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  • Writer's pictureGregg Severson

Big Bike Trip all across Minnesota

When I started my big half year I knew I wanted to raise money for important causes; one of those was the MS Society. Last year Kellie and I did the Bike MS Ride Across Minnesota for the first time. It is a 5-day bike event of roughly 300 miles (the route changes every year) organized by the MS Society as a fundraiser. We rode in support of Jess, Kellie's sister who was diagnosed with MS just two years ago. It really meant a lot to Jess that we would ride and fundraise for MS. One great thing about the MS ride is that it brings together a community of people who have been affected by MS, either directly or through a loved one. So many people that we met on the ride (riders, volunteers, and staff people) are personally affected and it creates a wonderful community spirit. After last year's ride, we strongly encouraged Jess to come and participate in the 2019 ride! She was interested, and it was awesome that her partner, Jeff, and a friend of theirs, Aaron, both signed up to come too! All three of them came from Colorado to participate in our MN ride.

This year's ride started and ended in Willmar, a small city about 110 miles west of Minneapolis. Last year we drove to and from the start (with a car borrowed from Maggie, a generous-hearted MS rider who leant us her car before she even knew us, but became our friend over the course of the MS ride), and I was thinking we would do the same thing this year. But when I mentioned this to Maggie months ago, she suggested that I ride to the start and make the whole event part of my bike birding adventures! I was excited by the idea, and her encouragement got me to pursue it, even though I was a little skeptical that we could make it work with all of the logistics required - with guests coming in from out of town and the need to have a week's worth of stuff for the ride make its way to Willmar, and then back at the end.

Everyone that I talked to about it was wonderfully supportive! I won't bore you with all of the decisions and logistical details that had to be worked out, but I would like to express my gratitude to Kellie, Jess, Jeff, Aaron, and Maggie who all sacrificed and pitched in to allow this to happen. All in all, it would be a 9-day ride of about 500 miles: it takes a lot of help to do that. Kellie, Jeff, and I biked the first two days out to Willmar - meeting Jess and Aaron to camp that night. On the second day, we also met at that prime Minnesota tourist attraction of the Twine Ball in Darwin, MN!

Jeff, Kellie and I with our bikes just before we head out!
Ready to head out!

Map of the bike route from Minneapolis to Willmar over two days
Route for the first two days from Minneapolis to Willmar. We camped near Cokato the first night.

Jess helping to fill my water bottle near the Twine Ball

Bird-wise, I knew that the best chance for new species was at the farthest west points. In particular, right near Ortonville, MN (where we were scheduled to spend two nights) is located Big Stone National Wildlife Refuge, as well as a lot of other good wetland areas. As we biked I was constantly noting what species we were seeing and recording them in eBird. The first day of the organized Bike MS ride was from Willmar to Montevideo, and there was little chance of new birds in this stretch. The second day was from Montevideo to Ortonville, and I knew we'd be passing through some good birdy areas on this stretch. I had been in touch with both Alex Sundvall (who birds all over the state and knows a lot about where to find particular birds) and Jason Frank (who lives in Ortonville and so had very good local information). Jason looked at our route and said that when we passed by the East Pool of the refuge, there is a dam and we should look there for Forster's Tern. So, when we came to the dam, I warned our group that I would want to stop and do some birding. We stopped, and saw a few birds around, including some nice pelicans. But after we'd been there a while and were getting ready to move on - a Forster's Tern showed up and starting fishing in the river just below the dam. This is a bird that I thought that I would pick up in migration in the Twin Cities, but they eluded me, so it was really nice to pick up on the breeding grounds! We continued on and our route took us around the edges of the National Wildlife Refuge. There was a spot that Jason had said was one of the best for Western Kingbird. Sure enough, his info was really good and we stopped to see a family of Western Kingbirds off to the side of the road in some brush by a creek. Good, specific information is so helpful to the big year birder!

After the final rest stop of the day, Kellie, Jess, and I stopped in at Big Stone NWR headquarters. I was hoping that we could take a gravel road that is closed to automobiles through the refuge. Staff let me know that this was allowed, but there was one spot where the road was washed out by high water. So we went on the road until we got to the main entrance of the NWR and then we biked the "auto tour" route. I really think they ought to rename it the "bike tour" route since it was much better to do on a bike!

At a platform overlooking a lake, I spotted Black Terns foraging over the water! This is a species I sometimes see in migration at home, but they are much more common out here in the prairie pothole region of western Minnesota. They are marsh terns and love to nest in the many marshy areas out there. This is a species I really expected to find on this trip because the habitat is just so prime for them, but it was great to see reality live up to the expectation and to get them early on!

That night we stayed in Ortonville, and the next day was a loop that was mostly in South Dakota! Ortonville is right on the border, so it was only a few hundred yards from our campsite before we were biking (and birding) in South Dakota. Just before we got into Milbank, SD, we passed by a farm where people were actively cutting hay and rolling it up into those big, round bales. There was a pair of Swainson's Hawks that took notice of the activity and were hunting for the mammals that would be exposed the sudden lack of cover. These birds were awesome to see and to have on my total bike birding list, but they won't count for my Minnesota big green year because they were seen in South Dakota!

That night we stayed in Ortonville again, and the next day we headed out to the northeast through more prairie pothole country with lots of marshes and lakes. We stopped at one location that Alex suggested often held shorebirds when wet. It was pretty wet, and we did see a bunch of Killdeer but otherwise no shorebirds. As we were approaching the town of Clontarf I peeled off of the paceline that Jeff and Aaron were setting because I saw an American Bittern flying overhead! It must have been moving from one wetland to another, and I was lucky enough to be in its path when it did so. American Bitterns are generally found deep in marshes and their camouflage is very good so they are hard to spot! That night was in Benson and was the last night of the official ride.

The next day we biked back to Willmar - we went by some nice-looking habitat, especially near Sibley State Park and along the Glacial Lakes State Trail. However, I didn't see any new species for the year. That completed the official Bike MS Ride Across Minnesota, but I still had two days of biking left! After a bit of celebration and a bit of lunch, our Coloradan guests departed for home, Maggie graciously agreed to transport our gear back to Minneapolis, and Kellie and I stayed at a hotel in Willmar (after visiting the local brewery, of course).

Map of our route as recorded by Strava for the five days of the official Bike MS Ride Across Minnesota 2019
The route for the 5 days of the official Bike MS Ride Across Minnesota

The next order of business was to get home! We biked that day to Hutchinson. We biked around town some to see some cool outdoor art, then got some dinner and headed to the local brewery.

An outdoor sculpture of a blue man with tiny top hat on a red bike
Cool bike sculpture in Hutchinson

We had hoped to get a bit farther than Hutchinson, because we knew that the weather the next day was going to be poor. But, there weren't any other options after Hutchinson until it would have been too far to go in one day, so we stayed in Hutchinson. The next day we woke up really early and were on our way by 6am - we knew the weather in the morning would be okay but that storms were coming! We got several hours of dry riding under our belts before it started to rain. The last 20 miles or so were in the rain, but mostly it was a light rain and there was no thunder or lightning.

It was good that we got going early in the day, because that afternoon there was a tornado not very far from where we had biked that morning! It was probably 5 or 6 hours after we passed through, so we weren't in any danger, but we were glad we were watching the weather forecast and knew to start early!

Map of our 2-day route from Willmar back to Minneapolis
Route for the last two days of our ride

It was an epic 7-day ride! I raised over $1200 for the MS Society through my fundraising efforts - thanks to everyone who donated!

Miles biked on these trips: 512.5

Miles biked year to date: 2056.2

Species count (MN): 218

Species count (overall): 219

My bike birding eBird profile: (Please note that you need a free eBird account to see profiles in eBird)

Fundraising links for the two organizations I am supporting with this green big half year. These causes are really important and they could really use your dollars to do a lot of good!

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