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Sand Barrens Credit Card Fat Bike Tour

Joshua Stamper of the Gravel Conspiracy just sent us this great write-up of a spontaneous fat bike camping adventure he took out in the Sand Barrens. We hope you enjoy it as much as we did!

by Joshua Stamper

This trip really arose out of my desire to explore things that are close to me, that resemble an adventure in the wilderness. Because, let's be honest, you have too much going on in your life to take a month off and go jaunting off to places like Alaska. The trip was also facilitated by two good friends that were willing to lend my wife Alison and I the use of their fat bikes when they were out of town for the holidays. My mom also made a surprise Christmas visit from China, so we had the childcare lined up.

I told you that story to tell you this: sometimes adventures just happen. The stars line up, and you get to break out of the daily grind and go have an experience that you will always carry with you.
Go forth. Ride bikes. Be awesome.

The Sand Barrens are a loosely termed “bulge” in western Wisconsin that separates St. Croix Falls from Grantsburg. It is composed of several state and local natural resource features, but is also generally known as Governor Knowles State Forest. Frank Lundeen of Cyclova XC introduced me to this area several years ago during the inaugural Mammoth Gravel Classic.

The Barrens are composed of horse and snowmobile trails, sand roads and sections of double track that rarely see people. I love this area.

When my mom announced that she was coming to stay with us for a few days, my mind started whirling about the chances to go on a quick credit card tour with my bonny lass, sans progeny. About a hour on google maps and past .gpx files yielded a plan. Park at one of the river access points just south of Wolf Creek, WI. Ride from the there up to Grantsburg to stay the night, and then ride back the following day.

One off pogies.
Google confirmed my suspicions that there were not many lodging options in Grantsburg. We settled on the Wood River Motel due to its proximity to our route. It is also sandwiched between a tavern, a coffee shop, and a gas station. With the knowledge that we would have Busch Light, gas station hotdogs, and an Americano readily at hand, I called in reservations.

A note on the Wood River Motel: The rate to stay is about 60 bucks a night, and while the place was clean and warm, it is still an old roadside hotel. Don’t expect a soft, cushy mattresses if you stay in the low end rooms. Its better than sleeping on a thermarest, but not as nice as your bed at home. The WIFI signal is pretty weak if you stay in the outer rooms, so ask for accommodations near the lobby if you need internet connectivity.

Since we were going fast and light, I told Alison to pack a change of long underwear, socks, mittens and a down jacket  in her small back pack, in addition to her normal winter riding clothes. I carried a similar kit, but also took a small stove to boil water and reconstitute some freeze dried food, instant mashed potatoes, or oatmeal. I also carried some Starbucks Via and airplane bottles of Makers Mark (cuz ya never know!).

Me not having Cell service.
I packed all of our shared heavy gear in a Relevate Designs Visacha saddle bag, and carried my clean, dry clothes plus a first aid kit in my Wingnut Enduro.  We each carried about a liter of water in a bottle parka, plus carried a small thermos that fit in a bottle cage.

Another thing that I carried in my pack (that should be in everyone's winter kit) was a reflective windshield shade. It weighs nothing, only costs a few bucks and gives you a warm, dry place to sit down in the snow. Couple that with a mylar space blanket, and you practically have shelter in an emergency.

We also both use pogies on all our winter bikes. I have some circulation issues arising from a finger amputation and subsequent cases of mild frost bite, and I can say that pogies are infinitely warmer than any glove. I usually toss my phone or GPS down inside the pogie with a chemical hand warmer if its really cold out.  I really like Bar Mitts, but there are some more luxurious (read:expensive) options out there. I usually just wear some light wool liner gloves inside the pogies.

The sick pogies that Alison was rocking were homemade by one of her friends.

So we loaded the bikes in the van, and after a stop at Cyclova XC to get Cliff Bars and  talk to Chad and Kristen, we rolled along River road until we found the boat launch just down river from Wolf Creek.

Here is the north bound route and here is the route that we took back south. Not a lot of deviation but it lets you see some of the wilder parts of the area.

It was not surprising, but there was more snow around St. Croix Falls than there was in the cities. Our ride up was pretty challenging as we were bucking a north wind. We chose to skirt the edge of the open areas, saving the sweeping vista for when we had a tailwind. I did not create GPS track for our route prior to riding. Instead I “dropped a pin” in google maps on my phone for the Wood River Motel, and then zoomed out to save this section of map for off-line viewing. This enable you to use your phone GPS in google maps without having any phone service. I ran my android phone in airplane mode the whole trip. Which brings me to my next point. You are not  going to have cell service. Providers like Verizon may have coverage once you get close to Grantsburg, but Sprint had nothing for me. Be Advised.

Fire lane Rambling
Once we got to the dogleg on Skog Rd, we veered onto a overgrown double track that Alison thought quite dubious, but it dumped us out right behind the Wood River Motel a mile later. We checked in, and started hanging up some gear to dry. Our next prerogative was victuals. Since were were right next to a tavern and it was Friday night, we would have been remiss to pursue more haute cuisine. Fried Cheese curds and Lienies got us started, and then we both got the fried walleye supper washed down with a recent vintage of Spotted Cow. 

Sated, we waddled back to the motel for some shut eye.

By the next morning, we had gotten another 3 inches of snow, but we also had a stiff wind at our backs, so I was not too worried about our prospects for the day. I walked up the hill to the gas Station to get some road food, but also found that they had pretty decent breakfast stuff. Fruit, greek yogurt, Biscuits, in addition to the oatmeal that I always carry in my pack, made for some fine breakfast table fare. I stopped at the coffee shop next door and got some hot drinks to go.

After eating, we packed up our gear and headed south. It was surprising to me that we almost never had to break trail, even on the fire roads. We followed the same truck tracks for miles, and even saw a lone snowmobiler.  

By the time we had got back toward the Trade River, stomachs were growling. We had hamburgers and fries at the Wolf Creek Tavern before rolling the last mile back to where we had left our car by the St. Croix. At less than 50 miles roundtrip, this route is really manageable by most fit people, and makes for a fun little stay-cation within an hour of the twin cities.

About the Author:

Joshua and Alison Stamper co-manage a wild pack of man-children, and usually take turns going on adventures by bicycle, boat and afoot. Alison is an Appalachian Trail Thru-Hiker, and works part time as a Massage Therapist. Joshua is an assistant extension professor at the University of Minnesota, and is the founder of The Gravel Conspiracy.

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