By Stan Purdum
One’s choice of a cycling companion can change the whole complexion of a bicycle trip. This proved true when, several years ago, I rode a bike tour of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula with my son Scott. By myself, I tend to be an introverted soul, and though I have no trouble speaking up for myself when necessary, I don’t have the same gift for conversing with strangers that Scott has. I found our trip together not only to be a fascinating time to see him in action, but also one on which I enjoyed at least one experience I’d have probably not undertaken if he hadn’t been along.
I’d originally planned the trip to be a solo journey of eight-days and had mapped out an ambitious route. The decision to go alone wasn’t because of any preference for my own company; I’d invited a couple of previous riding partners to join me, but schedule problems prevented both from accepting. One person I’d not even considered, however, was Scott. Of my three children, Scott’s interests seemed the least like mine. He had ridden across Ohio with me when he was 10 but had shown little interest in long bike treks since. As a teenager, his interests turned to sporty cars and later to motorcycles, of which he’d eventually owned three. He was now 24, and we got along fine, but bicycle touring was not common ground for us.
I assumed that remained the case even when, earlier this year, Scott purchased a new bicycle. It was a mountain bike, not one set up for touring, and he was soon tackling off-road trails with enthusiasm. I even pedaled a trail with him one afternoon, using a borrowed mountain bike. But off-road cycling is not road cycling, and when thinking about the Upper Peninsula trip, it never crossed my mind that Scott might join me.
Scott, however, raised the idea himself when he learned of my plans. He’d like to go, he said, if I would consider scaling back the number of days to four to match the time he had off from his restaurant management job. When I agreed, Scott outfitted his mountain bike with road tires, added a rack for panniers, and we were set.
Thus, we drove to St. Ignace, the first town in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, situated immediately at the north end of the great Mackinac Bridge. By prior arrangement, we left the car in a church lot. Then, after eating supper in a nearby restaurant, we mounted up and pedaled west on U.S 2, making about 20 miles in the remaining daylight before stopping to camp in a state park on the shore of Lake Michigan.
The next day we continued west on Route 2 and were treated to one scenic view after another of the lake. Although U.S. 2 is a main thoroughfare in that part of the state, it’s good for cycling — the traffic was never heavy. In several places, the road had been recently expanded to four lanes, but when that was the case, there was a paved shoulder a full lane wide. And even on the two-lane sections, there was enough paved shoulder to accommodate us riding single file.
We stopped for lunch in a café in Naubinway where Scott, drawing from his experience supervising others in food service, sympathized with the café owner about her problems getting reliable help. She and her husband were soon supplying us with suggestions for where to ride next. Following some of their recommendation, we proceeded a little further on and then swung north on highway 117, on which we pedaled to Newberry about halfway across the peninsula. We landed in a KOA campground for the night. There, I at least, went to sleep. Scott struck up a conversation with a woman who worked in the campground office, and in short order had an invitation to join her for an evening on the town. They left in her car. Sometime during the night, Scott returned to his tent, and to his credit he got up at our agreed upon hour to begin the next day’s jaunt.
We headed northeast out of Newberry, riding Route 123, a quiet two-lane that runs through Superior State Forest. The area has a north-woods look, with dark evergreens, white birches, desolate swamps and marshes and dense undergrowth. By lunchtime, we reached Tahquamenon Falls State Park. The upper falls look like a smaller Niagara, and are, in fact, the next largest falls after Niagara east of the Mississippi. After admiring the falls from several vantage points, we lunched in the park’s brewery restaurant. We ate at the bar, where Scott kept up a running dialogue with the bartender, who filled us in on how much she liked working in the park.
After lunch, we cycled to the lower falls. There are three of these because the Tahquamenon River splits around some midstream islands, and they are much smaller than the upper falls. The day was sunny and warm, and, seeing some people in bathing suits coming up from the falls, Scott said, “Let’s go swimming.” I however, had noticed the sign that said swimming was prohibited and pointed it out. “Yeah, but it doesn’t look like anybody’s paying attention to it,” Scott said. So we donned our swimsuits and walked to the falls. Sure enough, there were about 40 people in the water, some sitting under the falls. The current below the falls looked swift, but the water was shallow. Following Scott’s lead, I climbed over the railing of the viewing deck and entered the water. (We later learned that though the no-swimming signs are posted, the park does not enforce the ban.) After an hour of refreshing repose in the cool waters, we changed back into our bike clothes and resumed our ride.
Continuing on the quiet road, we rounded a corner in time to see an adult black bear and a cub crossing the road. We stopped immediately hoping to see more, but a car roaring up behind us caused the bears to move into the woods. After the car passed, we stood there straddling our bikes a moment longer. All at once, another cub loped out of the forest, crossed the road, and headed into the trees on the other side, apparently in pursuit of the first two.
Early afternoon brought us to the town of Paradise on Whitefish Bay of Lake Superior. To be frank, Heartbreak might have been a better name for the rundown little community, but Scott noticed a chainsaw artist working at an outdoor studio and began talking with him. The man’s art consisted of various wild animals and other images cut out of whole logs using only chainsaws of varied sizes, and his work was impressive. Within minutes, Scott had the man describing the types of wood he preferred working with and explaining his technique. The man also told us a little about what the town had to offer, which was not much, but he did refer us to his favorite café. It was too early to eat, however, so we ordered takeout at a deli, and turned south, following 123 along the edge of the bay.
We stopped for the night at a state campground called Rivermouth. As the name suggests, this camp sits at the mouth of a river, one that empties into Lake Superior. It also has the best facilities — including modern hot showers — of any state campground I’ve seen. We set up our tents, ate our takeout, and then crossed the road to wade in Whitefish Bay. Because the water was warm and shallow, and the bottom was sandy, we were able to walk several hundred yards out into the bay without the water getting even waist high.
We woke in the morning to a light rain but packed up and set out. The rain stayed with us all the way to our lunch stop in tiny Eckerman (which made Paradise look like Paradise). Scott had awakened that morning not feeling well, but he had pedaled determinedly through the morning. Sitting now in the restaurant, I could see that he felt no better. I said that although we were still 40 miles from the car, maybe we should think of some alternative arrangements. (I was thinking of leaving him at the restaurant while I pedaled on to the car and then driving back to get him.)
Scott, however, had begun a conversation with the woman waiting on us, who, it turned out, was also the owner of the restaurant. I’m not sure exactly how all this came about, but soon she was offering to drive us and our bikes to our car, which she did, refusing the money I offered her.
Once back in the car and heading home, Scott gradually recovered. He expressed regret at not quite finishing the ride, but we’d had a fine time together, and since coming home, Scott has been showing our photos of the trip to all his friends.
Stan Purdum has ridden several long-distance bike trips, including an across-America ride recounted in his book Roll Around Heaven All Day, and a trek on U.S. 62, from Niagara Falls, New York, to El Paso, Texas, the subject of his book Playing in Traffic. Stan, a freelance writer and editor, lives in Ohio. See more at www.StanPurdum.com.