Aitkin County Adventures
by Gary Charpentier
I discovered the backroads of AitkinCounty almost by accident, while visiting my Dad at his place in McGregor. Though he optimistically calls it “The Cabin”, what he has is a 1940`s vintage Colonial travel trailer parked on a high spot in the swamp. No electricity or indoor plumbing, just 12-volt marine batteries and an outhouse which has sat over the same dank, smelly pit for far too long. But on some nights, after a long hard ride, it is Home Sweet Home. We have spent many happy hours up there telling tales and viewing our campfire through the bottom of a whiskey glass.
On Saturday, November 13th, the temperature was 24 degrees when Frogwing and I left Ton-Up Manor and headed north. In Shoreview, we met up with three other riders for a day of adventure touring around McGregor. All of us had electrically heated gear and we set off up Highway 61 under a brilliant blue sky. The ubiquitous Mark Foster was riding his trusty Trans Alp, Paul Streeter was piloting his modded KLR, and John Anderson brought up the rear on his beautiful BMW F650 Dakar replica. We didn’t see another motorcycle on the road all day.
Normally when I make this trip, I like to poke around some of the little towns along the way. But the other members of this expedition had only signed on for a day-ride, so we stopped once at the Gaslight Tavern in Sandstone for refreshment, then proceded on to The Cabin. Once there, I turned on the gas, lit the furnace and the pilot light on the stove and prepared to hit the dusty trails. Dad was coming down from his hunting trip in Bigfork to spend the evening with me, but the rest of the guys were heading back to the `Cities for the night.
One thing I have learned about group riding on dirt roads is that it is always best to lead. Your visor stays clear and you don’t have to eat the dust of the riders in front of you. Since I was the only one with a route sheet, my position at the front was assured. This was fortunate, because Paul Streeter was nibbling at my back tire all day. His KLR has been bored out to some 672 cc’s and he wasn’t carrying any luggage. Frogwing was in his normal configuration, weighed down with tank panniers, saddlebags, and top box full of stuff I might need for camping and roadside repairs. I managed to pull away in some corners by getting sideways, but he would always catch up on the straights. Mark and John rode a more prudent pace, since their bikes weren’t quite as well suited to the dirt.
First up was Rock Lake Road. This took us to other roads designated only by numbers, which twisted and turned in between Rock, Davis, and Bass lakes. We crossed the Soo Line Trail numerous times, which is set up for ATVs and Snowmobiles, but none of us had the permit needed to legally ride there. No loss really, because it’s a railroad right-of-way, which means straight and boring. We also passed what looked like a sand quarry that had been turned into an ATV playground. There was a hill there that I had climbed on a previous trip with Frogwing, but nobody wanted to try it this time. That sand was deep!
Of course, this was deer hunting season. We passed many hunters in our travels and got varying reactions. Thankfully, nobody shot at us. One poor fellow was standing by the side of a trail when we went past him, heading towards a logging site. When we realized that the trail dead-ended, we turned around and had to ride past him again. This time he was walking back towards his truck, looking rather dejected. I guess he figured we had scared all the deer away. But to be fair, it was mid-day, and the deer don’t move around much then unless they are disturbed, right? We were doing him a service and he didn’t even realize it. Yeah… that’s my story and I’m stickin’ to it!
After we were done with the north side of Highway 210, we headed south on Portage Lake Road and into the Rice Lake Wildlife Refuge. These roads had a different character from the cabin access roads around the other lakes. For one thing, there were speed limit signs. Somebody has decided that 35 mph is the maximum speed you should travel on these well-groomed ribbons of dirt. Silly buggers have never ridden a KLR, I’d wager. But there were some homes and farms along the way so we slowed down a bit out of respect.
At one point we came across a two-track forest service road that looked interesting. I’d never been on it before, but I decided to give it a try. Paul was still in my mirrors, but Mark and John had dropped back a ways. We had to ride through a few small mud bogs and the bikes got squirrelly. After a few of these we came to a sawhorse with a stop sign in the middle of the road. It was obvious that this meant Go No Further. So Paul and I turned around and headed back.
After a bit, we came upon a scene I was hoping not to see… Mark Foster’s Trans Alp was laying on it’s right side in the ditch just past one of those mud bogs. It seems he had tried to ride down the high center of the two-track in order to miss the mud. His tires were relatively bald with all the Iron Butt miles he has put on and they didn’t grip at all in the slimy black muck. His front tire slid out in a rut and he went down. We all dismounted and helped him pick it back up and stood around while he pulled his bodywork away from the exhaust pipe. Mark was unhurt and the damage wasn’t bad so we were able to ride back to town without further incident.
On the way back, we stopped to talk to the park ranger who was sitting in his SUV, probably watching for hooligans on motorcycles. He turned out to be a nice guy who once rode a 305 Dream back in his youth. He marvelled at our heated gear and the fact that we were still able to ride in Minnesota in November.
We stopped at The Buckhorn in McGregor for lunch: chili in a breadbowl. This was just what the doctor ordered after a long day’s ride. We lingered and chatted awhile, but then the guys had to go home. I rode back to The Cabin, and was surprised to find Dad waiting for me there. We spent another wonderful night around the campfire as I told him all about the ride.
Sunday morning we went into the little town of Palisade to eat breakfast at the Family Homestead Kitchen. Not much to look at, it is one of those modern steel buildings. But they specialize in serving breakfast to the locals before church on Sunday mornings and the Denver Omelet I ordered was heavenly. Shortly after that, Dad left for his trip back up to Bigfork and I enjoyed a leisurely tour back down Highway 61 towards home. It was another beautiful, sunny day and the temperature climbed into the 50s. Hopefully this will not be my last ride of the season. But if it was, I did it right, and the memory should carry me through the long, cold months ahead.