Nan Pugh reflects on a Four-day Fat Bike Tour along the North Shore of Minnesota.
I went on my first expedition in 2002; I was a student on an Outward Bound course. Those 16 days opened my eyes to the world of the outdoors and expeditions. Over the past 20 years, I have been beyond lucky and privileged to take part in many expeditions into the mountains and deserts. In 2016 I accidentally got into fat biking, and my soul was again moved. Around that time, I started bikepacking. Both fat biking and bikepacking are the pinnacle of biking for me. Winter fat bikepacking takes riding bikes to another level. Most winter ultra-events might require one night or just a few hours of sleep. Whereas with a longer trip, you need to be able to sleep out for multiple nights, keeping your puffy and sleeping bag dry. You also need to carry food for multiple days as well. To be able to thrive, it takes a lot of different skills, endurance riding, winter skills, and grit.
The Beargrease Bike Ride
Three years ago, my husband and I were invited to participate in a group ride to help support a dog sled race along the North Shore of Lake Superior, the John Beargrease Dog Sled Marathon. That year the ride was a two-day, one-night adventure. It has evolved for the fat bikers to ride a modified route that is 200 miles with over 14,000 feet of elevation gain over four days. This year a group of six of us would venture out, Ben Weaver, Alexandera Houchin, Johnny Price, Kendall Park, Mike Barklow (my husband), and myself. The high would be about 0℉ with lows predicted -15℉, the reality was temperatures as low as -30℉. I have ridden a few times below 0, but not much, or recently, I was intimidated. This route offered a few chances to go inside and warm up. Would I be warm enough? How would my lungs react? Would I be fast enough? Does the route really have that much elevation?
The first morning as we were getting ready, I went outside and realized that -10 was doable, with my layers it would be ok. We made our way to Billy’s Bar for our start. The hills weren’t long, but they were steep. Our group found our pace. As the day went on, the snow softened a bit, I took two good falls. One, I needed to realign my handlebars, and my multi-tool fell in the snow. It took me 15 minutes to find it, a shit show moment. Kendall came back to make sure I was ok, I was appreciative for the moral support. I pushed my pace to help the group cover the miles. Then at about mile 30, Dan Cruikshank had a fire, water, and a warm meal for us. Dan owns a local bike shop (Spokengear), café, and Cedaero Bike Bags, it is a must-stop for Mike and I. When I arrived to the fire, I was not feeling good, by the time we headed out I found my second wind! Thanks, Dan, for the re-set! We pedaled the last 20 miles fairly quickly as the temperature dropped to about -20℉. We camped at a shelter along the trail. Mike made a fire! I was struggling to warm up, so I made a hot water bottle, that helped me fall asleep.
The second day was about honoring John Beargrease 1858-1910. He was Anishinaabe, and was born on the North Shore of Lake Superior. He delivered mail weekly along the rugged North Shore from 1880-1900. In the summer he would row a boat and in winter, he would dog sled. This mail service was a critical link for the North Shore communities. We detoured off our route to visit his burial site; Ben arranged for us to meet one of John Beargrease’s great, great-granddaughters and two other elders. One of the elders offered a prayer and song in John’s honor. We each offered some tobacco. We were given maple sugar candy; this offering is so that we carry those who have gone before us on our journey. Ben, Alexandera, and Johnny visited the Oshki Ogimaag school in Grand Portage before the ride, they shared John Beargrease’s story and about their adventures along the route on the bike. They invited the students to write postcards to John. Once we headed out from the burial site, it was business time to make it to the Sawbill checkpoint.
Once at Sawbill, we were offered all the bacon we could eat! Our friends Chris and Brian, who have ridden in the past, joined us. It was fun to see the community Sawbillies, those who volunteer at the Sawbill checkpoint. We were able to sleep for 2-3 hours in the vet tent until the dog teams arrived. Despite being 2 am the cold air was filled with excited energy. At the Sawbill checkpoint, the mushers don’t have support from their crew. Volunteers are needed to help run the dogs into their chutes so they can rest. We would basically run alongside the dogs a few hundred yards, wearing all of our puffy gear. Running the dogs is magical; we share excitement for playing hard in winter. Many of these teams have completed the Iditarod or are working towards qualifying. At some point in the middle of the night, I wandered into the checkpoint tent and saw a few mushers who looked just like me when I do ultras.
Day broke slowly just as the first teams started to leave. Running the dogs back to the trail is a bit trickier. Dog sled teams are not great at making 90-degree turns, for us, there are two 90-degree turns to get the teams from their resting chutes back to the trail, and to add some extra spice those turns sandwich 50 yards of icy road. By mid-morning, we were packing up to make miles. Dog booties and poop now mark the trail. The lack of sleep is now an invisible bear on my back that refuses to get off. The hills are steep and unrelenting. I can feel my pace slowing, but I keep pedaling. We cut the day short, 30 miles with 3,500 feet of climbing. I was so tired when we got to camp, I almost cried from relief. I was right to work of making dinner, water, and bed.
If we would have had a good GPS track, I would have gotten up for an alpine start. I did get up early, I slept warm, but it was cold out. I was focusing on doing one thing at a time, it took 45 minutes to get my boots on. I pulled my boot liner out the night before it was a struggle to get them back in. Typically I don’t take my liners out, but with the cold temperatures I wanted to protect my feet. I knew that it was taking a long time, but I wasn’t frustrated, I knew that I was doing my best, and that is all I could ask for.
Packed up, we were aiming to leave at 8:00 am. It was 7:30, and I realized I couldn’t find my Garmin. I couldn’t recall if I pulled it off my bike or if it fell off. I took my hands out of my mitts to rifle through my things, still not finding it I knew I needed to let it go to leave on time. (Later, I did find it in the bottom of sleeping bag stuff sack.) Very quickly, my right hand grew cold, this was the only time my hands would be cold. Mike loaned me a handwarmer for a minute and helped to get my bag on my bike. It was -30℉ out. We had 50 miles before the finish; it took some time for us to start moving with ease. The sun came out and warmed us up and when it did it felt so good. We hit a shortcut that was covered in 6 inches of ungroomed snow. I tried to ride it, I aired down but it was just a bit too deep. At one point, I stopped to pee and realized that one of my chain links was partially broken! The good news was that I didn’t need to fix it then as we were walking. A bit further down in a sunny spot, Mike replaced a few links of my chain. I have no idea when my chain broke, I had been having some issues with my chain the whole ride. Reason 100,000,000 why I love Mike. As we rejoined the route, the rest of the group opted to push and make miles. Mike and I rode the last 25 miles together, it was a lovely and challenging ride. Around sunset, we had a bit of view, it was a special moment for us. Then we went down the hill to the finish. On the last day I had so many happy tears, for sharing the miles with Mike, for completing a very challenging ride, and for living out my dreams- winter fat bike expeditioning.
Miigwech, thank you in Ojibwe. Miigwech to Ben and Alexandera for creating a vision that is more than just a ride and inviting me to be a part of it. Miigwech to Johnny and Kendall for the miles of smiles. Miigwech to everyone who helped us get our bikes and bodies ready. Miigwech to Mallory, Laura and Chuck for hosting us before the ride. Miigwech to Dan for the lovely food on day one. Miigwech to the Ojibwe folks for sharing a part of your history with us. Miigwech to Josh and the Sawbillies, for all of the bacon. Miigwech to the weather, showing me that I am able to thrive in cold weather. Miigwech to Brian for the logistics support. Miigwech to Mike, you bring warmth to soul and inspire me to share it. Miigwech to John Beargrease.
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