A ride over the river in December

The Richard Bong Bridge connects Duluth, Mn. and Superior, Wis. over the St. Louis River.
The Richard I. Bong Memorial Bridge connects Duluth, Minn. and Superior, Wis. over the St. Louis River.

Bicyclists aren’t usually foolish enough to ride over the St. Louis River in December.

It’s too cold up there.

And by “up there,” I mean the Bong Bridge.

The Richard I. Bong Memorial Bridge is 12-stories high, more than two-miles long and looks like a four-lane wide, concrete snake that just swallowed a Volkswagen. Named after a World War II fighter pilot, the 30-year-old bridge connects Duluth, Minnesota and Superior, Wisconsin above the St. Louis River as it spills into Duluth Harbor.

One RiverFor the last two years traffic was limited on the Bong Bridge as it underwent an $11 million maintenance project. This closed its pedestrian walkway – the only pedestrian walkway linking the Twin Ports. The maintenance project was completed in late October and it took me more than a month to find time to ride the Bong.

It was Sunday, Dec. 6, when I strapped on a helmet and rode over the river. Here’s what a fool finds on the bridge in December:

  • A black and white merganser floats on the water below. It bobs near a fresh skin of ice. The bird takes off and flies over the ice then doubles back and lands almost in the same spot. A smokestack from a nearby power plant reflects in the water.
  • Loose gravel from the freshly paved path kicks up and jams my bike chain. It skips, cracks and complains about the steep grade. The climb is difficult.
  • The wind is so cold it freezes the sinuses. I feel something up there and try to blow but nothing comes out. What do you do about frozen snot?
  • Runners jog in the pedestrian walkway, dwarfed by the towering steel I-beams of the imposing center span. Are they running towards me or away from me? It’s hard to tell. Distance is deceiving.
  • On the Wisconsin side now. A junkyard. Lots of rusty steel. Piles of twisted metal and large obsolete vehicles used to haul, tow, push and pull.
  • Tall grass and weeds creep out from either side of the path. It’s like riding down a part in a hippy hairline. Dozens of plastic bags trapped on a nearby chain-link fence crackle in the wind like mutant crickets.

I exited the pedestrian walkway on an empty road outside of Superior. Another biker, a few minutes behind me, stopped and said hello. A young man on a muddy mountain bike who spent the day hard riding the Piedmont Trails.

“The wind is nasty up there, isn’t it.” I said. “Which way is it coming from?”

“Believe it or not when I crossed this morning there was no wind,” he said.

Heading back up the walkway, I stopped at the crest of the bridge to shoot video of the St. Louis, a nearby railroad bridge and steam rising from an adjacent power plant. Traffic roared by at my hip.

The Bong Bridge walkway is bounded by a concrete barrier protecting pedestrians from traffic on one side. A five-foot-high steel fence protects pedestrians from falling into the river on the other. Pedaling down it you feel like a bobsled racer on a straightaway. No where to go but the end.

As I hit top speed, I see an older man on cheap bicycle. He’s wearing a hooded windbreaker, jeans and knit cap crunches is face. He’s riding in a traffic lane. Cars scream by at 50 mph. The man stops, gets off his bike, crosses an entrance ramp and makes his way to the crash barrier and pedestrain ramp. It looked like he had used this shortcut before.

Only fools ride over the St. Louis River in December.

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2 thoughts on “A ride over the river in December

  1. Nice. I’m impressed! I’ve been here for years, and still haven’t taken the time to ride over that thing. It’s such a long ride just to get there that I’m usually on my way to something else. This, however, is a destination in and of itself. Keep it up!

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  2. Oh, man! This brings back a painful memory: Riding across the Golden Gate Bridge on a bike with my children.

    This was easily the most dangerous thing I have ever put myself, or my poor children through. This required weaving between heavy (bi-directional) pedestrian and bicycle traffic on an average width sidewalk with nothing more than a pair of steel cables between us and the speeding traffic only and arm’s length away. I don’t know how someone isn’t killed there every day.

    In fairness, I didn’t know what I was getting in to, but I can’t believe the people that rented us the bikes didn’t warn us that we were about to attempt a death-defying stunt.

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