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Bikepacking on little used gravel forest roads and camping in Wisconsin’s sparsely populated Northwoods seems like the perfect social distancing trip. 

On a typical day riding, even before the pandemic, I often only pass one or two other vehicles and might never talk to another person. The most contact I have is going into a gas station convenience store or ordering a burger at a tavern. Both easy places to manage social distancing if you wear a mask, and then take your food outside to eat after you order.

Social distancing sign
Yep, a bike is about 6ft long!

Since the northern county health departments relaxed their travel restrictions, I have been on one solo bikepacking trip. After I was comfortable with that trip, I expanded my bikepacking circle, taking another short trip with a friend and neighbor who I know has taken all precautions when shopping and has otherwise limited his social interactions to immediate family. 

The Tour de Nicolet route was organized by a friend in Wausau was my first group ride of any kind. And although it is easy to distance riding gravel roads and camping, I was still pretty nervous. First, I was coming from Milwaukee, Covid-19 hotspot, and I would be riding with a bunch of people I had never met before.

Click below to check out the full TdN route guide:

Tour de Nicolet:
Bikepacking boulders, gravel and singletrack from Wausau to WatersmeeT
people dining in restaurant
The staff at the Waubee Lodge took our temperatures before we could enter, wore masks and seated our group away from others in the restaurant.

What made me feel safe doing the trip at all was that prior to leaving, everyone else in the group monitored their health closely. Although I only know a couple people going, most everyone except me knew the other people in the group well and trusted they were following recommended precautions prior to the trip. 

Two of the 12 people were a married couple. With four exceptions (including me), everyone else on the trip was from the general Wausau/Stevens Point area. One was from Albert Lea, MN, another from the Twin Cities area, and the last person was from Kenosha.

One person on the trip is a healthcare professional who works in a hospital lab and as such is more aware of the risks the virus poses than the general public.

People sit inside the Northern Lights tavern
Up North, many taverns and businesses don’t follow any precautions, so we always masked up to order and took our beers outside.

During our five days of riding together,  we donned our masks before going into convenience stores, and for the most part we had all meals outside, staying a safe distance apart when dining and back at camp.While riding, were more than six feet apart and on gravel roads with no other contact with people or vehicles outside our group. 

On a couple occasions, like in the Waubee Lodge, restaurant staff took our temperatures before we entered, staff wore masks and we were seated together at a table, but apart from anyone else in the restaurant. 

Being an outsider from Covid hotspot Milwaukee and newbie to the Wausau area group, I probably began the trip more worried than most. I must admit that my fears relaxed the longer we rode together. As I look back on the photos, there were also a couple times when we dropped our guard too much. The biggest example of that was at the Crotch of the Virgin Pines rest stop in the middle of the nowhere. Most of us had no idea it was coming or what it was. When, after riding all morning on a humid 85° day, we were surprised to find a functioning refrigerated cooler filled with ice-cold soda and snacks on the side of an ATV trail in the middle of the forest, many of the group dove in. People did distance on the tables and chairs provided once they got their cold can of pop and candy bar, but we probably should have been more cautious at first.

For those reading this from a Coronavirus hot spot who have yet to travel anywhere, I can tell you I felt that there is definitely a different attitude prevalent in northern Wisconsin where cases thankfully remain very few. Many businesses I encountered on the trip did request people and employees wear masks, like the Waubee Lodge and the Phelps Convenience Center. At some other locations, most customers and staff did not wear masks or appear to be taking any distancing precautions. I still wore mine when I went into those businesses.

At one stop, a customer asked me why I was wearing a mask when they have so few cases in the county. I told him I was from Milwaukee, that I want to make sure the only thing I leave behind in the communities I ride through is money and the only thing I bring back are fond memories.