Welcome to Michigan. I never thought that I’d move back to the Midwest, but a series of extenuating circumstances sent me back to sea level for the foreseeable future. After living in Colorado for eight years, I moved back East with a bit of an entitlement complex and low expectations for the local goods. Sure, there are trails, and Devil’s Lake, Canada and the Red. But after the Western Slope, won’t flatland life be a bit … boring?
I’ve never been happier to be proven wrong.
The North Country Trail runs 4600 miles from New York to North Dakota. The Great Lakes State accounts for 1000 of those, and the accessible Lower Peninsula has 547. I set out to ride from Petoskey to Traverse City, a 111-mile segment known for singletrack and sand traps.
Einstein Cycles in Traverse City hooked me up with their house fatty, the Bearclaw Balthazar. I dubbed her Ophelia, not after the Dane’s lover, but rather my parents’ chubby basset hound of yesteryear. She has pretty much every bike component that’s able to be made from carbon fiber … I’d imagine she’d get through airport security without a hitch. A full review on this site is forthcoming, but for now suffice to say that this is the funnest bike I’ve ever swung a leg over. (Sorry, Beatrice. Steel is real and ti is fly, but plaster is faster).
Proper bikepacking bags were still in production over at Cleaveland Mountaineering, so I improved some ghetto-fabulous substitutes. All of my stuff is back in dgo, so I bought a Thermarest Neo Xtherm from Backcountry North in TC because I needed one anyway, and decided that no sleeping bag would be necessary with a low of 60F.
Left to right, Winifred is sporting the following:
– 16oz peanut butter in a plastic bike cage zipped to the fork
– Jones bag with leg warmers, tools, headlamp, etc.
– Thermarest stuff sack tied on with a thrift-store windbreaker.
– Cheapo phone-case gas tank for $13 on Amazon. Pretty stoked on it.
– Tube in a ziplock duct taped to the seatpost.
– A can of Hormel spicy chili and 24oz water in cages, plus a frame pump.
– Free-range organic fair-trade potato crisps.
I started from Harbor Springs at 06:00 and spun fourteen miles of asphalt through rolling farmland to get to the trailhead. It was a perfect, contemplative warmup. I’ve had a lot on my mind as of late, and was looking forward to processing it all with some two-wheeled therapy.
For those who have never been, Mittagan is one big sand dune. Most people roll plus or fat tires, and I was grateful to have the formidable 26×4.0 Van Helgas mounted on 75mm carbon rims. Altogether, Ophelia weighs the same as my carbon Ultegra 3×9 road bike Winifred.
All was well until I stopped to shoot some video. I set down my food bag containing Pringles, Cheetos and tortillas (curse you, sugar-free August! This was my first outdoor activity ever without gummy worms, serious withdrawal going on). After instawhoring, I completely forgot to strap the food bag back on, and went on my merry way through the forest. It was an hour before I realized it. Sorry about the mess / you’re welcome for the trail magic.
Calorie deficit is par for the course, but I was staring down the barrel of two full days of biking on one can of chili and a jar of peanut butter. More importantly, my betadine dropper for water filtration was now gracing some black squirrel’s nest. I wasn’t keen on getting giardia a third time.
Fortunately, I was able to take a few detours to local bars and gas stations, but this changed the timbre of the ride by adding about twenty-five extra miles of pavement. On the upside, I got lots of PBR. At each stop, I’d pound a Gatorade and half a tallboy, then pour the remainder in my bike bottle. I’m a huge fan of the craft beer scene here, especially Short’s, but there’s nothing like a good PBR when you’re cranking hard in the heat and humidity.
One of the highlights of the trip was bikewhacking through handlebar-high ferns. It was reminiscent of the CT at Molas Pass in late July, plowing through mountain cabbage.
Another huge difference between the NCT and every other trail I’ve bike packed back west … water! And lots of it! And it doesn’t induce hypothermia! I was pretty stoked to go skinny-dipping in a couple of crystal-clear streams at midday.
As always, I brought my ultralight bikepacking spoon / tire lever combo. These guys actually clip together to form masterlink pliers, too! That is, when they’re not gummed up with peanut butter.
Aside from a sparse handful of vehicles on dirt roads, the only sign of human life I saw on the trip was the tepee below. As for wildlife, I flushed a couple dozen wild turkeys, some deer, two raccoons and …
A wannabe gote.
At 20:30, I called it a day — eighty miles down, thanks to paved PBR detours. I started a fire to smoke out the mosquitos, and then came to an awful realization. While packing for the trip in my jimmy-rigged bags, I had forgotten an insulating layer to cover for the sleeping bag I didn’t bring. Hmm. My sleep system included an inflatable pad and my clothes, which included a long-sleeve button down shirt, windbreaker, leg warmers and a bandana for my head.
There wasn’t enough wood to blaze all night, so I got coals started and then spooned with the warm metal fire ring for a fitful night’s sleep. It was pretty much a shiverbivy. I wasn’t feeling strong enough to ride through the night to stay warm like on the Grand Staircase misadventure. Prolly because I couldn’t eat any mini-Snickers. Everyone knows that Snickers makes you strawng.
The next morning I started a little fire, ate my can of chili for breakfast while listening to an audiobook (Gospel of John) and busted off down the next segment. My phone battery died while recording a GPS track, so I don’t have the exact stats, but I was riding at a pretty decent clip for 11.5 hours.
When I hit Kalkaska, I fired off another tallboy and ingested 1500 calories of McZargalds (over 6bn Earthlingburgers served!) in order to even out the health benefits of the past few days’ riding. From there, it was a cruiser seventeen miles of pretty dirt roads to get back to the house.
Altogether it was a great overnighter on an incredibly fun new bike. I look forward to exploring the NCT further this fall.