With more than a thousand riders, and thousands more spectators, I couldn’t get too near the starting line.
But I was on my bike, ready for the mass of humanity that would be moving down the Ski Hill Road at more than 20 mph for the start of the Lutsen 99er Bike Race. This was not a Tour de France version, but instead included 99 miles of biking, 7,000 feet of climbing, all on just a bit of pavement, with the rest on Forest Service or snowmobile trails, with the final mile a 250-foot climb up Lutsen Mountain.
I had gotten up at 6 a.m. to prepare for the 7:30 start, hoping that leaving early would get me at the base of Ski Hill Road as it intersects U.S. Highway 61, on the shore of Lake Superior, in time.
Friend Elise Pemberton and I had covered the 24-mile round-trip over the two prior days at a fairly leisurely pace, so I thought I would see if I could do it all the next morning to watch the race start. I had hoped one of my family members would join me, but ended up going solo. I was excited to make my average speed goal, and see the hundreds of bikers with loftier goals.
The Lutsen 99er was just one of the many highlights of the four-day adventure we all had on the largest lake in the world. It had been quite a few years since I had been there, so it was a walk back in time for me, recollecting family trips and the many experiences I had provided students from Mayo High School or Quarry Hill.
We were staying right on the lake at the Cross River, near the Father Baraga Memorial Cross. I recalled many times seeing the highway sign for this historic marker, but had never stopped to take a closer look. I also remembered how decades ago the area was not the popular vacation destination it now is, with a fairly depressed economy until people discovered the lure of Lake Superior the past few decades.
But I did not remember ever seeing the Lake Superior area dotted with patches of one of my favorite plants, the colorful lupine. Ranging from deep purple, to blue, to pink, and even a few white, these plants beautified the bike rides and drive along Highway 61.
I am guessing I may not have recalled seeing the lupine because they are a non-native invasive species that has probably gained a foothold over the past few decades. As pretty as they are in the North Shore landscape, they undoubtedly upset the natural ecosystems, causing some to try to eradicate them.
Although the lupines and biking were a couple of my trip favorites, tops for me was seeing the swallowtails and crescent butterflies on wolf scat in the middle of the bike trail. It reminded me I was in the wilds. But the hands-down favorite of my four grandchildren had to be looking for agates. They literally spent dozens of hours scouring through the shoreline rocks, and more hours using the computer and an agate hunting guide one of my daughters had brought.
Oddly enough, day trips to Grand Marais and Tettegouche State Park yielded fewer agates compared to what we found on the shoreline right below our lodging. And, staying right there allowed us to avoid the traffic and tourists that converge on the area from Duluth to Grand Marais.
We all also enjoyed jumping into the 40- to 50-degree water, and then into the much hotter wood-fired sauna. And, on the day before leaving the lake, which can be wild enough to break an ore ship in half, it was so calm some of us ventured out in kayaks for a little offshore exploring.
I highly recommend a North Shore trip, where there are many tourist traps if that is your thing, but also plenty of places to stay right on the shore of Lake Superior away from crowds.
And, just as a side-note, Lake Superior is the largest lake in the world by size, though by volume, Lake Baikal in Russia wins.