“I wish I could carry more stuff,” my niece, Lilly, said as we were packing up our Elm Creek Park Reserve campsite on Day Two of our Great Summer Bike Adventure.
I looked at my bike, the rear rack loaded with panniers and other gear strapped to the top. I looked at her mom’s bike, pulling a trailer stuffed with sleeping bags and clothing. Lilly’s bike didn’t accommodate a rack, but she had a good-sized basket on her handlebars.
“Why don’t you carry the sleeping pads,” I said, handing her two compact, rolled-up mats. She smiled, put them into her basket, along with a bag of food, the maps and our biking mascot, a purple-stuffed turtle named Flipper.
I’ve done a lot of solo, self-supported bicycle touring, most recently in Germany. I often saw German families, including young children, pedaling through the countryside, each carrying age-appropriate amounts of gear — sometimes just one sleeping bag. I wanted to replicate this experience at home, but first I needed a kid.
I thought of 10-year-old Lilly. Would she be game for a bike tour? I called her mom, Chersten, and proposed my idea. Chersten had two stipulations: First, our route had to follow off-road bike trails. Second, she had to come with us — not because she was skeptical of the trip, but because she’d done some solo bike touring during her college years and didn’t want to miss out.
It turns out Hennepin County is a superb place for a first-time bike tour. The county has more than 200 miles of bike trails, much of it off-road, and the trails connect with campgrounds at Elm Creek, Baker and Carver parks. In all, 97 percent of our route followed off-road bike trails.
With Lilly’s help, we planned a route starting from my house in north Minneapolis. We’d travel north up the Mississippi River to Coon Rapids Dam and then turn west toward Elm Creek Park and its drop-in campsite. The next day, we’d head south toward the Luce Line trail and into Baker Park Reserve, with its campsites near Lake Independence. The Luce Line would take us back to Wirth Park and up the parkway toward home. We figured we’d be riding about 25 to 30 miles a day, which would be doable for a kid.
We packed the bare essentials for three days and two nights, because we had to carry everything. For me, that meant two pairs of shorts, two shirts, lightweight pants, rain gear, a first-aid kit, a sleeping bag, a sleeping mat, a tent, a cooking kit and some food. Lilly’s packing list included some kid essentials, such as Flipper, Skip-Bo and a package of Oreo cookies.
Before we left, Lilly recorded some thoughts in a trip journal. “I’m looking forward to biking and I’m not looking forward to the bugs,” she wrote.
An adventure begins
We set off up Victory Memorial Parkway and within a mile it began to rain. I looked at my companions. “Should we go home and wait it out?” I asked. Lilly looked disheartened. This was supposed to be a bike adventure, and we’d barely begun. So we pulled out the rain jackets and continued on.
As we rode, we went over my rules of bicycle touring: We stop and eat when we’re hungry. We take pictures when we want to. We chat. We have fun. We take things as they come, and figure things out.
Approximately six hours and 28 miles later, we arrived at our campsite at Elm Creek. Along the way we saw at least 15 wild turkeys and some smelly roadkill. We watched fish try to jump up the Coon Rapids Dam, took a layover at a playground, stopped for lunch at Grandma and Grandpa’s in Brooklyn Park, and encountered one schoolkid curious enough to ask, “Where are you going?” We rode through suburbs, river valley, forests, fields and hills.
At the campsite, we built a fire, roasted marshmallows and played card games. When we climbed into our tent, Lilly begged us to tell stories of our past bike adventures. She gave the day four out of five stars. Darn bugs.
We spent our second day heading south via the Medicine Lake Regional Trail. The trail, with a terminus on the southwest side of Elm Creek Park, showed us the other side of Maple Grove, the opposite of its manicured shopping malls. We cycled through some wild tracts of land south of Rice Lake. We were all surprised to find ourselves cycling underneath I-94 while engulfed by nature.
We cycled on boardwalks, skirted lakes and crossed creeks. We saw chipmunks, tiny frogs, a beaver, numerous birds, butterflies and helped a painted turtle cross the trail. We also lost the trail somewhere in Plymouth, where there’s a gap in the Medicine Lake Regional Trail route, and had a good debate on whether we were lost or just misplaced.
Then the unexpected happened. Chersten developed shooting pain in her knees and was unable to continue. We were stranded at a coffee shop at Hwy. 55 and Vicksburg in Plymouth.
Chersten called for a pickup. She was asking whether three bikes would fit in the sag wagon when Lilly tugged her arm. “Mom! Mom!” she said. “I want to bike back to Minneapolis!”
So we did. We waved goodbye to Chersten, biked south to the Luce Line Trail and pointed east. When we got to the Wirth Park clubhouse, we fortified ourselves with water and cookies before facing the big hill heading north. Lilly biked 38 miles that day, and could’ve gone farther. “I thought the trip would be harder,” she said after we were done.
Lynn Keillor is a Minneapolis-based freelance writer.