Before the 2018 hiking season comes to a close, I want to get in at least one good overnight weekend Superior Hiking Trail trek. The timing isn’t ideal; it’s late enough to be a bit cold, but too early for most of the fall colors. I’m going to spend most of the next two weeks away from home for various reasons. But down time never seems to fulfill its desired function, and a 25-mile march will give a kid some focus to diagnose his writer’s block, to say nothing of his whole long quest, some ten years in the making, that guided him back to this shoreline he knows so well.
I leave my car at the scenic Pincushion Mountain lot above Grand Marais, and my dad drops me at the other end of my hike. We park at Judge C.R. Magney State Park, the eighth and final of the state parks the SHT traverses heading northward. Magney, named for a conservationist mayor of Duluth from a century ago, lines the Brule River on its way down to Lake Superior. Its star attraction is the Devil’s Kettle, a mile upstream along a path that rises gently until it plunges down a 200-step staircase to a few waterfalls. The Devil’s Kettle is a famed split in a waterfall, half of which behaves like a normal waterfall, and half of which plunges into a deep hole that long baffled geologists as to where the water actually went. Alas, there is no devilry on display when my dad and I arrive: the Brule, torrential in its force after a week of rain, overwhelms the whole cliff and bounces out of the kettle and back into the main channel. Instead of a unique geological feature, we’re left with a pretty waterfall.
We return to the parking lot, and I strap on my pack and bid my dad farewell. After the rain there are countless small streams to hop, and sometimes the trail itself becomes a small stream, especially in the unremarkable first few miles out of Magney, where it follows a ski trail and then rigidly follows property lines up and down a hill. Things brighten at the Little Brule River, a small stream that still manages to carve a deep North Shore ravine on par with its more voluminous peers. The trail hugs the high bank and passes stray white pines before it breaks southward to the Lakewalk.
The Lakewalk is a 1.5-mile stretch along the shore of Lake Superior, the only wilderness portion of the trail that runs along the Great Lake. Its vast openness unfurls in stark contrast to the dense woods that line so much of the trail. The sun dances across rolling waves, the golden glow of the North; a bit larger and these rolling swells would be a surfer’s dream. The sound of the rocks pulled back with each retreating wave isn’t quite as powerful as the Pacific, but the dreamlike effect is the same. I eat a leisurely lunch from a seat atop a pile of rocks across a narrow channel from a small island.
I fancy myself a veteran beach hiker after my Lost Coast adventure in July, but that experience only takes me so far: there are a few easily traversed rock ledges, but much of the hike comes across bands of small rock that only last for so long. Frequently, I’m forced to scramble up to higher ground. The lessons of California do not apply, and the lake, at its highest levels is recorded history, doesn’t offer a retreating tide to make passage easier. At one point the trail disappears completely into the waves, and I’m forced to crash through a thicket, perhaps the most challenging bushwhacking I’ve ever done. One last beautiful stretch of beach follows my emergence from the brush, though I wonder if the rising lake will allow this stretch of trail to last.
My mind wanders to a debate that began over Grain Belts at Liquor Lyle’s, as all great pop debates do. A West Coast friend who’s guided my view of California as the mythic American frontier did battle with a fellow Georgetown grad, who stood his ground in defense of East Coast hierarchy. Our elites in Washington and New York may have their flaws, but at least they don’t pretend to be saving the world. That elite is wrapped up in a self-inflicted legitimacy crisis now, and while I too will lean in the direction of the devil I know, I’m more convinced now than ever that answers will come not from Park Slope or Pacific Heights but instead from wilds where we can restore ourselves, if only for a little while. The lessons of California again do not apply, mugged by reality; the East helps only in its acknowledgment of history, not in a pathway forward. As a society divides, Octavio Paz writes, “solitude and original sin become one in the same…When we acquire a sense of sin, we also grow aware of our need for redemption.”
The Lakewalk complete, I plow upward and pass a couple of young grouse hunters, a sure sign of coming autumn. The Kadunce River had been my tentative goal for the day, but the campsite atop a ridge with no view of the river doesn’t strike my fancy, so I stop to refill my water bottle below some falls past the site and push on. The trail here is immaculate, the fruits of a diligent trail crew that I encounter rebuilding a bridge over the west fork of the Kadunce. I thank them for their work, skip past their site, and waffle over taking the passable campsite on Crow Creek before deciding to trust the guidebook’s glowing description of Kimball Creek 1.2 miles onward.
Kimball Creek rewards my patience: after a long descent down from a road, I come to a pleasant site perched above a rushing creek. I set up camp, read and write in peace, content, and decide to prepare my dinner. I then discover my grave error: somehow, I’ve managed not to pack a lighter or matches; even if I’d wanted to make a fire, all of the wood around me is wet. I settle for a freeze-dried meal made with lukewarm water, all but the rice in my “Himalayan” lentil dish reconstitutes passably, and I wash it down with some bourbon. After spending a night at a site with 12 other people in May, I appear to have Kimball Creek to myself tonight, and I’m delighted at this chance to write in peace.
That all changes at dusk, when Jerry stumbles into camp. He’s a middle-aged hiker with a t-shirt that proclaims him a “Drunkle,” and he’s parked his car along the road at the top of the bank and is using this site as a base for a hiking adventure up toward the Boundary Waters. There’s no escape from my chatty new sitemate, but he’s an amiable veteran of wilderness adventures and he shares some of his various sinful goodies with me, which further wipes away the taste of my mediocre dinner. I write long into the night after we retreat to our tents, and struggle through a fitful, cool night’s sleep.
Jerry asks me few questions. He walks away from our encounter with no idea of my family life or what I do for a living or what I do for fun besides traipse around the woods. At the time it annoyed me, but there’s something freeing in frivolous talk, and the disappearance of my easiest talking points allows my mind to get past them and on to something more existential. This summer, my mind has often been caught up in a battle between pride in what I’ve built in my three years back in Duluth and a gnawing sense that I made a mistake and came back home too soon. It would be easy to lapse into careerism, or to obsess over various power plays. Tonight, I end my night looking at the last line in a passage from an old story I’d screenshotted the day before so I could have it even when I’m unplugged on the trail: “even the eternal striver knows his place.”
Jerry and I set out at the same time the next morning, him up to his car, and me across the two branches of Kimball Creek before a long climb up through a lush, mossy spruce forest. The rain that had loomed in the forecast never materializes, but it is oppressively humid, and I’m drenched in sweat despite a second day of ideal hiking temperatures. Faint views of the lake peek out from the ridge beyond Kimball, and the rising sun paints a band of orange across the horizon between the greys of the clouds and the lake. The trail drops through groves of spruce to Cliff Creek, then passes over a seemingly interminable stretch of peaks and valleys over nine gurgling streams, one of which features a descent so muddy that one can only settle one’s boots into it and slowly ski down, grasping at the trees lining the path for stability.
A crossing of wider Durfee Creek signals the end of this endless up-and-down, and it’s followed by a much steadier up. The reward at the end is a beautiful Alpine meadow with views all along the shore and an array of flowers lending color for the scene. The trail then loses itself in some ridgetop woods, and Woods Creek comes as a mild surprise, its rushing waters audible down below long before I can see it. The trail then plunges 800 feet down alongside the creek, and I stop to reload on water when it makes its way down from the top of the ravine to the side of the stream. I cross Lindskog Road and work my way away from Woods Creek before abruptly coming to the gorge of the Devil Track River.
The North Shore has no shortage of gorges, but that of the Devil Track, I quickly decide, may be its grandest. Red cliffs tower hundreds of feet over the river, and the trail works its way up the east bank with scattered views. The climb up along the ridgetop is the most exhausting of this trek, but a steady string of red pine stands, natural cathedrals that have always been my favorite of northern forests, keep my mind off my burning quads. The trail wraps around a couple of tributaries, beautiful ravines in their own right, and finally plunges down to the river past a pair of excellent campsites, one right on the riverbank and one right across the bridge. I pass some other backpackers eating lunch and have one of my own on a convenient rock beneath some cedars just before the trail rises up again. My delight at this gorge justifies any muddy feet, any forgotten lighters, any lack of sleep. The North Shore restores and redeems yet again.
The climb up a long staircase away from the Devil Track punishes me, but at the top the SHT joins a mercifully smooth ski trail. Half a mile onward I come to a quick spur up Pincushion Mountain, which angles up a sheer rock face and traverses a giant granite dome to offer views in three directions. I find a seat and put pen to paper as I gaze out over the Devil Track gorge, silent from this high up, and back across toward the meadow I traversed a few hours earlier. The breeze here on the exposed dome cools me, and I wander about it freed of my pack to drink it in from every angle. Mission accomplished, I trudge along ski trails for the last 1.7 miles of my trek.
This hike is bookended by devils, the Devil’s Kettle and the Devil Track River, names that my dad guesses are the result of poor Christian translations of Anishinaabe spirits. Devils don’t have a lot of purchase for a religiously sympathetic agnostic clambering past these roiling waters in the twenty-first century, but the concept, when stripped of stereotypical accoutrements like tridents and horns, still has some value. Whether we call it original sin or human nature, our species retains its dark and destructive sides that are difficult to shake, something that no love-is-all-you-need faith nor Silicon Valley change-the-world claptrap nor narrative driven by human power structures alone will ever overcome. Most of us blessed with some capacity for self-reflection can name the things that hold us back; the courage to find our way out remains both our greatest challenge and the transcendent task that makes us human.
Nostalgia is a complicated force, one that can both fuel or drown a life. I decided I wanted to go home out of nostalgia, both to honor a past that was and atone for a past that wasn’t. At times, I’ve achieved it; at others, I still have many miles to go. On to the next campsite, and may it bring me not a plaintive musing, but gratitude over what I’ve found.