Biking The Mississippi River Trail…
I was born in Louisiana a few blocks away from the Mississippi River. I like to claim that that’s where the attraction started -as if the siren sounds of the river somehow floated across those few blocks as a lullaby to me in the hospital. There’s just always been something about the Mississippi for me. When I was young my grandfather, who lived just upriver from New Orleans most of his life, would take me and my sister, Amy, to the river when we visited. I remember feeling awed at the strange and wonderful sight of it. Down South, the river is chained away behind the levees like a dangerous dog. It is wide and industrial and not especially scenic. I remember the anticipation as we’d turn off the river road onto a clamshell paved path up the side of the levee to the top and waiting for that first glimpse of river. It was strangely eerie at times between the levee and the water – trees that looked more dead than alive, weeds, trash, and the mud ! I loved it when the mud had dried into something that resembled the skin of a giant crocodile. Would we see one? Never did. For a long time that was my picture of the river – tired and used up and yet, full of mystery and stories to tell. In later years, I began paddling on the Mississippi every summer on a group trip in the midwest – Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Illinois- and during nearly 20 years I saw every mile of the river between just north of Minneapolis all the way to St. Louis. Some sections many, many times. I have paddled through every lock and dam on the river. In the midwest, the river is middle aged. There is a mix of industry and stretches that seem to have never been touched by human hands- and it’s a working river. The barges are a whole different world. It is also highly used for recreational purposes. Many pleasure boats, houseboats, paddlers, fishermen, hunters share the winding sloughs, islands and backwaters that are a big part of the river. The river here isn’t as constrained by levees as it is further South.
Something that has always been on my “places to go” list is Lake Itasca, the source of the Mississippi. I have always wanted to see the place where my favorite river begins. I have always wanted to see it as it learns to navigate its way south -miles from the “mighty stage”. I’ve wanted to see it at the beginning -its infancy, if you will… Years ago, I thought I would be standing there with a paddle in my hand, ready to push my kayak into the stream and head where the river took me. Sadly, that dream has gone unfulfilled (so far), but a new, intriguing adventure caught my eye. The Mississippi River Bike Trail. A few years ago I found out that all of the states bordering the Mississippi were working to create a marked bike route from Lake Itasca all the way to the delta beyond New Orleans. I ordered the guidebook and put it on my bookshelf with the other guide books for everywhere I’m going to go someday (my book shelf has a small scale resemblance to the warehouse at the end of the Indiana Jones movie). As anyone who knows me knows – I talk a lot. Sometimes it serves me well. My sister Jane is an avid cyclist and when she heard about this trip from me, she said right away she would love to do it with me. Another sister, Laura, said she’d be happy to drive our support vehicle. A trip was born!
Thank goodness we’re using a minivan for this trip! After agreeing to pack light (which we mostly accomplished) the van looks stuffed to the gills and gives the impression of a modern day Joad family from Grapes of Wrath, heading west for a new life! We decided that we could make a long drive more interesting by taking the Lake Express ferry across Lake Michigan. It runs between Muskegon, Michigan and Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Early Saturday morning we drove the hour or so to Muskegon and went through the process of getting through the ferry security and into the car boarding line.
They only allow the driver to put the car on the ferry, so Laura and I had to get into a different line to board.
Once we got aboard and found our seats, I told Laura I was going to try to get a picture of Jane driving onto the ferry. I had just gotten to the place on the deck that would give me a view of the cars and Jane was the next to board. Talk about timing!
They told us as we received our boarding tickets that the waves were 4-6 feet as a warning that the ride was going to be a bit of a rodeo. As we left the dock and headed for the Muskegon Channel, I was amazed to see how many small boats are filling the entrance – I think they were fishing. Slowly, one by one, as if playing a bit of chicken with the ferry, they began to move to the sides, giving us just enough room to squeeze through.
The Muskegon Channel is very pretty – there is a site for the USS Silversides submarine and the piers.
We really started to rock and roll when we passed the last pier heads and headed into the lake.
I’ve been on the ferry once before when there were high waves, so this trip didn’t seem any worse than before to me. I was sorry that Jane and Laura didn’t get to experience a smooth crossing though. Jane was also very sorry she didn’t experience a smooth crossing! She felt a bit queasy – but hung in there like a trooper!
We hit the ground running in Milwaukee -we still had nearly 9 hours of driving without stops! There’s no easy way to get to Bemidji from anywhere – so we let the GPS route us. The only exciting thing about that -for me- was we were routed through Grand Rapids, Minnesota. It was dark and we didn’t see much, but I like being able to say I’ve been to my home town’s namesake. We arrived in Bemidji quite late and our only goal was to settle down and get some sleep.
Next: The biking adventure begins!