From Bike Racing to Hiking: A Native Woman's Quest for Reclamation and Renewal

Alexandera Houchin

I watched from the window as the wind spun the flakes falling from the sky into cotton candy. Or at least the child within me hoped the wind was weaving cotton candy. The sky was grey, but the snowflakes took on various hues of blue. Behind my eyelids, younger versions of myself salivated as I pictured an adult version of myself taking an order of cotton candy to go. 

I was comfortable and warm on the couch as I laced up my shoes. Part of me didn't want to leave the house, but the training plan I wrote dictated that I would run seven miles, my longest run since beginning training for a 100-mile race a few weeks prior. Running has proven to be a more demanding practice than I expected. I have built a substantial fitness foundation while racing my single-speed bike across the Rocky Mountains. I knew it would be challenging to run, but I just didn't know how hard it was actually going to be. 

This particular run would be along the Superior Hiking Trail in Duluth, Minnesota. Duluth is located about 20 miles west of the Fond du Lac Reservation; we used to call the southern shore of Lake Superior home before the signing of the Treaty of La Pointe, relocating the Anishinaabe of Lake Superior to rural areas across northern Minnesota. My narrative of finding my way home is long, with a deep, storied family history. Our tale parallels the numerous eras of assimilationist policy enforced by the United States Government upon Native people. Every time I come home after being away, I am reminded more and more of how significant this place is.

Crafting a training plan for the long run in September 2024 was the only way to ensure that I would be foot-fit for a 300-mile hike across Northern Minnesota, in the winter. After a wild year of racing my mountain bike, I'd planned this thru-hike as a "recovery" mission. I'd spent almost 40 days pushing myself to the limits of what I thought was possible on my bike, pedaling more than 4,000 miles in four race efforts (Independent Time Trial of Arizona Trail 300, The Tour Divide, The Colorado Trail, and the Arizona Trail 800). After racing my singlespeed love, my partner, Johnny, across the Rocky Mountains in the Colorado Trail Race and across Arizona in the Arizona Trail Race, I wanted time alone with him to gush about accomplishing the most significant goal I'd ever set. Johnny and I would be outside together for roughly a month without distraction. We could traverse the same country we bike across every winter but on foot. Slowing down was the goal. Opening ourselves to a new perspective, one of a hiker, limited by miles on the feet instead of miles in the seat. 

As the bike racing season wound to a close, I began setting my sights on our upcoming hike along all 300 miles of the Superior Hiking Trail. I bought the trail atlas, purchased the hiker's guide, and panned through all of the book's pages. Any mention of an Indigenous history of the trail was absent, with the "history" of the trail beginning in the 1980s. It's a too-familiar feeling, feeling invisible as a Native woman. I scoured the internet for any written history of the Superior Hiking Trail. I know that Anishinaabeg traversed these forests long before the SHT existed.



Finding My Way Home


While planning this hike, we contemplated whether to travel northbound or southbound. The southern terminus is just south of the old village of Fond du Lac. There is an old cemetery where many of our Fond du Lac ancestors were buried and later disturbed when a Minnesota Department of Transportation crew unearthed them in 2017. The southern terminus is close to my family home on the Fond du Lac Reservation, a meager 15-minute drive away. I wanted my mother to be the first person I saw when I finished, so it was decided. 

We would start the journey at the northern terminus, a blink away from the Pigeon River, the borderlands between Canada and the United States. This is the homeland of the Grand Portage Anishinaabe, one of the six bands of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe (there is another seventh band of Anishinaabe, Red Lake, in Minnesota). The southern terminus also seemed strategically easier and more accessible for extraction. It also seemed fitting to finish the journey at home. Those are the woodlands that supported those who came before me; my relatives are buried there. The trees grow in the same Earth that provided for generations before them. It's a place that sends vibrations through the soles of my shoes, up into my feet, and breathes life into my veins. I am part of that country, and that country lives within me. In fact, the entire length of the Superior Hiking Trail lies within the 1854 Treaty of La Pointe boundary.

This trip comes on the heels of a significant shift in our life. Johnny and I decided to move together to my home, The Northland, to grow roots and build a life. The only reason I left in the first place was because I sought adventure. I wanted to test myself in the mountains and compete in the most challenging bike races in the United States. I wanted to show the world what a girl from the Lakes could do. I dreamt of being a professional athlete. I wanted glory for Nagachiwanong. Plus, I identified as a "mountain biker". It's hard to be a mountain biker in small-town Cloquet, Minnesota (there aren't mountains). If I could just hush my ego a little, I could be a mountain biker in Duluth. But, I was too angry with Duluth as a place to move there. So, I left.

When we talked about moving home, part of me wanted to return to Cloquet. Even though they sent us to live in Cloquet, we can still thrive and lead the beautiful life of our dreams. But as much as I wanted to believe that. It wasn't true for me—I am an athlete and need to train on trails. Duluth is home to all the best trails in the region. The Twin Ports have become increasingly popular for the access to trails. Still, I just can't let go of a deep resentment for the removal of the Indigenous people to rural reservations far from the shores of Gichi-gami. I've been running on those trails since returning to Minnesota this winter. The anger is still there, but something else is there too. 



Movement as Medicine 


I wondered if I could do something about that anger—my anger for the dispossession of Indigenous lands. At least I was feeling something. But I am tired of being angry at the inequities of outdoor recreation and for the Native Narrative to always take the backseat. I wondered if I could really have it all; I wanted to live in Indian Country, and I wanted to be a professional athlete. I want to be a part of ceremony, I want to speak our language, I want to do hard things outside with other Native people in my homelands and I want to be able to leave home to compete at a national level too. I want to write a new history—a history of celebration and of Native Narrative Change. 


I was talking to my friend, Giizh, who has guided me in conversation and silence since I met her. She's wise, patient, and humble, a sister. While running at the Cloquet Forestry Center one morning, I confessed my anger, wondering if I sounded privileged or annoying. After a long silence, we talked about how we mourned for the trails we lost, how we missed the trails, but most importantly, how the trail missed us. And maybe that the anger I feel is a manifestation of the weight of responsibility. When we feel so strongly about something, maybe it means we are being called to do something.


I sat with that thought. Someone should do something. Maybe I could do something. The thru-hike of the Superior Hiking Trail was supposed to be a slow recovery ride from a challenging year of bike racing. I think the trail has a different plan. I am ready to heal from a year of chasing and accomplishing my goals. But, I am also prepared to show up for our trails, to travel the length of the Ceded Territory with only the power of my body. I look forward to traveling through the very lands where my ancestors did everything they could to ensure that we would always be able to do as the Anishinaabeg do. I'm ready to learn the questions the trail wants me to ask so that I, an Anishinaabekwe, an Ojibwe woman, can tell a true story. A Native story. A story that doesn't begin in 1980. 


I am ready to move, to make my way back home.



Author Bio

Alexandera is a citizen of the Fond du Lac Band of the Lake Superior Anishinaabe. She's carved out a home in ultra-endurance bike racing, most recently completing the Triple Crown Challenge—an arduous endeavor that spans more than 4,000 miles in a single season of racing— in 2023, setting a new women's single speed record. After spending a decade exploring her world on the bike, she's taking a "gap year" to explore traveling using only her two feet. She hopes to learn different ways of movement to grow as a mountain biker.

Smartwool product was gifted for this blog post.