Thank goodness for running injuries. Seriously, had I not been hobbled by tearing something in my calf late last summer, I wouldn’t have, out of desperation, bought and fallen in love with a fat bike. And if not for a tender Achilles tendon this past July, I wouldn’t have taken that fat bike with me to Marquette, Michigan.
It was there I got an impromptu and personal tour of some of the most impressive singletrack in the upper Midwest connected by many miles of family friendly paved paths, all built on city property.
Marquette earned a bronze-level “bike friendly community” designation from the League of American Bicyclists in 2010. But with more than a third of its 40 miles of singletrack built since then, the city deserves to be upgraded to gold or platinum status.
I probably wouldn’t have that opinion had I only done in Marquette what I intended to do there on August 17, which was run the Marquette Trail 50K. But being unable to run forced me to shift gears – or, literally, add gears.
The Achilles issue cropped up less than two weeks before the trail race. Unable to run three miles let alone nearly 33 miles without great discomfort, I nevertheless drove to the U.P. on race weekend to at least check out the event and its environs.
With my parents agreeing to tag along and attend to the camping details, our two tents were staked in Marquette’s Tourist Park, a popular campground among the RV set. The park includes 110 campsites and too few trees to muffle the revelry from neighbors’ campfires, but as a location from which to explore Marquette by foot and by bike, Tourist Park is ideal.
Oddly, we seemed to be the only campers that weekend striking out on the adjacent Noquemanon Trail on the opposite side of the Tourist Park Reservoir. I previously knew the trail only as a participant in the ski marathon by the same name from Ishpeming to the Superior Dome in Marquette. The Noquemanon Trail, which doubles for a stretch as the North Country National Scenic Trail, is the gateway to an ever-expanding network of mountain bike singletrack.
As of late August, that network now includes singletrack that follows the edge of the reservoir practically to the doorstep of the campground.
It was while exploring the Marquette North Trails that I had a most fortuitous encounter. I had stopped near the start of the Dead River Trail to take the obligatory photo of my Surly Pugsley leaning against a tree with the burbling stream in the background. It was then I heard a distinct “ding ding” warning me of an approaching cyclist with a bell.
A moment later, a white bearded man with wildflowers tucked whimsically into the front of his bike helmet stopped to admire my fat bike and ask how I like riding it on the trails. Turns out this was Pete Zenti, the chief trail builder for the Noquemanon Trail Network’s North Trails. When I identified myself as the editor of Silent Sports, he smiled and noted, not for the last time, that our chance meeting was “meant to be.”
Zenti, 67, then proceeded to take me on a 90-minute guided tour of his pride and joy – the trails, most of which were built within the last two years.
For example, the Collinsville Cut takes riders in short succession under a bridge, through a rock garden, swooping around berms and switchbacks to the top of the Forestville Dam. To get to the north side of the dam, we turned back and took the Blue Heron Trail up out of the valley, across a powerline corridor and to the bottom and then top of the dam where a release pipe creates an voluminous artificial waterfall.
These trails were cut, Zenti explained, through rocky and heavily wooded terrain with considerable reliance on mechanized excavators, tracked wheelbarrows and a dedicated mix of paid and volunteer trail builders.
Zenti said his operation is outfitted with the same equipment used to build the reknown mountain bike trails in Copper Harbor, Michigan. And he applies the same techniques he learned first-hand from working with Copper Harbor’s Aaron Rodgers – who is about half Zenti’s age but a trail-building “Einstien” and “genius” in Zenti’s estimation – as well as members of the International Mountain Bicycling Association’s roving trail care crews.
While Copper Harbor has become a distant destination for serious mountain biking, Zenti said, “Marquette is a destination for biking, sailing, fishing, cross-country and downhill skiing; More recreational options.”
Marquette’s population of 21,000 (compared to Copper Harbor’s 100-some year-round residents) has different uses for the same trails.
“It’s really fun to see all the elderly folks, kids, dog walkers, trail runners and mountain bikers out here,” Zenti said. “The smiles on their faces and the thumbs up they give you – that’s my paycheck.”
He said snow biking – winter riding of fat bikes like mine – was catching on and welcome on all of Marquette’s singletrack. South Trails are even groomed with a snowmobile specifically to enhance the snow biking experience. Zenti said “snowshoers are our friends” and encouraged to tamp down the trails for bikers to follow.
“Snow biking is my number one passion,” said Zenti, a veteran of 20 American Birkebeiners. He said he and scores of other Marquette-area fat bike riders loves to ride on the snow covered beaches and out onto shelf ice that forms hundreds of yards out into Lake Superior.
For helping bring about top-notch North Trails open year round, Zenti credited the ingenuity of his crew, the cooperation of city officials and the generosity of the Board of Light and Power.
The South Trails can be reached from Tourist Park by following the paved City Multi Use Path. On our last morning in town, I took the path and within 5.5 miles was in the heart of 30 more miles of sweet singletrack.
I first attempted the 4.2-mile Mount Marquette Loop, riding it unintentionally in the wrong direction, and had to dismount and push my heavy bike through the rockier sections. I then did the 5-mile Carp River Loop, with its many boardwalk stream crossings, and climbed out on the Gorge-ous trail balanced on the edge of a steepening ravine. I recovered on the brilliant one-mile Grom Loop designed for kids and newcomers to singletrack.
I then took Porky Pine Pass on the green loop, turned north to the Pioneer Overlook and on along the East Graywalls Trail with its impressive bridges and other built structures. I eventually made my way back to the campground via the paved path, feeling spent after this 18-mile ride.
Other less strenuous biking options from the campground include following city streets a mile to the 48-mile Iron Ore Heritage Trail along the shore of Lake Superior. On can also just cross County Road 550 to the BMX track and, while there, play 18 holes of disc golf.
Marquette Trail 50
On the morning of the trail race, however, my parents and I did none of the above. Instead the three of us drove a few miles northwest of town, parked at the trailhead then climbed an endless series of staircases to the peak of Sugarloaf Mountain. We got to the top in time to greet the leaders of the 50K and 50-mile races as they crossed the stunning rock outcropping, complete with a Boy Scout-built cairn, overlooking the vast vista of Lake Superior.
Fifteen miles in, this was the first of three substantial peaks on the course. And to get there the runners had to scale the same stairs we did.
The results hinted at just how tough the fifth annual Marquette Trail 50 proved to be. Fifty-three runners started the 50-mile option but only 16 reached the finish line. As temperatures reached into the 80s, it’s not surprising that as many as 21 runners opted to end their 50-mile journey at the 50K mark. The 50K saw 84 individual finishers and a dozen relay teams compete.
University of Wisconsin-La Crosse runner Jake Hegge, 21, dominated the 50-mile race, winning it in just under 8 hours 43 minutes – an hour and 16 minutes ahead of second-place finisher Illinoisian Mike Dietz, 39, and more than two hours in front of Paul Hagan, 30, in third. The only woman to finish the race, Janine Mason, 34, of Wisconsin, finished 16th in 12:54:11.
The 50K was won by Matias Saari, 42, of Alaska, in 4:01:30, followed 45 minutes later by 28-year-old Minnesotan Jim Parejko. Coming in third was Californian Matthew Kiwell in 5:11:04. At the finish line, Saari, standing out shirtless and with a cleanly shaven head, eagerly accepted a race volunteer’s congratulation as it came with a cold can of Labatt Blue.
The top women in the 50K race were Bridget Derocher, 7th overall in 5:59:40, Amanda Jurinen, 11th in 6:14:51 and Linda Walsh, 14th in 6:30:15.
My achy ankle lessened my disappointment in not being among the racers that day. But like any self respecting, i.e. crazy, ultrarunner, one glimpse at the rocks, roots and aforementioned stairs perversely convinced me to return for the event next August 16.
From the race start/finish area at the trailhead for the Forestville cluster of the Noquemanon Trail Network, my father and I pedaled our mountain bikes on the roads back to town. The Superior Dome guided us to the lakeshore and the parallel Iron Ore Heritage Trail. We took this beautiful route south at a leisurely pace and meeting many runners and families on foot and bike along the way. The path weaves past the looming ore docks, bike and paddlesports shops, beaches and new redeveloped condominiums.
About 10 miles in we stopped and sat on a trailside bench facing the water and ate our granola bars. On the return trip, we stopped at Lakeshore Bike and bought the trail maps that facilitated our activities for the rest of the weekend.
In ways the singletrack trails tucked in the woods cannot do, the lakeshore path showcases an attractive city with a rich past in industrial shipping but also a commitment to building a present and future around recreation and tourism. You can do it all in Marquette, and that includes having so much fun you forget about the injuries that plagued you elsewhere.
Joel Patenaude is the editor of Silent Sports.
Munising plans for 50+ miles of singletrack
Fifty miles east of Marquette lies the small city of Munising, population 2,339, best known for its proximity to the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore and Grand Island. There the Munising Bay Trail Network (MBTN) is also focused on building singletrack. To date group of volunteers, equipped with hand tools, have built approximately 2.5 miles of trail behind the Hillside Party Store.
MBTN is in the process of becoming a 501c3 organization so it can raise enough money to purchase a mini excavator. This will enable the group to build trail at a much faster pace. (As Pete Zenti said, “One excavator does the work of 40 people.”) MBTN is well on its way having already hosted several fundraisers.
Future plans include building singletrack at the Valley Spur ski area southwest of town and linking it to Munising Bay Trail System. The trail would then be extended to Tourist Park on Lake Superior and on to Christmas, Michigan. The combined mileage of the proposed trail system is more than 50 miles.
For more information, visit MBTN at facebook.com/MunisingBayMountainBikeTrailNetwork.