In the September 2017 issue of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine we follow three friends on an epic bike adventure through Drummond Island’s backcountry. Here’s their story.
I met Tyler Keuning as the ink was still drying on his driver’s license. As soon as he could, he started road-tripping from his home base in Grand Rapids to bike anywhere and everywhere. I rode with Tyler a lot. Around the time we began riding together there was a group racing 150 miles through the night on bikes, on a secluded island in the Great Lakes. This race was tough! We had no idea, and I can’t say we would have cared if we had known, but of all the people I know who bike, I know Tyler sure would care now.
Tyler is now hooked on mountain bike endurance racing. He commonly seeks out 100+ mile races. For him, the only thing better than a 100-mile race, is a 100-mile race in the desert! The more challenging the conditions, the better. He isn’t really interested in any ride unless it is an adventure. This is where our paths crossed again. I have been working on developing my love for type-two fun, mostly off a bike these days—kayaking, climbing … Tyler knew how he could get me back in the saddle again.
A simple call in March is all it took. Tyler suggested an end-of-winter bike- packing trip on fat bikes. As soon as he offered up his spare fat bike, all I had to say was “yes!” We set off into the woods with huge flakes falling and headlamps lighting our way. The bikes were laden with camping gear, the snow was heavy and wet, the temps just warm enough to make winter camping miserable. We emerged from the woods with smiles. Here we go—I’ve found a new hobby.
All photos by Erk Olsen
In the early spring I began to dream up the perfect Michigan bikepacking adventure. I had no specific location in mind, but scribbled down some criteria:
Must be scenic. Must be near a big lake. Must be a foolish epic.
I started to pour over maps looking for state and federal forestland, some place that would allow biking and camping. Slowly I applied the matrix. Drummond Island stood out like a sore thumb—lots of public woods and trails, few people. But all I had heard about Drummond is that it is a lifted-truck playground; a Jeepers off-road paradise. Maybe there wouldn’t be a biking option.
To settle the debate; I asked Google. Drummond Island Mountain Biking. Endless links led to mountain bike forums scattered around the internet. I noticed common phrases: “most beautiful,” “out there,” “untouched wilderness.” I was shocked. The commenters did accompany those lofty reviews with “brutal,” “scary,” “ouch,” “bears!”
I thought, This is perfect! However it was hard to ignore that the vast web was silent on the topic after 2008. How is it that the omniscient internet has nothing to share about the pleasures and pitfalls of biking Drummond Island in more recent days? Was it possible that this group of biking diehards met their demise? Death by beauty or brutal terrain? Bears?!
One thing was for sure, this trip sounded miserable and so very worth it. I snatched my phone and made the call. My delivery was not tactical: “Surely this will be awful,” I explained. The inquisitive sound in Tyler’s voice assured me that he didn’t even bat an eye. I was sure I could hear the rustling of bike bags getting packed while I was still on the phone explaining my idea.
Pat Hornacek is dipping his toe into the world of adventures by bike. An expert racer, Pat is freaky fast on a two-wheeler. Eager to test himself in an endurance setting, Pat felt the Drummond Island journey would be a great warm up for a century trip he had planned for the following weekend. Just like that we had a trio of explorers.
De Tour Village is the takeoff point for taking the ferry to Drummond. A small U.P. village with proper breakfast possibilities: diners offering massive servings at a comfortable price—perfect to fuel hungry bikers. We discuss whether bacon is in fact a super fuel for bike racers.
Soon we are at the ferry terminal flooded in morning sunshine. Just a stone’s throw across a narrow passage lies Drummond Island.
We board, and after my country breakfast food-coma, I can barely muster the energy to stand at the ferry guardrail and stare out at the island. I look for any sign of bikes or monster trucks but see nothing. We shared the ferry with work trucks and local residents. Our team’s conversation began to evolve from race stats and the attrition rate of the worst endurance events to anticipation and planning for the Drummond Island ride.
After the ferry deposited us on the island, we ventured east on the only road going our way. We stopped at the four-corners gas station for a trail map and of course more food. Suddenly, a roaming group of dudes pulled up to the pumps on tricked out off-road mopeds. The rigs looked cartoonish, with lifted suspensions and big knobby tires. If this group were on Harleys they might have looked tough. Good character: this place has it.
Soon we were at our start point—repacking bags and making adjustments before venturing into the woods. Every time I would glance toward the once-seemingly benign trail, it would appear darker, more ominous. Maybe it was just the sunshine quickly being stolen by the fast-moving clouds. Fully packed and with a quick check of the maps, we started our Strava apps and pedaled off.
The variation in both terrain and trail type on Drummond makes it wildly appealing to many. You could step off the ferry and avoid singletrack entirely, instead riding the rolling asphalt that crisscrosses the island. What the pavement lacks in elevation, it more than makes up for in solitude. But if it’s trails that you seek, a short drive will take you to a multitude of trailheads to get you out into the dirt and grime. Off the pavement, the paths have been shaped by varying sizes of motorized offroad vehicles. The trails range from gravel-grinder style roads down to gnarled and twisted ORV trails made for dirt bikes and quads and offering up plenty of roots and slippery, head-sized rocks.
Connecting the larger gravel and dirt roads are trails that will take you through the island outback for miles. These are the trails that lead to the best sites and overlooks on the island.
We started a long loop that took us toward the southeast corner of the island on a rolling two-track through dense hardwoods. We pedaled up steep hills. Rolled down into valleys. Eventually we reached lowlands and dense marshes. Slick clay and mud puddles defined our ride. We made blood donations as, occasionally, our bikes slipped out from under us and we fell to the ground.
Eventually we popped out on the exposed southern shoreline and traced it east for a bit. The view was astonishing and made for wonderful riding until we darted back into the woods to head north. We linked up on some less-used two- tracks and again were walking bikes around mud puddles. We aimed for higher land and were rewarded by an open field narrowing into birches on the brink of fall color.
The gravel was magical and made for swift travel. Things were going so well, naturally the skies opened on us. Rain like I had never experienced fell in buckets. We navigated on to a narrow ORV trail with enough tree canopy to offer some protection. I felt like a crazed child splashing in small puddles and cannonballing down the narrow passage. We covered a lot of ground fast, and soon the rain began to abate. We dropped out of the woods, found our intended camping spot, hung wet gear and cooked pasta as the sun began to set. Warmed by equal parts whiskey and campfire, we laughed about the trials of the day.
We all slept well that night and arose to a perfect bluebird day. After gawking at the sight of our mud-caked steeds we saddled up again. With the sun shining and the warm breeze coming off the water, the riding seemed easy. Today we held our heads higher and felt more accomplished. All the iconic sites and vistas seemed radiant under the blue sky and sunshine. With smiles on we rode wheelies on our way back to the trailhead. Throughout the entire trip we never ran into a single ravenous bear, we were not run down by monster trucks, and the toughest challenges seemed to be relatively self-inflicted. On the ferry ride back we felt like we knew a bit more about this island. All of us agreed we couldn’t wait to come back, but first, more breakfast.
Biking Drummond Island: Plan Your Adventure
No matter your traveling ethos, there is an adventure and style awaiting you on Drummond Island. Sleep in tents and carry your life on your bike for days, or get comfy in a lodge and take day trips. The sights you see might be similar, but the experiences can be quite different, and this makes Drummond a special place. Here is a little direction for planning your own adventure.
Sleep on the Ground
Drummond Island has swaths of state land primed for dispersed camping. Fully immerse yourself in island life, eat when you’re hungry, cover some ground and pick your prime spot of state land to sleep on when you’re tired. Fill out your camp card and read up on the state land rules to enjoy your own private campsite.
If you love the idea of a campground, check out the Drummond Island Township Park—a great place to catch a sunset, a sand beach for swimming. Tent camping to RV’s with electric. 800.737.8666.
Sleep in a Bed
If sleeping on a super light mattress pad on a tent floor isn’t quite for you, don’t fret. Consider these more comfortable options.
Choose from the rustic main lodge at Drummond Island Resort or one of their dapper cabins, $119/night in the lodge; seasonal pricing on cabins.
If you really want to travel in style. Arrive by your own boat and stay at Yacht Haven Cottages. A cottage option right on the water with your own slip. From $110/night.
Coffee, Beer, Etc.
Pre-ride energy shot? Stop in to the Espresso Bean Cafe at Gourmet Galley.
For some post-ride après, Chuck’s Bar has you covered. Refreshing beverages in a comfortable environment. 906.493.5480.
Trails to Try
If bikepacking isn’t quite your cup of tea, Drummond Island is still a great place to explore on two wheels. Many types of roads and dirt trails lace across the isle. Link together coastal trails with wooded loops and vast overlooks. Many roads are hard-packed gravel and very friendly. Hop on any gravel bike and head out for your own custom day trip. If pavement is more your style, you may miss out on some of the overlooks and the miles of trails, but you will gain a remote riding experience on some lower trafficked blacktop that will form some wonderful lasting memories.