By John Wente
One dark, gloomy day last winter when all I could do was dream about riding, I was cruising around on-line checking out bike trails in other states. I knew Minnesota had a lot of trails, so I did a bit of Googling and found some great information. A dream began to form inside my brain of cycling day after day on some of those beautiful trails. Ah, well, just a dream. But when I mentioned my dream to Jim (AKA Legs) and Laurie Allshouse, they immediately caught whatever bug it was I had and began to do some research also. Long story short, the three of us decided to explore the 108-mile Paul Bunyan Trail and the 47-mile Heartland State Trail, which conveniently cross near the town of Walker in north central Minnesota.
Laurie, who is one of the most organized individuals you’ll ever meet, arranged all the lodging for the trip up and back and while we were there. She set us up for five nights at Walker so we could explore all of the Heartland trail and the northern part of the Paul Bunyan trail, then two nights at Nisswa that would allow some riding on the southern part of the Paul Bunyan.
On the drive up, we stayed overnight at the lovely little town of Clear Lake, IA, which is famous for the February 3, 1959 “Day the Music Died” plane crash that killed Buddy Holly, Jiles P (Big Bopper) Richardson, and Ritchie Valens. Upon checking into our motel, we found there was a free concert in the park that night in the city park right on the shores of the lovely lake. There were a couple of rock bands playing and about 2000-3000 people in the park sitting, standing, dancing and just generally enjoying a perfect evening. Great fun!! We were sure glad Legs had suggested we bring our camping chairs!!
Our plans for the next day had been to get an early start and do a bit of riding once we reached Walker, but the lake was so appealing, we decided instead to circumnavigate the lake before we took off. What a delight! It was an absolutely gorgeous morning—sunny, cool and virtually no wind. We enjoyed every minute of our 18-mile jaunt around that beautiful, shining lake. I think I left part of my heart in that quaint little town.
Our next day’s cycling journey took us about 20 miles north up the incredibly smooth and nearly flat Heartland trail to Cass Lake where we found a trail through the tall pines around Pike Bay, which was definitely NOT flat. That gave us a total of nearly 59 miles by the time we returned to Walker.
Monday found us again on the Heartland trail headed in the opposite direction towards Park Rapids, a distance of about 27 miles. On the northern jaunt the previous day, we found no towns or services between Walker and Cass Lake, but in this direction, we found little towns scattered along the trail every few miles. We stopped in every one to look around, take pictures, and do what cyclists always must do—find a bathroom. At one of these stops, we noticed a huge sign on the side of a building advertising a music show. We wrote down the phone number and made plans to attend the “Woodtick Jamboree” on Wednesday night. The total mileage for that day was around 59.
The portion of the Paul Bunyan trail from Walker to Bemidji is not paved. We had assumed it would be packed limestone like the Katy Trail in Missouri, but found it to be just a track for snowmobiles. But we’d heard so much about Bemidji and the beautiful lake there, we just decided to drive up and ride around the area on Tuesday. Once there, we found the town’s visitor’s center and learned that we could ride a trail up the east side of the lake and return via quiet residential roads on the west side. That made a perfect ride of just about 25 miles after we included some touring around the town. The friendly lady at the visitor’s center recommended the Minnesota Fine Café for lunch, and we found it to be perfectly suited to our tastes.
The next day, we headed south on the Paul Bunyan trail to Hackensack (bet you thought that was in New Jersey). About 8 or 9 miles of this ride is through the Chippewa National Forrest. That part is not on a rail bed, so it is very “scenic” (cycling lingo for hilly). We found this portion to be both challenging and exhilarating. The scenery was fantastic. The debates still rages on whether the hills were easier going to Hackensack or coming back. For Laurie, it was no contest however. You see, she did most of the hills going to Hackensack with her front brake dragging. It was in this little town that we came unexpectedly upon a huge swap meet, so, we parked the bikes and had a look around. Legs decided the fancy fire ring was just too big to carry back on his bike, but Laurie found some jams and jellies that she persuaded him to stuff into his panniers. Our total mileage at the end of this day was somewhere around 47. That night, we took in the music show we had discovered a couple of days earlier. It was a hoot. Good music with some comedy thrown in. We all thoroughly enjoyed it.
On Thursday, we moved our base of operations to the little town of Nisswa nearer the south end of the Paul Bunyan trail. We had originally planned to ride north from Nisswa that day, but after discovering the beauty of the trails in the parks and around the lakes, we decided instead to drive to Itasca State Park so we could visit the headwaters of the Mississippi River and ride around Lake Itasca. This was another beautiful ride amongst old-growth pines. It was on this day however that we had our only significant encounter with Minnesota’s famous mosquitoes. The cool, damp, shady area was perfect habitat for mosquitoes and they apparently found our Oklahoma blood very tasty. We couldn’t stop for 30 seconds without being eaten alive. Fortunately, Laurie produced some insect repellent out of her pack which helped us survive this onslaught. We had a very satisfying 18 mile ride that day and a nice lunch at the park’s lodge with a very active hummingbird feeder right outside the window. Legs was able to snap some great photos of the lively little birds as they filled their bellies at the feeder.
Friday found us pedaling toward the south end of the Paul Bunyan trail and the towns of Baxter and Brainerd. We had heard about a river boat tour in Brainerd, so after a nice visit with the proprietor of a bike shop we happened onto, we pedaled on to the Chamber of Commerce to get information and directions to the river boat. It turned out that the boat was not giving any public tours that day, so after getting some suggestions from the very helpful C of C lady, we decided to circumnavigate our fifth lake for the week—Gull Lake. There is no trail around the lake, but County Road 77 is as nice as most federal highways in Oklahoma—a wide, perfectly smooth two-lane with at least 8-foot shoulders (yes, I said COUNTY ROAD!!). This road deposited us right back at our motel after another “scenic” ride that totaled about 51 miles.
The only downside to the fantastic week of cycling is that it is located nearly 1000 miles from Oklahoma City. It was a long drive up and back, but the great scenery, friendly people and those fantastic trails made it all worth while.
P.S. I hope readers will notice something about this little story, namely the flexibility we allowed ourselves and our taking the time to discover and take in some “local color”. To me, and I know to Legs and Laurie as well, that is what bicycle touring is all about.