I have a free weekend in late September, and autumn is upon northern Minnesota. It’s a bit early for fall colors, as the lakeshore remains a verdant green, but inland some pockets of red and orange have begun to emerge, and a good itinerary can pick out a few of them. Why not hike 29 miles? A jaunt on the Superior Hiking Trail is in order.
I’ve hiked somewhere close to half the SHT in countless day hikes and several-night backpacking excursions over the past twenty years. This, however, will be my first solo overnight hike on the SHT. It comes at a time when I need it. My hike offers a bookend to a summer that began with some solo travel in a tent, and another one of those necessary chances to cycle out of the day-to-day routine and take stock of my direction on a much longer hike.
My starting point is Sugarloaf Road, the first access point to the trail in Cook County. My dad, who chauffeured me from my car’s resting place to the start, joins for the first few miles, which roll along a ridgetop that offers occasional looks down to the lake. Come back in two weeks, and this stretch will be spectacular; now, we get occasional hints of glassy Superior. We pass a few parties working their way north, including a group of 60-something ladies on a jolly backpacking journey. The trail works its way down to the Caribou River, which dances through a gorge on its way down to the lake. My dad turns around at the bridge, and I turn inland from there.
I quicken my pace. It’s a perfect day for a hike: mid-50s and overcast but with no threat of rain. Nice and cool, nice and easy. Unless, of course, there is a massive, impossible-to-avoid mud patch that threatens to tear one’s foot out of one’s boot, which there is at the base of the climb up to Horseshoe Ridge. After my narrow escape, I kick some mud off my boot and shoot up the 700 feet to the ridgetop. To my left lies the Manitou River Valley, spackled here and there with clumps of red leaves amid the green; behind me lies Lake Superior, with rivers of light glowing on the surface along the channels where the sun pierces through the clouds.
I lunch atop one of the telltale moss-covered knobs of George H. Crosby-Manitou State Park, a park with no modern facilities: just a slice of rugged inland wilderness set aside by an old mining magnate who lived a block away from my current Duluth home. I work my way around the full horseshoe of Horseshoe Ridge, with occasional dips down to unexpected ponds. The trees have more color back here, and at one point the trail seems to be the dividing line between lingering green and the red onrush of fall. At about the most remote point of the trail I’m hiking, I encounter another troupe of 60-plus ladies moving slowly but surely along the trail. Traffic picks up again as I start my short but steep descent to the Manitou, where I pass crew of college kids laboring more than the older ladies were. The rushing Manitou is a welcome sight, and I stop to snack a bit after crossing the bridge. Next it’s back up again, climbing up well-trafficked state park trails. A .6-mile road walk out of the park feels like bliss after endless rocks, roots, and hills.
After a brief clamber over Aspen Knob, the trail starts to drag, but in time I hit the east branch of the Baptism River, which brightens my day as it rushes down an array of rapids. I refill my water bottle from its crisp waters and enjoy a mile of delightful riverside walk. I’d initially dabbled with camping at the site at the confluence of the Baptism and Blesener Creek, which looks lovely. Foot traffic picks up again past the two campsites, as I pass an access trail from Sonju Lake Road. A herd of day hikers makes its way back from Sonju Lake, including a group leading a dozen dogs and a woman who has chosen to relieve herself right next to the trail. The trail keeps its distance from Sonju Lake, but a short spur leads out to Lilly’s Island, a small rocky spot with a trail log, which I sign.
I’ve gone sixteen miles now, and reached my planned campsite for the night. I’ve made good time, though, and with a more ominous forecast for tomorrow, I decide to push on another three miles to Egge Lake. Up, down to a beaver pond, up again, and a look down to Egge Lake below followed by a painfully long meander down from the ridge. The first campsite has a crowd, so I head on to check out the second one, which features much less flat space and a young couple that appears intent on solitude. Easy choice: I make my way back to the first campsite and settle in with my five companions. A Duluth man and his sixth-grade daughter are on their second of two nights here on Egge Lake, a quick weekend trip to give her a taste of backpacking with hammocks. Their new friends are party of three retirees from Des Moines who are working their way from Tettegouche to Temperance River over the course of six nights. We share our backstories and settle in with one another for the night.
I reload my water, set up my tent with an audience, and boil some water for my dinner of rehydrated pasta and potato soup. (We’ve all brought meals from the same brand.) The Iowans, all experienced marathoners, share tales of their adventures before they turn in around 7:00. The Duluth dad and daughter combo last longer, and they keep a fire going and sample some freeze-dried apple crisp; he’s a recent arrival in the Northland, and marvels with delight at the ease of escapes like this. He’s already plotting more, and with his wife and younger son as well. His trooper of a daughter starts to fade, so I head to my tent, where I write some delirious lines before I tug on my long underwear and settle in for a night in the 30s. Never before has a Thermarest felt so comfortable. Night brings a few distant wolf calls, and a single, apocalyptic clap of thunder that wakes us all; after that, it’s hard to tell if it’s raining steadily or if it’s just a brief shower followed by drips off of trees.
Sunday morning brings a nonstop gentle stream of spit from the sky, compounded by high winds that send periodic showers down from the boughs above. I crawl in under the Iowans’ tarp to heat up my tea, and we share a damp breakfast. I don’t waste much time taking down camp, and pause only to bid the Duluthians a farewell before following the Iowans out of the site. I turn south and adjust my poncho into something that will keep me more or less dry. The first few miles are a gentle downhill, which feeds a false sense of pleasantness quickly dispelled once I step out on to the gravel-turned-mud County Road 7 for a brief road walk in the wind-driven rain. It’s a relief to turn back into the woods, which here are lush, as I follow a dancing creek and cross the Baptism. I climb some hills amid the Finland Ski Area, and the hike starts to feel like a slog again.
I run into a person for the first time all day near the Leskinen Creek campsite, and inconveniently encounter the next group midway across a narrow boardwalk labeled Lady Slipper Area. (Sure enough, there is a lone, sad black lady slipper left amid the swamp.) I come upon a giant glacial erratic and settle in for a wet lunch; at least one of the neighboring rocks offers up a good seat. Shortly thereafter a man catches and passes me, and I follow often just in sight behind him for the next mile or two, including a boardwalk across the misty Sawmill Bog. Beyond the bog, the cliffs of Section 13 loom up before me. The end is near.
Climbing hills is often my favorite part of hiking, for reasons both metaphorical and owing to long legs that let me push up them faster than most. My choice to end my hike at Section 13 (so named for the section of Crystal Bay Township from which it rises) is no coincidence. I fly past my fellow hiker on the lower stages of the climb, and even have time to admire the beauty of this ravine I share with a creek on my way up. A sense of conquest builds as I come to the rocky domes of one of the SHT’s greatest overlooks. I push on through a little depression and past the clifftop campsite to the next large outcropping, where I pause to gaze out through the mists, with fall colors and a small lake wandering in and out of my sight. I can only see fragments, but that seems appropriate. Unwittingly, life starts to resemble a hint of fiction.
My left knee and right ankle gripe on the way down, but the allure of warmth is too great for any pain to slow me down. I come to my car, towel off, change into sweatpants, and blast the heat. The drive home is an hour of Lake Superior at its finest: monster waves and unbridled power, dramatic enough to entice some surfers out into promising swells at the mouth of the Split Rock River. I pause to reward myself with a stout at Castle Danger before I finish my trip down the scenic highway to Duluth.
Too often, I’ve struggled with re-entry after time on some distant trail. I lapse into useless boredom upon my return, or linger too long when new tasks call. My goal this time: avoid that lull. Keep climbing, even up into the fog. My life has its share of fog, but maybe I’m at my best in the fog, where I have to work to pick out the sights and summit peaks when others would stay home.