Biking from Bemidji to South Haven

Intended route! 
A few years ago when I moved out to Redmond, we drove out the "long" way along Hwy 2, taking frequent stops and enjoying the western progression (Part 1 and Part 2). One of the fondest memories I had from this trip was biking around Bemidji, Minnesota in October. OMG it was beautiful. So, in a bizarre alignment of quitting a job, taking time off for a month, and it being October, I had a chance to do it again but wanted to head East to Michigan this time. And... this time I wanted to bike pack - carrying a tent, sleeping bag, food, etc. all by bike.

Totally worth the rain, right? 
A plan quickly formed and things assembled. I obsessively prepared maps, gathered supplies, outfitted my bike, and read everything you could possibly need to know about bike packing. I had plans A-F ready, a spot tracker, and found a riding partner willing to join me. Although I didn't feel like I was in great shape after a pretty lazy summer, I was unbelievably excited to ride through the Northern Midwest in peak Fall colors!!

-- Part 1 --

My riding partner and I arrived in Bemidji, MN late on October 7th by plane, was given an escort to our hotel by Rosemarie (thank you so much Rosemarie!!!) quickly assembled the bikes, took a short nap, and started riding in the morning with Rosemarie (she has the gravel bug now, hahaha!). Bemidji... was not as I remembered it - instead of sunny and golden, Bemidji (re: paradise) greeted us with 35 F and a steady rain. Guess it's best to test the rain gear early in the trip...

Just another bike trail in Minnesota
We almost immediately were on backroads out of town and in National Forest land/trails. The roads and colors were incredible - truly breath taking. We kept commenting on how amazingly beautiful it was... (!) our first night was supposed to be a camp night, but with the steady rain, that was looking like a worse and worse option. Instead we sprung for a cabin in the woods and settled into a wood burning stove and frozen pizzas (yes!)

The next day was similar - more perfect fall, dozens of lakes, and light on/off rain with temperatures around 38 F. I was really comfortable - I felt like despite the cloudy skies, the color show we were getting from the leaves made it worth it!! However, we got the message that more bad weather and snow were headed our way, so we skeedadled 100 miles to Floodwood, MN and stayed in another hotel. My legs felt DEAD after this day - I could barely walk (this becomes more entertaining later) and I ate everything I could within sight. But we had to continue on... the storm was coming!

Another bike trail in Minnesota... 
We woke up in Floodwood late and in steady rain, 33 F, and an ever increasing headwind. Conditions were horrible, like the worst of the worst. My gloves soaked through after about 2 hours of riding, and we attempted to race to Duluth. However, the headwinds just grew stronger as we approached Duluth, so we headed south to Cloquet, MN, a fairly large town close to Duluth and after only 35 miles, we called it a day. This cold and wet stuff was getting old!

Well at least they're pretty pot holes! (Wisconsin) 
However, the next day brought clear morning skies, an inch of snow, and... an EPIC tailwind. LIKE WOW. We flew, going 20+ mph on our loaded bikes (holy smokes!!). We entered Wisconsin on beautiful gravel backroads and were treated to nice country landscapes and easy riding. Bad weather was still looming behind us though and with a tail wind, it was also headed our way. The weather forecasts were astoundingly variable up there, which definitely made me nervous. Although I am not going into detail here, my riding partner decided to leave me around mile 55, which suddenly changed everything in the trip - do I also stop? do I continue on the original route? do I flee South and try to catch a ferry (SS Badge or the ultra fast one out of Milwaukee) or try to catch a plane?

-- Part 2 --

Naturally, the first thing I did was call my mommy. "Mom, I'm in the middle of Northern Wisconsin alone on a bike along a highway" isn't a mom's favorite phone call, but I guess in that moment, she was strong for me. Go south, now (to Hayward). The weather is too risky. We'll figure out the rest. "we'll" contained my equally heroic boyfriend Daniel ( yes, THE Daniel Perry) who became my "control tower". I had no route, all I had was heading south on an epic tailwind (again!) on a road that would take me to Hayward and needed to do over 40 miles in 3ish hours (that's fast on a 70 pound bike).

I flew, and I felt like I was running for my life. Daniel and mom would coordinate with me at stops. My mom wanted me to race to take the SS Badger out of Manitowoc, WI - the last ferry was on 10/14 and it was 10/11 and I was ~340 miles away. Daniel immediately tried to veto, but when I realized it was 10/11 and not 10/12 I told them I wanted to try, I thought I could do it. Thus, I began a time trial on the worst possible setup I could have chosen.

I not only made it to Hayward that night, but when about 15 miles past the town, finding (blessedly) a motel that made an exception to let me stay for 1 night (they were trying to close for the season). In fact, they trusted me to pay the next day because they didn't have anyone who could read the card in the office when I got in, so they just gave me the key code to a room and told me to call tomorrow (...!). I got into Hayward and immediately started planning with my control tower - we had to find a way to Manitowoc and the google maps directions I had been using (re: taking me over grassy fields and on car filled roads) were not going to cut it.

Daniel came up with a route, sent it to me, and while I stuffed my face I analyzed and tried to figure out the best way. We all talked and decided after the 110 mile day I had just done, I needed to do 120+ the next day to make it. Oh boy. I dumped most of the food and unnecessary supplies in my pack (like a fuel canister)... even a 65 pound bike would be better than a 70 pound bike.

chubby bike
I woke up like a rocket at 6 AM and was rolling in the dark. Surprisingly, the cheap lights I bought at Walmart when my Light & Motion lights failed in Cloquet did alright at night and opened up the idea of night riding for me. The forecast had called for 38 F but the temperature collapsed overnight to a mere 24 F and STAYED there most of the morning. At first, I kept telling myself, "oh it will get warmer once the sun comes up". NOPE!

At one point, a truck pulled over in front of me. Usually when that happens in Seattle, it means that you're about to get screamed at because you're not in a car. However, I saw a man get out and just felt like he came in peace. He didn't wave as I approached but I called out "How are you?" as I slowed to talk to him. He lit up immediately - he wanted to know where I came from and where I was going because he too was a randoneer and loved seeing "his" people up in Northern Wisconsin! Turns out, Jerry is a VERY legit randoneer and we knew some people in common. Small world moment!
Not what you want to see fully loaded... 

So back to our paid programming... it was freezing and lightly snowing. Still 24 F, and at about, 10 AM when I thought I was actually going to succumb to hypothermia, I rolled into Winter, WI and (OMYGOSH) found a cafe. I could barely undo the buckles on my panniers to get into my bags to get more clothes my hands were so numb. I walked into the cafe and everyone looks concerned. I mean, really, who in their right mind bikes in 24 F by themselves in Winter, WI (well besides Jerry above)? The waitress immediately brought me coffee without even asking and they told me to get my things off. Several locals came over and talked to me too - they were impressed! They said it was too cold to fish, let alone bike ;) I ordered and ate what became my "classic" - scrambled eggs, hash browns, cheese (Wisconsin!), and two pancakes and drank all the coffee I could. I warmed up, put on ALL the clothes I had (thank you down puffy jacket!) and after a while, rolled on.

With the down puffy, the 24 F was tough but bearable. I had to constantly make one fist to thaw out a hand and then would switch while the other hand steered. I made my way Southeast through Wisconsin, drafting on a lighter tailwind. Unfortunately, ridewithgps threw me up roads to the highest point in Wisconsin (Timm's Hill, thanks ridewithgps. 1900 feet). I outran one dog at the top (ridewithgps planted that dog too, I'm sure) and then descended down. This is when I realized my front brake was only partially functional (greeeeat).

Sunrise in Merrill 
From there, went through another town, ate at a gas station while checking in with control tower, still freezing, and continued on. This was probably the most trying section of my route - I was on ATV gravel roads in a nature conservancy that gradually became two track that gradually became a grassy hiking trail with "no trespassing" signs and dead birds (from hunting) everywhere. Lots of hike-a-bike in a marsh for several miles. Internally, I panicked, externally, I pushed on... there had to be a way out of this if I just went a little further. Eventually, it became logging roads again and about 30 minutes after sunset, I gained cell service again. "Control tower, I need help. I see nothing, and I won't make it to Wasau tonight (original goal)... I need a hotel". Mom and Daniel pinged back and forth, eventually guiding me to Merrill, WI (quite a booming metropolis actually) in the dark. It was scary, I can't lie. I mean, the stars were pretty and I tried to focus on that, but I was still 15 miles away on a 3 foot shoulder in 24 F (damn, 24 F AGAIN) and it was pitch black (sliver moon too...). I made it, I got the last room at an AmericInn, I called my control tower, I ate a backpacking "just add hot water" meal and passed out... around 9 PM with spoon next to my head. 130 miles.

I woke up at 2 AM the next day unable to sleep. I prepped the bike, forced myself to eat as much as I could, and looked at the maps to figure out the route. Tonight, I needed to make Green Bay (110 miles) to be in striking distance of the ferry on the 14th. It was cold again ... I kid you not, 24 F AGAIN (what I would have done for 28 F or 34 F). The landscape was surreal outside Merrill - frozen corn fields and it had snowed about an inch the night before. I was moving as fast as I could, but there was more of a cross wind today, so the cold was starting to get to me even with the down puffy on. I started to despair, both my hands were numb and I was starving... it wasn't looking good. But then... in the middle of NOWHERE... appeared a country bar... that served the best Saturday morning brunch for miles. I swear I thought it was a mirage and I almost slapped myself to make sure I wasn't hallucinating.
24 F... 

Inside said bar, were the most Wisconsin people (re: nice and fun, basically how you would describe your best friend) you'd ever meet. Once they found out I was biking to Manitowoc from Bemidji, they all started cheering. Tanya, sweet Tanya, bought me breakfast, the bar owner Ricky gave me a shirt, and people were offering shots, etc. I stayed and talked and ate and laughed for probably too long before I continued my sprint to Manitowoc. I left my new friends feeling warm, and continued on to the MountainBay bike trail.

Ah MountainBay Trail. I don't like you. 65 miles till Green Bay from where I hopped on. Although you started out just fine, you gave me a headwind, cross wind, and all sorts of obstacles you didn't need to (downed trees, mud, sand, leaves, random branches that fly up and hit you in the face, etc.). You were also boring as shit. I rode on this trail for hours upon hours, and started to panic as it grew dark and I realized I wouldn't make it to Green Bay tonight. I checked in with my control tower and asked for roads to get me further to a hotel; after the sun set, it was too hard to see the downed trees (2-3 every MILE) on the trail, and that's a scary thing to hit. The roads were also scary, 8:30 PM, dark, and a Saturday night out in farm land is not a good place for a bike to be, and my mom and I simultaneously came to the conclusion that I would stay in Pulaski, WI that night. 99 miles.

MountainBay Nonsense (Yes,
 I had to hurl my bike up on the tree to get it over) 
I ordered the worst chinese food of my life (seriously, it was ketchup and tofu), got about 6 milky way bars and ice cream from the gas station (milky way was the only thing I wanted to eat anymore), and found a hotel. As I settled in, control tower pinged with concerns - I had 60 to 65 miles till Manitowoc tomorrow and I had to be there by 1:30, what if I didn't make it? It doesn't sound that far, but with the headwind today and exhaustion, I had only averaged 8 mph or so (with breaks in) - this was a grim outlook and required a steady effort and an early start. Could I uber? Could I call my second cousin in Madison? At this point, two angels appears. One, was Daniel - he told me I could do it, no uber and no rides necessary. I had come too far to stop or fail now. The other was Melanie, yes, Cascade RL Melanie. After seeing Facebook posts on this trip, she reached out to me with contact info for a friend of hers who lived in Manitowoc and would be willing to come get me if I wasn't going to make the ferry. The end was near.

Isn't it all Badgerland? 
I passed out again spoon near head on pillow (and accidentally was left there the next morning), woke up from stress/anxiety/determination at 2 AM without an alarm again, and packed up my stuff, prepared the route that Daniel helped design, and was rolling by 4 AM. I WOULD MAKE IT.

And it immediately became clear I would... because my tailwind returned. I flew to Green Bay, getting there before 6 AM. I saw one drunk person returning home (seriously dude, 6 AM?) as I rode through near empty streets. I rode in the middle of the road as I crossed a bridge (yeah!) across the river. By the time control tower 1 (re: mom) woke up at 7:30 AM, I was at a gas station on the other side of Green Bay. When I climbed the last big hill of the route (10% grade, ouch!), my dad texted me - "29 miles in 6 hours? I think I could even do that!". I was going to make it!!!

Ferry VIP brought to you by Jamee
The next 30 miles or so (longer than 29 because I took safer roads) were a long blur of beautiful country riding in cow country. I was chased by 3 dogs and outran them all (muahaha). I reached the lovely town on Manitowoc at 10:30 AM and found an all you can eat breakfast with eggs, cheese, potatoes and pancakes about 5 minutes from the ferry. I had made it. I had MADE it!!! (62 miles)

And as I got on the ferry, found a spot to set up my sleeping bag, and made ferry friends, I occasionally would start crying a bit. Throughout the 4 hour ride to Michigan, I got to think about what I did - 600 miles, most of it solo, in 6 days. 400 miles in 3.5 days on a bike I could barely lift. Before this week, the most I had ever biked in a week was ~270 miles. It's amazing what you can do when you're determined to make something a reality.

My parents and I decided that was enough - I didn't need to bike the last 150 miles to their place... more bad weather was coming (sub 40 and rainy here today). Plus, I did what I had needed to do - get to the ferry.

There are lots of little things I could go into here like about how my heart rate wouldn't get over 130 by the last day, about how worn down my new tires were after this journey, etc. but this post is long enough for now. I am immensely glad for my control tower and absolutely could not have made it without them, their constant vigilance, and filling in the gaps on my journey. I also couldn't have done it without the little kindnesses - the coffee, the smiles, the laughter... they kept my head afloat and from sinking into "what if I can't do it?".

I also realized a lot about myself on this trip, as you can imagine. I pushed past boundaries that I thought were real - like weekly mileage or "needing" a certain amount of food while biking, etc. I mentally pushed through mechanicals, mild knee pain, frozen hands, frozen toes, etc. just focusing on goals ahead. It was as if there was this small fire within me that always kept me moving forward, on to the next town, the next road, the next hill. I did feel unstoppable many times on this trip, and I don't think I've ever felt such happiness or relief as when the ferry started pulling away from Manitowoc and I was waving from my deck chair.

I hope you all get to experience something similar.

The final route :) 

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