BEMIDJI, Minn. – I went out seeking a snapshot of a summer’s day on Paul Bunyan State Trail — a day in its life. The result was more like a photo album.
I and a cycling companion battened down gear at the south edge of Lake Bemidji on a recent Saturday in August. The morning was warm, calm, inviting. We planned to roll for several hours. I was new to the trail, and had a simple agenda: Take in all that its northernmost section had to provide during our 60-plus-mile ride to Walker, Minn., and back.
Well, the state’s longest rail-trail was active — and blissfully inactive. Some jottings:
The trail was remote and restorative. It wasn’t long before we were out of the “bustle” of the lake city and creating our own breeze on the wide pathway. Moving through a lush carpet of farmland, marsh and meadow, we realized quickly that our world wasn’t a trail in the woods so much as forestland with a trail through it. Long stands of pines would bracket our ride. Goldenrod, purple prairie clover, Joe-Pye weed, yellow coneflowers — they filled every scene. The mellowing background hum of cicadas charged the air. The only other sounds, it seemed, came from our banter, or the whirring of our wheels against asphalt. What’s more, after one 10-mile stretch about midday we realized we hadn’t seen a soul coming or going — but for two young deer who sauntered onto the path and locked on us (our first of three dances with deer that day).
It was random. When we did encounter people, particularly when we got close to lake resorts or towns, we passed cyclists of all manner of gear (touring, recumbent, folding, rentals), runners and walkers. Still, in general, their numbers were few.
It was interesting. A few hours in, the tiny town of Laporte got our attention. We were ready to get off the saddles, and came up on a well-maintained trail access.
We found resident David Lundquist just about to roll out on his old Trek. He had intimate knowledge. “I ride over 100 [miles] a week, so just about every day,” he said.
In general, Lundquist fits the state of Minnesota data about its paved trails: Local use has been the strongest over time, according to the most current report by the Department of Natural Resources in 2014. In fact, summer riding on “tourist trails” like the Paul Bunyan is declining for generational and other reasons better broached elsewhere.
A longtime high school English teacher, Lundquist, 63, recalled the trail’s original life as a Burlington Northern rail line up until 1983. In the summer of 1995, the state paved the first 48 miles (Baxter/Brainerd to Hackensack) of what is now 115 miles of trail.
Lundquist said when the state put down pavement in his area it was transformative. The 12 miles from Bemidji south to Guthrie was completed in the spring of 2009. Guthrie to Walker (including Laporte) was completed a year later.
“It was just kind of for walking, but then when they got blacktop down it’s been great,” he said. “I love it.”
Laporte was on board, too, Lundquist said, nodding to a nearby shelter and playground built expressly because of the trail crossing.
“The trail brings people into town. Lots of mothers and children, lots of graybeards,” said Lundquist, laughing. He recalled another heavy user whom he passes frequently, a guy who taught astrophysics at the University of Minnesota. “He said [riding the trail] is the best doctor there is.”
It was inspiring. Two out-of-towners from Missouri shared Lundquist’s enthusiasm. We crossed paths in Walker with Steven VanderKolb and James Oerding. The pair on Aug. 5 were in day two of an 18-day charitable ride shadowing the Mississippi River, and ending in St. Louis. They’d started at the river’s headwaters at Itasca State Park.
This was their fourth consecutive year of such rides. Felix’s Pizza Pub, a popular St. Louis joint owned by VanderKolb, raises money for Make-A-Wish Missouri on behalf of local children who are hurting. (The two were confident of raising $21,000 this year, with the goal of fulfilling the wish of a boy named Maxwell, suffering from inoperable cancer and hoping for a trip to Walt Disney World.)
Last year VanderKolb and Oerding rode from St. Louis to New Orleans, and this year wanted to cover the upper segment of the Mississippi River Trail. The relatively flat trail was inviting — and off roads. “It has been a great cruise,” Oerding said.
“When we came up here we saw the Paul Bunyan Trail, and we were like, ‘This is perfect,’ ” he added. “We have 18 days to do it, and really don’t have a day off, so is kind of a direct route. Let’s take this rather than staying true to the [Mississippi River Trail]. The MRT was just sort of our rough guideline.”
“It’s a beautiful path,” VanderKolb said. “It’s been wonderful.”
There is no disputing that.