Nicolette Reker and Weston Lofdahl recently moved back to the Driftless Region after living in the twin cities for a few years. Now that they're back, they're bikepacking the area and enjoying their new life.
Story by Nicolette Reker
Like any Midwest spring, the weather was unpredictable in the days leading up to departing on our first extended bikepacking trip. We did, however, luck out and felt confident we would avoid any major rain storms. We departed on a chilly, yet sunny Tuesday afternoon after building up our new bikes less than a week prior to leaving. As one does, we purchased new bikes and bag set ups just two weeks before the trip to allow ourselves no time to get acclimated to the geometry, saddle, and load on the bicycle. We really are seasoned riders, we just decided to omit the obvious choice of getting comfortable and confident on a new bicycle prior to leaving on a trip that depended solely on those two wheels. What could go wrong?
Our ride started out by crossing the causeway from Wisconsin into Minnesota. There is a great little trail for pedestrians and cyclists to avoid the highway traffic, and we have ridden this stretch numerous times. When we got to the trail I stopped to take a more scenic departure photo of our trip and Weston looked over at me with a grin and said “this is our life now” in his sarcastic dad-joke tone. This ended up being a comment made by both of us throughout the trip when the seemingly mundane yet feeling of pure content in this simple life of riding a bicycle from point A to point B. Our only other activities for the trip included eating and sleeping. This was our life now. At least, for a few days.
Our first (half) day was the only sunshine we experienced but it hardly did us any good as we bundled up in all of our warm layers for departure. We figured “it can’t get any colder than this, right?” But boy, could it ever. This first stretch was just 35 miles, however, we had three bluff passes to overcome before settling in for the night. We completed the first half and stopped for an afternoon lunch at a Kwik Trip and loaded ourselves with chicken sandwiches and bananas (as one does in this region of the Midwest, if you know you know). You can bet I was kicking myself by the last bluff climb for creating this “scenic, adventurous route” to get to camp that night by cramming three bluffs into 35 miles. Was it scenic and adventurous? Yes. Did we need to climb that much on day one? No. Did we do it anyway? Yes, because this was our life now.
Our first night was spent shivering and finding any way possible to share body heat among two sleeping bags. We can check off "sleeping in a raincoat for warmth" from whatever bucket list that lives on. When we woke up, we opted to risk the hazard and boiled our water for coffee and breakfast from the vestibule created by the rain fly for our tent. This allowed us to stay snuggled into our sleeping bags and treat ourselves to coffee and breakfast in bed! It was very worth the risk.
The first long day started out with a quest for water. We were completely out after breakfast and wouldn’t be in a town for 30 miles. There was supposedly a well at the lower campground, so we started our already chilly morning with a 10 minute downhill coast for water. We had success finding the well and stocked up our bottles for the first half of our ride. We meandered our way through the country gravel roads in and out of the valley making our way to Spring Grove, a small town that is well known for their Spring Grove Soda company. By the time we made it there I was craving anything, everything, and a soda. We stopped for lunch at the Ivy Grove Cafe where I was treated to a lunch special that was smothered in gravy. There was bread, mashed potatoes, and shredded beef involved - but most importantly, it was covered in gravy. After a cold night in the tent and a haul to get from camp to lunch, nothing sounded better than salty, warm, brown gravy. This was my life now.
We stopped at the Kwik Trip in town before departure to stock up on gummy worms for Weston and Crunch bars for me. The Yucatan Valley stretch was coming up soon, and this was one of the most enticing looking roads I discovered when mapping the route and I couldn’t wait to see if it was as beautiful as google satellite made it out to be. A few flat open country roads and headwinds later, we were dropping down off the ridge into the Yucatan valley and it was already living up to my hype. We took our time winding through the valley (look up Rooster Valley Rd in Spring Valley, MN on google maps - it might be one of the most winding roads I have been on in the region) and ultimately made a friend out of a local pup that insisted on coming with us well past our next turn. She finally became distracted by other farm animals and went on her way, but we were starting to feel right at home with a dog on our heels. Maybe this life wasn’t so different after all.
We made it to our camp around 6 o’clock that night, which was an ideal time to arrive - not too early but not too late. Our evening could pan out as usual with the perfect amount of time to set up camp, eat dinner, organize a few items and snuggle up into our sleeping bags for the night. It was a significantly better night of sleep as temperatures didn’t drop below freezing. This new life was getting easier.
Our second full day was going to be a rewarding one, to say the least. Our halfway point was in Winona, the college town where we met and spent the first year of our relationship. We had lunch planned at our favorite local establishment - Bub’s Brewing Company, but we had to earn the burgers and beer by battling a five-mile flat stretch on the ridge straight into a wicked headwind. We finally turned out of the wind after nearly an hour of pushing and dropped down into the valley once again. The well known phrase “what goes up must come down” works in both directions, so we were tasked with another bluff climb to get out of the valley and cross over into the Winona river valley. This climb was brimming with spectacular views and the sun even made an appearance resulting in many layers being stripped and sunscreen applied by the time we reached the top. We made it up and over and were welcomed into the river town with a long and drawn out descent once more. For us, it always feels like coming home when we arrive in the quaint town of Winona. We enjoyed our old favorites and a pitcher of beer while chatting with a long-time server at Bub's Brewing. This was our life now, just like it was 7 years ago, and we were loving it.
That day’s rewards were still coming. Camp for the night was just down the rail trail and we would be spending the night in a state park with (gasp) amenities! As we did each night upon arrival at camp we set up the tent, made dinner, and relished a cup of tea; but this final night we were lucky enough to be enjoying it all next to a campfire. We sat quietly and soaked in the last night of our trip, enjoying the flicker of flames as night time fell upon us.
Our final day was a short, flat 25 mile stretch on the Great River State Trail where we were treated to breakfast and coffee in the town of Trempealeau at Driftless Bike and Bean. We continued on through the Trempealeau National Wildlife Refuge - a unique location for migratory birds thriving in the Mississippi backwaters especially in the springtime. We stopped in Onalaska at Coulee Bicycle Company to say hello to our favorite local bike shop and thank them for the rad bikes and gear for our trip. We fueled ourselves with one final Kwik Trip breakfast sandwich and made the trek back home.
This trip was exactly what we were hoping for in a local bikepacking loop - simple, scenic, easy to re-fuel in local towns, all while delivering us miles of remote driftless region gravel riding with plenty of challenging terrain along the way. This was our life now, but reflecting back, it always was our life. We are lucky enough to live in the driftless region and have access to its beauty every day of the week. We are also fortunate enough to be able to ride our bicycles to and from work, the grocery store, dinner dates, and other outings. Having the opportunity to slow down, connect with the landscape by bicycle with a new lens, and expose ourselves to the elements of the region for 96 hours was the perfect reset to the bustle of everyday routines. We cannot wait for the next adventure. In the meantime, this is our life.