A Tale of Two Trails: Paul Bunyan State Trail
By Molly Brewer Hoeg
Part two of a two-part story Read part one here
I had some unfinished business in the North Woods of Minnesota. After cycling half of the Paul Bunyan and Heartland Trail system a couple of summers ago, I just had to return to complete what I started. At a parking lot south of Walker, near the spot where a golden spike still marks the marriage of the two trails, I hopped on my bike to cycle the remaining 75 miles of the Paul Bunyan Trail all the way to Crow Wing State Park.
The morning fog was burning off as the sun rose higher in the sky, promising a warm day as I piloted my bike down the trail. Just by looking at the map I could tell this first section was a departure from the rails-to-trails path that characterizes much of the trail system. The eight-mile piece through the Chippewa National Forest was built on forest access and logging roads and squiggles across the paper with an advisory about steep slopes and curves.
Cutting through stands of stately pines, I wound around curves, dipped and climbed hills and delighted in the wild roses, daisies, strawberries, buttercups and red columbines that dappled the trailside with color. My initial concern that this stretch would be too challenging quickly faded, and I savored the 8-mile joy ride.
The trail resumed its typical personality after the ride through the hilly section. I could see miles of flat, straight trail ahead, now bordered by deciduous trees forming a welcome canopy to shield me from the sun. Boggy land, ponds covered in lily pads and lakes comprised my scenery as I pedaled the quiet trail. The Paul Bunyan Trail is popular with cyclists, walkers and in-line skaters throughout the summer months, but given its 123-mile length it never feels crowded.
I met Paul Bunyan’s sweetheart Lucette at the boat landing in Hackensack. Towering over Birch Lake Park, she was the first of the ubiquitous statues and carvings I would find on this part of the trail. While the northern miles favored wilderness and towns hidden from the cycling path, I soon found that today’s ride would take me straight through the center of many vibrant communities, all eager to share in Paul’s legacy. They also catered to cyclists, with easy access to visitor centers, restrooms, drinking water and tempting restaurants.
I couldn’t miss Colonel Cobber in the center of Backus. The giant cornstalk, created by a local chainsaw artist, loomed overhead, flanked by a sign that filled me in on his elaborate history and introduced his wife, Tasseltop. In a flower-filled park just beyond, I discovered a small plaque marking a time capsule. Buried in 1996 for the dedication of the Paul Bunyan Trail, its contents will be revealed in 2046.
Continuing south, the trail parallels the highway for the next 25 miles. Still bordered by trees and wildflowers, it was enough of a buffer to distract me from the nearby traffic. Pine River has a unique visitor center, filled with all things Paul Bunyan. While posing for a picture in the lumberjack’s baby booties carved from tree trunks, I learned that the weekly Duck Races were about to begin. How could I resist?
A short jaunt over to the river brought me to a dam where a crowd was gathering for the afternoon event. Young princesses from the County Fair collected money for the ducks and handed out numbered slips to the stakeholders. Youngsters waded in the river to string up the finish line. Right on time, a trash can full of orange decoy ducks was ceremoniously dumped over the side of the dam to begin their race downriver. Ducks floated, lingered and meandered toward the finish line. Some were sidelined in the rocky shore along the way, but all were cheered on by anxious number holders. I stayed long enough to see a green flock of ducks make the same trip, and then returned to the trail to move on to my next stop.
Pequot Lakes delivered a mighty fine lunch at Lakes Latté, fuel for the rest of my journey. With the bobber-shaped water tower in the background, I noticed a pair of large concrete footprints in the grass. “Paul was here”, the sign stated. It seemed a fitting mantra for my ride.
By this time I had reached the lakes region, and soon I had water views alongside the trail. The canopy of trees returned, and I enjoyed peering through the leaves to peek at cabins and lake homes perched on the water. I even caught a glimpse of a nesting loon. Feeling pressed for time, I reluctantly passed on Nisswa’s Pioneer Village and historic Main Street with its enticing shops. Leaving town, the trail moved away from the highway and traversed woods and marshes in the countryside.
The newest section of trail lies beyond Brainerd, weaving into Crow Wing State Park. Just as it began, the path became free flowing again, winding through the woods with ups and downs that I barely felt. Gliding over the new pavement through the hush of the park, I passed through both forest and prairie to reach the conclusion of my trip. It was the end of the trail, and the rest of the tale.
Molly Brewer Hoeg
Molly Brewer Hoeg is a freelance writer and outdoor fitness enthusiast from Duluth Minnesota. When she’s not writing, you’ll find her outdoors, running, cycling and cross-country skiing, or pampering her five grandchildren. Since retiring, Molly and her husband, Rich, have taken up bicycle touring, spending about a month each year traveling on their own by bicycle and have pedaled over 11,000 miles together. Molly blogs about their trips at SuperiorFootprints.org and is writing a book about the ups and downs of constant togetherness at 12 miles an hour.