Supérieur Royale Part Two: Duluth to Isle Royale
With the bikes all sorted and the route plan established, it was time to meet up in Duluth the evening of Friday July 27th. Our first day of riding would be on Saturday, the 28th. We heard that Jade from The Current was going to be broadcasting live from Bent Paddle Brewing on Friday, so of course we ended up there to celebrate the start of the Supérieur Royale over a few beers.
If you are in Duluth, definitely check out Bent Paddle's new tap room and order food to be delivered from OMC Smokehouse. They deliver it on a scooter with the best "Minnesota" sticker I have ever seen.
We left well fed, well hydrated, and our bikes were dialed and ready to hit the road first thing in the morning.
Early Saturday morning we got up, made coffee, and doubled checked our gear. Being the gluttons for punishment that we are, the plan was to cover 117 miles the first day so we could make it to Grand Marais. It would be the longest ride of the year for both of us, and we laughed at just how ridiculous it seemed that we were riding loaded bikes so far with minimal training. I had been in Asia for nearly three weeks, and only rode a handful of times between each trans-pacific flight. Frank had been on an aggressive work schedule with lots of windshield time. Nevertheless, we coasted down to Canal Park in Duluth, and we set off for Grand Marais.
The route for Day One was mostly on Highway 61. We took the bike path out of Duluth from Canal Park, then hit Scenic Highway 61 to Two Harbors. A few miles south of Two Harbors Frank's mother surprised us with a mid-course visit. She had driven more than an hour to track us down and wish us luck on the trip. After chatting for a few minutes, it was game on again as we had 90+ more miles to cover.
It was a hot day with temperatures in the upper 80's, and fortunately, we had a tailwind. As is classic with Lake Superior, when the road dips close to the water you feel sudden spurts of cold air that is 20 degrees cooler. All day long we came in and out of these cold pockets, meandering our way past the many cliffs and overlooks along the route.
We pulled in to Beaver Bay at the halfway point for the day. Beaver Bay was the first established community on the Minnesota shore of Lake Superior, even before Duluth. In 1854 the Lapointe Treaty was signed, and shortly after the Sault locks were opened as a gateway for ships to enter Lake Superior. Iron ore was discovered and this created a mining boom at a time of financial crisis on the North Shore. Beaver Bay and nearby Silver Bay became ground-zero for mining. The legendary John Beargrease was from Beaver Bay and delivered mail along the entire North Shore during brutal winters. In honor of his legacy, the now-famous Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon was named after him.
In Beaver Bay, we stopped at Camp 61 and stuffed our faces with delicious fish and replenished our water supply.
The second half of the day clouds blew in, there was some very close lightning and thunder, and some brief bursts of cold rain. We pushed on, happy that there was not much traffic on Highway 61 for a Saturday afternoon in the height of summer vacation season.
South of Lutsen there was a short section of bike path, and the owner of this barn wrote an important message on the side facing the path. It is nice to see some levity during the socially onerous times we are in.
After 7 hours and 21 minutes on the bike, we arrived in Grand Marais. Legs hurting, skin covered in sunscreen and dust, we coasted in to the parking lot of Voyageur Brewing and immediately ran in to fellow cycling friends we knew from Minneapolis.
The municipal campground in Grand Marais was full and our camping options were limited. We scoured the shoreline for ninja camping options, but there was no flat ground anywhere. With no options left, we headed straight down the third base line of the local baseball field and camped in left field. My legs were screaming for rest, and within 5 minutes I was sound asleep.
At 6am the next morning we packed up and rode into town for breakfast to refuel our bodies and batteries for our gadgets. It was Sunday July 29 and the only responsibility we had for the day was to get to Grand Portage, only 35 miles away. It was a sunny morning so we rode to the beach by the Coast Guard station, dried out our gear, and made coffee.
Frank blew a hole in his bibs, and since we had plenty of time to kill in Grand Marais, why not set up shop right on a picnic table and take needle and thread to your chamois? Here we were with our gear scattered everywhere, and Frank sitting there half naked sewing his chamois as tourists walked by in wonder. You could tell people were curious, but not brave enough to approach the two smelly men with needles, thread, and an improvised yard sale on the beach.
Once the chamois mending was completed we set off for Grand Portage, just south of the Canadian border. Compared to the previous day, the 35 mile ride was a piece of cake.
Grand Portage was where we would catch the boat to Isle Royale the next morning. We arrived in the evening and set up camp. Frank chose to hammock the Supérieur Royale trip and there were no nearby trees, which meant he was sleeping on the ground tonight. He draped his rain fly over a picnic table and staked down the sides to create a makeshift tent.
With camp set up, it was time to dial in our needs for food the next several days. Neither of us had been to Isle Royale, and we needed to be prepared. We had two days of boat rides ahead of us, and one night on a remote island with no roads on it. Cheese, meat, bread, ramen noodles and Alpine Aire dried meals were the answer. It was time to make dinner.
Our campground for the evening was adjacent to a marina with fishing boats, so there were seagulls everywhere.
As we settled in for the evening black storm clouds rolled in. Thunder and lightning were hitting the hills on the other side of Highway 61, but we managed to only get a few sprinkles of rain. We got up just before sunrise as we had to check in at the boat landing at 6:30am. There was no time to make camp coffee, but I was able to capture a photo of the sunrise over Lake Superior.
It was a short spin to the boat along a beautiful road that goes through Grand Portage National Monument. This monument was the western-most center of fur trading on the Great Lakes. The "portage" itself is an 8.5 mile long trail that bypasses inland waterfalls on the canoe routes that fur traders used along the Pigeon River to deliver furs to the trading center (now the National Monument). French-Canadian voyageurs and coureurs de bois (runners of the woods) used this portage as part of their trade routes. This specific vignette of history is what inspired the use of the French spelling "Supérieur" for the name of our ride. We were riding right through the center of North American fur trading history, and it felt so amazing to be boarding a boat with our bikes, bound for the least visited national park in the United States: Isle Royale.
The Voyageur II took us from Grand Portage to the shores of Isle Royale. When we showed up everyone had huge backpacks and were set up for a week of hiking on the island. Were rolled up on our bikepacking rigs, with helmets clasped on bags and ti mugs dangled off the back. Peculiar looks buzzed through the air, and I was feeling uneasy about how people would treat us. Here we were, bringing bikes to a place where it is illegal to ride them, and when you look at the boat it was not clear how they would be loaded and stored. It could potentially be a big inconvenience for boat operators trying to manage a group of weary people setting off on adventures. Even though we had called ahead of time to ensure bikes would not be a problem, it was still unclear exactly how this strange maneuver of ours would go down with boat captains and National Park Rangers.
It worked like a charm. The deck hand and captain were more than happy to load and tie down our bikes. With both bikes loaded on top of the boat we laughed at just how high they towered above the canoes and rest of the gear. We were the odd ducks among the audience, and people were wondering just what in the hell we were doing out here with loaded bikes.
Everyone was called aboard, and we left the harbor on our way to Isle Royale. There are several entry points on the island. Voyageur II makes several stops on the way to Rock Harbor, which is on the northeast side.
The first stop was Windigo. As we pulled up you could see how remote the landscape is, with black spruce trees beautifully adorning the shoreline.
As we departed Windigo the captain slowed down the boat and announced that he was going to take us past a shipwreck in shallow water. We would be able to clearly see the wreck of SS America from the deck of the boat. In 1928 it had 60 passengers on board as it headed to Isle Royale. After a breach in the boat the captain decided to run it into the beach so everyone could survive. That is why it rests in such shallow water to this day. It was very difficult to photograph as I didn't have my circular polarizer filter with me, so this is the best I could manage. This is the bow of SS America in four feet of water.
It was so cool to see this shipwreck up close. We continued our boat journey to Rock Harbor. We had roughly 5 more hours to go, as we would traverse the entire west side of the island, stopping at Todd Harbor and McCargoe Cove before arriving at Rock Harbor. Everyone on the boat was on an adventure, so we naturally connected with them. They wondered why we were taking our bikes to the island, but when we told them we were on our way to Copper Harbor it all made sense. Many maps were brought out, and stories shared. A very jovial man from L'Anse, Michigan became the self-declared mayor of the boat and entertained everyone with his amazing Upper Michigan accent, profane language and adventure stories. It was seriously a shame when he got off the boat at McCargoe Cove. He provided next-level entertainment.
The trip carried on, and it was so amazing to be surrounded by the purity of Lake Superior, with our bikes.
As mentioned earlier, it was uncertain how National Park Rangers would meet us on Isle Royale. There are no roads, and it is illegal to ride bikes, so what would happen when we showed up with them? They ended up being super helpful, and just reminded us we can't ride them. They also said that one of the reasons we could not ride on the island is because it would make them jealous. They are there all summer and miss riding their bikes. Next to the main building there was a spot they let us store our bikes. All the people so far had been so amazing to us, especially the deck hand and captain who lifted our bikes on and off the boat.
It felt like it had been a two week voyage at this point. We had arrived on Isle Royale with our bikes, seen shipwrecks and met super awesome people. Checking in at the National Park Office was easy. We had heard there were screened in shelters available on a first-come, first-served basis. There were a lot of people embarking on their hiking trips, and it seemed unlikely that we would get one of these shelters. Dealing with mosquitoes all night seemed inevitable as we walked towards the campground carrying our frame bags, handlebar bags and seat bags. Out of nowhere we heard this voice say, "it's yours if you want it." There was a man and his family walking down a path that led to one of these screened in shelters. We could not believe it, but we scored a shelter for the evening! We felt so lucky. As we approached the door, we learned that someone had aptly named the shelter "The Fart Motel."
The interior of the cabin was full of carvings and handwriting from previous occupants. I appreciate that the park service has not tried to cover any of this up. It serves as a historical document of peoples' experiences here. We spent 15-20 minutes just reading all of it. Many people had come here to deal with difficult circumstances in their life, or to remember people they had lost in their lives. One person on the boat had driven from Colorado to hike Isle Royale to follow through on a promise she had made to a friend who had passed away. It served as a reminder that life is precious, and we need to enjoy every single day as much as we can.
It turned out that there was a small restaurant on the island, so we had dinner there with someone from Brazil that we had made friends with while walking around the harbor. There was also a small store that sold Bells Two Hearted, so we grabbed a few of those and went to the pier while the sun set. It had been an incredible day, and being in Isle Royale with bikes felt like a major accomplishment.
It was time to head back to that screened-in shelter and get some well-earned sleep. Part Three of the Supérieur Royale is coming next. It will cover our half day on Isle Royale and the Copper Harbor experience.