Beyond the Troll BridgeOriginally posted on April 24, 2019 at 0:34 am
Editors note: This story originally appeared in issue 209, our island adventure issue. If you like what you see and would like to see content like this more often, consider becoming a subscriber or invite us to your adventure Island!
Photos and Words by Brett Rothmeyer
A voice breaks through the crackle of AM radio: “Winds moving northeast at 20 to 30 miles per hour with gusts up to 50 miles per hour.” The voice, stoic and timeless as from another era, warns again: “Vehicles with trailers and boats may not cross the bridge without an escort.” We had been driving through the plains of Ohio and into the cornfields of Michigan for the better part of eight hours. The skies had grown darker and more menacing the farther north we went until it reached doomsday-prophecy level at the threshold of the Mackinac Bridge. We approached the entrance to the bridge slowly as a man in full red rain gear waved us through to start our traverse of the almost 5-mile-long structure of steel and concrete. The suspension of the car gave to the right as a gust blew hard across the bridge; below, Lake Michigan heaved. We knew we were rolling the dice this time of year by heading deep into the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, but the prospect of a long weekend of riding on virtually empty and pristine trails amongst the fall foliage was far too tempting.
Successfully crossing the Mackinac in the gale-force winds felt like a small victory. Along Highway 2, Lake Michigan was pumping sapphire waves into the shallow, sandy shores. We walked down to the beach to stretch our legs in the blowing rain. It was hard to believe that we were looking at a lake and not the Caribbean Sea; the water was as blue and the waves were just as gnarly. We squinted our eyes in the rain to catch the last glimpses of troll life; we were now in Yooper territory. You see, Michiganders refer to anyone living south of the Mackinac Bridge as trolls and everyone living north of the bridge as Yoopers (as in U.P.). It was clear that the Yoopers were very proud of their adopted moniker. License plates, T-shirts, hats: Any regalia you could think of was adorned with “Yooper.” Whatever cause for celebration crossing the threshold into the Upper Peninsula held, it was short lived. We still had a long way to go, and the threat of a snowstorm loomed over our second day of travels.
Morning broke through the window of our room at the Econo Lodge just outside of the city of Marquette. The waters of Lake Superior were visible across the street, and they were no less turbulent than Lake Michigan from the previous day. Two mugs of coffee were finally starting to break through the fog that the 10 hours of driving had caused to settle into my brain. The weatherman sputtered on about high winds, snow, and hazardous driving conditions. I glanced up at the television, away from what I hoped were real eggs on my breakfast plate, to see a graphic of a waterspout on one of the Great Lakes. We had left Pittsburgh bright-eyed, looking for adventure in the northernmost reaches of Michigan, and it appeared that Mother Nature was hell-bent on delivering it.
Gentle snowfall turned to steady as we headed north, and before we knew it the road was covered in snow. Perhaps the southbound vehicles we were passing with several inches of snow on the roofs and hoods should have been a tip-off, but our focus on getting to Copper Harbor left us a bit naïve to the early winter storms of northern Michigan. We passed several cars that had spun off into the ditch, and after miles of nervous navigation on remote back roads, we made it to Houghton, one more minor bridge crossing before the Keweenaw Peninsula and onto some proper riding. It wasn’t long before we made it to the small town of Calumet and our rendezvous location to meet with our guide, Chris Guibert.
We entered Keweenaw Coffee Roasters and a thin man with long hair dressed in an all-weather shell rose from a table. “Brett and Scott?” he stated more than asked. Originally from New Jersey, Guibert landed on the Keweenaw Peninsula about five years ago after a visit to the area had left a serious impression on him. Before Guibert settled in the U.P., he had spent time in the Southwest guiding bike tours in the mid-’90s and later chased a career in commercial photography. After living in both Colorado and Idaho working as a photographer, Guibert took his eye to Michigan, where he helps promote local outdoor recreation and serves on the board of directors for Copper Harbor Trails Club.
After a quick exchange of pleasantries, we grabbed a couple of coffees and beelined it to the trailhead. The two-lane road that took us to our final destination weaved and turned through rows of glowing birch and maple trees; it was easy to see how people fall for this place. It was cold, but the town of Copper Harbor was spared the snow we had driven through earlier in the day. I was ready to see what this place had in store. Scott had already visited the area earlier in the year, but there was much that he had left unridden.
The town of Copper Harbor was established in the mid-1800s when copper was discovered there. Mines were built and the harbor was opened up to ship traffic. It didn’t take long for the miners to extract every last bit of copper from the area and leave the small town behind. The ruins of these old mines still litter the landscape, as does a fully restored Fort Wilkins Army base. Copper Harbor is now home to just around 100 permanent residents, but it sure seemed like a lot fewer on a cold October afternoon as we waited for our riding buddies in the parking lot of the Pines Motel.
Guibert and a friend of his from Chicago joined us for our first taste of riding after a two-day drive. The trail pumped upward into the forest, twisted and bench cut through the ancient landscape. Guibert guided us on what could be considered an EP of Copper Harbor’s greatest hits — a mix of old and new man-made features and technical natural lines on the unique red porous rock that remains from the island’s volcanic beginnings millions of years prior. Guibert must have sensed our hunger to get out and move. He kept us rolling at a spirited clip as we gratefully followed under the golden foliage.
We stopped as we came to an opening in the trees. Looking down on the town and Lake Superior, we could hear what sounded like thunder. A steady wind from the northwest had been blowing for the last couple of days, bringing cold, snow and massive freshwater waves. “Holy smokes!” I yelped; it wasn’t thunder, but the water crashing down onto the rocky shore. One wave after another just as big as the last. Cold and violent, the lake’s guttural voice carried far into the trees as we looked on.
“Surf has been good all week,” Guibert noted. As someone who daydreams about surfing, I was both marveling over and jealous of our host’s ability to surf the ice-cold waters of Lake Superior.
“You’ve been out in there?” I asked, more out of adoration than testing for validity.
“Yeah, yesterday, for a bit. But not there; that spot’s too dangerous. Shallow and rocky. I have a better spot down the road a bit.” He was careful not to reveal the exact location, even to some landlocked kooks like us.
We dropped in on Stairway to Heaven — one of Copper Harbor’s more popular trails, with its wooden waves that wind through the trees down to the valley — for our final trail of the day as the sun faded into the cold autumn sky. Guibert led us past our car and motel to the Brickside Brewery, the town’s small microbrewery. Outside, a Sprinter van with bikes racked on the back sat in the lot, reassuring us that we weren’t the only ones trying to get in some late-season laps. The room hummed with spirited conversation as patrons enjoyed a cold pint in the warmth of the small building. With a robust and dark porter in my hand, I felt the satisfaction of having made it to a trail system that had been on my wishlist for quite some time, all the while wondering if it would be worth the long drive. It was indeed.
Under the glow of boozy handcrafted beers and the recessed light bulbs above, we studied a map for the next day’s ride. Retracing our route from earlier, Guibert explained the history of the trails here, from the humble beginning of the Red Trail, which started as a dedicated hiking trail almost a century ago, to the purpose-built mastery that Aaron Rogers has created. It’s impossible to talk about Copper Harbor without discussing the importance of Rogers. A resident of the town since 2005, he had a vision and a passion for turning Copper Harbor into a destination for mountain bikers. It’s hard to argue that his vision isn’t coming to fruition; every season, riders from all over flock to the northernmost part of Michigan to ride these trails. From double-black-diamond downhill runs to smooth flow trails, there is something for every level of rider. With rumors of a bigger and badder downhill track being developed in the not-so-distant future, Rogers’ work on the island is far from over. While Rogers and his team are often hired to help establish new trail systems all over the country, Copper Harbor is home.
While the rumors of Rogers’ downhill playground will have to play themselves out, Guibert was ready to show us some of the area’s newest sections of singletrack. We packed up to rest for the next day’s long ride, but not before enjoying the last night of the Harbor Haus’ season. With both German fare and fresh fish from the lake, it was precisely the kind of comfort and fuel we needed to get ready for a big day out. The mood of the staff was infectious as they celebrated their last day at the restaurant before it shut down for the winter months.
Greeted in the parking lot by members of Copper Harbor Trails Club, including Keweenaw Adventure Company owner Sam Raymond, we shuffled around in the cold to meet our new riding mates, then took off to explore some of the latest and farthest-reaching trails on the island. The Point Trail takes riders into the remote backcountry on twisty, beautifully built singletrack. It wasn’t long until we were seduced by the speed and beauty of the trails pumping over rollers and pushing through berms. While phase one of the Point was the gateway, phase two was the payoff. It wasn’t hard to imagine wolves stalking prey in these woods or a mountain lion perching on a boulder, waiting for a frail meal ticket to wander by. Perhaps picking up on our level of excitement as we pushed the breaking point of our tires’ abilities to hold the trail, Guibert and trail-club president Benjamin Ciavola reminded us that we were a long ways from an access road, let alone a hospital. Like mischievous schoolchildren, we reeled back just a moment to appease our guides, only to push the pace once more through the undulating terrain.
The end of phase two of the Point Trail system exited onto an open and rocky shore. Windswept, we found shelter among the rocks and earth where a semicircle had been dug out by stormy water from Lake Superior. It’s the perfect location for camping along the water’s edge in the summer months; Scott and I both began scheming to return to enjoy the solitude and a chance at the Northern Lights glowing in the sky. As we snacked on bars and bananas, the members of the Trails Club discussed the next phase of the Point. As it is currently, the Point system is an out-and-back totaling 20-plus miles of riding. When phase three is completed in the coming years, riders will be able to enjoy a 30-plus-mile one-way loop. In combination with the already established network, Copper Harbor aims to be even more of a mountain biker’s paradise. While phase three will be a challenge due to its remoteness, Guibert reassured us that the dedication from the builders here is second to none. Plans of multi-day camp-outs and carting materials in by bike are already taking shape for the coming spring.
The return trip on the existing trails of the Point was no less enjoyable than the way out. We enjoyed a beer or two at Zik’s Bar, attached to the motel, with our new friends and looked forward to seeing them again. Guibert explained how he needed to be on his way to get ready for a trip to Florida, and the remaining members of the day’s excursions dispersed to head home to relax a bit before the weekend expired.
The following morning, the sun crept over the trees, tinting the sky purple. The lake was calm; the only things moving about were a few birds. It was the first time we had felt the rays of the sun in a few days, and it warmed the winter air that had settled into the Keweenaw Peninsula. As we drove out, a road crew placed 12-foot sticks topped with pink ribbons on either side of the road to keep plow trucks from straying off into the banks. It was the second week of October and winter had already begun in Copper Harbor. The mountain biking community was squeezing in their final few laps before the trails hibernated under a thick blanket of snow.
It’s hard to leave a place this quiet and beautiful, and it’s clear why our new friend Chris Guibert decided to call this place home. The still of a morning unmolested by the traffic and commerce of a big city, the ancient forest, the power of Lake Superior — Copper Harbor leaves a lasting impression.