A Late Season Lake Michigan Circle Tour

Breaking Serious Wind

You might say that touring the Great Lakes during the windiest storm event in seven centuries would be like throwing caution to the wind (Ba-DUM). When you hear that I had originally intended to ride to Alaska though, you might reconsider that judgment. Instead, I decided the Lake Michigan Circle Tour (LMCT) would be a sufficient cure for my mid-autumn wanderlust, despite wind gusts reported at 70 mph.

I started my tour from Chicago in early November, nearly a month after most bikes have been already winterized for the end-of-season slumber. And instead of saddling up a luxury-tourer like, say, the Victory Vision Tour, I hooked a Vision 8-Ball. The 8-Ball is essentially the same bike, sans the nonsense: no heated grips or seats, no radio to keep me company, no GPS to prevent me from getting lost. Just a raw bike marketed at people who love to ride. The lowered seat on the 8-Ball was surprisingly comfortable for a 6-foot, 2-inch dude, and the bike handled more nimbly than most tour bikes.

Lake Michigan’s 1640 miles of shoreline are often referred to as the Third Coast (as in, not the East or West Coast). Before heading for those blustery waters, I checked the trusty Weather Channel, which advised me of: “A HIGH WIND ADVISORY IN THE GREAT LAKES AREA…SEVERE WEATHER WILL CONTINUE FOR THE NEXT 3 DAYS.” So I battened down the hatches (the straps on my Victory Ultimate Solo Touring Bag) and steered my 106 ci. ship north from Chicago, with the intent of doing the LMCT loop clockwise around the lake.

Blow Me Down
I could have skipped everything south of Milwaukee and stayed on the major shipping lanes of Interstate 94. The scenery was OK, but to me, the tour doesn't really start until you pass Milwaukee and head into Sheboygan, Wisconsin, where there is considerably less traffic (if I were to do the route again, I'd start in Milwaukee, ride to Muskegon, MI, and then take the Lake Express ferry back to Milwaukee.

Having put 150 miles behind me, I looked to pitch a tent in Kohler State Park in Sheboygan—which was closed for the season. Without a Ranger at the gate, I simply rode in and had my choice of camping spots. The wind turned up the volume to about 11 that night however, and I awoke to find downed trees as my new neighbors in adjacent campsites.

I went down to the beach before leaving Sheboygan to meet up with a few friends that were taking advantage of the high winds to surf the lake’s 15-foot swells. Yes, you read that correctly. There’s a fairly large underground surf scene in the Great Lakes, and I spent most of the morning explaining to the surfers that I wasn’t the crazy one to be out playing in 40- to 50-mph winds. I watched a couple of them hike down a long pier before jumping in Lake Michigan’s spin cycle. A couple of boards were blown out of surfers’ hands and smashed to pieces on the rocks before even getting on the water.

The bike, though, was surprisingly stable through the windy conditions, thanks to its weight and low center of gravity. I decided to get off the windy lakefront and jumped on I-43 to Green Bay, where I saw a sign warning all trucks to take an alternate route around the Green Bay Bridge. I wasn’t riding on 16 wheels, so I ignored it—which turned out to be not such a good idea. Crossing the bridge was an exercise in fear management as I tried to relax and not white-knuckle it. Later, I met a biker dude who told me he put his bike away in storage months ago. He also told me I was two months late to be riding in the UP (Michigan’s Upper Peninsula).

Saved By Pasties
The weather got worse up the road. Darkness began to settle in, and gale-force winds, rain and blowing sand were taking off. I pulled into a city park near the Michigan border that was closed for the season. I figured I would get busted setting up camp here, but I made the decision to stay anyway. My beloved Sierra Designs Vapor Light 1 tent kept blowing away while I tried to put it up, and the Victory shook precariously on its sidestand. As it was, I ended up finding shelter next to a dumpster, away from the howling winds and thrashing lakefront that night. I had to strap the 8-Ball to a tree to prevent it from getting blown over, and I was lucky I moved the tent; the next morning I found a hefty tree limb lying right across the spot I had originally tried to set camp on.

The further north you go, the better the scenery. Highway 2 in the UP is properly named the Lake Michigan Scenic Highway, with its winding roads flanked by towering trees that were now swaying in the wind. I guess I didn't realize how windy it was until I stopped at a diner in Moran to get a pasty. The small semi-flaky dough pie, filled with meat and veggies and drenched in gravy, is a traditional dish to UPers (the nickname for locals, pronounced 'youpers'). As I sat down to eat, the waitress stared at me. The diner was dim, and a battery-operated radio crackled behind the counter. The announcer intoned, "Ninety percent of the UP is without power. Wind gusts have been measured at 70 mph."

Finally, one of the customers asked what the hell I was doing out there? A low-pressure system had moved into the Great Lakes area, with the same characteristics as a Class-3 hurricane. The super-friendly waitress offered me a cheap rate at the motel, and although I felt like a sell-out for spending money on sleeping, I guess didn’t really have a choice; the Mackinac Bridge was closed to all traffic due to gale force winds. I heard someone say it was just like the storm that caused the wreck of the freighter Edmund Fitzgerald back in 1975...

I woke up next morning to more wind. It wasn’t as severe as the day before, so I headed east on US-2 until I hit I-75 in St. Ignace near the Mackinac Bridge, which connects the Upper Peninsula to the rest of Michigan. People who live “under” (south of) the bridge are called trolls by the UP folk. The UPers—even though all of them were warm and welcoming to a fault—also told me that they are superior to the rest of the state. I found out that was meant as a (weak) pun on Lake Superior, which is the UP’s northern border. I spent most of the day waiting for the bridge to reopen, and eating big chunks of fudge.

King Of the Wind
This time of year, the trees usually still have some nice color left in them. People I met kept telling me, "this is such a gorgeous ride otherwise, and two weeks ago the leaves were beautiful." Now, however, it's not just the leaves that were blown off, but the branches—and in some cases, entire trees. There was an upside though; because I was riding after the season's end, I was the only guy out there. I got pumped every time a cage driver rode by and gave me a thumbs up or when I stopped for gas and got looks from the locals. The wretched riding conditions just made the trip that much more adventurous.

It was also nice to have places like the Tunnel of Trees all to myself. Michigan’s Route M-119 is a famed 21-mile road leading south from Cross Village to Harbor Springs. Its name is self-explanatory, but the way the light plays through the little slit above the branches, as if at any moment the trees themselves might start belting out “Hallelujah!” is surreal, and something you’ll have to experience for yourself.

On the other hand, there were places I was glad to have company. If you’ve never heard of couchsurfing.com and you’re a thrifty traveler, check it out. This website is like Facebook for people who are either too cheap to pay for hotels or who like to meet new people while traveling. I signed up before I started my trip and got hooked up with a nice couple—and I didn’t even have to sleep on the couch. I had my own room, they fed me and even gave me a tour around Traverse Bay.

From Harbor Springs, the LMCT heads south through the towns of Traverse City, Glen Haven and past the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore on its way to Muskegon—which is pretty much the end of the trip. After the excitement of the Great North, the road just got boring the further south I drove, and once I hit Indiana, it turned into factories, traffic and, yes—the birthplace of Michael Jackson, in Gary.

Despite all the crazy weather, I had a pretty good time. I love this kind of challenge, because I think it’s the stuff of adventure. It also made me realize again why I hate riding in cities so much. I guess for my next trip, I’ll just see which way the wind is blowing.

Pun intended.

Lake Express Ferry
www.lake-express.com

Couch Surfing
www.Couchsurfing.com

Sierra Designs
www.Sierradesigns.com

Gear Exam

Sierra Designs Vapor Light 1 Tent
The Sierra Designs Vapor Light 1 Tent is in a word, awesome. On an extended ride, every inch counts, and since the compact Vapor Light packs to just 19 inches by 4 inches and weighs only 2 lbs., 14 ounces, it managed to easily fit into my Vision's anemic saddle bag—yet somehow offered plenty of room for my 6 ft. 2 in. frame. It uses a "fin" design for a solo, freestanding shelter, and also packs a rain-fly for those wet nights. The interior is way roomy but make no mistake, it's made for one person only. There's also a front vestibule to keep your gear out of the rain while you wait out a storm. On the down side, the vestibule is pretty small, but it was big enough for my boots and helmet.

I’ve been using the Vapor exclusively for years now, and it’s held up to high winds and many a storm, as well as keeping me mosquito-free in the Amazon. In fact, I wouldn’t mind giving up my apartment to sleep in this $250 tent full-time.

For info, call 800-736-8592 or visit www.Sierradesigns.com