long sleeve shirt on, it was getting chilly. I still had a pretty long paddle on Sawbill, but was really excited to be done with portages and to be back on Sawbill. What a day! I had the chance to reminisce a little bit, and told Diamond to take it all in. I thought to myself how it wasn’t fun at all. All the lakes looked the same. I could have had a more enjoyable experience with six hours, or four, instead of 12 hours out here. I could have woken up later, and already been back home in my comfortable home. Oh well, it’s done now. Well, not done actually. I looked at my map. I had a long way to go. I just kept smashing my paddle into the water. I started seeing more people, and signs of the campground. One lady hollered at me, asked if I had been paddling all day. I said yep. She said she saw me in the morning. Cool!
I thought I was at the last dock, but it looked different and I didn’t see the road. It was the wrong dock! How did I not find this one in the morning? One more corner and I saw THE dock. I paddled straight to it. My watch was really close to 30 miles and really close to 12 hours. I thought about paddling in a circle to get to both checkpoints. Nah, I just paddled straight in. I nodded to an angler on the end of the dock. I stopped my watch, plopped Diamond onto the dock, lifted my stuff out, and lifted the board out. Then I walked back up to my car, drove down and retrieved my board. While lifting my board into my car, I had to shift it around to align it onto my car seat, and my poor, weak hands slipped and the board slammed on the ground. Oh well, one last bash of the board. You want to smash up your paddleboard real good, take a trip to the Boundary Waters!
The next day, I wrote up a trip report in the BWCA Forum, somehow got to researching on new, faster paddleboards and different touring models and stuff, and dreaming up a new trip, maybe an overnighter. Maybe the trip wasn’t so miserable after all… maybe that was sweet. I think an overnight trip is definitely next. Maybe not so many miles, but c’mon it is so fun to push the limits! I’ll be back.
12 Apr 2020
Trip Plan: Bike the Grandma’s Marathon course in reverse, from the finish line to the start line. Drop the bike, change to running gear and run the Grandma’s Marathon course back.
Start Time: Saturday, April 11, 2020 – 6:09am
- Bike: 1:12:55
- Transition: 0:03:00
- Run: 3:29:46
- Total Time: 4:45:41
In the months leading up to this day, I had been training hard for the Zumbro Midnight 50. I was in really good shape to try and beat my other two times running Zumbro, in 2016 and 2017. With the novel coronavirus sweeping the world, Zumbro was canceled along with thousands, if not millions, of other events worldwide. I knew I wanted to do something on this day, not to mention continue training for the thing. As expected, trail conditions in Duluth had been deteriorating and the annual blanket trail closure in city limits was imposed in early April, leaving any training grounds and adventure route options to road or pavement only.
As my passion project website www.duluthadventures.com was taking off very slowly, I was eager to think of another multisport adventure loop to do, if nothing else to pad the website. Then, as I brainstormed a loop that could be done in early April (when trails are closed; my favorite inline skating route, Munger Trail, was mostly covered in snow; water not open, too cold, and/and too dangerous to paddle), a Grandma’s Marathon course blitz was the idea that stuck in my head more and more often. It seemed like such a raw challenge… 26.2 miles on the time trial bike, the speed machine, max aero. Then, run the marathon course that so many people have run in 3 hours or 2:48 (my PR from 2015) or 2:09 on. I became excited about the route, and even posted my thoughts on social media, pondering if 4 hours for the bike-run combination was outrageous. Yep! Outrageous, and the response was more of: “you can do it Mike!”. Yeah right! I felt in great shape for Zumbro, yes, but the speed and fitness that it takes to run a fast marathon is not an easy thing to develop. That takes serious time and dedication. Was I there? Maybe… but what about the bike portion? How much fitness does that take? I thought that 4:30 would not be out of the question, under 4 hours would be extraordinary. Either way, I thought that this loop could be widely attempted, especially once news broke of Grandma’s Marathon 2020 being canceled due to the pandemic. Who would try this feat?
I set the date. Zumbro day, of course. What other day would it be? Then I happened to talk to a news reporter at the Duluth News Tribune. He, I think, wanted a story about Duluth Timing and Events and how the business was affected by races being canceled, and what the deal is with all of these races being canceled. Well, I kind of steered the topic to Duluth Adventures. Hey, any way to get the word out and more submissions to the site is my main angle! But he seemed to be interested, especially when I mentioned this Saturday being my day to do the next Duluth Adventure. He seemed to be so interested, in fact, that he requested what time I was planning to start the whole deal so he could send a photographer down! Cool! However, it presented a unique twist in the whole setup of this trip, because just like a race, there now had to be a specific time to start. I had a scheduled meeting for Saturday at noon. So, as that Saturday drew near, I looked at the weather forecast for guidance. Sunday looked bad all around. Saturday morning looked to have a better wind direction for going fast on the bike. The wind was predicted to shift by the afternoon. So either start at 2pm and finish around 6 or 7pm, or starting brutally early (relative to my month-long routine of sleeping until 8 or 9am) and finishing with enough time to get home, eat and recover for the virtual meeting at noon. I chose 6am.
I wouldn’t say I trained specifically for the fast bike-run, but I would say I was in great shape leading into April. I toyed with another aggressive run mileage build-up, which worked in my favor 6 months prior. I dreamt about a 60-70-80-90 four week peak. On the third week, I stalled at 75 miles, then decided to take a down week instead of 90 or 100 miles. Then I totally scrapped the plan and started from scratch. Either way, it was an aggressive build and I made it out unscathed. After that run-up in mid- to late-March, I decided to focus on running faster and cross-training with a myriad of sports. I figured this would help me with any multisport adventure I wanted to try. And I felt confident for a 4:30 outing on the revered Grandma’s course.
The night before, I barely squeezed my shoes into my small hydration vest. My running shorts and second water bottle made the pack bulge. The first bottle would go with me on the bike. I was very paranoid to lock my triathlon bike to a tree near Two Harbors when I wouldn’t be back to retrieve it for several hours, and not willing to leave my expensive aerodynamic race wheels out of sight for any reason! I got stuck on the unsupported style of this excursion, and recruiting my roommate Jack to pick up my bike kind of blurred the lines. I decided the line was that I had to bring everything I needed, so no pick-up from Jack, but I could essentially drop anything I wanted at the Grandma’s start line, my turn-around point, for Jack to take back home. Meh, I figured it was unsupported enough to be called unsupported. At least self-supported.
When I woke up, I almost called it off. Ugh, too early. It was 4:57am, and dark. The photographer had mentioned the sunrise in the email, and I didn’t even consider that I’d be starting in the dark at 6am! But the familiar race day excitement roused me and the doubts and regret washed away quickly to be replaced by excitement and nervous dread. The good nervous dread, though.
I was down to Canal Park pretty much right at 6am, and started to get ready. I saw the News vehicle far away from the start line and didn’t take action. The photographer Tyler texted me, then I saw her run up and introduce herself. She snapped a few pics of me getting ready and pumping my tires up. I was kind of muttering to her… “I guess I’m almost ready here, what else do I need? That’s it I think”, but it was really just muttering to myself, really. It was kind of awkward… do I acknowledge her at all or just act like I am alone like normal? Whatever, time to rip. I put on my aero helmet, locked my car and put the key in the pack, put the pack on, bike shoes on, and rode up to the start line. Watch at zero, I almost went. Wait! I took a look at the time before setting off: 6:09 and maybe 30 seconds. I hit the start button and started cranking in the dawn light of Canal Park towards the photographer kneeling in the empty street. Nobody else in sight.
It was cold. My fingers became uncomfortably cold within minutes. It was fun to zing around Duluth, but I knew I was losing time by dodging gaping potholes, sand and gravel on the roadway, and navigating the several turns until getting out of town. The sunrise at Brighton Beach was incredible, but I whipped my head around the other way when something out of the corner of my eye caught my attention. Oh! The photographer girl. Gah, don’t look right at the camera Mike!! So I put my head back down and cranked towards the Scenic Highway 61.
Once onto the highway, I finally felt like I was going fast and could get comfortable in the aero bars. My stupid aero helmet with the long tail in the back was not conducive with my bulging pack. The helmet was hitting the pack, and to see just a few feet in front of me required my eyes to be looking up as far as I could. That wasn’t a great view, and I was most comfortable by looking down at my front wheel, which was darting back and forth on the white lane line. I had to look up, for the sake of safety, and that pack was definitely a source of frustration the entire ride. However, the miles clicked off fast.
My fingers actually warmed up enough once I got going, but my feet had become very cold. It wasn’t really that uncomfortable, but I could feel the numbness creep in. Otherwise, I was actually a pretty nice temperature. When I took a swig of water, it felt like ice water in my mouth. I though there was actually ice forming at one point. I didn’t want to spend the time to eat or drink, though, and became focused on staying aero and cranking away. I tried to maintain a steady effort, but nothing too crazy. In hindsight, I didn’t push hard enough, and I didn’t have the bike mileage in my legs (or really, in my head), to accurately gauge how much effort I was putting forth. Also, it was too cold to check my 5 mile splits, which I’d hoped were in the 12 minute range. It was too cold and I was too focused on maintaining a good speed, to do anything besides sit in the aero bars and crank away.
My photographer Tyler was taking a ton of pictures. She seemed to meet me at the next sweet view every five miles or so. Oh man, I thought, these photos will be gold on my blog site. What a treat. I didn’t see her after Knife River, and I certainly starting noticing the Grandma’s Marathon mile markers with more anticipation, counting down from five to four to three. Couple more minutes here… I spent excess energy looking up in hopes to see the big clearing of Sonju in the distance, or two cars parked on the side of the road. In what seemed like a very short ride, there it was! I saw the two cars, and it was a relief. I had been a little anxious about what to do if Jack wasn’t there, for whatever reason. I wasn’t spending the time to drink water, let alone try to call or text him on the ride. A few peeks of my watch and I was super jacked about my time. I thought I’d averaged 24 mph or faster on the ride, based on my quick math after a quick glance. WOW.
When I got to Jack and Tyler, I first noticed how numb my feet were. I mean, numb. Can’t feel them. Yikes. I forewarned them both that I was going to get naked now. I tried to strip off my tights and bike shorts, which was reminiscent of a triathlon’s T1, struggling with a wetsuit. My shorts went on quick, then my shoes. It was definitely uncomfortable to deal with my frozen feet! Jack luckily just grabbed my bike and tossed it in his vehicle, so I could readjust my pack setup and prepare to run. I was working with a sense of urgency, and after tossing my additional drop-off items in Jack’s car, lined up at the Grandma’s Marathon start line like an elite runner ready to compete. No starting gun, though, just my own preference on the exact moment when to start. My watch is the starting gun, so when I hit the start button, I jumped off the line.
Oof, my first few strides were the classic jelly legs of transitioning from bike to run. The frozen feet added another element. Gah, that was a weird feeling. Jack sped by and honked his horn. Tyler drove by next, soon out of sight. The frozen feet had transitioned to pins and needles, ouch. However, the sun was rising higher in the sky and I could feel its rays. The rest of my body was the perfect temperature. And it was very quick for the jelly legs feeling to vanish and the feeling of strength to replace. Oooo yeah. Let’s get it.
After only a mile my feet warmed up and I was really the perfect temperature. It was probably 34 degrees… a tough temperature to plan for. I saw Tyler down the road a bit and focused on running as if she wasn’t there as I heard her camera click away. Another mile and I felt a slight jostling in my stomach. Darn. I saw a portable toilet at the Mocha Moose and figured it’d be a good insurance policy to stop. I did, and felt better despite a mid-9 minute mile split. Time to settle in at 7:30, I told myself. And that’s what I did. The miles started to click off. I saw my personal photographer about every mile, it seemed. It was kind of fun to see where my watch was at when I crossed each mile marker. I wasn’t running the tangent of the road, that’s for sure. Tyler jumped out of her car and ran to my side of the road for when I crossed the Mile 4 marker. When I hit mile 6 I thought about how this is kind of like halfway to halfway. 13.1. Wait, that’s like 6.5 miles. When I got to the Mile 7 marker, which was 7.08 on my watch, I said I was halfway to halfway. Nice. My splits were good and I was feeling great. I figured this pace would give me a 1:40 half split, which is a 3:20 marathon. I thought my bike was around 1:10… how long was that transition? I was kind of fumbling around… maybe 5 minutes? I remembered 6:09am. I tried to do math. I figured a 3:20 marathon would be damn close to 4 and a half hours for the whole trip. I can do it.
The miles kept clicking off, and I got tired. Oof, this is going to a long, long day, I told myself. With a handful of miles until halfway still, I remembered the first miles. Those were the golden miles, I told myself. I felt good back then… But I kept trucking along in a great rhythm and fairly consistent mile splits in the 7:30 range. I hadn’t seen Tyler in a long time. That was probably the end of her assignment. Darn. Just me and the road out here. I tried to run the tangents when it looked like a big curve in the road, which was not the least dangerous thing I could have done. The curves always end up being pretty tame, anyways. I was just looking longingly ahead, always. It kind of felt like running the actual marathon, except the water stops are definitely a highlight of each mile. There is energy at each water stop. No extra energy on this day, except the other solo exercises, the animals and nature, and the traffic. Traffic may be an energy suck, actually.
I hit halfway right a tad slower than 1 hour and 40 minutes in. I’d have to dig deep to finish this thing out in a negative split. But I was feeling good. It was kind of the feeling in a 50 miler, like I’d been training for. My body seemed to be self limiting to a pace that was sustainable. I felt tired, yes. My legs were starting to get a little sore, perhaps. But I knew at halfway that I was on track to finish strong. However, my time was not exactly a motivating factor. I seemed to be slipping from 7:30 pace, and to be a little slower than 1:40 for the half was slightly discouraging. Then, upon a second calculation, I would need a 3:10 marathon or so to hit 4:30! I must have been wrong about my bike split and transition… it was hard to find a definite calculation to know how long my bike and transition were, but I could tell that it’d take a big negative split to hit my goal. Oh well… finish ‘er out Mike!
My next target was Brighton Beach. Getting off this stinkin’ highway would be a nice change of scenery. Any change of scenery… and the Lakeside section of the Grandma’s course just makes you feel like you’re into town finally. Thinking back to the ride, the portion getting out of Duluth and onto the Scenic went by in a blip! Plus, mile 20 is always a good milestone to hit in the marathon. So I looked forward to Brighton Beach in an attempt to help time fly by a little bit faster. The miles continued to click off, and I felt another swash of the stomach. Darn. It wasn’t an emergency situation, but the swash was enough of a discomfort to notice my mile splits. I pondered the likelihood of a portable restroom at Brighton Beach, or at one of the rest stops between here and there. Eh, probably not. And then the slightly uneasy swash because an emergency real quick. I felt “the clench”. So I ran off into the woods. Actually, the break was nice on the ole churning leggies. There are only probably 2,500 more portable toilets on this route during a certain weekend in June. Today, one. And no matter how unpleasant the e-dump in the woods was, I ran off feeling much springier and more fresh. In no time, I ran across Lester River and into the Lakeside neighborhood. I was feeling pretty good. Strong, speedy again (well, speedy enough), and in control. Usually during Grandma’s Marathon, or even the Garry Bjorklund Half, Lakeside is a death march. Usually I am hanging on by a thread, having gone out way too hard for the first bunch of miles. That being said, each step through Lakeside today was still tedious.
The next milestone was Glensheen Mansion. Glensheen has always been the toughest part of the course. Maybe it’s simply a landmark to remember the suffering. This time, I was moving well. My mile splits continued to be consistent. Consistent enough, at least, to not feel like I was falling apart. I was excited to run past Glensheen and try Lemon Drop Hill. The hill did reduce me to a shuffle, but I was up and over and on to London Road. I was getting real close, and getting excited. I knew that 4:30 was out of reach, so just focused on finishing strong. Each mental Grandma’s Marathon milestone clicked by: the turn up 12th Ave; crossing DRC, where I remembered all those years passing with many high-fives and a jolt of adrenaline; Fitger’s with the massive crowds at the Mile 24 water station. Today, just another day and I was running on the sidewalk. I probably looked like a maniac, some haggard dude running hard with a backpack and making audible grunts of pain. Oh well. I ran around a car pulling out and down to Michigan. Mile 25 came and went, and it was on to the final push. I was looking at my marathon time now. It’d be close, but a sure lock for 3:30. Around the DECC, past the Blue Bridge and the Irvin, and I could sniff the finish. Yes. However, all the sudden 3:30 was coming up real quick and I knew that I absolutely could not let up. Around by the hotels, across the marker for Mile 26, and my hair stood up on the back of my neck. There it was! That little hit of excitement, that little rush that you get near the finish line of a race… I got it.
Amidst the pain of the finishing stretch, I found it kind of funny that I was running down the middle of Canal Park Drive just like any other marathon day. Nobody was out, no cars, no businesses open… nothing. 11am on a Saturday and just me pushing as hard as I can. This coronavirus is bizarre shit!
I crossed the finish line with 3:29:XX on my watch, and yelled out right away. ARGHH! It was the same yell as one makes directly after finishing a speedy interval on the track, for instance. A smile came onto my face, and I laid down right next to the Grandma’s Marathon Finish Line plaque impressed into the nearby sidewalk.
It was without a doubt a fun trip. I found it incredibly interesting how little I could dip into the pain cave without a bib on. The next day, my legs felt pretty good, similar to any other long training day. The day after a Grandma’s Marathon, I am dead!! That takes many days to walk kind of normal again. It felt like I was pushing to my abilities during this solo effort, but I don’t think it was comparable to a race effort, in hindsight. Perhaps one is simply more risk averse in a non-race, unsupported situation.
My hope is that somebody else tries this route. I would love to hear the story about how they suffered greatly, as I did. Yet, it was all worth it.
12 Jan 2020
Trip Plan: Ski pulk to Buzz Ryan Campsites in the Boulder Lake Management Area. Winter camp two nights in the hot tent and explore the area on fat skis.
Date: December 20-22, 2019
Day 1 – Friday, December 20, 2019
My dream had come true. How many hours had I yapped to Kris about winter camping dreams and actual trips I’d planned and executed, gear and wish list items? Kris always talked about getting me this hot tent rig to try. 6 months prior, she told me she got it from her ex-husband. She got it for me! WHAT!? So when winter finally came around in Duluth, with a force, I was very eager to try this setup out. Kris told me she’d come along and help me set it up and enjoy a winter’s night out in the woods. We figured out a date that worked. Luckily we have pretty similar weekend schedules as partners of a weekend-based race timing business!
I was so eager that I asked Kris if I could go out on Friday. She couldn’t go but said she’d find me the next day out at Boulder Lake. After working a half-day on Friday, I packed up as quick as possible, and Diamond and I drove to Kris’s to get the rig and ship up to Boulder Lake 20 minutes outside of town.
Kris gave me the rundown. The entire hot tent rig first consists of a large pulk sled. Very heavy but it obviously slides. The tent itself is canvas plus a wooden center pole. Then the wood stove has four pipe attachments, the stand and a little shelf extension all packed within the stove itself. The door was rusted shut. Skeeter rushed to grab some brand new metal lubricating anti-rust spray he’d just purchased for his bike. Kris quipped about how she’s glad she checked the door! Yep, that would be a challenge if I set up the entire tent, got wood, got my lighter out, and the door is closed tight. Even if it opens, a rusty door would make feeding the stove obviously difficult. So we lubed it up, I got some last minute setup tips, and we roughly coordinated on the meet-up tomorrow. By this point, it was 3pm, and we still had to drive out! The sense of urgency hit me. It would be dark soon.
Off to Boulder, and I wondered what the repercussions may be about parking my van on the side of County Road 4. I’d been thinking of this… to the point of trying to look up Minnesota and Saint Louis County laws and regulations! I couldn’t find anything. Must be legit then. We arrived in a snap, the feeling of darkness looming heavy. I struggled with attaching some last second gear and settled for a somewhat looseleaf configuration within the sled. I neglected to pull up the flap cover, which was a mistake. With the entirety of my gear strapped to the sled (Diamond carried some of her own load), it was extremely cumbersome at best to get the sled out of my van. Yeah, this wouldn’t be possible without a minivan with the seats out! I dragged it down with a thud, focusing on keeping Diamond out of the 60mph roadway, but only had 12 inches to work with on the narrow shoulder. I had driven into the snowbank slightly to create about one inch of clearance from the white line in the road. While tinkering around with the waistbelt I heard a rumble from far away. Moments later, I stood helpless as a massive lumber transporting truck zoomed past. I felt the displacement of air, seemingly wavering in place as the truck roared on. I second guessed my parking spot, but resolved to just folding my mirror in.
I finally got all strapped in: Diamond, pulk sled and all. I was wearing my Altai Hok fat skis and using much-too-short trekking poles. I felt unsteady. Then I realized that the bottom of the pulk sled had something on it. Like a sticky substance of some sort. Sheesh, how would I get this mystery material off? I can’t slide this sled like this? Maybe ice chunks on the bottom. No, none of that make sense!! The sled was just heavy. Unbelievably heavy. I was in denial that I couldn’t muster the strength to make the sled budge. I leaned obnoxiously forward and tried lurching in jerky spurts to get some semblance of momentum. First, barely a nudge, then some sliding, then I was able to keep my momentum up and actually got going!
As dusk settled in, Diamond and I made our way to the Buzz Ryan campsites. I knew it was just less than 2 miles in. The dog and the sled were frustrating. Too much shit attached to myself. I’d get the sled into a rut, Diamond into a tangle. If I lost my momentum it was like an critical failure. Keep the sled sliding under any circumstances! We trucked along and made it to the very first campsite available, the same one that we had been to about 4 weeks earlier. Every new moment seemed to be noticeably darker. It was that point where your eyes kind of change over from light to dark. I could still see, but not many minutes could pass before I’d need to find my lamp. Ok… let’s see how this thing sets up. I figured the wooden pole was for the direct center. I neglected to bring a shovel, which proved to be a huge mistake for the setup phase of the hot tent lifestyle. I tried to pack down snow with my skis, to make a platform. Diamond trounced all over it and ruffled up the snow. Ugh! I swore at her, my booming voice echoing off the shoreline opposite. Hehe, that’s kind of fun. I shook the tent free from its bag. I found the center pole hole and also the door. I felt it a useless endeavor to try and lay out the tent. I’d move one corner and the other side would furl onto itself. I’d stomp over to the other side to unfurl, the back would pull up from its spot. Terrible. I decided to go for the center pole first. Then I found corners. Luckily, they had cord tied to the grommets. There were many, many more untied grommets. But having the four corners tied gave me an idea of the tent’s dimensions. When I got the center piece in I started tying down the corners. It was similar to stringing up my upside-down trekking pole rain tarp. Frustrating but once you get two sides it comes up. It was a challenge to tie down onto far-away trees and shrubberies. I tied one side to a log and buried it in the snow. Then the tent popped right up! I went around and tightened up each corner, readjusted the center and all the sudden I had myself a sturdy shelter. At this point, I had to get my headlamp. I put my brand new tarp down as a floor, brought the wood stove in, and shoved everything else from the shed right in. Immediately, I knew there was too much snow in there. Crap. I started using my arm to move snow from inside to out. The floor soon became bare to the forest floor. That is good, less to melt and turn into water, I thought. With all the snow on my arms I started getting cold. It was not too long before I had my area pretty well set up, though. It seemed like a rushed setup. I can optimize later. Firewood is the next big concern.
In just as much of a rush as the rest of the evening thus far, I got burnable lumber as quick and easily as possible. It was a few armfuls of twigs and sticks, plus a bundle of birch bark. I got a fire going real quick. I had to stoke the fire with new twigs, to the brim, every 20 minutes. My initial wood pile was enough to warm up dinner and keep me warm while I ate. Then I needed to get more wood. I got a similar pile of sticks and twigs, enough to last me until bedtime. Then I’d let the fire go out. I was prepared for the forecasted mid-20’s overnight. It was an ecstatic evening. So this is it! The hot tent setup was so cool. I couldn’t believe I was out here. So awesome. I had ample entertainment just stoking the fire, taking in this new shelter space, and day dreaming up where I could take it. Diamond seemed happy and snug in her new DIY lightweight winter doggy bed.
Day 2 – Saturday, December 21, 2019 (Winter Solstice)
How goofy is it to spend the entire day outside on the winter solstice? The shortest day of the year? In northern Minnesota that day’s not very long! When I finally got up at 7:30 or so it was dawn, kind of similar to when I arrived here last night… no sun, not dark, but light enough to see pretty well. I spotted a crescent moon framed nicely in between some very tall pines. Beautiful! I took a deep breath through my nostrils, my brain flooded with serotonin and knew today would be a great day. Breakfast, then ski all day. The snow conditions were deep, fluffy, beautiful. Even the snowmobile-tracked Buzz Ryan Road back to the van would be nice to scoot along on the fat skis. But before breakfast, me and Dimey took to the lake to get a lay of the land. The first slush reports came back positive. It seemed like rock hard ice underneath a fluffy snowpack. The lake seemed a bit windblown, but still decent snow on top. We made a loop, then back for breakfast. Oatmeal and coffee was delicious. I was excited to go off even further. So I ate quickly, geared up for a longer tour, we zipped up the tent door and started off! Diamond was completely in her element running free in the woods in the snow. I felt a little stiff from the sleep on the ground but loosened up quickly as sunshine and blue sky spread across the landscape. Looking high to the treetops was picturesque. The day was shaping up to be truly incredible with great temperatures and snow conditions. I couldn’t help but smile, even laugh out loud, even hooting and hollering! Where else would we rather be, I shouted to Diamond. She didn’t take the time to respond. Too many sniffs.
Diamond and I headed toward the van parked on the road to try and find some logging road or snowmobile trail or cut in the woods… whatever it is, I’d scoped out many trails totally untracked in this Buzz Ryan area of the Boulder Lake Management Area. And exploring those through feet of snow is a perfect job for the fat skis! We found one after another, all leading in a dead end, but all enjoyable to just take the trail wherever it may lead, enjoy the nearby trees, the sunshine, blue sky and clouds, the soft snow blanketing everything in sight. Wonderful. I checked on the van, not smashed, good. Then we headed back to the tent. I wanted to call Kris to ask when she’d be there, where to meet her, etc… My phone was at 1% battery. CRAP! So I called Kris quick and blurted out my question. She said she’d park around 1pm. OK BYE!! Then I wrapped my phone in my jacket to try and keep it warm and from dying. And we went back out. A few hours of exploring every nook and cranny of Buzz Ryan and we headed back towards the County Road to meet Kris. When we arrived at around 12:45pm, no Kris. No sense waiting around, I thought, she’ll find us eventually. I had to start getting firewood. So we trekked back.
Tonight’s fire pile would be different. I wasn’t messing around this time. No more twigs and sticks. I harnessed into the empty pulk sled and Diamond and I skied out to an area that I’d spotted a lot of leaning dead trees. When we got there, I saw so many valid pieces of quality lumber I couldn’t wait to get to work. Diamond sauntered off into the deep woods and I started pushing, pulling, shaking and tossing tree limbs from the dense woods onto the trail by the sled. Ooo, this was going to be a haul! I paused the collections process to start breaking them into manageable pieces, then into the sled. Eventually I noticed a blonde dog trouncing down the trail. Lacie! Then Skeeter then Kris. They came right to me! Look at that! It was good timing as I had nearly filled up the sled. So I packaged it up and we all headed to the tent. I was embarrassed about my half-assed string-up job in dusk the night before, but it wasn’t so bad after all. Kris was ready to sleep in the woods, but didn’t make a rock solid commitment. And then I showed my friends the area.
We went out onto the lake, then to the furthest west campsite of 5 Buzz Ryan campsites. We tracked the campsite’s trails in entirety, then back to my lumber yard for another haul. It was nice to have helpers, and I filled that sled up to the brim with choice burnables in no time. Back to the tent, I started stacking and Kris seemed more than eager to whip out the saw and start cutting the bigger logs. When Skeeter decided he should probably head out, and Kris had to make a decision, she decided to stay. Easier decision when the wood pile is heaping! Lacie, that barker, left as well. In no time, it was dark again.
The rest of the night was relaxing, enjoyable, and warm. That lumber made the difference, and that tent got HOT! It was so hot, and the hot air kind of clumped towards the top of the tent, that you tried to get as low as possible to avoid the dizzying heat. It had to have been 80 degrees in there! I eventually dozed off, and Kris stoked the fire every hour until morning. I woke up a few times during the refueling process and drearily asked “fire still going?” or something meaningless like that. It was warm overnight.
Day 3 – Sunday, December 22, 2019
Kris and Diamond and I started to stir and pretty much got right to making oatmeal and coffee. I think we both were pretty keen on getting out of the woods without too much dilly-dallying. Diamond seemed to be feeling the whopping 15 mile ski the day before. I was too. I could go another day, but ooof, I was also ready to go home and unpack and take a shower. Drying, cleaning and storing this gear would certainly be a long and difficult process in and of itself. Much more so after another long ski, not to mention the 2 mile pulk out.
We did take another little spin across the lake. The clouds were very low lying… a fog, really. Regardless, it seemed kind of hazy out, kind of humid, mostly cloudy… kind of an interesting morning. Diamond didn’t have her usual peppy puppy energy levels, and I felt a little sluggish for sure. Skiing was more of a chore today than it was a blissful glide yesterday. So before long Kris and I reconvened, packed up our heaping mounds of gear, and tracked back to the cars. The sled pull was much better this time around with the experience and knowledge to utilize the sled cover and pack nicely. We were back to the cars in no time.
What a trip. Close to home, yes. Nothing extreme, no. But the nature was stunning and incredible. The hot tent setup was so cool. Such a game-changer. The skis and snow conditions, being outside all day, moving through nature, fellowship of my faithful dog Diamond and friends Kris and Skeeter gave me the feeling of having my best day ever. I think that Saturday was the best day of my life so far! Ya can’t get better than that.
28 Sep 2019
Trip Plan: Drive to Superior Hiking Trail Rossini Road Trailhead, run ~38 miles back to my house (.3 miles off the SHT), grab my bike and take a road/gravel route ~36 miles back to my car.
Start Time: Thursday, September 26, 2019 – 7:55am
- Run 7:52:08
- Transition: 0:13:00
- Bike: 2:12:08
This was the second adventure day that I dreamed up early on in the summer. I got the St. Louis River paddling trip in the books months ago, and this intense duathlon idea was looming. I knew I would have to wait until after the NorthShore Inline Marathon (of which I am race director… therefore low sleep, high work hours, no time for cool adventures), and when that wrapped up I was eager to pick a day and go. However, daylight was a serious concern and every day I waited meant a higher chance of being caught in the dark at some point.
With Wild Duluth 100k on the horizon, and training going really well, I questioned something like this. On one hand, what better simulation than 40 miles on the SHT? On the other hand, training is like digging a hole and filling it back up. A tough training effort is a bigger hole and takes more time, sleep, recovery, to fill it back in and get back to “normal”. The Rossini Duathlon would require digging a real deep hole. But I knew I wanted to do it so what the heck??
I saw my opening on Thursday. Not really thinking of my Wild Duluth training plan at large, I had Thursday on my mind and worked my week around accordingly. I wanted to make sure I had all my personal life stuff in order (work, chores, dogs). With that in place I was ready to go! The night before was the infamous NMTC Fall Wednesday Night Trail Series race at Brown’s Point in Superior. 8k of steep ups and downs on mostly ski trail. I had an exceptional race after two kind of crappy weeks of getting passed mercilessly, and chalked it up to really focusing on sleep. I’d slept 11 hours a piece Monday and Tuesday. I felt normal soreness Wednesday night and when I woke up Thursday.
I questioned even going… I lamented to Emily and she didn’t really have a good answer. Oh well, stick to the plan, I thought. My hamstrings were the most sore, right up by my butt from holding sub-7 pace on trails for over 4.5 miles. That Wednesday trail race was a tax on the body for sure. I felt late all morning but got out to the coffee shop for various bagels and coffee, and was up to Rossini Road before 8am.
First steps out of the car… sore hamstrings. Crap. I’ll really have to focus on recovering these hamstrings this week, I told myself. I had to be reassuring: after today I have most of my miles in for the week and so plenty of time to do stretches and strength work and foam rolling. But the fear was real. What if I really mess my body up? All this training and planning for Wild Duluth down the drain. What if I can’t finish this run? Jeez, 40 miles is a really long way. What am I thinking? Who can I call to pick me up when I bail? It was a cool 37 degrees according my van’s thermometer, but I felt pretty comfortable in just a short sleeve tech shirt. I neglected to bring poles, and thought about 12 minute pace as a rough target. Despite the negative thoughts right off the bat, I mostly walked up to 12 Mile View in no time, feeling great.
The morning was simply pristine. Perfectly beautiful. A textbook fall day. How fortunate am I to be able to spend this whole lovely day out here? I now remember interviewing Adam Schwartz-Lowe for The Duluth Rundown podcast as he described gratefulness as a mental strategy to keep going during a 100 mile race. That really works. It was pretty hard not to be grateful… I can’t stress enough how overwhelmed I was by the beauty of the fall day!
I was surprised how fast I got to the Big Bend campsite. I remembered hiking home from this campsite in 2016 as I trained for that year’s thru-hike. I also remember during the thru-hike itself getting rained out in the night. I looked at that tent pad that flooded me out years ago. Nobody was camping, I wondered how many people I’d see today. For now, just me and the tweety birds. I wasn’t quite at 5 miles when the first hour struck. Therefore, a bit down on my goal pace. But I was feeling really smooth. The trail was perfect for running. Dry, kind of tacky, not so overgrown as I thought it might be. I was rolling. I hit Fox Farm Road trailhead and was kind of sad to leave the section between there and Rossini. I could run that piece endlessly. It’s just perfect trail running terrain.
On the ridges out of Fox Farm Road, I saw a backpacker. He stopped me, grasping for my name. “You’re… you’re… what’s your name?” I said Mike. He said he was Carl, he helped me out at NorthShore just a couple days back. Then it struck me and it came flooding back. He is Anne Hyopponen’s brother and we chatted a bit. He said that Anne and her husband Dave (who I have raced with many times) told him I’d be out here. Here I am! It was a funny coincidence, and cool to see a fellow lightweight backpacker. He was going from Martin Road all the way north to Canada, testing some gear for the PCT along the way. We crossed paths and were on our way. I looked down at my watch. Cripes, getting further and further down on pace. That is the trouble with an unsupported run… the clock don’t stop, and I need to filter water! I wondered if I’d see another thru-hiker, a gal going for a supported Fastest Known Time. Lacie is the name, she’s going northbound on the trail, and I figured I’d see her. I wonder where?
The miles kept clicking off and I felt good through 10 miles around the Fox Farm Pond campsite. I was working hard to scrape my way back to 12 minutes per mile average, but also keeping it smooth. It was the perfect temperature by this point, and I was focusing on eating food as not to fall behind on that. With a big mouth full of food, I realized my water stores were running low. I knew there was a creek before the Sucker River and aimed for that. I completely ran out of water before getting to the creek crossing and filtering water back into my two flasks. Boy, that makes the pack feel much heavier all the sudden! But on we go…
I ran it out to the North Shore State Trail, where there is a shelter near the Sucker River Bridge. I put my hands up in the air and yelled “Hello Sucker River!!!” as the breeze wafted through my armpits. Mmmm perfect. I was running good, making my way quickly through the terrain. I wondered if I’d see Lacie at the exact same spot I saw the last FKT completer – Austin – just south of the Sucker River campsite. I did see someone, just north of the Sucker River campsite. A gal was walking with perhaps just one trekking pole, nothing on her back, looking fresh like she was on a morning stroll. I wonder if that’s a camper at Sucker just going for the morning wakeup stroll? I barely said hello as I zoomed past through an entanglement of cedar roots adjacent to the Sucker River. It didn’t even strike me until hours later that this was the thru-hiker Lacie! That notion was confirmed much later on when I checked her tracking link. Crap! I wanted to spitball a bit with her, see who she was and her plan and how she was feeling. Oh well.
Hiking away from Sucker, it was time to lock and load. I was feeling a bit fatigued. Not bad, but definitely a feeling of needing to get into a rhythm, zone out and click off these miles. About a marathon left seemed daunting. I wasn’t afraid to walk up hills, and was running very quickly and efficiently on the many flat and slightly downhill sections. Running right on the fringe of 12 minutes per mile on average, I was definitely mindful of my pace and had a sense of urgency. Still, not afraid to walk up the hills. It’s a long day. My hamstrings were still sore with a tight feeling up by my butt. Ugh. They were no worse, though, and my feet, ankles, quads, back, everything else felt golden.
By the time I got to Heron Pond campsite with just a mile to get to Normanna Road, I was moving really good. This section is just so easy to run. I leaned forward, kept those legs churning and let my momentum and gravity do the work. I hit some fast miles coming into my estimated half way point at Normanna Road. Excellent. I didn’t know how to think about the remaining sections with many miles on snowmobile trail. Carl said he was happy that his shoes finally dried out. Would it really be that muddy and wet? When I took a right hand turn and passed over the French River bridge, I got a little taste of what was to come. Well I can certainly churn out fast miles on this stuff, I told myself. There just isn’t the steep inclines on the snowmobile trail like there is on the singletrack sections. And even those steep inclines are nothing compared to the other 250 miles of the Superior Hiking Trail. The anomaly of the SHT is between Duluth and Two Harbors where the trail cuts inland. I, however, love these sections and don’t think they get the love and respect they deserve.
Anyways, I saw plenty of 11’s flash on my watch as I cranked up and down the snowmobile sections, southbound to the Lester River. I told myself that if I could run in to the Lester bridge, up the ups and all, I’d be able to sit at the banks of the Lester and eat all the food I could and drink all the water I could and sit all I like. It was hard, though. I started getting the insurmountable fatigue… where you know there is nothing you can do to mitigate the pain and agony. Well, except stop running. There were plenty of instances where I made audible groans and grunts. Sometimes I’d step on a root or rock wrong and twist my ankle. OUCH! I’d yell. Or just simply a wave of pain… a dunk in the hurt tank. But it gets absorbed somehow. Yep, the final 15 miles would be a struggle. I wondered if this was too much? But I was feeling pretty good overall. The fatigue was starting to show itself in certain spots like my ankles, the bottoms of my feet, still in my hamstrings, quads were starting to feel it, the back liked to stretch out on the uphills… yep, I was feeling it. But I was motivated to finish strong and look back at my overall pace with contentment. So I kept running. There was very little walking, only when absolutely necessary, leading up to the Lester River. I was so sick of itchy plants on my legs. Even though I could move good on the snomo trails, this section sucks. I tried to tell myself it was a unique section, cool trails that are underutilized. But the bottom line is that the snowmobile trail sections go on forever!
I was so happy to get to Lismore Road. I felt like I was really dragging ass at this point. I had no lift. I don’t think I could have run under a 9 minute pace if my life depended on it. But I could run 10:30 pace on the flat road endlessly. I saw a few backpackers through the previous section. The sun was high in the sky and I was sweating. I again ran out of water having not collected any since before the Sucker River. I wasn’t really hungry and probably wasn’t eating enough food, but would catch back up at Lester by eating all my pizza. I felt so stupid even bringing it. These two massive slices had been up against my back for hours and hours. I could have subsisted on exercise food until the transition zone at home, and then ate pizza. Instead I carried along these heavy pizza slices for hours and hours and miles without taking a nibble.
I was so happy to see the shelter at Lester River. I crossed the bridge, scoping out a good spot to collect water. I went under the bridge, filled my bottles, chugged a lot of water, took everything out of my pack to kind of reorganize, and ate one of two slices of pizza. I couldn’t eat the other one. I also looked at my handy distance calculator to see where I was at. Home looked to be about 12 miles away. That seemed like nothing. And that excited me. I rested at Lester just like I told myself I could.
The legs were slow going getting up from the riverside rock I was sitting on. I told myself I could walk it out for a while, to digest and get the wheels back turning, but looking at my watch I understood that I had fallen way behind on my pace. 5 miles per hour/12 minutes per mile was utterly out the window. Oh well. It didn’t seem like I was sitting for that long but 10 minutes goes by in a snap when you are dead tired. It was business as usual from here, run whenever possible and walk when I have to. I was definitely able to keep pace with some 10 minute miles, many 11 minute miles, and some 12’s. Every now and again I’d need to walk up a hill. There weren’t many, but some miles in the 13 and 14 range. I didn’t even bat an eye at those…. but the 10’s jacked me up. Let’s go!
Before long I was back onto the snowmobile trail, across Prindle Road, Billy’s Bar came and went, UMD Farm a blink of the eye and I knew I was moving real good. I got to Martin Road in no time at all. Yes. The worst is over, all downhill to get home… I made a mistake right across Martin Road and thought the trail went into the ditch. I was in a swamp and said “forget this!” and backtracked to the road. I then realized the road was the correct route indeed. Stupid. On the road and gravel parking lot, I probably looked like a senior citizen. I was hunched over, probably had the lean going on, creaky old legs somehow churning forward. It was survival mode for sure. The relatively fast snowmobile trail miles seemed to have taken their toll, but probably not any more or less than the 20 miles on singletrack to start the day off. I knew I’d finish this baby up well under 8 hours. It was my goal now to get home, do what I need to do to set off on the bike, and actually start biking by 4pm, about 8 hours from when I started off this morning. I planned out what I’d do: let the dogs out, drink a lot of water mixed with powdered exercise drink mix, maybe use the restroom, feed the dogs a scoop, repack my pack. Should I wear the pack on the bike? Hmm. I still had about two hours to figure that one out.
I hit a wall in the Amity sections. It’s just so rugged… I had to sit down. Not good. I realized at this point that I didn’t have anything left for the bike at all. I still had 5 miles to go, one hour left, a couple tough hills in Hartley, and a huge 36 mile ride on my modified singlespeed gravel bike. How would I do that? It seemed impossibly daunting. Maybe I’d just skip it… No, how could I do that? I’ve come this far. This whole deal is about the adventure duathlon. No way I wouldn’t set off on the bike. But seriously, how would I be able to do the bike? I was dead tired. I dragged my throbbing legs to Vermilion Road and forced them to rotate in a rhythmic motion once again. Just like a steam train getting it’s rotors going, start slow and eventually they’ll be moving ’round and ’round. On the gravel road, I got up to speed and was pleasantly surprised by my ability to roll. The technical trail and uphills were killing me but I could hang on the flat road. Just like a steam engine… legs go ’round and ’round and ’round.
I got into Hartley and struggled on the singletrack once again. Ugh, so hard. I decided to eat my second piece of pizza while hiking up the steeps in Hartley Park. It was not an appetizing slice and my stomach wasn’t feeling great. I tried to eat it all but just couldn’t chew the crust. I slammed most of the huge slice but out of frustration chucked the other bits into the woods. Not the best example of Leave No Trace but I was not going to uncrumple my plastic wrap and rewrap a half slice of old crusty pizza just to throw it in the trash at my house. Enjoy the ‘za, animals of Hartley.
I was elated to get to Hartley Road. The hardest was behind me, I told myself. I cruised on the wide and buffed out trail leading to Arrowhead Road. Up into Bagley and the running felt good. Bagley is a gem of Duluth… the wide and soft trail is such a treat to run. And I was running good for being well over 35 miles for the day. I was still about a mile, 12 minutes or so, off of 5mph average. When I got to the big hill in Bagley, it almost stopped me in my tracks. I arched my back, and tried to maintain a speedy cadence of power hiking. I didn’t have it. My stumps, formerly legs, could barely churn forward. I had to audibly voice my disdain with the trail conditions. “BRUTAL,” I muttered, exasperated. “This hill is brutal.” Once to the top, no time to dilly dally, get those legs moving again. I ran down the backside, ran through the parking lot, and ran through UMD towards Chester Park, my home trail. I was nearing one mile to go and my watch was over 37 miles.
Perhaps it was adrenaline, but I ran quickly through Chester. I hit a sub-10 minute mile. This had to have been my fastest one. Crazy. I ran past a couple off-leash dogs and it made me fume a bit. I wasn’t in a great mood at this point. Tired. The next dog ran beside me and I yelled at the dog and it’s owner. The guy asked me if I wanted to go. Umm what?? We had a yelling match, he told me to chill, told me who cares, I said it’s illegal, I said he’s being disrespectful to me. No way to come to a mutual understanding. I ran away. Hips forward, legs churning, I made it to the bottom of Chester, up the steps to 6th Street and over to my house in no time.
I almost collapsed out of exhaustion. My feet were so tender as I putzed around, putting my plan in action. Dogs out, drink the drink, put the stuff away, get the thingy. My brain was foggy. I sat down to put on my bike shoes and yelped in pain as hip tweaked in a direction I wasn’t used to. My legs had been doing the exact same motion for nearly 8 hours and that’s all they knew by now. It was rough. I again questioned how I would complete this adventure, but went through the motions to complete the task. I hobbled up the back steps with my bike, ready to take off. I barely was able to mount my bike but realized when my butt hit the seat that I still had my running shorts on. No way I’m doing 35+ miles in these short shorts. I set out my bike shorts many hours ago but forgot to put them on. ARGH! It was almost too much to handle, but I set my bike down, went back inside and changed my shorts. The dogs were mad at me for leaving, just like that, and I apologized profusely. I think that was it… what else would I need? Last chance… I ended up taking my vest, now refilled with water. Snacks accessible, some in my bike bag, phone in my bike bag for pictures, I was ready to roll for sure this time.
I started up 11th Avenue, a very steep grade. Just perfect. My legs were fatigued for sure, and it hurt to put pressure on my feet as well as pressure on my butt. Once I got off of the avenue to the flat street, it was a sweet relief. Coasting felt great. The wind in my face, the zero impact. Ohhh, beautiful. This was going to happen. I tried to break up the remainder of the ride, the remainder of the epic adventure duathlon, into manageable chunks. Once I get out of town, up this huge damn hill, onto Jean Duluth Road I’d be smooth sailing. Then it’s an intimidating stretch from the end of Jean Duluth Road up to Fox Farm Road. Once I hit Fox Farm, it’s some fun gravel about 10 miles to Two Harbors Road. When I get to Two Harbors Road I am home free. I can gut it out from there, I don’t care what condition I’m in. I had it all planned out. The biggest threat was probably not my body or nutrition or fatigue, but a mechanical issue with my bike. I was concerned about the front skewer holding my wheel in. It sounded loose. I’d tightened it up before heading out, but it seemed loose again. I could just hear it… like the front wheel was moving around ever so slightly in its fork. Plus, I was riding the makeshift singlespeed setup. I had purchased a new chain and rear derailleur but forgot about the cable. Out of frustration, I just said I’d rock the singlespeed. Maybe permanently. Riding on 8th Street, I was holding good speed and the gear I did have seemed to be the perfect one. If I could make it up 11th Avenue out from my house, and get up to 22 miles per hour on 8th Street, I’d be good to go.
As I made my way to Jean Duluth Road, the starting and stopping and thinking involved with riding with traffic was frustrating. It was great to get to the open road of Jean Duluth. Just stay off to the side, don’t get hit, crank away and this thing will all be over soon, I told myself. I felt really pretty good once I hit Glenwood, Martin Road, Stokke’s and the soccer fields, Billy’s Bar, Breeze Inn, then up some hills getting way out of town. The hills were tough with the single speed. The downhills were glorious and I didn’t feel pressured to try and get speed, I would just coast. And I could get going at a nice clip on the flats.
The ride was going smooth as I hit 5 miles in about 20 minutes, and 15 miles in an hour with ease. I took it slow and easy on Normanna Road past the SHT parking lot, on the way up to Fox Farm Road. I didn’t want a motorist to put an end to my trip, and felt uneasy on the very small shoulder with vehicles zinging by me. I tried to sit up a bit and pay attention. As I shifted my position, I realized that no position was comfortable at all. I’d stand up to stretch, my feet would scream. The clip and pedal dug into the ball of my right foot exactly where I smashed it 200,000 times today on the trail. My butt was sore on the exact spot I needed to sit on. My back needed to stretch out. I was probably three inches shorter after impacts of the long day on foot. Then my triceps, shoulders and arms gave out. I couldn’t hold myself up on the bike. What I would do for some aero bars so I could just rest on my elbows… They weren’t in pain. But I had no aerobars so my triceps will have to do!
I was certain Fox Farm Road was right around the corner on several occasions. Around the next corner, and I could finally see it. Is that it? I saw a vehicle with a huge cloud of dust behind it and knew that was the gravel. I didn’t recognize the foreshadowing of the huge dust cloud. I was grateful for the change of scenery and surface as I got onto the gravel of Fox Farm Road. This road is just fun to travel on. Lots of logging activity, you feel like you’re really out there. I suppose that’s because you are really out there! The gravel road was one step away from pavement and very hard. Not very rocky or loose at all. I could crank just as fast as on the pavement, so that’s what I did.
I heard a vehicle come from behind me, and was disappointed in the dust cloud trailing it. Dust got in my eyes and my mouth, and I could barely see where I was going. Don’t fall, don’t fall, I told myself. I probably should keep eating, I said, so grabbed the blueberry waffle and scarfed it down. That tasted good. As I was chewing, another sound from behind me. This one was a massive dump truck. Oh, great. The cloud was especially large, but I used my eyelashes as a filter and kept my mouth closed. Not so bad. Keep cranking. I was moving good along Fox Farm Road and eager to get to the end. As fun as this road is to travel along, it goes on forever. I started getting anxious, bored, ready to be done. I could summon the leg strength to push hard, but it definitely hurt to do so. I few times I lost my momentum by just coasting. Too tired. What a waste. A few more cars passed. The sun disappeared and clouds moved in. It was still a perfect temperature out, and I did make sure to regale in the stunning scenery of Fox Farm Road. A few more turns in the road, a few more straightaways, a fun little downhill and I passed the Fox Farm Road trailhead on the Superior Hiking Trail. I told myself that I was close to the end now. By the time it took me to think that thought, there it was. My brain wasn’t working at 100% capacity. I remembered distinctly the route, as it’s easy to get lost in these backroads. Left on Two Harbors Road, left on Laine Road, left on Rossini Road. I took the Two Harbors Road. Just that turn gave me a little jolt of energy, as this was the point that I’d thought about all day being the home stretch. Nothing could stop me now.
I didn’t fully realize the grind ahead, though. I made good time on Two Harbors Road as it seemed to be mostly downhill. The bike was holding up… my trusty machine. Beautiful. I still had water and felt full. Well, full enough. Laine Road came quickly and I had a few miles of pavement before getting onto the gravel again. I didn’t realize while driving this morning, but Laine Road was all uphill. A vehicle passed me, and I watched it disappear in the distance, motoring up a huge hill on the horizon. I have to go up THAT?? So I pushed and pushed on the pedals, trying to get some momentum a mile out from this looming hill. I had to stand on my tender feet to crest the bump. I knew I was close and the pain had all but subsided… just survival now. I hit two hours on the bike, over 30 miles in. I was very pleased with my speed thus far. I’d thought many hours earlier of my lack of bike miles in the previous month. It turns out that was not an issue. And I cranked away.
Atop the massive hill on Laine Road, I finally was able to peer down the other side and felt relieved to see a downhill slope. I rode it out, happy with coasting on the firm gravel.
I kept on pedaling, ’round and ’round, and was feeling pretty positive at this point. Wow, I’m definitely going to do it. I didn’t think it’d happen. Well, I kind of knew it’d happen but there was definitely the element of fear and uncertainty as I drove this same road over 10 hours ago. I saw the signs up ahead denoting Rossini Road. I took a left. Another little uphill and 90 degree right hand bend in the road and I knew I was very close. With excitement, I rode it in with the remaining energy I had left. It was almost like my brain knew we were close and stopped sending the signals of STOP, DON’T PROCEED, SEEK HELP that had been firing for hours. That is the pain cave for ya. I caught a glimpse of the SHT trailhead sign first and a smile lit up my face. I made a smooth turn into the lot and rode right up to my van, placing my hand on the back and stopping my watch. Another vehicle had joined me in the parking lot, which kind of surprised me. I sat down on the ground for the photo opp, and to rest. Done!
Driving home, I told myself to yell. I gave a big yell: “YESS! WOOO HOOO!” That felt good.
05 Aug 2019
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.
24 Mar 2014
For those who are not familiar with Duluth, or for those who are familiar with Duluth but have been deprived, I will enlighten you about Park Point. This long and beautiful beach is said to be the world’s largest natural sandbar. In the summer, it is the perfect place to lounge and relax and catch some rays. That is a different post for a different time, or season, though.
Park Point looks drastically different in the winter. I had never visited the beach in the winter, as I figured it was just cold, sandy and desolate–much unlike the summer where it is a cold, sandy and popular place to hang out. I suppose not as different as it sounds! Well, if the wind is blowing in the right direction, it is a warm, sandy and popular place to hang out.
Thanks to Destination Duluth, I stumbled across some pictures from local photographers who were capturing some amazing winter scenery at Park Point, and I became intrigued. The next Sunday, I wrangled Diamond up and we headed to the beach.
The first excursion was a nice sunny Sunday. Nice is kind of a misnomer, because it was really cold. The wind was very brisk right off of the lake and there wasn’t much we could do to seek shelter from the biting breeze. As we walked up to the beach, I was instantly amazed with the features. There were huge hills of ice all along the shoreline as far as the eye could see on either side. I noticed a hole in the ice.
I realized that the hole led to an ice cave. I crawled through the hole and it was so cool! How does something like this form??
Once inside, the icicles hanging from the ceiling were incredible. It looked like a real cave…the icicles resembled stalactites and there was a chamber. I’ve seen Park Point in the summer and I knew that this feature was made out of entirely ice. That really blew my mind.
I went a bit further down the beach and found another cave. It wasn’t as low and deep as the first cave, but was really tall, which made for a cool picture.
After my hands became numb, Diamond and I decided to pack up and go home. Of course, we stopped at the Smokehaus on the way home. When in Rome, as they say. We both had so much fun that I decided that going to Park Point would be the perfect Sunday routine. So next Sunday we went again!
The next Sunday, we had another really incredible time. It was sunny and a bit warmer this week, and the wind was coming out of the south, so being on the lake side in the caves was sheltered. This time, we found two really, really cool caves. The first one was massive–the ice formation was the biggest one I have seen.
There was a little dropoff, then the ice opened up into a chamber with all sorts of smaller pockets. Also, the ice must have been a little thinner than in some of the other caves, because the light shining through made some really cool colors. It was like a stained glass window. Below is a snowy picture from inside of the biggest chamber looking outside. Diamond is near the entrance.
I snapped a quick video on one of our later trips. Where the ceiling melted through was were the ice was thinnest on our previous trips. You can get an idea of the contours of the icy cave floor and how many little chambers were there.
The second cave we found that day was almost by accident. The entrance was a really small hole, likely created by the drifting snow. I had to crawl on my stomach down a chute, and I could see that after 10 feet or so, there was a larger chamber. Once I slid all the way down, the ice opened up into a huge chamber. Unlike the first cave, this one was a big room… there weren’t any offshoots or anything. The icicles were really amazing in this cave. This one was dark on the inside and it took a minute for my eyes to adjust.
Below is a picture of Diamond trying to maneuver through the cave. She was just smashing the icicles off of the ceiling without a second thought, and I am over here trying to be as careful as possible to preserve nature.
The cave looked something like a lollipop–a narrow passageway that opens up into a big circular chamber. So cool!
Every week except twice removed, Park Point has been a fun Sunday ritual. I’m hoping to keep it up into the summer!