COPPER HARBOR, Mich. – It was my search for a pay phone that led to a chance encounter and unearthed more valuable treasure:
A fantastic system of mountain bike trails, an easy route to cell phone access and, I'd have to say, some new friends. Thank you, Aaron Rogers.
It takes a serious effort to get here, so not many do. Copper Harbor is on the end of the Keweenaw Peninsula, the western extension of Michigan's Upper Peninsula – not even an easy find on the map.
Isle Royale National Park was my reason for being here. A ferry, the Queen IV, takes visitors to Isle Royale in 3¼ hours. That's where I was heading the next day, and I wanted to check in with my wife, let her know I hadn't disappeared. There's no cell phone signal in town, so Zik's Bar has one of the few pay phones in the U.S. that gets good action.
After leaving Judy a phone message that I'd try back again in a little bit, I had time to kill. That's when I noticed the trail sign, complete with map and opening in the bushes. Two guys were nearby, one getting ready to ride.
“Are these trails any good?” I asked, probably in an “I'm a snob from the mountain bike mecca of Durango” kind of way.
“No, they're terrible,” the guy preparing for the ride answered.
“You're kidding, right?” I smiled.
“This is the guy who built them,” he said, indicating Rogers. By the time I'd finished chatting with Rogers, president of the Copper Harbor Trails Club, I'd learned a lot.
The trail system covers 25 miles, mostly singletrack, and was designated an International Mountain Bicycling Association “epic” ride in October. In March, Bike Magazine published a spread on Copper Harbor's trails. Rogers and Sam Raymond, owner of the local guide shop, were the key players in developing the trails. Coincidentally, the two recently had been in the Four Corners visiting their Bayfield friends Barb and Dan Erkkila. They'd ridden in Fruita, Moab and our very own Telegraph Trail system, another of Boulder-based IMBA's 48 epic rides.
“They were awesome,” Raymond said of the Telegraph Trails when I met him later. “Some of the best trails we rode.”
But for the moment, the most valuable piece of information I got from Rogers was this: You're only two miles away from cell phone access up Brockway Mountain Drive.
Sometimes it takes luck to score big.
Isle Royale is the Lower 48's least-visited national park. I figured it'd be quiet there, and I was right. The second night it was just the loons and me. Loons are crazy-sounding duck-like waterbirds. No crazy-sounding people there, unless you count me. Hmm. Put it this way: There was so much isolation that I ran out of things to say to myself.
Upon my return to the mainland, I met Raymond at his Keweenaw Adventure Co. and got set up for a mountain bike rental.
“People are seeking us out literally from all over the country,” Raymond said.
He lived in the Vail Valley in the 1990s but became one of Copper Harbor's 80 year-round residents in 1997 and bought the business in 1999, keeping sea kayaks, integrating mountain bikes and dropping dog sleds.
“I love it,” Raymond said of the local lifestyle. “The great outdoors is literally right out the door here.”
And it's cool in the summer. And the people are friendly and trusting.
Luck was with me again that morning. Mark Klein and Tony Schwenn, members of the Copper Harbor Trails Club, were just starting out to scout a race course for the Sept. 4-5 Fat Tire Festival. The two Michigan Tech grads, who work for an engineering software firm in Hancock, about 45 minutes away, showed me the good stuff.
It wasn't long before we were floating up the Stairway to Heaven, a boardwalk section perhaps one-tenth of a mile long in the tall trees. On one side is a pretty fair dropoff. At the top is a nice view of Lake Superior and the town below.
The plan for Stairway was Rogers', who'd spent days on the bluff above, scouting a decent route. The boardwalk was the only solution up the rain-drained slope. To me, it looked like an insane amount of work. Yes, it was, Rogers and Raymond concurred. It took 16 cords of wood, all milled locally and hauled uphill on their backs.
Klein and Schwenn took me up Der We Went, Ma Maki, Say Hello and Dza Beet to where we parted at the county-owned Keweenaw Mountain Lodge. On my own, I rode Woopidy Woo, the system's signature trail that includes banked turns, a ledged section and a completely fun descent.
I can see why, for last year's Fat Tire weekend, riders journeyed from 11 states and Canada.
While Isle Royale had put a warm spot in my soul, Copper Harbor threw a big smile on my face. I left too soon.
johnp@ durangoherald.com For more photos and blog entries, visit www.summerdetour.com.