What are we doing
We rolled into Houghton, Michigan, wet with drizzle and burnt out from four straight days averaging fifty miles. A fifty-mile day isn’t any particular achievement as bike touring goes—a hundred would be—but being out in the wind, the occasional rain, the kind of autumn chill that soaks into your core, it was enough, and when we passed a coffee shop we unanimously decided to park the bikes and sit down. Cradling hot mugs full of comfort, we played cribbage and talked. “You guys,” Ava said. “We’re biking around Lake Superior. It’s so far. What are we doing.”
Nobody told us about the mountains. They told us that there were places along Canada’s north shore where we might not be able to find groceries for a few days at a time, and they told us there were no bike shops in the 770 or so kilometers between Thunder Bay and Sault Ste. Marie, and they told us about the apple fritters at Batchawana Bay and the great bike shop called Vélorution that you can camp behind in the Sault. But we didn’t hear about the most salient part of our Ontario section until we were coming up on the town of Nipigon, population 1,700, northernmost town on the lake. There, after a hard day of riding on sporadically paved shoulder on a concurrency of both Trans-Canadian Highways alongside every truck going from one Canadian coast to the other, a gremlin suddenly overtook me on a bicycle, cutting sharp turns on the roadway and grinning enormously.
Departure day for our Lake Superior bike trip came with a downpour. That was okay. None of us were quite ready. I spent the day laundering my sleeping bag, and in the evening we talked gear. It ended up that the day we’d set to leave was actually the day we finally started talking seriously about gear. We also spent a lot of the next day figuring out our gear, and I had some doubts that we’d actually make it out the gate, but—at 3:45 in the afternoon—we finally rode down the gravel driveway of the country house I’ve been staying in, and took the first pedal strokes of the thirteen hundred miles around the world’s largest lake.
It’s summertime! Don’t you just feel like going outside, exploring, spending time with friends, jumping into lakes?
I’ve been trying to haiku more, the last few days. It makes me pay attention.
The syruping season usually lasts about three weeks, from the first time it warms up enough for the sap to flow, until the tree starts turning all the sucrose in its sap into cellulose, which it uses to build leaves and begin spring. This year it lasted seven weeks. When I was planning, I figured I’d be there the entire time, because I had the whole month of March and a little of April to spare. But spring teased us week after week: we’d have a few days above 40°, and think, “Ah, good, as soon as this melts the snow, the roots will be warm enough to send up sap.” And then it’d go back down to highs of 31°. “Maybe next week.” Well, next week and next week brought the second coldest April on record in Minnesota. Canada geese, trumpeter swans, and sandhill cranes who had winged back up in mid-March with the breath of warm promise in the air were stuck flying around in circles, looking for something to eat in the snow or in the little patch of open water under the Independence Street bridge where a stream brought deep water up to the surface. I woke up on April Fools’ Day to 3½ inches of snow on my tent.
Lately I’ve been spending most of my time at or around the freezing point. Tall old maples, mixing with basswoods and oaks, head on up toward the sky, intertwining their fingers up above to roof us while leaving only their trunks down below for us to wander among. I can see all the way down to the lake, where, past its fringe of dense cattail marsh, the ice is still thick but slowly darkening. Last year spring came in February and never left. This year it still hasn’t found its way and there’s only a week until April.