It’s late on Day 2 of my solo bike trip on the Paul Bunyan State Trail in June when I’m pelted by what sure feels like small hail.
I’m riding south in remote territory, past the village of Nary, with nary a vehicle or structure in sight. Ignoring my smartphone’s radar app and the picnic shelter in Nary, I gamble that I could get in front of the foreboding clouds to the west and make it to the next town. I soon pay for that miscalculation with a few minutes of cold, drenching, nail-like precipitation.
But the storm passes quickly and my spandex dries out, and that does it for the greatest adversity I’ll face in three days on the Paul Bunyan Trail.
Minnesota’s longest state trail stretches 123 miles from Crow Wing State Park in the south to Lake Bemidji State Park in the north. But the distance between the famous towns of Brainerd (near Crow Wing State Park) and Bemidji is an even 100 miles, chopping through a cross-section of deciduous and evergreen forest, wetlands, lake country and small towns. It’s mostly straight, mostly flat, mostly smooth and often secluded, making it a good place for a 100-mile century ride or more. And it’s a great way to get off the highway and see a lot of northern Minnesota.
I’d ridden the middle third of the trail before, spotting beavers, eagles, loons, deer and muskrat, but I’d never even been to Bemidji, so I decide to master the entire 200-mile Brainerd-to-Bemidji round trip.
Iron-man types could do this in two days or less, but that would miss the point. On a four-day trip, for example, you could combine camping in one or both of the state parks with a hotel in Bemidji, Brainerd or Walker, Minn. I choose to take a three-day weekend, with two nights of lodging in Walker. This gives me a healthy 60 to 70 miles a day, plus time to relax, look for wildlife and explore small towns. Your mileage may vary.
Beavers, beer and bays
After a couple of days fishing on Gull Lake with family (the walleye weren’t biting), I park my car in town at the Brainerd/Baxter Trailhead, pack a rack bag with some essentials and head out north on my Surly Cross-Check steel touring bike. Wildflowers line the trail, and pollen sticks to my grippy front tire, leaving a green stripe up the middle.
My first stop, at Mile 16, is the tourist town of Nisswa, which is bustling with Saturday shoppers and brunchers. Naturally, I beeline to one of Nisswa’s two breweries, Big Axe Brewing Co. It’s only 11 a.m., but I allow myself half of a 10-ounce pour of creamy Chocolate Milk Stout. On the way out of town, I pass the annual Nisswa-Stämmen folk festival in a park, and stop to listen to some live Scandinavian fiddle tunes.
The trail soon passes through a Hwy. 371 expansion project that looks like Paul himself went into road rage with his ax. And roughly from Pequot Lakes to Pine River, the trail hews a little too closely to the highway, and parts could stand to be repaved. I put my head down and pedal harder into a moderate headwind.
Soon enough, the trail gets prettier, and the towns get quirkier. Backus is named for one of the great environmental villains of Minnesota history: lumberman Edward Wellington Backus, who tried to develop the Boundary Waters. So the town square centers on something else: Colonel Cobber, a creepy 8-foot wooden statue of an anthropomorphic corn-on-the-cob, complete with a bizarre back story on a plaque.
Hackensack is even weirder. Did you know Paul Bunyan had a girlfriend? It’s true. A 17-foot statue of frontierswoman Lucette stands in front of Birch Lake; her name is also on a neighboring pizzeria. Hackensack, I know, is also home to Udom’s, which must be the best Thai restaurant in northern Minnesota.
North of Hack, the sloughs on either side of the trail are a hot spot for beaver sightings. I find one swimming furiously around a small pool, occasionally submerging with a whack of the tail. Another beaver joins him, and I score a snapshot of two beavers at a time.
A pivotal fork in the road appears. The main route veers west into the most adventurous part of the trail, and my favorite stretch of bike trail in Minnesota. For 7 miles, it whips, rises and falls through old-growth pines of the Paul Bunyan State Forest (of course), miles from modernity, before heading to Walker. If you’re tired, the newer Shingobee Connection Trail shaves off 8 miles to Walker. I save the shortcut for my return trip and hit the forest.
An hour later I arrive in Walker, bushed. Situated above a majestic bay of Leech Lake, Minnesota’s third-largest interior lake, Walker is an ideal hub for exploring the Paul Bunyan Trail, as well as the intersecting Heartland State Trail. Exhausted and famished, I’m grateful that I’ve booked two nights at Walker’s vintage hotel, Chase on the Lake.
Bemidji, bison burgers and Babe
On Sunday morning I take a couple of runs through the Chase’s classy breakfast buffet and head out for Day 2.
The trail moves into the woods, wetlands and meadows of Hubbard County, dotted with tiny villages with names like Laporte and Guthrie, whose primary landmarks are old cemeteries. There are few cars or buildings over a serene 30-mile stretch. Big black dragonflies buzz alongside my helmet.
By noon, I return to civilization. Bemidji, “the first city on the Mississippi,” is another proud town on a big lake. I take the requisite photos of the iconic 1937 statues of Paul and Babe the Blue Ox, which dwarf my bicycle.
Downtown Bemidji is largely shut down on a brilliant Sunday afternoon. I admire the Beaux Arts-style Beltrami County Courthouse and pretend to look for Lester Nygaard’s insurance agency, or other locations from “Fargo” Season 1, which was set in Bemidji but filmed in Canada. Lunch is a juicy bison burger with fries and a side of coleslaw at Brigid’s, an Irish pub, while Bill, a local retiree, and I watch the Twins beat the Red Sox.
Checking my bike map, I consider an alternate route back to my hotel. I could cut southeast to Cass Lake via wide-shouldered roads, then return to Walker via the Heartland State Trail, sister trail to the Paul Bunyan. But a stiff 25 mile per hour southeast wind ripping across Lake Bemidji makes it clear that I’ll find it easier to return via the relatively wind-protected Paul Bunyan. Little do I know, I’ll soon be caught in a storm anyway.
Finishing lunch at Brigid’s, I take a moment to savor the trip. I’ve finally made it to the birthplace of Paul Bunyan, on a bike. My thighs feel like rocks. And now it’s just 100 miles back to my car.
Paul Bunyan State Trail
For up-to-date trail information, pick up a map brochure at parking lots in most towns along the trail. Website: dnr.state.mn.us/state_trails/paul_bunyan. For an interactive map of all state trails, go to strib.mn/1LSRuZS.
Where to eat/drink
When you’re biking 200 miles, all you need is a steady supply of fluids, calories and carbs. Fortunately, you’re rarely more than 5 or 10 miles from a bar and grill, dive bar or gas station.
Udom’s Thai: Authentic Thai in Hackensack? It’s true. Their secret? Owners/spouses Udom and Paul Mitchell (a Thai native and a Minnesotan, respectively) winter in Thailand and then return for the high season. Lay off the spice, though — you’re biking (1-218-675-5513; sites.google.com/site/udomsthai).
Brigid’s Pub: Irish-pub fare from scratch in downtown Bemidji makes for a perfect lunch spot for ravenous riders (1-218-444-0567; brigidsirishpub.com).
Big Axe Brewing Co.: The taproom is a nice addition to Nisswa’s busy tourist strip. Several styles of beer, with a barbecue dinner menu on weekends (1-218-961-2337; bigaxebrewing.com).
Where to stay
Camping: Campsites (from $21-$23) and camper cabins (from $55) are available at Crow Wing and Lake Bemidji state parks (mndnr.gov/reservations). Also, there are two “primitive,” first-come-first-served sites off Mile 42 near Pine River. You brought bug spray, right?
Chase on the Lake: This classic Walker hotel on Leech Lake looks like it might have been a getaway for 1920s timber barons. A dining room and patio overlook Leech Lake. But three particular traits are cherished by bike tourers: soft beds, a big complimentary breakfast and the hot tub (from $119 online; 1-888-242-7306; chaseonthelake.com).