On this last day of summer, we are straddling fat-tired bicycles on the North Shore State Trail. We hear the steady huffing of human lungs and the poink-poink-poink of stiff grass stems collapsing under enormous tires. Uphill climbs are bracingly hard work, our legs straining to propel bikes loaded for a multiday trek. Downhill runs are exhilarating, the bulbous tires tempting us to speed as they swallow the trail's bumps and dips and rocks and roots. In the blue sky, horsetail clouds portend a change in weather.
Among my hard-pedaling companions are Josh Klauck, owner of the Angry Catfish Bicycle and Coffee Bar in Minneapolis, and shop employees Chris Rourke and Madison Watson. On this ride they are field-testing gear that they rent and sell for bikepacking—as this form of human-powered travel has become known. Photographer Tom Thulen is along to document the journey.
Plan Your Bikepacking Adventure
Bicycles suited to bikepacking include fat bikes, mountain bikes, and the new breed of rugged touring bikes known as gravel or adventure bikes. Your choice depends on the terrain you'll travel and your own preference.
Get trip ideas from other bikers, online communities, and your local bike shop. Bikepacking routes in Minnesota might traverse county, state, or federal public lands, roads, and trails. Before you go, contact the land manager to get maps and learn about bike access and amenities.
Follow these links for more on bikepacking and destinations:
We'd set off on fat bikes near Tofte, from the parking access where the state trail crosses Cook County Road 2, the Sawbill Trail. We intend to ride 41 miles over three days and finish in Grand Marais, where we have dropped off a truck to shuttle us back to our starting point.
Riding atop the maple-covered ridge, we revel in today's spectacular weather and hope it will last. Tomorrow will be the autumn equinox, the start of fall.
Bikepacking Plan. We are on the C.J. Ramstad/North Shore Trail now because we've learned this is the best time of year to bike it. Well known as a snowmobile route, the 146-mile natural-surface trail winds through forests along the ridgeline from Duluth to Grand Marais. Spring trail conditions can be too wet and mucky for cycling. High summer vegetation can lash your legs and bind up your gears. But in late summer and early fall, Department of Natural Resources crews mow much of this trail. Mowing not only prepares the path for the upcoming sledding season, but it also opens up a glorious window of autumn access to hikers, hunters, anglers, birders, and other outdoor explorers—including riders of mountain bikes and, lately, fat bikes.
Bikepacking is overnight, self-supported bike touring on rugged roads or trails. By packing ultralight gear in frame-hugging bags instead of the wide, bulging saddlebags of traditional bike touring, bikepackers enjoy a slim profile, low weight, and greater nimbleness. Putting the load on a fat-tired bike takes bikepacking a step further: Low-pressure tires 4 inches or wider provide suspension, flotation, and traction all at once, making it a perfect backcountry rig in wild places where pedaling is allowed.
When I started looking for bikepacking routes in northern Minnesota, I soon learned that other adventurers had already drawn a bead on the North Shore State Trail. A few online accounts and word-of-mouth anecdotes led me to Joe Russell, whose DNR staff members manage the trail. Russell, eager to sing the praises of the trail as a bike touring destination, steered our group toward the northern reaches because rain was in the forecast. North of Finland, he said, we would find the driest conditions, fine scenery, and many side-trip possibilities.
As with any outdoor adventure, good planning is a must for bikepacking. Via email, phone, and a map-browsing session, our party got down to preparing for the trip. We'd decided the Sawbill-to-Grand Marais stretch would be the best for our three-day ride. Along the way we'd do some trout fishing, wildlife watching, foraging, and exploring. At night we'd camp by one of the trail's many Adirondack-style shelters or make a short detour to a Superior National Forest campground.
The go-light ethos soon had us paring down our gear to its essentials. Two tiny gas stoves would serve the group. Most of us would sleep in fly-covered hammocks. We'd each bring lightweight clothing to layer for temperature swings and rain. No one sawed a handle off a toothbrush to save weight, but Josh packed a titanium coffee cup. Cellphone coverage would be spotty at best, so for navigation I dug out some of the topo maps I had previously gotten for hiking and cross-country skiing in the area.
Legs of Steel. On the trail, we're a pretty well-matched group of riders. Though Josh and Chris have legs of steel, Madison, Tom, and I are frequent bikers and can keep up. Also, Josh and Chris are riding single-speed bikes, which effectively hinder their ability to leave us in the dust.
As suggested by an elevation chart of the John Beargrease sled dog race, which uses this route, our initial climb is the hardest part of the trip. By the time I reach the steepest stretches of the long ascent, I am doing the "hike-a-bike" known to every rider who has hit the wall.
The uphill trend eventually ends. At an overlook we break out snacks. We puzzle at a trilling sound—frogs? crickets? aliens?—until Tom spots Vs of sandhill cranes high overhead against the bluebird sky.
Up in these highlands of the North Shore, a dense forest of sugar maples predominates, and the place feels remote and rustic. The trail has wolf and bear scat. I catch up to Josh, wide-eyed because he's just seen the mattress-size rump of a moose disappear into the trailside brush.
Every now and then, an edge of Canadian Shield pokes up through the grass, scuffed and scraped by snowmobile tracks. Other snowmobile trails intersect our route; those unmown trails do not look like fun to bike.
We pause at the Barker Lake shelter, one of many spaced about every 10 miles along the trail. Used by snowmobilers as rest stops, these shelters with pit toilets and fire rings make great overnight hubs for bikepackers.
Like a magician reaching into a top hat, Josh reaches into his backpack and pulls out an ingenious portable coffee filter setup. While the rest of us skim stones into the lake, he brews gourmet coffee.
We press on toward our camping place. The trail shares some small bridges with backwoods gravel roads. When we reach a bridge across the Poplar River, Josh again plays magician, this time whipping out a fly rod. He drops delicate, artful casts into the stream, catching and releasing a few native brook trout.
Now, leaving the trail, we head about a mile and a half on gravel roads to the Poplar River campground in Superior National Forest. Josh fishes for trout, returning them to the stream, while I gather lobster mushrooms. Soon our meals are dished up and our hammocks hung. We tuck in for the night, our legs still thrumming.
Next Day. Before the trip, we had watched the forecast chances of rain on this day rise and fall and then rise again. After breakfast we pack up, and soon it begins to rain.
It can be hard to stay dry while backpacking; it's even harder to stay dry while bikepacking. Despite our waterproof gear, all of us get soaked as the morning wears on. The rain intensifies, and the temperature drops. We weigh whether to bail out of the trail for a while and travel on roads. I make the case for sticking with the trail to my fellow riders. Looking at them standing bedraggled, dripping, and red-cheeked in front of me, I feel like polar explorer Ernest Shackleton telling his crew that the best route to the Ross Sea runs straight through the pack ice, no problem. They aren't buying it. We take the road.
As we peel off the miles, I can see that hypothermia might be a concern for some of us. Once we stop biking for the day, we will need to get out of wet clothes and into a dry, warm place, whether a sleeping bag or a heated building. We make the difficult decision to press on all the way to Grand Marais, covering around 25 miles today.
As we finally roll into town in midafternoon, rain blasts into our faces from the lake. We immediately seek hot food and drinks. The radio reports that up to 2 inches of rain have fallen on the North Shore and flood advisories are posted in many areas. One of our crew mentions a family cabin that is available. We load bikes on the truck and drive there. By evening we are warm, comfortable, and swapping stories of our day's drenching.
A couple of days later, as the huge rain system finally fizzles into drizzle and fog, I camp alone at Gooseberry Falls State Park. In the morning, I bike a long loop on the park's multiuse trails, far past the waterfalls. Freed from the weight of bikepacking gear, I feel buoyant. My fat bike's knobby treads send water splooshing as I roll through wet grass, mud, and puddles. With the trails so wet, hiking would be a slog, but biking is a joy.
With this trip, I have barely scratched the surface of my interest in bikepacking. I intend to return to ride more of the North Shore State Trail, perhaps planning an extra day or two to stay sheltered in case the heavens open.