Susan and I don't really consider ourselves to be big-time risk-takers. At least Ed Culberson's records are in no danger from us. So, when we decided to take a spur of the moment trip to the North Shore of Lake Superior on July 4th, 1999, it was a bit of a departure from our usual, more intentional riding plans. I should say, by way of explanation, that the North Shore is one of the most popular retreat / tourist / camping destinations in Minnesota. It is beautiful, fun, and only a couple of hours from the mess known as "The Twin Cities"; however, because of these things, campgrounds are often booked for weeks in advance and, for the big holiday weekends, for months in advance. So, when Susan suggested that we go there on the 4th of July weekend, my first reaction was a semi-condescending snort of disbelief. I reminded her that all of the state and national campgrounds on Superior's north shore have been booked for this weekend since April and that most of the private ones were no doubt full, as well. Her reply? "I don't care; let's go anyway."
So, even though it was mid-evening on Friday, July 3rd, we rolled up the tent, stuffed the sleeping bags, added the stove and other equipment to our kit, and prepared to hit the road, figuring to get about halfway there that night. Minnesota state campgrounds always hold open a few spots for "walk-ins," even if they are full, and if we could get to Gooseberry Falls State Park early enough in the morning we thought we would have a slim chance of snaring one of those. As always, as soon as we let out the clutch levers all of these concerns simply melted into the gathering evening.
Our route began in Fargo in the early evening cool and took us across the Red River into Moorhead, Minnesota. Funny how driving through town doesn't bother me unless I am outbound on a trip; at those times it drives me crazy until we see open road. Fortunately, in our small city, open road is never more than ten minutes away. We took a grateful left onto Highway 10, which used to be the main route between Fargo and Minneapolis-St. Paul before I-94 was built. After that, Highway 10 reverted into a nice, wide, and comfortable four-laner, which would take us from the Euclidian flat of the Red River Valley to the rolling hills at Detroit Lakes. We motored east, keeping our speeds at the posted 65 mph. This was always a well-patrolled road and, on holiday weekends, it was the more so; so, the police were a strong presence.
We traveled away from the setting sun which is always pleasant, going through small towns with names like Dilworth, Glyndon, and Hawley, each jarring a memory or two from trips past. Dilworth, for example: A few years ago I had changed the oil on Susan's bike just before leaving on a trip. I am generally pretty careful about checking for leaks, but I must have neglected to do so this time. Anyway, at Dilworth, Susan suddenly motioned me into a gas station. We pulled into the station and I asked what was up. She said her oil light had come on suddenly and brightly and so she had hit her kill switch (probably saving her motor from significant damage). Upon examination, I found that the bike, from front to back, was bathed in fresh motor oil and the culprit was the seal at the filter access door. I could see that oil was freely flowing from it. After some unsuccessful attempts to reseat the O-ring, I drove the five miles home and rooted through the trash until I found the old one. I rode back and installed it. It worked perfectly. I found out later that the O ring included with the filter was too small.
Nearing Lake Park, the road began to pick up some pleasantly rolling hills attended by a significant increase in the tree population. We reached Detroit Lakes at sundown and turned eastward on Highway 34. Highway 34 was beautiful, so much so that I regretted missing the scenery, owing to the darkness. Hilly, wooded, and remote, 34 ran past small but delightful lakes and ponds, woods and rural farms. As the light diminished and as we moved from open prairie to wooded hills, the main concern was deer which populate that part of the state by the tens of thousands. And, I had never seen more of them. It seemed that every few feet brought about a pair or six of glowing eyes peering at us from the ditch. Our speed gradually dropped from 60 to 55 to 50. Finally, at about 45 miles per hour, we felt like we could get stopped in time if we needed to and that was the speed at which we traveled remainder of our trip. Fortunately, the moon was nearly full and the sky cloudless, which extended our precious vision past the swept area of our headlights. As always, we stopped at Walker for a break and to buy gas. During the day, Leech Lake is beautiful, large, and imposing. At night, we could only identify its barest outline by the lights of distant homes and cabins as we swept around its south end and disappeared once again into the woods, bound for Remer and Hill City.
At Hill City, we turned north on 169 for the 18-mile trip to Birch Cove Resort. Susan and I knew the owners and we had made arrangements to spend our short night there for a decreased fee of $10, setting up wherever we could find a spot. It was nearing midnight when we finally pulled in past the campers and campfires and found an open spot by the lake. Due to both mosquitoes and to our planned early departure, we did not bother with a fire, but instead set up the tent and went straight to sleep. We awoke at 4:00 A.M. to a gloomy, cloudy sky. We used the restrooms and left our fee taped to the door of the office. Out of politeness to the other patrons we walked our bikes to the paved road before we fired them up. We proceeded north on 169 for seven miles until we came to Grand Rapids ("Birthplace of Judy Garland"). It was still too early for most of the restaurants to be open and, as we weren't too hungry, we decided to just continue east on Highway 2 and make for Duluth, which was, after all, only 90 miles distant. The gloom gradually lightened, but the air felt close and thick. It made me wonder what would happen when all of this moist air hit the cold, dry air of Lake Superior. It turned out to be an excellent question.
At the eastern outskirts of Duluth we stopped at a Perkins to buy breakfast and to talk about our chances of finding a place to sleep for the night. Because it was only 6:00 A.M., we thought we might still have a chance of getting one of the "walk-up" spots. Just when we were getting ready to leave, the sky opened up and it began to pour! The leaden look of the western sky told us that it wasn't going to quit any time soon and, besides, we had to get to Gooseberry if we wanted to have a chance at staying there, so I dashed out to the bikes, downloaded our raingear, and squished my way back to the entryway. No sense putting off the inevitable, so we dressed and headed out into the teeth of the storm, down the long, long hill into Duluth. At the east end of town we stopped briefly to consult with one another and, while we were stopped, one of Duluth's finest pulled up. Thinking he was going to ask if we needed assistance, I was impressed. "Hey you! You gotta have your headlight on." He then sped away. Gee, thanks so much for your concern. So much for "protect and SERVE."
We proceeded east on North Shore drive, prepared for the final 45 miles in the driving rain. Normally, this would have been the best part of the trip, what with Lake Superior off to our right and all the woods in the world off to our left, but all was occluded by the gray curtain of clouds and rain, which left us unable to demark where the lake ended and the sky began. At least it was warm. In a little under an hour, we pulled up to the ranger station at the entrance to the park. "Yep, as a matter of fact, we just had two families leave, so you have your pick of spots." That wasn't too hard to figure, really. You've got your basic Yuppie couple up from Hopkins, or wherever, in their camper looking out at the rain and projecting what a whole weekend will be like cooped up in a sardine can with their two unhappy larvae. Doesn't take much of a push for them to think, "We're only two-and-a-half hours from home, let's go." I related this scenario to the ranger on duty and he started laughing before I had even finished, confirming its accuracy right down to the number of squalling children.
Susan and I had to set up camp in the rain, but we had done this so many times that we were out of the rain in less than 15 minutes, flat. We sat in our tent and enjoyed the rain for the next couple of hours. After that, we decided to head on up the shore to some our favorite eating places and to do some sightseeing. The air was still incredibly humid-so much so that when the road turned away from the lake or when we went up a high hill, everything glass or plastic fogged instantly. Then, when the road neared the cool, dry air of Lake Superior again, the fog would dissipate within seconds. Superior, like mountain ranges, is so big that it can actually make its own weather. It has the largest surface area of any freshwater lake on earth and holds four quadrillion gallons of water, which is enough to cover north and south America combined in 18 inches of water. If emptied, it would take 50 years to refill by its natural sources. I still could not shake the feeling that, with this warm wet air hitting the cold dry lake air, we were in for some sort of weather-maker.
We drove up the North Shore of Superior through towns with names reflecting their Scandinavian heritage. Towns like Tofte, Lutsen, and Hovland were passed through on our way to the Pigeon River Gorge on the U.S.-Canadian border. Near Grand Marais, we passed Eagle Mountain, the highest point in Minnesota, at a mere 2,302 feet. At the gorge, literally within sight of Canada, we parked the bikes and walked on the steeply inclined trail leading up to the falls. It began to rain with some gusto, but since we were already wearing our rain suits, we merely put on our helmets to keep our heads dry and kept walking. At the falls, the view was spectacular. I had no idea of the exact volume of water tumbling over per minute, nor the exact number of feet it fell. Suffice it to say, however, that the chance of surviving a ride down it were nil. The roar was so loud that Susan and I needed to holler at one another even though we were only a few feet apart and the mist it generated blended with the rain falling.
When we got back down to the bikes, it was raining harder than ever, but there was nothing we could do about it and so we mounted up and headed southeast, back down the shore. Just as we got off our bikes at the CoHo cafe, the rain stopped. Despite the gloom and the wet, we ordered one of their delightful pizzas which we were able to eat out on the deck; it was fun. After dinner we continued down the shore and made it back to the campground under a clearing sky. We walked to the five falls in the park and spent some time cuddling on the rocks of the shore serenaded by the sound of the waves and by the booming resound of 4th of July fireworks...or so we thought.
Now, you must remember that we live on the prairie and, on the prairie, storms don't sneak up on you. On the prairie, they can be tracked accurately by Doppler, often for days, and by sight, for hours, before they hit. But, at Gooseberry we were in the deep woods. It was getting late and the continuous barrage of fireworks was getting annoying. I complained about it to Susan, saying I was here to get away from noise. It was when a tremendous clap of thunder went off, seemingly right above our heads, causing us to involuntarily hit the deck, that we realized what we had thought were fireworks was instead a very large, very bad, storm brewing and about to pounce on us over the western horizon of trees. We went back to our campsite and began putting stuff under cover.
The first warning drops began to fall at about 10:00 P.M., just as we were finishing putting stuff away. It kind of sprinkled for about a half hour, misleading us into thinking that perhaps this would not be that big a deal, after all. Then, at about 10:30, it broke loose. It sounded and felt as though a fire hose was being directed at our tent. The tent was actually shaking from the concussion of the raindrops hitting. Fortunately, our campsite was well-drained and our tent was true and so we remained dry. I remember thinking that rain of this violence couldn't last too long, so I was surprised to awaken at 3:00 to find that it was still coming down at what looked to be an inch or more per hour. Finally, at 4:30 A.M., it began to break. By 5:00, the rain had stopped entirely. At 7:00, we emerged into the watery sunlight and began packing for the trip home.
The trip home was a long one. First, we needed to go some 200 miles south to the Twin Cities and pick up my dog who was staying at my sister's and then drive to Fargo, another 250 miles away. The bikes fired right up, despite the nautical treatment they had received overnight. We trailed slowly out of the muddy park until we hit the pavement of Old 61, where we turned left toward Duluth. The wreckage from the storm was everywhere. Trees and lines were down and formerly gentle creeks were raging maniacally down from the hills and spreading a muddy veil into the clear, blue water of Superior. A ranger told us that less than an hour earlier this road had been closed because the water was coming over the road. The heat and humidity of yesterday had not dissipated, despite the storm, and riding was the only way to stay cool.
We decided to hop the freeway at Duluth and burned down to my sister's on I-35 in just a couple of hours. We stayed there the rest of the afternoon, sitting out the heat in her air-conditioned home. We had decided to leave for home at 7:00, in the cool of the evening. At 6:30, we began to get ready. I hitched up the dog trailer, plugged in the lights, and packed our rain suits which had been left out to dry. After good byes, I brought Maggie out and put her in the trailer. This was a 250-mile straight freeway shot home. The evening, while not cool, was at least bearable at speed. For some reason, even though it was 7:00 in the evening and even though we had already done some 200 miles in the heat of the day, we felt pretty fresh. We drove in the light for the first couple of hours and took our one and only break in Alexandria. When we hit the freeway for the first of our final 100 miles, the dusk was gathering. When we crossed the 100th mile we were within sight of home and it was dark again.