Monday, January 19, 2009

The Sawbill Trail - North Shore of Lake Superior

The past couple of days have been an amazing experience. My thanks and love to my wife Patti for allowing me the time to come up to this beautiful place and "relax." Well maybe not everyone's idea of relaxation.

In the past two days I put in more than eight hours of riding in conditions that were less than favorable. Also did some amazing snowshoeing. All in all this was one little trip that I will remember for some time to come.

On Friday, I drove up from the Twin Cities and did just kind of relax. After checking into my room I went to the Temperance River for some evening snowshoeing. Unfortunately I left my camera in my room back at the resort.

Evening found me at the restaurant eating the most wonderful plate of gnocchi I have ever eaten...I wish I would have taken a picture. After dinner it was back to my room for R & R. I spent my time packing gear into my new daypack, an Osprey Talon 22 which has instantly become my favorite pack. My bike was ready to go and unbelievable to many, I decided to just leave it on the car overnight. I still can't believe I did, leave a bike outside??
It was locked and I wasn't too concerned about someone wanting to take it for a ride in January.

Once I was ready, I spent my time reading and listening to music. The forecast called for 1-2 inches of fresh snow overnight....HA! 1-2 inches my ass! I woke up at about 5 AM...because that's what I do. When I looked out the window it was snowing so hard I could barely see my car out in the parking lot. We ended up with 8 INCHES!! of fresh, powdery snow. This of course would provide me with some interesting and challenging biking.

After eating about half of the largest bowl of oatmeal I have ever seen...again...should have taken a picture, I dug my car out of the snow, loaded it up and drove to the ski trail parking lot on top of the hill.

Of course, you expect to find nordic skiers at the trailhead. When I pulled in with a mountain bike on top of my car I did get some "looks". My guess is that a few of those folks were thinking..."He better not be taking that on our nicely groomed trails."

To my dismay I also found that the Sawbill Trail had not been totally plowed. What I found was one fairly narrow lane had been opened up earlier in the morning. Wide enough to accommodate one vehicle traveling up the trail. Apparently, people traveling up the trail don't return. The prospect of this worried me. Hell! I drove 250 miles to do this and I wasn't backing down plowed roads or not.

For those who don't know, the Sawbill Trail is a wide gravel forest road that leads you north from Hwy 61 which runs along the shore of Lake Superior. It's approximately 25 miles to the far end of the trail which ends near Sawbill Lake on the edge of the BWCA. There are many other forest roads that connect to it, but not many of these are plowed in the winter.

My ride would prove to be not very long in terms of mileage, windy, cold, and slow. It's mostly an uphill ride to the end of the trail. Thus the phrase, "You heading up the trail?" used by the locals. With the fresh snow it proved to be much slower than I anticipated along with the fact that I rode into a strong headwind coming out of the north. I didn't have to contend with much traffic, generally only locals and a few ice fisher people. All were very courteous and gave me room and greeted me a honk of the horn, a wave, and a huge plume of flying snow behind their vehicles.

The scenery was amazing and I soon lost myself in the surrounding beauty and the task of keeping my bike slowly moving forward at about 8 mph...approximately 62-64 revolutions per minute. It was like Matt or Jody telling you to find that 8 out of 10 hill in spin class. Only this lasts for a couple of hours and not eight minutes.

What am I going to do when I have to go fast again? After a couple of hours and only about 16 miles up the trail I was beginning to think that if I continued all the way up this could be an all day ordeal just to go 50 miles. I ended up turning around and headed back down trail.
The ride back proved to be easier, but I still had that one narrow lane and had to ride in the direction of oncoming traffic. Which was actually only three cars. Four hours of steady riding to go only 32 miles. Yikes! That is slow.

Moments after coming off of the trail and arriving back at the resort I heard a familiar sound. The sound of heavy equipment. The county grader had shown up and was heading up the trail to plow it out. This of course pissed me off somewhat because it would be my luck to have the road plowed only "after" I completed my ride. However, it also excited me because tomorrow it would be much faster.....or maybe not.

Well, as fate would have it we received more snow Saturday night along with a gusty north wind. Although the road was in better shape on Sunday it was still somewhat slow going. This time I rode the trail from the very beginning at Hwy. 61 which meant a 2.5 mile climb to where the gravel portion of the trail begins. Two plus miles uphill with a single speed decked out with studded tires in fresh snow. What a long slow climb that was. Once again the wind was out of the north which meant about two plus hours of riding into a headwind. The gusty wind from the night had caused some drifting and it snowed off and on throughout the entire ride.

At the end of the day I had 4.5 hours of riding in and 41 miles. Roadies would really find this disturbing, but then again most of them are inside on trainers. Just had to get that one in there for fun. That slow 41 miles felt like a lot more.

After getting off the trail I changed into some dry clothes, grabbed my headlamp, daypack, and snowshoes and headed back to the Sugarbush trailhead for an evening snowshoe sojourn up to the top of Carlton Peak. I was hoping to get to the summit of Carlton in time to watch the sun set. Well, I didn't quite make it. My legs were experiencing a good deal of fatigue from the bike miles I had put in. Once I hit the lower slopes of the climb my quads really started to burn, but oddly enough, as I continued to climb they felt better. I wish I could have said that this morning as I tried getting out of bed.

I was able to get some great photos and the trek back in the dark under a blanket of stars was a really good way to finish off the day. The dinner, wine, and jacuzzi that evening even made it better. The line of the evening from one of the younger people in the spa..."So, you're the dude with the bike on top the car. WTF is up with you? Everyone else around here has ski racks and you're up here biking! That is totally crazy dude, but cool." His friend added, "It must be way easy to find your car in a parking lot this time of year."

This was, by far, one of my better trips to northeastern Minnesota. I pushed myself hard and tested my mental and physical strength. The cold was not as bad as many people would think. You're always working so staying warm was never a big issue. Staying dry was....I'm still trying to figure out that optimal layering system. It's difficult putting out such physical effort and not sweating. However, in winter, in these conditions, sweat can definitely be your enemy. So, naturally, the less you can perspire the better.

Riding conditions were far from optimal, but I have to say that I did enjoy myself. I fell short of my goal of 100 miles, but still feel like I got something accomplished. My legs feel like I did that is for sure.

I've acquired some valuable knowledge which will help me in the future and thanks to those who offered advice and encouragement.

This is a tough one, but I feel myself drifting farther and farther from the whole "roadie" experience. For training, I know that I will need to get miles on the road bike this summer, but if I had to choose right now...road riding wouldn't even be in the top two.

I have developed a far greater sense of respect for people like Jill Homer in Alaska, Mike C., Doug, Jay P. in Wyoming, and all the others who participate in the sport of winter endurance cycling and racing. They are all phenomenal athletes. I can never expect to perform at their levels, but I sure am having fun delving into this sport that is viewed as insanely crazy by most people I know.

It's winter...get out and enjoy it!!


Petit Chèvre said...

Great ride report and excellent pictures... Alaska Jill would be jealous!

Thanks for keeping the spirit of Winter alive (even in Florida:)

Spin On

BWCA said...

Wow! Biking during the winter in the BWCA, I'm impressed.

I bike a few times week from Cloquet to work in Duluth in the spring, summer, and fall. I've thought about doing it in the winter, but sweating, ice, and the like have hindered that move.

Keep up the good work.

Vito said...

Actually not in the BWCA. The Sawbill like many other forest roads, takes you to lakes which border and offer access to the BWCA.

Doug said...

Vito..I am so envious. I love being out in the wild, in the winter, all by myself. The ride must have been breathtakingly beautiful. Although, 8 inches of fresh snow is tough conditions to ride in, even with a fat tire bike like a Pugsley. Have to ask how the ATV Mitts worked for you?

Oh...and thanks for putting me in the same sentence as Jill, Mike C and Jay P. What an honor to be mentioned with them!!

Vito said... rock! I appreciate your experience and advice.

Those mitts are by far the best investment I've made for winter riding. Kept my hands toasty warm the entire time.

Some good bang for the buck there! Oh, and I didn't even mention the bottle parkas. Couldn't get the OR ones I wanted. But the cheapo ones worked great.

Kenny said...

I'm speechless!

Must have been my alter ego in the spa.

Andrew Slade said...

You know, I've written books about outdoor activities on the North Shore...Skiing the North Shore and Camping the North Shore...and I don't think I'd ever do a "Biking the North Shore" even for summer use. But your passion for your activity is clear and unequaled...congrats on a great North Shore experience!

Doug said...

I was considering ordering some real pogies from Epic Eric, but then decided I just couldn't do it when my $19.99 Cabela's ATV mitts get the job done.

Marla said...

Sounds like a great ride. And the pictures were wonderful!