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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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?