Hike Date: April 29-30, 2016
Trail: Superior Hiking Trail
Trip Plan: 2 nights, 40 miles. Park at Rossini Road and hike home.
Day 1 – Hike south from Rossini Road to Big Bend Campsite (3 miles)
Day 2 – Hike south from Big Bend Campsite to Bald Eagle Campsite (24 miles)
Day 3 – Hike south from Bald Eagle Campsite to Home (near Hartley Park)(11 miles)
Day 1 – Friday, April 29, 2016
The journey to hike the entire Superior Hiking trail officially starts here. I’ve planned out ten backpacking trips, of varying distances and time, to prepare me for the long haul. The very first one is now. The plan was to start off relatively easily—I’d get the whole weekend to hike just 40 miles. It seems ridiculous, because the Superior Hiking Trail guidebook and maps recommend planning 1-2 miles per hour, and 40 miles is a long way to walk in a weekend! However, based on the time off of work and the time I’m willing to spend in the woods to complete the entire SHT, 35 miles per day is the least amount I can do. That sounds pretty grim for a hike of nearly 320 miles!
The first backpack trip should be pretty easy, then, since I had all Saturday and Sunday to hike, plus I could get a few miles in on Friday. I made a plan to hike home. I’d drive out to the Rossini Road trailhead on the SHT and hike south around 40 miles straight back to my house. When I split off from the hiking trail in Hartley Park, it’s a bit less than two miles back home. It would be a bad omen to bail on the very first trip, so I figured it would be slightly easier to complete the full 40 miles without an easy option to pull the plug and walk back to the car.
I was trying a few new things on this trip. One was a new backpack I’d bought: the Granite Gear Lutsen 35. I hadn’t really given the inline water filter a shot, so I set up my 2 liter Camelback bladder with a Sawyer Mini water filter in between the hose. Fill ‘er up with water, and just suck it through the filter to purify. I brought a coffee filter along in the case of some skuzzy water. Finally, over the long, lonely winter, I sewed up some hammock gear. I had a custom-designed, DIY underquilt, top quilt, and tarp. Based on the ratings on the Climashield synthetic insulation, I thought I’d be plenty warm in the mid-30’s low temperatures that were forecasted for the weekend. In fact, I skipped the sleeping bag liner. I set the entire hammock up, tarp and all, in the backyard a few times and knew it was pretty simple to put it together.
Without my dog Diamond, packing was a bit easier. I tried to be diligent with my gear, but there are always the things you think you need, probably won’t need, but definitely want to have in a time of distress or emergency. I took the new backpack, and everything was fitting in easily. I planned to leave on Friday right after work to get to the trailhead around 7pm. The hike in is from Rossini Road south to the Big Bend Campsite on the West Branch Knife River. The next day is a long haul to the Bald Eagle Campsite, the most southerly official SHT campsite, good for around 24 miles. The last day, Sunday, is a leisurely trek home expected to be around 11 miles. I packed enough food for two days, banking on the fact that I can eat dinner after work on Friday, and lunch and dinner at home on Sunday. I didn’t really pack a ‘lunch’ for Saturday, either, but had plenty of food (7,750 calories worth according to my calculations).
Jack agreed to come along for Friday night and peel off at the Sucker River trailhead. We dropped his car off on the way to Rossini, and he was in for an 8-mile hike on Saturday. I knew 8 of 24 miles will be nice to have some company.
With everything ready and prepared on Thursday, we loaded up the car on Friday and set off. It always takes so long to get the hell out of the house… and the solemn nature of hiking itself is in stark contrast to the stress and rushed feeling of packing up the car to go. I ate cold pizza on the ride out, and it was a great ride out as the sun sank lower in the sparsely clouded Duluth spring evening sky.
We got to Rossini Road and locked the car, time to go! I started my watch and we set off. Within a mile is 12-Mile View, a lookout towards Lake Superior 12 miles away. My timeless joke is that ¼-mile view is much more scenic. 12-Mile View boasts a tiny sliver of Lake Superior that you can barely see through the trees. The novelty of it much more impressive than the lookout itself.
I asked Jack to see the map. It was on the top of the car. Oh, well, ought to run back, I thought. I set down my pack and went back to my old rusty Subaru one last time for the weekend.
It was a beautiful night on the trail. The sinking sun was making the clouds turn pink, orange, and indigo. We passed some signs of beavers with ponds and downed trees, heard frogs croaking, and saw pile after pile of moose scat.
Jack and I presumed that a moose momma and child likely tromped down this same trail in the wintertime, and the melting snow left a lot of poop piles. We couldn’t think of what else it could be besides moose… these were no deer pellets!
After a fast hour, we saw smoke, signs of people, and a barking dog. The dog ran out from the trail to make sure we were friendly. Around the bend, Jack and I saw two other tents, and then two fellow hikers sitting around a smoldering fire. We asked if we could stay for the night, and looked for a good spot to set up. Jack set his tent right onto the trail itself, and I hung my hammock nearby. It went up quick, but Jack’s tent went up faster.
Starting dry, I brought my new water contraption down to the Knife River. The spring melt meant the crick was rushing pretty good, and as I kneeled towards the river bank, fiddled with the coffee filter to let it sit over the opening. I tried to hold the bladder and coffee filter in place as the rushing water fought to take it downstream, when the cap of my bladder came off. Time seemed to slow down as it bobbed in the water, then caught the current. I grasped for it, but the cap was in for a ride. Immediately realizing the scope of the situation. I dropped everything to run for the cap. With a brambly bush up ahead, I had ten feet to reach for it. At the last possible minute, I dropped to my knees and lunged for the cap. I’ll take a wet sleeve over dehydration any day. To lose the bladder cap would be detrimental. I didn’t really have a backup plan.
I got back to the fire pit, and Jack had his whole gig set up. I told my new friends of the bladder cap debacle and took a large sip of water. The filter worked perfectly. The rest of the night, we stoked the first and engaged in general chit chat. Emily was likely in her 20s, and worked at a church in Duluth. Randy had adopted two campsites on the SHT (Big Bend being one of them), and was up to clear brush from Waterloo, Iowa. At 10:30, we all decided to hit the hay.
Day 2 – Saturday, August 30, 2016
It was a cold night. Uncomfortably cold, thanks to the a underquilt. I wondered if I actually slept at all. But then, next thing ‘ya know the sun was up. I had an hour until my alarm was to ring, so I figured I’d try to adjust my very drafty underquilt. That was the ticket, and I could feel my body warmth collecting under me immediately. I closed my eyes a bit more, and decided to get up a half hour late, at 7:30am. I’d told Jack on a few occasions of my plans to leave before 8:01am under any circumstances. If I have to pack my bag while walking, so be it! Well, he woke up around 6am to make eggs and coffee, and we still couldn’t hit the trail until 8:10! The extra shut-eye was nice, but my breakfast consisted only of a few Lara bars while walking.
I was pretty chilly still walking, but it was a perfect day to be on the trail. With abundant sunshine, and light breeze, and the awakening of the entire northern Minnesota woods in early spring, there was no better place to be, and I felt very energized because of it. I must’ve slept last night, I thought…
We agreed to stop for lunch, and after a couple hours, we sat down on a few stumps to eat. Jack and I both were feeling really good, fatigue-wise. We spent a solid 10 minutes or so basking in the sunshine and taking down some tasty calories. I was gearing to go, knowing that I had a pretty big day ahead of me, and soon enough, we were back on track. I was spitballin’ with Jack about my plans, and briefly thought about hiking the whole way back today. After a cold night, thinking about a good night’s sleep in my own bed seemed to outweigh the arduous 36-mile hike. That is a long way. I told Jack I’d be back at night, in the case I walk the rest of the way in one day. Soon enough, we passed Fox Farm Pond, and the spur trail to Jack’s car was right ahead. He wished me good luck, and offered me a good luck slice of toilet paper. So long, friend!
The heat of the day was upon me as I kept hiking, and I definitely cranked down my pace once Jack peeled off. I decided I’d stop again at the Sucker River campsite, eat lunch and fill up the water bladder. It was a quick hour, and I stopped and sat down on the banks of the Sucker River around 10am. At this point, I was feeling pretty good. Five hours in the hike, and I started to do some calculations. I told Jack that I’d probably just take it all the way home if I got to the Bald Eagle campsite before 4pm. That way, I’d be able to get those last 10 or 12 miles in by 8pm. That sounded like a good plan, barring extreme exhaustion. To stay on track, I’d have to get to the Normanna trailhead by noon. With a plan in mind, I stashed some food in my pockets and set back out.
Things were going good between Sucker River and Normanna. I didn’t feel the need to stop and rest and could manage my pace really well. My spirits were high, and it was a perfect day to walking in the woods! An hour passed and I felt like I was on the home stretch into Normanna with maybe a half hour until the trailhead. Another hour passed and it was in the afternoon. I didn’t really recognize where I was at, but knew that I’d pass the Heron Pond campsite about a mile before getting to Normanna. No campsite. The miles started showing their effect on my body and I got a little tired, and little frustrated, and a little concerned that I’d missed my noon target. I couldn’t remember how far it was from Normanna to Sucker… was it 3 miles? No, pretty sure it was 5.6 miles. Or 6.5? No… 5.63?? It doesn’t really matter, anyways, I walk and I get there. But why did I think noon was a reasonable estimate to arrive? ‘Just get to Normanna’ was my mantra.
A clearing in the woods, and I saw a large pond off to my right. I saw a familiar bluff with some tree cover and recognized the area. In a few minutes, I passed the Heron Pond campsite and contemplated stopping. Well, I just didn’t stop. I couldn’t think fast enough to make a decision to rest at the campsite and it just passed me by! 20 minutes later, and I saw a large rock in the sun where the SHT conjoins with the North Shore State Trail. I took my pack off, took my shoes off, took my socks off and ate as much food as I could. Boy, the Havarti cheese was good. My socks hadn’t even gotten wet, and I was blister-free! Sitting was a great reprieve from walking, but 5 minutes was all it took to munch and get going again. Onto to the wide open state trail.
The CJ Ramstad/North Shore State Trail is a MN DNR-maintained snowmobile trail in the winter, and a multi-use trail in the other months. The SHT conjoins with the NSST quite a bit, especially in the sections just north of Duluth. I’d walked through this section before, and knew it was a lot of state trail. This is good and bad. The good is that it’s just something different. It’s generally easier walking… no big rocks and roots, and not technical. However, it’s wet and swampy, and pretty boring. There are plenty of times where you see the bend in the trail to take, only to then see a very, very long and straight stretch ahead. I figured I could make a good pace on these sections, so set off pretty hard.
I was playing games. I tried to estimate how many steps it would take to get to a sign ahead of me. The first one, I figured it was 600 steps. Nope, 300. Way off. I saw an overhanging branch up a small hill and guessed 550 steps. 551. Better! Then, I saw a large pine tree way off, and guessed 880 steps. I got to 880 and stopped counting. When I got closer to the tree, it was indiscernible which tree I was looking at 880 steps previous, and I decided that this is a stupid game. I found a tick on my butt. Luckily, it was the only one that stuck onto me.
The 6.9 mile section from Normanna south to Lismore Road went by really fast. I could feel my legs getting heavy, and I could feel a few twinges in my knees and hips and feet. Also, the bottoms of my feet were getting sore. I thought I may have a blister forming on my left long toe, but nothing was too serious. The final half-mile road walk into the Lismore parking lot was tough because I knew I was close, and hadn’t stopped at all since Normanna a few hours earlier. Once I got to the Lismore trailhead, though, I took off my shoes, soaked through with water and mud, and peeled my socks off like the skin of a banana. I hoped the wicking tech socks would be able to dry on the rock by the time it’d take me to eat as much as my body would allow. That wasn’t the case. This time, the salty trail mix and chunks of Snickers really hit the spot. No blisters, and my feet were looking OK, despite being white and wrinkly from the swamp water. When I put my socks back on, not 10 minutes later, it didn’t feel good. Standing up felt worse.
Heading south from Lismore Road, I knew I had around 3 miles to the Bald Eagle campsite, or around 15 miles all the way back home. Based on my mileage and pace so far, I was looking at either one hour, or five additional hours. It was around 4pm at the time, so I definitely missed my 4 o’clock cutoff to continue on from the Bald Eagle Campsite, but the idea of hiking all the way home had been building in my solemn mind for hours since Jack left me. I ultimately pondered, out loud to myself, the pros and cons of hiking home today. The pros were that I could be home tonight, sleep in my bed, and wake up tomorrow with the whole day to recover, eat, naps, do whatever. Also, there is a benefit of hiking big miles. If I can do it all, nearly 35 miles in one day, that is a big boost of confidence knowing that I may be capable of 50+ miles for consecutive days later in the summer. The downside was regarding my body. What if I push too hard? What my legs are busted after this one? For months?? How terrible would those additional 12 miles be? The con is going against the plan. Also, camping is fun! It’s nice to wake up to the birds chirping and get back on the trail. However, the sides were stacked resoundingly in favor of going home tonight.
South of Lismore enters some singletrack trail, which is a nice change from the state trail, but it was the muddiest section of trail I’d been on! Well, my shoes and socks didn’t dry out at all, so there really wasn’t any point to pussyfoot around the mud. I was walking fast at this point, but definitely noticed some soreness and pain increasing as I hit 20 miles on the day. I got to the Lester River and Lone Pine campsite very quickly and kept on truckin’. I passed another hiker… I scared him. He said he saw a person at the Bald Eagle site.
Passing two massive beaver ponds was cool. I knew I was getting into town, but it still feels like the middle of nowhere. I looked at my watch and saw 5pm. I’d been hiking for just about 9 hours, nearly straight, and saw the trail to the last campsite on the SHT. I passed the Bald Eagle site without even thinking twice.
Once I passed the Bald Eagle, fatigue set in. Yes, I was feeling some sore spots during miles previous, and it is arduous, but I finally felt the sun and the mud and endless walking and poor night’s sleep really catch up to me. I just felt tired. I thought it out, and figured I’d be back by 8pm. Only three more hours of walking. Three hours is so much walking. I exited the woods and was back on the state trail. The rest of the trip consists of state trail, then singletrack trails, then some roads in Duluth, then into Hartley. Hartley is the final stretch, where I peel off onto a spur trail and beeline it home.
I had to stop on the state trail. My shoulders and back were getting so sore, and I couldn’t find a comfortable position at all. The best way was to hitch it down, right on top of the worst friction areas, and just forget about it. My feet were not feeling happy, and my right foot hurt to flex. I worried about plantar fasciitis. I was talking to myself, taking stock of my situation.
“Ok, legs feel ok. Hm. Shoulders hurt. Mind is still good. Well, except I’m talking to myself…”
I took my pack off, which felt incredible. I knew I was about 6 miles out. I sat on the ground, ate some food, and tried to forget about my pace or time. This is supposed to be fun, after all, I thought. I ate any food that sounded good, and started to think of what I’d gorge on once I got home. It took a few minutes to get back up and going, but I knew I was getting into town. I’d run these snowmobile trails plenty.
I did more calculations, and confirmed my initial 8pm estimate. The last of the NSST sections were over soon enough, I crossed Martin Road, and started towards Hartley Park. From the Martin Road trailhead into the official Duluth sections of the SHT, it is about 3.1 miles south to Hartley Park. My estimates were around 1.5 or 2 miles from there back home. When I got back into the singletrack, I was feeling good. A runner passed me, and I thought about how I’d look to my own self as I passed by, running at a smooth 8 miles per hour.
Into Duluth, the SHT is sandwiched between Vermillion Road and Amity Creek. The trail is very rugged with irregularly shaped boulders and rocks jutting out at all angles, just inviting one’s foot to get stuck and twisted. I took it slow and easy, though, and the trail soon bounced me right onto the gravel Vermillion Road. I tried to shorten my steps as to ease my busted joints and tendons. I could sense the sun lowering in the sky. The road turned to pavement, the graveyards on either side changed to a neighborhood, and here I was, a scraggly backpacker walking through peoples’ neighborhoods as they play with their kids on the swing set. I wanted to let them know I was from here, but didn’t say anything at all, just kept on a-walkin’ and a-hikin’.
Hartley was a welcome sight. The park was eerily empty, but that is generally the case in the wet and muddy spring. I didn’t stop to take in the beautiful sun peeking from behind a few clouds over Hartley Pond, as I had my sights set on the driveway. After 35 miles, I left the Superior Hiking Trail main trail for a spur up to Rock Knob, my favorite place in the world. It is one of my favorite past times to run up to Rock Knob and yell “MORNIN’” to the great city of Duluth. It took me three times as long to get up to the bald rock face, and given the time of day, I opted to yell “EVENIN’!!!!”
I jumped down the steep gorge on the other side of Rock Knob and knew that I had just a small little bit of trail left, and one that I’ve been on hundreds of time before. Luckily, COGGS (Cyclists of Gitchee Gummi Shores, the local mountain bike source) had been working on some new bridges and it was mentally stimulating to see a different trail than I was used to! In fact, it was probably my first time through Hartley since the winter. I popped out of Hartley onto the street, and it is a quarter mile to the driveway from there. The excitement started building.
I was all smiles, and probably looked like a crazy person to my neighbors. I got to the very end of the driveway and just said “YEAH” loudly, and clapped my hands once. I took off my shoes and socks, released the backpack from my tender back and shoulders, and knew I was done for the rest of the day. I arrived just before 8pm, finishing nearly 37 miles in about 12 hours total.
After sitting a while, my legs were really sore. Parts of my knees and hamstrings and all sorts of tendons were inflamed and tight. Parts of my body that I didn’t notice as being stressed were sore now, and I was movin’ slow. A few days is all it took to recover fully, and I was pleased to complete the hike in one day after all.
For the next hike, I need to get the weight of my pack down. At over 15 pounds, I felt each gram more and more as my mileage increased. That is a sure fire way to make things easier. The next trip will involve some bigger mileage for multiple days, and I’m already excited for that next chance to walk through the woods!