Rediscovering Minnesota before the United States

When I was a kid growing up in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, I was fascinated by the fact that the U.P. had not always been part of the United States, much less part of Michigan. Visiting the reconstructed Fort Michimilimackinac at the northern tip of the Lower Peninsula and Fort Mackinac on Mackinac Island in the channel between Lake Huron and Lake Michigan, I loved learning that this territory had been France, Britain, and Canada before it was the United States — and though nobody really dwelt on it, that the land had belonged to the Ottawa and Ojibwa before any white men showed up.

As I grew up, my interest in the U.P.’s history shifted from the 18th and early 19th centuries to the region’s industrial golden age between roughly the Civil War and World War II, when the U.P. furnished the copper and iron that the burgeoning American economy needed, and when the area’s population was as large, diverse, and affluent as it had ever been or would ever be. In those years, I lived first in Ironwood at the far western tip of the U.P., a town that had been the biggest city in the Gogebic Iron Range, and later in Hancock at the southern end of the glorious Keweenaw Peninsula, in the heart of the Copper Country. Both Ironwood and Hancock were hollowed-out, depressed, and depressing towns that had lost half or more of their boom-time populations by the time I lived there.

That direct experience of living in busted towns colored by outlook on life, for sure, but also impelled me to study — in college and in grad school — how any why American capitalism works this way, in cycles of brief, amazing nooms that create something out of nothing, and the long, sad busts that see the something fade back almost to nothing. In pursuing those questions by focusing on World War II , my former interests in the political and social history of the the 17th/18th centuries all but faded away.

Since moving back to Minnesota, and especially since moving to Northfield, where the annual commemoration of the defeat of Jesse James’ raiding gang is literally a town holiday, I have started rediscovering these older interests, though: the efforts by whites from Lewis & Clark to Zebulon Pike to tie the Old Northwest into the new republic at the beginning of the 19th century, the subsequent “settlement” of Minnesota by whites in the middle of that century, the conversion of pre-contact forests and prairies to farmland, the Dakota Wars that coincided with the Civil War…

These revived interests matched perfectly with a new book by historian Theodore Catton, Rainy Lake House: Twilight of Empire on the Northern Frontier, which tells the amazing and sad story of white colonization of the lands between the western end of Lake Superior and the Red River Valley – what’s now the U.P., Wisconsin, Minnesota, North Dakota, Ontario, and Manitoba. (My friend Michael Allen – a professor of history at Northwestern University – sent me the book, thinking correctly that I’d love it.)

Much of the story was generally familiar, from the ways that France, Britain, and the new U.S. drew Indians into the fur trade and then into land swindles to the competition among those three countries – empires – over the Old Northwest and the peoples in them: the Ottawa, Ojibwa, and Lakota nations; traders, settlers, and soldiers from each country; the mixed métis of Canada.

Some of the story was less familiar to me, such as the incredibly difficult, lucrative, and destructive fur industry; the efforts through the middle of the 19th c. to launch new colonies in Canada; and the out-of-placeness of the métis who were neither French-Canadian nor Indian. And some of the story was wholly new, such as the bizarre forms of society on the frontier (many white traders had two families: a white family back east in Montreal or Toronto and an Indian wife and family in some fort or factory deep in the interior) or the sad life of John Tanner, a white man who’d been kidnapped by Indians as a child and grew up as a sort of white Indian but who was not accepted either as an American or as an Indian.

Tanner’s story is the core of Rainy Lake House, and Catton tells the story well, using Tanner’s upbringing in Ojibwa culture and maturation as a skilled hunter and trapper to show how the Indian nations adapted – or failed to adapt – to the expansion of the British in the north and the Americans to the south. Tanner was an enigma to almost everyone who met him, not least to the wife who tried to murder him. Tanner’s near-mortal injury led to his meeting the curmudgeonly, frustrated Canadian doctor and fur trader John McLoughlin and the ambitious American army officer and explorer Stephen Long. Working on opposite sides of the grand game to control the fur territories, McLoughlin and Long reflected, enacted, and created the economic, political, and cultural views on the exploitation and settlement of what was then and is still now a remote and thinly settled region.

As much as I enjoyed Catton’s skillful triple biography of these three men, I enjoyed even more his subtle sketching of the places where they lived, places I know a little bit now through my winter bike riding – the forests and swamps between Ely and International Falls, Minnesota or the plains along the Red River south of Winnipeg, Manitoba. Leaving aside the ultimately sad, if riveting, narratives about the various ways that Tanner, McLoughlin, and Long contributed to “settling” the Old Northwest, I was fascinated by the simple fact that any travel in this area required insanely arduous travel by foot or canoe. A few miles of fatbiking in January in northern Minnesota pales in comparison to the seasonal treks of the voyeageurs between what’s now far-northeastern Minnesota and Montreal, or the endless roving by the Ojibwa and Ottawa across their homelands.

I highly recommend Rainy Lake House to anyone interested in the history of Minnesota or the Upper Midwest, in the history of the early American Republic, or in the history of American Indians. The book reads like a much shorter work than its heft suggests, and any reader will come away with a new appreciation for the complexities of the 19th c. frontier, a place that was both a deeply multicultural society (though not an egalitarian one) and an ecosystem transformed by political, economic, and cultural pressures.

Actif Epica, or The Windswept Plains of Southern Manitoba

The Actif Epica race outside Winnipeg was the ideal way to end a very challenging race season – a relatively short ride through some small French-Canadian towns and up into Winnipeg itself. After the Arrowhead, I decided I didn’t have another overnight race in me this winter, so I changed from the 200-kilometer (124-mile) long race to the “classic” 125k (77 mile) race. This was a good decision, allowing me to start and end in daylight and to really enjoy the racecourse.

And what a racecourse! In a word, it was bizarre – or as the French say, “bizarre.” The race started in the tiny town of St. Malo, about 50 miles due south of Winnipeg.

32 cyclists comprised the field in the short race, which started at a very reasonable 7:30 a.m. (that’s 7:30 a.m. in the metric system) outside the town’s charmingly un-fancy hockey arena. After a neutral rollout, we crossed St. Malo Lake, which shook out the field pretty well and ended with one of the only climbs in the race – a 10-foot zip up what might have been a boat launch.

Starting there, the rest of the course consisted of long sections of gravel road linked by short bits of paved highways, of trails for snowmobiles (which the Canadians call “Skidoos,” no matter the actual brand) or, even better, of completely snowed-in roads across farm fields. It was wacky, unlike any of the other fatbike racing I’ve done but not unlike some of the training I’ve done around Northfield – though far, far flatter. The end of the race was memorably different from all that terrain!

The open country – what my friend Minnesota Mark called “the windswept plains of southern Manitoba” – made it easy to see other racers, which allowed a lot of chasing and being chased. We came up on numerous runners who’d started either the long 200k race the night before or the short 125k race an hour before our bike event. I was happy to be able to ride quite a bit with Mark, who has finished the AE a few times (as well as 20-some other fatbike ultras), making him a good guide to the race’s innumerable twists and turns and to its five checkpoints. At several of those checkpoints, I saw my friend Corey; though not a cyclist, he’d wanted to see what fatbike racing was all about, and so had driven me up to Winnipeg for the event. He tracked us over the first part of the course, taking photos like this one at the first CP in St.-Pierre-Jolys.

We’d been told to try the pea soup there, but pea soup doesn’t sound too good at 9:05 a.m., so I ducked in and headed right back back out, yoyoing with a couple other riders whom I’d see all day as we made our way up to the second checkpoint at a “colony” of Hutterites at Crystal Springs. Just before reaching the checkpoint, we rode a couple miles of wonderful wooded trails along the Rat River (a.k.a. la Rivière aux Rats, which is frankly a far better name) as it oxbowed its way north to meet the Red River of the North nearer to Winnipeg. I stopped a little longer at Crystal Springs, which had a real bathroom (no peeing in the ditches during this race! [well, maybe a little]), chocolate-chip cookies, and very talkative Hutterite men, who wanted to tell me all about their colony. I chatted for a bit, but needed to get moving again.

The silent little boys – shirts buttoned up to their collar just like the adult men – held the door for me, and then I rode again with Mark for a while on some windy gravel. The first few miles of the race had woven through stands of trees, but those were behind us now. Houses were few and far between, but many flew a Canadian flag. The cattle farms had a smell that differed from the smell of cattle farms in Minnesota – sweeter, grassier, not as acrid. Under a high sun, the forecasted westerly wind started to show up, making us work hard whenever we angled north and west – which was pretty often.

At one point, the course dumped us onto a snowed-in road between two fields. In Minnesota we’d call it a “minimum maintenance road,” but I don’t know the French translation. Maybe “le chemin de posthole”? Ride for a bit, push for a bit, ride for more, push for more. For a change of pace, tip over in a pillowy drift and get snow down your neck. At the end of the section, I stopped to record the scene. Mark is one of the dots on the horizon; the other is, I think, racer #36, a tough guy who was riding the race on a 26″ city bike. He could haul on the gravel and especially on the pavement roads, but whenever we hit any snow, he slowed and even had to walk sections that Mark and I could ride. I filed this fact away for later, in case he and I were still nearby at the end of the race.

These sections made me extra grateful to be riding my friend Ben’s souped-up race bike. My beloved Buffalo had started acting up just before the race, perhaps suffering from an injury at the Arrowhead. As I commuted home the day before Corey and I would head to Winnipeg, the rear wheel started rubbing the chainstay. Two hours of sweating and swearing over it couldn’t fix the problem, but Ben solved the problems and saved my race by loaning me his own Mukluk, which was definitely the best bike I’ve ever ridden. The carbon rims in particular helped me float over more of the drifting than I could have on my own bike – though I sure missed the Buffalo.

Somewhere after this section, Mark caught me and started rhapsodizing about the pierogies served at the third checkpoint, in the hockey arena in Niverville. I’d never had pierogis before, an error I remedied with a triple serving. When we checked out, the volunteers told us we were in 8th and 9th places – top 10! We had barely gotten back on our bikes before we reached the fourth checkpoint, 11k (7 miles) away in St. Adolphe. Though this leg was short, I felt like we had a headwind for every meter. Mark and I traded pulls over the worst stretch, making the wind a little more tolerable. When we finally reached St. Adolphe, we rode not on streets to the CP but on the dikes that protect the town from the Red River,

and stopped not at a hockey arena but at a curling club. (Next to the door is the bike of racer #36, who reached the CP just before us.)

Curling looks just as fun from the other side of the glass as it does on TV, but why are so many Manitoba hockey arenas and curling clubs in Quonset huts? And can Northfield please build a Quonset hut for a curling club?

Someone – probably Mark – had warned me that the stretch after St. Adolphe would be the hardest of the race, as we would be continuously exposed to the wind. This was definitely the case. Mark and I traded pulls as we went north on the memorably-named Sood Road, then jogged a bit east to Shapansky Road, a freakishly straight and flat road that I’m pretty sure runs all the way to Hudson Bay. (Here it’s the north-south line from St. Germain South.)

The wind here finally went from “hard” to “brutal.” Cutting across us from left to right, it separated Mark and me and slowed me to what could not have been more than 8 mph, which felt like a sad waste of Ben’s carbon machine! Racer #36 dangled in front of me for this entire stretch. I had worried that his skinny tires would help him get away here, but the wind was as bad for him as for me, and for Mark. Another racer later said that the winds had been blowing at 25mph here, which means that the windchill must have been well below zero. Adding to the fun, the sun was so bright that I couldn’t see my computer, and so couldn’t see the goddamn map that would tell me how goddamn long this goddamn section would continue. This was a classic sufferfest: put your head down and just turn the cranks. Every time the pedals make a rotation, you’re closer to getting done with it.

Then suddenly I couldn’t see racer #36 anymore. He’d turned! Huzzah! No more crosswind! Oh, wait. No, he’d turned northwest, going directly into the wind. A minute later, I made the turn too, and found another Actif Epica Special: a dirt “road” almost completely covered in snowdrifts. Someone had recently driven a truck down the road, cutting two ruts through all the drifts, and I aimed for the nearer one. But I had been puttering along so slowly for so long that my aim was way off, and I hit the drift. Stop, lean, bobble, lean more, tip over, already laughing and cursing. I expected Mark to ride up to me right then as I struggled to unclip my boots from my pedals, but no, he was still slogging up Shapansky.

Back on my feet and then back on the bike, I could see that #36 was hiking. I was able to ride, and gradually closed on him as we angled northwest, then north again through more crosswind. He grew from a black dot in the distance to an indistinct human figure, then to a cyclist – helmet, jacket, legs. I was excited to be on the verge of contact after seeing him off in the distance since St. Adolphe.

Then another turn, to the southwest. Mon Dieu! Knowing that Winnipeg was due north of us, I got worried here that we’d taken a wrong turn, but ahead of us I could see a weird low hill. Maybe another dike that would take us north? Here the course drifted in again, the snow cover deepening as we approached the hill. #36 was hiking continuously, and I was trying hard to ride as much as I could to catch up before the hill. But now the drifts turned to a thick crust of snow with a skin of windblown black dirt on top – the most bizarre surface that I’d ever crossed on a fatbike, or rather crossed walking next to a fatbike. The snow was loose under the dirt, far too soft to support the bike or me. I postholed for a good ten minutes, trying to roll the bike along next to me and marveling as the weird cake-like appearance of the snow: a thin layer of black, a thick layer of white, and then far below some brown dirt.

Now I was at the bottom of the hill, with #36 on top of it. A lightbulb went off and I remembered that Mark had mentioned we would ride up and over the huge floodway that protects Winnipeg from the Red River’s spring floods. The hill was actually the eastern wall of the floodway, which – Wikipedia says – was at the time of its construction in the 1960s the second-largest earthmoving project in the world, smaller only than the Panama Canal. Still trailing #36, I rode up and onto the berm, down into the floodway – empty except for some grass and more snowdrifts – then back up onto a secondary berm that ran to a massive control gate. On the other side of the gate, #36 turned west again. Down a street? Where the hell were we?

We were already in Winnipeg. The city apparently has no suburbs; you’re either on the prairie suffering in the wind for your sins or on paved streets, dodging cars and trucks. #36 was gone now, hammering on his city bike over city streets. I dug out my cue sheets and zoomed in on my computer’s map, remembering more advice from Mark: that you had to be careful as the race zigged and zagged over streets and bike trails. I didn’t want to take a wrong turn again, as I had at the Arrowhead in January. There the only dangers had been -30º F temps and wolves; who knows what urban terrors lurked in Winnipeg! I might be force-fed poutine or compelled to learn the words to “O Canada”!

Luckily, the course here was remarkably easy to follow, winding this way and that through the city on the way to the last checkpoint at the University of Manitoba. The sidewalks and trails were fairly busy with civilians running, walking, walking their dogs, even riding bikes. Everyone I encountered gave me a nice smile and a wave, except the dogs. Abruptly, #36 reappeared at the far end of a long straightaway. Knowing that we had the checkpoint and then another half hour of riding before the finish, I didn’t try too hard to catch him, but gradually he drifted back to me. Fittingly I finally caught him at a stoplight where we waited in futility for the light to change. I had definitely never had to wait at a stoplight in a fatbike race. He said he’d finished the race on foot a couple times, but that riding wasn’t easier – “just faster.” Finally we decided to cross against the interminable red, and a few minutes later we reached the last checkpoint.

Another racer was there when we arrived, #37, a guy who’d dropped me after the Crystal Springs checkpoint hours before. He was riding a fatbike with drop handlebars, which struck me as perhaps the ideal machine for this wacky race. Could I bounce out of the checkpoint fast enough to steal two spots? No; as I headed out both #36 and #37 left too. We rode together in some places, apart in others, as we left the university campus, crossed the Red River, and headed north through what my computer said were the last ten miles of the race.

I had no desire to get in front of #36 and #37, since they seemed to know where they were going. #36 said we were nearly to the park where we would drop down onto the river itself. We would have something like 5 kilometers to go from that point. More streets and paths, another bridge over the Red River, and then we hooked into a little park over the river. Pedestrians had worn a path down the steep riverbank onto the ice, and we plunged down, #36 leading me and #37 just behind me.

Amazing. The river was spectacularly wide, and down the middle ran two groomed trails, one cleaned to the bare ice for skaters, the other covered with a thin layer of snow for walkers, runners, and cyclists and quite a few dogs wearing neon booties. Hundreds and hundreds of people were on the river, doing all those things or just hanging out on benches on the median between the lanes. I nosed alongside #36, said I wanted to go a little faster, and headed up the ice trail. My rear wheel slipped here and there on the ice, but the snow provided just enough traction that I could easily pedal at 12, 14, 16 mph – far faster than I usually finish a race!

#37 came up around me, down on his bars and working hard. I hung with him for a while, drafting, then moved up beside him, now ahead of him. I realized that the red flags on the median were marking kilometers. We’d just passed 4, and here came 3 already. My legs were burning. I wanted to see if #37 was still with me, but given the ice underneath and the innumerable pedestrians all around, I couldn’t risk a glance back. Crashing on a perfectly flat part of the race and wiping out a bunch of Canadian kids would not be a good way to finish!

On the bench at kilometer marker 2, a hipster was smoking a joint. A strange thing to smell at the end of a race. I could see a bridge looming ahead, the one that marked the official finish line. The crowds thickened around the 1k marker, and more stuff crowded the ice: some sort of museum exhibit, playground equipment, vendors’ kiosks…

I started seeing little spots of light and wished I could see my heart rate on my computer. My pulse was ridiculously loud in my ears. The bridge came toward me. Throngs of people now. Music. The smell of food. I started looking for a finish line or banner, but no: nothing except the shadow of the bridge on the ice. I rode all the way through the shadow and slowed to a stop. #37 was still coming, but I’d reached the bridge first. 4:07 p.m. – not even nine hours of riding! How humane.

I pedaled slowly toward the ramp that led up from the river to the race HQ at a restaurant complex overlooking the point where the Assiniboine River flowed into the Red. #37 caught up to me as we climbed up to the street level. We wove through the pedestrians and hunted down the race HQ. When we found it, we pulled up and got off our bikes, exchanging well-dones. A little boy sitting nearby looked up at me and asked, “Why is your face covered in ice?” I told him I’d just finished a bike race. Some volunteers came out when they saw us and held the doors so we could roll our bikes inside.

There we got a nice round of applause and our trophies – for me, one for finishing the Actif Epica and another for finishing the Tuscobia, the Arrowhead, and the AE in the same winter and thus entering the “Order of the Hrimthurs.” Sure, why not!

#36 came in a few minutes later, and then Mark. The timekeepers announced our places – Mark in 8th, #36 in 7th, #37 in 6th, and me in 5th. I was amazed and pleased – proof that the good feeling I’d had in the first half of the Arrowhead was no fluke. I hope next winter’s racing is as fun and successful as this winter’s. Only a few months till then!

Coyote Nation

When I was growing up in the U.P. in the ’70s and ’80s, coyotes were considered the menace to farm animals. Back then, wolves were (temporarily, as nature assured) absent from the Yoop, so coyotes – kai-ohts – assumed the apex predator spot that Canis lupus should have held, and in fact resumed sometime in the ’90s.

I have no idea if any Yooper farmers lost any livestock bigger than a chicken to Canis latrans, but my male relatives were unanimous in their hatred of coyotes, and were eager to kill them all. I never understood why this was, but then I ever understood why it was fun to sit in a tree for hours in the hopes of shooting a deer either. 

I did understand that the coyotes’ howls were thrillingly wild. When we stayed at our family’s hunting camp – a one-room shack in the northwestern corner of the Ottawa National Forest (almost a million acres of woods that covers almost all of the Wisconsin end of the U.P.) – we often heard coyotes singing at night. I lay there in my keeping bag in the bunk bed and imagined the coyotes sniffing around the building, drawn by scraps of food and our weird smells.

I don’t recall ever seeing any coyotes, but I must have, for as Dan Flores shows in his superlative Coyote America, coyotes are now America’s most ubiquitous big predator, despite continuing to be killed in the thousands every year. Some of the only actual coyotes I’ve ever seen – on a years’-ago bike ride – were three dead ones, dumped in a ditch not a mile outside of town. More recently I saw two skinny specimens patrolling a river near Island Park in eastern Idaho. They watched me and a friend bike along the opposite bank, then effortlessly scaled a sheer snowbank to get up off the river and onto the flat plain. 


Notwithstanding this pair in the underpopulated West, Americans now live among more of these scrawny, intelligent, shy beasts than ever before – a story that Flores tells with care, detail, a bit on anger, and a lot of humor in his book and with indignation in this New York Times op-ed. After a century of incessant, brutal biocide against the coyote, we should admit defeat and admire the victor. 

By rights, in fact, we Americans should do as generations of a Native Americans – from the Aztecs to the Apache – did, and worship the coyote as a nature god. Like God, Coyote is everywhere. As my friend Charlotte pointed out the other day, they’ve surely watched me on a bike ride. They’ve probably watched my girls playing in our backyard. A family of them might be right now in the field to the south, perhaps looking warily between the light spilling from my picture window and the harvester that’s growling along the rows of soybeans. Maybe they made a meal of one of the hundreds of Canada geese that gleaned in the field all afternoon. Regardless I’m pleased to know that they’re out there, outlasting and outsmarting us. 

Sweaty Fun at the Red Wing Classic 

What: the Red Wing Classic race, event #4 in the Minnesota Mountain Bike Series


Where: the Memorial Park trails above Red Wing, MN

When: July 10, 2016

Why: To try a “short” mountain bike race! I decided to enter the “comp” class to get the most time out there – three laps of a decently tough 6.1 mile course. 

Who: my Salsa El Mariachi, the Coyote.

My best gear was my tire setup: Bontrager XR2s, tubeless. Good stuff. 

My worst gear was my sense of balance, which betrayed me on a tricky off-camber turn early in lap 1, causing a bad crash that screwed up my right hand for a while. 

The low points were

  1. when I crashed,
  2. when I got so badly dehydrated on lap 1 that I started seeing stars, which were only chased off by pounding three cups of cold water, and 
  3. When I reached the infamous Stairway to Heaven climb on each lap, a steep, straight, rocky bastard. I had to walk it each time. 

The high point was when, on lap 3, I felt like my legs had come around and that I’d finally gotten a sense of the course. 

It was in the bag when I hit the top of the last climb and knew I had only a few hundred meters to go, finishing in 2:27 for 50th place – third from last and 44 minutes behind the winner. 

The key lesson learned was that going hard for 2 and a half hours is fun but totally different than racing a marathon. 

The takeaway is that these short races should be part of my “off-season” racing schedule. Many are pretty close to Northfield, all are inexpensive compared to marathons, and each (I learned) is quite different from the others. My lap times got longer through the race: 45:25 on lap 1, 49:58 on lap 2, and  52:15 on lap 3. Gotta get faster. 

Note: the photo above is by Todd Bauer, an excellent photographer who covers a lot of bike races! He published a great gallery of photos from the Red Wing Classic, including that shot of me

Cheq 80

What: The Chequamegon 100 mountain bike race – actually only 80 miles this year due to rain damage on one part of the trail network. 


Where: Chequamegon Area Mountain Bike Association trails near Cable in north-central Wisconsin. The CAMBA trails are tight, technical paths through dense hardwood and conifer forests. 


When: Saturday, June 18, 2016 – a warm, humid northwoods day.

Why: To redeem myself after failing to finish the Cheq 100 in 2015, when I stepped down to the 62-mile race after the wet trails proved too much for my legs and fatbike.

Who: the Coyote, my Salsa El Mariachi, which got a little buggy and dirty. 

My best gear: my Osprey hydration pack, a Syncro 3 that held a big reservoir and a few gels and nothing else. Light, comfy, ideal.

My worst gear: my lower back.

The low point was when I had to stop with ten miles to go to to stretch my aching back for the millionth time. The brutally rough trails were almost too much. 

The high point was riding the whole day with my friends Galen and Sarah, who though much faster than me, rode with me from start to finish. I valued the company and the inspiration as well as the chance to watch how they handled the trails. 

It was in the bag when we hit a high point on the last section of singletrack and saw the road that led back to this finish line.

The key lesson learned is that flow is everything on MTB trails. Being able to generate and maintain momentum is a far more important skill than being able to generate massive power. (Power and speed helps too though!) 

 The takeaway is that I became a better MTB rider between the 2015 and 2016 Cheqs. On to 2017: I hope it’s my first full MTB century.

Marji Gesick 2016: 100% Effort, 49% Complete

What: the Marji Gesick 100

When: Saturday, September 26, 2016: 7:47 total riding time, about 9 hours total time on course.

Why: Because the MG is supposed to be one of the hardest MTB races in the Midwest, if not the country, with more than 10,000 feet of climbing over the 100-mile distance, and because I need to finish a 100-mile MTB race. I’m 0-3* lifetime!

Also, because I’d never raced in the homeland!

Where: Marquette to Ishpeming, Michigan – in the center of the gorgeous Upper Peninsula. Our drive up to the race took me through some old stomping grounds and directly past my Grandma and Grandpa’s house in Channing. This is a fire tower outside Crystal Falls, not their house. 

The course was mostly singletrack in the woods – always demanding and often relentlessly technical. Though there was plenty of fast, fun trail


and lots of hike-bike for me and others.


Who: The Coyote, my Salsa El Mariachi 29er hardtail.

Best gear: My front shock and my Bontrager XR2 tires, run tubeless at about 20 psi.

Worst gear: My rear derailleur, which failed catastrophically at mile 53.

The high point was when I realized at about mile 50 that I felt about as good as I’d ever felt near the midpoint of a long race. I was confident I had the legs and lungs to finish in 14-16 hours. 

The low point was when chain suck wrapped the derailleur around my cassette and neither I nor a fellow racer could fix it or switch the bike to singlespeed.

It was in the bag at no point in the race. It was on a pipe and in a tunnel at different moments in the event, though. 

The key lesson I learned was that I have the fitness for a long MTB race, and that my technical skills have improved enough that they’re no longer a liability (as they’d been at the 2015 Chequamegon 100). I just need to combine those qualities with a good day from the bike – or a different, more forgiving bike. It’s no surprise that virtually all the finishers rode full-suspension machines.

The takeaway is that the Marji Gesick is a great event run on a stupid hard course. I need to get back to there in 2017 and earn a finish like my friend Galen:

* My results in four attempts at century-length MTB races:

  • 2015 Chequamegon 100: switched midway to the 62-mile race, DNFing the 100.
  • 2015 Maah Daah Hey 100: quit at about mile 50 after the fatbike’s drivetrain blew up.
  • 2016 Chequamegon 100: completed the full course, which had been shortened to about 80 miles due to rain damage to the trails.
  • 2016 Marji Gesick 100: DNF at mile 54 with a mechanical.

Custer the Bastard

On our family trip to the Black Hills in South Dakota, I was – but should not have been – surprised by the volume of stuff related to George Armstrong Custer, famous for getting killed with all his men at the Battle of Little Bighorn by a massive Native American army that was, among other goals, fighting the encroachment of white settlers in places like the Black Hills – Ȟe Sápa in Lakota

As it happens, I’d seen T.J. Stiles’ new biography of Custer at the bookstore back home in Northfield, so I picked it up, eager to learn more about this famous figure, whom I only knew as a Civil War officer and an Indian fighter. Understanding Custer as more than those two roles is Stiles’s task and accomplishment. 

Stiles expertly structures the book around a series of “trials” (including several actual trials: courts martial for various offenses) that Custer precipitated and endured over the course of his full but short life. (Custer was only 36 when he was killed and mutilated at what the Indians called “Greasy Grass.”) Beyond Custer’s undeniable skill as a battlefield commander in both the Civil War and in various theaters of the Indian Wars, the man was, in brief, a bastard: a vicious disciplinarian, a philandering husband, an inveterate gambler, a preening dandy, a failed stock speculator, a Confederate sympathizer, an scheming careerist, an out-and-out racist… 

Stiles makes clear that in all these things, Custer was both a product of his times and a producer of them – as everyone is, though not usually to such an extreme and often appalling degree. Custer shaped and was shaped by a rapidly-changing America where what we might call a rugged individual (at least if he was white and male) was being submerged in an increasingly sophisticated, urban, and anonymous society, one more familiar to us, 150 years after Custer’s ignominious death, than the one into which the man had been born.

By the end of the book, I at least was eager to see Custer get what he had coming. And there Stiles dodges, holding Little Bighorn at arm’s length by examining the disaster through an official inquiry into its cause. Fittingly, part of that cause was Custer’s impetuosity and bloodlust: he wanted to exterminate the Indians whom he saw impeding the rightful expansion of the United States. Instead, the Indians forestalled that expansion, at least a little, by exterminating Custer’s force – and in a neat trick of history, assuring that he would never be forgotten.

Octopus Life

A while ago I asked for recommendations of natural-history and science books to read.
The Soul of an Octopus
Sy Montgomery’s The Soul of an Octopus was heartily recommended by several people, and very much worth my time. The book is so beautifully and transparently written that it can be read quickly, which for me heightened its effect. Like an octopus using all eight arms to take in everything it can all at once, I wanted to gorge on everything the book has to offer: wonderful science writing on these utterly bizarre creatures; learned considerations of how humans can connect to wild creatures and, especially, what forms animal consciousness might take; and wonderful stories about her own relationships with several octopuses in a Boston aquarium.

The book contains too much of all that and more to summarize, so let me just say that anyone interested in animals or a nature beyond humans should read it. The closing passages were as moving as anything I’ve read this year, but every other page contained astounding stuff like this litany of octopus mythology:
Octopus Religion

Mallets, ready to hammer

My preferred fatbike pedal is the [Mallet by Crank Brothers](https://www.crankbrothers.com/product/mallet-3-new) – technically a downhiller’s pedal, but perfect for winter riding because the big platform supports your foot even when you can’t or don’t want to clip in.

I’ve been using a pair of Mallet 3s for about a year and a half now, through at least four fatbike ultramarathons plus untold snow and gravel training miles – tough use, but without any trouble at all.

Till a ride about ten days ago, when the left one failed on a short ride near home. I limped back to the house and wrote to Crank Brothers to see about repair or replacement. They told me to send the pedals back. Today, I received the repaired pedals – rebuilt at no charge. I like that they still look worn, but aren’t now worn out. Pretty sweet. Great customer service.
Mallets, ready to hammer