Words by Molly Brewer Hoeg, photos by Molly Brewer Hoeg and Rich Hoeg
Planning a cycling tour often involves a touch of ingenuity. Having recently relocated back to Duluth Minnesota, my husband, Rich, and I resumed our love affair with Lake Superior and dreamed of doing the famed Circle Tour by bicycle. But the Trans-Canada Highway along the northeastern side of the lake was notorious for its hilly, two-lane, no-shoulder, logging-truck-laden stretch. It wasn’t the stuff for my first cycling tour. After all, Rich was hoping to get me hooked on touring, not scare me away from it.
Enter Rich’s unique solution – cycle the western half of the lake and use the Isle Royale backpacker ferries to shuttle across the middle of Lake Superior. The result was a 9-day, 500-mile tour, hugging the scenic shores of the Big Lake.
Circling counter-clockwise, we started on the southern shore of the lake through Wisconsin, arching up into the Bayfield Peninsula. Tiny harbor towns dot the western side of that spit of land, including eclectic Cornucopia. Small shops line the waterway which is home to fishing vessels in the slip behind. Our first overnight was in Bayfield, a popular tourist town rich in restaurants, sailboats and artsy shopping opportunities.
Moving into Upper Michigan, we passed through the Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park. We had miles of tree-lined roads to ourselves, emerging at the base of the Keweenaw Peninsula. In Ontonagon, on we ate at a small diner which served the best beef pasties we’d ever tasted and relaxed on the quiet sand beach behind our motel.
Using the ferry meant traveling to the top of the Keweenaw Peninsula. It could easily be skipped if circling the entire lake, but it would be a travesty to miss. Part way up, Houghton is situated on a waterway that cuts through the peninsula. Leaving town, we followed a quiet byway next to that passage. Reaching Lake Superior once again, we turned up the western side where we followed local roads immediately adjacent to the water. The sunshine and lack of wind made it easy to love the route. Following a short but steep climb inland, we returned to the shore in time to find the Jam Pot. Run by Ukrainian Catholic monks, the tiny bakery features decadent breads and muffins as well as jams made from local berries. It was a necessary rest and refuel stop. Just beyond, we ogled their ornate onion-topped monastery on the lakeshore.
Sleeping adjacent to the water in Copper Harbor, I could hear the wind whipping the lines against the sailboat masts throughout the night. I should have registered its meaning. Big waves were building up out on Lake Superior. I had trained well for the 70-mile days of cycling on this trip, but nothing prepared me for the voyage across the lake.
Boarding the Isle Royale Queen IV, we were in the company of hearty outdoor folk. The 81-foot-long passenger-only ferry held 100 passengers, all bound for Isle Royale – a National Park off the Minnesota/Ontario border of Lake Superior dedicated entirely to hiking and backpacking. The only exception is the National Park lodge on the northeast end of the island, a pricey but comfortable alternative to camping or rustic cabins. With no roads, and use of bikes prohibited on the island, we had to secure special permission in advance to transport our bikes on the ferries. The crew hoisted them gear and all to the top deck, where we watched to make sure they were well secured for the passage.
The 4-hour trip across 55 miles of open water was a bouncy affair. Rich was in his element, riding in the open bow dodging the crashing waves. As we tacked through the rough waters, we alternately rocked from side to side then front to back. I had a less glorious trip, clinging to the back railing watching the horizon in an attempt to control my nausea. It was a challenge given my propensity to sea sickness. Next time I will consider a more stable alternative, the Ranger III, a much larger National Park Service ferry from Houghton. But not without first cycling the northern section of the peninsula, which can be done via a circle route.
Once on Isle Royale, I was grateful for the comfortable bed in the lodge, and slept off my queasiness before setting out to do a little hiking and canoeing. Isle Royale is 45 miles long by nine miles at its widest. It boasts 165 miles of hiking trails, including a 40-mile trail running from end to end. In one afternoon, we could only get a taste of the island’s unspoiled environment. Now, with more experience behind us and having added camping gear to our tours, I would opt for a more authentic island experience and camp in a wilderness site.
The only blight on my island stay was the reality that I faced another ferry ride in the morning. But that trip was smooth sailing. The Voyager II serves as the mail boat as well as hiker transport. So the first portion of the journey was spent hopping between points the length of the island to pick up or deliver both. The actual lake crossing to Grand Portage, Minnesota was only two hours out of the total six hour voyage. We landed mid-afternoon, with just enough time to cycle to Grand Marais before a raging thunderstorm struck. Timing is everything.
Our final two days took us down the North Shore of Lake Superior on Scenic 61. We were on familiar territory, and took advantage of the Gitchi Gami State Trail for bicycles on the completed portions. There was plenty of time to stop at our favorite state parks dotting the shore, savoring the fact that cyclists get in for free.
Choosing Canal Park and the iconic Aerial Lift Bridge for our finishing line in Duluth, we were greeted by family and friends to celebrate completing our tour, just as an ore boat passed under the bridge. Quizzed immediately about the trip, I answered without hesitation – I was hooked. I couldn’t wait to do more. 10,000 miles of cycle touring later, I still look back fondly on our modest beginnings. And I’m still eager to do it again.
Molly Brewer Hoeg is a freelance writer living in Duluth, Minnesota. She is currently writing a book titled America at 12 Miles an Hour about her experiences bike touring with her husband. You can also read more of her work on her website, Superior Footprints. Her husband Rich is a photographer and birder. His work can be found here.