Summer has opened up in Minnesota, and as the coronavirus curve in Duluth flattens out enough for now to allow for some social life, I decide the time has come to head out myself and take a spring Superior Hiking Trial overnight hike. My push takes me from the Temperance River to Caribou Lake, 24 miles according to the signpost, though I tack on a bit more with side treks to vistas that drive up the mileage.
The side trails are more than worth it on this adventure. We might call this the Great Peaks of the North Shore trek: on a list of ten of the most prominent hills lining the shores of Lake Superior, maybe half of them dot the route. Carlton Peak, the first I encounter, features the SHT’s longest vertical ascent and a prominent dome. Similarly iconic are the twin peaks of Oberg and Leaveaux a few miles up the shore; Oberg, with its mountaintop loop trail and picturesque inland lake, might be the most photographed peak on these shores, while hulking Leveaux reaches the same height from its hulking mass next door. Further along, Moose Mountain, well-known to Alpine skiers but less renowned among hikers, is the highest point on the Superior Hiking Trail of immediate shoreline peaks. (There are higher points on the SHT, but they lie inland, and do not offer the same striking juxtaposition.) Mystery Mountain, Moose Mountain’s immediate neighbor to the north, nudges its way just higher and still sneaks a peek of the lake. To top it all off, the hike wraps up at White Sky Rock, which towers over Caribou Lake and looks out toward Lake Superior some five miles off.
The hike starts at the Temperance River State Park wayside on Highway 61 and traces its way up the narrow gorge the river has drilled through the bedrock. The Temperance is deep, narrow, and almost impossible to photograph well given the absence of light in the gorge. (One attempt of mine looking down on a thundering fall that throws up rainbows in the sunlight looks more like I attempted to capture a shallow puddle in a rock.) Further upstream, before it plunges into the depths, the Temperance spreads wide across its valley, though it still carries along at a rapid pace, even at low water in dry conditions.
The crowds thin as my dad (as usual, my chauffeur to one end of these adventures) and I turn away from the river and up Carlton Peak. Named for a local guide who took a surveyor up the supposed first of the Sawtooths, Carlton Peak reaches over 900 feet above Lake Superior. For the first mile and a half or so, the trail is a leisurely one, but it rockets upward from there, first to a wooded ridge and then on a final scramble through some towering rocks up to the anorthosite dome. My dad, one calendar year removed from a hip replacement, marches on up right behind me. My last time here (via the much easier route from the north) led to a mountaintop swallowed in fog, but this time, we can see clear down to Taconite Harbor as we chow down our lunches.
My dad turns back after we come down from the spur to the peak. I stop at the Ted Tofte overlook just past the main peak, which offers nearly as good a view toward the south and east from a slightly lower elevation. From there I head down to the Sawbill Trail and take another spur up a short but steep climb to Britton Peak, which provides a vista out toward the mass of Carlton Peak. From there, the trail settles into a rhythm up of gentle ups and downs through a maple forest as it crisscrosses ski and single-track bike trials. I overtake two parties and pass one in the other direction, but the people don’t pick back up again until I pass the two campsites at placid Leveaux Pond. The main SHT skirts the flanks of Leveaux and Oberg, and I don’t feel compelled to summit them: been there, done that. I’m intent on a campsite and have a date with a hammock.
There are two sites at Rollins Creek just east of Oberg Mountain, and with loud voices carrying up from the one closer to the stream, I settle for the western site set back from the river I set up the hammock and enter a dreamy late afternoon trance, and I eat a leisurely freeze-dried dinner. I jot stray notes in a notebook and read ‘Pursuit as Happiness,’ the newly released Ernest Hemingway story whose title seems an apt description for my weekend hike. A reasonable number of my more useful insights have come while lying in a hammock over the years, and while I can’t claim any such revelation this time, I am just struck by a radical freedom, one with a flow through stages of life, if only for a few hours.
By sunset I’m polishing off my beverage for the evening and assume I have the place to myself when two hikers roll in from the north. My sitemates are two Duluthians making the most of their coronavirus downtime; one is through-hiking the entire SHT, and the other is joining him for as much as he can before he returns to work. They’re about five years older than me, so we have some mutual childhood acquaintances and can chat easily about their adventures to date, which include a brutal barrage of mosquitoes on day one, a Covid-prevention monitor at the Grand Marais grocery store, a delectable hamburger at Lutsen that day, and an encounter with a rogue grouse. It’s hard to ask for better random company. I fire off a few final lines in a notebook in the hammock using my headlamp after they turn in, the bugs mercifully absent from this site.
I wake at dawn the next morning and am nearly done packing by the time my sitemates emerge. Day two begins with a 500-foot upward push up Moose Mountain, its spruce-covered slopes still bathed in darkness. An overlook at the top rewards me, and while the hike from there largely just snakes along the spine of the hill, a few more views peek out both inland and out toward the lake, spruce thickets on the back side of the ridge and green maples on the lake side. I take another spur to the Lutsen ski resort gondola’s apex, its gears quieted by Covid, though its views still excellent. Back on the main trail, I dip down and then start up a meandering series of maple-forested switchbacks on Mystery Mountain. A brief window of a view is the only hint that this peak stands higher than Carlton or Oberg or Leveaux.
I descend Mystery Mountain and come to the wide paths of Lutsen lining the Poplar River. I pause on its wide bridge crossing, which overlooks a roaring staircase waterfall that splits the four peaks of the ski resort. Not for the first time, I picture a North Shore stream as a fountain that collects its waters in the inland wetlands and then cascades down through stone chutes to the lake at the bottom. My next climb takes me up a hill (Ullr Mountain, I later learn from a map of Lutsen) that proves deceptively tiring after the more expected runs up and down the better-known peaks. Eventually the trail dumps me out along the banks of the Poplar again, where a steady flow of people coming from the popular Lake Agnes sites slops past me in these muddy lowlands. When I come to a boardwalk submerged in mud, a mom and her five-year-old stand at the other end, contemplating their plight; ultimately, mom strikes across alone, deposits her pack, and heads back to collect her charge, whose impeccably white stuffed unicorn escapes unscathed. I watch them go with a smile (ready to run in and do any rescuing, if need be), then slog on through the mud and up a gradual, scrubby incline. I’m flagging a bit now, but a series of vistas back across the Poplar River Valley toward Lutsen lift my mood.
Lake Agnes arrives as a sudden surprise at the base of a descent. I pick my way about the lake, sublime in repose, somehow devoid of other parties at this early afternoon hour. Lunch comes on an outcropping above the lake beneath a solitary white pine, and I’m in enough of a reverie afterward that I get to the bottom of the hill before I realize that I’m going the wrong direction. If my geography instincts are failing me, it’s probably time to be done. I reload my water bottle for the ride back at Agnes’ lakefront campsite—my dad and I stayed here once, maybe two decades ago—and then begin up the spur to the parking lot on the Caribou Trail, where I find all the people again picking their way over its rocks and cedar-hewn staircase.
I take the turn for one last upward to push to White Sky Rock. I ended last spring’s hike here as well, albeit in a very different world. An older couple vacates it in time for me to settle in for a few final notes, one final view out over the resplendent lake and out toward Superior beyond. I would say that hiking makes my troubles feel trivial, though current events have done a perfectly adequate job of that lately. Instead, I just appreciate my freedom to take joy in an escape like this, and know that I have reliable maps for my ventures outward. The civilized world I drive back to that afternoon hasn’t changed since I left, but after three months in a coronavirus tunnel, the path that spins this cycle forward is easier to see.