Saturday, December 31, 2011

New year, new beginnings

Not really conducive to the tone of
my blog post, but I figured my readers
would enjoy a little Calvin & Hobbes.
Well Mankato, it's been fun.

After 3 1/2 years of biking on the Red Jacket Trail and doing training runs up Glenwood Avenue, my residency in the scenic Minnesota River town came to an end yesterday. I am now *mostly* moved in at my new apartment in Faribault and I'll be starting my new job as a page designer for the Faribault Daily News and Northfield News on Jan. 9.

I have mixed emotions about moving away from Kato. I'm obviously not thrilled about leaving the city's blossoming bike culture, as it was a big part of what got me interested in cycling in the first place. I'm also a little downtrodden about moving away from the downtown location I was previously located at. Loud noise from the bars notwithstanding, it was pretty nice to be within walking distance of work, the post office, the grocery store, the library and several decent restaurants.

On a larger scale, it's also a little unnerving to be moving away from a place I've become so accustomed to over the years. I know it's not a good idea to get overly complacent with a situation, particularly in a career as volatile as journalism. But it's hard to avoid when you find so many things to enjoy about a community, which was definitely the case with me in Mankato.

On the other hand, as George Harrison once said: "All things must pass." Despite being nervous about the unknown, I'm excited for the change that comes with a new town and a new job. I don't know much about Faribault aside from its association with the Sakatah Singing Hills Trail, but I'm looking forward to getting acquainted with the community and seeing what the town has to offer. I'm also anxious to continue my career in journalism and get back into a routine that includes work (sorry, but eight weeks of being unemployed is more than enough).

I suppose it's only fitting that the new job and new town would come about at this time of year. New Years has always been a time of new beginnings and resolutions to better yourself in the coming year.

It's too early to tell if I'll grow fond of Faribault like I did with Mankato, but my resolution for 2012 is to make the best of the situation and put forth my best effort at my new job.

Happy New Years everyone!

***Note: With my new location, the focus of my blog will shift from being Mankato-centric to being more oriented toward Faribault readership. However, due to the two towns relative proximity to one another, I will be sure to keep my readers updated if any big news happens out of Mankato in the health & fitness realm.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Mankato city planners looking for bike route input

Even the most pessimistic cycling advocate would have a hard time denying the progress Mankato has made as a bike-friendly community in recent years.

In addition to adding several in-town bike paths, city planners built the Minneopa trail last year and the Greater Mankato Convention & Visitors Bureau released a trail map earlier this year complete with suggested area bike loops.

Aside from that, the Greater Mankato Bike & Walk Advocates verified cycling interest in the area with the successful Mankato River Ramble this past October. The inaugural tour ride drew more than 1,500 participants and drew rave reviews from all participants.

The League of American Cyclists recognized Mankato's efforts this past spring by awarding them with honorable mention status as a bike-friendly community. A prestigious honor no doubt, but Mankato city planners and bike advocates are looking for more next year.

"That really helped us assess where we're at as a bike-friendly community," Greater Mankato Bike & Walk Advocate founder Tom Engstrom said. "They told us what we need to improve on, and the city is taking steps to do that."

A big part of that step has been the city planners providing a large poster board map of Mankato for cyclists to draw out their regular bike routes with markers. According to Engstrom, the objective of the map is for city planners to get an idea of where cyclists regularly ride in Mankato. From there, the city will use the input to determine whether it's appropriate to label bike lanes on those routes.

Greater Mankato Multisport Club founder Chris Crocker said that local bike advocates are also looking into posting signs throughout the city directing cyclists to the various trail systems in town.

"We're hoping to go to the city with ideas of how to have better signage in Mankato and North Mankao," Crocker said. "The trail system infrastructure has already been built. But since the trails aren't all connected, there's no signage to help you find anything if you're not familiar with the area."

The poster board map had previously been available to cyclists at Flying Penguin Outdoor Sports and will be on hand at the Bike and Walk Street Film Festival, which will take place from 1-4 p.m. on January 14 at the Blue Earth County Library.

The festival, hosted by the Greater Mankato Bike & Walk Advocates, is open to the public and will feature about an hours worth of short videos on other bike-friendly communities. Engstrom hopes the viewing will help spark a brainstorming session from those in attendance.

"It'll be cool to watch them as a group," Engstrom said of the videos. "It'll help us learn how things work elsewhere and it might give us some ideas of things we can do here."

After the videos, an open forum will be held where those in attendance can make suggestions on how Mankato can make itself a better community for non-motorized commuters. Area cyclists will also have a chance to mark down some last-minute routes on the map, as Engstrom plans to present the map and the results of the forum to city officials shortly after the festival.

Immediately following the festival, Engstrom and other cyclists plan on going on a short bike ride through town that will likely end at Pub 500 for drinks and social hour.

Both Engstrom and Crocker expect a good turnout for the event and also expect the community's input to have a major impact on city planning in the near future.

"You have to give the city a lot of credit," Crocker said. "People want the community to be more friendly to bikers and pedestrians and the officials are listening."

For more information, contact Tom Engstrom at

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

It's beginning to look a lot like...mid October?

Like most Minnesotans, I enjoy seeing a little snow around the holiday season.

Snow has always been a symbol of transition for me; the point where fall definitively ends and winter definitively begins. It's the time of year when road bikes and light parkas get traded in for sleds and snowshoes. Besides, poor road conditions be damned, it's nice to look gaze upon some snowy scenery while listening to Bing Crosby's "White Christmas."

But that transition hasn't been nearly as definite this year. Despite a sizable snowstorm earlier this month, the landscape is most predominantly brown with Christmas less than two weeks away. Temperatures are projected to hover around the mid-30's for the rest of the week and the only precipitation in the forecast is (gasp!) rain. The calendar may read "December 13," but as far as weather conditions go, it may as well read "October 13."

The holiday purist in me is aggravated by this decidedly wimpy winter weather. Brown Christmases are meant for palm tree lovers in Florida, not Minnesotans who grew up on snow and hockey.

However, the exercise fanatic in me couldn't be happier with the weather. Instead of workouts taking place exclusively within the confines of a gym, I'm still able to hop on my bike or go for a run if I please. Instead of having to bundle up like this just to go outside, a light jacket or a sweatshirt are still proving to be sufficient. Aside from exercise, it's also nice being able to drive on the road without having to worry the snow and ice that are synonymous with holiday season car accidents.

I can't say that I want the weather to stay like this all winter. But considering how many months there are until spring, I'm ok with this for the time being.

Just for fun, here's a Calvin and Hobbes comic to encapsulate the mood of snow-loving Minnesotans:

Monday, November 21, 2011

Mankato duathlon in the works

Give Final Stretch's Mark Bongers some credit: The ever-busy race organizer has certainly made his mark on the Mankato area.

Last year, Bongers and Final Stretch introduced the Mankato Marathon to south central Minnesota. Despite being a first-time race, the marathon drew more than 2,000 participants and the admiration of many (myself included) for being a well-ran, first-class event. This past spring, Bongers also brought a trail run to the area, with the inaugural 7 @ 7 race bringing in a respectable 200 competitors.

Next year, Bongers will look to add to that list with the Mankato Duathlon. And if last week's forum at Nicollet South Bike Shop is any indication, it will be every bit as well organized as the other races Final Stretch has brought to the area.

Similar to the forum held during the early planning stages of the Mankato Marathon, the duathlon meeting was open to the public. The turnout was relatively small (about 10-15 people) and the meeting structure was pretty laid back compared to the marathon forum (It was really more of an open discussion instead of attendees being divided up into topic groups), but Bongers was encouraged by the amount of brainstorming in the group.

"These people know a lot more about the city than I do and what will work best for a race," Bongers said of the meeting attendees. "Even if it's just a few people in the room, it's good to get some ideas from local people about what they want to see with the race."

The informal meeting structure can also be attributed to the different type of race Bongers envisions the duathlon being. Unlike the sizable turnout of the marathon, Bongers' goal is to have about 300-400 participants in the duathlon next. The run-bike-run structure of the race also means that the race organizers and city will have more to take into account in terms of course safety.

"It's a very different event when you're comparing a marathon to a multi-sport race," Bongers said. "The process we go about to plan for it is a lot different."

Here are some of the major topics discussed at the meeting:

  • The date of the duathlon is still to be determined, but the third weekend in May of next year (May 19-20) is the most likely date. Bongers was adamant about the race not taking place at the same time as some of the other major races organized by Final Stretch. Other Final Stretch events scheduled around that time include 7 @ 7  on May 5 and the Cannon Falls Duathlon on April 28. Likewise, the local athletes in attendance also didn't want the race conflicting with some of their traditional races like the Minneapolis Marathon or the Land Between the Lakes Triathlon in Albert Lea.
  • The race course has also not been finalized yet, but it will likely take place around the MSU area of town. Most in attendance agreed that a bike course in downtown Mankato would be difficult to achieve without causing some serious traffic concerns. The bike course used for the MSU Indoor/Outdoor Triathlon (basically a down-and-back course on Monks Ave) was suggested because the parking lot at MSU is considered to be an ideal transition area. However, Bongers and others in attendance agreed that they want the duathlon course to be unique.
  • Bongers is less concerned about the traffic implications of the running portions of the course, as those would cover a much smaller area and be much easier to regulate. Both running legs of the race will likely take place on city streets with the both starting and ending at MSU. Bongers said the point of the running legs was to "draw a crowd" and have some good viewing spots, and urban routes will likely provide more of that.
  • The prevailing thought was to have the race distances be 2-3 miles for the first run, 15-20 miles for the bike, and 2-3 miles for the second run. However, the distances could change depending on what course Bongers and Final Stretch decide on. The two themes that were brought up most often at the forum were to make the duathlon both "urban" and "family-friendly," and Bongers says a major part of the planning will be to mesh those two concepts.
  • Like other aspects of the race, the entry fees are still very much up in the air. Some in attendance were advocating generous-sized gift bags with each participant getting a medal, while others felt a simple t-shirt would be sufficient. I personally thought a free beer with entry fee (like the Warrior Dash) would've been fun, but that would likely take away from the whole "family-friendly" theme they're going for. General thought was to keep entry fees in the $40-$60 range.
  • One intriguing idea was to have the race finish with a lap around the running track at MSU, similar to ROTC 5K held there earlier this month. I've never participated in a race with that type of finish, but I'm guessing that would be quite a thrill for competitors.
  • Another intriguing idea: Getting a local band to perform at the finish line area and possibly having local food vendors putting on a barbecue of some kind. Mankato Multisport leader Chris Crocker and others in attendance want the finish line to be like a party, and that sounds like a party I'd much rather go to as opposed to one serving bagels, bananas and granola bars (usual finish line fare).
  • After much discussion, it was agreed that there would be no standalone 5K event taking place in conjunction with the duathlon. However, there will likely be a kid's duathlon.
  • According to Bongers, the next step is to take some of the ideas from the idea and finalize a race day and location. After that, Final Stretch will be able to approach the city with an outline of the help they'll need (i.e. city officials and traffic regulation) on race day.
More information will likely be available on the duathlon in the coming weeks. You can keep up with it by checking either the Greater Mankato Multisport Club website, Final Stretch's website, or my blog.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Renewing old acquaintances

I consider myself to be a fairly adventurous person. I love new experiences, I embrace the unknown and I enjoy getting out of my comfort zone whenever possible.

It's the reason I decided to bike to Lanesboro this past summer instead of relaxing around my apartment with a few days off. It's also the reason I opted to run in the Warrior Dash instead of any of a number of 5Ks that were cheaper and closer to home.

However, as cool as it is to experience new things, it's also good to revisit old ones from time to time. Incidentally, this post represents a renewing of two old acquaintances for me: the Red Jacket trestle bridge and my blog in general.

As most of my regular readers have probably noticed, I've been relatively absent from the blogosphere lately. There's a couple of reasons for this. For one thing, I signed up for classes at Minnesota State University this fall and have been devoting much of my free time to schoolwork.

The other reason relates to employment status. The harsh economic times forced the Free Press to resort to layoffs recently and tragically, I was one of the casualties.

The Red Jacket trestle bridge is back!
Aside from going through the other processes related to being out of work (job searches, resume updating and applying for unemployment), I've also been grappling with the notion of continuing this blog. The original intent of it was to provide supplemental material for the health & fitness readership of the Free Press, and since I'm no longer an employee of the Free Press, that purpose is now moot. On the flip side of that, the blog does not run through the newspaper's website (it's through Blogger) and my readership has expanded to an audience well beyond the Mankato area (I got an email from a cyclist in Copenhagen this past summer about my experience of grocery shopping on a bike).

So in an effort to maintain my sanity during unemployment, I've decided to revive my blog. I figure there's a reason people enjoy reading it and I think the writing will be therapeutic as I contemplate my next step in life.

Therapeutic use of free time is also what led to reviving my relationship with the Red Jacket trestle bridge. I used to make a regular habit out of biking on the Red Jacket Trail. It's scenic, it's relatively flat and the Dam Store's delicious pies are mere minutes away from it.

The new support pillar of the trestle bridge 
was completed earlier this month. 
According to the Free Press, It will be
stained to look like the other pillars next spring
However, with the trestle bridge being out of commission due to last year's flood damage, like many cyclists, I turned to other routes for leisurely rides. Red Jacket users could still ride the rest of the trail by crossing the Le Sueur River on Highway 66, but it was inconvenient to do so (steep hills) and the historic trestle bridge was a major reason why the trail was so appealing to begin with.

I figured the trestle wouldn't be ready until next spring, but while getting my bike repaired yesterday, Flying Penguin Outdoor Sports owner Jon Anderson told me that the final deck boards have been installed and the bridge is up and running again. Ecstatic over the news, I rode the Red Jacket Trail this morning, stopped on the bridge and took a few minutes to admire the view.

I never used to stop on the bridge during bike rides. After being on it so many times, it simply became another part of the trail to me. However, after being without the bridge for so long, it felt good to bike across it again and feel those wooden planks clatter against my bike tires.

And after being absent from the blogosphere for so long, it feels good to be back.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

40 days of beard-growing goodness

Race day is almost here for the Mankato Marathon.

Almost everyone participating in this year's race is probably in the midst of tapering and mentally preparing themselves for the big day. 
I definitely fit into that category as well, though my tapering had to begin early due a nagging Achilles injury. I've had difficulty going on sizable runs without feeling pain in that area, and most of my longer workouts have been confined to eliptical running machines. I'm not particularly thrilled about relying on elipticals, but I know they're good for maintaining the necessary cardiovascular endurance.

In terms of being ready for the race in a cardiovascular sense, I think I'm good to go. As for the nagging Achilles, we'll just have to wait and see.

Of course, tapering isn't the only thing I'm doing this week in regards to race day. As followers of my blog probably know, I also have a poll people can vote on for what type of facial hair I'll be sporting for the half marathon.

The photo at right was taken today to commemorate 40 days of growing a "runners beard." As it stands, the mutton chops option of the poll is winning by a nose, but voters still have until Friday morning to cast a vote.

Personally, I'm kind of hoping for the mustache to win the poll. I've never sported a mustache before and imagine it would an invigorating experience. However, I will adhere to whatever choice my readers.

Hopefully it will make for some interesting race day photos.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

River Ramble photos

I think it's pretty safe to say that the inaugural Mankato River Ramble was an enormous success. Over 1,500 riders participated in it as they were treated to free food, live music and gorgeous river valley scenery throughout the day. Pretty much the only hitch in the plans was the fact that the two waterfalls along the route (Minneopa and Minnemishinona) were almost nonexistent thanks to the recent dry spell of weather.

Kudos to Tom Engstrom and the other organizers who went to great lengths to make sure this was a first-class event with some serious staying power in the area.

I'll write more about the experience when I have more time to collect my thoughts (busy with midterms this week), but for now here's the photos I took while doing the River Ramble. I couldn't figure out how to make a decent gallery of them, so they're just posted directly to the blog:

A few cyclists wait in line at the registration tent at Land of Memories Park.

Bagels, bananas, grapes and other goodies welcomed riders at the starting point of the River Ramble.

Organic Cowboys perform at Land of Memories Park.

Fabulous Fatheads perform at Minneopa Falls.

This River Ramble participant decided to bring a furry companion along for the ride.

The pie makers at the Dam Store in Rapidan were kept busy during the River Ramble. The Rapidan Dam Park was the second stop on the ride and the popular eatery provided free pie to riders throughout the day.

 A few riders enjoy their pie while resting at the Rapidan Dam.

 The Bockfest Duo performs at the Rapidan Dam.

A few River Ramble participants take a break from the ride to check out the Rapidan Dam.

Tandem bikes were a fairly regular sight on the River Ramble.

A father and daughter pedal their way to Lake Crystal on County Road 9 during the River Ramble

A caution sign warns oncoming motorists of the increased cycling traffic.

A group of riders take a break from the River Ramble to watch the Vikings game and have a few adult refreshments at Weggy's Bar & Grill in Lake Crystal.

A youthful River Ramble participant takes a break from the action at Minneopa Falls.

As you can see, my 6-week quest to grow a runners beard is going fairly well. However, my facial hair is mere stubble compared the ZZ Top-esque beard on my left.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Tweetin' on the River Ramble

Cycling traffic around town is sure to be busier on Sunday as the inaugural Mankato River Ramble is set to depart from Land of Memories Park at 9 a.m. for a day of live music, river valley scenery, and of course, biking.

The buzz surrounding the first-time group ride has been sizable. According to Mankato Multisport Club, about 1,200 riders have signed up for it so far and that number is likely to be around 1,500 by the time the ride takes place thanks to day-of registrations.

It's not hard to figure out why the inaugural ride has been such a hot ticket. As I've mentioned before, Mankato has a wealth of great bike trails, many of which lead to some of the more picturesque locations in the area (Rapidan Dam, Minneopa Falls and Minnemishinona Falls, to name three). A burgeoning cycling has also emerged in the area thanks to people like Tom Engstrom and the Greater Mankato Bike & Walk Advocates.

And if all of that wasn't enough to draw interest, the ride will also feature some of the area's better live music acts and a few food stops along the way.

As most of my readers can probably guess, I will be among the participants riding in the River Ramble on Sunday. In an effort to keep people updated on how the ride is going, I plan on packing my laptop and posting updates on Twitter throughout the day.

My Twitter feed can be viewed both on the Mankato Free Press website and on the right-hand side of my blog. Click here to view my Twitter account directly.

I'm definitely looking forward to Sunday. It looks like it'll be a fun event.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Vote for my race-day facial hair!

Admittedly, I've always been a bit of a facial hair fanatic.

This can attributed to both parenting and pop culture. I saw "The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams" at least 20 times while growing up and TV in my youth contained such mustached icons as Hulk Hogan, Tom Selleck, Ned Flanders and Super Mario.

My dad has also been a staple of mustache consistency through the years. I don't recall if I've seen him minus a mustache, and if I did, I likely blocked it out of my memory due to shock.

As a result of this mustached upbringing, I have admiration and respect for anyone that pulls off a look that includes facial hair. Some modern-day examples include Kimbo Slice, Giants closer Brian Wilson and Free Press baseball blogger Ed Thoma.

As much as I would like to join the ranks of men who sport a beard on a regular basis, I am held back for a variety of reasons: It looks like crap, it doesn't grow in evenly, it's tedious to groom and, again, it looks like crap.

However, one thing I'm not opposed to is growing it out for a specific race or event. For one thing, it gives the event added significance and symbolism. And if you're getting ready for a marathon, it makes the training more fun and helps take your mind off the pain your legs undoubtedly feel after 20-mile training runs.

The tradition of athletes symbolically growing a beard is long-established. NHL players regularly grow "playoff beards," the offensive linemen for the New England Patriots grew out their beards during the team's near-perfect season in 2007-2008, and normally clean-shaven Forrest Gump let his facial hair run wild during his run across the country.

For the next five-plus weeks, I will be joining that group as I put my razor away and let my facial hair grow for the Mankato Half Marathon on Oct. 22. Call it my "Runners Beard" if you will.

In an effort to both engage my readership and embarrass myself at the same time, I'm going to leave the choice of the my race-day facial hair up to my readers.

On the right-hand side of my blog, you will find a poll with different facial hair options that you can vote on. The poll will be open until the day before the race (Oct. 21), at which time I will tally the votes, break out the razor and fashion my facial hair for the big day.

A couple of notes about the poll:
  • I tried to keep the options to a precious few, but if you have another suggestion for a different facial hair style, please email it to me and I will consider adding it to the poll. In order to avoid confusion, please refer to this photo as the standard for facial hair terminology.
  • The option of keeping a full beard has deliberately been left off the list. As much as I enjoy the warmth a beard provides in the cold winter months, I don't think I'd enjoy running 13 miles with it.

If you're still doubting the benefits and joy of facial hair, this might help change your mind.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Breaking down the loops

Here's a quick recap of the four bike loops listed on the Greater Mankato Visitors Bureau's hiking/bike trail map. Hopefully my regular readers aren't "looped out" after having to suffer through four lengthy blog posts and my column in Monday's paper:

St. Clair/Eagle Lake Loop
Distance: 28.25 miles
Dominant geographical feature: Le Sueur River valley
Best place to eat along the way: Eagle's Nest, though Uptown Tavern has decent prices and free popcorn
Best known point of interest: Probably the Duke Burger at Eagle's Nest, though you might want a group of people with you if you're going to order it
Best kept secret on the route: Wildwood Park and its swinging-foot bridge. Doesn't seem like a lot of people know about that place

Sakatah/Madison Lake Loop
Distance: 14.75 miles
Dominant geographical feature: Lakes, lakes and more lakes
Best place to eat along the way: Trailblazer Bar & Grill
Best known point of interest: Madison Lake and Eagle Lake have some decent swimming areas. There's good fishing in that area too if you want to pack a fishing rod
Best kept secret on the route: Nothing really comes to mind unless you're going to continue east on the Sakatah Trail

Kasota Prairie/St. Peter Loop
Distance: 34 miles
Dominant geographical feature: Tie between the Kasota Prairie and the Minnesota River valley
Best place to eat along the way: For a quick lunch, I'd say River Rock Coffee. For a sit-down meal, I'd say Whiskey River.
Best known point of interest: The aforementioned Kasota Prairie and the Kasota Stone Quarry
Best kept secret on the route: The Amish furniture store in St. Peter is pretty cool to check out and the Linnaeus Arboretum at Gustavus Adolphus is a beautiful area to walk through if you feel like doing some hiking

Red Jacket/Rapidan/Lake Crystal/Minneopa Loop
Distance: 34 miles
Dominant geographical feature: Minneopa Falls, with strong consideration to the three river valleys and the Rapidan Dam
Best place to eat along the way: The Dam Store
Best known point of interest: Minneopa Falls
Best kept secret on the route: Justin Morneau's house if you're a Twins fan. If not, there's some pretty cool hiking trails around Mount Kato. I would say Minnemishinona Falls, but with the new bridge, it's starting to not be a secret anymore.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

A day off in the kayak

For many, Labor Day weekend is a time of family getaway and vacation. Luggage gets packed, boats get loaded and countless families drive off to resorts and cabins for a few days away from home.

If I'd of had the full weekend off, I likely would've been among that crowd, going on boat rides and getting my fair share of fishing in at my parents' cabin on Big Birch Lake. I enjoy spending time with my family and it's nice to get out of town once in awhile (especially when out-of-town trips involve heated games of Hammerschalgen).

Alas, it wasn't meant to be. I had two days off out of the 3-day weekend, but they happened to be Saturday and Monday, with a work day sandwiched between them on Sunday. Since my parents' cabin is about a 3-hour drive from Mankato, I figured I'd save the trip for a longer weekend.

However, that's not to say that the two days off weren't enjoyed to the fullest. Saturday was spent doing an 87-mile bike ride that utilized all four loops listed on the Greater Mankato Visitors Bureau's hiking/biking trails map (blog entry and column on that coming soon) and the majority of Labor Day was spent floating down the Minnesota River in my inflatable kayak.

Regular readers might recall that I blogged about my inflatable kayak last year. I've taken it out a few times on lakes this summer and attempted a short paddle upstream on the Minnesota River in the past, but until yesterday, I'd never attempted a day-long float. I always figured the logistics of it (dropping a vehicle off and getting a second person to drive you back to the starting location) made it a bit of a hassle, plus I didn't know how well the kayak would hold up from the rigors of the Minnesota River.

I managed to solve one of those problems with the realization that I could use my bike for transport, albeit transport without the kayak (even deflated, it'd be a little too big to bungee to my bike, plus I have no idea how I'd carry the paddle). So the sequence of events to prepare for the float were as follows:
  • I dropped my kayak off at the starting point of the float (Land of Memories Park) and asked one of the families camping there to keep an eye on it for me. (thanks again to that family)
  • With my bike loaded in my car, I drove to the end point of the float (Seven Mile Creek), parked my car and biked back to the starting point.

As for the float itself, I was pleasantly surprised by two things about the Minnesota River: how calm it was and how easy it was to navigate (I gave myself more than enough time to finish the float because I assumed I would get lost at some point).

Both surprises can be attributed to the low water level in the river. It is considerably lower than it was this past spring and fall (during flooding) and less water typically means less current. It also revealed some of the damage done by the flooding, with river banks looking like barren wastelands of prior vegetation (pictured right). Likewise, most of the jutting tributaries and pools along the river have also dried up, making navigation a simple exercise in following the current.

Contrary to my worries beforehand, the inflatable kayak also proved to be more than capable of handling the river. The problems I had with steering it in the past were solved by having no wind to deal with and going with the current instead of against it (paddling upstream in an inflatable kayak is like pancakes without syrup: It's possible, but you won't enjoy it). Since the Minnesota River is a sediment-heavy stream (brown from all the farmland soil flooding in), the bottom of it is mostly soft sand and devoid of any sharp, jagged rocks.

Really, it was an great stretch of river to kayak on. The weather was perfect, the scenery varied from the flood walls of Mankato to deep forests to prairie lands (even spotted a few deer along the way) and the float took a little less than four hours (or two Grain Belt Nordeasts, if you're measuring by beer consumption).

About the only thing missing from the experience was a fishing rod to get a few casts in. Well, that and maybe something else to consume besides beer.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Learning the Loops: Red Jacket/Rapidan/Lake Crystal/Minneopa

Note: This is Part 4 of a four-part series on the bike loops listed in the Greater Mankato Visitors Bureau's biking/hiking trails map

Distance: 34 miles for the basic loop, though there are a couple of different options. According to the map, the Garden City extension of the loop adds an additional 14 miles while the Minneopa cutoff likely shaves about 5 miles or so off the ride.

Directions: The directions for this loop are completely dependent on which version of if you want to ride. However, for the sake of consistency, I will start them all from the same place: At the Red Jacket trailhead behind the YMCA.

For the basic loop: Bike on the Red Jacket Trail until you reach its endpoint just outside of Rapidan. Then take a right onto 552nd Ave and head into town. At the stop sign in town, take a right (County Road 9) and head out of town toward the Rapidan Dam. Continue past the dam, cross over Highway 169, and bike along the south end of Loon Lake until you're in the town of Lake Crystal.

Once in Lake Crystal, take a right on Main Street and head through town until you reach Lake Street just before Highway 60. At that point, take a right, then take an immediate left onto Murphy Street. When Murphy Street ends, follow Dogwood Road across Highway 60 and continue on that road until you intersect with 200th Street/County Road 20. Then take a left, follow the curve right, and continue north until you reach County Road 11. Take a right, follow that for a little over a mile, and then take a left onto County Road 42. Follow that past Judson across the Minnesota River and take a right onto County Road 41.

Continue on that road for about five miles until you come across County Road 71/Judson Bottom (the last road before the really big hill). Take a right, follow Judson Bottom into North Mankato and cross Lookout Drive. Immediately after crossing Lookout, take a right onto South Ave, follow that for three blocks and take a left onto Sherman Street. Hop up on the sidewalk and follow that across the Highway 169 bridge back into Mankato.

For the Garden City Extension: Same as the basic loop until you're on County Road 9 outside of
Rapidan. Take a left onto County Road 34 (the last road before the downhill leading to the dam) and follow that for about six miles. The road ends at Highway 169 just south of Garden City. Turn right on Highway 169, head north and take your first left onto 173rd Street (County Road 13). Bike on that for a little more than two miles until you get to County Road 20. At that point, take a right and head north for about five miles. You'll come into Lake Crystal near the rec center.

For the Minneopa Cutoff: Same as the basic loop until you're on County Road 11 outside of Lake Crystal. Instead of taking a left onto County Road 42, continue straight on County Road 11. It will eventually run into Highway 68 near Minneopa State Park. Take a right on Highway 68 and follow that until you see the Minneopa bike trail off the side of the road. Hop on that and follow it back into Mankato (it ends at the entrance of Land of Memories Park). To get back to the YMCA from there, follow the sidewalk along Highway 169 across the Blue Earth River. After crossing the river, the sidewalk exits down onto Riverfront Drive.

Notes on the route: With all due respect to the descriptions of each loop on the trail map, the Garden City extension did not offer "endless views." Aside from a brief dip in the Blue Earth River valley, it really doesn't offer much for scenery unless you enjoy the serenity of rolling farm hills and cornfields.

Truth be told, unless the Blue Earth County Fair is making its annual stop in Garden City, the river valley dip is probably the most exciting thing that can be said about this extension. There aren't too many places of business to be found in Garden City and the most interesting thing I can say about the town is that the majority of its streets are named after former U.S. presidents. Shady Oaks Campground seems like a pretty decent hub for community activities, complete with volleyball courts, horseshoe pits and an arcade center. Though like the rest of the town, it was pretty dormant when I biked through.

For the distance-obsessed cyclist, the Garden City Extension has the obvious benefit of tacking a few extra miles onto your ride on safe and relatively low-traffic roads. It also has the added bonus of a difficult climb out of the Blue Earth River valley if you're looking to get some hill workouts in. If you do the full loop plus the extension, the ride ends up being almost 50 miles; definitely a solid day of biking.

However, if you're a cyclist like me that's more concerned with finding interesting destinations, the Garden City Extension is a bit lacking.

Aside from that, the other notable attribute about this loop is the generous amount of river valley hills you'll see along the way. The Minnesota, Le Sueur and Blue Earth rivers all get crossed at some point on this loop, which means you'll likely have to downshift a time or two in order to power through some of the inclines.

Places to eat along the route: Regardless of which route you decide to take, there's plenty of options. I already touched on the Dam Store for a blog entry last summer, but to summarize it, they have fantastic pie, a variety of low-priced meal options, and an outdoorsy/small-town setting unique to most other restaurants. Really, it's like stepping into a time portal to the 1960's (they even have an old-school malt maker and Pepsi machine).

Lake Crystal is the other major meal spot on the route, and it's loaded with options. For localized options, there's the Main Street Cafe, Lakes Bar & Grill, Weggy's Bar & Grill and Dina's on Main. If you're looking to get a quick ice cream fix, there's also a Dairy Queen located right off of Highway 60.

On a hunch, I chose Dina's for my mid-ride snack. They advertised having good breakfast sandwiches (it was about 11 in the morning when I got there) and they were located next door to Weggy's, so the prospect of getting a beer with the meal (I'm only human) was promising.

I wasn't disappointed. Not only was their food delicious, but the prices were also very reasonable (I paid $6.50 for a sizable omelet croissant and a bottle of Summit, pictured right). The restaurant had the added bonus of one of locals stopping in for his regular cup of coffee while I was eating, so a fair amount of town gossip transpired between him and the waitress as I soaked in the atmosphere. Thanks to my own inquiries in the conversation, I was also able to figure where Justin Morneau's house in Lake Crystal was located (more on that later).

Things to see/do along the route: This loop has pretty much everything you could ever want in a bike ride. It has two waterfalls (Minneopa and Minnemishinona), an historic landmark (Seppman Mill), a wonderful state park/restaurant combo (Rapidan Dam), and once it gets fixed, a picturesque trestle bridge to bike across on the Red Jacket Trail.

It has lakes and river valleys, cornfields and bluffs, and enough food options to keep even the pickiest eater satisfied. There are three different campgrounds to tent at along the way (Minneopa, Rapidan and Shady Oaks), and if you want to hop off your bike to do a little hiking, the loop also goes past Mount Kato. Heck, it even has a disc golf course at Land of Memories Park if you feel like packing a frisbee.

Since it would take around 15,000 words to write about each and every one of those points in detail, I will instead focus on the goal of my most recent ride on this loop: Finding Justin Morneau's house.

I won't claim to be as keen on baseball as my co-worker Ed Thoma (few are), but I would certainly consider myself to be a Twins fan. I grew up watching up them, Kirby Puckett is still my all-time favorite baseball player, and I have a sizable collection of bobblehead dolls and Homer Hankies. I also have vivid memories of attending a 1991 World Series game at the Metrodome (though I had trouble hearing in kindergarten class the next day).

So when I first heard that Justin Morneau had built his house on Lake Crystal, like any other Twins fan, I was naturally curious about it. How big is the house? What kind of security does it have? How often is he home? Does he hang out in Lake Crystal at all? How does he interact with the locals?

All of this may seem like the obsessions of a star-struck fan, but this isn't a run-of-the-mill baseball player living next door. This is Justin Morneau; former American League MVP, co-face of the Twins franchise (along with Joe Mauer) and one of the league's biggest stars (at least when he's healthy, not the case this year). Money isn't synonymous with happiness, but he makes more of it in a year than most of us make in our entire lives.

So yeah, it was worth the detour to go check out his house. I'm sure a 'Jersey Shore' fan would go to the same lengths if they found out that Mike "The Situation" lived in their area.

The directions from the locals at Dina's narrowed his house down to the following characteristics:
  • It's located on the west end of Loon Lake
  • It's a relatively modest single-story rambler (at least for a multi-millionaire athlete)
  • It has a green roof
  • It has a visible-but-not-imposing security fence circling the property
  • It is located next door to his brother-in-law's house (his wife's family is from Lake Crystal). The brother-in-law's house was also described as being considerably larger than Morneau's (ego boost perhaps?)

Based on those characteristics, here is the house I found that supposedly belongs to the Twins first baseman:

Take this information with a grain of salt. Morneau didn't appear to be home at the time and there wasn't a "Morneau" mailbox or a giant billboard on the side of the road reading "Justin Morneau lives here" that would've confirmed his residency. Even if he had been home, I doubt he would've wanted a sweaty cyclist knocking on his door to talk baseball with him.

However, if the house is indeed what the locals say it is, then it's definitely modest dwellings for an athlete of his fame and standing.

The locals also took the time to tell me about Morneau in the Lake Crystal community. Similar to his home, Morneau is described as being a very down-to-earth athlete who is easy to talk to and get along with. "He's not imposing or arrogant," the waitress at Dina's told me, "He's just a nice guy; a regular guy."

That sort of description won't vault him past Puckett (or even Hrbek) on my list of favorite Twins, but it's nice to know there's professional athletes out there who aren't full of themselves.

Possible ways to expand the loop: Not sure how much more you would want to see on one bike ride, but if you're looking for a few extra miles, you can take a left onto County Road 13 while biking north on County Road 20 (part of the Garden City Extension). That will take you into Madelia, where there's a movie theater, a Mexican restaurant (Plaza Morena) and a pirate-themed restaurant called Blackbeards (I'll admit, I'm intrigued by that one). I only passed through Madelia in a car, so I can't really speak to the quality of those destinations, though a Free Press article about Plaza Morena can be found here.

Looking south, you can either head down Highway 169 to Amboy (and stop off at the Cottage Cafe), or you can take a left instead of a right in Rapidan, turn onto Highway 66 and head to Good Thunder (with the Thunder Cafe). If you want to go north, instead of turning off onto County Road 41 past Judson, continue on County Road 42 into Nicollet and stop at Schmidt's Meat Market.

Again, I'm pretty sure you'll find enough stuff to do on the loop itself.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Learning the Loops: Sakatah/Madison Lake

Note: This is Part 3 of a four-part series on the bike loops listed in the Greater Mankato Visitors Bureau's biking/hiking trails map

Distance: About 15 miles.

Directions: Like the other loops, it all depends on where you want to start from. According to the DNR website, a section of the Sakatah Singing Hills Trail is currently closed between Lime Valley Road and Highway 22 until the end of August to replace a bridge, install a large culvert and replace/repair several smaller culverts. Since the parking lot along Highway 22 is also closed, I'd recommend starting from the River Hills Mall parking lot, biking on the path along Highway 22 and linking up with the Sakatah Trail after it crosses County Road 12. Once you reach the trail, turn right and head east to Madison Lake. Once you get to Madison Lake, take a left on Main Street (the road just before reaching the Trailblazer Bar & Grill) and then take an immediate left onto County Road 26. Follow that for about 7 miles until the road intersects with 589th Ave. At that point, take a left, follow the curve to the right onto 227th Street and follow that until you see the Sakatah Trail along the side of the road.

Once the the repair work is done along the Sakatah Trail, I'd recommend starting from the trail head parking lot on Lime Valley Road or at the parking lot located along Highway 22.

Recent wrinkle: A bike path was recently built that links the Sakatah Trail and County Road 12 about a mile east of Mankato. It runs runs parallel to 589th Ave. If you're on the Sakatah Trail, this is the street where the bridge is being built over the railroad tracks. If you're on the back roads portion of the loop, it's the street where Ron's Auto Repair is located. I'm not quite sure how the path adds to this route (the Sakatah Trail and County Road 12 already cross paths in Mankato), but it's another option.

Notes on the route: Might as well call this the "lake loop." Aside from Madison Lake, you'll bike past three other lakes (Ballantyne, Gilfillin and Eagle) in the 15-mile ride and you'll see Eagle Lake twice.

Difficulty-wise, at 15 miles, it's far and away the shortest and easiest loop of the four. Unless you're starting from the Sakatah Trail head (again, not an option at this point because that stretch of trail is closed), the only inclines you'll encounter are a few rolling hills on County Road 26. There isn't a lot of wind cover, but as I've mentioned before, part of the appeal of biking a loop is that a head wind for one stretch can quickly become a tail wind. Since half of the loop takes place on a bike trail and most of the other half sticks to one road, it's also pretty easy to navigate.

I would also consider this loop to be the safest of the four. The back roads on it are well-maintained roads with low traffic, wide shoulders and no problematic intersections to speak of. Ironically, the biggest safety concern of the entire loop used to be on the Sakatah Trail when
trail users had to cross the railroad tracks and bike on a dirt however. However, that concern was resolved earlier this year when the trail was rerouted to run parallel with the bridge being built over the railroad (pictured right). Highway 22 isn't the safest road to cross, but once the repair work is finished, that won't be an issue.

Fair warning: There are no bike shops on this loop or in Madison Lake, so be sure to pack a repair kit just in case. I found this out the hard way when I got a flat tire in Madison Lake last fall and had to call a friend to come pick me up.

Places to eat along the route: Since the Mankato portion of this loop is on the outskirts of town, I'll keep the eating options confined to Madison Lake. With that in mind, there's two major spots to grab a bite in town: The Trail Blazer Bar & Grill and the Boatlanding Restaurant and Resort.

The Trail Blazer was a bike trip destination of mine for a blog post last summer, so I won't waste much space rehashing what I liked about it. The food is very reasonably priced, they have regular drink specials and the atmosphere has a cool fisherman's vibe to it (they also have some interesting wooden statues to glance at, some of which can be seen on the left side of their website).

The Boatlanding Restaurant and Resort is an eating spot I'm relatively unfamiliar with. I've biked past it and hung out on the beach in the resort, but that's about it. According to locals I talked to, the restaurant is known for making delicious pizzas and having a sizable spread for Sunday brunch. It's also known for having surprisingly decent prices on meals for a restaurant that's linked to a resort. The resort's website can be found here, but despite having a restaurant tab, it doesn't have anything listed about their menu or food prices.

Things to see/do along the route: I haven't attempted it yet, but if you can figure out how to pack a fishing pole on your bike, there's probably some pretty good fishing spots along this route (after seeing a RAGBRAI rider tow a keg with his bike last summer, I'm convinced anything is possible). I've had good luck with darkhouse spearfishing on Ballantyne in the past and I know that Madison Lake is one of the more popular fishing holes in the area. Though my co-worker Doug Monson might be the person to ask about area fishing prospects.

Beyond that, the plethora of lakes on this loop also has the inviting prospect of stopping off somewhere to cool down in the water. I've already mentioned the beach on Madison Lake, but according to the loop map, the Eagle Lake public access off County Road 26 is also a viable option. Based on my own experience, I can say that the public access area has relatively clean water and isn't too rocky to walk on.

Beyond fishing and swimming, this loop also has a camping option if you're looking to make it an overnight trip. The Sakatah Trail Campsite (located right next to the Trail Blazer) has tent camping for $15 per night.

Possible ways to expand the loop: The Sakatah Trail runs all the way east to Faribault, so that's a pretty straightforward option to lengthen your ride. The best place I know of to eat along the trail between there and Faribault is Tucker's Tavern in Elysian. Fantastic burgers and enough Vikings memorabilia to make you bleed purple and gold. There's also a disc golf course in Morristown if you're willing to pack a frisbee for the ride.

If your looking for off-trail expansion options, try biking past the Sakatah campground in Madison Lake and taking a left onto 1st Street/County Road 26. That will lead you past Duck Lake into the Lake Jefferson/Lake Henry area. From there, you can either take looping back roads back to Mankato or continue on County Road 15 to Cleveland, home of Kokomo's Bar & Grill.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Man conquers mountain, but not without a price

As the subject matter of my blog would indicate, I consider myself to be in relatively good shape.

I go for runs pretty regularly, I weight lift and I can rip off a long bike ride without too much trouble. I won't be setting any marathon records in the near future, but I also won't be gasping for air after walking up a flight of stairs.

With being in shape comes the expectation that you can perform most physical activities with ease, even if it's an activity that your body isn't used to. The activity might feel taxing at first, but if you're in good enough shape, your body should be able to adapt to it as you go.

As I would come to find out the other day after doing a day hike near Seattle with my step brother Derek, that's not quite the case for me.

One of the goals I had while visiting Derek in the Pacific Northwest last week was to do a hiking trip of some sort. He's a pretty avid hiker and I figured the area was probably brimming with good trail options in the surrounding mountain ranges.

Derek suggested McClellan Butte, a 4.6-mile hike up roughly 3,300 feet of elevation. According to him, it was a popular trail in the area that featured a relatively easy climb and some pretty impressive views at the summit (the first photo is an actual picture of the mountain, it certainly doesn't LOOK easy).

One thing to know about my agreement to do this hike: I haven't done any serious hiking in years. The last trip I did was a week-long excursion in the Grand Canyon more than three years ago, and that had much more gradual elevation changes for most of the trek. I've hiked most of the parks in the Mankato area, but mountain ranges aren't exactly common in southern Minnesota.

Despite knowing all of this, I reasoned that I was in good enough shape to keep up with Derek on the hike. Besides, nobody wants to look like a wimp in front of their brother. So instead of asking him to slow down and rest more frequently, I pressed on and tried to zone out whatever pain might have been creeping up my legs.

About midway through the hike to the summit, my legs felt limber and my cardiovascular system seemed like it had adjusted to the activity. I figured that meant I would get through the hike with no issues and wouldn't have any residual effects in the days that followed.

As it turns out, I was half-right.

As the photo on the right would indicate, I did indeed make it to the summit of McClellan Butte. And aside from a pretty embarrassing fall in a snow bank along the trail, I handled the hike about as well as a novice hiker can be expected to handle it.

However, when I tried to get out of bed the next morning, it became obvious that the hike had written a check my body was having trouble cashing. My legs felt stiff, my knees were sore and my hips ached. It hurt to go up and down stairs and any attempts to stretch were met with angry shrieks from my leg muscles telling me something along the lines of "I told you this was a bad idea, you idiot!"

Matter of fact, my lower body still feels that way two days later. I've gone on a couple of decent bike rides since the hike, so it's not as bad as the first few days after a marathon (the time period I like to refer to as a "cardio vacation"). But for a guy who thought he was in pretty decent shape, it's a pretty surprising revelation.

Lesson learned: Take it slow with new activities. The hike was an absolute blast and one of the highlights of my trip, but I think my legs would've appreciated another rest stop or two along the way.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Bike trip destinations: Morgan Creek Vineyards

Distance from downtown Mankato: Roughly 20 miles.

Route I took: We'll keep it simple this time. Head west on Riverfront Drive until you reach the Highway 169 on-ramp at the end of the road. At that point, bike on the sidewalk adjacent to the highway over the Le Sueur River and follow the residential streets (Olive and Main) to the starting point of the Minneopa Trail. Take the trail to Highway 68 and then hop on 68 for about 15 miles until you reach County Road 47. At that point, take a left on 47, follow that for about two miles, and take a left onto County Road 101/478th Ave (fair warning: it's a dirt road). The winery will be on your left.

Note: The end part of the map for this trip is incorrect. I accidentally mapped the route about three miles too far on County Road 47. Unfortunately, won't allow me to edit an already-published route and doing the entire map over again (each of them takes an hour or so to make) seems a little redundant. So the "END" sign on the route is the actual location of the winery. Please adjust accordingly.

General ease/challenge of ride: At 40 miles round trip, it's a definite workout. There's also two sizable dips in the road along the way, so there's two pretty decent hills you'll have climb going both ways. If you're biking to the vineyard, the first climb is around Mile 10 on Highway 68 after the Judson turnoff, and the second climb comes after you onto County Road 47.

Both the hills are pretty decent climbs, but I wouldn't say they're any tougher than -- or even equal to -- some of the steeper inclines in Mankato. So if you've biked up Lookout Drive or bested the South Route Trail, you can definitely handle these downshift dandies (channeling my inner Dick Vitale).

Safety of the ride: When I was planning a bike ride to New Ulm two years ago, I recall a coworker advising against using Highway 68 because he said it had a lot of challenging hills. At the time, I was still pretty new to road cycling. I mostly stuck to bike trails and avoided hills like they were hot lava.

That's not really the case anymore, as biking up Potter Hill on RAGBRAI last summer convinced that almost any incline can be conquered with a little grit and a lot of downshifting. However, at that point, hearing that a road had steep hills was about the same as someone telling me that it was covered with broken glass.

Consequently, I relied on back roads and having to ride on Highway 14 after Courtland to get to New Ulm. The ride wasn't terrible, but as a steady stream of cars were zipping past me on Highway 14, I couldn't help but wonder if Highway 68 would've been the better option.

Well, after doing this ride, I can firmly say that it is the safer option. Traffic on Highway 68 is considerably lighter than Highway 14 and it has enough of a shoulder where motorists can keep their distance. I can't attest for the entire stretch of 68 to New Ulm, but up until County Road 47, there aren't any blind turns in the road where cars can suddenly appear without warning. Since the ride is predominantly out the country, there also aren't any busy intersections to worry about.

Appeal of the destination: I always thought vineyards would be a something of a fish out of water in Minnesota. After all, how can a practice that relies so heavily on the weather thrive in an area where there's snow on the ground 6 months out of the year and temperatures routinely drop below zero in the wintertime?

However, Morgan Creek Vineyards is one of a growing number of wineries in the state debunking that notion.

Founded in 1993 by Georg and Paula Marti, Morgan Creek was part of the early winery movement in Minnesota. According to the tour guide, they were the eighth winery in the state at the time; today more than 40 such wineries exist. The last name of Morgan Creek's founders should sound familiar to locals, as Georg is the great great grandson of August Schell, founder of Schell's Brewing Company in New Ulm.

The story of how Georg and Paula came to own the livestock farmland that the vineyard currently resides on is also pretty interesting. Supposedly, they were walking across the land looking for firewood when they came across a massive oak tree in the middle of the field that still stands today (pictured right). Enamored with the tree, they purchased the land on a spur of the moment decision and immediately went to work on wine making. They planted 500 vines the first year and had their first vintage season in 1998 (most wines take about 5 years to make).

The wine-making process began slowly for the Martis, but Morgan Creek and other area vineyards received a shot in the arm in 1996 when the University of Minnesota developed Frontenac, a cross-bred cold hardy grape that could withstand the state's brutal winters. The U of M has since added to Frontenac with three other cold hardy varieties: La Crescent, Marquette and Frontenac gris.

Today, Morgan Creek produces more than 15 varieties of red and white wine and harvests more than four tons of grapes per year. Their distribution is relatively light compared to major wineries, but they have a loyal regional following and hold their own at state-wide wine-tasting competitions. Morgan Creek also has the distinction of being Minnesota's only underground winery, as their production area is tucked into a hillside to help regulate temperatures (a very important part of brewing and wine making).

As a visitor, the main appeal of Morgan Creek Vineyards is pretty straightforward. It's a winery, which means there's wine, and more importantly, it means there's wine tasting. Visitors have the option of sampling four or eight wines, with the prices being $3 and $5 respectively (I
opted for eight wines, might as well make it worth the trip). The winery also has a restaurant on site (with a lovely patio area, pictured right) to enjoy the wine with. I didn't take a long look at the menu (I had Cliff Bars packed), but I saw several sandwich and pizza options.

Beyond the wine tasting, Morgan Creek also has hourly tours and a gift shop stocked with corkscrews, t-shirts and -- surprise, surprise -- full bottles of wine! Since the prospect of toting a wine bottle home on my bike seemed obtuse, I decided the tour would be the better route. The major points of the tour are to explain the history of the vineyard and give a brief rundown of the wine-making process. Those on the tour will also get to see the various machines used to make wine (at right is the bladder presser, which uses pressurized water to bleed the minerals out of the grape skins).

Since I was the only person on that particular tour, the guide let me walk around the vineyard at my own leisure and was pretty cool about letting me get close to some of the equipment.

I won't say that Morgan Creek is cheap entertainment. The tour and wine tasting is $9 collectively (compared to $3 at Schell's Brewery, with the admission including a free beer) and the vineyard lacks any drinkable tap water, meaning you'll have to buy bottled water if you didn't bring extras for the ride home.

However, the informative tour and a surprisingly-diverse selection of wine for taste testing make it worth the trip.

If you have the schedule flexibility to plan your trip in advance, Morgan Creek has several events at the vineyard that feature live music and grilled dinners. Here are some of the upcoming events worth checking out:

  • Jazz Nite with the Jim McGuire Jazz Trio is held on the first Saturday of every month from May to November
  • Winedown for the Weekend is every Friday with music from pianist Ben Marti
  • The Annual Great Grape Stomp is on Oct. 1, complete with belly dancers and competitive grape stomping

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Learning the Loops: Kasota Prairie/St. Peter

Note: This is Part 2 of a four-part series on the bike loops listed in the Greater Mankato Visitors Bureau's biking/hiking trails map

Distance: 34 miles, though the distance increases if you decide to explore areas of St. Peter or forget to take a key left turn (the latter of which happened to me).

Directions: I began the loop by hopping on the Minnesota River Trail at the Main Street entrance downtown and heading north. When the trail intersects with 3rd Ave, take a left and continue heading north. After about three or four miles, the road curves to the left and turns into 355th Ave. Continue on that road until you get to Kasota, where you take a right on Hill Street and a left two blocks later onto Rabbit Road.

Continue north on Rabbit Road until it ends on Highway 99. Take a left onto Highway 99 and follow it through St. Peter. Once out of St. Peter, the road turns into County Road 5. About a mile or so past the Swanson's Tennis Center/Linneaus Arboretum area of town, take a left onto County Road 40 and follow that until the T intersection with Highway 99, where you then take a right. About 3 miles down the road, take a left onto County Road 13 and follow that back into North Mankato, where it becomes Lookout Drive.

Once in North Mankato, you have a couple of options. The trail map directs you to bike north on Lake Street, take a right on Lind Street, follow that across Highway 169 and head south on the Minnesota River Trail until you reach the Veterans Memorial Bridge, when you then take a left back into Mankato. However, if you're tired from the ride and want to end it quickly, turn onto Lee Blvd. off of Lookout Drive, hang a right onto Belgrade Ave, take another right onto Sherman Street, and then follow the sidewalk as it leads to the Highway 169 bridge and takes you back into Mankato near the YMCA and Burger King on Riverfront.

Notes on the route: It might be the second-longest of the four loops, but the KasotaPrairie/St. Peter ride might also feature the least amount of hills. Aside from having to climb up a small hill in St. Peter, there's no real inclines that stick out and the biggest elevation change on the whole ride is the wonderful downhill on Lookout Drive once you get into North Mankato (I recommend stopping at the lookout point and taking in the view, you can see almost all of Mankato). Because the first half the ride is still in the river valley, you also don't need to deal with as much wind as the other rides.

Safety-wise, I've always been a little skittish about riding on highway roads in the country. They're deceptively busy, they usually don't have much of a shoulder and cars that drive on them feel the need to go 65+ miles an hour without taking cyclists into account. That being said, Highway 99 west of St. Peter was surprisingly safel. It had a generous shoulder and motorists kept their respective distance.

Having to cross Highway 169 in St. Peter was no fun, but aside from that, there weren't many problematic intersections. The biggest safety concern of the whole ride is likely the lengthy downhill stretch of Lookout Drive. It's a busy road and it's also very steep, so I wouldn't recommend trying to set some sort of speed record on the way down.

The other memorable thing to note about the loop is the left-hand turn onto County Road 40 that I missed. This resulted in an extra 6 miles of riding on rolling country roads. I don't mind extra miles, but I do mind getting lost on roads with nothing but farm land for scenery.

Places to eat along the route: With all respect to the Prairie Saloon in Kasota, this ride is all about showcasing the main drag of St. Peter. And for a modestly-sized town along Highway 169, it doesn't disappoint.

Probably the most well-known sit-down restaurant on the route is the Whiskey River, which is located right off of Highway 99 before you cross the Minnesota River. According to locals, the meals there are a little pricey (their website also indicates that as well), but the food is considered excellent and venue offers a scenic view of the river. If you're looking to save a few dollars on a meal, look at their website and click on the "Newsletters" tab ahead of time. They have monthly coupons you can print out and use.

The place I stopped to eat at was the River Rock Cafe, which is located a couple blocks to the left on Highway 169 once you get into St. Peter. EXCELLENT atmosphere, friendly waitstaff and surprising amount of food options for a venue known for its coffee. If you need something to read while you're there, they also have a decent library of donated books and magazines to browse. Based on a quick look at previous Free Press editions, if you time your trip right, you might also hear some live music there from time to time.

I wish I could confirm how tasty their lunchtime sandwiches were, but since money was tight that, my cafe patronage was limited to a strawberry scone and a hot cup of green tea (not a coffee drinker, sorry). They also could not have been friendlier when I asked to fill my water bottle up for the ride home.

According to an April article in the Free Press, River Rock also scores high points for its reliance on local farmers for meat and other products. The cafe also has a plot in Kasota where it grows most of its own produce. Very cool to see a local cafe keep all of its products locally-grown.

Aside from River Rock and Whiskey River, other places to grab a bite in the area include Patrick's Pub, Erbs & Gerbs and Godfather's Pizza. I've heard Patrick's has some pretty decent drink specials, but I can't confirm that myself (remember, money was a bit tight that day).

Things to see/do along the route: As mentioned before, this route is mainly a showcase of St. Peter as a community. I've always thought St. Peter would be a cool town to explore for a day, but I couldn't figure out a bike route that dodged having to pedal on Highway 169. Thanks to this loop, that isn't the case anymore.

My main goal of biking out this loop was to finally play a full round at the disc golf course in St. Peter at Riverside Park (I attempted to play there a couple years back and lost my disc midway through the round and scuffed up my legs on thistle bushes, good times were NOT had). Unfortunately, due to flood damage and lack of upkeep, most of the holes are either inaccessible or overgrown by tall grass. Out of the three holes I played, the photo on the right represents the most well-kept fairway I saw. Not exactly the 18th green at Augusta National.

However, that's not to say there aren't other cool things to do in St. Peter. For me, the best part of the trip was taking the time to walk around Gustavus Adolphus' campus. Growing up in the St. Cloud area, I came to appreciate the quaint setting and classical-style buildings at St. John's University/College of St. Benedict. Gustavus is a lot of the same, with picturesque architecture, odd-looking statues (see right) and a wide open flow to the campus (TONS of open fields for lounging and playing soccer or ultimate frisbee). The college doesn't have the same sense of seclusion to it that St. John's has (thanks largely to a vicious tornado that ripped through the area in the mid-1990's) but it has the same studious/social setting that reminds me of why I miss college.

Other areas to check out in town include the scenic Minnesota Square Park (also a good place to charge your mp3 player, as I found out), the Roy T. Lindenberg outdoor pool (located over by Veterans Memorial Park), an Amish furniture store and the Traverse des Sioux Treaty Center, which is located on the north end of town.

Quick history lesson on the last attraction: According the Minnesota Historical Society's website and Wikipedia, the U.S. government signed a treaty with the Sisseton and Wahpeton bands of the Dakota Indians in 1851 in which the Sioux gave up more than 20 million acres of land to settlers for the promised payment of of $1.66 million. The land made up the vast majority of present-day southern Minnesota and parts of Iowa and South Dakota.

After the treaty, the Traverse des Sioux settlement was established just north of St. Peter, eventually growing into a town of about 300 people. However, the town lost its county seat of Nicollet County to St. Peter in 1856 and was eventually abandoned in 1869.

If you're looking for non-St. Peter related points of interest, there really aren't many that come to mind. The wetlands mentioned on the map weren't really prominent when I biked the loop, though that might have been due some exceptionally-dry weather at the time.

One thing that's pretty easy to find outside of St. Peter is the Kasota Stone Quarry. It's located right off the route and can be seen clearly from the road. While walking through a quarry full of bulldozers might be a little dangerous (at least it seemed like it to me), it is pretty cool to see the stone that was used to help build Target Field.

Possible ways to expand the loop: The easiest one I can think of is to keep heading west on Highway 99 into Nicollet. If your appetite is back by then, you can swing over to Schmidt's Meat Market and grab some beef sticks. If you want to loop back into Mankato from there, bike across Highway 14, hang a left onto County Road 25 and follow the back roads until you get to Lookout Drive. If you feel like getting a few golf swings in, the Northern Links is right on the way (though I'd recommend renting clubs, they might be tough to haul on a bike).