The Ultimate Downhill

Day 4 – Ely to Beaver Bay MN, 71 miles

By definition, today’s route was one big downhill run. Starting in Ely and ending up at Lake Superior means dropping over 800 feet in elevation over 62 miles. What more could a cyclist ask for? Well, good weather, a tailwind, and beautiful scenery for starters. And we got all those too!

But I have to be honest. It wasn’t all downhill. In fact, getting out of Ely involved numerous uphill climbs and plenty of rolling hills. It wasn’t until we reached the continental divide, about 42 miles into our trip, that the road finally attained an overall downward tilt. And even then, there were undulations. But by then my momentum went a long way in carrying me up those hills, which just felt like little blips. For the most part, we whizzed down at great speed. Yes, those final 20 miles to the lake were quite the trip.

Our reward at the foot of the hill was a picnic lunch at the newly completed Tettagouche State Park Visitor Center. The new building certainly makes a statement, with its native rock and log exterior and it’s vast size. We set up shop in a nearby pavilion, where Lake Superior’s cooling breezes were in evidence. It was a delightful spot, and fun to explore the new building after watching it in the building process for the last two years.

It was nice to know we had just eight more miles to reach Beaver Bay, rounding out our longest day at 70 miles. Rich and I took the opportunity to visit Palisade Head on the way, despite the incredibly steep road to reach it. There was a bit of haze in the air but the view was still stunning. And Rich was thrilled to find that the local nesting Peregrine Falcons were active and in view. So of course a photo session ensued.

Today’s top sights, apart from the beautiful scenery, evolved into a common category – tall wood carvings. The first was a chainsaw statue in Finland. It is a unique rendering of St. Urho, a legendary and entirely fictional Finnish saint, which apparently has become part of Minnesota lore. The second was a signpost for our motel, Camp 61, complete with lumberjack, eagles, fish and a raven.

I also enjoyed this peaceful scene, crossing the South Kiwishiwi River early in the morning with a bit of fog still hanging over the water.

We may now be at the low point on this cycling tour, but everyone agreed that getting here was quite a highlight.


Cycling with the Wind


Day 3 – Tower to Ely MN, 50 miles. Our revised route in green

Northern Minnesota is largely unpopulated, except by lakes and trees. And our cycling route for the day certainly confirmed that fact.

The planned route was to head straight to Ely, requiring only 31 miles of cycling and leaving plenty of time there for other pursuits. Since Rich had a reprieve from sag wagon duties, we took the liberty of following an alternate and more circuitous route to Ely. Straying from the main highway, we enjoyed quieter roads and the unexpected benefit of brand new pavement. To a cyclist there is nothing better than a smooth unblemished surface!

As if that wasn’t sweet enough, we were also pushed along by a steady tailwind for the whole ride. We fairly flew down the road, barely feeling any resistance on our pedals, and covering 50 miles in record time. It’s not often everything lines up so perfectly, and we fully appreciated our good fortune.

Just to balance things out, we did ride through some significant rain. But the warm day and returning sunshine dried us off in a hurry once it stopped.

Throughout our whole ride we didn’t pass through a single town, with the exception of Babbitt which was a deliberate detour for a comfort stop. The remainder of our miles were all through quiet woodlands with a few houses and lakes nestled behind the trees. It was the kind of ride that encourages my mind to wander – a very liberating feeling.

Arriving in Ely the weather was sunny and hot, and the Red Cabin Frozen Custard stand across from our motel called out to me. There is nothing better than ice cream at the end of a long ride. Although I originally spurned the thought of their flavor of the day, one taste convinced me that watermelon custard was a most excellent choice.

Our speedy journey left us with a free afternoon, and we took a leisurely walk around Ely and along Miners Lake. It felt truly summer-like, which has been a rare sensation this year. Rich found a new “dorky hat” to keep the sun off his fair skin, which he promptly put into service.

Dinner this evening was out on the patio of the Rock Wood restaurant. The food was excellent, including the decadent desserts we all shared without guilt. To top it off, a bluegrass band provided live music. Sitting outside on a warm evening with friends and music was an unbeatable combination. Almost as good as cycling with the wind.


Dodging the Rain


Day 2 – Virginia to Tower MN, 49 miles. Our detour in green

The forecast for today looked great. Sunshine and warm temps, perfect for cycling. But the weatherman got it wrong. Instead, we had intermittent rain showers, some of them quite heavy with a smattering of thunder. And yet, through the virtue of perfect timing, we managed to avoid much of the wet weather. And the sunshine in between was all the sweeter.

We started the morning with breakfast at a cafe that came straight out of the 50s. They served the standard fare, and had the requisite bar stools at the counter. Half the fun of traveling is discovering local eateries, and this downtown staple was pure local flavor.

Our route retraced the Mesabi Trail back out to the highway that led to Tower. This time around we enjoyed the rolling hills and curves even more than yesterday. Reaching the end of the trail, we noticed dark clouds collecting overhead. Sure enough, soon it was raining. But being with people who are able to roll with the punches, it did little to dampen our spirits. Donning our rain jackets, we soldiered on. And eventually we managed to out cycle the rain clouds.

Our group split in two today, and I cycled in a group of four. When the Mesabi Trail mysteriously reappeared, we decided to take it, believing it would eventually return us to the highway. Despite some twists and turns, and moments of uncertainty, our hunch proved to be right. That section of trail, including the sunshine that had returned was delightful. We made our way to Giant’s Ridge ski area on smoothly paved trail and plenty of rolling hills. We had beautiful views of lakes and woods and returned to our intended route just short of our lunch spot, very pleased with our revised route.

Our lunch stop was on the grounds of a Finnish homestead – a refreshing break.

The afternoon’s main attraction was taking the tour of the Soudan Mine. And it just happened to coincide with another bout of rain, which we totally missed. Outfitted in warm clothes and hard hats, we descended in mine shaft to reach the 27th level of the mine, 1/2 mile underground! Crammed into the tiny elevator box, it rattled and shook noisily as we plummeted at rapid speed. Frankly it was a relief to feel it finally begin to slow and eventually stop. As promised, the mine was a cool 51 degrees down there.

We continued with another 1/2 mile ride, this time in rail cars to the mining site. There we climbed up to a higher level which was an enlarged space. Our animated and enthusiastic tour guide explained the mining process and how they got the ore back to the surface. To demonstrate the conditions under which the miners worked, he turned out all the lights. We were plunged into true darkness, and when he lit a single candle it was surprising how much light it shed. Yet it was hard to believe that was all the light they had to work by, years ago.

We managed to fit our remaining miles to the hotel perfectly into a sunny window. No sooner had we arrived than the rain came down in sheets that came in waves across the parking lot. Looking out on it from a dry hotel room was very satisfying. 49 miles completed, successfully dodging the worst of the rain.


Cycling in Style

Day 1 – Island Lake (Duluth) to Virginia MN, 54 miles

Relaxed. That’s the best word to describe my first day on the North Shore Tour with Bike Tour Vacations, and my introduction to cycling on an organized ride. It’s a pretty nice way to travel, I will admit.

We first met our fellow travelers last night at a social hour, where we were treated to Jim’s homemade cheese. If his travel expertise rivaled his cheese, we knew were going to be in good hands. Our group consists of eight cyclists, including co-leaders Jim and Rich, and we have an additional non-cycling participant who is enjoying other outdoor pursuits each day. They hail from as far as Pennsylvania, Alabama and Florida. And we all sport gray hair, whether it shows or not.

Our day started with loading up the sag wagon to ferry us to Island Lake where we would start our ride. With plenty of time to hit Dunn Bros during the process and nurse my latte on the drive, I was already getting the hang of this no-hurry mode. It was a beautiful morning for cycling, and spirits were high as we assembled for our start, and after a quick pose for a group photo, we were off.

Rich and Jim load up the bikes

At Island Lake, eager to begin cycling

Our route took us along quiet roads lined with tall trees and grasses with abundant wildflowers. We quickly fanned out and cycled at our own pace, collecting about once a hour to gather around the sag wagon for drinks and snacks. My favorite part was cycling through the Cloquet Forest, with it’s towering pines and rich evergreen scent. While the route was mostly flat, we had a compensating challenge with a persistent headwind. But the day was so nice that no one minded. Lunch was a delightful spread alongside the road, served by Jim in his classy hat. There was no rush to move on. We still had plenty of time to reach Virginia.

Jim serves up lunch for everyone

The final 10 miles of our 53 mile day was on the Mesabi Trail. It was a delight to ride on a wide dedicated paved trail, free from traffic and winding through the countryside. Much of it covered old mining land, which is gradually being reclaimed by trees and undergrowth. We stopped for a view of Rouchleau lake that was formed out of multiple old mining pits.

Cycling the Mesabi Trail

Rouchleau mine lake

Upon arriving at our hotel, our keys were waiting at the front desk and our bags already deposited in our rooms. A pure class act. I could enjoy being spoiled like this. Our day concluded with dinner at a Mexican restaurant and a leisurely walk around town to admire the large murals adorning the sides of the buildings. We just took our time, enjoying the mild evening and golden sunlight.

I don’t know how many people would consider a full day of cycling to be relaxing, but I sure did. And traveling in style sure didn’t hurt either.

Along for the Ride

Once again Rich and I are off on another working vacation. Only this time he’s working and I’m vacationing!  I think I got the best end of this deal.

The gig is with Bike Tour Vacations.  The company is owned by an old neighborhood friend of Rich’s, Jim Plaunt.  Although he defected and moved to Michigan, he hasn’t forgotten the appeal of Northern Minnesota, and still returns to lead bike trips through our beautiful wilderness scenery.7-25-2014 4-34-53 PM

Last year Jim enticed Rich to co-lead a trip with him.  Rich rather enjoyed his position as a “flunky,” helping out the cycling guests yet still being able to ride his bike for a large share of the trip.  It was a great way to earn his way through an enjoyable tour.  And the experience was good enough that he agreed to return and assist with two more trips this summer.  Given an invitation to accompany Rich and bunk with the “paid help,” I easily decided to join the 5-day Minnesota North Shore Tour.

North Shore Tour MapThis will be an entirely new experience for me.  Not the biking, but the whole concept of a supported ride.  The norm is for Rich and me to take off on our own, traveling with everything we need in one set of panniers each.  Sometimes for months.  This time Jim and Rich will trade off driving the support van, transporting my belongings from hotel to hotel.  I will cycle with only day bags on my bike, and no camping gear.  I feel lighter already!

That same van will make stops for us.  No need to worry about running out of water or long distances between food.  They will be there for us with water and snacks on board.  Any breakdowns will also be serviced by the friendly and handy co-leaders.  And I hear we even stop for lunch.  Since Jim handles all the lodging reservations and meals, Rich gets a bit of a break as well.  Normally, that falls on his shoulders to research each night before we move on.

Perhaps one of the biggest adjustments will be traveling in a pack.  How tightly we cycle together is yet to be seen.  But mealtimes and evenings allow opportunities to socialize and enjoy local entertainment offerings. I’m looking forward to the extra company and camaraderie.

Rich jokes that since he’s the flunky on this trip and I’m a paying guest, I have a legitimate right to order him around.   Hmm, it’s tempting…  If I know what’s good for me, I think I’ll pass on that.  But I’m still looking forward to going along for the ride.

A Superior Ride

One of my favorite summer things is getting out early to enjoy the cool am temperatures and the beautiful first morning sunlight.  Since summer was so long in reaching Duluth this year, it’s only been within the last week that this idea was even worth considering.  But today was the perfect opportunity.

Soon after sunrise Rich and I loaded our bikes on the car and headed out to West Duluth.  Our destination: Superior, Wisconsin.  We parked on the Duluth end of the Bong Bridge, mounted our bikes and IMG_4923proceeded to cross over the bay on the bridge.  The bridge was wonderfully bicycle-friendly, with a dedicated bike lane that was well protected from traffic.  As luck would have it, we also had a scenic view of the St. Louis River basin on our side of the bridge.  With the rising sun behind us and calm waters in the bay, we had lovely views of the railway bridge and surrounding waterway.

We entered Superior in the Billings Park area of the city.  There we were immediately able to access the bay, first on city streets and then on a bike trail through the park that was literally within feet of the water’s edge.  With the water reflecting the morning’s scenery and fluffy clouds, it was an idyllic landscape.IMG_4927 IMG_4933 IMG_4935 Leaving the park, we entered a beautiful neighborhood full of impressive houses and steeply rolling hills.  Still within proximity of the water, it was easy to imagine the luxury of the homes with waterfront property.  It was early and quiet enough that we managed to get within photo distance of a gray fox just down the road.

IMG_4931 trimmedWe continued on into the Superior Municipal Forest and traveled part of the Millennium Trail.  There wildflowers grew in abundance as the trail wound through woodland areas and meadows.  It was a peaceful trail, and clearly a popular destination for runners and dog walkers out for their morning rounds.

It was a pleasure to return via the coastal trail and back over the bridge for a second opportunity to enjoy the views.  The sun was still low enough to provide its warm glow to the scenes.  And going the opposite direction provided a different perspective on everything.  This time the railway bridge was closed, and in fact a pair of locomotives crossed the bridge as we watched.IMG_4941 IMG_4942 IMG_4944I had no idea that such beauty lay right across the harbor, with such easy access by bicycle.  I just never thought to look at it from the other side before.  It was clearly a Superior ride.

Trying to Beat the Heat

It’s not often that the temperatures in Duluth reach 90 degrees.  And after the three week string of 40-degree weather we had in June, hitting that mark seemed inconceivable.  But today was the day.  There was no mistaking it.

It was the kind of day where it was impossible to escape the heat.  With the humidity also close to the 90% mark, the hot sticky air seemed to envelope everything, particularly one’s body.  But there were plenty of people seeking all sorts of ways to try and cool off. Myself included.

My choice was to head up the shore on my bike.  Although the air was hot, it still felt better to be creating my own breeze.  There was little respite from Lake Superior, despite the fact that it remains chilly.  I had only occasional cool spells when there were no trees between me and the lake.  But I welcomed each and everyone of them.  Along the way I enjoyed people watching and surveying the variety of ways folks flocked to the water to relieve the summer heat.

Lake Superior was a natural.  Brighton Beach attracted its share of families, but they didn’t venture very far into the lake.  There’s cooling off, and then there’s frigid.  The lake was the latter.IMG_4906It’s not often one sees a jet-ski in Lake Superior, but the water was so calm today that it invited such activity.  I can’t say I’ve ever seen a double before!IMG_4901 Lester River had its share of swimmers, and the youngsters seemed to enjoy jumping off the rocks into the water.IMG_4908However that was nothing compared to the feats of the local teenage crowd.  Lower down the river, they demonstrated their fearlessness on a rope swing attached to the railroad bridge.  Others jumped straight from the rock cliff.IMG_4896 trimmedBut nothing beats The Deeps for daring do.  Right there in our own back yard, the water hole beneath the waterfall on Amity Creek is a magnet for teenagers, eager to show off by jumping from increasing heights above the pool.  I found it chilling enough just to watch.IMG_4915 trimmed There’s something for everyone here.  It just takes the rare day that we have to go to such lengths to beat the heat here in Duluth.

Triathlon Musings

It’s all of one day since finishing my first triathlon, and as with any big race my mind keeps replaying the event and re-examining all the details. My family is probably growing weary of the topic, and hoping it will soon wear out. But I can’t resist one final post in review.

One of the biggest impressions left by the event was just how well organized and orchestrated it was. The Life Time Tri Minneapolis was a model of efficiency. And although it catered to Pro and Elite athletes, it was equally friendly to novices like me. Friends had advised me that it was a large event, and perhaps high on the scale for the athletes it attracts. And since I had chosen to skip the Sprint distance in favor of going straight to the longer International distance for my first time out, that could have been intimidating. But to the credit of the race organizers, it was exactly the opposite. The high level athletes started well in advance of my “old lady” wave, and it was great fun to hear the announcer covering their race while I waited.

It was in the bike portion of the race that I was most wowed. The athletes’ meeting had prepared me for the presence of bad pavement, sharp turns, two-way traffic and potentially confusing intersections. But the race was so well staffed by volunteers that it was impossible to make a mistake.  I wish I could have personally thanked every single volunteer who made the event so smooth for us participants.  In addition, there were signs in advance of any trouble spots warning us of what we’d find up ahead.  And I always had plenty of room to maneuver on the roadways.  I’m convinced that choosing the Lifetime Tri for my first triathlon was a big factor in making it such a positive experience.

DSC_0945The hype and excitement of the race rivaled any marathon I’ve done – perhaps exceeded it because of the extent of the venue and on-side expo that continued during and after the race. It appears that triathlons have not yet reached the general public appeal that marathons have, with smaller cheering sections along the way. But it had other advantages for spectators like Rich and Erik who came out to cheer me on. Because of the multiple sports and more compact nature of the course, they could easily position themselves at frequent intervals along my route, boosting their support power (along with the “Power of the Pig” – a story in itself…).

IMG_9115And how did I feel afterwards? Great! Although I pressed harder than I have in years on the final running segment and was gasping for the finish, I felt less spent than I do at the end of marathons. Or perhaps more accurately, I should say my legs were not as weary. Even though it was about 3 hours of straight competitive exercise, the variety of the sports didn’t deplete one set of muscles. But once the glow of the finish receded, once I had a good shower and my favorite post-race bagel sandwich, my body told me I was tired. Every bit as tired as after a marathon.

So am I hooked? All my friends told me I would be after this first triathlon. I’m not sure. As I wrestled with the preparations and unknowns of the race beforehand, I thought that this was going to be a “bucket list” event I could cross off. But now I don’t know. There are all the usual temptations.  Now I understand how it all works and could certainly improve on the pieces with little effort. Next year I will be in an even older age bracket – which always works to advantage. And it was just plain fun. Stay tuned. I’ll have to muse on this a while longer.

Success on the first Tri

If Erik hadn’t challenged me to do a triathlon, this would have been just an ordinary Saturday.  And I might never have had the courage go give it a “tri.”  Instead, I spent the morning swimming-biking-running in the Lifetime Tri.  And loved it!

On the way to the race, I happened to check Facebook on my phone, and found several good wishes for my race.  But most important were the ones that said “have fun.”  It was just the message I needed to hear, and helped me keep my focus on fun for the entire morning.  When I was tempted to worry too much or feel myself getting too serious or competitive, I was able to return to the Fun theme.

We set off for the swim in pairs every few seconds.  The line moved quickly, and before I knew it I was splashing into the water.  The temperature was fine (thankfully, since I had no wetsuit) and the waves were minimal.  The lake was so murky that I couldn’t even see the swimmers right next to me, so I just forged on.  Fortunately, we were reasonably spaced out.  Staying on course was a challenge, though, as I kept finding myself drifting away from the buoys.  I’m sure I did more than my share of the .93 mile distance.

IMG_9087My transition to the bike didn’t set any speed records.  But I didn’t care.  Fun, remember?  And I made it without incident.  Cycling turned out to be a lot less stressful than I expected.  Perhaps because I was near the back (youngest go first) we were weren’t the least bit bunched up and there was plenty of room on the roads.  And every intersection was well marked.  They were right about the bad pavement, though – Minnesota winters left rough spots all up and down River Road.  But once IMG_9090we got to Minnehaha Parkway, it was smooth sailing and easy riding.  I especially enjoyed that bit.  My pace was fast for me, and it felt good to press a good steady speed for 24 miles.  But let’s face it, I’m not a racing cyclist.  I’m convinced that most of the small crowd behind me passed me along the way.

Transition two was quicker.  As was my run.  Finally, I was in my element.  Before I was even out of the transition area, I’d hit stride and I was booking it down the running path.  Yes, that is my sport!  I loved the strong kick I felt, surging forward while everyone else adopted a tired shuffle.  Passing runner after runner gave me such a high, and I conveniently ignored the fact that I was merely regaining the ground I’d lost on my bike.

DSC_0948Rich and Erik were out on the course, cheering me on all along the way.  But they really made their mark on the running segment.  To help me see them, they initiated “Tri Pig” which truly served its purpose – I could spot them from well down the course.  With Tri Pig they entertained many a runner, chanting IMG_9110“Feel the Power of the Pig” as folks went by.  I’m sure they raised more spirits than just my own.

The final mile of the 6.2 mile run seemed endless.  Rich and Erik cycled alongside the course yelling encouragement, and I managed to push on to a strong finish.  And oh, it felt so good!

My overall time was 3:08:53.  My swim and bike times were about what I expected, and I blew away the run with 8:08 minute miles – a pace I haven’t done in years!  I even placed first in my age group for the run.

It certainly was no ordinary Saturday.  It was a very successful Tri.  Especially for my first one.IMG_9114




Tomorrow’s the day.  My first triathlon.  I’ve done a decent amount of training.  I’ve figured out what to wear.  I’ve planned my transitions.  And I’m really nervous.  Since it’s a race involving not one but three sports, perhaps I’m justified in being three times as worried.

I went to the Lifetime Fitness Triathlon Expo this afternoon.  There I got my race packet and goodies, picked up my t-shirt, and tested my chip. So far so good – all that is familiar from marathons and other running races.  It did feel a little strange wheeling my bike into the registration tent, however.  But what else was I to do with it?

My next stop was the transition area.  I decided it was a good idea to take advantage of the opportunity to drop off my bike a day in advance.   Just one less thing to worry about in the wee hours of the morning when I arrive for the race.  There was no need to hunt for a prime spot, it’s all pre-assigned by race number.  The area seemed ominously empty.  I hoped it wasn’t because others felt it was not such a good IMG_1129idea to abandon a critical piece of equipment overnight.  Once I found my spot, I discovered that my small bike didn’t exactly fit well onto the rack.  In fact, once I balanced my seat on the bar, the bike was swinging freely in the breeze.  It didn’t even come close to touching the ground.  Ugh.  For now, it’s firmly anchored by my bike lock.  We’ll see what happens tomorrow when I liberate it.

IMG_1132I made sure to attend the 2pm athletes’ meeting.  Being such a newbie, I needed all the information I could get.  The speaker was very knowledgeable and helpful, with loads of details about each segment of the race.  But honestly, the more I learned, the more I felt I had to worry about.  The bike piece especially – he pointed out all the sharp turns, bad pavement, intersections and two-way traffic sections.  All potential problem areas.  Good to know, but worrisome.  I did find the cycling etiquette rules to be reassuring, however.  I like the bit about keeping 3 bike lengths between bikes, and the process for passing.  I just hope the other cyclists are equally well versed in these fine points.  Somehow it seems like a long shot…

IMG_1134Normally I might have lingered at the Expo to take in some of the booths.  There were plenty of specialty companies catering to this audience of tri-athletes.  But the afternoon was waning and it was time to head home.  I did take a look at the lake where they were busy setting up the buoys for the swim, but it was my head that was swimming by that point.IMG_1135

I thought I my mind would be more at ease by now. Coming home and sorting through my gear, packing my transition bag and laying out tomorrow’s clothes helped.  And I’ve had my fill of pre-race spaghetti dinner.  All that remains now is to get a reasonable night’s sleep and show up for the race tomorrow.  Then it will be time to leave all these tribulations behind and just do it!