Bike Tour/Camping Extravaganza

Just over a week ago we returned from my "dream vacation." Shortly after getting into bikes and realizing what they were capable of, I have wanted to do a bike tour. When Ashley and I were sans child, we embarked on an ambitious 165 mile trip from Los Angeles to San Diego with our best friends the Nelsons.

It was a great trip, but it taught us a lot about touring and reminded me of how much we didn't know about bike touring.

Fast forward four years, two children later... and I still have the itch to do a multi-day family bike tour. I've read several books on bike touring with small children, and countless blogs on the matter - so I felt relatively prepared for our ambitious endeavor.

The plan was simple. Our family was to team up with Ashley's sister's family, the Cherrys and bike 110 miles in Northern Michigan and see what kind of adventure we could get up to. Four adults, five children under 9, what did the future have in store for us?

Here we are pre-tour. Leaving from the comfortable yet smarmy Econo Lodge in Gaylord Michigan. A variety of cargo mounting and child carrying options are on display here, most notably 8 year old Lane who biked the entire 119 mile trip...

We quickly made our way through the "Alpine Village" of Gaylord Michigan to pick up the Gaylord-Cheboygan Trail which would serve as the backbone of our trip. Looking to get a little local intel the night before, I inquired about the existence of said trail from our server at Bob Evan's. I was a little worried when he referenced it as the "snowmobile trail" with some level of confusion as to why we'd be riding our bikes on it.

I had looked at the trail on Google Earth countless times and read a few old blogs about people's experience with the trail, but to be honest it was still a complete shot in the dark and it could've turned out to be a total nightmare of a route...

It turned out to be completely amazing. From a technical standpoint, I believe the surface is called "crushed granite." A very hard, compacted dirt trail with a light sprinkling of gravel on top. The gravel was a little loose at the entry points, but overall it made for a wonderful riding surface. Most of the time the trail was cutting through the woods, and afforded all sorts of wildlife sighting and shady resting points.

The first day was almost all downhill which Ashley noticed immediately, but was completely beyond me. The downhill trek made for quick times and an inflated sense of pride and the kind of distance we could normally carry under such heavily laden bicycles.

We took plenty of pit stops and there were a few small towns encouraged timely snacking and drink replenishment. Wolverine, Michigan was one such spot.
Here the group recharges with some fresh gatorades and snacks while Ed naps in the back of the Xtracycle.

As we pulled into our campsite on the first night, I was really feeling proud of myself for our good luck and how beautiful our campsite was. I had made all the reservations on the Michigan DNR website, which allows you to look at the campground map and choose your sites accordingly. Without any foreknowledge, I just picked the sites that appeared to be the closest to the lake and in good proximity to the bathrooms.

All the bikes at our first night's camp - Burt Lake State Park in Indian River, Michigan.

Few things feel better after a full, hot day on a big heavy bike than a dip in a lake and a hot shower. Our campground provided both.

Matching Farmer Tans.

The kids loved the lake - obviously.

The other component of the tour that we decided to skip out on was packing all our meals. We did lunch (mostly) on the road, and ate breakfast and dinner in town, or rather - had people bring it to us. Wiser, more experienced family bike tourers might know that once you are in camp camp relaxing and clean, the last thing you want to do is get everyone back on the bikes to get dinner. When we were heading into town the last thing we wanted to do was curtail our momentum for a dinner break. Catch 22.

Delivery to the rescue!

Fortunately we found a place that delivered to the campground. The heavens had parted. What a treat to have nice, warm pizza brought to you while you set up camp! Some hard core-types might take issue with this. To them I say - why are you reading our blog - scram.

Some more highlights. From the first night.

Ed photo-bombing George's attempt to push Ashley into the Lake - backstory, Ashley is notoriously reticent to commit to the "full plunge" but told the kids they could push her in. Great mom/aunt.

Not too shabby Michigan, I like the vibe you are putting out.

Our little "angels" sleeping

There were tons of unknowns on this trip - one of the biggest being "how will the boys sleep?" We have a nice, but cozy three man tent. Prior to this trip, Ed had camped once and the boys had never slept in such close confines. I was sure it was going to be armageddon once night fell. But, after the initial wrestle of getting them to sleep, both guys slept like champions, tossing and turning as expected but not waking up once during the middle of the night, each night.  We really scored big time in that regard. I think we may need a tent upgrade for size, but other than that we were all engines go.

Our second day started off on a high note, as any day should after you slam a "Mac & Donald's" (as George says it) breakfast.

Here we are in the McD's parking lot. I must admit, one of the amazing things about this trip was the sense of pride and accomplishment that came from being a part of this massive, impossible to ignore, family-bike spectacle.

The second day of riding was more scenic than the first - giving us a great view of small tourist towns and lakes to the east of us all day. Made for some wonderful "break time" where Ashley most likely stepped into poison ivy.

Me, the boys, and the rig - the Xtracycle. A modern marvel.

Our first campsite was very close to the trail, but that was not the case the second night. The second day was much hotter, and two plus days of riding had caught up with us. We were getting mobbed by mosquitos, tired, hot, and wanted to get to our campsite.

Fortunately, our campsite again was close to the water - though it wasn't exactly sandy beaches. More of a swamp. Not the stinky malaria ridden kind. Maybe more of a "marsh" might be accurate.

Our campsite was on Duncan Bay, of Lake Huron. It was unlike anything I've ever seen. The entire thing was incredibly shallow, no more than a foot and a half deep as far as you could see. The result is really warm waters, and the largest child pool you could possibly imagine.

Fun for the kids, not quite as refreshing as the first day. Here George and I are about 100 feet out and I'm still only in 5 in deep water.

Safety First Ed, Safety First.

Ashley has never met a Kayak trip she wasn't interested in testing out. The campground had some for rentals and the gals took the kids out on a pleasure cruise. I walked through the bay.

I should mention that prior to this, every single blog I had read about family bike touring and camping  - the family's always encounter a "why are we doing this/let's go back/the trip's over" moment. Foolishly, I thought we weren't going to get to that point. Though, starving, being eaten alive by mosquitos drove us close.

The second night George and my nephew Henry were fooling around by the campfire. They were chasing each other and Henry ran away from George, without looking, right up to the edge of the fire pit. It was horrifying, and he was in a lot of pain. After a very confusing, stressful hour or so, we got Henry into town (thank you smart phones, taxis) to the ER. At that point, we weren't sure if the tour would go on. Henry's health was obviously the priority.

We ordered out again, from the same chain (BC Pizza), this time opting for their sandwiches. The sandwiches, by and large were unsatisfying if not atrocities to the sandwich genre, we got thousands of mosquito bites, and tucked in for an early night.

The news the next day was good. Henry had only a few 1st degree burns, and one 2nd degree burn on his arm. If properly bandaged and kept clean, the doctors said we could finish the tour. After some medication for the pain - Henry was feeling up to it so we all decided to continue on, though our spirits were slightly crestfallen after a hellish latter half of the second day.

The third day started off well with some freshening up, and a hearty breakfast at Bob's Big Boy.

Ashley spotted a turtle - the kids were so excited. Other animals we saw included: fox, deer, snake, hawk, squirrel, chipmunk - and I had a duel with a raccoon that was totally not afraid of me until I threw my hatchet at it "Who else want's some of Devo?" I was so mad that the dumb racoon wasn't cowering in my sight and I was half sure that I was going to get rabies and also furious that I was up in the middle of the night and getting eaten by mosquitos. All the pent up aggression came out in a furious throw of the hatchet. David 1. Racoon 0. 

The third night we found ourselves back in the friendly confines of Burt Lake State Park. This time, we planned ahead and ate in town. I will say this about our eating during the trip - we ate decadently. It was glorious. Food tastes so good when you are starving and you've been biking all day. After playing in the lake, and showering we just narrowly avoided a torrential downpour.

Because we had no where to go, we just waited out the storm by the showers. We were tracking the storm that soaked our campsite to the bone - and saw another,  massive storm just a few miles out. Rather than risk the most miserable night's sleep possible, we high-tailed it for a local motel that was honestly more rustic than our tents.

I don't recall if you remember this factoid, but Ashley was the only one keen enough to sense that we were going downhill entirely the first day. Since our route was a simple up and back, that meant that our entire fourth day, the last day... was all up hill. It was a long slog. The solution, lots of stops, lots of snacks, and get in a low gear and just crank it out. 

As we neared completion, spirits began to soar. We really had accomplished something.

This was what most of our view was like. So scenic. Not like many bike paths I've ridden where you are in sketchy  neighborhoods or in an industrial wasteland. We had amazing views and allowed for a lot of time of appreciating the outdoors and this beautiful world we live in. I am so grateful for that.

Ashley shows her key to rounding out a grueling bike tour - fresh "dietas".

I think this picture sums it up perfectly.

All in all there are some things I would do differently, but not much. On my other bike blog (long neglected) I'm planning on getting into some more of the nitty gritty technical stuff that I've been thinking about (gear, planning, etc.)

All in all, this was the trip of a lifetime and I hope that it is at least an annual event for our family. I would do it again in a heartbeat.


Serena Cherry said...

Best trip ever!!! We had such a great time. David was the master planner and of course Ashley helped us understand what it would really be like. Our kids were all so great, I was so impressed by all. Henry keeps asking why we don't live in Chicago. Love you guys!

Ashley Thalman said...

Whoa. I love this so much. The memories you are making for your family are unmatched. The horror and the disappointments, even the wanting to turn back becomes a bit funny and fuels the flame of the story. Well done Ashley and David!

Elle said...

What an awesome trip! Congratulations on what looks to be the first of many family bike-camping trips!

Liz H. said...

wow, look at you guys! very cool.

Laticia Edwards said...

Putting together a family bike tour looks like fun. Any tips on how to get started and what is needed?

Jen said...

We did this trail with our family of 5 in July of 2015. We had a great time. We biked from Gaylord to Mackinaw City. The first day the kids and I waited in Gaylord, while my husband drove up to Mackinaw City and took the Indian Trails bus back to Gaylord. I think the bus left Mackinaw about 9am and got to Gaylord at 10:30am. We camped at the two state parks along the way and did the zip line at Mill Creek state park as an end of ride treat.

Bhoomi Desai said...

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