My first view of Mille Lacs Lake is an impressive one indeed. The bright midmorning sun is laying a shimmer across the wind-blown surface, creating a near blinding electric caper of refracted light that, even in broad daylight, puts the Vegas strip to shame. Another half-mile of asphalt passes beneath the Victory Kingpin Deluxe and the light show disappears, giving way to an endless cobalt blanket stretching as far as the eye can see. In an instant, a minor tweak in the sun's angle completely changes Mother Nature's stage, one of countless transformations seen daily in the "Land of 10,000 Lakes."
Though darting emphatically across the lake's wispy whitecaps, the sun's bright beams have done little to coax the lethargic mercury into more rider-friendly numbers. I keep waiting for a rebound to yesterday's mid-70 temps, but it isn't close to happening this morning. Taking a break in a boat launch parking lot, I attract the attention of two fishermen who look like they're getting ready to pursue some walleye dinners. They can't help chuckling at my expense while preparing their boat. They're in shorts and tee shirts and bound for a day on the water while I'm straddling the parked Victory, hunched over the gas tank, with my gloved hands clumsily groping the still ticking V-twin in a manner entirely too suggestive of my first movie date. Back then I was copping a feel, now I'm just trying to get some feeling back in my fingers. Finally the heat radiating from the cooling fins does the trick and I'm back on the road, determined to tough it out and reach the tour's cradle in Grand Rapids, Minnesota, by noon. My thin-blooded, Southern, mid-September constitution doesn't begin to approach the Viking heartiness of my Minnesotan counterparts, and, thankfully, as I near Grand Rapids, the temperature nudges into the comfortable range. Somebody ought to give that sun a wakeup call tomorrow.
My digs for the next few nights are located easily. The Sawmill Inn is right on Route 169, the main north-south road into town. Despite my rolling in at noon, the housekeeping staff has my room ready, and the contents of the Kingpin's saddlebags are relocated to a proper dresser in quick order. A little voice inside my head tells me to flip on the TV to check the weather. Good thing, too, because the earlier forecast for a simply cloudy tomorrow has Dopplered into an all-day rain affair with temperatures in the 40s, which means the shorter southwestern loop I was saving for the last day is moved into the mission slot for this afternoon. It's shortly past noon, the climate is pleasant, and the day is beautiful. Map? Check. Camera? Check. Keys? Check. Let's go do a little Shamrock thing, Minnesota style!
Day 1: What's This I Hear About a Lake Or Two?
Hanging a left from the Sawmill Inn, I motor toward the center of town. The town's main waterway, the Mississippi River, gets its not so mighty start a couple hours west of Grand Rapids in the Itasca State Park. Beginning as an overflow of Lake Itasca, measuring about 20-feet wide and less than three-feet deep, this laughable stream doesn't look a thing like "Old Man River" and starts its journey to the Gulf of Mexico flowing at the meager rate of six cubic feet per second. Once in New Orleans, that flow has swollen to 600,000 cubic feet per second. Suffice it to say, you won't be seeing any riverboats in Grand Rapids.
A quick left on Route 2 west and town gives way to trees and grasslands. Heading south on Route 6, it dawns on me why the license plates proclaim Minnesota to be the "Land of 10,000 Lakes." Bodies of water are everywhere you look. Eons ago, this area was a veritable super-speedway for glacial activity. For millions of years scores of these massive ice-dozers moved back and forth, gouging the landscape in glacial advances and retreats. As the glaciers melted, some of the runoff bound for the Gulf of Mexico collected in the countless indentations left behind. What remains are the many ponds, marshes, and lakes seen today.
After winding through the small village of Boy River, I start thinking it's a good idea to keep one eye on the fuel gauge. Desolation can be a beautiful thing, and this part of Minnesota has plenty of it, but that doesn't fill a thirsty motorcycle. Turning south and then west, I'm drawn to pull over along the shores of Leech Lake and take in a portion of this 112,000-acre glacial souvenir.
In and around Walker, the outdoorsman's life seems to be the norm. The rustic, hunting lodge look of the buildings fits a sportsman's mindset, and a lot of the signs along the road feature some of his favorite prey: deer, birds, and bears. Once that realization hits home, the time of day takes on a whole new meaning. Any number of a hunter's trophies are often the bane of after-dark motorcycling and though the sun is still fairly high in the sky, the clock indicates it won't be that way for long. I put the heel to the Kingpin and off we go.
For a cruiser, the big Victory is remarkably agile, a trait happily enjoyed as the characteristic straights and sweeps tighten up substantially on Route 84 north. Despite the waning sun and falling temperatures, I can't suppress some wicked cackles as the Kingpin's floorboards touch down, performing their own little bit of glacial mimicry on the smooth Minnesota asphalt. I'm saying to myself that the noise and sparks scare the deer away - yeah, that's the ticket! Route 200 puts an end to the fireworks display and the rest of the chilly ride into Grand Rapids is uneventful.