For the Birds Radio Program: Katie's Bike Trip around Lake Superior

Original Air Date: Aug. 29, 2003

Laura’s daughter is in the middle of a great adventure, making Laura think of hummingbirds.

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Fourteen days ago, my 19-year-old daughter Katie and her two friends, Ashlie and Walter, left Duluth on their bikes to pedal around Lake Superior. Katie had calculated that the trip was 1036 miles, though I think it’s a bit more than that. They’d been training all summer, but not all that hard, and they’d tinkered with their bikes and learned how to change tires and do basic maintenance, and let their dads tinker with their bikes a bit more.

They packed very few things—I suspect the total weight of stuff the three brought was less than 60 pounds, and a couple of days into the trip they sent a few items home with a friend. Once they made it the 434 miles to Sault Ste. Marie, they found a bike shop and replaced their seats with gel seats, shipping the old seats home. They are spending more money than they’d planned for food—it was far easier to find cafés than to buy and lug groceries.

They’ve had some surprises—they hit a very scary storm north of the Sault, and the hills at the eastern end of the lake were steeper than they’d realized. Rashes, numb hands, sore knees—they were all surprised by just how physically taxing the trip was. But how could it be an adventure without surprises? They refused all offers of assistance from us even as they grew more tired—the joy in this challenge is in doing it on their own.

Yesterday, August 28, they crossed the border and rode into Grand Portage where, for only the second night of the whole trip, they decided to get a motel room. My daughter called to tell me where they were, but couldn’t talk long because they were headed to the pool.

I’ve been thinking about these inexperienced, sweet kids all the time. When it rains, I worry about lightning. When it’s hot, I worry about heatstroke. When it’s cool, I worry about hypothermia. I’ve been worried about traffic—all those logging trucks, and semis and end-of-the-summer and Labor Day Weekend cars. There are so many bad things that can happen to children, and a trip like this, carrying them over 500 miles away before they slowly come closer again, has a lot of genuine hazards.

It makes me appreciate parent birds, sending their babies off on their first migration. Baby hummingbirds will work their way down to Texas, but only a fraction will make it. There’s high mortality during migration for adult birds, and even higher for babies. Once they fatten up at the Texas coast, many of them strike out over the Gulf of Mexico, where they will have no place to rest or land or feed, even for a moment, until they’ve crossed at least 620 miles, during hurricane season. That’s the same distance as biking from Duluth to Sault Ste. Marie along the South Shore, and then going another couple of hundred miles. Of course, we humans are bigger, with heavier muscles and bones, than hummingbirds, so it takes a lot more work to move our bodies than it takes for them to move theirs. And there’s a lot less friction flying through air than pedaling a bike and trailer over rough road shoulders as a logging truck roars past. And hummingbirds may face dangers on their migration, but they face certain death if they don’t migrate. These kids migrated on a whim, but stuck with it like the most determined hummingbirds who have no choice but to forge on when they find themselves over the middle of the Gulf.

Now they’re on the last stretch of their journey, and as I think of them along Highway 61, I watch tiny little hummingbirds, one-tenth of an ounce, facing their own dangers. To love anything puts our hearts in danger. I hope people all along the way to Texas keep their feeders clean and filled so any hungry, lost stragglers will have a chance to rest and feed and charge their batteries to survive their journey. And if you find yourself driving on highway 61 this weekend, be careful out there And watch where you’re going.