My 100-Mile Birthday Bike Tour

My birthday is really close to the 4th of July and we often go on vacation that week. This year our vacation plans changed with our big trip coming later in the summer, which meant that I suddenly had no plans for my birthday and opening up the prospect that I would just go to work as if it were a normal weekday.

As if—nope, I was having none of that. Instead I schemed up a plan to ride my bike about 70 miles to the Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park and meet up with Sara to camp for a night.

After packing up the night before, I decided to leave the house nice and early at 7:00 am. It was slightly cool and foggy, which meant layering up with tall wool socks and with a high-vis yellow jacket. Since I bike 16 miles to work from time to time, the first stretch felt like a normal work day, except that I turned to ride south where I normally go north, and then turned west where I normally angle a little to the east. It was pretty mellow riding and there wasn’t a lot to see, or at least a lot to describe, since the area is mostly forest with scattered hayfields. I did see a bald eagle perched on top of a round hay bale, probably on a stakeout for mice. Majestic it was not, which is the case about half of the time I see bald eagles, usually eating roadkill in a ditch as I drive by.

Typical western UP scenery.
Typical western UP scenery.

As I rode, I thought about the distances and how far I wanted to go before I took my first break. Thirty or so miles seemed like it would be a good amount. It would be nice to go a good number of miles while fresh, and if I could make it to mile 35 for my first break, I’d already be half done for the day. I was getting tired by mile 25 but had an idea in mind for a few places to stop up ahead. At mile 33, I was hungry and wanted to stop, but one of these locations—a gravel parking lot at a highway junction— didn’t seem like an inviting place to plop down with my bike. So I decided to continue onward, working my way up a big hill and hoping that I’d find a better spot once I got there.

I didn’t find a better spot, and my energy was boosted by a sign saying that Ontonagon was only 14 miles away. I had estimated it at closer to 20, and wasn’t sure whose numbers I believed more. I decided to keep going until I found a great spot or just flat out needed  a break, hoping that the clay plain topography would be a little easier. It was, and I rolled into downtown Ontonagon at 10:30. Fifty miles done.

Instead of breaking quite then, I peddled about a mile north to the Ontonagon Township Park and rented a campsite. My timing wasn’t great, as people were checking out of their sites and the staff wouldn’t know what new sites were open for a few more hours. The manager pointed out a few potential sites, and I biked a few laps around the campground to figure out which I liked best. All the sites along Lake Superior were taken, but I found a spot on the backside of the campground nestled into a grove of hemlocks. I finally had a snack, munching on a Larabar as I set up my hammock and stowed away some of my gear. I biked the mile back to Ontonagon to find a place to sit and eat, both of which I needed.

Then I was off to the Porkies. The road to the Porkies parallels Lake Superior, and it is a new, smooth road with a nice wide shoulder. There was more to look at along this stretch of road. A thin strip of woods separates the road from Lake Superior, but there were plenty of cute lakeside cabins and an occasional tourist trap to provide some distraction from my increasing… bike seat discomfort. There are also several streams along this stretch of highway, and a view of the lake from the bridge crossing each one. It was bizarre to see a calm Lake Superior; more than once I found myself bracing for the typical cold breeze that blows inland, only to see perfectly flat water.

Once I got into the actual park, I swung in to the visitors’ center for a short break and to pick up a few maps. Then it was back on the road for the final stretch—eight miles to the Lake of the Clouds overlook. I actually couldn’t remember how hilly it was in the park, and hadn’t considered the implications of a big climb at the end of the day until I’d gotten to Ontonagon (oops). I hoped that it wasn’t going to be too bad.

At the Lake of the Clouds overlook.
At the Lake of the Clouds overlook.

Not too far into the park, Sara honked as her car passed me. I felt a little bad that she was going to be waiting for me for a while, as I was definitely peddling pretty slowly. It wasn’t too bad, though. At the end of one hard climb, a man was getting out of a car that had passed me as I pushed up the hill. He said something like, “That’s a big hill to bike.” As I went by, I said, “Yeah, and I’m terrified of what’s up ahead!” A mile or so later, I found out. There is one big climb at the end, made of two steep parts with a little slightly-less-steep section between them. I had to dig hard to make it up this last part, and I don’t think it could have done it if there had been even an additional foot of elevation change.

Sara and I met at overlook and took in the view. I stretched a little, took pictures, at a snack. She gave me an awesome pair of sunglasses for my birthday; they were the kind that I used to get out of cereal boxes as a kid, and she’d gotten them for free. We decided to do a little hike, going a lttle way down the Little Carp River Trail. We found, and ate, ripe blueberries along the trail, and decided to turn back when the wind kicked up a bit as if a storm might be coming in.

Sara and I met at overlook and took in the view. I stretched a little, took pictures, at a snack. She gave me an awesome pair of sunglasses for my birthday; they were the kind that I used to get out of cereal boxes as a kid, and she’d gotten them for free. We decided to do a little hike, going a lttle way down the Little Carp River Trail. We found, and ate, ripe blueberries along the trail, and decided to turn back when the wind kicked up a bit as if a storm might be coming in.

At the campground, we set up my hammock and her tent at our campsite in the woods. Sara built a fire, and we cooked vegetables in a cast iron pan over the coals, eating snacks and drinking wine as we waited. We struck up a conversation with the evening campground worker when he brought over some wood that he’d cut from a dead tree (well, dying, a brown leaf was still attached to one piece, signaling that it wasn’t ready to burn) on the neighboring campsite. A short while later, we walked over to check out the beach and ran into him again. As he was describing the beach, he said that there were two really nice tent campsites along the water that we available; if we liked them, we could switch. We checked them out and they were amazing. Even better, when we switched sites, I got $6 back because the new site didn’t have electricity and so it cost less!

Our campsite along Lake Superior.
Our campsite along Lake Superior.

So we moved our site, and spend the rest of the evening wading in Lake Superior (still cold, of course!), drinking wine, and watching the parts of the sunset that weren’t obscured by clouds. The bugs started to come out at dusk, and when I went to my hammock, I found they were unbearable. I was wearing a headnet, but the buzzing was incessent in the small part of my face that was exposed to open air. Plus, I was terrified that the net would fall too close to my face, allowing mosquitoes to bite me through the thing that was supposed to keep them away. And I did get one or two bites through my long-sleeved shirt where I wasn’t completely mummified in my sleeping bag (and it was too warm for that). So I gave up and moved into the tent with Sara, where I slept amazingly on account of: (1) the humungous bike ride, (2) a sufficiently large amount of wine, and (3) a heavenly 1-3/4″ Thermarest that provided the softest camping sleep surface that I’ve ever experienced.

After breaking up our campsite in the morning, we got breakfast at a cafe in Ontonagon where I ate both the fluffiest hasbrowns and weakest coffee that I’ve ever had. I got a donut to go, cramming it into my panniers along with all my other gear. I rode with Sara in her car for a half hour or so, until we hit an intersection where we were were heading different directions. She turned her car south for work, and I rode the remaining 30 miles home on my bike. It was a perfect overcast morning—a little cool, but not so much that I needed extra layers to keep warm. Although I’d been worried that I’d feel rough on the return, I felt good and made it back in a little under 2 hours. Then it was time for a shower, some real coffee, and my donut. It was a good birthday.

(Total miles = 103.0)

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