After a weekend of family gathering and fun times, it was time to put rubber to road and set off. Up until this point of the journey, I can say that I was in my comfort zone, with warm beds to sleep in, a garage for the bike, and being surrounded by people I knew all contributed to peace of mind. I had planned it this way so that I would warm up to the hard asphalt of the road, the isolation of riding alone and eating alone. Departing Marion at 7am, I said goodbye to the family and Morgan but I also said goodbye to the blanket of comfort and familiarity. It dawned on me that for the next 10 days, I wouldn’t know anyone and nobody would know me, I would just be another person on a motorcycle and frankly, the thought terrified me. It made me realize how small we are as individuals, how many people there are in this world, and cliche as that sounds, the trip reconfirmed it time and time again.
The jaunt for today would take me almost exactly due north, picking up I-35 and heading to Duluth, MN. The GPS told me it would be just under 400 miles and would take almost 6 hours. The trip would take 6 hours, that is if I drove at 100 mph. This is because it assumes I would make the journey non-stop and doesn’t factor in breaks and fuel stops, so in general I had learned to add about 2 hours to whatever driving time the GPS decided, making the total about 8 hours on the road. Although sometimes it may be more than 2 hours, depending on how many miles I needed to cover and any potential roadside attractions that might catch my attention.
I made good time making my way from Marion to Minneapolis, stopping briefly at a rest area on the Iowa/Minnesota border. I scheduled myself for a lunch break at Surly Brewery, an iconic landmark of a building in the up and coming micro-brewery scene in Minneapolis, situated near the University of Minnesota. I’ve been here before, and gone on the brewery tour, so I was here for the simple task of lunch and a beer. It was around 2pm when I arrived, pulled into the designated motorcycle parking spots right up front, and strolled in to take a seat at the bar with plenty of room in the large, open beer hall. I ordered an Overrated(!) west coast IPA and a chopped brisket sandwich to fill me up, with plenty of water to chase it all down. After polishing it off and paying the tab, I hopped back on the motorcycle for the straight shot up north on I-35, to make my first camp at Jay Cooke State Park, just south of Duluth. The flatness of southern Minnesota began to give way to rocky and jagged bluffs and the air smells of pine and dew as I continued north, it’s the kind smell that takes me back to being young and camping with my parents. It’s amazing what a 3 hour drive can do in the way of scenery, and it began to look more like the woodlands of Pennsylvania, making me slightly homesick.
I pulled into Jay Cooke around 6pm, and quickly checked in and drove over to the site #W81, a walk in-site situated in a somewhat secluded patch of the camp, a 100 yard walk from the parking lot to the site itself. The other nice thing about having all of my soft packables in the large REI duffle was that I could carry the duffle from the bike all in one go, made easier by the two somewhat comfortable straps along the top of the bag. It was then that I set up a tradition for every time I made camp for the rest of the trip, boiling water and making a cup of coffee with individually wrapped instant coffee packets. I’m not a coffee junkie and most of the time I drink coffee not to keep me going or perk me up, but as a way to give myself a sense of place. It doesn’t have to be good coffee, it just has to be hot and in a mug, an easy request even in a place as primitive as a campsite. It was still light out and my camp was set, and since I had eaten a late lunch I wasn’t really in the mood for dinner. So I decided to take a stroll through the campground to take a look around, go to the bathroom, and get my bearings; I also really wanted a sticker for the panniers. On my way to the camp store, a truck drove by carrying firewood with a MN state park logo on the passenger door, giving me the idea that I could get my firewood delivered. This led to the second tradition of getting into a campsite, getting firewood for a fire. After buying some wood, bug spray, and a sticker, I was told that the night watchman would deliver my wood as soon as possible giving me more time to look around. I was quickly greeted with this:
I didn’t realize that Jay Cooke State Park was famous for the river that runs through its middle, the St. Louis River, fed by lake superior. It was very impressive for sure, and i’m itching to go back and hike around more in the future. After snapping some pictures, I made my way back to camp and found that my wood had been delivered, great service! I went about getting the fire going just before the sun was to say its final farewell for the day. I ditched the formalities of starting a fire from kindling, coddling it to life from infancy as was my custom and instead opted for the brute force method of a splash of gasoline and a match. This was supposed to be a trip of manly proportions, of metal, oil, and asphalt, with no time for tenderness. The fire roared to life and I took a seat in my chair, sitting back, listening to the sporadic yelps of kids, tiny animals jumping through the trees, and the crackle of the fire – Music to my ears. I stayed up reading for a bit before retiring to my tent, putting a few hours of solid sleep in before having to pack it up and do it all over again. At least that’s what I thought. It turns out the tent I had brought along had seen some better days and at some point during the night, I awoke to the sound of dripping rain coming through the tent walls. With no signs that the rain would let up any time soon, I threw my tarp over the tent, stopping the leaking, and went back to sleep. It stopped raining around 5am, and I emerged from my tent at around 7am. I packed up, took a quick shower, and after punching in the address for a walmart to buy another tarp, I hit the road with clear skies and sun.
Clearing Duluth, I would follow route 61, which parallels lake Superior all the way to the Canadian border, cross over into Ontario and make camp at Neys Provincial Park. The route would again be just under 400 miles and take 7 hours according to the GPS, which meant a considerable amount of time in the saddle if you included breaks. One hiccup in the plan was that crossing into Canada also meant crossing back into the eastern time zone and immediately losing an hour in the process. This meant that I would have to make better time in order to get to the camp at a reasonable hour. Luckily, the miles passed by relatively quickly, with stunning views of Lake Superior, occasionally broken up by small towns, with a large part of the trip traversing Superior
National Forest, another future point of interest for the next time I make my way back to this part of the country. Before crossing the border, I stopped at Grand Portage state park a mere stones throw away from Canada to eat lunch and make sure my passport was easily accessible. The park was actually very nice and would make a good turning around point if you didn’t want to cross over. Preparing to cross the border smoothly has everything to do with knowing exactly what to and not to say to the border officers. To be fair, this was only crossing into Canada, and I didn’t really expect any hiccups but you can never be to careful. Knowing where I was going and when as well as being able to articulate that upon request made for no more than a minute of questioning at the border before the gate swung up and I was permitted entry into the land of maple syrup and, eh? I stopped at the information kiosk just 100 yards from the checkpoint to grab a paper map, just in case. The majority of the journey would be along the trans-Canadian highway (TCH), a massive highway that stretches the entire length of Canada (with a total length of just under 5000 miles). I would pick up the TCH just north of thunder bay, located right on lake superior, just 40 miles north of the border.
After skirting thunder bay city center, I made a quick stop at the Terry Fox Monument just to stretch my legs and take a look around. For those who are unaware, Terry Fox was a long distance runner who embarked on a courageous run across the entirety of Canada, going from Newfoundland in the east with the goal of reaching the Pacific Ocean in the west. His “Marathon of Hope” was, at the face of it, a way to raise money for cancer research, however it became one of the most inspiring stories of courage, endurance, and hope. Terry had previously been diagnosed with cancer in his right leg, having had it amputated before training for his cross-Canada journey. He ran an incredible 3,339 miles, stopping roughly around where this memorial lookout was after he was unable to continue due to the tumor metastasizing to his lung. The memorial area was very simple, with the entire overlook centered around the bronze statue of Terry. There was an air of respect and reverence, the breeze of Lake Superior coming in, with beautiful, 180 degree panoramic views. It made me remember why I was doing this trip and why it is so important to live life for all it’s worth while you’re able to, and to make sure we get everything we want out of it.
As clouds began to roll in, I was once again skirting around another storm that looked to be packing a big punch. The GPS has weather radar tracking, alerts, and predicted weather outlook for your route, and all signs pointed to rain (this is all enabled by a phone data connection, so make sure your cellular plan works). Making my way on the TCH, it was a race to outrun the storm and I ultimately did, as I started to head more south east, away from the front, I only got rained on a bit, waiting out a lot of it at a very remote gas station. One thing I learned about Canada was how to pay for gas in cash. Having grown up in the age of plastic, I did not know how to get gas and pay in cash. Well, I knew how, I had just never done it before – p.s. it’s not hard, it just takes longer.
I arrived at Neys Provincial Park around 5:30pm, checked in and made my way to the campsite. For this trip, I reserved camp sites ahead of time for every night that I planned to camp. Because of the remoteness of many of the places I was going, I didn’t want to risk showing up to a campground with no vacancies and no other option for a place to sleep, especially if it was dark. The downside was that you generally couldn’t get a refund if you cancel your reservation and this meant there was almost no wiggle room in my schedule; everything worked out in the end, but it might be something I reconsider when planning for the future. Regardless, this campground was humongous, with almost 150 sites available. They have ones right on the lake, however I had chosen a site farther back in a more remote area. And I have to tell you, it was probably the most remote site in the entire camp, with no one around me for at least half a mile in any direction – it just worked out that way, there were sites near mine, they were just vacant. It made for a quiet site but also a rather lonely site, not something I really wanted being so far from home. But, I performed my ritual of making coffee and setting up camp, getting firewood, taking a shower, and making dinner, keeping myself busy to put those thoughts to bed. Because the site I was in was so remote, I had to drive the motorcycle to everything, including the showers. Getting the firewood to the campsite was on me this time but luckily, without all my gear on the bike, I could easily strap it down and transport it safely. With the fire roaring, I sat in my chair and enjoyed reading my book, which at the time was Dune by Frank Herbert and sat and listened to silence, only punctuated by freight trains that seemed to run directly behind my site, though I could never actually see them, hmmm. Falling asleep with earplugs in, I thought about how tomorrow I would finally have rounded Lake Superior, making me excited to get going the next morning.