Wednesday, January 25, 2012

1979: Touring in the UP, Part 2

Leaving St. Ignace, 1979
My riding plan for the week was simple, 4 days out, and 3 days back, riding the UP shoreline when I could, counter-clockwise. My first day would be 60 miles of biking east to Detour Village, there to catch a ferry to Drummond Island, and another 8 miles to the only campground on the island. At that time, Drummond Island was a sleepy collection of cabins and campgrounds and a massive limestone mine, feeding the steel mills along the the Great Lakes, and little else. Thankfully I had picked up dinner and breakfast before leaving DeTour Village, since nothing was open on the island, and even the campground was on the honor system. I wouldn’t see or speak to anyone until the ferry crossing the next morning.

Drummond Island Ferry, 1977
My next days riding was to Sault Ste. Marie. After my early morning ferry trip back to DeTour Village, I headed north and west along the UP back roads, through a mix forest and farm land. As I rode, an occasional B-52 jet would fill the sky overhead from a nearby US Air Force base. Cars were infrequent, and I only passed trough a few small town, “grazing” for food at grocery stores along the way, picking up sandwiches, fruit and snacks.

I arrived early and found a campground right on the river front, just down river from the locks. I then spent the afternoon on a tour boat going through the locks, before settling down for the night in tent. The campground was unique in that across the river was Canada, and 700-foot long ships would pass by during the night, just a few hundred yards from the door of my tent.

After breaking camp the the next morning, I crossed into Canada for a few hours of riding before heading back across into the US. The crossing was quite easy, just a drivers license and a couple questions crossing each way. It was also an exciting ride on the International Bridge, which was high enough over the locks and St Mar’s river to clear all shipping traffic, with the international border in the middle of the bridge, over 125 feet in the air.
North Bound, International Bridge `79

Leaving downtown Sault Ste. Marie after lunch, a half dozen kids on 20” bikes began following me, riding on the sidewalks along the main street leading up from the river, a long gradual climb. I think they thought the guy on the loaded bike was a challenge to race, as the first pulled ahead of me the sidewalk. I maintained a steady pace, and they continued to follow me for a couple of miles, though I had the edge in endurance. It was fun sport. I then began riding south inland, finally before heading west for a night at Brimely State Park, to watch an hours long sunset over Lake Superior and Whitefish Bay finish at after 11 PM.
(I have included pictures from a 3-day trip from 1977, since I have not completed scanning the `79 slides.)

Monday, January 16, 2012

1979: Touring in the UP

(This is the start of 3 or 4 posts to tell the story.)
It was August of 1979, the summer I met Linda. After a 6 week externship at MSU, she had left Lansing to return to her parent’s and college in Missouri, and I had a week of vacation. So I packed my bike in my pickup, and drove 5 hours north to St. Ignace, Michigan, arriving at Noon. I parked my truck and paid for a weeks parking in one of the Mackinaw Island overnight lots. Then I pulled my bike out and loaded my gear for a week of solo touring in the UP. On the way out of town and across the Highway from Castle Rock, there is road sign with miles and distances for the eastern UP. I stopped and out came my camera and tripod, and I took a self portrait under the sign. I now have pictures at that road sign from over a half dozen trips, spanning four decades.
My first UP road sign picture, 1977

By 1979, Northern Michigan and the Upper Peninsula, the UP (pronounce both letters), had become my favorite bicycling destination. While growing up in southern Michigan, our family had seldom traveled farther north than Lansing or Grand Rapids. We lived on a tourist lake, helping my grandmother run a tourist lake resort, so why go to a lake for vacation? Then my first bike tour, on the Labor Day weekend before my senior year in high school, took me to Mackinaw City and across the Mackinac Bridge. That was my first DALMAC (of four, so far) and on that 4-day, 350 mile trip I experienced all the wonders of northern Michigan; the endless forests, the inland dunes and hills, and the shores of Lake Michigan, all by bike at 14 mph. But St. Ignace was as far as I got that trip, and a repeat of that first trip the following year. Over the next 4 years, I made two weekend trip from St. Ignace to the Sault Ste. Marie and back, once solo, and once with a brother and a friend. But the `79 trip would be my first long touring ride solo.

There was a level of isolation and independence in that trip might be hard to contemplate in the digital today. As I rolled east out of St. Ignace along the north shore of Lake Huron toward Detour Village, calling home was by pay phone. The only mail took stamps, and any pictures I took would (or maybe not,) be locked in the camera and on film until the Kodak mailer returned the slides a couple weeks in the future. Trip research was finding county map books and atlases, or waiting weeks for response’s by mail from local riders, but usually you navigated with a state highway map with notes in the margin.

My gear was pretty simple, a pair of panniers on the rear rack, and stuff sacks rigged as panniers for my tent and sleeping bag on the front rack. I had never liked the way a stacked load on a rear rack had made the bike handle, and I was already experimenting and with front loads a few years before “low-rider” front racks were common. My first Eclipse brand handlebar bag held a 35mm camera and a spare lens, along with maps, film,  and my wallet.

My clothing was a mix of cotton wool and gear, with a couple pairs of wool cycling shorts, a light wool sweater, and wool arm warmers and leg warmers. I was riding in t-shirts mostly, with a nylon wind breaker and a bicyclists rain cape. I had a lightweight pair cargo pants for the campground (no jeans, they were too heavy), and for shoes I had a pair Beta Bikers, a very popular cotton cycling shoe that weren’t much more than low-cotton running flats with an extra thick sole. For sleeping, I had a very small 2-man a-frame tent, and a very-light first generation synthetic sleeping bag, with a 3/4 length foam pad. I was packed pretty light, and had done it all on a pretty reasonable budget. My gear list has changed only in fabrics over the years since.

For hot meals in camp, I had a SVEA 123 backpacking stove that burned white gas, and required a meticulous lighting ritual that involved an exciting, three foot tall open flame. Once the brass fuel tank warmed up and self-pressurized, it cooked with a blow torch roar that sounded like small jet plane taking off. I boiled noodles and soups and the occasional free dried meal with a two nested aluminum pans in that held the entire package. Breakfast was usually cold bagels and spreads, and lunch was found along the way. Bicycle touring was once described by a friend as “Five meals a day, plus snacks”, and it really was a constant grazing through cookies, donuts, muffins, fruit and staples picked up in stores, and eaten as the miles rolled by.

(End of Part 1)

Monday, January 9, 2012

Season 41

It was the fall of 1973, and I was a sophmore in high school. The prior summer was my first taste of teen-age freedom on a German-made, 3-speed bicycle from Sears. I had ridden the 5 miles into town to do my paper route, ridden around town with friends, and even carried a gym bag of clothes for an overnight. This wasn’t yet commuting, touring, training or saving the planet. Intervals, cadence, gear inches, derailleur, hydration, pace line and the rest of the lexicon of cycling were not yet part of my vocabulary.

Ready to ride, early 1972.
Bicycles were supposed to be the gateway drug to cars, pickups and motorcycles, just a phase for a couple of summers until the calendar said you could drive legally. My friends and younger brothers all made that transition. I never did. That fall was spent trying to figure out how to get a better bike, something that would be easier to ride farther and faster.

With Christmas and birthday money, the 3-speed was replaced in January of 1973 with an off-brand 15-speed bicycle, $115 of steel frame, cottered cranks, steel derailleurs, steel rims and gum-wall tires. It was called a Parliament, and it was a Taiwan-made bike imported for shops (like Ann Arbor Cycles) that could not find enough bikes from anywhere to satisfy America’s sudden love affair of with “racing” bikes from Europe.

Whenever the weather allowed that winter, after school and on weekends I was on the bike, not just riding somewhere, but just to ride. Starting with a restaurant place mat with a map of most of the nearby county roads, I used a colored pencil to fill in the roads I had ridden. That map became an ever expanding web through the small towns and the dozens of lakes around our home. Rides of 15, 20, and 30 miles, 2 and 3 hours long, to Brooklyn, Norvell, Cement City, Manchester, Vandercook Lake, Clark Lake and beyond. I was riding places we seldom drove, exploring on paved and gravel back roads.

At first I was just riding in jeans and t-shirts and jackets, and then switched to riding in jean cut-offs. It would be another year before i would try bike clothing. I remember the afternoon that first summer when 2-3 riders passed through Brooklyn in the same clothing the racers in the magazines wore, in articles that talked about something called chamois. At the time, most bikes shops around us were still Schwinn shops and hardware stores, and they didn’t sell clothing.  Only a few small bike shops were available in the nearby towns of Adrian and Jackson, either an infrequent trip.

I did start adding gear - a seat bag, water bottle and cage, and a tire pump and tire levers. Then a handlebar bag for my Kodak Instamatic. A cyclometer was added, and now the click of each wheel revolution slowly turned over the mile counter, a tenth mile at a time. Dead reckoning distance and questions to Dad (my “How far is it from home to where Austin Road and Fay Lake Road cross?”, followed with a “You were where?” response) were replaced with my first “log” entries on notebook paper in a 3 ring binder.

That was the summer the foundation was laid for the road to here and now. It was not just the bike, or the gear. It was not just the miles, or how fast I rode. It was more than the freedom, or the appreciation of a 10-mile view from the top of the hills on Horning Road. It was the totality of all those things, as they became a place were I fit in and belonged, even when it was just me on a new road 20 miles from home. I have never lost the wonder of that first summer and season of riding, and I am still that 14 year-old at heart, finishing one ride and already thinking about the next.