Isn't it supposed to be tame here? A fest of vanilla, hamster wheels of loops within prescribed parks, gentle berms and smooth lap riding where people are nice and nothing is scary?
I'm perched precariously above the lead-in to our second rockroll down 20 or so feet of granite. I already bowed out of the first. Everything that I've learned the hard way in my mistake-infested years of mountain biking lies between me and the lip down the face. Spaces between rocks rising above moss and earth aren't equidistant, let alone straight. Everything looks just big enough to hold onto my front wheel, dive through the fork's travel and directly introduce me to my stem--I can almost feel it. Nothing is on plane, it's titled sideways--there isn't a good line, period. And I'm only talking the lead-in here. I'm tempted to straddle-waddle to the rollover, perform that magic trick where feet lift from ground, somehow land on pedals, and then together we shimmy down the rockroll, united we fall.
"How's that roll out?" I ask, not-so-sneakily attempting to bide my time and mask my voice's elevated worry.
"Just point for those two trees and it rolls out great," floats up at me from below.
I pedal, kinda sorta clip in, bounce a bit, grunt and hoist my front end--thankfully not deflected by rocks, time the stroke of pedal cranks alarmingly close to smacking the entry line's crest and point for the two trees. It rolls out great.
I'm in Marquette, Michigan--or, as longtime, prolific trailbuilder Mike Brunet put it, "Welcome to the middle of nowhere." We're well north in the Upper Peninsula, or U-P of Michigan. North of Toronto. North of Montreal. North of Quebec City. North of all of Nova Scotia. North.
More specifically, I'm tiptoeing my way through the Harlow Lake trails, just northwest of Marquette proper, a stone's throw from the city's center. I'm feeling particularly feeble navigating the tireless jumble of broken granite and tall roots connecting bigger, drawn-out rock slabs reminiscent of Squamish--smaller in scale but with seemingly more technical and aggravating approaches. I'll be damned if I haven't stumbled across a more frustrating nuisance of inevitable foot-down-ness in my years of West Coast riding.
I'll be back here in a week with the rest of the Bike crew, hooting and hollering and loving every minute of it after earning my sea legs riding the in-town Noquemanon South Trails and Copper Harbor's shuttle-able network, but right now, one thing's for certain: This is real mountain biking.
AS HARD AS THE HARLOW TRAILS ARE TO CLEAN, THEY WERE strangely even harder to officially get on the map for bikes. This battle for sanctioned usage is a drastic departure from the rest of Marquette's singletrack, currently totaling 150 miles and four riding areas, wholeheartedly embraced by the city and community. Harlow Lake, however, was the missing link to connecting future riding and in jeopardy of closure due to a group of hikers attempting to decisively classify the trails for foot traffic only.
Marquette County, prior to Harlow Lake's enactment, was home to three distinct mountain bike trail networks, each with its own personality. To the west are the Ishpeming Township's old-school trails--steep ups, steep downs and lots of tight maneuvering. Just south, the biggest and most diverse network, the Noquemanon South Trails, where riders find solidly built wooden trail gaps, perfectly sweeping machine-built berms, traditional trail riding, real drops and technical descents requiring a hold-your-breath level of concentration. Just north of town are the easier-going Noquemanon North Trails, somewhat smoother and with gentle elevation, but singletrack nonetheless. Harlow was missing.
"This was the last spot to connect all of these," explains Candy Kozeluh, the former recreation director of the Marquette County Convention and Visitors Bureau when pointing to a hand-drawn map showing Harlow Lake's interconnected nature to Marquette's other riding areas. "That's what I had talked about with the governor, why we have to connect. We would have just over 200 miles of singletrack, all connected," Kozeluh states with emphatic conviction.
Kozeluh spent the last three-and-a-half years promoting Marquette's singletrack, doing her best to connect local businesses to trailbuilding organizations, often taking non-riders on trails to understand what the land had to offer. By educating hoteliers and business owners on what it took to build trails--financially and through labor and machinery costs--she advocated for what she refers to as "protecting natural marketing assets."
It's a technique that proved highly effective as Kozeluh won the 2016 Sales and Marketing Star of the Year Award during the Pure Michigan Governor's Conference on Tourism. Not bad for representing a 'big city' of 21,000 residents in Marquette. Kozeluh, as evidenced, is irrefutably a doer, and though somewhat internally conflicted about drawing attention to Harlow Lake--an area thought of as a special place by locals and that Kozeluh enjoyed while growing up in Marquette--she knew that ensuring officially sanctioned mountain bike usage for Harlow would help Marquette's continued trail growth.
"You can't connect to something that isn't technically there," explains Doug Kozeluh, Candy's husband and owner of Marquette-based Local Lines guiding service. If shrouded in a gray area of usage, connective singletrack would never pass approval.
By creating the Friends of Harlow Lake organization, Candy and others were able to submit a trail proposal to Michigan's Department of Natural Resources. Very begrudgingly, and through Candy's continued persistence, the trail proposal has been adopted, granting 17.2 miles of summer-accessible trails to mountain bikes and 10.7 miles of winter fatbike trails. It proves a pivotal step forward toward the 200-plus-mile goal of singletrack trails for Marquette County.
If Harlow Lake network's sanctioned acceptance helps amass Marquette County's still-burgeoning singletrack network, it's a win that is built upon the tireless efforts of Brunet and the Noquemanon Trail Network's (NTN) endless building efforts within Marquette's South Trails.
ON MY SECOND DAY RIDING, THERE'S SOMETHING FAMILIAR ABOUT Marquette's South Trails. Not to say I don't wuss out on things--most notably all trail gaps and greasy-looking obstacles that Brunet gains energy and excitement from--but everything has refreshing consistency and fun predictability to it. There is such a thing as fun predictability and it definitely resides here. Even when left to my own devices, throwing in an extra lap at the end of the day not knowing where I'm going, all still works out. I follow color-coded signs and miraculously dump out in the parking lot.
It's not just the signage that makes the trails great, there's diversity and tidiness afoot. It's devoid of braking bumps and the soil seemingly has a cheater component to it--maybe 4 inches beneath a dark, densely compact top layer rests a silty sand, wicking water away. We ride directly after rainfall and have to hunt for puddles. Four dry days later, we find the same consistency.
We freewheel through trails that slalom effortlessly amid changing hardwoods, snakelike ribbons lurking beneath deep orange leaves, constantly arcing boastfully onward. A mountain biker must have built these trails.
"It's a shame about the colors," offers Brunet dryly. "People can't see the jumps."
Brunet started building the South Trails more than 30 years ago. For 20 years, he built them almost sole-handedly. Brunet's first trail, one riders refer to as Split Tree now, he scooped away from the hillside with only his hands, pausing during a ride while noticing an enticing line.
For quite some time--1993 until the early 2000s--trailbuilding continued and was funded out-of-pocket with sporadic donations. As freeriding gained popularity globally in the late 90s, it flourished in Marquette. During our ride, Brunet pointed to old, rotting ladder bridges deteriorating within a drainage--haphazard afterthoughts missing slats and overtaken by the landscape, "Things used to be really big here."
The turning point for Marquette's South Trails was the city's land purchase from a logging company in 2001, putting existing South Trails' future in jeopardy. At the time, the NTN was composed of skiers and runners but it did not take long during the first meeting to quickly gain its singletrack component, which Brunet and other longtime Marquette mountain bikers are still part of to this day.
Brunet attributes the network's success and initial embrace to luck, being in the right place at the right time to partner with the pre-existing NTN. The city was relieved as the newly formed NTN Singletrack group was insured and became trained in International Mountain Bike Association (IMBA) trailbuilding guidelines and techniques. This alleviated worries over liability in the woods. Most importantly, it allowed all existing trails to quickly become adopted, a huge win as pre-existing trails had been built in an acceptable manner though not with the city's permission per se. Now, with the stamp and legitimacy of the NTN, user groups were happily working together. Proceeds from 5-kilometer running races soon benefitted all trail construction, just as mountain bike race proceeds helped Nordic skiers. User groups coexisted happily and still do to this day.
While Marquette is a success story of user groups, event-based funding and community support with the city's endorsement, Copper Harbor, an unincorporated town with about 80 total year-round inhabitants, created its riding community through the grassroots efforts of the nonprofit Copper Harbor Trails Club.
Keewenaw County, home to Copper Harbor, is the most sparsely populated and also one of the poorest counties in the UP. This is a real statement when you understand the scale and density of the Upper Peninsula in comparison to Michigan in total--3 percent of Michigan's population inhabits 30 percent of its landmass. In Copper Harbor, sparse becomes … sparser. The road dead ends into nothingness, leaving an eerily uncomfortable feeling when thrust onto the stark shoreline. There is no cell service. U.S. Route 41, which emanates in Miami, Florida, terminates in Copper Harbor. It feels like the end of the earth. Small rock outcrops of wave-battered islands shield a brief refuge of calm flatwater. White caps and the faint silhouettes of massive oreboats dot the immensity of Lake Superior.
We came here to see what the fuss is about. Copper Harbor popped up on the map, as mountain bike towns occasionally tend to do, but it continuously resisted arrest. Most shrivel and die, somebody losing interest in a marketing experiment. Copper Harbor only strengthened with time.
I'M NOW STANDING WITHIN JAMSEN'S FISH MARKET, beyond the 47th parallel of latitude. Jamsen's converted into a bakery and a handmade sign penned in Sharpie taped to the cold case jests back to its commercial fishing roots, "Out of Fish for Season." On the left side are pastries. I point to something with maple frosting and large chunks of bacon on top.
"I always kind of thought it could become the Moab of the Midwest," explains Sam Raymond of Keweenaw Adventure Company, politely not noticing me wolfing down my small pile of bacon and frosting. "Which--I believe it has," Raymond laughs.
Raymond isn't kidding either. It's Friday and dead quiet in mid-October. This will be Keweenaw Adventure Company's last weekend of the season. Everybody tells me tomorrow will be a zoo and looking at the sleepy landscape, I can't believe them less.
Friday, we have the place to ourselves--we're kindly guided by Chris Guibert of the Copper Harbor Trails Club along with Ryan Boushee and Justin Sczechowski from Keweenaw Adventure Company. Indeed, there are trails here warranting shuttles--Flying Squirrel links commitment-level gaps, commanding speed with a tighter-than-normal feel for a continuous gravity-fed jump trail. Over Flow--the downhill winner and recipient of the 2013 Bell Built $100,000 trailbuilding grant--is a modern-day DH trail combining gaps, armored berms, big stunts and steep natural technical rock lines. Over Flow hits just the right mix of variation to give it that tirelessly repeatable feel right from the start.
After Flying Squirrel, we bubble out onto Garden Brook, which holds the rare ability to equally entertain moderate and advanced-level riders--combining optional, low-impact doubles with gentle meandering berms, somehow holding speed for both riding groups. It's a trailbuilding goal that's often attempted and rarely achieved, let alone perfected.
While Raymond helped create the local mountain bike community through Keweenaw Adventure Company and its community-based trailbuilding efforts, Aaron Rogers took trail design to the next level in Copper Harbor starting around 2006.
Rogers moved to Copper Harbor initially for the skiing. Nearby Mount Bohemia offers the highest lift-accessed vertical drop in the Midwest and averages close to 300 inches per year. Factor in that Keweenaw County contains 1,800 residents total and the phrase 'private powder' starts to resonate.
Rogers first cultivated trails back in Wisconsin but working at Keweenaw Adventure Company allowed him to hone in his craft. For two years, Rogers built trails by hand on his own, often volunteering time and hours after working as a mechanic during the day, later transitioning to full-time trail dedication while subsisting off his wife's earnings as a bartender. He spent countless, full days alone working on the trails--still suffering lasting complications of Lyme disease to this day--something he quickly shrugs off to the good and bad of trailbuilding.
"Watching Aaron cut a trail through the woods is mind-blowingly efficient. He's moving a log in one swing to the right and in the next he's already picking something up. It's like an extension of him, they blaze through tough terrain quickly," muses our guide Guibert with a deep level of respect.
Rogers introduced big tools to the rugged landscape, combatting stubborn bedrock with a gas-powered jackhammer. Following the jackhammer came an excavator. Following that, an excavator with a rear-mounted jackhammer.
"There might have been a little bit of a time where the community asked, 'What're you guys doing out there in the woods?'" Laughs Raymond when thinking back to the embracing nature of the community combined with Rogers' idea and introduction of power tools.
IT'S SATURDAY AND THE PARKING LOT NEXT TO KEWEENAW Adventure Company spills over with cars toting bike racks hiding license plates from far beyond the Midwest, and there's an incessant line for the shuttle that won't lessen despite brimming vanloads that pull away from the curb. I spy expensive bikes. Loud, carbon trail bikes with healthy tires litter the shop's walkway. Fortunately, we're self-shuttling with Guibert, Amy Oestreich and Rogers himself--a tour of his past trail penmanship.
Rogers has perfected his rock-sculpting craft. He now owns Rock Solid Trail Contracting, operating a 17-person full-time trail crew that will swell to 24 within the coming year as they work through winter in Bentonville, Arkansas. Where there's rock, there's work and nobody understands rock like Rogers.
I'm smiling as we descend off the top as a group. I can't help it, the trails irrefutably evoke joy and I'm fortunate enough to ride with their creator and caretaker during a perfect autumn day in Copper Harbor.
A FEW DAYS FOLLOWING AND BACK AT HARLOW LAKE WITH THE whole Bible crew, I'm thoroughly enjoying the slabs that stymied me a week earlier. You can't tiptoe here, things need to be done with conviction--which is representative of the UP overall. The riding, trailbuilding and community support are all undertaken with unyielding devotion. From gas-powered jackhammers in the woods to user groups fundraising together, the UP gets it. And the riding is real.