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.
This is an opinion essay from our editor-in-chief.
Let’s call this what it is: a mass murder.
On June 7, a 50-year-old Michigan man drove his pickup truck into a group of cyclists outside Kalamazoo, killing five and injuring four more. The tragedy has garnered national news but despite the horrific violence committed on these innocent victims, the culture at large has once again resorted to excuses, victim blaming and even outright celebration.
The dead have been identified as Tony Nelson, 73, and Larry Paulik, 74, both of Kalamazoo, and Debra Bradley, 53, Melissa Fevig-Hughes, 42, and Suzanne Sippel, 56, all of Augusta.
They are not a statistic. They are not a meme. They are mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, daughters and sons, who will never return.
No, you should never read online comments, but nearly as disturbing as this incident is the predictable reactions. Beyond cyclists, there is no other group of humanity that I can think of for which is it is perfectly acceptable and tolerable—if not celebrated—to openly discriminate and promote violence against.
It’s a sickening response to an act of malice. We don’t know yet if the driver was impaired, or if his actions were intentional, but we cannot tolerate the apathy these incidents elicit. Paul Selden, the director of road safety with the Kalamazoo Bicycle Club, told MichiganLive.com it was “One of the worst, if not the worst, bicycling-motorist accidents in the county.”
I’m sorry, but this is no accident. Roads are designed and built in an unsafe manner. Untrained citizens are given license to operate hugely dangerous machines on a daily basis. All of this can be prevented. None of this should be tolerated.
The tired, misanthropic trope of cyclists as spoiled, self-entitled derelicts needs to stop. Now. You see it in popular culture, you see it in social media. Perpetuating these cliches advocates violence and, as far as I’m concerned, anyone who likes, shares, tweets or snapchats a version of them has blood on their hands.
How to help
While nothing can bring back those who died in this horrific incident, they are not the only victims. The families of those involved face months or years of grief after having their lives shaken to the very core. To help them, you can donate to Kalamazoo Strong, a non-profit agency created in the aftermath of a mass shooting to help and support those who face life-changing crises.
Update, June 9
The driver, Charles Edward Pickett Jr. of Battle Creek, Michigan, was charged today with five counts of second-degree murder and four counts reckless driving causing serious impairment. Authorities have not yet commented on his possible intoxication or what led to the incident.