Tuesday, August 14, 2007

No. 6

I finally made my trip to northern Minnesota this past weekend, and it turned out pretty well.

I headed to my friends' cabin a few hours before they did. I wanted to get there ahead of them so I could bicycle for a few hours before sunset. I made it up there with just about enough time to complete my 50-mile loop. Well, 50 miles according to last year’s computer.

I have the same bike computer as last year, but I had to replace the batteries late last season. I’m not sure if I’m suppose to set the computer for my specific tire size, but when I replaced the batteries a 27-mile loop became 26.6 miles, or something like that. I continued to log last year’s loop as 27 miles if I didn’t stray from that route.

Long story short, I am using the new distance readings I get from my computer for all routes I bike this year, regardless of any previous measurements I have. I don’t know if this year's measurements are shortchanging me or if they’re more accurate. Either way, last year’s 50-mile ride is now about a 49.5-mile ride. So being obsessive about numbers, I had to ride an extra half mile to hit 50.

The cabin is in Osakis, a small town about 12 miles southeast of Alexandria, one of the more significant towns in the northern half of the state. The bike trail I use is an old railroad bed, so it’s nice and flat. As long as the wind isn’t a factor I can maintain a brisk pace. My basic loop is 50 miles because I learned from past experience that a good rest stop/turn around is a tiny town on the other side of Alexandria. There’s a big convenience store at the intersection of this tiny town, so that’s a good place to buy a gallon of chilled water for $1.49, and perhaps a snack, before heading back 25 miles to the cabin. Most days I can complete this trip with a riding time just under three hours.

It was a bit warm and humid on Friday afternoon, and I couldn’t afford a long rest break at the convenience store if I wanted to be back to the cabin by sunset, but I managed to complete my ride in a shade under three hours. My average speed was 16.9 mph.

Friday night greeted us with severe storms. At times I thought the roof was going to blow off the cabin. I couldn’t sleep during the storm, but I was glad it was blowing through overnight.

Saturday was a warm and somewhat humid day, and the morning forecast suggested evening storms might blow through. I wasn’t sure how much I was going to bike that day, but it didn’t seem like it was shaping up to be the big day.

I didn't bike at all on Saturday, in part because I enjoyed hanging out with my friends. We kept busy doing plenty of things and I never wanted to bail out and bicycle. They expect I’ll go biking every day I’m there, but sometimes you need to take a day off. Sunday’s promising forecast also encouraged me to take Saturday off. It was near 90 degrees on Saturday, but the forecast high for Sunday was about 80. I liked the sound of that.

On Sunday morning I departed just after 9 a.m. The morning low temperature was about 60 F, so it was a bit cool as I departed, but I was thankful. Although I wasn’t excited about 10 to 15 mph winds, I was pretty sure it was going to be my big day.

The wind wasn't working against me as I headed northwest. While I probably didn’t drink enough, the lack of heat helped me conserve my water supply, which made it easier to travel further up the trail before my first break. Unfortunately I had to stop around mile 17 for a restroom break, but when nature calls, you answer. After a quick stop, I was back on the road.

Since most of my rides are to mile 25 I was faced with that brief moment of doubt as I reached it. But I knew I was doing more than 50 miles, so there was never much doubt about what to do next.

The next 20 miles were forgettable. Mile 25 is at a town called Brandon. About five miles up the road is Evansville, another in the series of small, unspectacular rail towns of yesteryear. This town is notable only because Doug’s wife grew up in that area, and somewhere near there I attended their wedding in 1994.

Beyond Evansville is Ashby, an equally unspectacular locale. Several miles past Ashby is the final small town on the trail, Dalton.

While Dalton is as pitiful as the rest of the towns I passed through from Alexandria, it was 45 miles up the trail and the last shot at commerce before the end of the trail. It was time for a rest stop.

While the bike ride may sound as if it is quite dull, the Great Lakes Trail does offer a fair amount of scenery. It passes a variety of lakes and ponds all along the trail. The trail out of Osakis cuts through farm country, but by the time you get to Alexandria, you pass by several lakes of small and modest size on the outskirts of town. It’s a nice stretch of trail. Several other lakes and ponds line the trail from Alexandria to the end of the line, but there are a few stretches that consist of nothing more than several miles of farm land and adjacent county roads.

This trail is one of the widest I have ever seen. It doubles as a snowmobile trail in the winter. I have no idea if that’s why it is so wide, but it must be 10 feet across. And almost all of it is in great condition because it’s relatively new.

Despite the wide trail, and not that many people using it, I occasionally have to announce I’m coming up behind people, because they deem it necessary to bicycle side by side or skate in the middle of the trail. It annoys me greatly to have to tell people I’m passing them because they’re morons. I will sometimes announce my presence for families, because kids are unpredictable, and I don’t mind doing that, but people who can’t be happy with five feet on one side of the trail really annoy me.

After my rest stop in Dalton I headed for the final 11 miles of the trail. The trail ends unceremoniously at the city limits of Fergus Falls. While there’s nothing but a parking lot at the end of the trail, those final miles pass several bodies of water and some great tree-lined areas. It only crosses a road a couple of times, which is an added plus.

This trail doesn’t cross many major roads, but it crosses many rural roads and driveways, which most of the time aren’t a nuisance, although limited visibility forces me to slow down for several of them prior to crossing. I will stop if I have to, but if I can blow through an intersection, I will. (I never assume cars will yield to me.)

One of the benefits, or drawbacks, of this trail is that there is a mile marker at every mile. It helps you know how far you are to the next major destination, if you know where they’re at, but sometimes these markers are frustrating. The numbering starts at 130 in Osakis and goes up from there. In some cases the old railroad mile markers are still standing, but even if they are, a Great Lakes Trail mile marker is there, too. So even if you want to ignore the mile markers, it’s hard to.

Somebody put a miniature flag on the sign for mile 176. I appreciated that. I’m not sure why, but I did.

As I was approaching the end of the trail I noticed a sign I hadn’t seen last year, assuming it was there. There are plenty of signs off to the side of the trail, many noting the adjacent area is private property. I presume they are there to remind snowmobilers where they aren’t allowed. (There are designated snowmobile trails that stray from the paved trail.) But in the final miles of the trail I spied a modest white sign with black letters and a tiny logo in the corner. “Continental Divide.” That’s all it said. It gave no details about the area whatsoever. The sign simply faced the trail unceremoniously. I found that odd.

When I reached the mile 184 marker I could see the end of the trail. The trail ends on the other side of a highway, through an old railroad tunnel. On the other side is a gravel parking lot on the outskirts of Fergus Falls. From the mile 184 marker I could see cars passing over the tunnel, even though it appeared to be nearly a mile away. I biked through the tunnel, did a slow turn at the end of the pavement and started heading back. Last year I stopped there to celebrate the benchmark, but this year I had managed 45 miles before a break so I didn’t need another one 11 miles later. I immediately headed back to Osakis.

As I passed the mile 184 marker on the way back I reminded myself that it would be a long time before I saw mile marker 134, and when I did, I’d still be a few miles out of town. It took me less than four hours to reach the end of the trail, but there I was doing it all over again. And this time with a little more wind working against me.

Between Fergus Falls and Dalton I noticed a couple of things I had never noticed before. The old rail bed is sometimes at the same level as my surroundings, but other times it is elevated above them, either by happenstance or by design. I noticed a couple of creeks running down below the trail, creeks I hadn’t noticed last year. One of them I noticed because a family had stopped there and wandered down to the banks of it. They’re not substantial creeks, but seeing them reminded me that I tend to miss some of the scenery when I bicycle. I see plenty, but I don’t stop to enjoy it, typically, and when I’m focused on the road and maintaining my speed, I miss things.

I was, however, looking for a stone arch bridge that I read about. I think it is near Fergus Falls. I read a guy’s online review of the trail a couple of years ago, and he noted an old, stone arch bridge somewhere along the trail. It can’t be significant, as I failed to find it, but perhaps next year I’ll research where it is and actually stop and wander off the trail to see it.

As I reached Dalton I started pondering where my next rest stop would be. I knew where I wanted it to be, Brandon, but I wasn’t sure if my energy or water supply would last long enough to go another 20 miles. Fortunately it was still cloudy and cool. It didn’t rain on Sunday, but there were times I thought I’d pass through a stray shower. Thankfully that was never the case.

The trail passes alongside the Thresherman’s Association grounds in Dalton, which a sign tells me is the site of a big weekend exhibition annually on the weekend after Labor Day. It seems like a cute nod to the farmers of yesteryear, but I’m not planning my calendar around it, even if there’s some mini railroad track inside the grounds.

A few miles from Dalton there's a curious gravesite along the trail. The grass along the trail is mowed in this area, and there's a small marker there. It appeared to be a wooden cross with one name and 1927 written on it. I assume somebody died there in an incident related to the railroad and was buried right there. There's no marker or anything to explain why there's seemingly a gravesite there. But the cross remains and the small area is mowed. I'm sure somebody around Dalton knows the story. Perhaps I'll ask next year.

With limited scenery and a bit of fatigue, the 20 miles from Dalton to Brandon were challenging. Occasional bursts of wind didn’t help. I pondered the challenge of building the railroad decades ago. There weren’t bulldozers to push soil where it was needed to keep the track elevated and level through the countryside, and it probably took a lot of work just to get the materials and equipment to where they were needed. What a brutal job that must have been, and here I am, enjoying a paved bike trail thanks to the labor of many men before me, doing a job I’m sure I couldn’t have done.

Watching the miles slowly tick off as I pushed toward Brandon was tough, but despite it all, I made it. I remember the mile 164 sign and realizing I had another 10 miles to go. Ten miles seems like a picnic at the start of a day, but not after biking 77 miles, even if they’re relatively easy miles.

As I passed through Evansville there was a time and temperature display outside a bank. At 2:30 p.m. it was 70 F (and still cloudy.) Nice!

As I approached Brandon I saw a tall grain silo from at least a mile away. The silo is along the trail and across the road from the convenience store. It was further away than I thought when I first spied it, but it warmed my heart nonetheless. As I reached my destination I passed the mile 154 sign.

At Brandon I treated myself to a few different snacks. The same dude who was working Friday evening was there on Sunday, and he recognized me. He asked how much I biked each day and I explained my normal Osakis ride is 50 miles, but I was doing the full trail to Fergus Falls, and back. I don’t think he knew it was 55 miles from end to end. He seemed impressed by the fact I had 25 miles to go to get to Osakis. I’m not sure if he was clear I had biked 87 miles by that point.

It was just after 3 p.m. when I departed for the final leg of the trip. I pulled into the cabin sometime shortly after 4:30 p.m. Thanks to my limited rest breaks I managed to finish the trek in about 7 hours 30 minutes. (My riding time was 6 hours 45 minutes.)

It was finally sunny, but still not hot. My average for the trip was 16.5 mph, less than last year’s 17.1, but wind was less of a factor last year. I was still quite happy with the end result.

The end result goes into the log as 112 miles. Last year the same ride measured about 113.5 miles. Let’s assume this year’s total is accurate and not shortchanging me on my distance. If I lose about 1.5 miles for every 110 to 115 miles I biked last year, then I didn’t bike 2,120 miles last year. Perhaps I fell a few miles short of 2,100.

Considering these totals are close to accurate and I’m not in any sort of competition, I can live with the inexact total I get year to year. Even if each year’s total is off 20 miles one way or another, it’s not enough to skew annual comparisons. I can still compare overall success from year to year.

2004: 1,265 miles
2005: 1,582 miles
2006: 2,120 miles
2007: 1,416 miles and counting

But even though I have done the same ride the past two years, my total goes into the books this year as 112, which arguably makes Sunday the second-longest ride of my career. I can live with that. If I couldn’t I definitely would have biked a mile past the cabin before calling it a day.

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