Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Lake Michigan Beach Fat Bike Riding!

It's with some amount of shame that i willfully admit this, but until a couple weekends ago i had never ridden my fatbike on the beach. I feel better now that i've gotten that off my chest. Jenny has been suggesting for time over the past few months that we get out for a beach ride and it wasn't until the Sunday on the end of my winter vacation that we actually put this into action. I had been chatting with Joe and he said he was up for a beach ride so the die was cast. Anytime we get to put the Transit to good use hauling bikes and people my excitement level goes up a few notches and i was pleased that the 3 fatbikes, gear and people went in with much room to spare. After some recon on Strava and Facebook groups i had a rough route in mind. The biggest thing about planning routes on the lake shore is access to said beach (parks are easiest but be sure to check hours), any hindrances along the shoreline (major channels, barrier walls, bluffs, etc...), and of course lake conditions as excessive wave action can thwart the best laid plans. We would start at North Beach Park near Grand Haven and venture north to Muskegon. There are several good stretches to choose from that are relatively unencumbered by the constructs of mankind and this one provides a good 7-8 mile jaunt before having to side route.

Fatbikes happily in their element

Jenny capturing the moment

The creek crossing at PJ Hoffmaster State Park

As we unloaded from the van we felt the northwest wind cutting across the beach and into the parking lot. Keeping skin fully covered is a good idea this time of year with the sand and steady wind. I started off with around 8 psi give or take and it was a good compromise of rolling resistance to flotation. The damp sand makes the best area to travel as long as you keep an eye out for rogue breaking waves ready to soak passersby. Thankfully the lake was relatively calm with just small whitecaps breaking and no major wave action on the shoreline. With the recent stretch of storms and high lake levels the beach has a fairly dramatic cut bank in this area so it's not very easy to just scoot a few meters inland to avoid the water. This stretch from the North Shore Park to the creek at PJ Hoffmaster is relatively un-barricaded with the exception of some long eroded dock pilings along the way. At the 4 mile mark we encountered our first true challenge which is the creek at PJ Hoffmaster State Park. Generally speaking the channel inland is around 2-3 feet in depth and the shallowest crossing point is the sand bar that builds up where the creek meets the breaking waves. I found the best method for crossing was to approach easy enough to not make a big splash and keep the pedals horizontal (think 3 and 9 o'clock) and use a stuttering pedal stroke to keep the bike moving forward without going through the full pedal stroke and soaking my feet. Each of us made it through relatively unscathed and dry. The 45NRTH Japanthers have a nice water resistant upper that keeps the frigid water at bay.

Talking creek crossing strategy

Posing for posterity

Preparing for battle

After crossing the creek we ambled northward battling the steady winds and enjoying a brief showing from the sun. The next barrier ahead would be more significant than the minor creek at the state park and that would be Mona Lake Channel. The channel makes an appearnce at mile 6.5 on this route and is surely not ride-able so we cut inland through a small community park and one half mile inland to Lake Harbor road in Norton Shores. After crossing the channel we turned back toward the lake through a county park and continued our adventure northward. Nine miles into our journey we encountered a man-made rocky outcropping that had to be overcome and ventured onward until we hit a major road block. The beach quickly disappeard and in it's place was a sharp forested bluff going straight into the crashing waves. On Google maps this still shows up as a sandy beach, but those times are long gone. To further complicate the issue there was a house just 50 feet or so up the bluff and it would require trespassing to safely surmount this obstacle. We chose this as a good spot to enjoy a snack and strategize. We all agreed that we wanted to make it to Muskegon even if we had to make a sizable re-route to get there so we ventured back south to that rock outcropping and the road that dead ended at it.

Said rock outcropping

Awesome views during our snack break

As we ventured down the road which i would later find out is Seminole road we found ourselves on the backside of a locked gate with No Trespassing signs facing outwards. We didn't pass any signage coming from the beach, but clearly this road was not meant to be a thoroughfare to access the beach. It seems that it is meant more to keep miscreants out as there's a community hiking/walking path the goes around the fence and we passed a local walking their dog. With that being said, this route leads to a dead end and i wouldn't recommend it. We hopped onto the pavement and set the navigation to Norman F. Kruse Park which we assessed to be the nearest access point to the shoreline. By the time we hit the beach again we were at a total of 13.5 miles. Upon regaining the coast we quickly found ourselves in a minor snow squall which made the adventure that much more excellent not to mention the lighthouse on the Muskegon Lake channel had come into view. We made short work of the last section and celebrated briefly at the lighthouse for our perseverance.

Photographic evidence

Stoke level is high

We were all excited for the return trip as it meant a tailwind would be ushering us closer to our vehicle. All was well until i looked back and Jenny was out of sight. After she caught up she informed us that her bike was acting funny and dropping the chain. I took a closer inspection and found the freehub to be frozen up a bit. With some work i was able to free it and we ventured onward (this omen would later rear it's ugly head in the form of a spice grinder style destruction of the pawls and springs on a different ride). We decided that we would head south beyond our last point of entry to assess the bluff which had blocked us from the northern view. As suspected it was more than just one house that lay in the way and there was no way to safely pass without basically climbing the stairs to their driveway and cutting through their yard. This did spawn some discussion which led me to look up the legality of beach access and private property in Michigan. Here's what i found:

Basically you can cruise, run, hike or skip down the beach but i wouldn't plan on having a bonfire or picnic on someone's property. Also, it never hurts to be amply courteous and wave and smile as you encounter other people. Back to the story though... So, we turned back north towards the park and followed the same roads which brough us around the obstacle. After looking at the map we also determined that the beach section between Mona Lake Channel and the encroaching bluff was not worth the extra hassle of re-routing twice so we just cut straight to the beach access south of Mona Lake.

Obligatory group ride selfie

Here's what i learned about this route:
If you're looking to just stay on the beach for an out and back ride, i would recommend turning around at Mona Lake channel for a nice 13 mile roundtrip. You could always add some extra at the end by looping down to the Grand River Channel in Grand Haven. If you want to make it from Grand Haven to Muskegon, do yourself a favor and take the roads from the Mona Lake Channel to Norman F. Kruse Park (count on about 5.5 miles of pavement). If the creek is too much to tackle at PJ Hoffmaster you can turn inland and there's a bridge over the creek. If your freehub body starts freezing up, slipping or not working, take it to a bike shop or check it out when you get home, the sand and water may have done some wicked damage.... At the end of the 30 mile ride i was wondering "why have i never done this before" and found myself scouring maps more more epic beach rides in the future.

The bridge isn't too far inland

Overall route map

Zoomed in map of our re-route areas