Past as Prologue
I crested the hill on my rollerskis near East Canyon Reservoir in Utah. Exhausted, I crouched into a tuck as the road started downhill near a campground. Like a gift from above, my wheels hummed as they hit brand new pavement. “Sweet,” I thought as I started to skate. Then it was fast enough I could just tuck and grin, catching bugs in my teeth. Then the wheels whined higher and higher in pitch. Tears blew out the sides of my eyes into my ears. I squinted ahead and saw the road disappear around a 90-degree left turn. And there was a guardrail. I’d never been down this road, literally or figuratively.
Some rollerski safety advice said I should just remain calm and ride it out. I tried, but then I heard my wheel bearings screaming. I pictured myself hugging a guardrail at 30 miles per hour. “That’s enough,” I thought. I balanced the options: broken leg later or road rash now. I grunted, threw myself down, and dragged a human chalk line across 30 yards of pavement before careening into the ditch. While I rollerskied back to my car, sweat stung several square feet of my scraped skin. Okay, that’s an exaggeration, but I bled enough that I vowed I’d never rollerski an unscouted road again.
Seven years later, I live in Duluth. I’ve got Marwe 610’s without brakes and the itch to explore new trails along the North Shore of Lake Superior. In theory, I’m wiser now, so I scouted two paved sections of the Gitchi-Gami State Trail on my bike before trying them with rollerskis. You, fellow skier, get to benefit from my summer pioneering and from the fact that I’m a great big chicken.
Silver Creek Cliff
When you barrel up the pavement along the North Shore of Lake Superior, you pass through two tunnels just east of Two Harbors. The first tunnel punches through a wall of rock called Silver Creek Cliff. This tunnel was completed in 1994 and speeds you on your way to Gooseberry Falls, Split Rock Lighthouse and the other mandatory scenery. When the road used to wind around the cliff, the route itself was part of the adventure. What used to be the highway is now a one-mile segment of the Gitchi-Gami State Trail. The long term goal is to connect a paved trail system from Two Harbors to Grand Marais. There are currently only a few segments finished and this is the one closest to Duluth.
My family and I found the parking lot on the right side immediately after exiting the tunnel eastbound. The “Danger: Falling Rock” sign made my son smile as he pedaled uphill. You first cross a dramatic bridge-like structure on the way west up the old roadway. You quickly reach the high point of the trail where there are plaques and signs that show what the road used to be like. We left the roar of the highway behind and were staring off the precipitous ledges at the big blue lake. Sheltered from the west wind and the road noise, it was eerily silent as we looked all the way across Lake Superior to Wisconsin.
There was no time to loiter as my wife and son were enjoying the long downhill run to the west end of the trail. My boy kept going down the road past the west terminus and I had to holler him back. “But I wanted to keep riding until I got tired,” he said. I reminded him that he had to go back up where he just coasted down. We admired the bright blue lupine on the side of the trail. Then we stopped at a dramatic arch over the path that replicates a gateway that was here when the original shore road was new.
We paused for some pictures when we returned to the high point. My wife played goalie to keep the kids from chasing each other off the edge of our perch. Lickety-split we were back at the truck.
There are a couple reasons why I won’t rollerski here. The grade from either end of this trail was fine to go up. Once you’re at the scenic high point in the middle, you’ve got to escape down somehow and either direction is too steep, in my opinion. To the west, you’ve got a long twisty downhill without even a guardrail between you and the big blue. To the east back to the parking lot, you’d run the gauntlet of the bridge structure that feeds you to a couple posts meant to keep out vehicles. Plus, at only a mile long, the Silver Creek Cliff section is probably not enough rollerskiing to justify the road trip. However, I had a great bike ride here with my family a few days after Grandma’s Marathon, and it’s definitely a very quick and pretty walk.
Gooseberry Falls to Beaver Bay
Later in the summer, the next portion of the Gitchi-Gami State Trail that I visited was the stretch from Gooseberry Falls to Beaver Bay. This paved section is 13.2 miles long. I played tourist and asked at the counter of Gooseberry Falls State Park how I could join up with the Gitchi-Gami State Trail from the main visitor center. The young lady told me to go uphill through the throngs of people to the Gateway Plaza near the bridge, cross a 100-foot section of dirt, and I’d finally be on the trail. I opted for her next suggestion: Exit the park to the east, find the 42-mile marker on Highway 61 and park at the public water access there. I left the masses behind and found a nearly deserted parking lot in the middle of a bluebird weekend day. It was nice to ditch the mob. I couldn’t imagine rollerskiing downhill back through packs of visitors back at the State Park.
I climbed on my old road bike and headed east. After a pleasant tunnel through evergreens right out of the parking lot, in a half- mile, you cross a very scenic bridge near some classic Lake Superior cliffs. Less than a mile later, you cross a bridge over the Split Rock River where there’s another great view of the big lake. Next there are rolling hills that lead you over some bridges into the west end of Split Rock Lighthouse State Park.
Then things are dicey, even on a bike. As you near the park road, there is a swooping, descending section off trail with signs that order bikers and rollerbladers to dismount. You cross several roads within the park and do some hairy climbs and descents out the east. This was fun on a bike, but would be death-defying for my rollerskiing skillset. Then the trail flattens out all the way to Beaver Bay. There are a few spots along this eastern section that overlook Lake Superior, including a nice one on the bridge in Beaver Bay about a quarter mile past the end of the Gitchi-Gami Trail.
From Mile 42 to Beaver Bay was 10 miles. It was a fantastic road ride. I’d say the most fun and scenic section for rollerskiing would be the five miles west of Split Rock Lighthouse State Park: I finished my 20 miles on the bike and strapped on my rollerskis for a test run from Mile 42 to the Split Rock River. Use caution crossing the several bridges throughout the trail. All but one have planks of wood that run perpendicular to your travel. Most troubling is the metal lip of the bridge at both ends of all these bridges. It’s a fairly hefty bump, even on a bike. I don’t recommend assaulting one of these bridges at speed while on skis. Road rash with splinters in it would be a festival of pain.
Bonus at the Finish
When I finally arrived at the parking lot at the end of the day, I took a short 200 yard walk to a place called Iona’s Beach. There is a striking beach of pink rhyolite stones that stretches off to the east, perfect for dipping your ski-boot heated dogs. It’s a Minnesota State Natural Area and a perfect ending to a multi-sport day.
I’d recommend visiting http://www.ggta.org for more information as the trail grows along Highway 61 from Two Harbors all the way to Grand Marais. There are more sections for me to roller-scout further up the shore. For now, I’ve figured out how to save my skin on the 14-miles of Gitchi-Gami State Trail nearest to Duluth. Happy skiing!