A Beautiful Saturday Morning
by Dennis Bean-Larson
Last Saturday morning, I drove up to Harbor Springs with my friend Ross Hickman. Thaaah-Haaah-Baaah as they say up there, noses stuck up in the air. Our plan was to ride the North Country Trail, a section we'd never ridden before.
We met at 7am at Almira, had breakfast at the Petoskey Big-Boy, and got to Trailhead #1, near Conway, at 8.45. We would ride to Trailhead #5 and back, a total of thirty miles--all singletrack, though how gnarly or tame we had no idea. We filled Camelbacks and pedaled out under warming temperatures and a sunshine that had nearly finished burning through some light lingering fog.
The footpath starts nicely, plenty wide enough but washed-out sandy. It's been pretty well traveled, bikers, hikers, probably a few horses too, but fortunately no telltale signs of twist-grip motor-cycles. After a half mile the trail starts up, and up, and up, and well...
I should tell you that I have recently converted my mountain bike to a single-speed. I took off all the unnecessary garbage: ugly shifters, sticky deraillers, rusty cables. All that junk is safely stashed in a box at Marsh Road. Now, riding singletrack in and around the VASA on a single 38x17 gear is fine. But a trail that goes up for three-quarters of a mile is a different story. Especially when I haven't warmed up yet. Needless to say, we were pretty well warmed up by the time we got to the top.
Hey, this trail is coool, man, northern Michigan singletrack, lots of roots, a few rocks here and there, northern hardwoods, up and down--yahoo!!
Six miles or so to Trailhead #2, and two more to #3. High ridges, plank bridges, wet lowlands, uphills and downs, just great singletrack. What a beautiful morning! I strip off my undershirt and Ross his vest. It's warm, it's sunny, we couldn't ask for more!
Here's Trailhead #3, and now we're dumped out on a gravel road and we follow the blue paint on trees, fenceposts, and telephone poles past some homes to Pleasantview Road. Across and up the road 1/4 mile, there's two markers. Watch carefully now, wait, right there, look, the trail turns off the pavement back onto soggy lowland singletrack.
"Whoa! What's that smell?" I ask Ross.
"Geez, I don't know, some kind o'weeds?"
We wonder. It's swampy here, the trail is low and our tires make a sucking sound as we ride past dangling berry branches, the kind that scratch the hell out of your arm if you're not careful. Sure enough, both of my forearms get totally raked. The blood from my well-pumped body flows grotesquely down both arms--my badge of courage, my mountain biker's tattoo.
"Hey, there's that smell again."
We ride away from the marsh, snaking our way up a valley to the ridge ahead on a gnarly root-tangled trail, shady in the fall sunlight and loose with rocky soils, a place where Ross can use all those damn gears and simply ride away from me. We roll down the other side, fingers cramped from braking, eyes darting from rock to root, sharp corner with big rock, down to the bottom and... Hey! Watch your arms! There's more prickers, and...
"There's that smell again!"
Must be some kind of fragrant weed. It's a woodsy smell, not putrid, not fresh like flowers, not like pines, not a smell I can remember either.
"And damn, now what's this?"
Logging. Skidder tracks. An empty Marlboro box. An empty Twinkee wrapper. Tree slashings. Maples shattered. Earth churned. Can't they just leave these trees alone? Then... I think of soft clear maple flooring and I understand. Maybe. But why so much? And why right here? Why on this trail? Why wreck my beautiful Saturday morning?
We walk our bikes, we carry our bikes, we climb over fallen trees. We piss and moan. We curse the loggers. It's maybe a half-mile, but not knowing how far it goes makes it seem like forever. Ah, here's some trail that's fit to ride, hop on and make a mental note to write the DNR and say how crappy a job these logger-maniacs are doing.
And, here's Trailhead #4!
"Ross? How many miles on your computer anyway?"
Gee-Zuz, we've got four more miles and then fifteen more back to the car. Man, this single gear is kickin' my ass, not much snap left in these legs. I done left that snap back on the trail somewhere.
Hey, there's three cars parked here, and some bike tracks, they're headed towards #5. We'll need to watch for them coming back. Hey cool, we'll see somebody on the trail! We're nearly to #5, picking our way carefully down another rocky, rooted path and we yield the trail to the uphill riders--breathing hard--first a woman, then a man, both older, our age, in their fifties or maybe older, they're hammerin', they smile, whew, hello, whew, nice day, whew.
"Three more comin'," they say.
We pick up a bit of speed and keep our eyes peeled. Where did that saying come from anyway? Another half mile and we meet the other three, one guy, two gals, we howdy and remark about the beautiful day again. They know it too. We all smile. It's quite a morning. Then, in a flash, after a traverse through a red pine plantation, we arrive at #5, fifteen miles done, fifteen more to the car, my ass is hurting. I remember driving home from our cottage in my Dad's big Buick after Labor Day. Time always seems to go faster on the way home. I've done thirty miles before, many times. Hell, I can ride all day, gimme that trail! I swallow a Clif bar in two bites, take a swig from my Camelback, and we're off. We wonder if we'll be able to catch those other riders, we doubt it, they've got too much of a lead. We try.
True to those childhood memories, the time flies faster on our return and soon here's #4. Those five folks are still there, putting bikes on cars and no doubt reliving the morning's adventures just like we soon will. We stop and exchange a more formal howdy.
"Where you from?" they ask.
"TC, and Central Lake," we reply.
"We're from right here."
We tell them about the logging, they hadn't ridden that part, it was still beyond.
"Oh, yeah," they say, "the bear hunters were really pissed off about the logging. Guess they've started cutting, eh?"
"The bear hunters?" we ask.
"Oh, sure. That next section has lots of bears... You can smell 'em sometimes," they say. Ross and I look at each other.
"Smell 'em?... Was that that smell?"
And speaking of crap, was that bear crap on the trail? We'd thought it was horse crap. It was a big pile, like two gallons, a foot high. We rode around it.
"How big are these bears anyway?" We're sounding like a couple of freakin' tourists now.
"Oh they're not big - two hundred pounds, two-fifty maybe. We see some a couple times a year."
"Do they eat mountain bikers?" we giggle, now really sounding like fudgies.
"Grab yer leg?"
"Like red bikes?"
"Naw, they usually run, but you do have to watch for 'em."
We will, I gar-an-tee you we will. As we ride off onto the trail, my front tire is nearly rubbing Ross' rear. We stick together for the first mile or so, wishing we had a bike-bell, a whistle, some sleigh bells even.
"See anything up there, Ross?"
Well, we finished our morning ride in just under four hours, arriving somehow unfulfilled and somehow relieved. We hadn't seen one bear, though we sure smelled 'em, and saw their trail marker. Maybe next time.
A great ride, an awesome trail on a beautiful morning. It's just wonderful to be alive.