Day 9: Mitchell, SD to Spirit Lake, IA. Not a long drive, but the rain that has chased us all week comes and goes. We stop in Sioux Falls for fuel, our fifth fill-up since leaving home and our most expensive category so far. We decide to head south, taking Highway 18 this time: we’ve been across Iowa Highway 9 before. The rain catches us at when the route jogs north or south. We’ve traveled this area before, headed for the Starbucks kiosk in the Hy-Vee supermarket in Spencer, and restocking the groceries for our stay a short way north, on the west shore of Lake Okoboji, the gem of the Iowa Great Lakes.
I grew up just over the state line, in Minnesota. As a teenager, my buddy and I would drive down to Arnolds Park, an amusement park and namesake town on the south shore of Lake Okoboji, just to watch how people with money spent theirs. Of course, we did have to explain to our parents why we were two hours late coming home from Boy Scouts. I don’t think I spent a dime at Iowa’s playground then, and haven’t since we have passed through several times in this decade, including three years ago when we stopped by on a late Sunday afternoon with our 15-year-old grandson. He declared the wooden roller coaster a death trap. But, it’s been a popular tradition for generations of Iowans, since 1927.
Day 11: The rains came again, with a vengeance. Flooding is a big problem in the midwest. Although we think the bumps are hills, the region is relatively flat, the ground is saturated from the winter snowmelt, and the rains run off into the shallow river valleys, where the rivers spread out and up to make things miserable for residents and travelers.
Our resort only offers complimentary WiFi in the lobby, so we have made our daily pilgrimage to the main building to connect the computers to the Internet. We have our phones, but two weeks on the road have depleted our data plan for the month already. We have resigned ourselves to bumping up our plan, but still have three weeks before it rolls over, so prudence is still required.
Day 11: It is still cold in the Midwest, but the rain has subsided for now, so this is our big ride day. Two years ago, we camped in our van near the lake and rode our bicycle around, counter-clockwise on the Iowa Great Lakes Trail, missing a few kilometers due to a blown tire and a Good Samaritans’ lift to the bike shop in the town of Okoboji. We set off around the lake, clockwise this time, After it warmed up a bit, we headed north on the paved concrete bike trail, clockwise around the lake this time. The trail switches to the west side of IA-86, diving under through a tunnel which is, thankfully, dry. A few miles later, past farms and a golf course, it dives back under the highway to end in a residential area of RV parks and beach cottages. The route follows the roads around the north end of the lake, resuming as an off-road trail through the prairie and a nature preserve before crossing US 71 at a traffic light. So far, the trail has been rolling, but soon turns south onto a rail-trail that takes us into the town of Okoboji, swinging out to follow US 71 through town. The route signs take us through a beach condo parking lot and across the bridge between the east and west arms of the lake to the town of Arnolds Park. The trail turns left at the town cemetery to wind around Minnewashta Lake, crossing a bridge between Minnewashta and Lower Gar Lake. The trail soon dumps us back on a road, headed west. We climb a long hill, past—as we later discover—my cousin Jack’s house, cross US 71, and wind around the south end of Lake Okoboji through the West Okoboji beachfront, then out to follow Highway 86 north past where our 2017 ride ended in a tire blowout, then through the hills, prairie, farms, and fens on the west side of the lake. No issues this time. We get in the full 33.4 km circumnavigation of the lake. It seemed a bit more hilly this early in the season, but we managed to make it up all the bumps on our wheels.
Day 12: Rain, lots of it, and door-hinge-busting wind. Our plan of the day takes us to Rabab’s for lunch, a newly renamed (formerly Chick’s) bistro on US-71 on a spur of the bike trail just north of where we crossed yesterday. It’s a few weeks ahead of the tourist season in the Iowa Great Lakes, so many businesses aren’t open at all, and those that cater to the locals off-season are only open two or three days a week. The place is crowded, as the outside patio seating is rocking back and forth in the gusty deluge. Unlike the usual midwest fare that gives you a choice of one or all three main locally-grown food animals, liberally seasoned with bacon, the menu serves up big-city hipster dishes like avocado toast and “southwest” salads, topped with egg, of course. Someone has to eat all these farm products…
After lunch, we visit the nearby nature center, which we had ridden past the previous day. By some fortune, our visit is between hands-on sessions for toddlers and pre-schoolers, so we wade through the piles of confetti and wend our way around tiny tables covered with plates of prairie humus (aka plain old dirt) and wildflower seeds to look at the tanks of turtles, cases of small-animal skeletons, and lifelike examples of local fauna preserved with the taxidermist’s art. Hands-on children’s exhibits are fun for adults, too, as we stroke pelts of badger, fox, coyote, and other beasts we only see in fleeting moments on the bike trails.
Day 13: Another blustery day. Thanks to social media, we are informed that my cousin Jack Parkins—who I thought was in Arizona, having lost track of him 20 years ago—was living nearby, In fact, as noted, we had ridden past his Iowa house on Tuesday, where he and Sue spend summers, when not at their Arizona residence. We meet them for lunch and a pleasant afternoon catching up on a lifetime. Jack, who is six years older, had taught at Mankato State College in Minnesota before becoming a snowbird and settling in a retirement home in the summer playground we all grew up in. As elderly folks do, we compared health and medications, finding—being close relatives—we have a lot in common. Reluctantly, we cut our visit all too short, as we had a dinner date across the border in Minnesota, with 98-year-old Aunt Jo, my mother’s sister-in-law, and cousin Cathy and her husband Bill. We hadn’t expected to see Bill this trip, but his planned activity of the day, relocating game bird stocks, was cancelled because of the bird-walking weather. Apparently, the wild game I remember as being so abundant in my youth now are reared in pens like fish and the fields stocked to satisfy the demands of 21st-century hunters and fishermen.
Pizza, BBQ, and “Coney” (hot dog slathered in BBQ) night at the veterans club, with the usual choice of Chicken, Pork, Beef, or all three, the quintessential Minnesota comfort food, presented its usual dilemma for the strict vegetarian, so dinner for me was a heavily salted soft pretzel dipped in chipotle seasoned liquid nacho cheese, which made a reasonable substitute for the yellow mustard I remember from my years in New Jersey, back in the 1970s. But, we had a good visit. It’s Aunt Jo’s weekly night out, and we had a good visit, holding our own against the boisterous crowd of younger folks (Jackson High School Class of ’65, still wild at 72) behind us, and the bar did have a few bottles of Guinness to satisfy us aged western hipsters who don’t drink “beer you can see through.” But, it was great seeing everyone this trip.
Day 14 dawned cold, but clear. After it warmed up a bit, we suited up and headed for a trailhead, Kiwanis Park in Spirit Lake, and headed north on the Iowa Great Lakes Trail, a rolling and sometimes winding trail that is partly on the road around the west side of Spirit Lake (the body of water). Across from Minnewakan State Park at the north end of the lake, we cross into Minnesota on the Jackson County Trail, which follows the roads and then meanders along the creek between Loon Lake and Spirit Lake. We stop at Loon Lake for a snack and to enjoy Loon and Pearl Lakes at Brown County Park. When I was in Boy Scouts, 60-65 years ago, our troop spent at least a week each summer on the east shore of Loon Lake, where a farmer had graciously let use his lakefront.After our snack stop, Judy’s saddle fell off the bike, 16 km from the car. Fortunately, all the parts were intact; one of the seat rail clamp screws had loosened and fell out while we were stopped on the paved trail. Out came the tool kit and the repair was quick and successful. The trip back was much more enjoyable than pushing a broken bike would have been. We chatted briefly with another grandfatherly cyclist we met at the top of the steepest hill while stopped for a scenery view.
Back at the condo, we started packing for the next stage of our road trip, destination Orillia, Ontario, beginning our third week on the road.
To be continued…