Jan 17, 2014

Looping Lake Superior

NOTE: This was an article I wrote for Lake Superior Magazine. The published version was pretty dramatically different than the article I wrote, but I was in a lot of post-surgery pain and I’m pretty happy with the published version, too.

In early-summer 2011, my brother, Larry, and I began to plan to make a weeklong loop around Lake Superior. I’d done the Superior loop a few times before, always by myself, always in hurry, and always taking the east-to-west section through Canada and short-circuiting the return from Sault Ste. Marie straight back to my home near St. Paul. If I take the shortest, quickest path possible, the whole circle amounts to less than 1300 miles and can be ridden in one hard day or a more relaxed day-and-a-half.

Larry wasn’t interested in participating in a marathon blast around the lake or sleeping on the ground, so I promised to behave myself and packed my 250cc dual-purpose bike for the trip. With Larry on my 650 road bike, he would set the pace and our trip would be more vacation than long distance (LD) competition.

Taking this approach meant we’d be taking advantage of a motorcycle’s best qualities, too. A motorcycle can go practically anywhere. Those narrow, rough, out-of-the-way country roads that are always awkward and often practically painful in a car, even an SUV, are perfect for motorcycles. Ian Ellis described motorcycle travel, ““For me, motorcycling is an adventure and it’s not convenient. I’m not trying to make it as easy as possible, but I am trying to make it as much of an adventure as possible. I’m sure if I took a ten-day trip and it didn’t rain at least once, I’d feel cheated.  

When you travel by motorcycle, you’re mostly by yourself, even if you are in a group. I see my brother once every two to five years, so using that time for a motorcycle adventure means that most of the trip we’re no more in contact with each other than if we were back home. However, we both love motorcycles. We’re both grumpy old guys, me more than Larry. Picking a destination and hanging out when we stop is a good compromise between togetherness and our hermit-ish natural selves. Travelling by motorcycle, we get the best of both worlds; at the end of the day and during breaks, we get to hang out with each other but during the bulk of the ride we get to be on our own.

For a motorcyclist, the Lake Superior Circle Tour (also known as the “Lake Superior Loop”) can represent almost any kind of trip you want it to be. On the highways around the greatest of Great Lakes, you will see any brand or style of motorcycle and any type of motorcyclist. There are comfortable routes that are no more demanding than freeway travel and there are roads and trails that will test hard-core adventure riders. You can camp in remote wilderness sites or you can stay in historic five-star hotels so luxurious and formal that they require a jacket and tie for dinner service.

Since 2007, crossing the US border from Canada has required a passport. In 2009, Canada required passports from US citizens. So, before you head for the border, get your paperwork sorted out. If your driving record is less than spectacular, Canada may not be an easy travel destination. If you have had a DWI, DUI, or other criminal conviction in the last 10 years, you will not be admitted into the country.[1] If you have a criminal record, entering the US from Canada can be complicated. The US does not prohibit visitors for a DUI/DWI, but if you have multiple convictions and/or other misdemeanors on your record, you may be denied entry.[2]

For those of you who like to feel the wind in your hair, part of this trip is going to require some adjustment. Minnesota and Wisconsin only require helmets for 18-and-under riders and passengers, but both states require eye protection. Michigan and all Canadian provinces require helmets for riders and passengers. There are a few other concerns to consider, too. For example, Minnesota and Wisconsin require daytime headlights and Canada prohibits radar detectors and in-helmet music.[3]

The two main Lake Superior border crossings are open 24-hours/day, but getting through the checkpoints can be time-consuming. The International Bridge that separates the two countries at Sault Ste. Marie is a busy location, with lots of larryonbridge truck and commuter traffic. It’s not unusual to spend an hour or two watching ships unload while parked on the bridge. On a hot summer weekend, that can get uncomfortable in riding gear and a helmet. I recommend carrying a fair amount of water to stay hydrated. Traffic moves slowly enough to push the bike over the bridge, but if you can’t do that be sure to fill up before you get into the border crossing traffic. There are no fuel stops between the two national checkpoints.

Motorcycle tourism is a big deal on the Ontario side of the lake. Paul Pepe, manager of the Tourism Thunder Bay Office, said, “The ‘Ride Lake Superior’ initiative (www.RideLakeSuperior.com) started last spring to capitalize on the growing popularity of motorcycle touring and capture what has already been a growing market for communities around the Lake.

“Lake Superior is simply an epic ride destination. At 1300 miles (2000 km) this coastal ride weaves through one province and three states. It’s a unique international ride right in the heart of the continent. The popularity of it is that its mainly two-lane blacktop that weaves along spectacular coastline that changes regularly. It’s also peppered with a plethora of unique, authentic, and eclectic communities, attractions, events, and some amazing pristine parks and protected areas.”

There are also resources to help you plan your trip around the lake from the US side. UP Cruising (http://www.UPCruising.com) produces a “free Motorcycle Guide to the U.P. of Michigan” that you can find at any of the Michigan Welcome Centers. The guide lists motorcycle-friendly businesses across the Michigan UP.

On the east end of the Wisconsin peninsula, Highway 13 takes you along the coastline, into historic fishing villages, and through some of the best views of Lake Superior from the Wisconsin side of the lake. For the dual-purpose rider, there are an assortment of dirt roads that take you into the forests and parks of the peninsula and for the rest of us, well-maintained two lane highways loop the area. Bayfield is a great stopping place, including a variety of hotels, motels, and bed and breakfasts. The Bayfield Ferry to the Apostle Islands is well worth a day trip. You can ferry your motorcycle across and explore Madeline Island and stay in the great campgrounds in Big Bay State Park.

The main road toward Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, Highway 2, takes you through old mining, logging, industrial, and railroad towns, several of which are now casino towns with low cost lodging options. If you are more adventurous and can manage at least 150 miles between fuel stops, stick with the coastline following Wisconsin County Highway 519 into Porcupine Mountains State Park. This route sets you up nicely for a back roads route to the Great Sand Bay and some amazing scenery and isolated camping, cabin, or motel accommodations along Michigan’s Highway 26 right to the tip of the UP. The roads are good, but fuel and food stops can be hard to come by. One of the advantages to a motorcycle tour is that road condition is less important than when you are in a car (known as “cages” to motorcyclists). I worry about beating up my car and passengers, I look forward to an adventure on my motorcycle.

2011 Lake Superior Trip 147 The 1940’s and 50’s were the economic boom years for many of the towns on the Circle Tour. A lot of the motels reflect the years when Americans first hit the road in the family station wagon, in that great tradition called “the family vacation.” Experienced motorcyclists value the added security of being able to park the bike close to the room, which is one sign of a “motorcycle friendly” motel.

Highway US 41/WI 28 across the UP toward Sault Ste. Marie is a scenic route past the Hiawatha National Forest, Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, Seney National Wildlife Refuge, Newberry State Forest, and the Sault Ste. Marie State Forest areas. Every one of those amazing parks is connected to the main highway through side roads that offer adventure and camping. There are more fun side trips on this route than you will have time to explore, but don’t let that stop you from going off the main road and into the parks and small communities.

Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario is a motorcyclists’ hometown. The city is home to Honda, Yamaha, Kawasaki, and Harley Davidson dealers. There is no shortage of motorcycle service shops, either. The motorcycle-friendly attitude of the city’s commercial and state-owned facility employees make it possible to leave fully-loaded motorcycles and explore the parks and businesses.

SNC10653 As much as there is to see in Sault Ste. Marie, one of the reasons for circling the Big Lake is the road out of town; King’s Highway 17. Just north of the city, the Trans-Canada highway hugs the lake and provides some of the best views of the trip. The cities along the coast of Pancake Bay Provincial Park are picturesque and inviting. One of the many highlights of the Loop is Lake Superior Provincial Park. From either direction, the park is an exceptional experience. This section of Highway 17 provides an excellent combination of mountain-like riding with a coastline on the south shoulder of the road. Every rest stop and every scenic view turnoff is an opportunity for spectacular views and accessible adventure.

The road pulls away from the lake near Wawa, Ontario, but that doesn’t diminish the ride or the scenery. There are hundreds of lakes, marshes, and wetlands along this section and you want to keep your eyes open for wildlife. There are 80 mammal species, 400 varieties of birds, and numerous reptiles, amphibians, insects, and all sorts of specialized plants along this section. If you are riding at dawn or dusk, keep your eyes open for wildlife on the road. Meeting a Woodland Caribou, moose, or Timber Wolf at speed could be a catastrophic end to your vacation plans.

There are an easy half-dozen off-highway excursions worth exploring between Rossport and Nipigon, including the amazing Ruby Lake just east of Nipigon; and that many again between Nipigon and Thunder Bay. Minnesota rider, Tony Kellen, recommends a “stop at Rainbow Falls Provincial Park. You ride uphill a short distance on a twisty road and park in the lot. You can walk a short distance to view the falls from multiple positions.” Sleeping Giant Provincial Park is high on that list and the road to the well-named Silver Islet is an off-the-beaten-path gem. Silver Islet was home to one of Ontario’s first silver mines and today it is a cross between a ghost town and private summer cottages.

Thunder Bay is another motorcycle-friendly Canadian city. It’s early in the "Ride Lake Superior" promotion, but there are already several businesses sporting "Ride Lake Superior motorcycle parking only" spots and many places had marked motorcycle spaces from before this promotion began. The city is home to several motorcycle dealerships, including Moto Guzzi, KTM, Kawasaki, Harley Davidson, and Yamaha.

Finally, no real motorcyclist making the Superior Loop can avoid stopping at RiderWearhouse in Duluth; the home of Aerostich, the original all-weather motorcyclist gear. Stop in, meet Mr. Subjective (Andy Goldfine), and tell him “the Geezer sent me.” Andy is one of two motorcyclists to have crossed frozen Lake Superior from Minnesota to Wisconsin and he and his company are motorcycling legends.

Once you’ve done the Loop, it becomes a regular destination. After circling the lake three times, I still find places I missed and that just means I have a good excuse to do it all again.

Additional Information:

Some other motorcyclists have contributed their favorite Lake Superior Loop goalposts and I can’t ignore their excellent advice:

Chris Hughes (KTM Adventure)

Mike Etlicher (Honda ST110A)

Ian Ellis (Aprilia Futura with his son on a Suzuki SV650)

  • · I absolutely love coming down the hill into Lake Superior Provincial Park and the park itself!

Brad Kopp (Moto Guzzi California 1100ie)

Molly Gilbert (Yamaha FZ1)

  • · Mackinac Island is (or should be) your destination—voted one of the best island destinations in America and featured in November's Vanity Fair—this island is also accessible only by boat or plane. Its 600 year-round residents get around by foot, bicycle, or horse-drawn carriages. One of the main attractions here is the magnificent Grand Hotel; boasting 385 rooms & built by the The Michigan Central Railroad, Grand Rapids and Indiana Railroad, and Detroit and Cleveland Steamship Navigation Company. The Grand Hotel was named by the National Trust for Historic Preservation as One of a Dozen Distinctive Destinations.

Loop Experience Interviews:

Thomas Day “I have never made a trip around the circle without a guide. At least once every trip, I’ve had an eagle or hawk swoop down in front of the bike no more than twenty feet above me. They always lead me down the highway for several hundred feet before they fly off. I don’t feel a trip around the lake is even started until I have found my flying escort.”

Liz Young (Brad Kopp’s wife), when talking about their trip around the lake, “What a fabulous trip! Brad takes me to places that are so exquisite. The ride was so wonderful because it wasn’t just the lake, we weren’t always close to the lake. It was all the hills and the trees. The sunrises were beautiful. The sunsets were beautiful. I have seen a lot of places. I have lived in a lot of places; I’ve lived in Colorado, California, the Caribbean. I have never seen a sunset like what we saw over Lake Superior. Brad and I went to school in Duluth. We had known Lake Superior for a long time. For both of us, it has been a great place to vacation, but together on the motorcycle, it was even better.”

The advantage of seeing the lake by motorcycle, over car travel is “I can feel it. Even as a passenger, you can smell it, you can hear it. It’s so tactile. It’s so in your face. It’s almost exhausting. When we stop, we can’t even talk for a while because we’ve taken in so much. Then, we compare. We say ‘Oh, did you see that? Did you see this?’ I get goosebumps. Sorry.”

Her memory of their trip was that “It was so perfect. The bike was so comfortable. It held everything we needed it to hold. It never broke down. We’ve ridden to Seattle, Colorado. I’ve seen a lot of the country that I wouldn’t have seen if I hadn’t been on a ‘Guzzi.”

Ian Ellis has done the Lake Circle with his son, Nathan, as a passenger and with his son on his own motorcycle. His favorite memory of the Circle comes from Superior Provincial Park, “When you come down that hill and you first see that massive Old Woman Rock, it’s just an amazing view from a motorcycle. I love that park for the waterfalls, geology, and white sand beach.”

“For me, motorcycling is an adventure and it’s not convenient. I’m not trying to make it as easy as possible, but I am trying to make it as much of an adventure as possible. I’m sure if I took a ten-day trip and it didn’t rain at least once, I’d feel cheated. My son, Nathan, wrote a successful college entrance essay about getting wet on the motorcycle and how he turned what could have been a miserable day into a fun adventure.”

“Another thing that happens for me on the bike that doesn’t happen in the car is that I see stuff and I go exploring. One of the years that Nathan and I were in Ontario, we went to the amethyst mines and the road was washed out. I was on a Ducati ST2 loaded down with our luggage and Nathan was on the back. It was really cool to be able to make it up there and it was something to feel a sense of accomplishment about. Where as if I went up there in a car I might have turned around or though ‘I got the car dirty and didn’t enjoy that.’ When I sold that bike it still had that Ontario clay baked onto it.”

“I stop more spontaneously on a bike than in a car. Whether it’s a photograph, or a bite to eat at a bakery, it just seems more like it’s meant to happen that way. The Nanboujou Lodge, for example. It’s a hotel from the 1920’s and the interior is amazing. It is a time capsule. We saw the place and thought, ‘Let’s go there for lunch.’ A couple of years later, I took my wife there.”

“We probably would not have explored Superior Provincial Park in a car. We probably would have just got out, taken a couple of pictures, and we wouldn’t have walked all the way down to that gorgeous beach.”

“You sleep better having done it on the bike. Whether it is because you’re cold and wet or you had a really good day.”

“Traveling with a child is absolute torture for one of the two of you, while you’re in the car. On a bike, it’s an absolute joy. I don’t know how you explain that to someone who’s experience is only in a car, but it’s intended to be a silent, parallel pursuit while you are riding. And then you stop and talk about all the cool things you’ve seen. By the way, I do not like communication units. You end up with the same experience as in a car. I prefer to try and make mental notes, ‘I want to remember this’ and a few days later you remember ‘Oh, I forgot to mention this. Did you see it?’”

“When my son and I talk motorcycles or travel together we don’t argue. If we were to travel in a car, that probably wouldn’t be the case.”

Mike Etlicher “You see a lot more of the country that you’re driving through than when you’re in a car. Your head is on a gimbal. You can look up and see the gulls above you. While a a convertible can almost do the same thing, sitting on a couple hundred pounds of steel is way different than being  surrounded by several thousand pounds of steel. You’re literally and figuratively more part of your surroundings.”

Mike has done the Circle three times, “four times, if you include the Team Strange [long distance events] rides.” He explains, “It’s a different experience every time. It’s like reading a book. You experience something different every time you read a book, even though you’ve read it several times over your lifetime. I experience things differently, depending on who I’m with. I’m sure I’ll do it again, someday. ”

One trip was with some friends, who left before he could get away. “They were leaving on Wednesday, from the Cities to Duluth and doing the trip clockwise. I couldn’t leave until mid-afternoon on Friday. Since I move more quickly than that group and cover more ground in a day, I joined them in Wawa the next morning.

On the way to catching up to the guys, I was riding along in rain and fog in really crappy night time riding weather. My [Honda] Pacific Coast didn’t have the best headlights. Every once in a while, I’d barely miss a moose. I didn’t see it until it went past my elbow. Unless you really have a good reason to be out there, it’s probably not a good idea to be riding at night.”

“I have a ride that I organize every fall. We go to Grand Marais for Friday night, have dinner, and hang out in the pub. Saturday morning we go to the trail center and have breakfast. Every year in the past ten, I hear people say they’ve seen a moose on the Gunflint Trail. I’ve never seen a moose there. Going across Superior through Canada, I’ve never not seen one.”

“Cars are Point A to Point B devices, while motorcycles are certainly that but are fantastic for meandering. I’m more apt to explore on a bike than I am in a car.”

One trip, the day after a day of riding in perfect fall weather, “I woke to 3 ½ inches of slushy snow covering the bike and the road. My cell phone didn’t work up there and I was nervous about being able to get back to work on time. So, I felt motivated to keep moving. Riding in slushy snow in the middle of the Canadian wild between Marathon and Wawa was an experience. I stopped in a cafĂ© in Marathon and I was never so happy to have something warm to eat and drink.”

“Up near Bayfield, a lot of the filling stations are no longer open. Some of the areas up north, fuel is pretty scarce.”

Molly Gilbert has been around the circle as a passenger, a long distance competitor, and as a solo rider. She rides the Circle because, “It’s the largest body of water in Minnesota.  It allows you to feel as though you’re riding next to the ocean. You have the smells, the sights, and the sounds of that. You also have people participating in events like the Minnesota 1000 [a long distance riding event]. I’ve done a few of the Minnesota 1000’s and the Great Lakes Rally, that was all five great lakes in a few days. Mark Kiecker got me into it with two-ups (rider and passenger) and we won second place in the Team Strange Great Lakes Challenge.”

“Riding gives you the hyper-awareness that you don’t need in a car. The extreme alertness that you need on a motorbike allows you not only to feel the wind in your hair, but against your body. Nature is coming at you from all directions and you’re not protected by a big metal cage. You’re out in the open and that’s about as exposed as you can get. Most people have to fly to California and ride the Pacific Coast Highway to get the kind of feeling you get riding around Lake Superior.”

“On the way back, on my own on my very first bike, an R65 BMW, I decided ‘I don’t want to do the usual route’ and I ended up going off the main road and got lost. I ended up deep in some forest at dusk, worrying about deer, and I’m all alone, not an experienced rider. I have never felt such fear in my life.” She explained why that experience made her want to go back, “I went back during the day and planned it out well. But that story describes how important the elements are when you’re on a bike. You don’t have to think about how dark it’s getting in a car, or how cold, or if it’s raining, or it conditions are about to change. You have to be so in tune with nature. Nature is a big draw to the lake and that area and it’s what draws a lot of us to motorcycles. You have to watch the skies, the patterns, the clouds, and the wind direction. Who does that? No one does that in a car. All of a sudden you’re altering your route because you’re seeing a very large front come through and you’ll alter your route by a couple hundred miles to avoid that.”

Molly has taken the roads less travelled, often, but “I can’t tell you where they were or what roads they were. I just go until I get lost. I have no sense of direction. I should have a GPS, but I’ve never owned one.”

“I’ve done the Circle both directions, but I prefer going up on the Michigan side and coming back the Minnesota side. Most of us go to Duluth, first, because Aerostich is such a huge draw for all us that we go that way so we can get there.”

Larry Day rode the Circle for the first time this summer. His strongest memories of our ride was the North Shore, “It was more mountainous, hilly, and it feels like riding in the Rockies with an ocean on one side. There was a lot to see in that area. It was so overwhelming that it’s hard to pick out a highlight.”

“I think you’re more likely to take off-roads because you’re out in the elements and you see a lot better. You should probably see them the same, but you don’t. It’s easier to take off on a whim and go down that road and look around. You’re more adventurous on a motorcycle. I know I am.”

Larry’s strongest memory was when he pulled off of the road near Gravel River Provincial Nature Preserve. “I went up on a road, way up high. There was a parking space and a bench at a scenic view. I sat on top of the hillside waiting for you for a while. It was a great view in both directions.”


[1] It is possible to be “rehabilitated,” as little as 5 years after you’ve served your sentence. You can apply this waiver through the Canadian Citizenship and Immigration offices, but allow 6-8 weeks for the paperwork. http://www.cic.gc.ca/english/information/applications/rehabil.asp

[2] The U.S. Customs and Border  Protection website provides information about applying for non-immigrant temporary entry. http://www.cbp.gov/xp/cgov/travel/id_visa/indamiss_can_info.xml

[3] For a quick review of other motorcycle-specific regulations, check out http://www.calsci.com/motorcycleinfo/PrintLaws.html.

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