In the Path of Giants

Jun 14th, 2021

This article first appeared in the June 2021 issue of Adventure Cyclist magazine.

A strange-sounding animal forced my eyelids open one August evening in the Minnesota Northwoods. A dark, hulking form sat on a branch, making a clattering sound in the tree above our tent. We were camped in the shadow of ancient white pines along the Pine River on the Paul Bunyan State Trail. We had cruised a half-mile of fun singletrack on our loaded Surly mountain bikes to this remote biker/paddler campsite — the first night in a weeklong ride.

The owl called another owl in, and soon there were two clattering above us. One dove down to our tent, its silent wings almost touching us. They were young barred owls, anxious about many things at this stage of their lives and perhaps curious about our tent. Come morning, a feather was left by our site — a welcome as we began our approximately 250-mile ride through Minnesota’s Paul Bunyan land, a larger-than-life folklore character that has captured the enduring hearts of this part of America.

Our route traced three rail trails, beginning with the south-north 121-mile paved Paul Bunyan Trail (PBT), which travels from Crow Wing State Park on up to Bemidji. It’s one of the longest rail trails in the U.S. and was inducted in the Trail Conservancy’s Hall of Fame as a “Signature Minnesota Destination.” Next, we rode the nearly 50-mile paved Heartland Trail, which intersects the PBT at Walker, followed by the gravel and dirt 96-mile Blue Ox-Voyageur Trail, an ATV-snowmobile converted rail trail that runs from Bemidji to International Falls at the Canadian border. In the city of Bemidji, a car rental business made shuttling logistics with our own vehicle a breeze.

After nearly half a year of living in isolation, fear, and the sadness created by COVID-19, my husband Todd and I, along with our friend DJ Duncan, needed to get away, forget the world, and feel like carefree kids again. On this trip, we wanted ease — smooth going, daily ice cream, evening swims, and stunning sunsets, so we headed to northern Minnesota, the “Land of 10,000 Lakes,” where the trails are flat and nearly every rail trail is paved.

Here is a land of swamps and beavers, silent owls, moose, bear, whitetail deer, old-growth trees, and villages full of history and culture, with rail trails snaking through it all. We were also intrigued with the gargantuan logger, Paul Bunyan. Just who was he?  

Tracing the route of Paul Bunyan in Minnesota's Northwoods
Cindy Ross

Paul Bunyan Trail

The original legend of Paul Bunyan dates back to 1837 and the Papineau Rebellion. During a particularly bloody fight between the British colonials in Lower Canada and local French Canadians, loggers armed with mattocks, axes, and wooden forks stormed into battle to help fight against the English troops. Among them was a mighty-muscled, bearded, seven-foot-tall (as legend has it) giant named Paul Bunyan, who fought legendarily. This forest warrior earned great fame and went on to become a logging camp chief. Logging was dangerous and heroic work, and Paul Bunyan became the hero of campfire lore. As loggers relaxed after work entertaining themselves, each camp’s storyteller injected humor and exaggeration into the key stories, but with the illusion of truth. For generations, he has grown in stature, strength, and popularity as the subject of books, songs, and films.

The timber in America’s Northwoods and Canada was being ferociously cut at this time, especially the magnificent white pine. The peak era of lumbering in Minnesota lasted from 1890 to 1910. Some 20,000 to 30,000 lumberjacks worked in the forests. A similar number of workers toiled in the sawmills, and another 20,000 worked in wood production factories. Each year, the state produced some 2.3 billion board feet of lumber, enough to build 600,000 homes. The Paul Bunyan Trail was initially a logging railroad during the late 1800s. It later became a branch of the Northern Pacific Railroad, moving large amounts of forest products. The trees that we camped under at the Pine River are the same giants that once drew the loggers and then the railroads to this swampy, lake-studded land.

Our ride began at Crow Wing State Park and for a small fee, we were able to park in their secure lot. We camped the night before departure and explored the park’s hiking trails along the mighty Mississippi and Crow Wing rivers, with their active beaver slides and chewed-down aspens.

Most of America’s rail trails run alongside rivers, and this is true for the Paul Bunyan Trail for the first six miles through the state park as it curves along the river like a racetrack. Then the trail becomes so straight that the trail builders installed big metal signs with a curve symbol to alert cyclists whenever the arrow-straight route is deviating, lest you grow complacent in your concentration. This complacency is less from boredom and more from distraction — the trail passes swamps full of cattails, large sunny meadows, shimmering aspen forests, bald eagles perched on dead trees, duck blinds and duck boxes in the wetlands, and lake after lake after lake. The “Land of 10,000 Lakes” is Minnesota’s slogan, and along these rail trails, you will take in an eyeful.

Tracing the route of Paul Bunyan in Minnesota's Northwoods
The author (middle) and her companions at the start of their trip at Crow Wing State Park.
Cindy Ross

Every eight to 10 miles are little towns. Some, like Nisswa, are destinations for locals who cycle down for a great pizza or a bag of hot, homemade mini donuts that you can watch being made, then return to camp with a cardboard pizza box of leftovers. Nisswa is a town that holds weekly turtle races (if you’ve been wondering where the Turtle Race Capital of the World sits, look no further) and has a permanent “racetrack” painted on the street. There are fascinating museums to visit, like the Pioneer Village in Nisswa, with its village of nine historic hand-hewn log homes an excellent display about the Ojibwe people.  

We rode through towns with fruit stands hawking giant cherries and peaches, and nearly every town showcases a statue of Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox, or Paul’s girlfriend, Lucette, who worked in the logging camp mess hall. We sometimes paralleled “Paul Bunyan Highway,” where flags of the Woolrich red and black check pattern fly with the motto, “Plaid on Purpose,” and colorful, fully furnished campers sit for sale, meant for ice fishing on the many lakes. It is a unique culture up in these Northwoods, and nearby Red Lake sees over 10,000 fishing huts in a busy winter. The ice gets so thick that you can drive a logging truck on it. There are towns that hold church and community suppers featuring rutabagas, breaded lefse (mashed potato flatbread), rule posse (a rolled meat), and lutefisk (jellied fish) — all Norwegian specialties. No boring spaghetti suppers here.

The information center in Pine River has a tiny but fascinating museum showcasing the lake culture and history of the area. There are wooden shoes on display that slipped over the horses’ feet when pioneer families traveled into the boggy land to harvest the wild hay. The shoes helped the horses stay on top of the spongy bogs. There are also Paul Bunyan’s wooden baby shoes to step inside of to get an idea of just how big this legendary man was. Land O’Lakes Butter got its start in Pine River back in 1913 at the Pine River Creamery. They also hold weekly duck races. Unlike the Turtle race, they don’t use real animals — instead, they dump a trash can full of numbered orange decoy ducks into the river.

Hackensack might have been our favorite town stop with their food truck offering mouth-watering beef brisket and homemade coleslaw, which you can enjoy by the beautiful dock and sand beach at Birch Lake Park. In the park sits a small lending library in a restored 1937 Works Progress Administration log cabin. “Take a book or two,” the volunteer encouraged me. “If folks remember to return it, great. If not, great too. People from all over use this library. They check out 30 books for the winter (winter is long in northern Minnesota) and return them come spring.” I grabbed two paperbacks for my bike pannier. The park also has a carving of Lucette, Paul Bunyan’s girlfriend, as she towers over the boat landing. There’s also a hand-dipped ice cream shop that offers free ice water.

We rode past lakes with brilliant white swans gliding across the surface among lily pads and blooming white flowers. We took a break at a snowmobile shelter, a three-sided wooden structure that’s situated right on the National Scenic North Country Trail, a hiking trail that spans over 4,000 miles and intersects the PBT.

Our second night found us at Woodland Resort on Leech Lake (prettier than it sounds), four miles outside of Walker and 84 miles north of Crow Wing. They offer a few tent sites including showers, pizza and ice cream in their little restaurant, and a swim in their protected Kabekona Bay. After a few scoots down the sliding board splashing into the lake, the third largest in Minnesota, we rested on the giant floating foam pad and watched the spectacular sunset.

Day Three’s ride was the most fun. When we asked a trail ambassador for camping suggestions, she asked us if we rode across “the Pyrenees of Minnesota.” This is a dead-serious local name for a 7.5-mile blacktopped section of trail through the Chippewa National Forest. You can opt for a shorter road ride instead, or cycle this footprint of old logging roads. Although large metal signs reading “WARNING!” are posted at each end, alerting you of the “potentially challenging section ahead which involves tight curves and 8% steep climbs and descents,” we laughed at the thought. To someone who cycled the actual Pyrenees with our young children on the Camino de Santiago, how bad could it be? This short stretch proved to be the most enjoyable of our 250 miles, and it should not be missed! No hill was so steep that we couldn’t easily pull it, even with a loaded bike, and the trail sides were crowded with wild roses, daisies, buttercups, and red columbine. Chippewa National Forest is home to the largest bald eagle population in the lower 48 states. They have become common, but seeing one still took our breath away.

At the Laporte Grocery and Meats/Mack’s Small-Town Smokehouse in Laporte, you can grab a homemade malted milkshake to go with your handmade cheese curds and smoked meat sticks in flavors like Habanero Pepper Jack and Honey Bar-b-que. Soon after, you’ll cycle through the “town” of Guthrie, which is so deserted that only a community center and a few rustic homes line the dirt main road. Ironically, our paralleling paved rail trail had a more developed surface than this ghost-like town. We were startled by the historic photos on the trail-side kiosk of townsfolk sporting masks, for the photos were taken during the pandemic of 1918. We felt strangely akin with our COVID masks tucked inside our handlebar bags for easy access. We selected this wild Minnesota rail trail as a destination during COVID for its remoteness, and we usually had the trail all to ourselves.

Our third day found us riding right to our hotel, the Country Inn & Suites on Lake Bemidji’s south side, located right on the trail and catering to cyclists. After a shower, we hit the town for a good meal and a mandatory stop at the Paul Bunyan and Babe statue outside the tourist information center. For decades, Bemidji was recognized as the home of the famous pair. The 18-foot-tall statues, weighing 2.5 tons, date back to 1937.

Bemidji is derived from the Ojibwe (Chippewa) word, Bemejigamaug, meaning “a lake with crossing waters,” as the Mississippi River runs right through it. The town sits on this northernmost lake and is deemed “the first city on the Mississippi.” That evening, we luxuriated in the hotel’s hot tub positioning the jets on our tight thighs and calves to loosen them up from our 120-mile ride.

Tracing the route of Paul Bunyan in Minnesota's Northwoods
Attempting to navigate a slimy, deep puddle on the Blue Ox Trail.
Cindy Ross

Heartland Trail

The Heartland Trail was originally a branch of the Great Northern Railroad. Established in 1974, it was one of the very first rail-to-trail conversions in America. Nearly 50 miles long, it connects the towns of Park Rapids and Cass Lake along a pleasantly forested route. The pretty trail is lined with aspens and white paper birches shuddering in the wind. We peered through them like a veil to the fields beyond, where round hay bales sat perched on the cut fields like decorations. The towns along this eastern/southern section of the Heartland Trail have a different feel too — they seem friendlier as they are set up to attract visitors, with lots of services like places to eat, breweries, parks and picnic tables, shops, and galleries. Many families are out on weekends, as tykes on tricycles get their first taste of adventure cycling. The Mississippi River Scenic Bikeway coincides with the Heartland Trail on this stretch — a signed route that travels from the Mississippi headwaters to the Gulf of Mexico. We added this adventure to our list.

Our second night in Bemidji, we were gifted a delightful stay with Warmshowers hosts Karen and Mike Forbes. These artists, wild rice harvesters, organic gardeners, and beekeepers, as well as avid cyclists, made a fabulous meal for us, helped us return the rental car, and escorted us to the Blue Ox Trail come morning. Warmshowers has hugely enriched our cycling adventures, providing a home away from home while traveling on our bikes, as well as creating new friends who are truly kindred spirits.

Blue Ox-Voyageur Trail

It was very difficult to find info about this last trail. Even the groups responsible for its management — snowmobile/ATV clubs and the Forest Service — provided a mix of information. We were advised as to which sections they considered passable. Some sections are rated wet, somewhat wet, and very wet. Current info is challenging as the flooding is created by beaver activity, which changes from week to week. We brought the trail up on Google Earth to try to learn the difference. “Very wet” meant flooded trail that went on for many miles, as deep as a four-wheelers’ lights, or our knees (we were told). Other sections should be avoided also, they said, as “the grass was too long, for the clubs hadn’t gotten out to mow.” We learned of these percentages of trail composition: 30 percent packed ballast/gravel, 25 percent grass, 20 percent small loose rocks and soft sand, 10 percent packed dirt (the best surface), and 5 percent water-covered. We would have to make our own decisions as to what was truly “rideable” and worth attempting. Had it not been for this last trail, a road bike would suffice, but a mountain bike was necessary for this last real adventure.

We were at first concerned that we’d be competing with ATV-ers, but we only saw two in 100 miles, and one was chugging slowly behind a young girl on her horse (driven by her even younger brother, accompanied by their mom) who was out for a morning ride. The remote stretch between Northome and Big Falls, where the trail leaves the side of the road and becomes very remote, ended up being very beautiful and our favorite stretch. The managers said the grass was too long here, but the two tracks were matted down enough to make cycling possible. Across the lakes, we heard the prehistoric call of the sandhill cranes and the call of a lonely loon. We inhaled the spicy fragrance of wild tansy growing along the trail, scanned the lakes for moose, and flushed out flocks of young wild turkeys.

We traveled through a mere 15-foot-long puddle where footing was so slick that our bikes lost traction as well as steering, and even pushing our bikes through the goo was a challenge. The highly odorous stench of the beaver water — with no clean water nearby for rinsing off if you slip into it — convinced us to take the land manager’s advice and ride the last stretch on the lightly traveled Highway 71 to International Falls. Cycling on its wide shoulder allowed us to look around at the Northwoods instead of focusing on what’s just ahead of our front tire.

The road showed us its own culture: tiny bars selling “famous” burgers, where we rubbed shoulders with the ATV/snowmobile-riding locals. We passed little school bus stop huts with window panes and heaters so the kids don’t freeze while they wait. And we learned more about the present-day logging industry as the Northwoods are still being cut, just a little more sustainably. An occasional logging truck zoomed by us on the highway (although the shoulder was very wide and safe). The only time the loggers can get into the bogs to cut is winter when the soft, spongy, flooded ground is solid and snow-covered, so they leave large holding areas of stacked trees scattered along the highway. We saw companies of treated lumber products, unheard of in Paul Bunyan’s day.

In a normal, non-pandemic year, you could tie it all together by getting a paper mill tour in International Falls at trail’s end and learn how this industry is still going strong since the days of Paul Bunyan swinging his ax at trees and colonists, or even since the days loading up trains full of lumber and swapping yarns about his legendary strength and big blue ox. For us, though, we were happy to take a moment to pedal along these now-paved paths, listen to the owls that aren’t drowned out by steam engines, and watch the eagles soar above us. Regardless of past or present, the bicycle chains keep turning and the timber keeps moving, and legends continue to endure.

Related Reading