Great Lakes Project

“Life’s challenges are not supposed to paralyze you, they’re supposed to help you discover who you are.”
– Bernice Johnson Reagon

What began as an impulsive road trip and solo bike ride has now become a “project”. Almost 20 years ago, just a few years after taking up cycling somewhat seriously, I found myself with a couple of weeks of vacation and an urge to just get away. Looking at the map for possible destinations, I spotted Lake Ontario, did some quick research, and hit the road.  From the moment I finished that ride, I began thinking about the other lakes. Although Lake Superior was the primary focus of my obsession, the idea of circling each of the Great Lakes became more and more reasonable and this project was born.

In addition, the idea of committing to a long-term project such as this was interesting.  Inspired by folks, both young and old, who accomplish such feats as cycling around the world (Mark Beaumont), summiting the highest peak on every continent (Jordan Romero), summiting all the 8000 meter mountains without oxygen (Ed Viesturs), or sailing solo around the world (Jessica Watson), I began to realize the appeal of such a project. The planning, preparation, and time management required to accomplish such a task while still maintaining any amount of balance within ones life is quite a challenge. And although 8000 meter summits may not be within my reach, we can all find something to challenge us and stretch our potential.  Circling the Great Lakes has become my personal challenge.

3095 miles down, 1200 miles to go…

Great Lakes

Great Lakes

Lake Ontario – September, 1993 (540 miles)

This is the trip that started it all. I wish I had kept a journal and took more photos but at least I was able to dig up a handful of old pictures. Now if I can just figure out where they were taken.  I do remember that I did a bit more camping on this trip-probably 3 out 4 nights were in campgrounds. It’s also interesting to remember that this was clearly the pre-technology era of cycle touring. No Garmin GPS, no digital camera, no cellphone, certainly no laptop or tablet, and no worrying about recharging a half-dozen devices every night. Oh how the times have changed.

Lake Erie – July, 2012 (610 miles)

Almost twenty years later, the project continues.

As you can see above, I skipped the section between Detroit and Toledo. Three days of incessant headwind and no good route from Windsor, Ontario into Detroit and then down Toledo had me just about ready to bail. As it turned out, I was able to rent a car with a drop-off in Toledo and eliminate the leg of the trip that I simply wasn’t that excited about. If I had been able to go all the way back to Sandusky, I would have done so. And although the last day was once again into a demoralizing headwind, the final miles from Toledo and ferry rides between the islands and into Sandusky made it worthwhile. I’m already looking into a short loop between Sandusky, Pelee Island, Leamington and then around the western section of the lake to close the 40 mile gap and complete the route.

Lake Michigan, Northern End – August, 2012 (550 miles)

I have to say, this was probably the most scenic section I’ve cycled to date. From about 25 miles west of St. Ignace all the way to Ludington was beautiful. The Upper Peninsula was challenging with the distance between services and accommodations, but Highway 2, although highly traveled, had a wide shoulder and smooth surface. I was a bit surprised with the amount of climbing that began just outside of Traverse City but I guess I[d better get used to it as it’s only going to get more pronounced as I head to Huron and Superior.

I really wish I had been able to continue on and complete the lake in a single expedition but life just didn’t allow it. The SS Badger carferry, however, was a great way to end the trip by crossing the lake back to Manitowoc. It’s an interesting vessel with a lot of history. Hopefully I’ll be hitching another ride next Spring as I finish up the loop.

I’m certainly looking forward to heading back up to Ludington and picking up where I left off next Spring. From what I’ve heard, the section from Ludington down to Indiana is even more scenic than the northern section. My biggest concern is the routing through or around Chicago. I’ve got some research to do over the winter.

Lake Michigan, Southern End – October, 2013 (495 miles)

Three down, two to go!  I managed to squeeze out just enough time to get up to Michigan and finish my tour around the southern half of the lake.  Picking up where I left off last August, I departed Ludington on Sunday and headed south.  Having not put in as many miles in the previous months as I would have liked, I tried to keep the mileage a bit lower (around 50 miles/day). The itinerary, just like the northern half, had me taking nine days even though the total mileage was slightly less.

The first 4 days were mostly spent on roads close to the lake. One exception was on the second day, leaving Whitehall, where I used the Fred Meijer Berry Junction Trail for about 6 miles. A very nice trail that has the added benefit of going behind the Michigan’s Adventure amusement park and giving a closeup view of the Shivering Timbers roller coaster.

The two segments of the journey that I had worried about were Gary, Indiana and Chicago.  As it turns out, both were rather easy and pleasant.  Being highly industrial, Gary, Indiana has no easy route near the lake.  There are, however, three great bike/recreational trails beginning just south of Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore and ending in Calumet City, Illinois.  By connecting the Prairie Duneland Trail, the Oak Savannah Trail, and the Erie Lackawanna Trail, you can bypass Gary and enjoy 30 miles of scenic trails and greenways.  From the end of the Erie Lackawanna Trail, work north back to the lake until you pick up the bike path along South Shore Drive where you’ll enjoy a continuous waterfront trail all the way around Chicago and ending just south of Loyola University.

The final three days also included quite a few bike/recreational trails, some of which were unpaved. I probably did approximately 20 miles on the Robert McClory Bike Path – most of which is crushed limestone. Although it may not be quite as fast as a paved trail, the limestone trail is surprisingly smooth and certainly more stress-free than being on the road.  The trail then becomes paved and continues in Wisconsin as the Kenosha County Bike Trail.

After cycling on the Milwaukee waterfront, another paved trail, the Ozaukee Interurban Trail, continues on and ends at Oostburg.  Back on the road, many of which having a dedicated bike lane, I continue on to Sheboygan and finish the final day with 26 miles to Manitowoc where I catch the 2PM departure on the SS Badger and arrive back in Ludington.

Lake Huron – July 2015 (900 miles)

All-in-all, this was a pretty uneventful albeit very pleasant two weeks. Beginning in Port Huron, Michigan on a rainy and chilly morning may not have been the preferred weather conditions but after a few hours it would begin to clear up and remain that way for the next 10 days. I spent the first night in Harbor Beach at a wonderful, family-owned, motel composed of several little cottages. A perfect ending to the first day’s ride.

The second day wound up being the longest of the trip (100 miles) as I rounded Michigan’s “thumb” to Bay City.  After such a long day, it was easy to splurge on a nice hotel right on the Saginaw River. It was here that I would take care of my only mechanical issue of the trip–three broken spokes in two days. Strangely, the spokes were breaking in the middle for no apparent reason. But the good folks at Ray’s Bike Shop got me back on the road in no time and, fortunately, I had no more problems for the remainder of the trip. Apparently Specialized believes they wound up with a bad batch of spokes and replaced both wheels at the conclusion of my trip. In any case, I’ll be riding something a bit more durable on my next tours–a new Surly Disc Trucker. More on that in a later post.

My original plan had been to take the North East State Trail from Alpena to Cheboygan. Unfortunately, the trail was not quite as smooth or scenic as I had hoped. After approximately 17 miles I had about all I could stand of the crushed limestone, got on the pavement at Posen, and headed north back to highway 23. Feeling a bit defeated, I called it quits at Rogers City. I suspected tomorrow would be a better day.

And a better day it was–warm, sunny, and nice roads all the way to Mackinaw. The day’s final challenge, crossing the Mackinac Bridge (“Big Mac”), turned out to be trivial. Being the fifth-longest suspension bridge in the world, over 200 feet above the water at its highest span, and considering the high winds that are possible, it’s no surprise that cycling across the bridge is not allowed. They will, however, shuttle you across. Depending on the direction you’re heading, either stop at the Bridge Authority on the north end or a small phone booth on the south end and arrange a pickup. I got lucky and the folks just happened to be nearby at the time. I probably waited no more than 2 minutes before the truck showed up. After being dropped off at the office and paying the nominal fee for the ride, I headed across the parking lot to the visitor’s center. From there, I took a short trail east, made my way through some residential streets, and meandered up to St. Ignace for the evening. This would be last time that I would actually see the lake for next 5 days.

My last day in Michigan was spent crossing the Upper Peninsula along roads paralleling Interstate 75 up to Sault Saint Marie. Unlike the Mackinac Bridge, the Sault St. Marie International Bridge allows cycling. Oddly, the only access to the toll plaza requires entering an on-ramp that clearly states “No Non-motorized Vehicles”. The attendant assured me it was quite alright, took my fee, and off I went into Canada.

The remainder of the ride would, unfortunately, be spent on the Trans-Canada Highway (17).  Unlike Highway 23 in Michigan, 17 doesn’t have the wide shoulder that almost feels like your own bike-lane. The Canadian side of the lake is also somewhat less populated and therefore there are fewer alternative routes along the lake and those that do exist are likely to be unpaved.  A notable exception was the section from Massey, over to Espanola, and then down to South Baymouth–about 85 miles of very scenic and relaxing cycling.

All of my Great Lakes rides have included at least one ferry crossing. Today I would be taking the Chi-Cheemaun (Big Canoe) from South Baymouth over to Tobermory. This would be my shortest day of the trip and, fortunately, the only other day spent in the rain. It would provide a needed rest day as well as some additional time for sight-seeing in Tobermory. I arrived at the terminal with plenty of time to get my wet gear off, change into dry clothes, and get ready for the 1 hour, 45 minute crossing. This would also be my first view of Lake Huron since leaving St. Ignace 5 days earlier.

The final three days were spent almost entirely on 17 so the cycling was not the most relaxing. One of the highlights would have to be the last night in Canada spent in Bayfield. A wonderful, historic, and eclectic town. Like a lot of places I’ve visited during my tours, I’ve filed Bayfield away as a place to possibly revisit some day.

Once again, the final challenge would be a bridge crossing. This time the Blue Water Bridge from Sarnia back into the U.S. at Port Huron. Like the Mackinac Bridge, the Blue Water doesn’t allow cycling but provides a shuttle at the Bridge Authority’s convenience. It must not have been too much of an inconvenience as it only took a few minutes to have me loaded on a truck, shuttled across the bridge, and dropped off at the U.S Customs office. Probably because I was the only one in line, it took quite a bit longer to get through Customs coming back into the States than it did to enter Canada. Less than a mile later and I’m back where I began–at the Fort Gratiot Lighthouse.  The circle is complete.

My gear and bike loaded, all that’s left is the drive home. After 14 days living at “bicycle speed”, I wasn’t quite ready to return to “highway speed.”  I decided to take a leisurely drive down Route 29 following the St. Clair river and along the north side of Lake St. Clair.  During my planning stages, the ferry crossing at Marine City had been a possibility (for both Lake Erie and Lake Huron) and I was still interested in checking it out as well. Finally making my way down to Detroit, I was ready to hit the interstate and get home.  I had some planning to do.  Lake Superior was beckoning.

Lake Superior – Date TBD (1,200 miles)

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