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GRAVEL BIKING, FAT BIKING, & BIKEPACKING IN MINNESOTA, WISCONSIN, & the U.P.

KID-FREE: RIDING NORTH ON OUR FIRST BIKEPACKING TRIP


In 2021, Aaron Roecker and his wife Kim went on their first bikepacking trip and also spent their first nights away from their one year old son. They pedaled north to Minocqua and found their fair share of adventure and mishaps along the way.

Story: Aaron Roecker @aaroecker


“Up North.” If you're from Wisconsin, you know the saying. It’s a phrase most often heard right before the weekend, or during the heat of summer when the cool water of northern lakes calls. Its meaning, or more specifically the destination, changes from person to person. For me and my family, “up north” has always meant Minocqua.


My wife and I are into bikes. We love ‘em, and I’m sure you do, too. Like many, we began our journey with bikes pedaling first on dirt, racing WORS. While many would head up north to get out on the lakes, we would head north to ride singletrack. Yes, we’d still get out on the water too, but usually only after getting some miles in on our bikes. As time moved on, our desire to simply ride more got us into just about every type of cycling you can think of. And with this notion to simply “ride more” our collection of bikes grew. As I write this article, I’ve put more miles on my e-cargo bike than any other this past year. I’m OK with that, because I still get to ride. Life gets busy, but I can still ride my bike to work or head to swimming lessons with my son. The idea of replacing vehicle travel with a bike is really where our bikepacking story begins. On a road trip north, I said to my wife, Kim, “Why don't we just ride our bikes up here?” And so begins our story.


Pandemic Adventure Planning

In the midst of the pandemic, we began planning our journey north while also juggling remote work, caring for our one-year-old son and 11-year-old dog, who is a puppy at heart. The general outline of our trip came down to two simple desires: ride to Minocqua over the span of three days and two nights, and use as much trail as possible. Thanks to Garmin, Google Maps, and talking to friends, we chose our route.


This route included a mix of road and trail riding along the Friendship, Wiowash, Mountain Bay, Hiawatha and Bearskin trail systems. We planned to camp over at Wilson Lake County Park our first night, and then at SARA Park Campground our second night; arriving in Minocqua on our third day. Our bikes would be loaded with all of our overnight gear and food to snack on while riding. For our main meals, we planned to stop at restaurants along the way.


Bikepacking was new to us, and this would be our first time away from our one-year-old son. We felt confident in our plans and were excited to get moving on a new adventure.


False Starts on Day 1

On the morning of our trip we were, for all intents and purposes, ready, but per usual, and mostly on my part, we were running late. The plan was to drop our son and dog off at Kim’s parents. We would then leave from their house on our bikes, and they meet us in Minocqua at my parents’ home in a few days. Everything was set, but last-minute details were bogging us down. When we arrived at Kim’s parents’ we unloaded and prepped our bikes, gave our hugs and kisses goodbye, snapped a photo, and rolled down Green Acres Lane. Less than a block into the journey, my rear tire lost all air. Upon inspection the sidewall of my tire was slashed and unrideable. Thankfully, our local bike shop was open. I quickly hopped in the car and headed there to get a replacement.


With a new tire and sealant in hand, I quickly got the new tire on the rim and aired up. In the rush, I forgot about the placement of my thru axle. After a bit of detective work, I came to discover that I had left the thru axle on the bumper of the car while disassembling my bike. The thru axle came for the ride part way to the bike shop, but had fallen off around the corner and down the street. When we came to find it, the threads were damaged, making it unusable. This time I headed home as I knew I had a spare thru axle that I could use. When I arrived back at grandma and grandpa’s I quickly prepared my bike. We had lost so much time already, but thankfully the tire fiasco was the last of our mechanical troubles.


The Departure. Photo by Dale Biedermann

We again said our goodbyes and were finally on our way north. The tire fiasco has added substantial time onto our already delayed start. We didn’t have time to rethink our route, and we just decided that we would have to push a little harder. Doing so proved to be more difficult with a loaded-down bike. Thankfully, the weather was sunny and warm, and the wind was mild. Every time I mentioned the uncomfortable pull of the extra weight on my bike, Kim would just smile. The feeling was uneasy at first, but it became the new normal after a few short miles.


Ready to fly. Photo by Aaron Roecker

Picking Up Speed & Getting Local Tips

Now that we were moving, the miles melted away like ice cream in the sun; we were melting, too, in the hot summer sun. We rode very little trail, only using the Friendship and Wiowash trails for the first portion of the day. The rest of the day was on county roads. Kim, a transportation planner, took extra care searching for the safer and more scenic roads. These scenic roads wound us through Hortonville, New London, and Marion, where we finally stopped for dinner at the Pigeon River Brewery.


As we sat on the patio of Pigeon River Brewery, we took in the warm summer night while video chatting with our son, hearing about his day and exciting adventures that he took Grandma and Grandpa on. The food was great and the beer was even better. Despite not dawdling too much, daylight was no longer on our side, and the potential of a looming storm made us realize we may not make our Day 1 destination. Even worse, the quiet county roads we had planned to ride on would have added an unnecessary distance in the dwindling sunlight. After reviewing Google Maps and chatting with the friendly bartender, we succumbed to the realization that we would have to ride on a relatively busy highway. However, the bartender also recommended a closer campground that was only about 10 miles away. The main office was closed when we tried calling, and we were not able to reserve online; we just had to go with the hope that a campsite would be available.


Upon leaving Pigeon River Brewery the bartender gave us his number and told us to call him if we ran into trouble. We were prepared with lights and reflective gear, but no one likes to ride on a busy highway at dusk. As we made our way to the campground, the traffic was calm but steady, and we made it to our destination with little trouble. While no one was at the front desk, we were able to get in touch with a kind employee who was on-call; she pointed us to some of the more scenic sites.



Embarrass River. Photo by Kim Biedermann

With a campsite along the river, we started to settle in for the evening. I looked down at my Garmin and thought back on the 70 miles of excitement our first day entailed and wondered how tomorrow would transpire. We cleaned ourselves up and quickly climbed into bed for the night; falling quickly asleep to the sound of the fast moving river.


Waking Up On The Trail, Kid-Free For the First Time

We woke early the next morning with no alarm; this was our first morning in almost 18 months that we didn’t wake up to our son.


Given that we had some distance to make up, we quickly got to work on breaking down our campsite. This was not a quick process. Stuffing our gear back into our packs was a tedious task; we had very little room to spare, and everything had to be packed in the right order. After a quick Google search we discovered a greasy spoon restaurant a close distance away. As we made our way into Tigerton the mist of the morning dew was rising in the grass and fields that surrounded us. We parked our bikes outside and made our way inside. The coffee was dark, the food was great and our friendly server chatted with us in a subtle southern accent; a recent transplant. As we ate breakfast we planned our day while keeping an eye on the weather. Strong storms were looking to move their way across the state in the early afternoon.


Riding the storm out. Photo by Aaron Roecker

With full stomachs, we made our way toward the northern section of the Wiowash trail. The air was thick, but the sun continued to shine down on us. As we worked our way northwest, the sunny sky turned menacing and drops of rain started to fall on our helmets. When we came to the junction of the Wiowash and Mountain Bay trails our phones started to warn us of a severe weather system making its way toward us, and the sky opened into a torrential downpour. Luckily, we quickly found temporary cover under trailside shelter. We grabbed our phones and began looking at the weather and for a safe harbor destination that we could ride the storm out in. Google told us that a trailside tavern was less than a mile north from us, so we headed there as quickly as we could.


Waiting Out the Rain

The rain pelted us as we made our way inside the Mountain Bay Bar and Grill. We stuck out like a sore thumb as the few patrons’ and bartender’s eyes met our rain-soaked bodies. After a brief conversation, the bartender invited us to bring our bikes inside, and we draped ourselves with our camp towels. We were welcomed with questions about what we were doing and where we were going. We ate lunch, and talked with our new friends until the weather passed. We chatted about our plans and destination for the night while we watched images of severe weather and flooding on the tv screens. The storm was waning, but nearby flooding presented us with new potential dangers. Once the radar showed the storm had passed, one of the patrons called a friend in the Wausau area to make sure our passage north would indeed be safe and clear. Upon leaving the tavern the bartender offered us her number and told us to call if we ran into trouble.


Mountain Bay Trail. Photo by Aaron Roecker

The sun was hard at work drying out the trails as we left the bar. As we continued northwest on our journey, the Mountain Bay Trail offered us picturesque landscapes of the Wisconsin countryside. From forests to bridges over bogs, this section of the state and trail offers great riding and views. Rolling into the Wausau area, the trail turned to pavement and we moved closer to our new destination for the night, the Marathon County Park Campground. Arriving at the campground, we were greeted with a tree covered, self-serviced affair. We picked a site and chatted with the neighbors before cleaning up prior to dinner.


We decided to grab a late dinner and beer at the Great Dane Pub and Brewing Co. It was only a short ride from the campground and has always had great food and, of course, beer. As we made our way back to the site and settled in for the night, we drifted quickly off to sleep listening to the distant hum of Highway 51. Tomorrow, we’d reach our final destination, Minocqua.


Marathon County Campground. Photo by Kim Biedermann

Last Day of Riding

The next morning, we broke camp early and headed off to grab a quick breakfast and coffee at Starbucks. While sipping on coffee and tea, we stared at Google Maps, hoping that if we looked long enough the perfect route to the Bearskin trailhead would appear; it did not. We knew the stretch from Wausau to Merrill would have a section of busy roads to cover. We would soon learn how busy. The county highways held steady 55 mph traffic and seemed to have one rolling hill after another. After 45 minutes of buzzing traffic and teeth-rattling, rutted-out gravel shoulders we decided to break from the Garmin recommended route and head east on Naugart Drive, letting fate lead.


We meandered through a serene territory north of Wausau mixed with paved and gravel roads. Coming across farm and forest lands, and happening upon a picturesque single-room schoolhouse, which to our eyes, had seen better days. As we slowly moved north, Kim and I continued to comment to each other how lucky we were to find such a wonderful area to ride through. We continued on to Merrill as a gentle rain began to fall.


School is not in session. Photo by Kim Biedermann

When we rolled into Merrill, we resupplied our bottles and snacks at a local gas station. Moving through the city streets, the rain began to come down harder, and we took temporary refuge underneath a large oak tree covering a sidestreet. It didn’t last long and we were soon on our way north again. Our next destination was Tomahawk. We’d hoped to grab lunch there prior to hopping on the Bearskin Trail; finishing our trip on one of the state’s most scenic rails to trails.


As we made our way toward Tomahawk, our surroundings became the image of northern Wisconsin that everyone talks about: forests, lakes and rivers. The roads were quiet and moved through beautiful forested rolling hills hugging several small lakes, and a river along the way. While the outside world was a delight to soak in, Kim and I were getting grumpy. Hunger was setting in and we were still drying off from the day’s earlier rain. Lunch was needed and as we approached Tomahawk we stopped at a quiet park to use the restroom and find a place in town to eat.


Quiet roads north of Merrill. Photo by Kim Biedermann

With a destination set, we headed in the right direction of the moment, food. Tomahawk greeted us with busy traffic along a brief stint on South Tomahawk Avenue. As we came into the downtown district, we quickly found a place to store our bikes while we dined. As we refueled and sipped coffee and tea, passersby outside the window paused and tilted their heads to the side as they looked over our bikes full of bags and gear. Kim and I smiled and continued finishing our lunch.


The last leg of our trip was in sight. As we settled our tab, I sent a quick text to my mom giving her an ETA on our arrival. We rambled through Tomahawk and circled back on ourselves several times, struggling to find the trailhead to the Hiawatha Trail, which would eventually give way to the Bearskin Trail.


As fate would have it, we came upon a kind, retired woman out for a ride heading in our direction. She graciously offered to guide us to the trailhead. We continued to ride with this kind soul for several miles, before she turned off the trail heading to her lakeside home. We spoke of all things you're not supposed to talk to strangers about, our life stories, politics, marriage and kids. Her warmth and kindness moved just as quick as she did, zipping down the trail. We departed our new friend and moved into riding the final stretch side by side, seamlessly transitioning onto the Bearskin Trail. Kim and I took in all the beauty the trail had to offer. We moved through a forested wonderland riding by lakes, over creeks, and waterways.


The gravel was constant as we made our final push north, stopping only for a few photos along the way when something would catch our eyes.


Bearskin Trail views. Photo by Kim Biedermann

Making it to Minocqua & Seeing Our Son

As we approached Minocqua, the number of walkers and cyclists increased. Coming over the final bridge, we found ourselves in downtown Minocqua, which was busy with the bustle of summer activities. We quickly made our way through the busy streets towards my parents’ home, knowing soon we’d be greeted by family. Moving through town I’m still amazed at how much water is in the area. Circling in just about any direction you're sure to see a body of water asking you to take a swim.


As we turned down my parents' long and straight road, I could hear the faint sound of bells ringing. When we approached the driveway, we were greeted with ringing bells, shouts of “you made it!” and dogs barking. We had arrived; we were north. Excitement was high, and we quickly exchanged hugs. Our son was eager to see us, but his one-year-old attention was quickly grabbed by the outdoor toys and the sunshine of the day. We all sat in the sun and talked through our adventure and what would lay ahead for the next few days. Our day of riding concluded with family and smiles all around.

We made it. Photo by Aaron Roecker

Our trip was an adventure, and I’m happy we jumped in and made it happen. I know that we’ll remember our time riding north fondly, using what we learned along the way for future trips. Bike troubles and severe weather did set us back, but if it wasn’t that, it would have probably been something else. And, that’s OK, because it’s part of what made it our adventure. This summer we’re already talking about a new adventure with a trip, you guessed it, north.

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