Tag Archives: superior hiking trail

A Climb Up from Mud

27 May

On a weekend in late May, my pent-up wanderlust finally gets an outlet. My plan: a twenty-plus mile jaunt over two days on the Superior Hiking Trail on Lake Superior’s North Shore, a bit tame by my standards, but a trek that will give the muscles some healthy soreness nonetheless. I’ll begin at Bally Creek Road and work my way southwest to the Caribou Trail, with four miles along the Cascade River as the central attraction. This stretch will take me 1,000 feet down from a ridge to near the mouth of the river into Lake Superior and then 1,000 feet back up again to White Sky Rock’s perch over Caribou Lake. After a long and tedious spring, northern Minnesota is my playground once again.

The opening miles of the hike follow a ridgetop that gazes down on a valley containing Sundling Creek. Large stands of red pines dot the route, and in the distance, I enjoy occasional vistas of Eagle Mountain, Minnesota’s highest point, and its shorter but more imposing neighbor, the creatively named Unnamed Hill. Spring is still in its infancy here in Cook County, the tentative green sprouts probing upward several weeks behind their appearance in Duluth. Trees are budding here and there, but only in warm hollows and on southern exposures can we say they have anything resembling leaves. I can hear the Cascade River long before I can see it, and a convenient cut in the trees lets me see across its full valley. The trail descends but remains on a ridgetop high above the river for the first mile of its shared journey down toward Lake Superior.

The trail crosses the river on a bridge shared with Cook County 45, a reminder that some seek out the wilderness for darker reasons. Keep going west a short distance and I’ll find the plot of land now owned by Seth Jeffs, a member of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS), a breakaway polygamist sect long excommunicated by the official LDS church. Sparsely populated Cook County, normally known for strict building standards (at least in Grand Marais), recently granted Mr. Jeffs a permit to build a 6,000 square foot “pole building/apartment” on his property. Still, he probably could have chosen a quieter patch of northern Minnesota for his new compound: as a resort haven and home to many well-off retirees, Cook County is about as educated and unfriendly to a religious sect as a rural American county can be, and its denizens are already rabble-rousing in response. Whether a polygamist on the run from the law or just a kid looking to push his body and find some peace, these wilds accommodate our lonely pursuits.

I stop for lunch a few paces down on to the trail on a needle-covered cliff with a view of a powerful waterfall down on the river below. On the east side of the river, a few hikers down at the bottom of the falls seem to be gazing up at me, and it takes a moment to register that their focus is not on a hiker snarfing dried apple slices but instead the large chunk of ice wedged in a gully to my right. It looms like some natural rock arch out west, a gateway for a small stream that plunges a few hundred feet down to the Cascade. The next stretch of trail keeps the river gorge at some distance, its muddy stretches made more pleasant by the starflower meadows carpeting the hillsides. I scurry around a number of small tributaries on their way down to the Cascade, some mere trickles, some powerful streams that leave deep, steep gashes to burn up hikers’ glutes as they traverse them. In time the trail turns down into a tunnel of pines and dives down to the side of the river, which rips along at its spring peak. The Cascade may carry the most water of any river on Minnesota’s North Shore, and the rapids that furnish the river with its name keep the scenery lively. This is vintage SHT.

Foot traffic picks up as I approach the 96 Steps, a wooden staircase that takes me back up away from the river and releases me on to a few state park trails. After a stop for water at Cascade Creek, I begin my push up Lookout Mountain, which provides Cascade River State Park’s finest vista. Recent blowdowns render the hillside relatively sparse, but this cloudy day makes for easy climbing, unless I’m stuck behind a plodding family of four that shows no interest in letting a fast-moving hiker past. There’s a crowd at the top, so I snap my obligatory picture and carry on, and don’t see another soul until another party arrives in my campsite at Indian Camp Creek.

This first company won’t be the last. No fewer than 12 of my new best friends will populate the Indian Camp Creek site tonight, a crowd made mercifully more bearable by the site’s many tent pads and two separate fire rings. The SHT is nothing like the little-known ribbon of trail that my dad and I explored in my childhood, when we’d always have sites to ourselves. Tonight, I couldn’t have solitude even if I wanted it. I label the creekside fire ring Bachelor Flats, as I share it with two other solo male travelers: Matt from Plymouth, and a younger guy in camo who disappears into his tent after setting it up around 4:00 without so much as a bite to eat. He’s still in there when I leave the next morning.

Matt, thankfully, proves amiable company, and the two of us chat through our freeze-dried dinners. He’s roughly my age and a frequent adventurer, albeit a bit spacey, as he tells of how he hiked a mile in the wrong direction from his starting point at Lutsen this morning before realizing his error. We share our stories, and out here, mine suddenly seems fresh again, reassuring words for someone prone to doubt. Later, once the sun sinks beneath the ridge opposite the creek, we wander up and meet our other neighbors, whose number includes a father-son combo of volunteers here to clear downed trees from the trail, three mid-twenties couples from Rochester, and two baby-faced college-aged guys who sleep in hammocks. The father volunteer, a trail veteran who is probably double the age of anyone else in camp, says he’s never seen a site this full before.

Life on a hiking trail is a reminder of the community-minded introvert’s dilemma, as my instinct for solitude jostles with pleasure at serendipitous company. The latter now comes a little less naturally than it used to, perhaps because late 20s seems beyond the phase where people expect to find solitary male wanderers on trails. (I was probably the third- or fourth-oldest person out of the 13 at Indian Camp Creek that Saturday night.) We should be out of that self-discovery phase now and settling into lives, it seems. In many ways I am on a less muddy path now—though I’m a good enough navigator that I could still bushwhack a creative new route if I wanted—but some mud remains.

Leeriness of committing to a path is fairly common in my circles, which are hardly a representative cross-section of society. Having a path complicates things, a turn-off for those who came to believe, rightly or wrongly, they can do anything they put their mind to. With commitment comes the realization that not everyone is drawn to a high-speed push down the same wilderness trails. I have fairly firm ideas on what a good life entails, and these commitments can seem rigid, so overwrought that they can undermine themselves. Us somewhat neurotic chasers have conditioned ourselves to keep on hustling, don’t always know when to stop to admire the view, to acquiesce or submit, to say this is who I am and what I shall be, and this is what I need to concede to make that reality. This is the trail’s gift to me.

I’ve been reading about evolutionary biology lately. It gives me a new dose of respect for these woods around me as it grows and dies and flows through all stages of life around me. But even more than that, it’s given me a new appreciation of human history, our ability to adapt and live in these little communities of other people, work out where we set up all our separate tents and sit around the same fire, not in a re-creation of some early hunter-gatherer simplicity that we’ve lost but instead an instinct that our species has preserved and still draws on to cultivate some sense within us, even as the world around us changes at breakneck pace. It manifests itself differently now, and comes along with the wonders of bear vaults and freeze-dried food. But no matter how much we rebel against biology, it pushes back in powerful ways, and sometimes, when we let it do that, we’re so much the happier.

The night is chilly and sleep comes slowly, and at dawn I look up and am greeted by the sight of a tick on the outside of my tent. Yes, spring is here. The volunteers are the only other ones up as I set about making tea and eating a bagel, though everyone save the mystery man in the tent next to mine has roused to life by the time I’m ready to move again. I go to bid Matt a farewell, and he laments that his phone is dead, that he won’t be able to listen to music as he hikes today. No loss, I think: we do this to hear a different soundtrack, to let the thoughts come freely, as they do when I put pen to paper several times on this trip. After a little warm-up commentary on the quotidian, my thoughts pour out, pen barely able to keep up as everything else fades away save the immediacy of the world around me.

I cross Indian Camp Creek and start my second day with a vigorous push up a ridge. I catch the volunteers at an overlook and revel in a view back across the Cascade Valley and as far as Artists’ Point in Grand Marais, the visibility excellent on this sun-splashed, beautiful spring morning. I push on, and see the trail-clearers will have their work cut out for them. Last fall’s blowdown has left a trail littered with fallen trees, leading to a number of brief detours, backpack-hampered limbos, and climbs over logs, often assisted by natural stiles formed by branches or other fallen trees. This next stretch follows another ridge, though to my mild surprise most of the views are inland instead of down toward Lake Superior. The SHT joins a snowmobile trail for a few steep hills, and eventually takes another plunge down to Spruce Creek, a delightful stream surging through a ravine. There are no signs that anyone camped at this site last night. The creek’s bridge has been dislodged by spring storms and carried a few feet downstream on one side, though it remains useable, and I find a small patch of snow tucked beneath the pilings on the far end.

I push back up the ridge again, slope gently downward through another starflower meadow, and encounter the first party of the day going in the other direction around the halfway point of the day’s hike. Soon, puddles of mud replace downed trees as my primary obstacle, a hazard at its worst in the lowlands around Jonvick Creek, which forces the trail on to a long series of raised planks as it circumnavigates a beaver pond. One of the dam’s intrepid architects swims about, and a turtle plunks off a log into the water as I approach; the pond’s resident frogs kick off a concerto as I pass. Despite the wildlife I’d have no desire to use the swampy campsite beyond the pond, though it is occupied, and beyond it I encounter a steady stream of day-trippers both as I summit a steep ridge overlooking Caribou Lake and as I labor on toward Lake Agnes. One of my first ever backpacking excursions included a night on Agnes, which, predictably, looks smaller now, though still serene in its repose, a scene more out of the Boundary Waters than the SHT.

I enter the home stretch with a turn up a choppy spur trail, and at one point, in a cool forest of cedars, spend half a minute deciding which adventurous route I’ll take down a rocky slope before I realize the log next to me has a staircase carved into it. I power up one last steep slope to White Sky Rock, an overlook with an excellent view of Caribou Lake, arriving for lunch just as one party leaves and wrapping up some notes just as another arrives. I descend to the parking lot, drive south to my customary reward beer at Castle Danger, and head home, tired and refreshed at once. Mission accomplished, the clear road becoming somewhat clearer by the day.

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A Climb into Fog

25 Sep

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.

Out of the Woods

25 May

A hike in the woods is always a dangerous thing. What begins as a pleasant stroll down a leafy path can quickly become a death march across interminable ridges. It promises sore shoulders, sunburns, and blisters; go for long enough, and at least one other body part, be it an ankle or a leg or a hip, will become a bother. There are bugs, and maybe bears. Any self-conscious search for freedom or wilderness is probably doomed to disappointment when it doesn’t quite deliver the expected rush, when the annoyances of the real world fail to go away.

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So, naturally, I love a good hike. Hikes were a regular part of my northern Minnesota childhood, one of those things I took for granted so readily that they seem mundane. Quality trails are so convenient that they’re practically begging to be hiked, and trails lend themselves to both deep companionship and moments of solitude, both of which I value immensely. This is just what I do, and will continue to do, even if I’ve never exactly looked the part of a woodsman.

I spent the last weekend on the Superior Hiking Trail, a spur-of-the-moment getaway after completing my last year of school, and the first of what I hope to be several travel adventures in the near future. It was a two-night hike, nothing too extreme, though we were all experienced enough to set a strong pace and march aggressively over the ridges of Tettegouche State Park. The hike triggered a torrent of memories, some from my own first backpacking trip in the summer of 1998 using the very same tent, which I’ve since inherited from my dad. This particular hike took two friends and I past Wolf Ridge, the site of an elementary school retreat, and past Bean Lake, which lies at the tail end of one of Minnesota’s most pristine cross-country ski trails. I was hardly alone, as my partners also spilled out past memories, all of us united by past calls into the woods.

Backcountry camping lends itself to dualities, a study in how quickly the mundane becomes joyous. Well, either that, or it just brings out our inner bipolarity. With nothing but the trail before us, we can pour all of our delights and frustrations into our next few steps. When a trail seems to be skirting a large hill before suddenly turning directly for the summit, the vulgarity issues forth. Arrival at a large river after nine miles of incessant ridges prompts elation, bare feet, and a feast of strawberries. Sitting down, even if on a barren rock, is a pleasant release; just don’t ask me to stand back up anytime soon. And after five climbs, the sixth becomes a dull routine. Life revolves around meals, the simplest of which satiate us with ease after a long day’s march, and a water bottle reloaded from the nearest stream brings out a rediscovered love for the simplest of drinks. I understand why the appeal is hard to fathom for many, and exactly why so many who try it are sucked in for life.

Activities along the trail range from silly trivialities to opportunities for rumination, from attempts to Tinder in the woods to readings from Thoreau. (The Tinder thing was a new one.) Chatter flows steadily to distract us from the latest turned ankle, but at times it lapses into a natural silence, too. Whether or not we snap pictures at every view, the postcard moments appear around every turn. A dinner at an overlook graced with a gentle lake breeze probably belongs in a backpacking ad somewhere, and our party looks properly intrepid or just memorably silly every time the cameras come out. More enduring, however, are the things we can’t pack into a single frame: a night along a lakeshore that settles in to liquor-fueled gazes at the stars and pillow talk, histories both grand and minor recounted with equal ease. We’re at home here, if only for a short while.

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On the last morning, I wake up beside a still lake, stretch my aching muscles, and stumble along the shore in solitude. I’m miles from where I was a week ago, when my only hike was across a stage to claim a master’s degree, eating well and living well and wrapping up a grand statement on what I’d achieved. Out here in the wilderness, that all seems so trivial now: those now-clichés from Walden about simplicity all ring true, and it becomes hard to articulate my worldly goals without sounding grandiose or melodramatic. But that, I suppose, is the price one pays for a belief in human ambition and pursuit of greatness, all while tempered by a recognition of how small it all is in the face of all those stars above.

The moment doesn’t last long. The flies are out in force this morning, and the allure of a giant, fattening meal and a cold drink back in civilization provide an added jolt. The best I can do, then, is to slide between both worlds, at ease in formal regalia with all its attendant pomp and circumstance, and again out here in the woods, coated in grime and blissfully free from any obligations beyond the immediate chores of camp care. Both are one. In and out we go, the cycle renewed yet again.