To begin, and just to clarify that bit above there...Michael indeed rode alone, in the dark, rainy, wolf infested woods on what wasn't even really a road, for hours on end, in the wrong and then eventually the right direction, and he finished this entire endeavor like a champion. This is the essence of the Search Brigade.
Hearing the slow rise of your alarm at 3am is never a welcome sound. No matter how jacked you are for whatever is getting you up at that ungodly hour, it's tough. This morning, I can say I'd be alright pulling the covers back around me rather than opening the front door of the Hungry Hippie Hostel, perched high on the hills overlooking Lake Superior just north of Grand Marais to check on the weather. My phone forecast couldn't be right, it'd deteriorated every time I'd checked it. 35 degrees with a 20, 30, 40, 75, nope, 90% chance of rain. Temps dropping to 27 degrees and that rain turning to snow around 7:30am. Stacked on top of that, the big cherry, 30mph sustained winds. If you're at home and considering a morning spin and you see those conditions, maybe you hop on the trainer, or most likely you fall back asleep for the foreseeable future. When you've enticed 10 other riders to join you on a backwoods expedition no matter what the circumstances, you shake your head and laugh when you open the front door of the cabin and everything is blowing around in the dark and the rain starts hitting you in the face.
As I shut the door and proceed to aimlessly wander the first floor of the cabin for ten minutes, the others begin to open the doors of their rooms, crawling out of bed in much the same fashion as I did, red eyed and groggy from a only a few hours of sleep. We dress in silence and as we each eat something, fiddle with our kit, or do some finishing touches to our light-duty high-mileage bike setups, we begin slowly to chat. Everyone knows by that point what was outside that front door. But each of us continue to poke along our pre-ride routine, crack a few jokes here and there, eat a few bowls of oatmeal, pump up our tires, anything to keep our minds on the mundane routine, rather than the beast mother nature had bestowed upon us.
Soon enough we are leaving the hostel and one by one we congregate in the gravel drive in front of the cabin. Already shivering, we clip in and roll down the driveway without any fanfare and on into the darkness, beginning a long and steady climb which would be the first minutes of our route into the deep of the forest.
The initial miles ticked off without much in the way of notable experience. It is as dark as it could ever be, beyond pitch black, it feels as if those rain clouds that are spitting down on us are hanging inches above our heads. It's cold, but everyone is geared up for it. More miles click by, we make the turns off of our cue sheets in the dark, the beauty of the fire roads snaking their way through the north woods lost except for the white hot strip of light that extends about 200 feet in front of our pack of riders. The road is packed gravel, wet and soft after a night of rainfall, but the pace is quick as we hit out first major turn and head up the Gunflint Trail after 14 miles of gravel and 1000 feet of climbing in the night.
With everyone re-grouped on the roadside, we stopped to eat a bit, pee into the ditch, get some water, and begin what turned out to be one of the most miserable 3 miles of riding I've ever experienced, which, on paper, should have been the easiest. Without tree cover, we were a mess of cold, icy road spray, frigid fingers and toes, and had nothing but wind in our face as we climbed further north and west away from the lakeshore. We packed in and paced our way up the rolling pavement, finally reaching our turnoff onto Firebox Rd, which signaled the beginning of our foray deeper into the woods and further off the beaten track, with hours to go until the sun finally reaches above the fingers of the pines.
At this point, we did indeed believe Michael had turned back for camp when we lost him turning off the Gunflint onto Firebox. At that point, the woods were a welcome respite from the elements, and we had our first of many flats strike about 1/2 mile after the road transitioned from gravel to a collection of mud, standing water, and rocks of various shapes and sizes. At that point one of our ride leaders Devin and I turned back and rode to the turnoff to wait for Michael, but he'd already blown past us, riding another 15 miles up the Gunflint before turning back east to the turnoff he'd missed. We decided to keep moving, it was freezing standing around in the rain and wind, and we needed to keep pushing forward if we were ever going to make it to the finish at mile 170.
After fixing our flat (some of us passed the time by laying under a pine tree off the side of the track) we rolled onward into the dark. Climbing and descending, ripping through rock gardens and rolling through overflowing streams as deep as our bottom brackets with our vision only extending as far as our headlights was a strange, alien experience. Each descent led to nowhere, and you had to adjust your track at the last minute as speed carried you faster and faster into the unknown dirt track ahead of you. Sometimes with only a split second to react to avoid a big rock, stump, or a stream that you just had to sit back and hope you'd clear cleanly before climbing again up to another plateau, only to descend again and again, over and over, for what felt like endless hours, our minds focused on all of these micro-moments of bike handling, forgetting that somewhere out there was a sun waiting to rise and shed light on our crew.
A few more flats later, with the rain long since having turned to snow, the sun came up to reveal a grey day. The flat sky meeting the pine forest on the horizon and our crew slowly fracturing into two separate groups. A break in pace had established and we pushed on in two camps, both making their way slowly over the hills and topping out at the overlook on the Pigeon River where we stopped for the 2nd time that morning to survey our morale, have a bite to eat, shoot some photos, and regroup quickly as our extremities quickly chilled necessitating a brief break before we resumed pedaling. At this point we were through climbing for a while, and the descents came fast and fun as we barreled toward the now defunct border crossing on Old Hwy 61. The broken pavement is now more gravel, grass, ferns, and saplings than road, and as we approached the old crossing we noticed the border cameras hanging from trees along the river valley, and up the access road back to the main highway, which would be our last little taste of the backwoods before we broke back out into civilization and onto the road to the new border crossing up past Grand Portage.
The road here snaked up along the side of the rocky outcropping of the mountain, resembling more Colorado than it did Minnesota. Once at the summit, we climbed up and over one of our only true climbs in the state at Mt. Josephine and flew down the back side of the hill to the border gas station. I've spent my fair share of time drying off and re-fueling in gas stations while out on the road touring, and let me tell you, there are few feelings finer than a microwave burrito, a bag of chips, a coke, and a warm place to dry off and get yourself back in the game than a gas station floor. The elements can be pretty demoralizing, and this case was no different than any. We were battered, cold, soggy, and jaded. We knew that it took 3 hours more than we had anticipated to get out of the woods, this put us way behind schedule, and we now had no shot making it back before dark if we continued on into Canada and up the road we knew would be even more rugged and remote. We were out of tubes, our headlamps didn't hold enough charge to make it 3 more hours after dark, and if we waited for everything to dry out, it'd be even more after sunset riding. We waited for our second group to arrive, and together made the decision to cross the border (because why not!) and then turn south for our warm beds, warm food, and cold beer in Grand Marais. We'd still be completing around 110 miles of our route, but we'd make it back before dark and overall, what we wanted to experience we had. We'd braved the elements, the inevitably crazy road (and off-road) conditions up in the North Woods, we got through it relatively unscathed, and we found out just what it takes for mother nature to win. and did she ever win.
We raced home at our own speeds and got back to our cabin before dark. Just as we started cracking open the beers and throwing sausages on the grill, Michael rolled up the hill from the lakeshore and pulled into the hostel. He had made it, solo, through the woods and back. We all embraced, smiled, laughed, and got good and drunk late into the night as the winds died down, the clouds blew away, and the stars came out on a balmy, warm, fall night on the north shore.
Photography courtesy of Christopher Berg and Search and State