Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Biking in Vikingland 6: The Elroy-Sparta Trail

We live across the street from, and use almost every day, the Burke-Gilman Trail in Seattle, an early and famous railtrail. But even the illustrious Burke-Gilman is no match in fame to the Elroy-Sparta, nor as interesting thanks to its three long tunnels.

Wisconsin bought up an abandoned Chicago and Northwestern RR corridor in the late '60s to turn it into a hiking trail, then cycling activists convinced the state that it would make a terrific bike trail. It was already a few years old and wildly popular when Jeff rode it in 1971 as part of his bike trip from Astoria OR to Boston. Louise biked coast-to-coast and rode the Elroy-Sparta and its extensions in 1994, and we both rode the full 101 miles it now extends to (bureaucratically, under four different trail names) in 2003 on our tandem. We were very excited to be back, and our hopes were not disappointed.

First we had to say goodbye to Minnesota with one last ride on the Root River Trail, which ended in Houston MN at a wildlife education center. A broken wing has ended Alice's life in the wild but turned her into quite the star there. A few miles beyond and we were crossing over the Mississippi River, much more impressive than the small stream it was when we last crossed it in northern Minnesota.

Unlike Minnesota, where all the trails we rode were asphalt paved, the trails in Wisconsin are generally packed limestone. It's actually a mix of clay and limestone, and it is remarkably smooth and easy to ride. It looks as if it should be tricky on skinny tires (ours are 26" x 1.25"), like riding on gravel, but we kept the rubber side down while riding about 200 miles on packed limestone, without any close calls. Without the sharp contrast of black asphalt, the trail corridor does look somewhat more like an organic earth-toned whole, we must admit.

Our first day took us 2 miles from our motel in La Crosse to the trail, then 42 miles on the trail to Wilton. We had lunch by the rail depot in Sparta, where the La Crosse River Trail becomes the Elroy-Sparta. The town labels itself the "Bicycling Capital of America," and from the numbers of cyclists we saw from there to Elroy, it's a name they seem to have earned.

This part of Wisconsin is called the "drift less area," an area that the four major Ice Age glaciers missed. As a result, it is much hillier than the rest of the midwest, other than smaller parts of the driftless area in nearby Minnesota, Iowa and Illinois. In terrain like this, you really appreciate a rail trail! The Elroy-Sparta is not level, however. It did have portions of what felt like a 1 to 2% grade, enough to slow us on the climb and speed us up on the descents, neither to a serious degree.

Travelling eastward, you come to Tunnel No. 3 first, and it's The Big One: 3800', almost 3/4 of a mile. That's a bike headlight in the tunnel in the first shot. Even after adjusting our eyes to the dark, we couldn't see that elusive "light at the end of the tunnel" until we were halfway through!
And was it ever dark!!! We had a small LED light on the front of the bike that was barely adequate for avoiding banging into the walls of the tunnel even while walking, so Louise walked alongside the bike with a compact flashlight carried the whole trip primarily for this moment, and it did indeed provide adequate illumination. Jeff and his friends in 1971 had no lights and tried riding when they started to see the end, with disasterous results. When he wrote home that summer, he commented on how similar that was to Lyndon Johnson's recent experience with Viet Nam, where the president kept talking about seeing "the light at the end of the tunnel" in that war. We didn't even try riding this time.

Before reaching our destination, we came upon Tunnel No. 2, only 1700' long and dry, unlike No. 3 which dripped steadily for a good part of its length. It was also lined with stone or brick its whole length, almost civilized compared to the rough-hewn rock of Tunnel No. 3, though each were equally cool inside, high 50's even though the air outside the tunnel was in the low 70s. Although you could see straight through No. 2 (click on the photo to blow it up and see for yourself), we obeyed the signs and walked through once again.

The next day we stopped at the old depot in Kendall, which was lined inside with old photos of the line that helped us visualize what it was like in the old days,
including some days that weren't exactly "the good ole' days" for the railroad. It was also now mid-September, and fall colors were starting to make an occasional appearance.

On the way to Kendall we went through our third tunnel, named of course Tunnel No. 1, rough-cut but dry and cool. As interesting as the tunnels were, they were also somewhat claustrophobic, and we were happy to be back in nature once again.
Our 80 miles on this trail series ended with 22 flat miles on what is called the 400 Trail, commemorating the C&NWRR train called the "400" because it aimed, and sometimes succeeded, in covering the roughly 400 miles from Chicago to Minneapolis in 400 minutes, stops included.
It was easy to see how the train covered some of these flat stretches at up to 100 mph. As we rolled at somewhat slower speeds under a canopy of trees, we crossed and recrossed the meandering Baraboo River countless times, sometimes with a grassy horse trail alongside us. It was a verdant end to a magical ride, once again, on the great Elroy-Sparta Rail Trail. We'll next turn south for about 50 miles by road to Dodgeville, then take more railtrails almost the entire way to Milwaukee. We'll tell you all about that in our next post.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Biking in Vikingland 5: The Midwest Tandem Rally

After 1100 miles bike-touring around Minnesota, we reached Rochester MN, home of the 2009 Midwest Tandem Rally (MTR 2009).
The MTR is in a different location each year, chosen by the bike club that volunteers to hold it that year. MTR 2009 attracted 288 teams, a little over 600 people as some family teams consisted of two tandems, or a triple with three riders on one bike, and even a few riding quads and other combinations, such as that third family of four with a tandem pulling a trail-a-bike pulling a 'child chariot.'

Our friends Don & Erica made it by bike, ferry & Amtrak from their home in Victoria BC to Winona MN, where they hopped off the train and back onto their bike, headed west, while we biked east from Rochester 'til we met halfway for the ride back. We didn't quite make the Ice Cream Social, but had a good dinner and rested up for the rally the next day.

Everything went very smoothly at the rally, and we enjoyed fifty-mile rides Saturday and Sunday with our 600 new friends, beginning with a police-escorted mass start each day -- that's just part of the crowd a few minutes before we started out from the Rochester convention center.
Saturday's ride was all on smooth, paved, quiet back roads with a rest stop and lunch stop at the one-third and two-thirds points, good opportunities to take pictures of and to talk with folks from all over the midwest and to comment on some of the more unusual tandems, such as the recumbent tandem trike in the second photo.

Chicago started a trend when they named their tandem club CATS - Chicago Area Tandem Society. Soon there were the Greater Ohio Area Tandem Society (GOATS), the Hoosiers Out On TandemS (HOOTS),
the Couples On WheelS (COWS, from Wisconsin of course), and the club with the most inspired name: Paired Iowans Going Somewhere (PIGS).

Sunday's ride took us to atmospheric Mantorville with the 1852 Hubbell House down Main Street from the 1915 Opera House, where we had a group portrait taken of our little Puget Sound contingent,

and another historic --or was it hysteric -- place Don decided to check out.

The Kahler Grand Hotel did well as our host, and even provided secure parking for all our Big Rigs. It's across the street from the Mayo Clinic and many if not most of their guests stay at the Kahler during treatment for themselves or a family member. The hotel staff told us they appreciated having all us ultra-fit and healthy guests around for a change.

In two days the Rally was over, and we moved on to the Post-Rally Event.
Twenty-four teams had signed up for another 3 days of riding in the Root River valley at the Post Rally Event, and we had a pleasant 47-mile ride there from Rochester with Don and Erica, complete with a picnic lunch alongside the Root River. Another couple, Tom and Sherry, volunteered to carry the panniers for us, Don and Erica, so it was another day with an unloaded bike, always much more fun to ride than when the bike has its usual 25 pounds of luggage on the rear rack. The last part of our ride came 11 miles down -- literally downhill for almost the whole way -- on the Root River Trail, the focus for our next three days of riding.
Especially scenic was a section where the railroad that once existed here had cut through a limestone outcropping. Oh, the beauty of these bike trails!

Each day began with breakfast at Pedal Pushers, a restaurant that featured produce and meat from local farms and decor from the 50s.We had two group dinners as part of our package, one with wurst and sauerkraut and a polka accompaniment,
the other on a deck overlooking the Root River and the trail.

Lanesboro is a quaint little town that time forgot until the state bought up the abandoned rail line through the valley and turned part of it into a trail. It was so popular that the trail was extended into a Y-shape with 60 miles of paved trails radiating from Lanesboro.
With that many teams, folks stayed at a variety of places around town. We stayed at Brewster's Red Hotel with its nice view down main street,
but there were many other interesting places to stay as well -- six years ago we spent a night in a converted chicken factory, which sounds odd but was very comfortable and, pardon the pun, chic. Though there are lots of cyclists about, many folks also come here for canoeing and kayaking on the Root River or for just relaxing in those wonderful B&Bs.

Each day we had mapped-out routes of about 40 miles, and got to explore the area around Lanesboro after a brief gathering to discuss the route. The first ride was particularly interesting as it started by climbing on a quiet road out of the valley past swirling rows of corn and soybeans -- who knew they could be so artistic? At the top of the ridge we then rode past Amish farms and farmers in their buggies before having a picnic lunch and a long easy ride back down the valley on the Root River Trail.

With so much fun to be had, the three days of riding seemed to be over in no time. At last it was time to say goodbye to the Root River Trail, new friends, and to Minnesota itself --
but not without a last look at some of the rustic beauty that too few people get to see anymore, at least not at the calm pace we've been enjoying.

We have one more day in this beautiful state down a part of the trail we haven't yet seen, then across the Mississippi River to explore the bike trails of Wisconsin. We're headed straight for the oldest and one of the most famous rail trails in America, the Elroy-Sparta, and we'll write next from there!