• Winter Bikepacking Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, a.k.a “Chet’s Leisure Ride”

    Jason and Ty are two old friends I made through cycling: Ty and I met on BMX bikes c.1999, and Jason got me in Lycra and on a road bike in 2005.

    The three of us hadn’t ridden together since 2008. Jason moved back home to Michigan and started Einstein Cycles, while Ty opened Golden Saddle Cyclery in Los Angeles. I’d done a few things here and there, too, and after spending all of 2013 on the road living in a camper, I was determined to never have a real job again. Fun has become my ultimate priority.

    A winter bicycle tour of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula seemed like a fine reunion.  Flights were booked, and thus began two months of careful deliberation and planning, which eventually amounted to: (1) riding our bicycles on snowmobile trails, and (2) stopping at bars along the way. We named the get together “Chet’s Leisure Ride,” a nod to Chet Bearclaw, the owner of Team Bearclaw, who the three of us had raced for in ’07 and ’08. When we told Chet about our ride, he responded that it “sounded leisurely.” He wasn’t being facetious, either.

    Planned mileage and route were all up for discussion– we’d figure it out. Sleeping arrangements? Not sure, but we packed a tent and sleeping bags, so we weren’t concerned.  As long as we found our way to the local bars for food and beverages, we’d be fine.

    Day 1

    We left St. Ignace and watched the sunrise over Lake Huron.


    Beautiful sunrise over Lake Huron. This was the only sunrise we’d enjoy enjoy during our ride, as waking up early is not in our repertoire.


    Within 20 minutes of pedaling, we turned on to the first snowmobile trail. Until this point, trail conditions had remained a mystery to us – we were happy to find our path well groomed and hard-packed. Excellent conditions meant we’d be able to cruise at 6 to 7 miles per hour, whereas poor conditions would have left us stranded at the first bar we’d found. While none of us are above spending 4 days at a local watering hole, all of us were thrilled to be riding on good snow. We pedaled 35 miles of snowmobile trail to our first stop: Trout Lake Tavern.


    The trail to Trout Lake Tavern was very straight – there were almost no turns for the entire 35 miles. This gave us plenty of time to practice wheelies. Here, Ty shows how it’s done.

    We enjoyed a long layover at the Tavern, where we sampled burgers, nachos, and Jameson Irish Whiskey.  The wind was had increased in intensity, and I watched snow spindrifts blow down the highway while Jason talked to a local snowmobiler about our intended route. Fortunately for us, the kind local informed us that the mileage on our map was incorrect, and what our map showed to be 35 miles was actually 70.

    At 6mph, this discrepancy was not inconsequential, especially with nighttime temperatures forecasted to be 20 below zero. Jason reworked the route – we’d be at our next stop in about 25 miles. We thanked the local for his information, had another round of Jameson, and headed down the highway.

    Daylight disappeared soon after, and temperatures quickly dropped to –10. We had heard rumors of a bar about 25 miles down the road.  We were happy when, 4 hours later, we found the Silver Creek Bar and Lodge.


    Our arrival at the Silver Creek Bar and Lodge. We felt confident our bikes were safe.
    Our arrival at the Silver Creek Bar and Lodge. We felt confident our bikes were safe.

    The bar was empty – which was to be expected on a Monday night – and the bartender, Sarah, seemed confused by three guys showing up on bicycles. We assured her that we were not as dumb as we appeared, and had a great time talking with her about life in Michigan’s U.P.

    We also had some time to catch up with each other. A lot had changed in our lives over the last 6 years: Jason was married with two beautiful children, and Ty had recently gotten married, too. I was newly engaged to a wonderful girl who, somehow, I’ve convinced (conned?) to marry me.

    Time does different things to different friendships: It was great to find that the three of us picked up where we had left off, and despite all of life’s changes, none of us had started taking life – our ourselves – too seriously.

    We also got in touch with the owner of the Silver Creek Lodge, which was a convenient 150 feet from the bar, who informed us that the cabin was vacant, and that we were welcome to stay the night. We made our way to the cabin, oriented our boots directly in front of the heater, and got comfortable. We were up until well after midnight.

    Day 2:

    The three of us were out of bed around 10:00am, and temperatures were still barely above zero. None of us were terribly anxious to leave the warmth of our climate-controlled cabin. We finally mustered up some motivation, and were the roads heading to Tahquamenon Falls State Park by noon. While a noon start hardly constitutes motivation in the eyes of, well, anyone – we were perfectly content with our midday start.

    The trails to Tahquamenon wound their way through a dense forest of snow-covered trees. I spent the day in awe of our surroundings, and thoroughly enjoying the novelty of pedaling a bicycle on fresh snow.


    The trails twisted and turned their way through the Upper Peninsula's forest.
    The trails twisted and turned their way through the Upper Peninsula’s forest.

    The trail, quite conveniently, brought us directly to Tahquamenon Falls Brewery and Pub, and we felt obliged to stop. Because of our late start, daylight was limited, and in the interest of making camp before dark, we limited ourselves to an hour at the pub. We all ate pasties – a local delicacy – and I enjoyed a Black Bear Stout.


    Our triumphant arrival at Taquamenon Falls Brewery and Pub.
    Our triumphant arrival at Taquamenon Falls Brewery and Pub.

    From the beginning of our trip, Jason was determined to have a campfire. While I maintained a healthy dose of skepticism, he was determined, and before leaving the bar, had convinced the bartender to sell us some of their firewood. We strapped the bundle of firewood to my bike’s rear rack, and headed out to find a campsite. It wasn’t long before we found a suitable clearing amongst the trees, and got to work on setting up camp.


    Firewood strapped to my bike's rear rack. This turned out to be a remarkably excellent idea.
    Firewood strapped to my bike’s rear rack. This turned out to be a remarkably excellent idea.

    Ty and I began stomping out a spot for the tent while Jason began gathering dead branches for a fire. Our tent was up before dark, and Jason – despite my skepticism – had gotten an excellent fire started.  I got the stove fired up and started boiling water for our whiskey-ciders, an ultra-critical component of snow camping. After we’d been sufficiently warmed by the fire and cider, we ate.


    Skratch Labs Cider and Whiskey, Good To-Go food, and an excellent campsite. Life couldn't have been much better.
    Skratch Labs Cider and Whiskey, Good To-Go food, and an excellent campsite. Life couldn’t have been much better.

    Fortunately for me, the stars were aligning: not only were the temperatures in the low 20’s (which felt remarkably warm), I was enjoying good food. Somehow, the folks and Good To-Go in Maine had figured out how to make delicious dehydrated food (previously a misnomer), and I was grateful for their efforts. I ate Thai Curry AND Risotto around a now roaring fire (Jason and Ty, while I was boiling water, went into wood-hoarding overdrive and collected a surplus of dead branches) while drinking delicious whiskey.


    Thai Curry, a campfire, and a warm jacket. Excellent.
    Thai Curry, a campfire, and a warm jacket. Excellent.

    I feel like I’ve spent enough days in the backcountry eating dehydrated food to understand that, yes, things do taste better after a difficult day on the trail, but the food from Good To-Go is different. So different, in fact, that I’ve eaten it at home on several occasions. It was a solid treat. We spent the night around Jason’s fire; drinking, yelling, and indulging in conversation only appropriate for the back woods of Michigan.


    Perfect Campsite, Perfect Night.
    Perfect Campsite, Perfect Night.

    Day 3:

    Fresh snow had fallen overnight, and after getting out of our bags, we took some time to appreciate our campsite. It was an excellent spot that we were sad to leave, but we reluctantly packed up and got on our bikes. We pedaled up the trail to Upper Tahquamenon Falls, and spent some time enjoying the view.


    Tahquamenon Falls was, as Jason called it, “Epic nature.”

    The trails were just as beautiful as the previous day, and even had some small climbs. We pedaled until we stumbled upon a small hill that made for a perfect landing. Ty kicked some snow into place for a lip, and thus began Ty and Jason’s 30 minute “Backwoods Big-Air Exhibition.” We considered this stop a big success, and decided that – along with skids – we needed to find more spots to catch air.

    We continued riding, talking frequently and stopping occasionally. Sometimes Jason would find a small rock drop he’d want to ride off of. Other times, Ty would find a snow bank he felt needed some roosting. This resulted in hundreds of pictures of Jason crashing. The snowmobile trail eventually stopped twisting and turning, and the miles, which became a bit more monotonous, wore on well into the night.  We eventually made it to a small town and a bar.


    Jason Lowetz on the third day of riding.
    Jason Lowetz on the third day of riding.

    Burgers, beer, and whiskey were followed by a ride to the nearest motel. BMX-inspired riding down the sidewalks led to nearly a dozen crashes, but we arrived at the motel none-the-worse, and were happy to be out of our cycling boots and into a shared twin bed.

    Day 4:

    We were 80 miles from home, and our average speed the previous days had been about 6 mph. We decided to skip the snowmobile trails and spend our final day riding county roads, which turned out to be a wonderful idea. The roads were desolate and shockingly beautiful. At times, a tailwind would pick up the thin layer of snow on the roads and blow it along side us, which gave the impression of hovering along on a moving highway.  We saw almost no cars on these county roads – a real treat for any cyclist.


     Desolate county roads in the Upper Peninsula - a great way to finish our last day of riding.
    Desolate county roads in the Upper Peninsula – a great way to finish our last day of riding.

    We did wheelies, stopped at another bar, attempted front tire skids, and watched the sun set over the great lakes.  As is typical on the last day of any outing, sentimentality took hold, and we began reminiscing for hours while riding. I got the feeling that life was treating all of us well, and that my friends (along with myself) were generally content and happy. We all agreed that, one way or another, we needed to make trips like this happen more often.

    After almost 200 miles in the cold, we were happy to be back in St. Ignace, but sad to see our reunion coming to an end. In the spirit of our trip, we spent our last night at a bar in Traverse City, eating food and drinking cocktails. Serious matters were up for discussion: How much would we exaggerate our trips mileage? After all, something like “386” sounds a whole lot more impressive than “almost 200.” And what about photos? How much photoshopping would be necessary to improve our physiques, facial hair, etc? All of this needed to be settled, and we deliberated deep into the night.

    And about that next trip we all agreed needed to happen soon? Tickets have been booked for “Buck Macho’s Texas Stroll” in May, when Chet Bearclaw’s close friend, Buck Macho, has organized 6 days of riding of central Texas’ Hill Country.

    Until then, sayonara: We’ll see you in Texas.


    Written by: Jesse Scarantino

    Photos by: Ty Hathaway