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[This is the final facebook post that chronicled our adventure in June 2019.]
As satisfying as it was to return to Duluth and complete the Superior Circle Tour, we recognized that we were not quite done. Just like those climbers that make it to the summit of Mount Everest, it doesn’t count until you make it back down. Our original plan was to put the bike on our trailer and triumphantly haul it home, but since the trailer never made it to Duluth (see “Getting to the Start”), we had one more motorcycling travel day.
It turned out to be a beautiful one, perhaps one of those top-five weather days of the year. And wanting to avoid the uninspiring regimen of traffic on I-35, we discovered state highway 23, a route that transitioned from north woods scenery to rural farm landscapes that we shared with only an occasional local driver.
After riding over 1500 miles during the previous week, we were now conditioned and ready to embark on the trip that we had just completed. We could now ride for extended durations, our physical and mental stamina up to the task; my clutch and throttle hands were now strong enough to actually manage the clutch and throttle, and we had our communication and navigation systems and routines figured out. And I hadn’t lost my key.
The north shore of Superior, in both Minnesota and Ontario, had been spectacular scenery punctuated with dramatic waterfalls. On the entire route we had encountered many friendly people who gawked at us, helped us, and inspired us.
When motorcyclists encounter and drive past each other there is a salute, a hand gesture of two fingers pointing down, acknowledging the shared experience of two wheels on the road. We encountered other bikers making the circle route, most notably a group of six Harley riders traveling the opposite direction, at the “Best Northern” motel and restaurant in Wawa Ontario (by far our best meal on the tour). They had spent the day riding in the rain from Chicago and were hoping for better weather since they had allocated only four days (and were envious of our 9-day schedule). We traded road stories and wished good travels as we left.
The weather that we experienced was near-perfect. Apart from the first day of rain at Duluth and beyond, we had clear skies. Cool is better than hot for me, but Poldi did not have adequate protection for her hands. Traveling at 55+ mph, the morning temperatures of 45-degrees became quite chilly. Next time we will invest in electric gloves for her.
What other things would we have done differently? Not much really. It would have been nice to take a day off from riding and spend it exploring (even God took the seventh day off), but we had a schedule to keep. After experiencing its therapeutic effects, if there were accommodations along the way that had a hot tub, I might have lobbied to stay there (not really– I prefer more modest settings).
It was an entirely satisfying life experience, one I had never expected, and I am thrilled to have shared it with my life partner Poldi, who took on my adventure and made it hers as well.
I was also able to share a few of the stories with a (captive) facebook audience. I have been encouraged by your “likes”; it seems that some of you actually read the lengthy prose that accompanies the photos. Your responses provided the encouragement for me to keep writing. I have often felt that the spark that ignites my best efforts comes from the people around me: thank you all.
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We had been alerted to the hazards of wildlife. In Canada, the road signs showed images of a moose charging out to challenge motorists. And everyone had a story to tell us, but all we had seen were a few deer peering at us from the edge of the woods. It was not until we reached the Northern Lakes Visitor Center in Ashland WI that we become properly concerned.
Poldi made sure that we got there in time to have our final Circle Tour credential stamped and authorized. The agent then took the opportunity to warn us about deer. That very morning, she had seen several deer on her way to work, and then witnessed a motorcyclist having a fatal encounter with one. After stopping, a wolf appeared, circled her car, and then vanished. This was all very unusual, and so she was concerned for us because we would be taking that same section of road.
With trepidation we drove the last 20 miles, without incident, to our destination that night, Bayfield WI.
We enjoyed our stay in Bayfield. We even took the morning off, spending it on a boat exploring the Apostle Islands instead of on a motorcycle avoiding deer. Our last day was deliberately light, a short 85 miles to Duluth to complete the tour. Surprisingly, this turned out to be one of the most challenging.
The route along the shore from Bayfield is through the Red Cliff Indian Reservation, a region that displays the natural beauty of this area. It was along this passage that we encountered deer crossing the road in front of us, even at mid-day. From her perch on the pillion, Poldi would scan ahead to check for deer at the forest edge, considering their dash across the road.
On several occasions they darted onto the pavement; each time I would either see it or hear Poldi’s alert in the helmet speaker, and aggressively apply the brakes. The recommendations for such conditions were NOT to attempt swerving, but to make a “panic stop” in order to reduce velocity. A swerve was unlikely to avoid the obstacle, and more likely to take you into oncoming traffic. Even if the braking did not avoid the collision, it would reduce the velocity (and the velocity-squared energy of impact), thereby making survival much more likely.
On one occasion, we witnessed a deer run out to the center of the road, look at the oncoming traffic, and then turn around and run back. Meanwhile, the lead car had braked and swerved to avoid it, and the subsequent cars swerved to avoid colliding with the first. The road was littered with cars out of place. I was glad to have made my panic stop so that I could carefully and slowly pick my route around them. Everyone was shaken but ok. We proceeded.
Eventually, we arrived at Superior WI, the connection to a post-wilderness world. Duluth was a few short miles away over the bridge to Minnesota. But as soon as we crossed that state line, everything seemed to fall apart—the pavement disintegrated into potholes, and its mitigation was at the expense of construction barrels and detours and bad signage. The rain had arrived again (can we ever bike to Duluth without rain?), and the rush-hour traffic had no patience for anyone less aggressive in getting to their destination.
We found ourselves on skyline drive, seeking to “close the loop” on our Circle Tour. Our navigation system had broken down, even in the midst of civilization, and we were momentarily lost, looking for the next major crossroad. Suddenly without warning, a fawn streaked across the road, its mother a few feet behind. I braked hard once again, and am pleased to be able to tell the story.
We did make it to our starting point, the Thompson Hill Visitor Center, and we also made it to our hotel, where we treated ourselves to a session in the jet-powered hot tub jacuzzi in the pool room. We would have further celebrated the completion of our Circle Tour, had we not collapsed into bed instead.
Our next destination, also not initially on our route, was Porcupine Mountain State Park. This turned out to be an unexpected treasure and we are likely to return someday. A highlight was the overlook onto the Lake of the Clouds, but we found the other features of the park to be appealing as well—the shoreline of Lake Superior of course, the various waterfalls, and the hiking trails.
This 30-second clip shows how similar this place is to the forest moon of Endor.
A Speeder Ride through Endor
Motorcycling turns out to be more physically and mentally demanding than I remembered from my twenties. I had heard about dedicated riders who would take on long routes– there was even a recognition for them: the Iron-Butt award. It involves collecting gas station receipts along a route that would prove that you had covered 500 miles within a single day.
I had no interest in competing at that level, but we created the mini-version of it by taking the optional Circle Tour excursion into Keweenaw Peninsula. Initially Poldi did not think we would have time to include this additional day of travel, and so had planned the bypass around it. Somehow, this just didn’t seem right; we had come all this way and were unlikely to be back soon, and I was intrigued at the geology that created both the “iron range” of Minnesota and the “copper range” of Michigan.
The copper mines had closed more than two decades earlier, and the area was in transition from deriving its income from mineral extraction to tourism, much as we see in northern Minnesota. We saw towns that had seen better times, but also new businesses catering to activities like bicycling and kayaking in addition to traditional fishing and camping. The landscape provides a draw for people wanting to experience this natural beauty at close range.
We arrived at the town at the very end of the peninsula, Copper Harbor, and enjoyed visiting “Swedes”, a former tavern run by two Swedish entrepreneurs in 1900, and now a rock shop/tourist souvenir store. The owner, who seemed to be related, or otherwise had inside knowledge, had plenty of stories to tell about the mining days and its eventual ending in the 1990s.
The transformation of the peninsula to a tourist-centric economy was not complete however. I wanted to visit the various museums and visitor centers in these former mining towns, but they were closed on the weekends, the official summer season had not started, and even the next day, they did not open until after noon.
Unfortunately the requirements for the Copper Butt award demanded that we keep moving, so we were unable to fully immerse ourselves in this bit of local history.
Poldi is the brilliant travel agent that solved all the logistics and arranged and organized our daily itineraries and agendas. She also applied Occam’s (small travel) razor to our items so that there was zero redundancy, allowing the remaining critical items to fit in our limited storage space.
Because of the load limits, she knew that there would be intermediate stops to clean and refresh our travel attire. At some point along the way, we would be performing laundry activities. This of course, was a foreign concept to me. If the clothes were still holding up, why should the tour be held up?
But she had anticipated my ignorant reluctance as well, calculating that the generous and kind hosts of the various AirBnBs we would be staying at, would allow her to run one small load of clothes through a wash cycle.
And it would have worked too. All of the places we stayed at had such facilities and they were offered if needed. They weren’t needed. Until suddenly, they were. Saturday—Poldi assessed that the clothing had run out and action was needed. Unfortunately, the hosts for Saturday were clear in their communications that they did not offer laundry service to their guests.
Okay. This is certainly their prerogative. Maybe they just didn’t have the facilities, or floor plan to make it work.
So we went off in search of a laundromat. Unfortunately, they were on the far side of town. We had to ask local passersby to help locate one, but once found, Poldi sprang to work, organizing our meager collection for the machines. Yes, I had to strip out of my well-worn layers and under-layers to add to the pot, but I got to put on my remaining clean backups.
Once I had shed my old skin, Poldi had no more use of me and sent me on a mission to find a bottle of wine to enjoy later when the chores were done and we had settled in for the evening. This was something I was qualified to do.
On my return, the laundry was not yet ready, so I was assigned another job—pick out something for dinner from the deli at the Super-One store next door. We would no longer be able to find a place to enjoy a leisurely dinner; we were running out of daylight.
Eventually all the tasks were complete and the laundry deemed “dry enough”, so we headed to our overnight accommodations. It turned out to be a basement apartment (a common offering by AirBnB hosts). After removing our shoes to bring our two small bags down the stairs, past the brand-new high-end washer and dryer, down the hall to our designated room, I found myself a bit irked.
This is not a normal emotion for me, so I tried to catch myself. This is the home of a family who has offered it to overnight travelers like us. There was no listing of laundry service in their description, and their response to our inquiry was clear: no guest laundry.
Still, it just seemed a little inconsistent with the AirBnB ethos.
Fortunately, we had “Loads of Fun” while preparing for our visit.
Our first full day on the Circle Tour began Monday at Grand Marais MN, where Poldi’s dad was known and loved for his decades of reading to school children. This city is something of a “home town” for us.
On Saturday, we arrived at Grand Marais, MI. It struck us as a clone of GM, MN, with local businesses representing tourism, outfitters, artists, and breweries. There was even a similar breakwater, creating a calm bay where we saw seaplanes taxiing to their mooring.
Poldi, having done her deep research for this trip, had discovered that there was an Agate Museum in this town, a labor of love started by a town character Axel Niemi, and now carried on by his mentee/acolyte, “Agate Lady” Karen Brzys, who provided us detailed descriptions of the rocks in her collection and made a “cool rocks” presentation for us and the other kids in the museum at the time.
My BMW R1200RT has been a capable vehicle. I am now more appreciative than ever of some of its features.
I usually ignore the cruise control in my car, and I never expected to find one on a motorcycle, but my RT has one! Like my car, I have almost never used it, but it has become very welcome on this extended ride.
My normal defensive riding style is to provide a vise-like grip on the throttle (note that I do not describe it as a death-grip :-), but after about 30 minutes, my hand becomes tense and numb. The cruise control lets me relax it, along with the other (clutch) hand. It is a welcome relief and I credit it with keeping me from becoming dangerously fatigued in my arms and hands.
I am also appreciative of the heated handlebar grips. During the lengthy ride in the rain on Sunday, my gloves became saturated and my hands started to chill, but the grips kept them warm enough that the fact that they were wet did not matter anymore.
Heated grips are great for the driver, as is the heated saddle. After showing Poldi how she could control the switch for heat to the pillion (with two levels: warm, and really warm), her comfort level improved proportionately.
The fairing keeps the wind blast and sting of the rain off of my hands, and the road splash from my shins, although my boots still get soaked.
The weight of the bike is a blessing and a curse. At 500 pounds, it keeps us from being blown over by wind gusts and truck blasts, but it becomes a challenge at low speeds, especially with a near-equal amount of passenger and cargo ballast.
Keeping the balance at a stoplight is easy, and riding at any speed above 10mph is completely stable, but making a slow turn maneuver in a parking lot, or to turn around, is murder. Consequently, I frequently must ask Poldi to dismount while I get the bike oriented correctly when we arrive or depart, or re-navigate, or recover from a wrong turn.
This might not seem like such an inconvenience but take a look at the configuration of storage panniers on the bike—especially the top trunk. She needs to step up on the foot peg, and then swing her leg nearly over her head to clear it, then settle into her saddle, all the while keeping her center of gravity close to the center of the bike so that the stabilizer (me), is not overwhelmed by the misbalance, and allow the bike to slip the strength of my planted foot outriggers and grasp of the handlebars.
Imagine mounting a horse, and then imagine doing it a dozen times. This is what I am asking of Poldi, and she does it skillfully, up to the point where we are BOTH too exhausted to swing that leg up and over one more time. This is the point where we probably look silly attempting the maneuver, but it is also a sign of increasing danger. Fatigue leads to mistakes.
But Poldi is one tough cookie and always manages to muster the strength to keep us both upright, stable, intact, and ready to navigate the next miles.
How did I get to this moment of motorcycling around Lake Superior? It has been a rather indirect path with some common elements: I acquired a motorcycle in my twenties as an inexpensive mode of transport while attending college, but eventually had to give it up and live within walking distance of campus, selling the bike in order to meet tuition. It left a positive experience however, a feeling of freedom, openness and exhilaration, everything Robert Persig wrote in his classic “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”.
Marriage and family commitments kept me from re-subscribing to that world, but when my son left for the Peace Corps and told me I could use his motorcycle while storing it for him, I dipped my toe back into that water. His bike needed repairs, and I then used it to commute to work, but I kept getting stranded as it broke down over and over. He described his bike as the equivalent of the Millennium Falcon, which could never reliably engage its hyperdrive. I experienced it as having the clutch fail in a busy intersection.
After repairing it too many times, I realized that I did not need to continue doing this. I could afford my own ride; I could buy my own wheels, but which? So I asked the owner of the repair shop (with whom I was now on a first name basis), “what motorcycle do you NEVER see here? Because I want one of those.” He replied that he didn’t see many BMWs in the shop.
It was unscientific but it was good enough for me. I studied the various offerings from BMW and became intrigued by the touring models. It is a romantic notion I suppose, to head out onto the open road and explore ala Pirsig’s “Zen”, so I tried one at a nearby dealer and purchased it soon after.
That was 2007. It is now 2019, and while I have enjoyed many excursions on my touring bike, few have been overnight, and none have been extended tours as I had originally envisioned. My mileage has only recently exceeded 20,000, which flags that I am a “newbie” with the same 6 months of experience ten times over.
I’m quite pleased to take on the Superior Circle Tour, but I recognize that I am still in training. Maybe I will get the hang of it. There is a danger that I will enjoy it so much that I will want to embark on other such tours!
A 50-second video clip does not fully capture the thrill of coming over the hill to an overlook, but you may be able to imagine the experience. We were not the only ones admiring the scenery. Three women from Winnipeg were bicycling to Newfoundland, about as east as one can go in North America.
Yes, we have witnessed two examples of life-threatening maneuvers by car drivers, but I’m referring now to another disaster in waiting.
On Sunday, during our trip to the start of the trip, we stopped for gas and coffee at Pine City. After refueling body and machine, I prepared to mount and start the bike but could not find the key. I knew I had put it in my pants pocket as is my habit, but it was not there!
I searched all of my pockets in all of my clothing. On a day that had started with unexpected problems (see prior posts), here was one more. I wondered what I would do if the key were truly lost—a dead bike with locked steering at a gas station halfway to Duluth.
Poldi instructed me to retrace my steps, and sure enough, on the floor in front of the cashier, the key was located. It had been pulled from my pocket when I extracted my travel wallet, a specially prepared packet of passport and credit cards, to pay for the coffee.
I resolved to keep the key in a zippered pocket of my motorcycle jacket instead. This worked well except for those times when I was not wearing the jacket. The key resumed its risky life cohabiting with the wallet in my pocket, but this system was a big improvement.
Today however, after enjoying the view of Aguasabon Falls on the way to Terrace Bay, I stuck my hand in the jacket pocket and found NO KEY! I knew that I had placed it there, just before putting my GoPro camera and its mount into the same pocket.
I went white, the blood draining away as I imagined being stranded in this remote area. I could foresee searching for an hour or more as daylight waned, and then walking back to the highway, hoping to get a ride to the next town, and then… what? This was NOT the unplanned adventure we wanted.
As before, we retraced our steps, this time back to the waterfall overlook where we had taken pictures of each other and exchanged shots with another couple. And there, on the slatted boards of the deck, lay my key. An inch over and it would have tumbled hundreds of feet to the river below.
I was relieved of course, but still wondered how to avoid this disaster. Clearly a second key in a safe place is the answer. Although I did a lot of research into the risks of motorcycle touring prior to this trip, this is one risk that I was oblivious to.
I have always been intrigued by geology, but I have learned that Poldi is an even larger sucker for it. In her research, she encountered a description of Ouimet Canyon, an unusual geologic feature, not fully understood, that shows exposed columns of basalt, and protects a sub-arctic ecosystem at its floor. And it was right here near Black Bay!
Except that the route to the park was closed for bridge repair, so we took the designated detour, a lengthy route through a network of gravel roads. Normally, motorcycles avoid such roads; the loose gravel is like riding on ball bearings, the usual counter-steering methods of leaning into turns becomes a hazardous guess of how much friction remains.