Northern Tier 2010

August 10, 2010

Onward to Iowa!

Filed under: Iowa, Minnesota, Section 07 — Henry Scott @ 8:00 pm

Today’s early start worked out well, opening with a nice view of the sun rising over the Mississippi from my campsite, up on the bluffs, in Hok-Si-La park. The moisture blown up from the Gulf quickly formed a heavy fog, and Mother Nature let it be known that storms were coming. There was, yet again, a south wind from early on, but it wasn’t too bad in the morning. In the afternoon, however, I saw a northbound butterfly go by at Mach 2.

I had a good breakfast in a Wabasha coffee shop where several locals, clearly regulars and community builders, invited me to join them. It turns out some of them were involved in the fundraising for an eagle museum in town, and had I not been so focused on eating I wouldn’t have blown what in hindsight was an offer to get a private, pre-opening tour. Initially I didn’t even understand what the museum was, and I thought they were suggesting that I wait a couple of hours for it to open.

It was painful to bike away without seeing the museum once they had left, and I realized what they were offering, but on the other hand the riding was still good and storms were clearly coming. It started to rain before long, but at just the right rate to provide some cooling without getting very wet.

I was able to easily cover the 50 miles to Winona by noon, at which point it cleared and I did some laundry and enjoyed an amazing all-you-can-eat salad bar at a nearby grocery store. It was well stocked with fresh fruits, including kiwis and strawberries, in addition to surprising extras like grilled chicken. This was six dollars very well spent from my perspective, but certainly a loss for them.

The Northern Tier then took me west, away from the river and way up onto the bluffs. I almost modified the route to make it more direct, but I’m glad I didn’t: the south wind became much stronger, and the climbing was a welcome change of effort, plus the views from the bluffs were excellent. It was hard to imagine that just a few days ago I was at the headwaters, but now the river commands an entire valley.

When I descended back down to the river I met three eastbound Brits, clearly having the time of their lives. They were set on staying in La Crosse for the night (on the other side of the river), but my legs felt like continuing, so after chatting for a bit we parted ways.

From there I continued further than originally planned, but the campsite I had in mind was packed with RVs, and the fee for me to pitch my tent for the night was $20 — more than I was willing to pay.

So I decided to test my friend Bruce’s claims regarding the hospitality I’d receive in Iowa, and even though it was getting late decided to head for the border. The winds had diminished to almost nothing, so adding another 15 miles wouldn’t be too bad. Reaching New Albin, IA brought me to my longest day yet at 113 miles (by only a few tenths of a mile), but Bruce was right! Even though it isn’t designated as a camping city on my maps (nor are there any signs explicitly allowing camping), the park is clearly set up for campers, and it is very clean. I spoke with some residents across the street and they told me I’d be fine. Assuming I don’t get kicked out in the middle of the night, Iowa is okay by me!

The humidity is unbearable and, again, I can’t stop sweating in my tent. But, the sky keeps lighting up with flashes of distant lightning, and I’m safely under the park’s pavilion. Here’s hoping a big storm will bring some relief.


August 9, 2010

Along the Mississippi

Filed under: Geology, Minnesota, Section 06, Section 07, Wisconsin — Henry Scott @ 1:00 pm

Today continued to be hot and humid, and I suppose I should expect that for much of the rest of the tour. It felt a bit easier today, but I think mainly because last night’s storm gave some relief, rather than I’m getting used to it. The humidity makes the evenings more difficult, too, because it is harder to get to sleep — I’m still sweating and it is after dark. But, it’s all part of the challenge, so I don’t mean to complain.

I got to Stillwater (back in Minnesota — the route crosses the Mississippi a few times as it heads south, but after today I’ll stay on the MN side until I reach Iowa) early enough to have breakfast before the bike shop opened. My left pedal has started to make a loud pop each revolution. They confirmed that the source is indeed the pedal, but didn’t have a solution other than to either ignore it or replace they pedals.

I continued on with the pedal, but the pedal noise combined with hills and humidify was too much. So, stopped at another bike shop in Red Wing and bought new pedals. The silence is wonderful!

This Mississippi has continued to grow, and it now looks like more like my life-long mental image. There is lots of activity along its banks including both industry and recreation, with small towns every five to ten miles.

Geologically, it is nice to see outcrops again after so many miles of gently rolling hills with almost no exposed bedrock. This is unusual for the Midwest and is additional evidence for the surprising lack of glacial activity in this region. The photo shows two things that don’t usually go together: vast fields of Midwestern corn and high outcrops.

I’m going to stop here to facilitate getting to sleep earlier; I’d like to get some miles in early tomorrow, hopefully in relatively cool conditions.

August 8, 2010

The Third H

Filed under: Minnesota, Section 06, Wisconsin — Henry Scott @ 8:00 pm

Yesterday’s south wind delivered the worst humidity, presumably from the Gulf of Mexico, I’ve experienced so far, and it made what I thought would be an easy day fairly challenging. The expression in the photo is staged…but it pretty much sums up the day. I knew from the start I’d only go about 75 miles because that would place me near Stillwater, and I’d like to spend some time there during the day. Thinking I had an easy day ahead of me, I took my time leaving the Adventure Cyclists Bunkhouse and, in hindsight, squandered the most reasonable riding weather.

I felt sluggish, and by mid afternoon each mile seemed to drag on forever. I got some welcome relief during a big, and quite good “home cooking” style meal in Harris, but that was quickly forgotten once back on the bike.

Normally biking in the heat isn’t much of a problem because there’s enough airflow to keep cool, but today reached the point for which I couldn’t ride fast enough for the sweat to evaporate. In addition to fatigue from overheating, I had trouble keeping my eyes open due to the constant flow of sweat. It was a long 75 miles, and a strong reminder that I’ve entered the Midwest. Several folks from home have told me about this summer’s oppressive humidity; now I can better commiserate.

Previously I had been thinking there were just two major factors that have the ability to slow me down dramatically: Hills and Headwinds, but now I realize there’s a third H — Humidity. From what I’ve been reading, the northeastern portion of Iowa through which I’ll be riding was spared much glaciation and is, accordingly, quite hilly. Perhaps I’ll get a chance to face all three H’s simultaneously?

Near the end of the day, while taking a break in Osceola, WI, I could see storm clouds developing to the west, and they were an incredibly welcome sight for hope that a good rain would break the humidity. The closest campground was in Somerset, about 15 miles away, and I decided to go for it. I started to get a few raindrops after only about five miles, but they brought immediate relief to the heat, and my legs finally started to come alive.

It was raining by the time I reached the campground, but I made it under a pavilion before the main event. It turned into a spectacular thunderstorm, and I had a great view. I’m now camped under the pavilion, the air does indeed feel much more comfortable, and tomorrow I’ll cross back over into MN to explore Stillwater.

August 7, 2010

What If vs What Is

Filed under: Minnesota, Section 06 — Henry Scott @ 12:00 pm

Breakfast may have been the best part of the day. Nothing bad happened today, and I suppose I knew the good wind couldn’t last forever, but it was a psychological blow to find myself facing a headwind all day as I headed south. The scenery wasn’t very good either; despite being close to some large lakes, the highway I followed was lined with view-blocking trees. I’d be okay with that, but behind those trees was one private resort after the other with little public access. Today became one of the very few days on this tour for which I kept pedaling just to get through it.

But today was still a good day for non-cycling reasons. It started with breakfast at Kelly’s Kitchen in Palisade. I arrived early and could quickly tell it was a local’s place, but the owner, Kelly, made me feel right at home. She knew all about the Northern Tier and offered to customize the menu so I could get just what I wanted.

I had a Portage Omelet, which included eggs, Swiss cheese, turkey and lots of wild rice — a major local crop. The rice worked incredibly well in the omelet. I also had a short stack of sweet potato pancakes. They were big and dense, and I felt wonderfully satisfied by the meal. It was so good that I spent a surprisingly large portion of the day reminiscing about it. Uh oh, now I’m thinking about it again.

I spoke with a farmer during breakfast; he was pleased to see I was eating wild rice, one of his main crops. He was a bit disgusted, however, when he found out that I only bike for six to eight hours per day — he works fourteen to sixteen.

I thought about trying to explain that that’s just the time the bike is moving, and it doesn’t include all of the inevitable stops throughout the day, let alone making and breaking camp, lots of time eating, sleeping, etc. Other than tapping out my daily entry on the iPad, I literally don’t have any idle time on this trip. But, it was clear the argument was lost…

I left Kelly’s to face the headwind, and it was slow going all day. I covered 93 miles to reach Dalbo, but I was stuck back at 12 mph. That feels awfully slow after averaging well over 14 for the past week.

But, there were other unexpectedly good things to come. Near one of the few public scenic overlooks of Mille Lacs Lake, I met Denny, Sandy, Glenn and Marge. They approached me to ask about the trip and we proceeded to talk for thirty minutes. Before leaving they left me with a bag of homemade cookies and a bottle of Gatorade.

In Ogilvie I stopped at a coffee shop for a snack and a cold drink, and as a woman entered she said someone recently bought her a drink, and that she wanted to repay the favor to me. I tried to politely refuse, but she insisted, and before I knew it I was enjoying a large, ice-cold Italian soda.

Finally, the most striking example of random kindness was in Dalbo. It has become clear over the past few days that my evenings of free camping in city parks are just about over. For some reason such community hospitality is much less common in the east. Campgrounds tend to be less frequent, privately owned, and surprisingly expensive for one person with no vehicle and a small tent — they often charge the same rate they would for an RV.

But, just north of Dalbo, farmers Donn and Sherry Olson have turned an old barn into a bunkhouse for cyclists following Adventure Cycling routes. They aren’t even home during my visit, but a sign outside welcomes cyclists and invites them in. Inside one finds a large, comfortable space, a microwave oven, several private rooms with mattresses and clean pillows, and a refrigerator full of drinks and frozen meals (at prices so low they must be below cost). They even provide a shower!

Anyway, all of this got me thinking about how such kindness has been the rule, rather than the exception, on this trip. Everywhere I go, people want to know what I’m up to, and I get nothing but encouragement, and sometimes free food, drink and accommodations. I have yet to have a single motorist do anything aggressive toward me — I am consistently given plenty of room. I’ve been shouted at twice (both happened to be in Grand Rapids) but, to be honest, I was clearly in the wrong one of those times (I failed to signal that I was going to turn).

Of course I recognize that if one could establish a risk factor presented by each passing motorist, that factor could be extremely low, yet potentially ruin my trip because I encounter such a large number of vehicles. I suppose that’s why to some a trip like this may seem dangerous. Certainly cyclists do get into accidents, but I’m sure the vast majority complete the entire trip with no more serious problems than the occasional flat tire.

I can think of many things that could go wrong while touring, but I don’t think there’s enough data to really evaluate any of these risks. Instead, it is easy get hung up on a handful of anecdotes about the bad things that have happened to cyclists — the “what ifs.” But, there are so many bad things that can happen to us everyday that such thinking would keep us from doing anything. Accordingly, I’m focused on the “what is” of this trip, and that is incredible scenery and exceptionally friendly and interesting people.

This sentiment was stated much more eloquently by John Muir:

Few places in the world are more dangerous than home. Fear not, therefore, to try the mountain passes. They kill care, save you from deadly apathy, and call forth every faculty into vigorous, enthusiastic action.

August 6, 2010

Like a Drifter, I was Born to Walk Alone

Filed under: Minnesota, Section 05, Section 06 — Henry Scott @ 1:59 pm

People often ask what I think about while biking. Some of the time my thoughts are specific and task oriented, such as where I’m going to camp, how my legs and back feel, and what my next meal will be. But, a lot of the time I think about more long-term issues such as ideas for new experiments, how to incorporate what I’m learning on this trip into my courses, etc. That said, sometimes my mind just wanders, and fairly often I get a song stuck in my head, and I’ll keep hearing (and very occasionally singing) fragments of the lyrics.

As I mentioned yesterday, Seth and I parted ways in Grand Rapids today because he’s going to go north of the Great Lakes, whereas I’m staying further south. After a big lunch, and some time in the library, I got anxious to hit the road, so we said goodbye and rode off in different directions. I’ve really enjoyed getting to know Seth the past two weeks, and logistically it has made day-to-day tasks, such as cooking, easier as well.

As I pedaled away I got the Whitesnake song referenced in the title stuck in my head. The absurdity of it had me literally laughing out loud, yet the song stayed with me for many miles. But that’s just how it goes when one gets a song stuck in his head… for some reason you don’t get to pick.

Otherwise, today was yet another perfect riding day. The sun was out, but there were enough clouds to make the sky interesting and, most importantly, I had a tailwind for much of the day. The route is staying close to the Mississippi so I continue to get excellent views of the growing river. Notably, there is almost no development along the river’s banks, so the views are quite pretty.

It has also been interesting to see the trail infrastructure for off-road vehicles in the summer and snowmobiles in the winter, much like in Michigan’s upper peninsula. I’m not sure if they’re operational, but I was amused by the collection of snowmobiles shown in the photo, at the ready for the first snowfall.

Finally, today was my 30th day into the trip, and I started Section 6 (I’m camped in Palisade, right on the Mississippi, for the night). I’ve covered 2,240 miles in 179 hours of riding. That comes out to just shy of 75 miles per day and an average speed of about 12.5. The favorable winds I’ve been getting recently have helped quite a bit to bring those numbers up. I don’t think I’m quite halfway distance-wise because I’ve added some side trips and a few miles each day riding around towns, but if I stay injury-free, I think I’m on track to finish in another month.

So here I go, again on my own….

August 5, 2010

No Shirt, No Shoes, No Books

Filed under: Minnesota, Section 05 — Henry Scott @ 9:00 pm

I stole this title from a sign in Bemidji’s public library. Well, actually, Seth noticed the sign first, so I guess I stole the idea of stealing it from him. Anyway, the sign got me thinking about how amazing the public libraries have been on this trip. Even in the smallest of the towns with public libraries, they provide free Internet access in addition to excellent reference materials and, of course, books. The staff are always friendly and helpful, even when we must look filthy. That said, I am glad they require shirts and shoes!

Today our longest stop was in Bemidji, the “first town on the Mississippi,” and the home of gigantic statues of Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox. You can see us towering over them in the photo.

We were here early so we went out for breakfast. Seth broke his own pancake record, but I continue to shy away from eating so much so quickly — I have to sneak in an extra meal to keep up with him in terms of caloric intake. Today that came from an under-construction Subway. I must’ve looked hungry with my loaded bicycle, because a worker asked if I’d be willing to test the drive-up window on my bike in exchange for a free sandwich. Ya betcha!

We repeatedly crossed the nascent Mississippi today, and we got to see how quickly it grows in volume along its course. Near Itasca one could easily jump over it, but by Bemidji it starts to look more like the mighty river it will become.

We’re camped in Bena for the night, back along Highway 2, and we’ll head into Grand Rapids fairly early tomorrow. At that point Seth plans to head north up and over the Great Lakes, but I’ll stay on the Northern Tier. It has been great to have such a good riding partner for the past two weeks.

August 4, 2010

Veritas Caput

Filed under: Geology, Minnesota, Section 05 — Henry Scott @ 9:00 pm

Today was a perfect touring day. We got off to a slightly late start because I was slow to get packed up, but once we hit the road we sailed on excellent winds. The terrain of the land of ten thousand lakes consists of rolling hills, but the wind was strong enough to make them all seem easy. We covered the first 64 miles in well under four hours, excluding a break to cook breakfast in Callaway, and stopped for lunch in the small town of Two Inlets.

From there we turned north and exchanged our tailwind for a crosswind, but that didn’t matter because before long we reached the entrance to Lake Itasca State Park, and we didn’t even notice the wind not blocked by the forest because the lake views were so gorgeous.

We had an interesting conversation with a local named Ray near the entrance who told us about several opportunities to leave the road and take paved bicycle paths, which we did to reach our campground. Now that he’s retired, he earns some side money by collecting leeches, using venison as bait, to sell as bait for fishing. After seeing leeches for sale over the past several days, I had been quite curious about how one, intentionally, catches them. The bucket on the back of his 1970’s-era Honda is to hold the leeches until he can sort and take them to market — “jumbos” fetch $6 per dozen.

Because we made such good time, we arrived early enough to explore the visitor center, set up camp and cook some pasta before setting off to see the park’s main attraction: the “official” headwaters of the Mississippi River. I put official in quotes because with so many tributaries it is hard to identify an absolute start, but the outflow of Lake Itasca is generally given this distinction. There was a surprisingly heated battle in the late 1700’s and early 1800’s by white explorers eager to be credited with identifying the headwaters.

The lake’s modern name was given to it by Henry Schoolcraft in the 1850’s with the explicit purpose of claiming it as the source for the Mississippi: the name is derived from the Latin words veritas and caput meaning truth and head, respectively. Schoolcraft formed a contraction by dropping the v-e-r and p-u-t from the beginning and end. Some Native American folklore was manufactured after the fact to give the name added cultural significance, but from what I understand, it has no basis in Native American mythology.

After watching Itasca’s outflow begin its 2,500 journey to the Gulf of Mexico, we biked around the ten-mile Wilderness Loop road, bringing us to just over 100 miles for the day. We went to the top of the fire lookout tower to see the landscape from above the canopy. Nature is allowed to run her course with no human intervention in the wilderness area, and the low-traffic, one-way only ride offered some very relaxing riding and terrific views.

August 3, 2010


Filed under: Gear, Minnesota, North Dakota, Section 04, Section 05 — Henry Scott @ 2:00 pm

To Fargo’s credit (and my very slight disappointment), I didn’t see a single reference to the Cohen brothers film today. It is still one of my favorite movies, but Fargo has a resurgent downtown, and there was lots going on without living in the movie’s shadow.

Our ride to Fargo was quite different than our entrance to Minot, the last major town we visited. The winds were at our backs, we didn’t have any mechanical problems, and we covered the 32 miles in excellent time. It was a beautiful day in Fargo. We started with a big breakfast, and I avoided the all-you-can-eat pancakes — another significant departure from our layover in Minot.

After breakfast we went to the fantastic Great Northern Bicycle Co. bicycle shop. The staff were amazing, and they went to great lengths to make us feel welcome, including storing our belongings while we walked around, giving thoughtful advice and directions to do the things we needed to do, and providing expedited service on Seth’s wheel.

The shop itself is in an old train depot, complete with an excellent coffee shop. One of the employees, Judith, remembered meeting Tom, the westbound cyclist we encountered a few days ago in Minnewaulkan, when he came through Fargo. They’ve kept in touch, and Tom had told her we may stop in. She realized who we were from Tom’s description, and we had a great time chatting.

Unfortunately, however, I was a bit preoccupied today, and I spent much of my time in Fargo dealing with an ailing camera. I packed up my Canon S90 and sent it in for warranty service — it cannot get satisfactory focus on distant objects any longer. It has been heavily used since I got it last Christmas, but I’m still disappointed to be having such problems already. Hopefully Canon will repair it under warranty.

Even if they do, however, that leaves me without a camera for at least for a couple of weeks, so I ended up buying a replacement (the Canon 1300IS). It is amazing how long simple tasks such as printing a letter, preparing a shipment, and just getting around take when one has few resources at his disposal. I was glad to be doing something relatively fun rather than, say, looking for a job.

From Fargo we pressed on into Minnesota and are camped for the night in Hitterdal. Tomorrow we may reach the headwaters of the Mississippi, something I’ve been excited to see since my colleague Andy recognized my route would bring me near.

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