Superior Circle Tour: Grand Marais to Grand Marais

Grand Marais mirrored on the south shore of Superior

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.

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Superior Circle Tour: What Makes a Touring Motorcycle?

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.

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Superior Circle Tour: How I Got To This

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.

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Superior Circle Tour: A Second Close Call

Aguasabon Falls and Gorge

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.

The observation deck that nearly swallowed my key

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Superior Circle Tour: Black Bay to Terrence Bay

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.

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Superior Circle Tour: Thunder Bay to Black Bay

The Terry Fox Memorial above Thunder Bay

Thunder Bay is a great name for a city of 100,000, but the town itself was not attractive—it seemed spread out and industrial. We spent the morning seeking a 6mm Allen wrench to tighten my new mirror stalks. It took forever to locate the “Canadian Tire” store that everyone told us to go to (Canadian Tire is the equivalent of Home Depot in the U.S.). The gas pumps only permitted fixed amounts, the ATM would not take Poldi’s card, and making it all seem worse than it was, we had not had a proper dose of coffee that morning.

Eventually, completing our errands and planning our exit over lunch, we escaped to the outskirts of the city, to the Terry Fox memorial. Terry Fox was a teenager in 1980 who lost a leg to cancer, and then embarked on a trans-Canada run (on one prosthetic leg) to promote cancer research, making it to Thunder Bay before succumbing to his disease. He must have been quite an inspiration to the country because the memorial is a sculpture in a beautiful park with a commanding view of the land and lake.

We headed to Sleeping Giant, a Provincial Park on a long peninsula in Lake Superior. The Sleeping Giant is a landscape feature that shows the silhouette of a prone man. This seems like a place to come back to, with an enormous variety of hiking trails.

Although we had not really travelled very far from Thunder Bay, it had been many hours and we were still not conditioned for more than an hour of riding at a time—we quickly became stiff and sore. So by the time we arrived at Black Bay to the (miserable excuse for a) lakeshore cabin that we had booked, it no longer mattered. We were exhausted, and collapsed onto the too-soft bed, logging nearly a dozen hours of sleep by the next morning.

Sleeping Giant

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Superior Circle Tour: Paths Silently Crossing

Driving along Ontario Route 61, we encounter a kayak-crested car towing a Vistabule

We learned that friends of ours, Diane Lund and Don Holzwarth, were vacationing along the North Shore and would be heading from Thunder Bay to Grand Marais at the same time that we were doing the opposite. We proposed to meet them somewhere in the middle for a picnic and/or hike, but alas, modern communications technology does not work in the wilderness. We sent a few electronic messages, and planned our picnic at Grand Portage for maximum likelihood of seeing each other in the visitor center parking lot, but it did not work out.

Nevertheless, we DID cross paths, on the Canadian highway segment to Thunder Bay. Or at least I think we did. While there are many cars and trucks bearing canoes and kayaks or trailering boats or campers, I suspect that the combination of carrying two Lake Superior-capable kayaks PLUS a Vistabule trailer was a signature belonging to our friends and only a very few other outdoor adventurers.

Traveling at a relative speed of 180 km/hr, there is not much time to scrutinize oncoming traffic, but I happened to notice such a vehicle while we were heading north on Ontario-61 near Neebing. Coincidentally, my GoPro camera was doing experimental recording and I managed to find a frame that captured the event!

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Superior Circle Tour: Waterfalls Internationale

Pigeon Falls, which I once confused with International Falls

As miserable as the weather was on our pre-trip ride to the start of the Circle Tour, it was simply spectacular on our first official full day on the road. The skies had cleared, and we left April early Monday morning, but not until after she insisted on fixing a hearty breakfast for us.

We stopped at the co-op in Grand Marais for sandwiches that we planned for a picnic at Grand Portage State Park, on the border with Canada. The ride was beautiful, the sun brilliant with the lake reflecting the sky’s unique crisp northern blue color. Our spirits resuscitated, we chattered on our helmet intercoms about the adventures ahead.

The first was to visit Pigeon Falls on the international border. Poldi had been there twenty years back, when it was just a rough trail through the woods to an overlook. Now there was a visitor center, picnic grounds, dog park, and the trails were paved, with guardrails even.

I did not recall ever being to Pigeon Falls, but as soon as it came within view, I recognized it. When I was ten, my family had taken a trip to northern Minnesota. I recall visiting a twin waterfall, which I understood to be “International Falls” because Canada was on the other side. I remember my blurry black and white photos from that trip that I had shot with my Brownie camera, but always thought they were taken at the city of International Falls MN. Now, five decades later, I know this is wrong; we were here at Grand Portage and the Pigeon River.

Like Niagara Falls, which also straddles the same international border, there is a “U.S. side” and a “Canadian side”. And sure enough, we could look across and see the overlooks on the other side of the river. And just like Niagara Falls, there is debate about which has the better view. We did not have time to explore the Canadian side, so we will have to remain silent on that topic. I know the U.S. side is spectacular; I’m guessing the Canadian side is as well.

The border crossing was only a quarter mile from the park. We headed to the customs check point, where we were the only vehicle. I was surprised, since the last time I had crossed into Canada was on my 50th birthday, and the traffic was backed up for miles. Of course that was in the years immediately following 9-11.

We were asked a few simple questions: “How long will you be in Canada”, “Do you have any alcohol or tobacco products?” “Do you know your license plate?” (I didn’t and had to move the bike to show it to him). The agent was a motorcyclist who had done the circle tour himself, so after showing him our passports, he wished us well and waved us on.

Our next destination was Kakabeka Falls, perhaps 50 kilometers into Canada, approaching Thunder Bay. After a few missed turns we arrived and found it to be yet another spectacular display where it seems like the edge of a lake has been removed, and all the water is gushing out of it. This time we were able to view it from both sides and we can clearly state that “the Canadian side is better”.

Kakabeka Falls

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Superior Circle Tour: Getting To The Start

Our Superior starting point in Duluth where we don our rain gear.

Our Superior Circle Tour schedule has been refined and finalized, with each day’s destination carefully selected. Poldi is a wonderful travel agent, arranging and reserving a safe harbor for each night along the tour.

Our first day however, involves actually getting to the shores of Lake Superior from our home in Minneapolis, about 150 miles away. And our first night will be with Poldi’s sister April at her lakeshore cabin, another 100 or more miles along the north shore near Grand Marais. This total would make a brutal first day on a motorcycle for us, as unconditioned as we are for the iron-butt competition. So we made an alternate plan.

It turns out that our Go-trailer/camper also accommodates drive-on cargo. It tilts down to allow a motorcycle, or any other such vehicle, to drive up onto the trailer bed where it can be strapped into place and hauled to wherever! Our wherever is April’s basecamp home in Duluth, where we can unload the bike, leave the trailer in the driveway, and make an official start on our Lake Superior Circle Tour.

It seemed straightforward, so allocating a full hour in the morning to load the bike on the trailer should be more than enough, right? But the perversity of inanimate objects prevailed. The Go-trailer balked at being loaded, its elevator winch failing and the tilt feature not tilting. The self-loading ramp failed to self-load: I could drive the bike partway up, but could not get the rear wheel onto the trailer bed. Carefully manipulating this powerful 500-pound machine, climbing the 30-degree incline was too much for my self-preservation instincts. After a half-dozen failed attempts and with smoke issuing from the clutch, we abandoned the effort.

Fortunately, we had a plan-B: drive the full distance from Minneapolis to Grand Marais.

Unfortunately, we had burned our morning on plan-A.

Fortunately, the rain that was forecast was for later in the day.

Unfortunately, the forecast was wrong.

Our delayed start resulted in traveling along the storm front as it progressed from Duluth along the North Shore. When it wasn’t raining, it was blowing. We were relieved to finally arrive at April’s cabin where she took us in, dried us off, warmed us up, and celebrated our arrival with a glass of wine and a nice dinner.

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Another Chapter Ends

Preparing for a ride on my 2007 BMW R1200RT

About a year ago, with some reluctance, I put my motorcycle up for sale.  I had acquired it more than a decade before as one of those midlife attempts to try and recapture the free wheeling spirit I remembered from college, when I had a small Honda motorcycle that I used mostly to commute to school. 

My midlife motorcycle was a large touring bike, a BMW, and it offered an experience beyond just getting from point A to B in order to attend class or purchase groceries.  It offered that open air riding experience only possible from a two-wheeled vehicle, whose balance and stability derives from the thrilling lean into the curves of the road.

Although I had imagined taking it on extended trips to remote roads in scenic places, the realities of life worked against those dreams.  Instead, I found nice motorcycle-friendly roads closer to home and made many weekend afternoon excursions to enjoy them.

In recent years I have seen a degradation of driving skills displayed by the cars around me, primarily due to distractions of phones and screens.  There has also been a decline in driver courtesy, possibly a side effect of the covid pandemic.  In these same years, I also noticed that my ability to confidently maneuver the heavy touring bike has declined.  I always felt that one should not own a bike that you can’t get back up should it fall, and I suspected that, while the bike was no heavier, my lifting strength is less than it once was.

All of these factors resulted in a growing feeling of insecurity, especially in traffic or at freeway speeds alongside other vehicles.  While I always try to be in a defensive driving mindset, anticipating potentially hazardous situations with the flow of traffic, I was now bothered by thoughts of the possibilities of not surviving the ride.   This really detracted from the unique pleasures of being on a motorcycle.

I decided to retire from motorcycle riding.  I sold my bike to a BMW-riding pastor from Rochester who wanted the exact year and model I was offering.  He would have preferred blue, but was happy with silver.  I told him he looked good on that color. 

And so, another life chapter ends.  I’m sad to no longer be slipping into that natural fitting position on the saddle behind the fairing, feeling the vibration of a powerful engine, the thrill of acceleration, and leaning into the curves, but I recognize that this is the right time to move on, and I’m glad that someone else gets to enjoy the experience. 

I did manage to have one extended motorcycle trip—The Lake Superior Circle Tour, and I was accompanied by my intrepid partner Poldi, riding pillion.  I made a series of facebook updates at the time describing the adventures along the way, which I will be reprising here in the next series of posts. Some of you may recall them from three years back. Whether they are new to you or not, enjoy these recollections of a summer adventure during a time before covid.

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