Straddle & Paddle was born in 2017 from a bikepacking.com contest and a little bit of Minnesota/Wisconsin rivalry. The route has inspired hundreds of Arrowhead bikepacking adventures and this year celebrates its 5th birthday. Happy Birthday, Straddle & Paddle!
Straddle & Paddle is a 180 mile, 3-4 day bikepacking adventure in the Arrowhead of Minnesota's north shore. In this interview, I talk with Peter Pascale, the original creator of the route to discuss how it all came together and what makes it meaningful to him.
Photos: David Vessel Photography
Interview with Peter Pascale:
Why did you create Straddle & Paddle 5 years ago?
I was inspired by Bikepacking.com’s 2017 route contest.
Now, I’m not a native Minnesotan (raised in Pennsylvania) but it still bothered me that Wisconsin beat us to the map! The Bikepacking.com route map that is.
Dave Schlabowske’s wonderful Tour de Chequamegon route had been published the year before. Since I consider bikepacking.com the definitive source of inspiring routes, I wanted to see Minnesota’s great north represented.
Having ridden northern Minnesota for years, I knew we had all the elements of a great bikepacking experience. When the contest came out in 2017, I figured it would be a great project, a chance to get Minnesota on the map, and… maybe win a prize. Turns out - the Straddle and Paddle took fourth place - not too shabby when the top first and second go to lifetime bucket list routes in Australia and New Zealand respectively!
I did want to win that red Surly Krampus for my wife (I’m a huge surly fan), but the prize pack for honorable mentions was still very fun, and I split it with David Vessel - the amateur photographer friend that helped document the route.
What was your process like for creating the route?
Well, I’ve been refreshing my soul in the north woods and north shore of Lake Superior for almost 30 years. I was introduced to the BWCA, and the North Shore, working for the Minnesota Conservation Corps in the early 1990s.
The ‘Arrowhead’ is just a place more midwesterners should experience.
I knew there was cultural value - Native American history, fishing and logging history, the small towns, etc. And I knew incorporating the BWCA would be really special. I had been doing wilderness trips out of Sawbill Lake for years.
You can literally get a free day permit and rent a canoe from the outfitters right at the lake, and do the wonderful Kelso Lake loop in a half day. So I thought it would be great to incorporate the Boundary Waters in the route, even though I expect most folks don’t actually get in a canoe!
I did a lot of pre-rides, usually sneaking away during a family trip for a morning to explore a segment, or see if lines on the map that nearly connect could be bushwhacked through (most always… no). This led to many great experiences and discoveries - some of which are on the route.
For example - locals know the beautiful falls on the Cascade River just south of Eagle Mountain Trailhead, but I only discovered it because it’s on old maps of the area. I also got EXTREMELY lost bushwhacking northeast of Grand Marais following a line on a very old cross-country recreation map.
That did not become part of the route - though I did come across a functional moonshine still in the woods!
I connected enough of the segments to ride the majority of the route with friend Ron Lancaster a season before submitting to the contest. Then rode it again with another friend David Vessel to document it for Bikepacking.com. David is an accomplished amateur photographer and his photos brought the route to life.
I’ve since re-ridden a longer version solo and continued to explore segments. I was set to ride again last year, but the forest fires pushed us east - to a great four-day ride in the Porcupine Mountains at the western end of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula
Who helped create the Straddle & Paddle route?
I’d have to start with two gravel pioneers - Jeremy Kershaw from the Heck of the North, and Joshua Stamper of Gravel Conspiracy. Between the two of them - I believe they have ridden the entire arrowhead. Their events are inspiring, and they have been extremely generous with their knowledge and route maps. Joshua was running the Gravel Conspiracy the first time Ron and I did the entire route, and we ran into him at the Trestle Inn. Jeremy’s Heck Epic (now Fox and Wolf) and the Grand Du Nord events use some of the same roads. He steered me right, while challenging me to push harder with his events.
I think the Heck of the North is my favorite gravel race of all time.
There’s also Jay Decoux - mayor of Grand Marais and owner of the Fireweed Bike Co-op. Any section of road not ridden by Jeremy and Joshua he knows first hand. There was a large format topo map at the back of the Fireweed and you could point to any thin line and Jay could say ‘likely flooded’ or ‘too much logging traffic’ or ‘definitely worth riding’.
Jeff and Sarah at Sawtooth Outfitters have been supporting family adventures up there for years. It’s a great place to rent a canoe or buy gear. And they too have been willing to pour over maps and answer questions about the area several times. They have also invested countless hours into the development of single track in the Tofte area - including Jackpot - a new connection between Lutsen and Tofte that you can incorporate into the route. Stop by, say hi, (and it never hurts to spend some money there).
I don’t know their names, but the USFS personnel I’ve run into on the route have been very friendly and helpful. On the first ride through, we ran into staff doing work at Crescent Lake and they gave us the extensive if hard-to-read ATV maps of the area.
Finally - David and Ron have been great riding partners, and it wouldn’t be possible without my wife Kathy supporting (and sometimes participating in) adventures.
I imagine you’ve spent a lot of time on these roads; what is your favorite part of the route?
I love the quirky Trestle Inn - see if you can line up your visit with Bingo Night! So many of the smaller lakes with small campgrounds are quiet and nice. Hog Back lake is not too far from the Trestle and very quiet.
Silver Island Lake has sites right on the lake including one with a dock. I also always have to stop at the falls on the Cascade river, and then whoop down the fast and windy downhill just after the falls. But I also think some of the best parts of the route, aren’t officially on the route.
What makes this route special?
I think the most special part about the route is you can make it your own. It’s extremely composable. Want to do something shorter? You can cut off a lobe. Want to add a day? You can expand into the Isabella area west, or the Gunflint area east. The route is a suggestion - Even I haven’t ridden it the way it was laid out more than once.
Two real highlights that aren’t on the original route but that I would definitely recommend. First - the abandoned Cramer Railroad tunnel. The Cramer tunnel is the longest railroad tunnel in MN and is just south of the Trestle Inn. Just east off the road, and a fun (if spooky) place to check out. Many have incorporated this into their rides. Scott Haraldson’s excellent ride report includes photos that will convince you this is a must-add.
Section 29 Lake road, which you can pick up just east of Divide Lake campground, is a way to add miles through some very remote and beautiful country. It starts as a gravel road, and slowly devolves through single lane, dirt track, and single track trail before dumping you back out on Gravel Road 7 just south of Lake Kawashiwi.
I think it’s my favorite road section.
It passes through the July 4th 1999 blowdown area which is wild to see even after 20 years, and gets pretty remote. One thing to note - you’ll exit the blowdown area and come to a grassy clearing. There are two exits - the right exit is a fake trail leading to a swamp! The left is the actual trail that will take you into the woods. A short ride after - you’ll hit a 'Tee' in the woods. You can take a left and explore Coffee lake, or take a right to continue on the ATV trail back to the gravel road.
But I encourage folks to decide what experience they are after, and adjust the route accordingly. To celebrate the five year route-iversary - I’ve published an updated route map with new and revised points of interest, and the two additions noted above. I’m always happy to answer questions and my DMs are open @peterpascale on Twitter.