Bikepacking the Swamp at the Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge

Experiencing wildness and solitude near my metropolitan home of over 3.5 million people.

Bicycle Adventurers: Seldom Seen Scheese

When: March 2017

Accommodations: A large shelter with picnic tables on a concrete slab provided by the Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge

Distance: I rode one mile from the Middle Road trailhead, off U.S. Highway 169, to the shelter, plus 10 miles of exploring around the refuge.

Bonus tip for this adventure:

  • Restored oak-savannah habitat 
  • House-sized glacial erratic
  • Migrating waterfowl
  • 19th century farmhouse ruins

Day One

There comes a time when a man must hide ... must escape the slimy, cloying tentacles of what Edward Abbey called “syphilization.”

Another tough day at the office — so I pack bike, backpack, etc. in my small SUV and turn off U.S. Highway 169 to a little-known trailhead at Louisville Swamp: at 2600 acres the largest unit in the Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge, stretching along the Minnesota River from Belle Plaine to Bloomington. 

The Big Question of the trip is: Do I opt for the heavy and comfortable, or light and uncomfortable? I opt for the Heavy — sleeping bag rated to minus 40 degrees, Dana Designs backpack, extra clothing for the long cold night ahead, plus a gallon of water. All told, I’m toting 25 to 30 pounds while riding my Specialized CruX Expert Carbon Disc.

It’s only a little over a mile on flat terrain from the trailhead to a large shelter complete with picnic tables where I plan to camp, sans tent, under the stars. The gravel road provides good traction. I pass slow-flowing Sand Creek on a concrete bridge, then take a quick detour at the junction a short piece ahead to take in Big Rock, a house-sized glacial erratic dumped in the middle of the valley some 10,000 years ago. The geological sublime ...

In no time, I±m at the shelter dumping the pack, free to roam the refuge in the remaining hour or so of daylight this early spring evening. How my CruX now flies across the terrain! I ride over slabs of exposed bedrock, some of the oldest in the world and called “the basement of time” by some geologists, alternating with topsoil formed over millennia, deposited by the hardwoods through which I ride. 

At the site of Jabs Farm, a farmstead dating back to the late 19th century, I stop and explore the standing ruins. The small farmhouse is still habitable, but the barn & other buildings are in a slow state of collapse. I check out a foundation stone on which is engraved the year “1880.” In the fading light of sunset, alone amidst the ruins, an air of melancholy descends over the scene. 

On the way back to the shelter, racing the sunset, I take the Johnson Slough spur trail, spotting 2 trumpeter swans stealthily floating in a secluded corner of a pond. And just as I return to base camp, three bald eagles soar overhead. I quickly get a fire going with wood provided by the previous visitors and in no time, I’m warmed by the flames as I munch slices of cold pizza washed down with a fine red wine — Montepulciano D’Abruzzi, followed by tea and cookies. As dusk descends into darkness, I feed the fire, and stars sparkle and constellations form. 

I’m in the bag by 9:00 PM, judging by the blackness of the night sky. In the middle of the night, I’m awakened by the bugling of sandhill cranes flying low over the marsh. Then I hear the peent of woodcocks doing their sky dance above the prairie. Sometime later, I fall back to sleep ...

Day Two

At dawn, a cardinal sings and a pileated woodpecker cackles in the deep woods. With heavy frost on the bag and the surrounding grasses, temperatures must be in the teens. I relight the fire and heat a mug of good, strong coffee, munch some pastries, and watch the rising sun through the remnant Big Woods. 

Though it’s still in the 20s, I decide to go for a morning ride, savoring the cycling solitude a bit more. I retrace my route of yesterday, the turf harder and faster now because of the cold. Once again, not another soul is encountered on the trail. A sweet stillness fills the air as the rising sun warms the temps for the day. 

Reluctantly, I return to the shelter to re-don my pack, now feeling much lighter, pausing one last time to bow in thanks to the Four Directions for a good overnighter. 

A quick ride back out on Middle Road to the car: some outdoor adventures are not measured in miles, but in intensity of experience. 

This was one of them.

Your favorite local bike shop? Michael’s Cycles, Chaska, Minnesota

Bike overnight tips and tricks? Even if you have a carbon frame bike, like my bike, that doesn't accept a standard rack, you can still bikepack using a backpack — provided it’s not too heavy or bulky.

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HOW ABOUT YOU? Inspire others by submitting your own bike overnight adventure!

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