Great Lakes Bike Tour Narrative

09/12/2015

Big boat, small car. We’ll leave the car in Manitowoc and board the boat with bikes and gear.

 

Ludington, MI

That’s John O in the bike parking photo. He and riding partner Mark started in Washington State in mid-August and expect to finish on the Atlantic coast of New Hampshire in two weeks. We spent the evening drinking beer with them at the Jamesport Brew Pub. Like all cross-country cyclists, they had an evening’s worth of stories to tell.

My favorite comes from rural Minnesota. After making a wrong turn, the pair found themselves on a small road far from a campsite. The nearest farm house had a sign on the gate: “No Trespassing. I have a gun.” Mosquito time was fast approaching and they were exhausted, so they took a chance on asking the owner if they could pitch their tents in the right of way, between the fence and the road.

After belittling them for not knowing how to read a map, among other things, he granted them permission with the stern warning that they better not try anything funny. Jon and Mark immediately began pitching their tents. Jon’s tent went up quickly. He dove into it and zipped the screen door against mosquitoes. Mark was still struggling when the owner returned on his four-wheeler.

In his gruff, smoke-hardened voice, he told them they could set up their tents inside the fence, added another stern warning and drove off. Considering the earlier reception, the new offer created some concerns and hesitation for the riders. The grass was greener on the other side of the fence, however, and the tents would be far enough from the road to offer a bit of safety from traffic, so the riders repositioned themselves. Jon’s tent again went up quickly. He was settled in when they heard the four-wheeler approach. “I’m not going anywhere.” Jon said. Mark would have to deal with the homeowner on his own.

“I’ve got a shed up by the barn,” the voice said. “You can use it if you want.” Jon wasn’t moving. Mark, now worried about what would happen if he turned down the offer, went up to the shed. It was missing a window, making it as mosquito prone as sleeping outdoors. Mark said he would be all right in his tent, but the owner offered to cover the window with plywood and promptly followed through. Mark had no choice. He accepted.

The night passed without further incident, but early in the morning, as the two riders broke camp for an early start, they heard the four-wheeler again. They tensed and hurried their packing. “We’ll be gone in less than five minutes” was on their tongues when the four-wheeler stopped. The homeowner had something else in mind. He offered them a cup of coffee.

During coffee, the homeowner revealed that he had toured once by bike, but was now into cars. Between them, Jon and Mark knew enough about automobiles to hold up their end of the conversation as the man took them around the yard, lifting hoods, talking engine blocks, and discussing transmissions. The conversation went until four in the afternoon, when the two riders finally got on their bikes and headed east.

09/13/2017

Along the shore of Lake Michigan south of Ludington

 

Near Silver Lake State Park

We finished the day at Silver Lake State Park. Silver Lake is cut off from Lake Michigan by nearly barren sand dunes. Today the dunes are a favorite playground for hikers, mountain bikers and dune buggies, but they weren’t always there. During the heyday of logging, the dunes were covered with forests and a thin layer of duff. The loggers cleared the forest and exposed the bare sand. The dunes still haven’t recovered from the disruption.

We had plenty of daylight left, so we rode Lighthouse Drive to the beach and celebrated with wine plus fresh corn on the cob and plums from a roadside farmer’s stand.

09/14/2015

South of Silver Lake

This is a deceptive photo. It looks as if we stopped for vegetables, but inside the building were shelves of bakery goods, jams and other delicacies.

Meinert County Park

The ride was short today, about 20 miles, but we battled headwinds up to 30 mph. The winds were strong enough that these kiteboarders came from up to 60 miles away to ride the waves. We spent several hours on the beach watching them fly.

 

The campground at Meinert County Park is about 100 yards from the beach. The most interesting aspect of the campground was the Meinert Shower. The water flowed if you pulled their chain.

09/15/2015

 

Montague, Michigan

10 miles into the day and time for a break. It’s mid-morning and the place is hopping in a unique blend of nightclub and coffee shop. The interior is lit up with neon lights, live music is on stage and the bar is open, but alcohol isn’t the highlight, except for an occasional Bloody Mary. The big draws are fresh bakery and artisan coffee and the musician is playing a Grand Piano. The tune at the time of this photo was “Moonlight in Vermont.”

09/16/2015

This was Vicky’s first bike tour, a 100 mile, three-day ride along the Lake Michigan shoreline. Vicky is no stranger to the outdoors. She’s backpacked in the Porcupine Mountains, along the Superior Hiking Trail and into the Grand Canyon. We’ve done car camping locally and out west, and kayaked briefly on Lake Superior, but bike touring hasn’t been on her radar. These first three days were designed to introduce her to bike touring. The daily distances were intentionally short and the terrain moderate. She aced it. Vicky takes the ferry to Milwaukee in the morning. I’ll turn east and ride to Niagara Falls. I’m going to miss her.

Muskegon public art. The city has an impressive gallery of outdoor art, some of it is temporary. Some is permanent.

09/16/2015

The ride gets a little more Spartan starting today with 50 to 60 mile daily rides and unknown campsites. It will take a little getting used to the new regimen.

This was going to be my campsite. The owners said I could stay the night for free, an offer they make to all bike tourists. But before I unrolled my bedroll, the owner asked if I wanted to sleep in a bed tonight, then handed me the keys to a camper cabin with bathroom. I was already overwhelmed by the free campsite, and now I’ve been upgraded! This isn’t a tiny Mom and Pop operation. Initially I rode past it because the grand entry, with manicured lawn and golf course, seemed a little rich for my budget.

Sixty miles today, although 10 miles were added because I rode to Gowen, then turned around and came back here to Lincoln Pines. This part of Michigan is very pretty, but doesn’t have the dramatic views of Lake Michigan and the charm of the Montague book store. Orchards, corn and soybeans, some lake cottages and a couple of bedroom communities marked the day.

09/17/2015 Lincoln Pines to St. Charles

 

I made it to St. Charles, 63 miles so far with a little uncertainty. No campgrounds within riding distance, but I do have a lead on a local cyclist who used warmshowers.org. It is possible he will reciprocate by offering me a place to pitch a tent. He hasn’t responded to my phone message yet. Had to deal with heavy traffic for too many miles, but the country is scenic, with a blend of farms, big woods, and lakes. Will kill some time in town waiting for a call back, then head out in search of a place to pitch a tent. I have everything I need except a piece of flat ground. Cell service is spotty except in towns, so the next update may not happen until sometime tomorrow.
09/18/2015

I moved on last night and found this abandoned shack near a stagnant creek.

The outbuilding that the bike is leaning against is full of junk, some of it hazardous waste, and the house didn’t look safe to enter. The warm weather brought a swarm of mosquitoes. Not a promising site, but I had 70 miles in and only a couple of hours of daylight left to pitch camp and prepare a meal.


In the end it turned out fine. I cooked up a pot of veggies I’d been carrying from the Muskegon Farmer’s Market and ate near the road where the mosquitoes were less aggressive.

09/18/2015

It was raining this morning so I packed everything while in the tent to keep the gear dry, then packed up the wet tent and hoped to find a place to dry it out.

 

Tonight’s campsite, the result of a series of chance encounters. It couldn’t be any different from last night’s. Yes, the vending machine had beer. The pond is spring fed and crystal clear. I swam with my cycling clothes on to give them a good rinse.

09/19/2015 2:00 AM

A storm woke me up. The tent is secure and the gear is protected, so there is nothing to do but relax and go back to sleep, but I’m not feeling sleepy. Instead, I feel tired and lonely. It’s a sad feeling, but also grounding. Loneliness scares some people, but I think this is what I was looking for this when I planned the trip. The chatter, the expectations of others and the routines were getting in the way. I needed to clear them to make room for something. I’m not sure what that will be. The loneliness will go away. I trust that. There’s no need to avoid it or mask it with business. It’s just another emotion.

For the trip, this is a transition. The first few days were new and novel, but a routine is settling in. About half of each day is spent turning the pedals, two hours is devoted to setting up camp and food prep. The interesting things happen during the transition between pedaling and setting up camp. That’s when I reach out to others for advice and help. With a clear head, I will be open to those interesting things. For now, I’ll deal with the other feeling: fatigue. The storm has settled into a light rain, perfect for sleeping.

Broke camp between showers just after daybreak and rode nearly thirty miles until I found this sheltered picnic area for breakfast and a break. The wind picked up so I anchored the tent to this picnic table and let the wind dry it out.

Then the storm hit. I was comfortably tucked into a cozy corner of the shelter and rode it out.


The downside to this cozy arrangement was this food truck across the street. It was smoking brisket and the aroma of smoked beef drifted my way while I ate peanut butter and jelly on bad bread. The brisket is for a party in the evening. It won’t be ready to eat until after I reach Lake Huron, about 30 miles down the road.

 

Lake Huron!

I cam across the Lexington Brewing Company during pre-tour web surfing and have had this recurring image of crawling across Michigan on hands and knees with a Growler mirage just over the horizon. It was time to celebrate. An Octoberfest and a flight of four beers has put that image to rest. Now it’s time to get back on the bike and ride to Lakefront State Park for a real campground with showers, sinks and a mirror for shaving. Beer is like lead for my legs. A single glass can cut my speed in half. The next 12 miles could take a long time to complete.

Lakefront State Park. This pile of painted rocks lines the trail to the beach.

Bicycle touring, especially as a single rider, consistently draws the curious, so when the couple on cruiser bikes stopped to ask questions, I took a break from setting up camp and answered. The questions were unusually deep and well informed. I eventually realized that I was talking to a couple of riders who were more than curious about bicycle touring. They were taking their first, tentative, steps toward riding their first tour. They’d done the book and online research. The questions for me were about the experience. We talked for 15 minutes, then they invited me to a pot luck dinner with members from their church group. I didn’t have anything to offer for the pot luck, but they assured me that wouldn’t be a problem.

09/20/2015

Good morning. The photo is somewhat of an optical illusion. I was looking out over open water. the golden color and low black clouds create the illusion of a beach with trees.

The Interstate Bridge between Port Huron in Michigan and Sarnia in Ontario. Crossing this bridge by bike requires calling for a lift. bike traffic is not allowed on the highway. A more pleasant crossing is in Marine City, about 20 miles south. There a seven minute ferry ride will take me across the St. Clair River to Sombra, Ontario.

 

The case of beer this couple is carrying costs $27, including round-trip ferry fare, at the duty-free store in Marine City, Michigan. It costs over $40 in Canada. Duty free is limited to a twelve pack per person, so the couple makes regular runs across the border.

Psychologically it was a big step to hop on the ferry and cross the St. Charles River to Canada. My phone doesn’t work on the Canadian cell phone network, so I have to find WiuFi hot spots to make calls or post on Facebook.

This is my campsite. It would have been perfect for hammock camping. I didn’t travel far after crossing the border and camped close enough to the St. Clair River to get back to it to watch the sunset.

09/21/2015

Morning over the St. Clair River

Today was tough. It started with a flat tire and continued with headwinds that had me down to 9 miles per hour at times. Long day in the saddle. The day finished at Lake Erie. Note the loose rock shore line. This shore is vulnerable to erosion as I would learn in a couple of days.

9/22/2015 Morning

   

 

The road to Port Stanley on the water. The route takes me near the shore from here to Port Colborne on the Welland Canals. It’s harvest time. Lots of big trucks hauling produce- beans, tomatoes, etc. The orchards and vineyards are closer to shore.

09/22/2015 Evening

I should expect these things by now, but I’m always surprised when they happen. I got a little confused leaving Port Stanley, so I asked a woman walking along the street for directions to Port Bruce. She started to answer my question, then asked “Why do you want to go to Port Bruce?”

“There’s a campground there,” I said.

“We’ve got five acres of land here in town. You could camp on that,” she offered.

I accepted her invitation. We walked to the house, then took a golf cart to the land where we met Casey, her boyfriend, and his Dad a 74 year old German who I took an instant liking to. A few minutes later we were sitting in front of a 20-foot-long camo tent with a bed, massive couch and kitchen.

Casey started loading the fire pit with wood. He’s a big man who can muscle around 185 pound sheets of sheetrock. Each armful of firewood would have required two or three trips for me. He dumped a dozen armloads of wood into the pit, poured a gallon of gasoline on the pile and ran a line of fuel ten feet out. He lit the fuse and a moment later an explosion of flames leapt out of the pit. That didn’t quite work so Casey poured more gasoline on the fire.

Meanwhile his dad, Otto, drove up with a front-end loader filled with firewood and nudged it into the fire. When the flames finally kicked in, I had to move my chair back 10 feet to keep from searing my skin.

The tent offer turned into a bedroom, personal bathroom, laundry and a spread of food that even a cyclist’s appetite couldn’t dent. Then they insisted that I call Vicky one more time to let her know I was in good hands. This post is coming from their computer, rather than my phone. What a treat to have a keyboard for typing.

It was during our conversations, at the fire and later at their beautiful home, that I realized the generosity they offered me wasn’t a one-time thing. It overflowed to friends, family and nearly everyone they met.

I’m in good hands tonight.

09/23/2015

This sign sums up the traveling experience. May we meet again, Casey and Debbie.

09/24/2015

These barrier block off a long stretch of Hwy 42, once an important Highway along the coast of Lake Erie. Lake Erie is eating the Canadian shoreline near Port Burwell and has washed out several miles of the highway. Traffic has been permanently redirected inland. I was talking to an old timer in town. His Dad owned 100 acres of land near the shore in the 60s, but It’s part of the lake now. The old timer himself has lost 25 of the thirty acres that he owned and will lose his house within the next 20 years. He put the land up for sale several years ago with the goal of moving inland to a town with more amenities for the elderly. The house, however, won’t sell. “I may have to just walk away from it,” he said. The village of Lake Burwell hauled in granite boulders to stop the erosion. It will survive.

 

This image is from the road into Long Point. Long Point is a long spit of land jutting into Lake Erie. This is where all the shoreline from Port Burwell and points east is deposited. The beach is endless here. Numerous islands and shallow marshlands have developed over the millennia as sand has been deposited and plants have taken root. The Point is also a jumping off spot for migrating birds. In the fall they stop here to refuel before the long flight across Lake Erie. In the spring they stop to refuel after crossing the Lake from the south.

Long Point, and the erosion at Port Burwell are dramatic reminders that geologic forces aren’t something that happened tens of thousands of years ago, then stopped. They continue today as they always have.

09/25/2015

 

Lake Michigan shoreline between Long Point and Port Colbourne

My campsite for the evening, one of the best on the trip.

The old body complained today. It’s treated me well through 500 plus miles of riding and 8 nights of setting up and breaking camp. I should have stayed at Long Point Park for a rest day, but I didn’t get the message until I was on the road. Walking up that first hill brought the message home and crawling along as if riding into a stiff headwind left no doubt. I chugged along without setting mileage goals, lingered longer than normal in towns and enjoyed the scenery. It wasn’t a bad day, just a slow one. The reward was this campsite, a restful evening and a good night of sleep. Port Colborne and the Welland Canals are less than a day’s ride from here. I will turn away from the Lake Erie shoreline and head north to Lake Ontario.

09/26/2015

  

I reached this crossing of the Welland Canal just as the massive Lake Freighter Laurentien churned down the canal. The bridge crossing the canal tilted up on a huge hinge to make room for the freighter, forcing me to stop riding and take in the sheer size of the ship. I stood in awe and snapped multiple pictures. Next to me a local teen, who’d seen Lake Freighters all his life, hunched over his phone using the time to do whatever teens do on their phones all day.

 

This is the view outside my hotel room window in Thorold at Lock 7.

  

Lifting a ship through the lock. Lock 7 is the deepest lock on the Welland Canals. This lock lifts ships over the Niagara Escarpment. Note that only the Pilot House is visible when the lock is at its lowest level. At its highest level, the ship towers over the canal like an oversized toy in a bathtub. My lodging for the night is a quaint little hotel with every room facing the lock. Passage times are posted throughout the day so it was possible for me to time dinner around ship arrivals.
To get here, I pedaled 69 miles. Today was the most scenic since leaving the shore of Lake Michigan a lifetime ago. I rode next to the Lake Erie shoreline for most of the day, then followed a bike path nearly the entire length of the Welland Canals. Tomorrow will be the last day of the tour.

09/26/2015

Lake Ontario at the north end of the Welland Canals.

 

The Niagara River is almost as impressive as Niagara Falls. You can see most of the river by following the bike path along the Canadian side of the river. The Niagara River also supplies hydroelectric power to cities on both sides of the river.

I made it.

The Niagara River and the Falls are dramatic natural wonders, but don’t expect the same from the tourist towns of Niagara Falls, especially on the Canadian side. Although I admit that Elvis watching was kind of fun after weeks of riding and camping.

I lingered too long at the falls, savoring the completion of the trip, but forgetting that I had another 25 miles of riding ahead of me. The last miles went through the heart of Buffalo, NY after dark. I arrived at the Amtrak Station around 10 pm and packed the bike for shipping. The train ride would take over 24 hours, including a layover in Chicago and several hours of watching a total eclipse of the moon while skirting the Minnesota shore of the Mississippi River.