Awaken the bear within
BY KIERSTIN KLOECKNER
It’s 6 am on a cold, drizzly October morning. I’m in the passenger seat of a bike-loaded van headed north towards Laona, Wisconsin. I don’t know where I am since I’ve never driven or ridden through this part of the state. Little towns pass by with convenience stores, bars, churches and signs for live bait or ammunition, as do signs pointing towards national forest campsites. I don’t really feel up for mounting my steed and riding miles of forest service roads, but I know I’ll be happy once I’m out there and warmed up. And then, just before dawn, I see it … I am surrounded by glowing trees and glistening lakes. It’s still almost an hour until the official sunrise, but the trees are so ablaze with color, I can tell this will be a magical ride. Hibernator 100, here I come!
Besides the simple pleasure of riding my bike, gravel events give me two other great pleasures: I get to explore areas of the Midwest I’ve never been before (even if they are held a mere few miles from where I’ve been, there is a sense of adventure) and I get to meet new people who have also fallen in love with what the events bring.
The Hibernator 100 and Bear 100 are no exception. Although my name was on the Bear roster a few years back, I pulled due to a steady cold rain and a mental state that wasn’t tough enough to handle that many miles of hypothermic conditions. The Hibernator, however, was meant to be this year. Although I only did the 63-mile route (with 10 more miles added for kicks and giggles) due to a last-minute bike swap, I fell head over heels to be riding in this part of the Northwoods. Seventy-three others joined me that day, while 170 joined in on the fun during the Bear this past spring.
Six years prior to the day, I experienced my first north of Highway 8 gravel riding experience. Being from Minneapolis, I had visited the Bayfield and Cable area and had done a lot of hiking and paddling in the BWCA but never really knew what “north of 8” meant to Wisconsinites. Dan Woll, an unbelievable adventurer, writer and contributor to Silent Sports, wrote an entire book about his exploits above this highway. Be it imaginary or real, something changes at this point, and Laona is smack-dab in the middle of Highway 8 as if to say “Welcome to the Northwoods!”
The scenery there is not the only thing that changes from the cities or towns south. The people also change. From my experience, in the “north,” folks tend to be a bit tougher, self-reliant and they almost always come running to their neighbors in need. Because of the lack of population, municipality funds are tight and fire/police departments are few and far between. Rescue squads need to be creative in how they get funding for vehicles and equipment. Enter in Butch Piontek, Brent Schmaling and Annie Krawze. These three are the people behind the Bear and Hibernator and have now raised, just this year, $10,000 for the Laona rescue squad to help pay for a Lifepak 15 Monitor/Defibrillator. In previous years, they purchased reflective jackets for the entire squad. Those in big cities may not know how important this is since all paramedic rigs have defibrillators in urban environments, but let me tell you, if you are having a heart attack or are struck by lightning, having one of these units come to you can easily determine if you live or die during transport to the closest hospital. On top of these events providing the community with rescue equipment, they also give much-needed business to locally owned establishments during the slow shoulder seasons. Jars Bar even opened hours earlier for us to warm up pre-ride and fuel us post ride!
I had to ride the Hibernator on a loaner rig. Weeks prior to the event, I was warned by several friends not to use my cross bike which can only fit 33mm tires. I was warned about the loose soil and rocky terrain. I was told I could manage if it rained the day prior because the roads would be packed down but I still wouldn’t have much fun. So instead of risking it, I used a friend’s mountain bike with 2.1-inch tires. Let me remind you: I don’t like mountain biking, nor do I like the feel of mountain bikes. I am still a roadie at heart and always prefer being able to ride the hoods and scoot back in the saddle to use more hip/glute power versus thigh power. My body actually forgets what to do on a mountain bike ride over 5 miles, and attempting to ride one a size too big with no adjustments other than the seat height, was a big risk … but a risk I was willing to take. I just knew I’d have to dial down my expectations of speed and mileage. I was going to be riding up north on beautiful roads, across rivers and creeks, among the grouse and bear (yes, there is a lot of bear in the area … hence the names of both events) and it was going to be glorious.
And glorious it was. I had forgotten what it was like to ride a 30-mile stretch of road with not a sign of civilization in sight other than the road itself and a few ATVs. I didn’t realize how much I missed the solitude. You know that feeling when you feel utterly exhausted at the end of an event but the moment it’s completed, and you rehydrate and refuel, you suddenly don’t want the event to be over? Well, that was the feeling I had as I walked into Jars Bar in Laona.
I think what I told Butch was, “I’m going to eat a little, drink a lot and head back out in reverse to try and meet up with the lead 100-mile riders.” And that I did. I may have only gotten another 8-10 miles in post-event, but I got to ride them at a very leisurely pace and soak in every last bit of the foliage. Now I can’t wait for the Bear 100 come next May, which uses a slightly different route and actually has a convenience store stop. Hopefully, I’ll be on a new steed built specifically for me by that time and I’ll get to do the entire ride. Either way, I’m not only excited for the experience but also happy to support such a great cause.
For those of you who want to sign up for either event, there are both Facebook pages and a website (thebear100.com). There you can get all the details, including the routes if you are so inclined to do them on a different day. A word of warning, however: If you embark on either, I’d suggest taking 40mm tires or larger for comfort, a detailed map … do not rely solely on a GPS unless you want to get lost (I like the Gazetteer maps since they show terrain), a chain tool and extra link, several spare tubes, plenty of food and water (since towns are few and far between) and know you most likely will not get cell coverage. Remember, this is ATV and hunting territory. Ride to the right as much as possible and wear clothing that can be seen … especially during hunting season. Treat your ride as a wilderness adventure and take all the same precautions. Most importantly, enjoy this little piece of Heaven we have just out our backdoors and spread the word to others interested in silent sports!