We went to SE Minnesota to catch the migrating warblers, and we met them head on at Hok-Si-La, Frontenac, and Forestville.
But we also met up with some interesting people pursuing entirely different objectives.
On Friday night we checked into a motel in Red Wing to escape the inclement weather, and the next morning we ran into two oddly-dressed gentlemen in the breakfast room. One of them was wearing tweed knickers and yellow-and-black argyle socks. Hilary told me later: “I had the passing thought that they might be going to a clown convention.”
They were, in fact, from Winnipeg, and they were in town to participate in the Lake Pepin 3-Speed Tour. Here is a bit from the website I dug up just now:
“To gain a better perspective, here is a list of things we leave behind: derailleurs, lycra, target heart rates, SPD, SIS, STI, HRM, XTR, etc. There will be no sprinting, spinning, drafting nor will there be any carbon fibre, drillium, eludium or unobtanium. Please note we are not advocating being a retro-grouch or ridicule those with alloy handlebars but instead we are asking you to strip away all you know modern cycling to be and hop aboard your £5 Thrift Store Raleigh and come with. Leave your lycra and Johnny-Rebel competitive spirit at home and instead, bring your sense of adventure.”
The elder of the two men had a warm, toothy smile and a silver-gray flattop. At one point he held up a medal that was hanging around his neck on a ribbon. “I still hold the 70-and-over time trial record for Manitoba,” he informed us proudly.
But speed is not the thing for this two-day, eighty-five-mile tour around Lake Pepin. You need to have a vintage bike, and you need to know how to take your time.
“Everyone stops to make tea here and there, and we also pull in at all the cafes…like the Lord Nelson Cheese Shop.”
Yes, there is a cheese shop in Nelson, Wisconsin, though I don’t recall it being knighted.
“I believe Hilary and I could almost qualify to enter,” I said. “Our Raleigh Capris are veritable antiques.”
“Well, those old Raleigh’s will last forever…but to participate your bike must have a three-speed hub.” Tough luck.
We talked for a bit about Winnipeg—the several folk festivals, the new Museum for Human Rights, the historic riches in nearby St. Boniface, and the films of Guy Madden. I told them I once canoed from Lake Superior to Lake Winnipeg; they asked me what my route had been, I mentioned the English and the Wabagoon rivers, and that got them going on the Bloodvein River.
“When I was working for the Crown, we bought out the last remaining lodge on that river,” he said. “The owners told us, ‘Are you sure you want to see us go? We’ve saved a lot of lives over the years. We have the only phone for fifty miles….’ ”
Then we headed off for Frontenac State Park and our rendezvous with the orchard orioles.
It was a good day of birding, the tale of which I’ll leave for another time. Road races entered the story again as we drove from Wykoff toward Forestville and came upon hundreds of bicyclists grinding out a long uphill stretch. There were more of them hanging around the Forestville State Park office, and yet more lounging in the yard in front of the historic barn at the far end of the now-closed bridge across the Root River.
Though most of the cyclists wore colorful lycra suits, many of which had club insignia, it was clear to me that this was not an ordinary race, either. There was lots of good feeling but not much urgency in the air.
We didn’t find out what was going on until the next morning. Rain was imminent and we broke camp early, heading down to the picnic pavilion near the river to brew some coffee. A few minutes later a bedraggled cyclist wandered into the shed. He had a black Manfred Mann beard and insect-wrap goggles. The metal toe-clips on his shoes rang on the concrete as he walked.
“What’s with all the cyclists?” I asked.
“It’s the Almanzo Wilder bike race,” he replied, in slow, measured phrases. “It’s a hundred mile road race, mostly on gravel. It started out small, with maybe 30 cyclists, a few years ago, but it’s grown, and this year I think there were more than 1,300 entries. What makes it different is that it’s free….and there’s really no winner. It’s mostly a personal challenge and a nice day of camaraderie for the people who enter.”
Is Almanzo Wilder some famous cyclist?” I asked. Hilary hastened to inform me that Almanzo was Laura Ingles Wilder’s husband. The Wilders once lived in nearby Spring Valley, where the race starts and finishes.
“But I’m doing something different,” the cyclist said. “I’m riding a 380-mile loop down to Prairie du Chien and back. It sounded like a good adventure.”
“When did you start?” I asked him.
“Friday morning…I’ve got thirty miles to go.”
(That’s 175 miles a day…on gravelly hills. Jesus!)
“Were you in the campground last night? Where did you sleep?” I asked.
“In a ditch. My knee was really bothering me…and I was holding up my friends, so they gave me an extra emergency blanket and went on without me. It’s better this morning.”
“Do you want some coffee?” Hilary asked.
“Are you offering me some coffee? That would be so good,” he replied.
“With milk?” I asked.
So we gave him a cup of piping hot coffee and some banana chips.
Meanwhile, another couple had wandered into the pavilion. He was a trout fisherman—tall, balding, gray mustache. She was heavy-set, with character; she could have won a bit part as a hobbit herbalist in The Lord of the Rings.
We got to talking about trout fishing, and soon he was reciting all the little rivers in Michigan’s U.P. he’d fished. Like us, they come to Forestville every spring.
“I may read Hemingway’s “Big Two-Hearted River” when we get home tonight,” I said.
“But he wasn’t writing about that river,” the man replied. “You can tell from the nearby towns he names.”
"How has the fishing been here?" I asked. "I haven't seen many fishermen around. The water's awfully high...and muddy."
"Not good. Trout feed by sight, and they can't see much right now."
It was obvious that birds didn’t interest him.
“There is one warbler that we always expect to see down here,” I said. “We never see it anywhere else. The blue-winged warbler. It nests in the trees beyond Loop C. I heard one last night the moment we arrived at our campsite. But we haven’t seen him yet.”
I was going to do an imitation of the song—a faint sigh followed by a slobbery exhalation. But I knew it would have been pointless.
While we talked the air lightened. The fisherman’s wife had built a fire in the fireplace the moment they arrived, using the method of building the little fire on top of the big logs, rather than underneath it. The bicyclist had gone over to warm himself in front of it. By this time we’d poured him a second cup of coffee; he was still cradling the plastic cup in his hands.
At one point a bird shot through the open building and landed on a picnic table beyond.
“Did you see that?” the fisherman said.
“Female redstart,” I said.
“He shot right through the pavilion,” he said.
We eventually retrieved our cup, and as we left I said to the cyclist, “Have a safe trip. It’s an impressive feat you’re undertaking. Maybe we’ll see you again out on the road.”
“Thanks,” he said.
Then we went back to the campground to hunt down our blue-winged warbler.