This is the first in a series of posts that will cover bike trips that I went on before I created this blog.
I came late to bicycle touring, so missed out on a chance to do things like join a club or do the nationally famous rides like RAGBRAI. I did spend most of those earlier years touring on motorcycles, so it’s not like I totally missed out on seeing the country on two wheels as I covered territory from California to Maine and Ontario to Arkansas, camping out much of the time.
I also owned a bicycle during much of that time and was particularly intrigued by the idea of doing the Michigander from the days that it first started some 26 years ago. This is an event that acts as a fund raiser for the Michigan Trails and Greenway Alliance, the Michigan equivalent of the national Rails to Trails organization. But my other interests and obligations along with limited vacation time didn’t allow for it. That all changed after I retired from motorcycling and later retired from working in 2008, and I signed up for the 2009 event as soon as registration opened. The event that year was a particular draw for me for two reasons.
First off, it was the first year that they provided official route options for road bikes. In the early days of the event, Michigan’s rail trails were hardly improved, if at all, and there was very little pavement. so the ride consisted of sections where only a mountain bike would do, separated by stretches on paved public roads. But by 2009 there were many more miles of paved rail trails, and in addition to the usual road sections, all they needed to do was to provide a bypass for the rougher sections of trail.
The other big change was that this was to be a loop route, finishing in the same location where it started. Previous years had used an end-to-end route that necessitated busing and trucking riders and their bikes back to the starting point after finishing, which added a lot to the cost, logistics, hassles, etc. With the loop concept, we’d end up right where we had left our vehicles and could pack up and head out at our own speed.
Day 1: Edmore to St. Charles
One other aspect of these tours is that they assume that everyone is going to camp. Each night’s stay is usually at a school or similar facility that has room for several hundred people to camp while providing facilities inside for dining (if you can call it that!), showers, a meeting room, and so on. My days of enjoying self-supported camping had already passed, so I was glad to be able to sign up with Bubba’s Pampered Pedalers, an outfit that sets up a tent and air mattress for you every night, and also provides welcome amenities such as luggage transport, a covered shelter, camp chairs, snacks and beverages, and a fresh towel every day. It was the only way to fly, as those of us in the Bubba Zone would be sitting back relaxing with a cold drink while others were fetching their stuff from the event’s luggage trucks, finding a site, and setting up their tents. In the morning, we only had to pack our personal luggage bag and ride out, while again others had to do the whole take-down thing, possibly with a wet tent. Not a cheap option, but worth it!
Anyway, the first day took us from Edmore to St. Charles — towns pretty much in the center of the state’s lower peninsula. On that day, I actually took the off-road option since it was mainly dirt roads as opposed to a rough trail, and that worked out pretty well. We eventually hit a paved section of the Heartland Trail that took us into Alma, and went from there by road to eventually pick up the Saginaw Valley Rail-Trail into the town of St. Charles, where we stayed at a local school.
Day 2: St. Charles to Bay City State Park
I hadn’t gotten much sleep in Edmore due to nerves and the incessant honking of horns by the locals as they passed our roadside camp, and the night in St. Charles wasn’t much better. Mainly, I woke up in the wee hours freezing cold in my sleeping bag. It turned out that, in the middle of July, the weather had taken a turn to a record overnight low in the 30s! I made a mental note to pick up some warmer socks and maybe a pair of sweat pants to sleep in on the nights to come.
The route from St. Charles to the day’s destination was mostly typical Michigan secondary county roads: chip-seal in good condition with not much traffic. I got an early start and rode east, crossing over to the east side of I-75 and then heading north through the popular tourist town of Frankenmuth. I’d been there numerous times before, but never on a bicycle, and it was certainly quiet at mid-morning on a Monday.
One nice thing about using Bubba’s service is that, especially for a single traveler like myself, it gives you a set group of people to get to know over the days. When the route approached the Saginaw area, there was a big gathering of Michigander riders at a popular country store type of place, and I ran into a group from the Zone that I recognized. I actually knew one as a casual acquaintance from back home, and before long I had sort of been adopted into the group. These were then the people that I mostly rode with over the next few days. The Michigander utilizes a different route almost every year, which attracts people to come back year after year for new experiences and to reunite with old friends.
After departing from the store, we rode together along a straight, paved rail trail across endless farm fields into Saginaw, and from there to Bay City. Bay City has a network of trails that includes lots of boardwalk sections along the Saginaw River, which were scenic and fun to ride. North of Bay City, we started approaching the state park where the night’s camping was located, but spotted a nicely situated local watering hole and decided to stop for a break and a beer. While we were there, Bubba stopped by and the beer flowed more freely.
It was a (fortunately) short ride from there to the park along some nice paths, where we were treated to the most scenic campsite of the trip. The park had acres of camping, showers, and shelters that we could use. We had been followed by the same catering company that had put on a good spread back in Edmore, and the open-air dinner and next day’s breakfast were excellent. Along with the beautiful weather, it was one of those experiences that has really stayed with me over the years.
Day 3: Bay City to Clare
After heading east and then north, today was the day to start back in a westerly direction. The route was very simple: take some back roads from the park to Midland, then pick up the well known Pere Marquette Rail Trail for 30-some miles to where it ended at the time in Clare. The Pere Marquette is one of the premiere trails in the state, being wide, paved and very well marked and maintained. It’s mostly straight and level and is like a bicycle highway.
The trail starts in downtown Midland at the Tridge — a three-way bridge — and passes through a couple of towns between Midland and Clare. The towns have catered to the riders and a number of places that used to do business along the tracks have been converted to restaurants. With a few hundred hungry bikers passing by, it was a good day for the local businesses
The final stop of the day was in the small mid-Michigan town of Clare. Before heading on to the local campgrounds, our group again stopped at the old downtown hotel where, in a dining room set with white tablecloths, a sweaty group of bikers sat down to quaff a few brews.
Day 4: Clare to Reed City
The good weather luck ran out this day, as it started to rain lightly when I was just a few miles outside Clare. The Pere Marquette trail runs straight west all the way to Reed City and beyond, but at this time it was not yet paved, so road bikes had to take a bypass route. Unfortunately, the only paved road going that way is the US-10 highway, which can be fairly heavily traveled, but at least has wide, paved shoulders. This was one of my first times riding a road bike in the rain, and overall it was not nearly as bad as I expected. My rain-riding experience had all been on motorcycles, where the speeds and spray from other vehicles could make it quite uncomfortable. I was only in the rain for an hour at the most, but the low point was definitely a truck carrying a load of hogs that was emitting some pretty filthy runoff as it passed me around a curve. Yecch!
At Evart — about halfway between Clare and Reed City — the pavement started up again on the trail and I was able to ride that the rest of the way into Reed City. The city was originally a major junction of east-west and north-south railroad lines, which have now been reclaimed and mostly paved as the Pere Marquette and White Pine trails. They’ve even preserved a short sections of rails at the original junction point. Downtown Reed City has a number of tourist shops and definitely promotes itself as a “Michigan Trail Town.” Rain threatened throughout the rest of the day, but what I had ridden through was really the only wet weather of the trip. And depending on timing, a lot of people missed the rain altogether.
Day 5: Reed City to Rockford
As I said, Reed City is at the junction of two trails that happen to be the two longest in the state. Today’s ride would now take us along the White Pine Trail straight south to Rockford. Much of this trail is paved, but there were a few unimproved and pretty rough sections where the road bypass was our best, if not only, bet. But it promised to be an easy ride in any case, and I departed along with the usual group from the Zone. (As of this writing, the White Pine trail is just about finished, comprising over 100 miles from Grand Rapids to Cadillac, but there was a lot less pavement in 2009).
There is not a lot to say about the day’s riding. The first paved section took us from Reed City down to the college town of Big Rapids before we veered off onto various zig-zaggy county roads. But it was pretty much smooth sailing all the way. We picked up the pavement on the trail a few miles north of Rockford and followed it into the town by mid-afternoon. Rockford is one of the premier trail towns in Michigan, located along the Rogue River with the trail passing right along the waterfront. Besides being an attraction in its own right, there are a number of businesses right off the trail right-of-way that cater to passing bicyclists. But our group headed straight for one of the famous downtown restaurants that features gourmet hot dogs (and just coincidentally, beer!).
Then it was off to the local high school where we sank in for our last night of camping. One more half day of riding and we’d be finished on the morrow!
Day 6: Rockford to Edmore
This was the only day that provided a challenge to some participants, as we had to traverse a number of hilly county roads to get over to Greenville where we would pick up the Heartland Trail all the way to Edmore. Riding in our group gave us all a boost, and we had no issues getting to the trail and completing the ride. The finish line put us back at same civic center location where we had camped the night before starting out on our adventure, and they even had one of the early-arriving riders waving a checkered flag as people finished their biking adventure. My first Michigander was in the books!
From today’s vantage point, what I didn’t know at the time is that this would be one of the best tours of this type that I would ever take, and my only full ride on the Michigander. I just happened to enter on a year with a perfect combination of route, weather, catering services, and a compatible and fun group of fellow riders. In addition to being a new experience for me, that’s probably why I remember so many small details this many years later. I’ll provide a few more thoughts about this in a later retrospective post.