Cross River, In Winter
Hike Date: January 22 – 24, 2016
Trail: Superior Hiking Trail
Trip Plan: 2 nights, 17 miles, park at Cook County Road 1
Day 1 – Hike South to Dyer’s Creek Campsite (1 mile)
Day 2- Hike North to North Cross River Campsite (6.5 miles), then day hike to Temperance River and back (4 miles)
Day 3 – Hike South to Cook County Road 1 (5.5 miles)
Weather: (from Weather Underground)
Day One – January 22, 2016:
I woke up on Friday, having stayed up late the night before packing and planning my food stores, and questioned whether or not I’d really go to work, leave at 5, bike home, pack the car and leave for the woods in the dark. If I don’t go, I could make sure my gear is on lock, I could enjoy a nice sleep inside, and hike while it’s light out. If I stick to the plan, I get the satisfaction of sticking to a plan. The choice seemed pretty easy, but I kept the option open. When 5 tolls of the bell rang through downtown Duluth, I was off on the bike. It was a beautiful evening and was finally light enough to bike home without a myriad of blinky lights. A few wispy clouds and a pink hue was shining over the hillside. Yep, I had to go out tonight.
It’s been a goal of mine to embark on a true multi-night backpacking trip. Overnighters are so easy, and great fun, but two nights would surely provide a few different challenges and that is the natural progression. Not that I’d be out of the winter camping game after this, but I really wanted to get a two-night excursion in winter under the belt. The New Year’s two-night trip went south, figuratively speaking of course, and it would truly be a shame to see the snow melt having not done a three-day, two-night trip in the wintertime.
I got home and felt disorganized. Diamond looked up at me so longingly, like she’s been patiently waiting all day for this moment for when we could play or go run. She had no idea what she was in for! I quickly ran to the grocery store to get dinner to eat on the road and few snacks. Jack was home, and we agreed we’d meet at the North Cross River campsite, the last one before Temperance River, on Saturday night. He was thinking about hiking from Temperance southbound to the site, which was about 2.5 miles from Temperance State Park. A last minute measurement of my pack weight, I changed into my hiking gear, and Diamond and I were off into the starry night.
The plan was to hike near Temperance River. I’d not been that far north on the SHT, and I found a perfect route from the Cook County Road 1 parking lot, which I saw on the SHT website was plowed for the winter. (Now that I look back, it’s not on the list of trailheads being plowed. I don’t know what I read…). Diamond and I could yo-yo south the first night, double back past the car to the Cross River or maybe even to Temperance,then back southwards on Sunday to the car. The drive up on Friday was looking like an hour and 40 minutes given good road conditions, which was putting us at 8 o’clock or later to start hiking for the night. There were two campsite options: 1.1 miles to Dyer’s Creek, or the next site 4.5 miles south from the lot. From the car, north to the last campsite on the Cross River, but before Temperance River, was around 5.5 miles. We have options, and the plan was to play it by ear. If we were looking at really tough hiking like the Demonstration Forest, there’s no way we’d be trudging 4.5 miles until midnight or later the first night…
The drive to Schroeder was easy. The moon was nearly full and just beaming. It was pretty serene driving along the big Lake with the moon reflecting a silvery glow off of the massive Lake Superior to my right. Around 8pm, we parked. I had a tough time finding where the trail was and where to park, but we found it. I struggled to get everything in order, and Diamond just hates wearing her dog jacket, so it was frustrating to get set up. The anxiety of just getting on the trail escalated the situation. I locked up the car, put on my snowshoes and hoisted the backpack upon my shoulders. By now, I was shivering! I reassured my companion, “Ok, Dime, we’re walkin’!”
My hand were freezing within one second of hiking. We easily found the trail and entered the dark tunnel of trees. I had my headlamp on its lowest setting, and wondered if the moon was enough to light the way. It seemed like my headlamp was doing nothing, but turning it off was scary, as it turned out! It was picturesque night. The snowy evergreen forest reflected moonlight at every angle. The only sounds were our footsteps, breathing, and crinkling of water-resistant nylon. Before long, we bumped out to Dyer’s Lake Road. If my memory of scoping out maps served me correctly, we were already pretty close to the first campsite and had been hiking for no more than 15 minutes. Not bad! Next, we joined paths alongside a creek. This must be Dyer’s Creek. We followed the contours of the crick–up, down, around the bend–and at 26 minutes on the watch, we came upon the Dyer’s Creek campsite and a bridge. That was too fast! 8:30pm is pretty early to get to bed, so I decided we’d try for the next campsite over 3 miles further. We were cruising along at least 2 miles per hour, so I figured we’d be there by 10. Quickly set up the tent, crawl in and go to bed. I tried to do some quick calculations as we crossed the bridge past the campsite: we’d be snuggled in by 11 or so and very comfortable, according to my calculations! Around a bend, through a thicket, and then Diamond stopped. The trail seemed to lead to a huge steep mound. I looked around, but we were on the right track. I convinced Diamond to continue upwards, and I followed. This hill was so steep it look liked a scramble during the other three seasons. Each foot step was just to lift my foot upwards as much as possible. Another footstep and I got a good look at my new gaiters, new shoes and snowshoes I was wearing. Since they looked puffy, I reached towards my ankles and felt the gaiters packed full of snow! Crap… I looked up, looked down at my feet, and kept scanning my eyes down towards the path we’d just tracked. I told Diamond we’d just go back, about one minute past the first campsite. How valiant, I thought sarcastically.
Frustrated with these faulty, dumb new gaiters, we bounded down the 30 vertical feet we’d just climbed. Back across the bridge, I stomped down a trail to the Dyer’s Creek campsite. I let Diamond off the leash, relieved her of her pack-carrying duties, and then took my pack off, too. Her dog jacket was already caked in ice balls. Maybe that’s why she hates wearing it so much… I opened my pack to reach the essentials. First, tent. It went up pretty easily, but the snow was very granular and I had issues setting stakes tightly into the ground. Diamond came back around and decided to bark at me. Perfect, Diamond, this makes my life so much easier. Yep, yep, thanks for the feedback. Shrill barks as to say “screw you, dad”.
I yelled, “SHUT UP!!!!! Quit fucking BARKING!!!!!!” Not that I’m a very foul-mouthed person, but I didn’t think anyone out there would hear me, and yelling at the top of my lungs is the only way I can compete with this loud and annoying beast. Maybe I misinterpreted and she was saying “dad, I’m cold!”. I took off my rain pants and stupid new gaiters, which I’d have to revisit the next day.
I set the items I’d need for overnight in the tent, and left everything else in my backpack right outside the tent door. I shoved that freak animal inside and took one second to mentally prepare for the struggle of getting myself and Diamond in a comfortable position to sleep. I was worried I’d push a misshapen divot into the soft, snowy ground. I grabbed my huge bag of snacks and started munching a bit. I added my wool hat and wool sweater, then situated my puffy North Face jacket, packed into its own pocket, in the hood of my sleeping back. With nothing else to do, I turned out my lamp and laid down. I was a bit chilly that night, but Diamond provided a great source of heat.
Day Two – January 23, 2016:
I fed Diamond early in the morning, then got up around 7:30am. With a full day of hiking planned, I started getting ready as early as possible. I ate a few snacks, let Diamond out of the tent and looked around at the mess, plotting out how to shove it back in the pack. Well, I just started shoving things in. It was not long before Diamond got bored with exploring the campsite and peeing on trees and came back to bark at me. I told her to scram. She spun around in a circle and kept barking. I reiterated, with no regard for her feelings. “Scram, bitch! AHHHHHH!” Why I was screaming, I don’t know. It’s so easy to snap like that when you’re out in the woods in the middle of winter, trying to complete a simple task like rolling up a tent. I thought to myself: my hands are cold, this is dumb, I’ll stomp Diamond into the ground, oh, nice, she grabbed her water dish and drug it into the snowy woods. “FUUUUUUUUUU!”
One of my favorite mantras while racing is “things can be positive or negative. It has to be all positive from here on out.” To say, pretty much, you can have a positive mindset or a negative mindset. The later is not constructive and does nothing for you, so one might as well be positive. However, I found that yelling and screaming at Diamond was kind of fun and relieving. A dog trainer would say differently.
I hoisted the pack onto my back and we were off. I started my timer and was excited to see what the hike last night looks like in the daytime. We got back to the car in about the same time… a tad under 30 minutes. I barely looked at the car, simply acknowledged the fact that I didn’t get towed during the night. We came upon the actual SHT parking lot, covered in deep snow, and the sign said .8 miles south to the campsite we were just at, and 5.5 miles north to our destination. Between that one, the North Cross River campsite, was four other campsites, which makes it easy to track our progress. So we set off truckin’.
I pulled out my phone and tried to warm it. Jack requested I call him first thing in the morning, but I had no cell service. I kept checking periodically. The hike was through a huge deciduous forest. We snaked up a hillside, providing a great view of the woods. A few more steps northwards and I saw the grey lake in the distance. Also, I saw a big radio tower, checked my phone and had full service! I called Jack with no answer. Then, I saw a sign “Tower Overlook.” Nice.
We kept on truckin’. I tried again to reach Jack, and he answered. I noted the time at around 10:30am, and was surprised to hear that he’d just woken up! Jack told me he should probably get his ass out of bed, and we disconnected. I turned my phone off. Walking across a lowland crick, I did a few calculations. If Jack left immediately, drove straight to Temperance River State Park, he’s looking at 3 o’clock or so to get to the campsite. And that’s hiking pretty quickly, too. I’ll give him until 4pm.
We came to the first campsite at 1 hour 20 minutes in, give or take. I figured it was a tad less than half way, and we’d been hiking really well so far. After passing the site, we followed along a bog for a mile or more. It was flat, but the snow had blown around and we went through a few sections of crusty drifts right in the middle of the trail. Everything was still holding up well, and my careful gaiter tie job was keeping my feet dry. Then all the sudden, I lost the trail. Not again! I remembered what had happened last time I lost the trail: I figured the path turned around the trees towards the widest pathway, but it actually just went straight through a thicket. I tromped around, thinking about where the trail could possibly go. Luckily, I wasn’t very far from the last marking. I stood near the tree that was emblazoned with a blue streak, then looked straight ahead and walked that straight path. It went under an evergreen branch, and I was back on track! When in doubt, just go straight.
Soon thereafter, Diamond and I met up with the Cross River. The landscape changed from the boggy lowland to the dynamic riverside. We saw a sign for Cross Falls and the first of four River campsites. These sites were pretty close together, so I figured we were right around the corner.
The Cross had plenty of rapids where the water would appear from upstream, exposed to the frigid air, only to disappear under massive blocks of ice a few feet further downstream. The shapes and formations were cool, no pun intended. We climbed, climbed, climbed, then down, down, down. With snowshoes, the downhills were fun to ski down. We clicked off each campsite. I remembered the Ledge campsite looking really cool… that may be a good spot to check out during the summertime. Time was moving slow and I was ready to set down for lunch. I counted three campsites and knew we had one more.
We crossed a river bridge and headed up a steep set of stairs, then more uphill to a trail intersection. One way was to a spur trail and Adirondack shelter. The other sign was the main trail towards Temperance. I checked my map and realized we bypassed the campsite. I thought back and remembered reading ‘North Cross River’ on the site sign, but didn’t think anything of it until now. So we climbed back down, down the steep ladder-style steps and across the Cross River bridge. Luckily, that last North campsite was right across the bridge. We found quickly that the site we missed was just a few feet south on the trail, tucked away on the banks of the Cross. I set down my pack, let Diamond roam free, and went looking for water. I had been sipping on my water bladder since last night and was running a bit low. I took my 1.5 L plastic water bottle to the Cross. It looked like a glacier and I realized that I didn’t want to die by being trapped between gushing rapids and ice. We carefully traversed the banks, looking for a safe opening in the ice. I found a good option where the water was barely moving and wondered how it was exposed without freezing. I dunked the bottle down and impatiently waited for it to fill with cold hands. Back at the site, I put iodine in the bottle, prepared for a day hike by grabbing an aluminum foil-wrapped PB&J sandwich.
As we set off, walking over the Cross River bridge for a third time towards Temperance, I wondered if we’d catch Jack. My watch read 12:47pm. Weird. Time moves differently when you’re by yourself in the woods! I figured that if Jack was very hasty in getting up and out of Duluth, he could potentially be at Temperance River State Park at this exact moment. But there is literally no way he’d have made it any farther than that. I also thought to myself how I’d like to be back to the site by 3pm. We set off. Diamond was off the leash with nothing on her besides a collar. I had my water bladder with a half liter of water or less and a PB&J sandwich, most of which, at the time, was being chewed. I thought I could run to Temperance. The sign at the spur intersection said Temperance was 2 miles away. A quick 4 mile run would be nice! So I started running, but quickly realized that it was completely exhausting. I’d even ditched the snowshoes… but the 3-hour hike and snowy conditions were too much. I reverted back to walking. Oh, well, it’s still good practice. The first mile of our day hike was relatively easy. It was a beautiful day, we had left the Cross River completely and seemed to be atop a ridge. We curved to the left and stopped at a wonderful overlook. Neglecting to bring my camera was a mistake… I could see Temperance way off in the distance and it looked like a road. From there, it was straight down. This was fun, but I then realized I’d have to hike all the way back up this huge hill.
Before long, we were at the Temperance River. Diamond and I passed an SHT parking lot, then a road that looked like it was for strictly snowmobiles in the wintertime. Across the road, the trail joined the Temperance riverside. Beautiful, and with a markedly different flavor than the Cross, Diamond enjoyed being near the icy spectacle. I recognized some areas of the river that I’d explored a few summers previous, doing some lazy river swimming and cliff jumping. I peeked at my watch, and it was almost 2pm. We’d made it to Temperance, and it was probably a good idea to turn around since we had a big valley to hike out of to make it back in an hour. And still no Jack…
The uphill trek wasn’t as bad as I’d thought, but my breathing was definitely heavier! Diamond was having a blast, and we were both happy to be hiking without packs on. In a flash, we were back to the site. I hoped my water bottle from two hours before hadn’t completely frozen over. A little slushy, yes, but luckily not a block of ice. My plan was to gather firewood, set up the tent, get food going, and then start a fire. I bundled up and looked for good burnables. I thought I was finding good wood, but I’d snap a few twigs and see green. I know I got a few good ones, though… I was having trouble finding nice thick branches for fuel, yet there were plenty of flaking birch trees to harvest the tinder I needed. I made a large pile and then started with the tent. Again, since we weren’t moving or doing anything, Diamond became bored and started barking. Um, I’m doing something, here! And again with the yelling and screaming. “You aren’t TIRED?!?!?!”
I got the tent set up, I got the stove set up, and now I started on a fire. I had a terrible base for it, and figured I could build up a platform with the green twigs, layer birch bark on top of that, and then add some of the dry twigs I’d found. I lit it, the birch bark went, and then the twigs took. I could see my small fire struggle to succeed, but offered some large lungfuls of oxygen. Then, “HEY THERE!!!”, and it was my long lost friend, Jack! I peeked at my watch: 3:58pm. Funny. He crossed the Cross, and we regaled of our respective hiking stories. Jack was dressed in his blue rain suit and looked pretty sweaty. He began setting up his area, and I looked back at the fire. Out. Dang. Jack made a confused remark about his tent. He misplaced his poles. They were on his bed and he was sure of it. I offered some solutions how we could string his tent up along the trees or look for branches. He’d taken my 30 degree down sleeping bag, my 20 degree synthetic bag had a bit of water and ice on it… Jack decided it wouldn’t work. He said he was going back, and offered me a ride. A compelling choice, but it was an easy decision. No, bro, we can string something up, I offered. But then, I realized and agreed to how uncomfortable that would likely be… a 30 degree bag in 20 degree weather. Or a a 20 degree bag frozen in my breath. And a ramshackle tent setup… probably not smart. However, it was already 4:30pm or so, and that meant Jack would be hiking back during dusk. I declined his offer, and just as soon as he’d arrived, he was gone and I was again left by myself. Oh, man. At least I have this restless beast as a companion. Not…
My food was almost ready, and my second attempt at a fire while Jack was there had already failed. I ate while Diamond watched carefully from the tent. I’d shoved her in there after her incessant barking drove me to the edge of sanity. The food was Ramen, half of my stroganoff mix, a few pieces of block cheese and summer sausage. It had all blended to a brothy, cheesy, noodle mixture that was unbelievably good. The cheese really added a fantastic element. After that, I packed the kitchen up and focused on getting a fire up once and for all. This time, however, I’ll do it right. My other attempts had burned a hole to the ground, so I have the advantage of a solid base instead of snowy sticks and half burnt, half frozen logs providing the ledge on which my fire would sit atop. I broke the tiniest and driest sticks into small pieces and made a pile. I gathered my tinder and compressed it into a ball, then made a shapely teepee with the kindling and had some bigger burnables nearby. One match, and the fire took. Then, I saw the twigs take a flame. I carefully put the larger sticks in a teepee formation, and kept blowing the whole time. I finally had a bonfire! I sat back, only to see the beautiful warm fire wane, the flames reduced to embers. I kneeled again to the freezing cold ground to blow and blow and blow. The fire started back up, but I quickly realized this was going to take drier wood and more effort to be a self sustaining, chillin’ fire. Screw this, I thought. My feet are freezing. I’m sick of blowing on these dumb twigs and getting smoke in my eye. The frustration set in and I decided to skip the fire and simply entertain myself inside the tent.
I snuggled in with Diamond and jotted down some thoughts in my trail log. I read some past entries to kill some time, and let my mind wander a bit. Becoming increasingly uncomfortable leaning on one arm, I laid my head down. What am I doing, I thought? I’ll just turn the light out for a bit, I figured. I checked my watch, which read 6:53pm. Jeez… I was going to be in this same cramped position for 12 more hours. But then my mind switched to a positive note. Here I was, night two in the dead of January in northern Minnesota, in my sleeping bag and tent in the middle of woods. And I was warm, dry and comfortable! I wasn’t going to die! Well, back up… I wasn’t warm, dry or comfortable at all. But I was warmer, drier, and more comfortable than someone who was to surely perish in the frigid Minnesota winter from hypothermia! To clarify, I was warm, dry and comfortable enough. I figured, from here, I’d just hang out for a while lying down in the dark. During the week, back in the real world, all I ever want is the time to do nothing… deliberately nothing. I yearn for the ability to stare at a wall. Work, dog, social life, exercise, chores… there is always one more thing on my list before I can do nothing for once. And here I was, with literally nothing else that I could or should do besides look at the top of my tent. It’s not so bad after all! Against my plans to hang out, I effortlessly eased off to sleep.
In typical camping fashion, I woke up periodically through the night. A warmer night, I shed my socks and long underwear and was truly warm snuggled next to Diamond. Maybe my bag stretched out or something, but I found many more sleeping positions that were comfortable, and the sleep was revitalizing after a full day on the trail.
Day Three – January 24, 2016:
Hearing snow, I rustled in the morning, wondering if I was to wake up with my gear buried. I arose again at 6:30am to feed Diamond. I rested my head as she scarfed her breakfast from the cramped corner. I realized I had indeed been cooped up in here for about 12 hours, and decided it was a fine time to pack up. So I hastily started organizing. Knowing that all I needed to have access to was some relatively dry hiking apparel, some food to fuel me on the 5.5 miles back, and water, I shoved as much as I could into the backpack, leaving a nice slot for the tent. Everything came together quickly as the morning light slowly illuminated our site. It was a cloudy day already, and halfway through rolling my tent back up, I was able to pack away my headlamp for good.
Everything together, we started hiking back south to the car. The first stop was the water hole. Again, this was the most dangerous part of the whole trip. How tragic would it be to survive a two-night backpacking trip and then perish on the last day trying to refill my water bottle in the aggressive Cross River? Would I be stuck under the ice until an unassuming early-season backpacker spots my icy fingers grasping a vial of iodine tabs on the half-melted river bank in spring? These are the thoughts I had as I precariously walked along the river in hopes to get a water refill and a cool picture of the frozen cliff a bit upriver.
We set off at a nice pace and knew that the first hour would be pretty tough walking. Past the Cross River section, though, the hiking is relatively easy, especially given that we’d packed down the big snowbanks along the bog the day before. Walking was surely easier this day, and my body felt great. 10 miles the day before really hadn’t worn me down at all, and I couldn’t decide if the long rest was good or bad. One way or another, I did feel good, even considering I spent half of a day of laying on the cold, hard ground.
Soon enough, we climbed out of the Cross River valley.
Into the boglands, we were trucking. We hit that last campsite at around 2 hours, and I knew we had less than an hour left. I was munching on a few snacks, but it wasn’t even worth the effort to refuel my body knowing we’d be out of here in a few hours and able to eat a large breakfast at a roadside cafe or wait for a big ol’ greasy lunch at Culver’s in Two Harbors. We passed the real Cook County Road 1 parking lot and I knew we were close.
Sure enough, there was the car, peeking through the woods. I took a shortcut across a gravel pit access road, and we were back! I switched my shoes, packed it all in the foggy car, started her right up and we were off! An hour of driving and I decided breakfast was the ticket, and I stopped for a tremendously tasty meal of eggs, sausage patties, pancakes and coffee at a diner in Two Harbors. Judy’s Cafe was the spot, and it was great.
Planning and packing-wise, this trip was pretty much perfect until I look at the food I didn’t eat. My clothing setup was planned perfectly, and I had two pairs of socks, a pair of boxers, and a pair of gloves that I didn’t even touch. However, I wouldn’t want to keep much less than that out of my pack as backups. I never felt like I needed more insulation. Everything stayed relatively dry, and my 25 pound pack was svelte given the conditions. I did have a ton of left-over food, though. That’s tough call, because it would be a bleak existence to run out of food. And if worst comes to worst, I can wear my clothes, dry them out as needed, indefinitely. My sleeping bag can dry out if it became soaked. I have everything I need for an endless supply of water, and so realistically, my food would be the first thing to be depleted in an emergency situation. Then again, if worst comes to worst, I’d be able to walk to civilization within a few hours. And if it was truly an emergency in which I couldn’t walk out of (like the river ice scenario), I definitely would not be worried about having enough food to survive! So I think I can definitely work on being in tune with exactly how much food I need for future trips. Less, I guess!
This trip had its frustrations, but the happiness of success trumps the feeling of anger that arises as a beast of a dog is barking in your ear. And I can’t wait to go back.