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Grand Island isn’t enormous. True, it’s the largest island on Lake Superior’s south shore, but the longest reach is only 8 miles, and its total shoreline keeps to a tidy 35 miles. Yet there’s a majesty to the place that more than fulfills the promise of its name. Made of the same sandstone strata of the mainland’s nearby Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, Grand Island is a stubborn survivor of millions of years of glacial crush and eroding melt. Its ragged cliffs—some of them towering 300 feet above the water—are a geologic snub to the relentless slaps of Superior down below.
The island’s interior is quieter but no less sublime. More than 130,000 acres of woods blanket the landscape, shady trails criss-crossing among pines, maples, hemlock, ferns and wildflowers. Save for the once-daily tour van and the few cars already here, no cars are allowed. A handful of generations-old private cottages dot the island, but other than their few residents, the island, a National Recreation Area since 1990, is largely uninhabited. For all these reasons—the big beauty, the big quiet, the big trails—my boyfriend Jon and I have been drawn to Grand Island. And we’ve brought with us a big plan: We’re going to bike the island’s 23 miles of perimeter trails.
When the ferry drops us off at William’s Landing, the southernmost part of the island, we don’t rush. We heft our packs onto our backs, climb on our bikes and wobble up the road to Murray Bay Campground, looking like two giant turtles and moving even slower. The campground is less than two miles away, but characteristic of the island’s low-lying south end, where long strands of beach sneak into Lake Superior shallows, much of the road is sand, and we stall often. We don’t mind. Around us, juneberry and hawthorn trees poke out among maples, shrubs and wildflowers. Squat cabins and a cluster of classic cottages painted black and trimmed in white appear as the road bends. The sun shines. The breeze is light.
We see not a soul when we arrive at the campground. Dumping our packs and bikes, we run through the woods to find the best site. Each is set back in the trees and connects to the water by a thin path. We pick a site deep in the shade, then stroll the hundred yards to the beach—a narrow slip of a thing—to dig our toes in the cool sand, examine the driftwood and build elaborate temples of rocks and sticks to mark our path home.
An hour later, we’re pedaling north past pond-sized Duck Lake. When we arrive at Trout Bay, we yank off our shoes and kick through the shallows. Even in the height of summer, Superior’s temperature rarely rises above 48 degrees. The dull throb in my ankles confirms the chilly reputation. These waters are better suited for fishing—Trout Bay the hot spot for lake trout and coho salmon; Murray Bay for perch, pike, walleye and rock bass.
Already mid-afternoon, and we haven’t even started the northward push up the eastern edge of the island. We kick it into high gear and find ourselves ten minutes later lost on a loop we thought was the straight shot north. Worse yet, we need to go uphill to get back on track. I focus on the lush green forest around us, the sweet, ripe scent of leaves about to turn color for fall, and pedal to the crest.
Soon we’re exactly where we intended: the path on the eastern edge of the island. The trail is still soft in spots. The majority of the island is a thin layer of soil over sandstone bedrock—thin according to geological standards, by the way, means between a half-meter and a meter-and-a-half deep. To a biker, it simply means you steer smart, aim for the grass and weeds on the edge, gain traction from the broken branches and stray leaves littering the path, and walk your bike when you’re pooped.
About halfway uphill the trail narrows under the canopy and, though we’re ascending, the climb is gradual and easy. We peer through the trees as we rise, catching peeks of Pictured Rocks’ tawny ochre cliffs rising from the bright blue water in the distance. The famed formation Miners Castle should be across the water from us now. I squint through the branches and lie and say I see it. Jon believes me. I ride on, grinning.