Friday, August 28, 2009

Biking in Vikingland 3: Out of the Woods, Past the Lakes, and Over the Continental Divide

Hey, hold up you two -- what's this about the Continental Divide? You're in Minnesota, right?

Ya sure, you betcha we are, and yes, there is a Continental Divide, a line dividing waters flowing into two different oceans, that runs right across this state. In this case, between rivers flowing to the Atlantic and rivers flowing to the Arctic!

We crossed the Divide twice, briefly, in the Mesabi, then crossed it twice more in west-central Minnesota. We'll show you the Divide further along in this blog entry.

As our readers will perhaps remember, we headed north the first week of this Minnesota-Wisconsin adventure, then west through the Mesabi the second. Our third week started with a long, long ride down US 2 from Grand Rapids to Cass Lake. The highway was straight and flat for miles, and we only passed one community at mile 15 before hitting the town of Cass Lake at mile 55. We had a strong wind out of the northwest as we headed mostly due west, but managed a respectable 14 mph thanks to the fact that the birch-pine-spruce forest extends quite far westward in the northern part of the state, partially sheltering us from the full brunt of the wind. A measure of how much this took out of us, however, is that we both slept over 10 hours in deep catatonia that night.

We next turned west southwest down the Heartland Trail, a railtrail that was a narrow ribbon of asphalt through the dense forest. Same strong headwinds, but we were so sheltered we averaged over 16 mph. We're really getting to like these bike trails!
Along the trail we came to a town that claims to the the birthplace of Paul Bunyan, quite an interesting proposition considering he's mythical (but friendly, as you can see!), and then to the Heartland Trail B&B, a former rural schoolhouse where we slept in class -- in the Grade 4 Classroom, to be exact. Very quaint, very comfortable.

The Heartland Trail ended in Park Rapids, a small city twenty miles south of Lake Itasca, where the Mississippi River begins. We were tempted to go see it, Louise for the second time and Jeff for the first, but it was just a wee bit too much off the route we had plotted. As we left Park Rapids, we quickly realized that we were out of the woods. From here to the Dakotas, Minnesota is a mix of prairie and small clusters of oak forest, an environment called an oak savannah. That prairie today is of course almost entirely turned over to crops, primarily corn, soy and hay, sometimes large tracts of one or the other, sometimes all three in close conjunction.
We've put a number of photos here in no particular order, as the views could be where we actually saw them or they could be a hundred miles away -- unless you know that exact spot, you could never tell.

No bike trails here, but the quiet country roads we found were no problem, and some even had remarkably wide shoulders.

Which is not to say the area is without unique and special places. One of them was lodging we happened upon, the Whistle Stop B&B in New York Mills, MN. The town was founded by Finns, and we never did get a good explanation of why they gave it that particular name. A fellow who grew up here and moved to LA came back with his wife to visit some years back, and ended up buying an old Victorian near the tracks and turning it into this charming place. We had a two-room suite upstairs in the house, complete with a bed warming pan as you can see,
and the owner let us take a peek inside one of two palace cars in the side yard that they've restored to 19th century splendor. The B&B's name was ironic, as trains don't stop here anymore, but they do roar by at 50-70 mph and do they ever whistle! All night! We actually slept through quite a few, but got to enjoy some others at odd hours of the night. Well, chalk it up to "romantic atmosphere."

Leaving New York Mills we crossed the Continental Divide -- it's somewhere along this road, although as you can see it would be very hard to pinpoint the exact line.
But cross that mysterious margin we did, and entered the magical world of Ottertail County, which contains over 10% of Minnesota's 10,000 lakes, all 1,000+ of them draining into the Red River of the North and ultimately to Hudson's Bay far to the north.
Those who know these lakes feel each one is unique, based usually on a familiar lake house or fishing resort they've been coming to for years. We needed to tap into these experiences but were challenged to find a way to do so. Most lakes have one or more "resorts," almost always collections of cabins aimed at families with a strong interest in playing on the beach or fishing. But most rent only by the week, and the few we found on the internet that rented by the night had cabins that seemed designed for large extended families and too pricey for just the two of us. Plan B then evolved, and we spent two nights at the Battle Lake Motel in the lakeside community of Battle Lake MN, located 4 miles from Glendalough State Park.

Now this was a special place. The park was a private hunting preserve for almost a century, with the Cowles family of newspaper publishing fame the last owners. It was mainly a family escape but they occasionally entertained guests, including Dwight Eisenhower when he was running for president, and Richard Nixon and Walter Mondale during their vice-presidencies. Today the park contains one lake about a mile in diameter and parts of the shores of two other larger ones, and is maintained by the state in as natural a condition as they can manage.
We rented a canoe both days we visited, and explored the lakes and connecting streams. It was a terrific "vacation from the vacation," complete with loons singing their haunting song to us. It was also nice cross-training for our under-utilized upper body muscles. We truly can steer a canoe, although these photos of us in the bulrushes and cattails might suggest otherwise.

From Battle Lake it was on to Fergus Falls and 90+ miles down yet another of Minnesota's great bike trails. We'll leave that story for next time!

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