Brained to Bemidji, MN
Trail Miles: 120
Minnesota’s Longest Bike Trail
It had been 20 years since I rode across Minnesota from Moorhead to Duluth. My friend Jeff hadn’t toured since 1984. We figured we might as well use the same bikes to ride the Paul Bunyan Trail. We both ride, me mostly recreational, Jeff likes to do triathlons. Riding a touring bike the distances we were planning would take a bit of training. I trained by riding 15 to 25 mile rides 4 days a week, followed up with a long ride on the weekend of 30 to 40 miles.
Planning started months ahead, and most of the gear I needed was already in my basement. My trusty 1989 Diamond Back road bike, has served me well on RAGBRAI, the MS150, and even a previous trek across Minnesota. Jeff has had his Schwinn since high school. July rolled in seemingly early and it was time to meet up at Jeff’s parents place on the north side of Mille Lacs Lake. Our intent was making a 5 day loop, west to Brainerd, north to Bemidji, east to Deer River, south to Hill City, then Aikin, and finally back to our starting point. 300 miles over five days and four nights with planned accommodations that included Jeff’s parents, camping, and resorts. Jeff’s parents place not only served as a parking lot, but they were willing to retrieve us should there be any problems.
That first mile on a fully loaded vintage road bike took a little getting used to, we’re shifting on the down tube here. This is something you should experience simply to feel how much you can load up a bike – and then unload it and feel how nimble and light you really are. Most of the weight was on the back of the bike, about 75 pounds worth of gear. Some like to distribute the load evenly across the bike and carry front panniers as well as rear. Some prefer to pull a trailer (I’m going to try that on my next long haul).
The road around the lake was well paved but had a narrow shoulder. Thankfully, all the drivers were very respectful and gave us a wide berth when passing.
You don’t hear a lot about the art around Mille Lacs, but let me tell you, there’s some gems. A mermaid and a really big fish, just to pinpoint a couple. Public folk art a beautiful WPA works project , and a recent private carving as well. Are there mermaids in this lake? Do they have arms? I’ve heard there are fish. We only went a quarter of the way around the lake, there must be more art. I believe another ride is in order.
That first 12 miles felt good, 20 more miles to Brainerd and breakfast. Heading west on Highway 18 was a little windy, also more traffic. But the shoulders are good and wide, which is a relief for both drivers and riders. When we did arrive we went downtown to find a good breakfast at a local diner – the Northwind Grille did not disappoint.
After a quick ride through town and a stop at Fleet Farm to appease Jeff’s shopping bug we were finally on the trail. Two lane blacktop, beautiful, quiet, smooth and straight, this old rail line is also relatively flat. The stress of traffic has been left behind. Just the rhythmic whir of two classic road bikes and a bit of conversation. Long straight aways are great for putting the hammer down. We were hammering along in the 14 mph range. Everything you could possibly want to know about the trail is here paulbunyantrail.com. It boasts 120 miles of pavement through the spectacular north woods of Minnesota. There really is no better way to take in this great state like a ride through woods. We rolled in to a camper resort for the night.
Our first nights stay was in a camping shelter at Ruttgers Pine Mountain Camping Resort, a fort with a screen door and windows. There’s also a lodge, clean indoor bathrooms that have a homey feel, and other camping sites. The bed was plywood (so don’t forget your sleeping pad) . Jeff didn’t sleep very comfortably, but I thought is was probably a step up from the ground.
Day 1 was we rode 77.37 in 5:39:41 at an average of 13.7 mph. a good day in the saddle.
RODE 77.37 MI ON 7/9/14
DURATION : 5:39:41
AVG SPEED : 13.7 mph
Day 2 we head north to Bemidji. At a breakfast stop in Hackensack we learned that Paul Bunyan had a girlfriend and they had a kid! How did I live in this state 45 years and not know that. I read the book, but I did not remember Paul Bunyan having girl friend. In Hackensack, they say, “Oh ya… Lucette, quite a gal”. Friendly folks at Viddles and Joe downtown Hackensack prepped us for our upcoming ride with coffee, a hearty breakfast, and dry north woods humor.
Back on the bike path it’s north straight as an arrow for the most of the day. I did take a photo of the path curving at one point. It was hot and sunny on the path. Not a whole lot of bike traffic either. There was a road bike that flew past us, and a couple of recreational riders, but for the part we had the path to ourselves. There were a few hills around Walker, one we both had to push our bikes up. Jeff had to stop at his favorite store Reed’s Sporting Goods, Minnesota Avenue West, Walker, MN and a Dairy Queen. Tonight Jeff will have ground insulation, a comfy pad to lay between his body and the hard ground.
Outside Bemidji I can hear my rear hub making noise. Luckily Bemidji has a bike shop. They took a look and sprayed some lube on rear hub. I wondered if we should just repack it then. They thought it was fine and sent me on my way. We ate a great sandwich downtown at The Cabin Coffee House & Cafe, and then rode around the south side of Lake Bemidji up to the state campground on the north side, 10 miles away. My bike seems fine, it’s time to set up camp then shower.
Do not trust the squirrels at Lake Bemidji State Park, they are well fed and all too familiar with people and their food. I stepped away from my food bag for 5 minutes and a ground squirrel chewed its way through my dry bag. Jeff chased him away and he got none of my food. But now, it’s just a bag.
The tent is easy to set up, packs small, but is barely big enough for two middle aged men. We wish for Jeff’s camper as we realize the camper shelter was better than my tent, at least we were mostly dry the first night. My tent was also vintage gear, and I probably should’ve prepped it better or something, because the very first raindrop fell right through the rain fly and made for a damp second nights rest. Should’ve pulled the tarp off the bikes at that moment and covered the tent. Oh well, live and learn. My food bag is under the rain fly. I scare another, or perhaps the same, ground squirrel away from my bag early in the morning.
RODE 67.10 MI ON 7/10/14
DURATION : 4:49:11
AVG SPEED : 13.9 mph
Day 3 we were a little soggy when we packed up camp, we headed back into Bemidji for a local breakfast moral boost. We found it at Wild Hare Bistro and Coffee House 523 Minnesota Ave NW, Bemidji, MN 56601 wildharebistro.com fantastic coffee and food.
After some local recon about the trail ahead (and soggy gear in mind) we decide to change our route and head south. Back from where we came on the Paul Bunyan Trail, we’ll see it in both directions. In fact I recommend riding it numerous times. We head to Lances house (a friend of Jeff’s who I also knew from college days) in Pine River. It’s warming up, and the sun is coming out. I apply sunscreen on the bridge over the freeway, one of the few hills on the path today, and we leave Bemidji. 10 miles out my bike started making noise. It got worse as the day progressed but we ticked away 72 miles before we finally arrived in Pine River. I avoid catastrophic failure but am deflated by my breakdown. Map my ride fails to record the final 17 miles of the day because I didn’t plug in my back up battery in time – it only records the first 55 miles. Incidentally, I ran over a garter snake near where my phone quit… poor snake.
RODE 55.01 MI ON 7/11/14
AVG SPEED : 14.1 mph
I had to repack the wheel hubs, but I lacked two wrenches that would work. Lances wrenches were too wide and I didn’t want to chew up my hubs with a pliers. Jeff, having a marathon coming up and two crappy nights in a row called in the sag wagon. We abandoned- which was too bad, I was really enjoying the trail.
Luckily Jeff planned for such a mishap and his parents drove 65 miles to pick us up – I bought dinner at Zorbaz on Cross Lake. Pizza is always great at the end of the ride.
All in all a great trip. We got in 3 solid days of riding through this gorgeous state, and covered over 200 miles.
I’d do it again in heartbeat.