August 23, 2023

Biking fundraiser honors loved ones impacted by cancer

Three cyclists at the U.S.-Canada border

Fifty years ago, Antigo, Wis., teens Nick Schmelter and Mark Blaskey decided to ride their bikes to the Canadian border and back as a fun summer adventure before Blaskey went to college at UW-Madison.

Nick, then 16, and Mark, then 18, camped out in tube tents, rode their 10-speed bikes through the elements and documented their 800-plus mile adventure with a 12-exposure Kodak Instamatic camera and a daily journal Mark kept.

What they thought was a once-in-a-lifetime journey got a revival on July 9. Exactly 50 years to the day, Nick, Mark and Mark’s wife, Emily Blaskey, pedaled that same route with a new focus: raising money for cancer research at UW Carbone Cancer Center. Their inspiring efforts have led to more than $7,300 raised for Carbone’s Greatest Need fund.

“Cancer has hit so many people, and so we feel so fortunate to be able to do this,” Nick said.

Planning a new trip

Nick, also a UW alumnus who lives in Utah, decided during the Covid-19 pandemic to reconnect with old friends. Soon after he and Mark got back in touch, Mark brought up his desire to celebrate the 50th anniversary of their bike trip by doing the route again.

Mark, who now lives in Altoona, Wis., said his inspiration came from a friend who canoed down the Mississippi River in 1949 and did the trip again, via car, in 1989. That friend also took then-and-now comparison photos.

“I thought that was a great concept, so I always had it in the back of my mind,” Mark said.

Nick quickly agreed to the trip and suggested they tie their efforts to fundraising for cancer research and patient care. Both of their families, as well as many friends and former classmates, had been impacted by cancer, and they wanted to support their alma mater UW.

Thanks to word of mouth among people they knew, as well as some publicity ahead of the ride, they exceeded their $5,000 goal just days ahead of starting their trip.

“It was extremely gratifying to already be at that level,” Mark said.

On the road

Like in 1973, their journey began from outside of Mark’s childhood home in Antigo. They rode up through Park Falls, Bayfield and Superior, crossed into Minnesota, and followed the edge of Lake Superior up to the U.S.-Canadian border. The trip back included stops in Park Falls and Rhinelander before arriving back to Antigo.

Nick Schmelter, Mark Blaskey - 1973

While they wanted to stay authentic to many of the 1973 trip details, there were some adjustments. Emily, a passionate cylist, joined them for the whole route by bike, and close friend Andrea Kubishak drove along in an RV to serve as their daily base camp and give the trio a ride as needed.

When they reached the U.S.-Canadian border, the group took photos and shared many laughs with a border patrol agent who delighted in hearing about their story and seeing pictures from the 1973 trip.

“He was making me split a gut the whole time,” Nick said of the jokes the agent cracked about their clothes and hairstyles as teens.

Both men reflected on how straightforward their trip seemed as teenagers.

“Neither Nick nor I can remember any hesitancy at all from (his) father or my parents for going,” Mark said. “And you know, Nick's just 16. We can't remember exactly any objection. And then we didn't call home for four days. Can you imagine that in this day and age?”

As a newcomer to the journey, Emily said she enjoyed hearing Mark and Nick reminisce about highlights and landmarks from 1973. She felt the most connected to their memories when the group reached the Canadian border.

“That experience seemed like I was at that point jumping back in time and experiencing that sort of pinnacle experience,” she said.

Nostalgia and new memories

Nick, whose 35-year career with the U.S. Forest Service included time working in the Chequamegon National Forest, enjoyed an extra layer of nostalgia as they biked by where he lived and worked for many years.

“To reflect on where my daughter was born, where my son was born, the first house I ever owned, which we took a picture of, and another house that we rented in Park Falls… to see all those and how much things have changed and yet how much stayed the same, to me it was a walk back on memory lane,” Nick said.

He told his travel companions about his work preparing the 1983 U.S. Capitol Christmas Tree, a white spruce harvested from Chequamegon. Nick spent many hours climbing that tree to tie branches so that it could be shipped on a flatbed truck to Washington, D.C.

Mark experienced a full-circle moment just as the group was arriving back to Mark’s childhood home in Antigo. He noticed an RV parked on the street with “Las Brisas,” its model name, on the side. His sister, who died of cancer in 2020, ran a dealership named “Las Brisas” (the Spanish word for breezes) in southern Missouri. He was overcome with emotions.

“I just could not believe the serendipity of that,” Mark said. “This is why we did this ride, it's for our friends and family and people we don't know who have faced cancer, and here was my sister speaking to me in the final 300 yards of the ride.”

They hope their journey and passion inspires others to take on their own challenge in support of cancer research and those impacted by the disease.