2020 has been a year made for tents. Deprived of so many of our normal summer pursuits, Americans have taken to mesh walls en masse over the past summer, and I have been no exception. In mid-October, I head out on one final expedition of the year, barring some tempting Indian summer or a drastic change of heart in my appetite winter camping. It’s time to knock out one more stretch of the Superior Hiking Trail before I trade in my hiking boots for my cross-country skis in the next month or two.
I begin at the Caribou River wayside, which sits just west of the Cook County line and the shoreline village of Schroeder. I’d hiked the first couple miles of this trail a few falls ago and thought it would look better once the leaves were mostly gone. I’m not disappointed: the ridgeline here offers near-constant views down to the lake through the trunks of the nearly barren aspens and birches. On this sunny day, Lake Superior is as rich a royal blue as I’ve ever seen, a thick bar between a blurred out-sky and the grey of barren trees, broken only by the shimmering silver of the sun. From clearer vistas, the slopes below look spackled in gold dust, the last of the leaves still clinging to their bows. The wealth of the Shore comes in silvers and golds, the rippling glass of the lake shimmering from one to another based on the cloud cover.
The leaves along the Superior Hiking Trail are mostly past their peak, and this decline in chlorophyll leaves me ruminating about other things that are past their peak. For example, America. Or human life outside the digital sphere. Or the novel as an art form. Or myself. (I am now at the age where, when my favorite sports teams sign people my age, I question whether they’ll still have value by the end of their contracts.) Everything is in decline, along with the leaves. Isn’t that a happy thought to ponder?
The next segment of trail is new to me, and begins even more barren than before. Its highlight is serene Alfred’s Pond, where a few tamaracks are alight and glowing along its banks. The stretch rolls through tame ups and downs aside from one steep hill by Dyer’s Creek, and with little in the way of major attractions it is one of the quieter stretches of Superior Hiking Trail I’ve seen. I play leapfrog with a jovial older man on my way up and past my stop for lunch, and an orange-clad multigenerational crew out hunting grouse also rolls past. A stretch lining the Two Island River provides a leisurely river walk, and I pause to ponder the long-past-peak railroad line from the former LTV Steel taconite mine in Hoyt Lakes (dead since 2001) to the ghost town of Taconite Harbor (dead since its last remaining feature, a power plant, shuttered in 2016).
I come to the parking lot off Cook County 1, and decide that this looks familiar, albeit much smaller than it did the last time I was here. Somewhere there is a picture of my eight-year-old self next to this sign: in the summer of 1998, my dad took me on my first overnight backpacking trip from here to the Temperance River. My other memories of this trip mostly involve hornets, one of which stung me. My whitewashed childhood memories make me think I took the sting in stride, though I will have to run this theory by my dad. I climb a ridge and the forest turns to maple, affording me the chance to crunch through a several-inch layer of leaves. Along the Cross River I catch and pass two parties, feeling good about my progress: I’ve seen no other hikers going this direction who seem to be plausibly targeting the two sites near the bridge. Maybe I’ll have some relative solitude.
Isn’t it pretty to think so? When my dad and I stayed here 22 years ago, we were the only party at the two sites. Now, a tent city has sprung up, and the two sites have bled together into one sprawling metropolis. By the time the two parties I’d passed roll into camp, there are no fewer than nine tents and one hammock nestled in along the banks of the Cross River. My own tent pad is practically on top of the trail, though mercifully flat and right next to some roaring rapids to drown out any noisy neighbors. I grumble that it may be time to look further afield for my weekend hikes. Add solitude on the Superior Hiking Trail to the list of things that are well past their peak.
Still, the site works. I spend a while reading and writing on rocks along the riverbank, safely reaching Zen. Everyone is quiet and respectful, and the dog with the largest party is mercifully quiet. I never need to poop, which is a relief, because the latrine perches on a ridge directly above the largest cluster of tents, the undergrowth that provides privacy long since fallen to the forest floor. The neighbors I do meet, a Duluth couple around my parents’ age named Paul and Eileen, are lovely company as we cook our dinners at one of the fire rings. I head back to the riverbank for some headlamp writing as the stars come out, and am surprised to see I’m the last light on in camp.
It is a chill night along the Cross River, but my new sleeping bag liner is up to the task, and I sleep well enough given the circumstances. My campmates are early risers, and many get on the trail before I do; I shoot past three parties in the first two miles, for a second time scaring one of the women I’d passed the day before by politely announcing my presence from about 20 feet off. The ridge between the Cross and Temperance Rivers features more of those autumn windows down to the lake. That seems to be the mood of this hike: exposed, but with little that needs to hide anyway.
I don’t linger much along the banks of the Temperance River; I’d already hiked the east bank, which seems to afford the better views, earlier this year. Carlton Peak looms up more prominently with few leaves on the trees; I can see its dome looming through the barren boughs, my final climb on this hike. I wonder vaguely if there’s a steeper vertical than this nearly 900-foot climb from the Temperance anywhere in the Midwest. When I get to the base of the bulk of the climb, a 300-foot shot up to the peak’s long western arm, I resolve not to stop on the way up: who knows if this climb has a speed record, but whatever it is, I want to push it. The exhilaration of summiting is one of the best raw emotions I’ve felt in a while.
An overlook on the western end proves underwhelming, so I pick my way toward the looming anorthosite dome and scramble up toward the final 200 feet to the top of Carlton Peak. I eat lunch at its highest point, which is surprisingly free of people, and make my last additions to my notebook over at the Ted Tofte overlook next to a plaque in memory of a rock climber who perished on Carlton Peak some 30 years ago. I was plenty warm in a long-sleeved running shirt while I hiked, but as I sit atop an exposed dome, the chill sets in quickly. I move past yet another peak and trudge on down the final mile of my hike to the parking lot on the Sawbill Trail.
Peaks never last, and it’s dangerous to linger on them for too long. Renewal can yet come. Winter has its merits, and spring will come again. The United States will have a chance to write plenty of different futures, and our past definition of greatness may not have been the best one. My crowded campsite shows there are plenty of people who still yearn to get off the grid. The New Yorker short story I read before bed in my tent is the most engrossing one I’ve read in years; the written word isn’t dead yet. The Yankees may be out of the playoffs, but their immediate future still looks pretty bright. We will have a hockey season this winter, limited as it may be. My legs are in as good of shape as they’ve ever been.
To see the mountaintop is not enough; to stay on the mountaintop remains an impossibility. But the view from on high is commanding, and the glimmers we catch can carry us all the way through to the end. The question remains: what do we do when we find ourselves past a peak, and how do we respond when old strengths may not be what they once were? With resolve, perhaps, or with an eye to lessons that might still hold true. Perhaps even with a hint of panache. These fallen leaves may just be the nutrients the soil needs for a rebirth at the other end of a cycle.