What I learned from a week biking the trails of the U.P.

Writer Mark Wedel has plenty of experience on long bicycle treks--but the U.P. presented some new challenges. Here, he shares his recent trail journey, for those who might be considering such a trip.
I thought I was lost. I blamed the GPS--it seemed confused about the dirt roads/trails in the west unit of the Hiawatha National Forest. I knew M-94 was at least another mile east of the Haywire Trail, so I continued. 
 
Thick forest opened up, and there's the two-lane highway, deserted. Turned north towards Shingleton, and biked with zero vehicles on the road. It was a Fridaynoon in late May.
 
Crested a hill, and a bald eagle launched itself from a tree. Seven-foot wingspan slowly flapping, in no rush to soar over the empty road, off over the pines to my left.
 
I whooped like a nut. I'd ridden a bicycle from St. Ignace to Manistique on U.S. 2, then north on the Haywire towards Munising, hoping for this one magic Upper Peninsula moment. 
 
L.P. for Tame Biking, U.P. for Adventure
 
There are lots of tame rail-trails and bike routes in my Lower Peninsula homeland. Smooth limestone, even paved surfaces. You may be surrounded by trees and natural beauty, but usually there's a busy road nearby, a party store every five miles, a town every ten. The biting insects could be characterized as "pesky" but not "bibical-plague-like."
 
Since 2012 I've biked two long solo trips, and countless smaller group and solo rides, around the L.P. For 2015, I wanted adventure. 
 
If you're into long-distance bike riding, then you understand the adventure of traveling a few hundred miles using muscles, gears and wheels. And you understand that "adventure" does not equal "nothin' but fun." There are fun times, many glorious moments and transformative epiphanies. And there will be challenges, suffering and the chance of catastrophe.
 
Especially in the Upper Peninsula. 
 
Bike Tourism
 
In spite of the lowered likelihood of easy fun, biking vacations and touring have grown in popularity in the state. A 2015 MDOT-funded study by the League of Michigan Bicyclists and Michigan Trails and Greenways Alliance found that 4 percent of residents participated in a bicycling event or bicycle-oriented vacation in Michigan in 2014. That doesn't sound like much, but the total spending of these 4 percent was $38 million, the report found. 
 
According to the Adventure Cycling Association, bikes should be known as "wallets on wheels." Unlike motorized vacationers who'll zoom past many small towns on the highway, bikers stop often for food and rest. 
 
My longest rides on this U.P. trip were 70-mile stretches on U.S. 2. My GPS tells me that 70 miles burns 2,833 calories. That's nearly four-and-a-half Whoppers' worth of calories; not sure how many pasties, though. 
 
On these 70 mile days I stayed at the Dreamland Motel, a little 1950s strip of rooms with a nice old-fashioned diner. It's on U.S. 2 between Gould City and Gulliver, a bad spot for grabbing motorized tourists who just have 17 miles to go to reach Manistique. 
 
I wasn't about to add 17 to the 70 miles. This wallet on wheels emptied for rooms coming and going, and for breakfasts and dinners. 
 
Sorry, BP, Shell, etc.--no money is spent on petroleum products during these rides. But station owners did get my money for bottled water, sports drinks and bags of M&Ms.
 
U.P., Now With U.S. Bicycle Route 10
 
MDOT and the Adventure Cycling Association officially named U.S. 2 as U.S. Bicycle Route 10 earlier this year. The U.S. Bicycle Route System is a network of bike-able roads and trails that's been growing since 1978.
 
The news had me studying U.P. maps and daydreaming at winter's end. The route would be perfect for this year's solo run. But, if I'm going to ride in the U.P., will I want to stick with one of the peninsula's busiest highways?
 
Go to Google Maps and select "bicycling" from its menu, and the map will highlight bike trails, brown for dirt, green for paved.
 
There, a brown line from Manistique to Shingleton, running through the Hiawatha. The Haywire Trail, Michigan's first rail-trail. I must ride it. 
 
Is the Haywire Anyplace For a Bike?
 
Google says the Haywire is a bike route. "Okay...." Kevin Knaffa says, some doubt in his voice, when I called him to explain my plan. 
 
Knaffa's Jack Pine Lodge, in the Hiawatha half-way between the Lakes, would be the perfect rest stop. I called the owner to reserve a cabin, and to make sure my idea wasn't crazy.
 
The Haywire is mainly a snowmobile and ORV route, he says. Jack Pine does its biggest business in snowmobile season. But non-snow business is picking up thanks to the growing popularity of side-by-side ORVs, little off-road buggies that are all knobby tires and suspension. 
 
The trail is one of rocks, floods, sand and swarms of black flies and mosquitoes, Knaffa says. "Your biggest challenge may be just being careful with the ORV traffic that will be on that route.... I see some, but very few, mountain bikes using it." 
 
Well, I don't have a mountain bike. I have an Electra Townie, a cruiser marketed to urban hipsters. Since getting it new in August 2011, I've put 8,821 miles on it. It's not fast, it won't climb dirt hills, but it's comfortable, and that's what matters. With added Schwalb Fat Frank tires--2.35 inches, the fattest that will fit--the bike will take on all forms of trail except for deep sand.
 
I call her Ol' Bessie. She's a good ol' mule. Load her down with 25 pounds of supplies, and I can go anywhere, just not at speeds above 15 mph.
   
Get to Know the U.P. Before You Ride
 
I met Thomas Funke earlier that May on a trail association ride between Kalamazoo and South Haven, on the tame Kal-Haven trail.
 
At the midway sag stop he was promoting his Trailspotters service. Funke arranges bike tours of the U.P., and if needed, will rescue bikers who've bit off more U.P. than their tires could chew.
 
He was talking loudly about rescuing Lycra-encased "road warriors" who get road bikes stuck on dirt county roads, putting themselves in danger of being squashed by logging trucks.
 
I pointed at my bike, told him of my plan.
 
"Okay...." That same doubtful tone.
 
But surely his business is evidence that there is bike tourism in the U.P., that it is possible?
 
"I would say there is tourism." There are organized bike tours and self-contained bicyclists, he says, who ride north of the bridge. Funke has a popular service where he drops fat bikes (with tires three to five inches wide for riding on sand, mud or snow) off at Grand Marais. They ride the shore of Superior, and Funke picks them up at Whitefish Point.
 
There are many challenges faced when riding the U.P., but in his opinion, bikers' main challenge seems to be a total ignorance of the area. 
 
"Do the research ahead of time," he says. Long-distance riders not from the U.P. assume all those little county roads on the map are paved. 
 
He's not gentle when delivering warnings to the Lycra tribe. "What are you thinkin'?!? These roads, they're not paved, they're very dusty, and logging trucks go flying down them. They couldn't give two craps about you on your bike." 
 
In full-rant mode, Funke tells how he'll pull out a map for bikers to tell them what's what. "See this road? You'll never make it on a bike!... Are you from here? Have you ridden on these roads?" 
 
He gave me his card with the number for his rescue service. "You don't want to call me!" He charges $1.25 a mile, with a minimum of $125, depending on the rescue. "I'll hear a sob story, and my meter just starts going up. The message has to be delivered. They'll tell their friends, 'Don't screw up, it'll cost you a fortune!'" 
 
Okay. Message received. I researched.
 
Facts Found Through Researching and Riding
 
1. Search every mile of your route on Google before leaving. Some areas of the U.P. are dotted with pitstops, but other areas are wilderness. There are spots of civilization, you just have to know where they are. It would've been possible for me to have wandered lost and starving through the Hiawatha without knowing of three life-savers: The Jack Pine Lodge, D & D's Cabins and Groceries in tiny Steuben, and the Haywire Restaurant.
 
2. Carry a satellite GPS and a record of your route with pitstop notes. Some areas have no cell service, so your smart phone might get a bit dumb. Knowing that food and rest is ahead is not only essential information, it's a way of keeping spirits up: "Hey, I've only got ten miles until lunch!" vs. "I've still got 50 miles to go today!"
 
3. The bugs really are that bad. When going into the woods, use a head net, DEET, and permethrin-treated clothes and shoes. (Note: permethrin is safe for humans when used properly, but toxic to cats and aquatic life.)
 
4. If you'd rather stick to the road, U.S. 2 (U.S. Bicycle Route 10) will give you 193 miles of U.P., St. Ignace to Iron Mountain. In the 90 miles of it I traveled, there were spectacular views of Lake Michigan, the amazing Cut River Bridge, and enough wilderness for a river otter to greet me. The shoulders are wide with rumble strips to keep a bike safe from traffic. Massive logging trucks will roar past, but their wood-scented breezes will give you a friendly, if somewhat intimidating, push.
 
5. The Haywire is a rough trail for bikes, had me walking a few times through sand and water, but it fit the bill for adventure. Other areas for U.P. trail biking include mountain bike loops in the Keweenaw and around Marquette; the Seney National Wildlife Refuge, perfect for spotting wildlife; and the longest rail-trail in Michigan, the State Line Trail, 107 miles through Gogebic and Iron counties near the Wisconsin border.
 
More magic moments on my six-day ride: Stepping outside my cabin at the Jack Pine Lodge at night and hearing a wolf howl. Seeing the shores of Lake Michigan and Lake Superior. A giant white tail doe bounding across the trail in front of me. Rolling into The Haywire Restaurant and the Jack Pine Lodge to eat the best whitefish dishes ever. 
 
Even taking off shoes, socks, rolling up pants, applying DEET while covered with mosquitoes, to wade with my bike through the brown tannin-stained waters of a flooded area of the Haywire. In a light rain. No cell service, no human in miles, no turning back. Even that was a magic U.P. moment for this lone wolf biker from below the bridge.
 
Mark Wedel is a freelance writer way below the bridge in Kalamazoo. He has now pedaled over 8,000 miles around Michigan on a bike. His wife says it's a midlife crisis.
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