Discover more from Laura Erickson's For the Birds
New wheels for birding!
22 species and counting...
(Listen to the radio version here.)
When I was a kid, and then when I was living in Madison, Wisconsin, I rode a bike a lot. I didn’t keep up with it much in Duluth, where the hills were just too daunting, especially because we moved here when I was pregnant and then dealing with babies and preschoolers. As my 20-year high school reunion loomed, I tried to get back to biking for a while—in 1988, I rode from our house in Duluth to Russ’s parents’ place in Port Wing, 60 miles taking the long route over the Bong Bridge. When I got there, Russ’s dad thought I was playing a joke on them and kept waiting for Russ to pull in the driveway behind me.
But Duluth’s hills made biking more work than fun. In 2008, when I was working at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in Ithaca, which is just as hilly as Duluth, I tried an electric bike for a year. Riding the hills was quite doable, but those first-generation electric bikes were horribly heavy and didn’t have removable batteries. The entrance to my first apartment was even with the ground, but when I moved to a second apartment, I simply couldn’t lug the bike up and down a flight of stairs, so that was that.
But I’ve missed biking and have been feeling guilty about driving 3 ½ miles each way to babysit my grandson Walter, which wastes fossil fuels. So when Duluth’s first and, so far, only dedicated e-bike shop opened right in my neighborhood, I started thinking about it. I finally walked into the store a couple of weeks ago, fell in love with one model, and went ahead and ordered it. Katie was so enthusiastic that she and my son-in-law Michael decided to give it to me as a gift. It arrived on Thursday, and I picked it up at the end of the day.
I haven’t been on any bike since before the pandemic and the feel of riding this one was an entirely new experience, so I kept my eyes glued on the street and controls the whole 0.9 miles home, not even thinking about birds.
I wanted to name the bike Wally for Walter but changed the spelling to make it Wall-E Bike—I’ll still just call her Wally. She’s way lighter than my previous electric bike but considerably heavier than my trusty old Schwinn 3-speed. I wanted something about her to look truly mine, so I had stickers made from a photo of a juvenile Pileated Woodpecker (BB’s daughter) which I put on Thursday night.
I wasn’t quite happy with them—the dark eyes didn’t pop the way an adult’s golden eyes would have, so I redid them with a photo I recently took of BB.
Apparently, BB approves. The moment I brought the bike out of the garage Friday morning and climbed on, he yelled out and flew to our maple tree, making him the #1 Bird on my Wall-E list.
I rode Wall-E to and from Katie’s house Friday, adding Black-capped Chickadee, Turkey Vulture, and a few other species to bring my bike list to 7—again, I had to focus more on the road and controls than I used to.
Saturday, I rode up to Hawk Ridge and down Seven Bridges Road, a 6-mile trip that I should have waited to do until I’d had more practice. The steep hill on Glenwood was a piece of cake, as was the start of Skyline Road, but as soon as I reached the first overlook, where the pavement ends, the going became much less pleasant and actually dangerous, the road badly corrugated except where the dirt is deep and loose. I was planning on biking whenever I go to Hawk Ridge this fall, but I’ll need more practice before I try it again, especially because as more people head up there when migration kicks in, I’ll be dealing with way more traffic, too. I did see Cedar Waxwings on the Ridge and added a Merlin as I rode through my neighborhood on the way home.
Sunday, Russ and I rode along the Lakewalk. I saw a loon, gulls, and several cool backyard species such as House Wren and catbird. By the end of the 11-mile ride, I’d brought my new biking bird list to 21. Monday, I saw a Bald Eagle en route to Katie and Michael’s, bringing my list to 22.
Even though the pedal assist makes going up hills easy, riding this bike is still a bit of an aerobic workout, and I’m not yet nearly as steady and certain as I was on my good old Schwinn, but I’m feeling more comfortable with every mile. I’ll be riding just about every day until the snow flies, for transportation and to get more in shape. The bike will certainly lower my carbon footprint, though not nearly as much as a lot of sources claim. That’s okay. The best thing about biking for me is that it’s fun. And that is a Good Thing.
My bike is an Aventon Level.2. I’m very happy with it, though I can’t make a meaningful recommendation because I didn’t do any comparison shopping. I knew my local e-bike shop (e-Bike Duluth) would assemble it and show me how to use the features, and I can walk the bike there if I need maintenance, so I limited my choices to the brands and models they sell.
I wanted this bike in part to reduce my carbon footprint, but I’m nevertheless annoyed with the bike’s app, which claims, based on the 31.6 miles I’ve ridden so far, that I’ve reduced my CO2 output by 8.9 kilograms.
That’s over 19 1/2 pounds of CO2, which is patently ridiculous. For one thing, I wouldn’t have driven my car those 31.6 miles—I’d only have driven 13.1 miles for those two round trips for babysitting Friday and Monday.
This also assumes a car gets about 32.5 miles per gallon, but my Kia Niro hybrid averages 52 mpg, so my car releases significantly less CO2 than the average car. Again, I’m not saving nearly as much riding the bike as they claim.
The app also assumes that the electricity used to charge the bike’s battery doesn’t burn any fossil fuels. Russ and I have 12 solar panels on our house and, since they were installed, we’ve produced about 70 percent of the electricity we consume, but charging the battery on any electric bike has a carbon footprint unless the owner’s electricity comes from 100 percent renewable sources. I’ve used about 56 percent of the battery power on the 31 miles I’ve gone, so over time, I probably won’t get quite the bike model’s advertised average of 60 miles on a fully charged battery—I think the average is based on riding on more level terrain.
I can’t forget that all my pleasure riding on this e-bike comes with a net carbon footprint. I am doing my best to reduce that overall and this bike will help, but I hate exaggerations designed to make me feel more virtuous about protecting the planet than I really am.