LMB is excited to again be posting regular blog entries from Michigan Upper Peninsula (MUP) Bicycle Tour rider, Ralph Hennen. Please check back often to read about MUP adventure and see photos of the sights found only in the U.P.!
Ralph has worked as a contract photographer since he was 17 years old. He photographed architecture, art, fashion, fitness, food, landscapes, portraiture, special projects, sports, travel and many others. He has shown in various New York City galleries and other places in the country. He has traveled around the world from the Arctic to the Far East photographing.
In the past 10 years Ralph has added blog writing and photo critiques to his activities. He writes a private food blog specifically tailored for executive use in New York City. He also writes restaurant and food critique for places in the City.
The breakfast lineup at the Little Bear East Ice Arena in St. Ignace, Michigan rang with ruckus laughter as old friends met again for their annual reunion on bikes. The breakfast marked the beginning of MUP, LMB's six-day bicycle tour looping through the eastern tip of Michigan's Upper Peninsula. While selecting ham, potatoes, biscuits and gravy, fresh fruit, oatmeal, and yogurt, riders exchanged updates about who was doing what in the past year. As only a one-year veteran of MUP and blogger, I felt I needed to loose the folks I knew and hang with those I didn't know so well – either I was lucky or this group is a bunch of interesting people: teachers, engineers, artists, writers, students, from PhDs to elementary school students.... but all cyclists. The first three people I spoke with had recently traveled around the other side of the planet: SE Asia, Far East, and Middle East. We spoke of the places and food we both experienced there.
Check-in was quick with 150 cyclists signed up for the tour. The T-shirt, t-shirt upgrade, and riding jersey combination looked like musical chairs. This year's colorful MUP jersey is clearly a work of art.
Little Bear East's lawn was a mass of tents. This year, a deluxe tent service provided by Comfy Campers offered no-fuss tent lodging. This service will be available each night through the end of the tour. Comfy Campers set up and take down a tent and provided and air mattress to everyone who signed up for the service. They also offered to "Puff up" mattresses, meaning to add extra air to get the feel just right.
The cyclists spent their Sunday doing a variety of things on their won. The day was a free-for-all. Some took a boat trip to Mackinac Island. Other riders warmed up for he week ahead with a 30-mile pre-ride.
There are two things that cyclists will put on their top of the dislike list: head winds and pouring rain. I don't mind when winds or rains dowse mid-ride, but starting out in the rain or head winds, to me doesn't, feel like vacation.
Scott Elliott, LMB's Tour Directror, called the riders meeting at 7:00 p.m. the night before and set the expectations for the trip and detailed the first day's ride. While human intelligence was processing the instructions, mobile phone intelligence was processing the radar and weather forecast. For the past two weeks, waves of storms floated across the UP every couple days. Friday and Saturday saw beautiful weather but Sunday's promise of good weather deteriorated as the day wore on. At the end of the meeting, everyone headed for their tent as drops showed up on the sidewalk and the sky darkened. It rained all night, gently, but enough to make riders not want to leave their tents. Sometime before the rain became heavy, a mosquito zapper at the end of the tent lawn zapped something quite large – speculation was it must have been a small Bat. The sound was a disturbance in normal rhythm of mosquitoes frying – this was a giant pop. The next morning there was no evidence left behind.
I woke at 5:30 a.m. and it was still raining. Over a period of a half hour, the rain slowed and finally stopped. I peered out of the tent looking for movement in the form of silent bikers holding coffee. Bikers were walking but no coffee in hand – bad sign. I fell back to catch some more Zs. At 6:00 I figured it was do-or-die for coffee and went inside where bunches of people were gathering but still no coffee. At 7:00 a.m., magically, the sky cleared and the coffee arrived. By 8:00 all were clean, fed, and suited up for a 70 mile ride.
Peddling up the hill out of St. Ignace and hanging a right turn just before the I-75, the wind picked up making the second worst obstacle appear – head wind. Turning on to Rt 123, the wind turned tail and made the remaining 40 miles to lunch less of a struggle. Trout Lake Sportman's Club had a lunch spread that made ya wanna eat more than humanly possible - the Midwest gourmet spread: pulled pork in the family BBQ sauce, baked beans, coleslaw, and all the trimmings. It looked like smooth sailing from lunch to Newberry. However, at the last rest stop the route turned windward and the skies turned dark. Arriving at the campsite early, tents were up and the luggage truck was unloaded on the school lawn. As riders came in, they gathered their luggage and pitched their tents just as the thunder-boomer began to loom. The riders scrambled to get everyone's luggage that was still on the lawn inside. I checked my radar app just before I lost Wi-Fi and the storm cell looked bad but brief – radars don't lie ... generally. It was a torrent and the field of tent turned into tent lake.
The rain passed quickly and left lots of humidity behind. The football players of Newberry High served up a hearty dinner enough to score a couple touchdowns, but not quite enough to avoid the local ice cream joint a couple blocks away. By the time I got there a line of cyclist had already formed trailing off the deck and onto the sidewalk. The menu was diverse and cyclists were taking fistfuls of menu items to the wet picnic tables at the side of the store and scarfing them down.
Back at the school I came into the cafeteria where groups of folks were engaging in "Tubs of Fun", the term coined by Scott for two large tubs that contained games of all sort for all ages. I managed to find myself in the middle of a conversation with three people who had all gone to the same law school at the same time 39 years ago, but didn't recognize each other or their name until that moment in time – quite a sight to watch.
The skies stayed calm all night with a freshening wind about 3:30 AM.
July 12 and 13
I arrived at Paradise, MI, in the early afternoon. As I hadn't seen in internet in two long days, I made my way to the public library next to the school to suck down the free Wi-Fi that had been blessedly working. When I had my fix of the world-wide-web, I grabbed whomever I could to hit the Berry Patch Bakery, a pie place famous far and wide for their daily limited pie treats. Today's were blueberry, rhubarb, and cherry. I missed this experience last year because the place closes at 5:00 p.m., or when they run out of pie, whichever comes first. The secret of these pies: the crusts were a work of art worthy of a pie museum. The waitress was feisty and served my good friend Frank and me in a room by ourselves – I guess she wanted to keep our ruckus banter out of the ears of the customers who might not quite understand our life-long game of rhetoric. She, however, had no problem holding her own in the midst of the sparing volley of wit and quip between Frank and I.
Paradise School, who hosted our campsite, had 26 students attending this past year. That's 26 students, K through 12, in the whole building!! Last year it was 46 students. This is a very remote town in the U.P., and the district is always thinking of ways to drum up students. They hope to, at least, keep their basketball team that they have today.
In a group of cyclists one could make a lot of money running bets on the weather. In today's case the house would have won. At the Paradise School, as a dinner of pasties (pronounced pass-tees, and they will correct you.) was served, riders talked about the weather reports from their various news sources. Rain starting at 7:00 p.m. and running through next day was on the lips of most. But after dinner, the sky cleared, the temperature began to drop a bit, and the evening weather couldn't be beat.
At 6:30 p.m., a school bus pulled up to take all who wanted to go to Whitefish Point Lighthouse Park. This park sits on a point in Lake Superior with sandy beaches and ocean-like (but unsalted) Great Lakes scenery. The Museum for the Edmond Fitzgerald is there and covers the details of the life and sinking of the ship and her crew. There are several buildings on the museum campus including a lighthouse. Back at the campsite, those who skipped the lighthouse outing were treated to a local music festival that featured some good hometown performers playing nostalgic tunes.
By sundown, everyone was back to the school campground, turning into zombies and heading for their tents like the night of the living dead. Sunrise was bright clear and reasonable temperatures. At breakfast, the coffee addicts, including myself, were beginning to shake at the table where they local boys were lifting a keg of coffee mis-labeled "Gatorade". During breakfast, I started a conversation with a couple I didn't know. As the conversation proceeded we discovered we'd both worked for Pepsi Cola in years past though at different ends of the organization – I'll spare you the details of that.
After breakfast the scramble began to hit the road: directly into a freshening headwind. Well, ya can't have everything. Turning off the main route onto the shore route the winds eased and so did the traffic. The first SAG stop was at a beach on the Lake – beautiful, clear water (very tempting to take off all nonessentials and jump in the lake).
The next stop: Iroquois Lighthouse, an amazing antique lighthouse looking out over the bay onto the Lake. The lighthouse is still in use and the light keeper happened to be on the lawn. When asked what was the worst storm he experienced there, he said he and his wife had just taken the position in the past 3 months so he had not experienced a winter here. He looked somewhat old than 65 so I guessed the job was not as risky as it might have been in years gone by.
The next stop was the Dancing Crane, an odd log cabin store with a 21st Century coffee bar. I had a triple iced espresso with almond milk. I had to go back for seconds. They had essence oils, soaps and candles of sweet grass, and some sort of compote to repel black flies, mosquitos, and any other pest that might otherwise suck the blood from one's defenseless body. I took the bait and bought some. I haven't had an intrusive fly, bug, blood sucking, or stinging insect since. However, my white socks are turning black where I placed the goo. The other thing I couldn't resist was a fresh Dancing Crane grilled bratwurst with mustard – one of my favorite things – slung on the fire by the husband of the owner and coffee-marm. Yum. It met my every expectation.
The next leg was a blistering 88 degrees hot. But all made it to Lake Superior State University where we pitched tents, enjoyed great shower facilities, and air conditioned building with couches, TVs, and a good chef. This is the most civilization that we've had all week.
Tomorrow is our layover day, when riders can have a break to have fun and frolic in Sault Saint Marie, MI. Options include a boat trip of the locks, kayaking in the St. Mary's River, biking on a couple islands in the river, drinking beer on the park lawn watch large ships go through the locks upfront and personal.
OK, the bets are on for tonight: 11:00 p.m. warning of winds and rain so strong it may require us to leave our tents and take refuge in the cool, clean, air conditioned inside of the college student center. I'm watching the thunderheads from over Canada at the moment, but I'm guess it will go north. Stay tuned for tomorrow's weather report from the previous night!
... And on the fourth day the cyclist rested, or so sayeth the itinerary.
Everyone lost the weather bet from the day before in the Soo. The day started with the happiest of sun shines. Shortly after lunch, the mean ol' west wind kicked up a hard misty rain - if that can be imagined - the likes of which penetrated every stich and weave known to mankind. All the MUP cyclists who planned to spend the day as tourists got wet: from the kayakers on the St. Mary's River, to the boat passengers touring the Soo locks, to the cyclists who took a quick ride around nearby Sugar Island. The less venturous sat in the coffee shop at Lake Superior State University, who hosted our campsite. Scarfing down Doritos, coffee, Sloppy Joe Sliders, or whatever else the café had to offer, MUP-ers stayed dry and chewed the fat at the tables.
Out of curiosity, and to pass the time, I took to asking the crowd: What do you think about when you are peddling on the road? Someone piped in with the reputed words of Greg LaMonde: "Dairy Queen". Others said, "The Father Abraham song" and other music, "writing children songs in my head", "absolutely nothing", "the next rest stop", "how to kill biting bugs," and more. It's interesting how active the mind can be when it is free to float where ever, whenever, even while expending so much energy peddling ones brains out.
While walking through the sea of bicycles parked around the campsite, I notice two that were parked side-by-side: one with average tires the other with balloon-like tires that looked more liked like snow tires. I found the owners of the two bicycles, a couple who were taking on the roads together. Speaking with the owner of the balloon-tired bicycle, the husband of the pair, I asked how those knobbies performed. He said they did well throughout the tour. I was a little surprised, in my experience, with knobbies like his, it's slow-going on pavement. His wife piped in to explain, "yes, they slow him down so I can keep up with him." What a novel idea for a couple with different levels of experiences to enjoy the ride together! I'll spare you the calorie calculation for knobbies, but know there is one.
Heaping on even more calories at the end of the day, the League of Michigan Bicyclists honored their MUP volunteers at Karl's Café across from the locks with a delicious dinner. The food was outstanding, as was the company as stories were shared at the table of other bicycle rides in other places.
As the sun set, the temperature fell to the chilly 50's over-night.
After a wet day of rest, cyclist woke to high 40 temperatures and a promise of sunshine though it seemed tenuous at best. Coffee and a university type breakfast fueled the cyclist for trip to De Tour, an odd misnomer I think.
De Tour is a homey town that has reached the 21st century noted by the designer coffee (not Starbucks, but home brew), experimental recipes for pies -- a must in the UP -- and a bar that serves refreshing spirits. When the bicyclists arrived at the high school that would host them that night, were greeted at the school with a menu from the town provided by the local pie maven. It had my tongue watering just looking over the combinations. Folks pitched their tents and head for the town treats and drinks. At 5:25 and man who looked like he was in his late 20s and had served on one of the Big 10 (or is it 12 these days) footfall teams, came up to me and announced that he was the director of the water and sewage department. My first thought was that he would say we can’t flush … anywhere in town. So, I asked if we were in trouble or we’d done some thing wrong. He smiled and said: no, and that he was managing our food -- dinner would be ready at 5:30. After dinner, Scott, our tour director, conducted the last of the rider meetings and gave out raffle prizes.
Outside, Dave Bourgeault, our comedian and ace bicycle mechanic on loan from his shop in the Soo, was fixing whatever bicycle problems may exist for the last day of riding plus slinging rhetoric that made everyone laugh. This man is invaluable on this ride. His goal was to make every bicycle safe and optimally performing without costing an arm and a foot. In the school library, the staff showed a movie accepting a donation of $1 for admission and $1 for popcorn to see the Minions movie. Kids and adults were watching, laughing and munching in the dark.
As the North Country sunset came late – still twilight at 10 PM -- the cyclists bedded down for the night in the lawn surround the school.
At the De Tour School, breakfast was scheduled at 7:00 but opened early. By 8:00 most of the tents were folded and tossed on the truck as riders headed for the last stretch home under blue skies and sunshine to St. Ignace. By 9:00 the yard was vacant.
It was a beautiful day to ride back through the Boreal forest and along the fresh water shoreline with vignettes of sand beaches, tree lush islands, and blue water that made you want to stay forever. The town not to miss was Hessel, a cove town with boats, fishermen and tending coffee makers (and yes, pastries and pies). The scenery reminded me of the Maine coast. From Hessel the ride ran inland through the pine, spruce, fur, and birch forests with head winds that slowed the riders down.
Back in St. Ignace it seemed like a month went by in a week. The Ferries to Mackinac were blowing their horns, the traffic was slow and streets were alive with tourist. The cyclist came in over a period of 3 hours. The luggage was unloaded on the lot by the Community Center and folks were jumping dead car batteries, using the restrooms and showers, and saying their goodbyes.
It's nice to have a trip that's far away from humdrum of modern life; where cell phone serves is sketchy in parts; where pies and ice cream are important; and the air is sweet. Everyone will remember this trip, and many will return next year.