On the Gunflint Trail, students have one of the longest bus rides to school

4:45 a.m.
A bus sits in the driveway at Steve Carlson's home at about 4:45 a.m. on Wed., Sep. 29, minutes before Carlson departs on a twice daily, 100-mile journey up the Gunflint Trail to pick up and drop off students in Grand Marais schools.
MPR Photo/Tom Weber

Many parents probably think their child's bus route is long. But most students probably don't have a bus ride that comes anywhere close to that of Cook County in northeastern Minnesota.

Each morning, the school district there sends a bus up the entire length of the 50-mile Gunflint Trail to bring students to school in Grand Marais. It's one of the longest routes in the state.

The bus driver, retired electrician Steve Carlson, begins his day before 5 a.m., warming up the No. 2 bus.

It's a challenging trip.

The No. 2 bus is 8 feed wide and most of the lanes on the Gunflint trail are 10 feet wide.

"There's very little room for error," Carlson said.

Steve Carlson
Steve Carlson stands in front of his bus, shortly before departing on his daily trip up the Gunflint Trail to pick up students who attend school in Grand Marais. He leaves every morning around 4:50 a.m. for the 100-mile round trip.
MPR Photo/Tom Weber

He likes to leave early, especially in the winter when he's out on the road before the snow plows. On a recent day, he left at 4:51 a.m. in fog so thick it was hard to see.

After about 10 minutes, the fog lifted and Carlson continued to the end of the trail, where he would turn around before starting to pick up students an hour later.

Carlson reached the turnaround point, Sag Lake Trail, about an hour after leaving his home. He turned off the engine for about a 20-minute nap.

As sunrise reclaimed the dawn, an alarm clock woke Carlson. After a quick walk and bathroom break, he started the bus. He must leave by 6:40 a.m. to take the children to school by 8 a.m.

No one is at his first stop, so Carlson keeps moving. Some families have second homes in Grand Marais and spend nights there, which is why he never knows who's going to be on the bus. Within a few minutes, though, five students are aboard, including eighth-grader Daniel Ahrendt.

"I think we figured it out one time, and we spend a total of 14-and-a-half days on the bus in one year," Daniel said.

Pitch black
The Gunflint Trail is pitch black when Steve Carlson leaves on his morning bus route. In the winter, he is on this road before the snow plows have been there.
MPR Photo/Tom Weber

That's 14-and-a-half days to sleep or do homework -- the same ways kids on other buses pass the time. During deep winter rides Daniel reads with a flashlight because most of the trip there and back is dark.

"You get used to the bus," he said. "I don't really get carsick, or bus-sick on the bus anymore."

Other kids listen to music or play video games. First-grader Lucas Alexander Martinson is deep into a game called 'Digging for Dinosaurs'.

The morning's trip will total 104 miles, but that's not the longest bus route in the state, in miles. A bus leaves Warroad every morning to pick up high school students in the Northwest Angle. That's a 130-mile round trip on mostly Canadian roads.

Carlson, though, leaves on his Gunflint route earlier than the Warroad bus. Because his road is narrower, he wants the extra time to account for hazards that other bus drivers don't have, like moose. They blend in with the trees, especially in the dark.

"The moose often times are kneeling in the winter, licking salt off the road," he said. "And they have difficulty getting off their front knees -- so oftentimes in the winter, I'll just lay on the horn before I get to those curves so they have a chance to get off the road."

There were no moose on this run. And after three hours, Carlson arrived safely in Grand Marais with 12 students.

"Take your time," he said. "Make sure you have everything!"

But there's little time to lollygag. Carlson must refuel the bus, run any personal errands, and try to catch a nap before making the entire trip again in the afternoon.

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