Saturday, August 29, 2009

Biking in Vikingland 4: On the Trail(s)

After exploring the lakes of Ottertail County, we headed west to Fergus Falls, the westernmost point of this trip, and picked up the Lakes Country Trail. Wow, another beautiful paved rail trail! Two women were just finishing a ride as we looked down from above at the trail, and the sign at the actual trailhead told the story: 103 miles of trail to the other end!
It changes names partway, with the lower part called the Lake Wobegon Trail, whose motto is "Where all the visitors are above average." And yes, Garrison Keillor was there when they opened it.

It was a terrific ride past many more lakes and through a handful of small towns with their ubiquitous grain elevators.
This was one of the smoothest trails we've ever been on, and when the wind shifted to a strong tailwind on our second day we covered 61 miles, our longest day in ages, at an average of over 17 mph and without overly serious effort. Oh, we were tired, but elated at such a comfortable ride.

We did 93 of those 103 miles, and enjoyed every one of them. In Sauk Center we left the trail briefly to explore the town and ride by the boyhood home of Sinclair Lewis. His blockbuster novel Main Street painted a gloomy picture of small town life, and for quite some time the townsfolk had less than affection for him. In time they came to appreciate him, especially when they noted all the tourists coming to see what was assumed to be the model for "Main Street" three blocks away from that boyhood home, and they even renamed the street he grew up on as Sinclair Lewis Avenue.

We also had a serendipitous meeting down Sinclair Lewis Ave a block past Main Street while coming out of a grocery store. A woman who identified herself as Linda started asking us about the trip we were obviously on, then mentioned that her husband publishes Minnesota Trails magazine. Hey, we pulled out our map of Minnesota trails (the modified version of which is in our first "Vikingland" posting down below), and sure enough it's from their web site! Small world! We handed her our name card with the blog address and our phone number on it, and that evening got invited to breakfast with Dave and Linda in the town we were overnighting in. Not surprisingly, breakfast turned into an interview and Dave plans to have an article about this Seattle couple biking almost every bike trail in Minnesota in an upcoming issue of his magazine!

From Dave we learned that another trail that was not far off the planned route had been extended, and we altered our plans to include it -- the Glacial Lakes Trail. It goes about 25 miles from the middle of nowhere to somewhere you've never heard of, but rail trails are such wonderful things that it was well worth taking. We were still in the oak savannah, so we occasionally rode through tunnels of trees like this one, and at other times saw scenery much like that on the back road we took to get there, minus the hills.

Unlike other trails we've explored in Minnesota, however, this one had what we called "Minnesota Speed Bumps," unpaved road crossings where we dismounted and walked rather than risk a spill on our relatively skinny (26" x 1.25") road tires.

As luck would have it, our new route opened up another Minnesota lake experience at the Spicer Castle B&B. This was a large lakeside home built over a century ago by John Spicer in the town now called Spicer MN.
It's still owned by his grandson, who turned it into a B&B twenty years ago. He has deliberately kept it much as it was the last time it was remodeled, in 1913.
The shower was something of a challenge for Jeff, but we both really appreciated the genuine atmosphere of the place. And what would a lake home in Minnesota be without a canoe? Of course we took it out for a spin the afternoon we arrived and again the next morning before breakfast, where the loons
were once again singing for us. The lake also brought us to an important understanding of lakes, that the larger nicer ones attract larger not so nice speedboats and jet skis. Folks like that do not go out for rides before breakfast, however, so we did enjoy one peaceful canoe trip of the two, and this colorful sunset.

We now had three days of riding on roads to get to our next trail, but to our surprise we found two trails so new and so short -- five miles each -- that they were not on any trail maps we'd seen. Trails grow like weeds in this state! The first day was down a moderately busy road by Minnesota standards, pretty quiet by most other people's, but it had a wide shoulder. Alas, the next day the shoulder shrunk to 15 inches for a 15-mile stint, then to nothing for 4 miles on a connecting road. This is the only tight spot we've been in so far, and the few trucks that came by gave us a very wide berth and we got through just fine. In fact, the only time in those 19 miles that trucks came from both directions at once was when we stopped to take the second picture -- lucky us!

We were now in corn country, and in fact spent the night in Olivia MN, the self-proclaimed Corn Capital of Minnesota. Here's the view from our bedroom window: ten feet of lawn, ten miles of corn.

The next day we found ourselves on the nicest country road of the trip, Nicollet County Road 21 along the Minnesota River. Along the road was the Harkin Store, opened in the 1870's with expectations of river traffic that were dashed by the arrival of a rail line ten miles away in the 1880's. The owner locked the store in 1901 and walked away. A descendant reopened the doors as a museum 37 years later, then turned it over to the Minnesota Historical Association. If it seems authentic, that's because it is: fully 40% of what's there was there in 1901, including the stove and checkerboard! The tea container marked "Japan" is a 19th century fake, as the characters depicted are Chinese. The docent surmised that it was created as a marketing ploy by New Yorkers who didn't know the difference between China and Japan, and that the container was now probably closer to Japan than it had ever been.

That day ended in New Ulm on the Minnesota River, home to one of those two new trails running in part at the very edge of town. New Ulm actively promotes its German heritage, but what does that mean, exactly, a century after that immigration largely ended? There is almost no "German" architecture in town, and certainly no one speaking German in the stores or walking down the street. We did find a restaurant with German dishes, and enjoyed Wuerstel mit sauerkraut, blaukohl und kartoffelsalat, and biked past the town Glockenspiel that plays carillon tunes a few times each week. A century ago it would have meant a half-dozen breweries. In fact, one of them survives, the Schell Brewery, and we had a short tour of the brewery and a somewhat longer visit to the bierkeller for samples of several brews before admiring the garden and home that August Schell built next to the brewery back in the heyday.

And of course we had to visit Hermann the German. Hermann, called Arminius by the Romans, commanded an army of Germanic tribesmen that defeated the Roman army in 9 A.D. In the 19th century Hermann became a symbol of German independence and unity, and there were many Sons of Hermann clubs in the U.S. The New Ulm club was pushier than others, apparently, and managed to get the other clubs to fund this enormous statue of Hermann that overlooks the valley of the Minnesota River. For $1.50 you can climb 99 steps to the top of the pedestal for the panoramic view,
which was worth every one of those 150 pennies. In three weeks this place will be the focus of a 2000th anniversary celebration of Hermann's victory, with parades, a Roman/German battle reenactment, and other things people do when the reality of what war is has faded far enough into the past to have become quaint.

What we thought would be a third day mainly on roads turned into a half day on roads and a half day on trails as we discovered three more trails in Mankato that formed a network reaching a dozen miles out of town. The most interesting was the North Minnesota River Trail past downtown Mankato itself, where it clings to the outer edge of the floodwall.

We were now in familiar territory, as we biked from Mankato eastward in 2003 and will be following the same route on these last two days to Rochester and the Midwest Tandem Rally. The first leg to Faribault was on the Sakatah Singing Hills Trail, 40 miles past farms and lakes and a few small towns.
This was one of Minnesota's first paved rail trails, and the paving is showing the years. It was disappointing in that it was very bumpy from frost damage and other forms of deterioration. Hopefully the state will rescue it soon. Halfway to Faribault we stopped at Sakatah Lake State Park to go canoeing. Alas, the canoe office was a mile from where the canoes are -- you pay the fee and are given paddles, lifejackets, and the key to your boat. Fine, except how do you carry canoe paddles on a loaded tandem? We were about to give up when a second park employee arrived back at the office and volunteered to bring the paddles and jackets down to the landing. Thanks to his kindness, we enjoyed yet another day of canoeing the lakes of Minnesota.

This one was quite different, however, as it was like canoeing through pea soup. As the second photo shows, it was filled with algae of a sort we had never met before. Perhaps Jeff's daughter Becky, who's studying how to turn algae into biodiesel, would find this exciting, but it was just sort of weird for us.

Faribault (pronounced fah ree bow) has a classic downtown that we enjoyed walking through,
but it was two experiences here that stand out. The first was our second interview, this time for the local newspaper. We were staying at the Historic Hutchinson House B&B, and owner Tammy set it up. We got a kick out of the story that appeared the very next day, which you can read yourself at

Shortly after the interview we stopped to pick up lunch at a Subway sandwich shop, and had our second and almost ruinous experience. We piled things up on the panniers to load the sandwiches into the rack trunk, and Louise went in to use the restroom. She did not specifically tell Jeff she had placed the wallet on the pannier next to the sandwiches.
As you can see from this reconstructed shot taken later, it does rather blend in, and Jeff did not notice it. Four miles down the road, something made Louise say to Jeff, "You did pack the wallet, right?" When he said, "What do you mean, did I pack the wallet?" we realized we had problems. A quick check, recheck and triple check of every possible hiding spot for the wallet did not locate it, so we pulled out our smart phone, tracked down the phone number for the Subway shop, and asked them to look out front. "No, no sign of your wallet."

Well, there was nothing we could do but bike back 4 miles and down the 200' hill we had just climbed. As we pulled up to the shop and started looking underneath nearby cars, thinking it probably flew off just after we got under way, a woman stepped out of a nearby car and asked us if we were looking for something. "Yes, a red wallet." "This one, perhaps...?" Oh, the relief!!! She had in fact found it on the ground and was about to turn it in at the police station. Close call!

After the false start, we finally got going and had a pleasant ride, half on back roads like this, half on the Douglas Trail with similar (but flatter) expanses of prairie alternating with long straight tunnels of trees.

Rochester is a jewel of a city, well endowed with bike trails and other amenities thanks to the presence there of the Mayo Clinic. In fact, a case could be made that it has the best bike trail system in the nation, on a per capita basis. The city has the Zumbro River and numerous tributaries running through it, and many have bike trails like these along the banks.

Today was a "rest day," though of course for Eveready bunnies like us that meant another chance for walking the town and canoeing past more of those trails on the Zumbro River and around Silver Lake.
Tomorrow our friends Don and Erica arrive in town just in time for the Ice Cream Social that kicks off the Midwest Tandem Rally. Tell you all about the rally in our next blog!

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!