by Alison Reiheld
My 9 year old, who we refer to as Son 2 on the internet, is a bikes lover. A year and a half ago, he got a superb little road bike, about as small as they come. For his birthday last year, we got him his own cycling kit, padded butt and back pockets and all. By Christmas, he had a second one. He loves riding with his dad (my spouse) who is on a local cycling team who loves Son 2 almost as much as we do. But since they cycle so much more and so much longer than I usually do, Son 2 and I don’t usually share this thing, and we have almost never shared it without my husband also being present. The only exception is biking the perimeter of Mackinac Island in the summers, and that is delightful but only about 7 miles around. I am pretty sure the farthest I had ever ridden with them was 12 miles. Most of my fitness is walking or hiking with a little running and some weight-lifting thrown in.
Every year, my husband stays home and takes care of the house and/or goes to take pictures on the summer airshow circuit while the boys and I and my mom and brother and his family all go up to the northern part of the mitten (near Traverse City, MI). Last year on our trip we noticed a lovely paved trail running alongside US-31 from Charlevoix up to Petoskey and parts beyond. I promised Son 2 we would bike it this summer. And lo and behold, we both remembered that promise. The trail turns out to be called the Little Traverse Wheelway, and offers a whole range of possible segments with parks and views of the lake and elevation variations.
So we went to a cool place called Right Tree Adventure Rental (non-trivial feature for this venue: Right Tree rental fees are actually donations to Right Tree which does physical activity and confidence-building for young women, and is staffed almost entirely by young women) in Elk Rapids, MI. We’ve rented kayaks from them in the past, but never bikes. No road bikes to be seen.
But ah, plenty of right-sized multi-geared hybrids and mountain bikes. Harder work than a good light roadbike, but better than a fixie every time and more pleasant on an un-kitted backside than a roadbike would have been.
So what happens when a 41 year old fat academic who likes to think of herself as fit but not really into cycling goes cycling on non-ideal equipment with a bike loving 9 year old who routinely bikes farther than she does? Awesomeness happens. A good time ensues.
Before we even reached the trail segment we chose as our starting place, we stopped at the World’s Largest Cherry Pie and saw the Charlevoix drawbridge go up to allow a whole passel of masted boats and large yachts to pass from the harbor to the lake.
Our starting point was a MDOT park just off of M-31 a bit outside of Charlevoix with parking, restrooms, picnic tables, and lake access as well as an old-fashioned water pump that brings up earth-cold delicious water for which we would be all too grateful in a few hours.
We hydrated up, had a few Pringles for good measure in anticipation of sweating our salt out, watched the waves wash up on the rocks, and headed out with brimmed caps responsibly worn under our bike helmets to keep the sweat out of our eyes and the sun from our pupils.
The first mile or two north from there is right alongside the lake, either just up on the shore or a few hundred feet in through trees and widlflowers. Sometimes I led, and sometimes son 2 took lead. Here he is way out front early on.
Then, the steady climb up towards the bluffs above the harbor in Petoskey begins with a gentle up and down that is cumulatively, well… up. The alert cyclist knows what this means for the ride back. All along the trail, butterflies and grasshoppers were out in force. On a fast downhill segment, I caught one bruisingly on my closed lips before it bounced off to the side; never suck wind with your mouth open through insect-filled air. I was a centimeter of open lips away from something much more surprising.
The segments with trail right next to the water had the sussuration of waves loud enough to drown out traffic on nearby M-31, and on a bright blue day like we had, there was plenty to see and hear and smell along the whole course of our chosen segment: the sun-hot fields of clover and wildflowers smelled delicious, dogs and people were wading and splashing in the water, the temperature changed as we rode sun-dappled trails from shadow into sun into shadow, back into sun again.
Periodically, benches could be found alongside the path. A dentist’s office had a cooler next to the trail with a sign that said “Water! Help yourself and enjoy the ride!” It was laminated for repeated use.
Not too far from our turnaround point, the trail passed an architecturally unhorrible strip mall which held a Coney Dogs shop so we stopped for a hot dog for Son 2 and veggie-loaded mac and cheese for me. It was a perfect interlude. There were more flush toilets available at parks and gas stations along the way than we needed (lack of publically accessible toilets is a perpetual problem for distance cyclists, as I understand it). We turned around at East Park in Petoskey, at mile 9-and-a-bit.
If we had kept going, we’d have been able to check out Petoskey and its even more spectacular even bluffier overlooks. Here we are ready to head back and do it all again.
Just to our left in the image, there was a trailside fresh sweet cherry stand staffed by a young teen where we could have bought sugary deliciousness and had a pit-spitting contest if we’d wanted to, had we not just eaten.
With the bay near Petoskey in the background and East Park below, we took a sweaty selfie and headed back. Being up on the bluff at our turnaround point meant that the 9+ miles back to our car at the lakeside MDOT park where we’d started would be overall downhill. I did not cry salty tears at the prospect. More than one “whee!” was uttered by us both at various points on the ride out and back, and I confess to having fully abused the privilege of a long echo-y tunnel at one point, yelling “echoooooo!” multiple times with a startling and persistent lack of originality. We saw two monarchs spiraling up tens of feet into the air in a magnificent helix, and smelled hot pine more than once.
One of the best things about having an older elementary, middle, or high school kid in your life is that they may have hobbies you think aren’t for you. Or aren’t as much for you. And yet you try those activities anyway. And lo, they are good and provide experiences you wouldn’t otherwise have had. Not only do I do physical things I might not otherwise do, we see museums I might not otherwise choose and play games I might not otherwise play (I wouldn’t say I am good at Pokemon and Magic: The Gathering, but I am better than I have been since I played MTG in college).
If you are ever up in the TC/Charlevoix/Petoskey/Mackinac area, I highly recommend the Little Traverse Wheelway for a family ride because it can be divided into workable segments almost irrespective of fitness level. See the map at the top of this post for how this could be done. For the most fit, the total length can be as long as 23 miles, for a 46 mile roundtrip with lots of up and down from lake level to bluffs and back again, through forests and suburbs and boardwalk over swamp and charming town and the Victorian section of Petoskey as well as the sort of lakeside and bluff views we loved best. There are loads of other trails up in these parts, as well.
We pushed ourselves, both of us, at a total of nearly 19 miles (about 30k) on hybrids with unaccustomed gearing.
And we both agreed that it was lovely. The mark of a good bike ride is, I expect, that one is tired but still having fun. Son 2 agrees this is definitely what happened. And he agrees that the cold well water was “delicious.” He put as much on his face as he did in his water bottle.
When things are beautiful and the company is relentlessly enthusiastic , I can work a lot harder than I usually do and still have a darn good time.
And so can my kid.
I commend it to you.