Autumn Kaleidoscope and Howling Wolves: A first Chequamegon Bikepacking Experience on a Fat Bike

Alright, let’s just get this out of the way because being from the Midwest it would be rude to not first talk about the weather. We lucked out. The October colors were at peak floristic phenomenon, one of the days approached summertime temperatures, and it didn’t rain the entire time we were on out the trail. All that considered, bikepacking the Chequamegon is a marvelous slog, which becomes near graceful the more days one is seated (and standing) in the saddle. 

Autumn splendor

For me, this trip started in springtime with covid restlessness. Dave Schlabowske, Bike Czar now retired from working with the Wisconsin Bike Fed, had documented this trip in generous detail for any other swashbuckling wanderers to follow in his pedal strokes. I was intrigued and started planning, even bought gravel tires for my regular road bike, which I ended up not using anyway. A last minute choice led to riding trail bikes instead of retrofitted road bikes, which proved favorable. 

I picked up this Farley Trek fat bike because I want to ride off-road in every season and refuse to store and maintain more than two bicycles. I’m not a huge fan of obsessing about gear and weight and overthinking packing strategies, but sometimes it has to be done to get where you want to be. This bike ticks all of those mountain biking boxes and handles more. It’s a remarkable general practitioner of sorts, which I admire in anyone and anything. 

Our chosen rigs taking a rest. Us too.

My friend Philip Salamone agreed to join on the trip, this being his first experience with any kind of bike touring. This detail didn’t concern me as he’s the kind of guy will nonchalantly observe, “Yeah this weekend was great. Did like 30 miles of single track on Saturday.” Phil is a fantastic artist and teacher and chill, engaging company. Phil brought his mountain bike, a hardtail with 29” tires.

Before embarking, we stopped for breakfast at The Brick House for breakfast and coffee. I struck up conversation with a couple of guys who looked like riders and were walking a dog. One of the guys was of the lanky and sleek cyclist variety and the other made me think of who you’d expect to see on a 1970’s baseball card in the position of Pitcher. He sported a generous bushy mustache and a quietly unflappable manner while wearing shorts and a t-shirt as we all sat breakfasting at windy 52 degree picnic tables. “I wonder what they’re doing here, dog and all,” I thought. “Maybe they’re locals.” Turned out they were from Madison and had the same plan as us.

The morning after camping at Moose Lake.

We began outfitting our bikes with bags and I noticed and one of their rides was of the European porteur-style featuring a massive rack and 20-inch front wheel. It became clear the dog was a part of the crew and sat shotgun. “Huh. That guy is screwed,” I thought to myself. 

Finally, we locked up the truck and made our way out onto the first of many, many gravel roads. Up the first steep incline we witnessed the snaking slides of skinnier-tire equipped gravel or road oriented rides, and we immediately knew we’d made the right choice in bikes. Well…I should say Phil started talking about that, I inhaled and exhaled with purpose and every once in awhile saved up the additional breath to respond, “Uh huh.”

The winding wilds of Wisconsin. This is the easy going terrain.

Moving Southeast from Cable, within the first hour we encountered a handful of singletrack and ATV trails laden with deeply exposed roots and basketball-sized rocks like the throat gullet to bouncing hell if everything on your bike isn’t tightly affixed and tightened to a gentle creak. We stopped for lunch about a dozen miles in alongside the winding road, our bikes leaning against the incline of a roadside moraine. Realizing we were only one-third of our way to the campsite, I wondered what I’d gotten myself into. 

That said, my bike handled everything quite well. I ran with 19psi in the rear tire and 17psi up front. It was faster on the smooth gravel while still somewhat forgiving. When not on rough single track portions I had my fork locked out for less bounce=greater climbing efficiency.

We encountered a recently retired gravel bike rider who had years ago bought a cabin in the area for a love of the Birkebeiner Ski Race. He said there are two types of people who ski in the race: Those who participate once and decide that’s enough, or those who become hooked and want more. He was smilingly of the latter. 

A breath with a tapestry of Tamaracks.

The road gradually relented to often being an actual gravel road versus a collection of potholes and granite bowling balls to dodge, but still with remarkable ascents and descents. I realized that on the ascents, I finally knew the reason it was so hard to find pants that fit my bubble butt in high school. It was to propel saddlebags bouncing on 3.8” tires up rocky inclines. Finally, halfway through life, this big ass has purpose other than shredding jean crotches when squatting. 

We arrived to Moose Lake, our first night campsite, and I was totally wrecked, delirious with exhaustion. My sentences trailed off into the beginnings of the next sentence while I wobbled around the campsite. We each prepared one of those just-add-boiling-water backpacking meals and I ate the whole two servings of Chicken Risotto, then began to again feel human.

Check out that hill as modeled by Luke and Beulah.

As we sat on the provided picnic table, one of our new Madison acquaintances pedaled on by. We shouted greetings and took them up on the invitation to join at their campfire. It turned out the bikes, the dog, the moustache – all arrived in a fine jumbled order. They’d left sooner than us and arrived in about as much time as we had. I decided that our new friend and hound Beulah were the combined patron saint of the Chequamegon Trail spirit. Do you have a bike? Are the tires wider than skinny? Do you want to smell lush pines and the humid sweet rot of autumn leaves? Then go north and embrace your unbuttoned collar flapping in the downhill Kettle Moraine wilderness!

The next morning was in the low 40’s as we headed out; I find temperatures in the 40’s-60’s are generally preferable to the mid-70’s of the day before. Keeps the muscles fresher, less sweat, or maybe it just wicks off of you. Anyway, I find the third day of any ride is when you really start to get into the groove. The second day you’re still getting there, and I was still getting there. 

We were stunned by the golden beauty of this forest – my phone pictures really don’t do it justice.
The sole “mechanical” of the trip.
Tightening this bolt.
I wasn’t kidding when I said
we lucked out.

We delighted in the golden tapestry of wetland habitats unfamiliar to me in Southeastern Wisconsin, surrounded by gatekeeping Tamaracks whose needles turn bright before dropping. In the sun they twinkle giving the golden Maples a run for their majesty. 

We pulled into Clam Lake to camp at around 4:30pm looking forward to the deep dish pizza we’d heard so much about from The Chippewa. We sat on picnic tables devouring slices and drinking beer, laughing giddily about our fortune to find such wonderful pizza pie in what might seem an unlikely home while drinking New Glarus gas station beer. Felt so good it was like we were cheating. 

Retrieving our deep dish pizzas from The Chippewa.

Overnight, back at our campsites at Day Lake (which – sidebar – if you run a campsite that caters to bicycle travelers it’s really handy for guests to be aware if the water pump is partially dismantled) we heard a massive howl of wolves and coyotes. We’d neglected to hang our food as it didn’t seem distant enough to attract bears – but I rose in the middle of the night to affix the saddlebag to my bike just in case. 

Summer and autumn colors commingling at Clam Lake.

Our third day started a little slow in a fog of pizza and beer, but we felt strong and replenished, rewarded with some of the most vibrant forests we’d seen the entire trip. About half of the roads were paved as we made our way back to Cable, which by comparison felt like a luxurious auburn-tinged carpet laid just for us. Streets wound through forested vacation estates with tumbling kettles and dramatic moraines. During lunch a guy whizzed by on a golf cart and asked if we were ok. We gave the thumbs up and, having seen so many mud-splashed ATVs and orange vested pickup driving hunters with bed-caged bellering hounds all looked at one another, “…a golf cart?” Turns out a golf course is nestled within all of that forest. 

Roadside lunch, Phil sketching as painters are known to.

We arrived to a ghostly empty town of Cable as the temperature dropped with winds that started mid-afternoon. The town was so empty we saw deer strolling casually down the middle of the streets. We counted our luckies that could no longer be seen twinkling through the grey and opted for a long drive rather than a wet tent in the morning. In saying goodbyes to our new friends, Sean and Luke, while I was closing the car door, Luke added the Wisconsin adage for universally sweet concern, “Watch for deer.” 

Phil and I filled up on Chinese food in Hayward, pounded gas station coffee, and each made it to Madison and Milwaukee respectively by 2am. I brought the bike inside, took a shower for the first time since Thursday morning, and laid awake for about about 30 seconds wondering when I’d do it again. Maybe next time for a week rather than a weekend?

First Impression Review of a Fat Bike with the RockShox Bluto Fork

unnamed-5
Riding at River Glen in Milwaukee.

I’m forever trying to find tools that can do the most things, reasonably well, and within a budget I can afford. This past summer I blissfully fell down the rabbit hole of mountain biking on a 15-year-old donor given to my son a decade before it would fit him.

By summer’s end I appeared to have reached the limits of the bike’s geometry, suspension, brakes, and gearing and started researching upgrading to something more modern. Then it dawned on me…did I want to wait 5 months to ride again in Wisconsin? Nope! The answer? A fat bike.

unnamed-7
Wearing a pre-suspended winter outfit.

I picked up this first generation Trek Farley and started shredding once trails were sufficiently snowy or frozen. I was glad to be winding through the woods, but early on I realized that my palms and wrists had zero interest in tagging along for a rigid ride. A cabal of riders owning you’d never need more than those big tires for suspension opinions are well known, but my left wrist in particular was not in agreement.

I started looking into suspension systems and was quickly a little bummed that they were overall about as expensive as the amount I’d paid for this well-maintained secondhand fat bike. So what did I do? The same thing I did to find my fat tire bike. I called Dream Bikes. Ever Heard of Dream Bikes? Dream Bikes is (their words) “a non-profit, 501(c)3 organization that strategically places used bicycle stores in low-to-moderate income neighborhoods to provide hands-on, paid job training to teens.” They also accept and refurbish donated bikes.

unnamed-4
See those rings on the fork stanchions? That could mean a rebuild is in my future. No big deal, still cheaper than new.

Granted, Dream Bikes doesn’t as of yet receive many donations of fat bikes or components, but in a month my once-a-week calls paid off and in March they received a secondhand RockShox Bluto fork. “Hooray,” cried my left wrist.

Being an early fat bike, the first Farley wheel set wasn’t outfitted with accommodations for a suspended fork. The Dream Bikes crew were patient and stayed the course when it became clear a new front wheel would be required to fit this upgraded fork, so I was without my bike for a few weeks of the rainiest, snowiest, melt-browniest time of year in Milwaukee. Perfect timing! Once it was all put back together, I’d paid less than half of the price of a new Bluto (let alone the new quick release re-laced front wheel setup).

So how’s it ride?

I’ve only been out to the trails a few times so far, but already I can tell a big difference. In addition to the fork, this bike also features a 1x shifting system, dropper seatpost, and updated geometry – all upgrades I’m acquainting. So far I don’t really notice the added weight of the fork, and if anything I’m probably learning more to lean my weight toward the back to lift and jump obstacles.

I’m already a lot faster on this bike now than a couple of months ago. Part of that I can sum up to not slowing down to avoid coming down hard on the front end and my palms taking the brunt of that force. I’m more comfortable, so I’m able to ride harder, fast, and go bigger on jumps or obstacles without concern an uncomfortable descent.

unnamed-6
Fat bikes are pretty capable, but I haven’t tried water yet.

I tend to ride with higher pressure tires than some people on fat bikes because I enjoy the fast rolling characteristics of a taut tire. When not in snow, I run tubed tires between 11 – 15 psi depending on the conditions and degree of slickness. These fast, bulbous tires, however, with a rigid fork, can result in the front end easily sliding out in tight curves. With the Bluto, the fork absorbs those forces, allowing me to attack turns aggressively without concern for low siding. It’s a balance between fork air pressure and tire air pressure. For my (presently) ~220 pound frame I’ve been running the fork pumped to about 130 – 140 psi.

unnamed-8
Thank you Dream Bikes! Have a nice day.

The bike isn’t as fast or as quickly cornering as a smaller, more conventional-sized mountain bike tire bike, but I knew that going into this endeavor. With motorcycles, people often say it’s more fun to ride a small bike fast than to ride a big bike slow. In an odd way, I’m finding that’s almost reversed with mountain bikes. I’m finding it fun to surf this big tire bike, whereas a more precise scalpel-esque race bike might feel twitchy and expose my relative lack of skill.

Additionally, feeling fast isn’t necessarily the same as being comparably fast. I’ve never raced bicycles in any competitive sense. Last year I started mountain biking in earnest and I’ll turn 40 this summer. I’m having fun and couldn’t care less if I’m not as fast as someone with a more accessorized lifestyle.

Overall, for me, the Bluto fork has made this bike faster and more fun to ride. In the past the Farley felt overall stuck to the terra (and maybe that’s because I spent the first few months of our life together riding in snow), but now I feel like I can really make this ride fling and sing. And that’s what we’re all looking for, right? A little more harmony.

unnamed
Oh and that slick retro wool jersey? Got that years ago at Dream Bikes too.