The Heritage Trail is well known to most people in my corner of Northeast Iowa. It is a recreational trail of crushed limestone that meanders 26 miles from the North edge of Dubuque to Dyersville. Its gentle slope makes it perfect for family bike outings and the many running events it hosts each year. During spring, summer, and fall, you are sure to meet many friendly faces as you journey along the trail. You would be hard pressed to find someone from the area that isn’t familiar with the trail.
Winter exposes a different side of the trail. The lush greenery that softens the landscape in the warmer months is gone. One can see deep into the woods, adding an element of eeriness. The bluffs seem taller and more forbidding. Your mind wanders as you spot the caves in bluffs and wonder what might be hiding inside. Instead of shadowing you down the trail, the Little Maquoketa is frozen and still. Even the corn fields, which close in on the trail during the summer and fall, are barren but for the stubble of last season’s harvest.
Aside from the faint din of traffic from Highway 52, it is quiet. I forget Dubuque is just a few miles away and welcome the solitude. I am not alone, though. Eagles soar overhead or perch in the tops of the ancient oaks. Squirrels scramble into the undergrowth when they hear my tires crunching in the snow. Groups of whitetail keep a watchful eye from just off the trail, before bounding up the hills as I draw near.
Any bike ride feels like a small adventure. You set off with an idea of the route you will take, but knowing there are myriad variables to be encountered along the way. No matter how easy the route, you still must provide the power to get out and back. A mechanical failure or injury could leave you stranded, relying on ingenuity or grit to complete your journey.
Winter biking ratchets up the uncertainty and adventure. Even the strongest riders are humbled by three inches of loose, unpacked snow. Pushing your four inch wide tires through the powder makes every mile you ride seem like four. Despite the promise of stability those wide tires offer, you will undoubtedly struggle to keep the bike upright at some point in your ride. You also have to thread the needle when it comes to temperature. Dress too light and you will be fighting frostbite in no time. Bundle up too warmly and you will soon be soaking wet, followed closely by bone-chilling cold.
Despite the challenges, or maybe because of them, winter biking is exhilarating. You feel a closeness to nature that you don’t get when zipping along a blacktopped country road on your road bike. Slowing down broadens your perspective and calls the natural world out of hiding. You get to peek behind the curtain and see the forest for the trees. The crisp air makes you feel alive. If you are lucky enough to ride during a snow fall, it is like time stands still and everything gets fuzzy around the edges.
While a winter ride on Heritage Trail could hardly be considered a trek through the wilderness, it does feel like a bit of an adventure. It is well worth the forethought and preparation required to have a successful experience. The smile on my face persists long after the frost is gone from around the edges of my windows on the way home.