Duluth to Two Harbors
Hike Date: November 24-25, 2018
Trail: Superior Hiking Trail
Trip Plan: Travel 50 miles at goal pace of 4 miles per hour. Go out and back two days in a row on the trail section from Duluth to Two Harbors.
Day 1 – Park at Fox Farm Road campsite, go out northbound for 3 hours and back. 23.8 miles total.
Day 2 – Park at Normanna Road campsite, go out northbound for 13.1 miles and back. 26.2 miles total.
Day 1 – Saturday, November 24, 2018
It was about 32 degrees and a mixture of snow, sleet, and rain falling as I drove towards the eastern end of Duluth to get out of town and onto a unique section of SHT trail that connects Duluth and the Southern Terminus to the iconic North Shore ridgeline on which the Superior Hiking Trail travels to Canada. I was worried about the conditions of the trail and figured my feet would be getting wet. I dawdled getting out to the trail and was hoping to get to the trailhead by 11am.
I chose to drive to the Fox Farm Road trailhead, which is conveniently about a 20 minute drive from my house. This is such a wonderful section of trail and I was excited to see a big chunk of it over the weekend. My plan today was to head north. I parked and got my things together, including my trekking poles and pack. As I reached for the pack, I looked in horror at the two 600mL bottles that I forgot to fill. They were empty. I figured I’d need extra water today, going so far, and packed an extra 500mL water bottle. So that was all I had now. That could be an issue. As I set off, I crossed a wetland and little creek immediately and pondered the risks of filling my empty bottles at a creek without filtering. That would really suck to get sick. I’d poured 250mL into each of my pack’s bottles, and decided snow was a safer alternative. I scooped a bit of snow into each bottle early on in the run and hoped it would dissolve to water.
Within .1 miles, there were two downed trees. The running surface was a bit tacky and definitely not icy, but a bit slushy in some areas and there were certainly “wet spots” that weren’t completely frozen over and covered with snow and slush. I stepped in a couple of those early on, while I followed a branch of the Knife River into the woods. After a couple of miles, I seemed to lock into my goal pace of 15 minutes per mile. Trail conditions turned out to be great. There was some slippage going on but generally solid footing and that made me happy. The temperature must had lowered slightly, perhaps in the higher elevations away from the lake, because there were definite snowflakes falling onto my face. I was very happy to only see the two downed trees right away and not many other obstructions. Time seemed to go by pretty quick and I tended to eat snow instead of trying for my slush mixture in the bottles I was carrying.
I noticed I was following footsteps. They seemed fresh but it was hard to know. I wondered if I’d see anyone else on the trail on this wet and overcast Saturday. I smelled the undeniable scent of barbecue sauce and wondered if the turkey and cheese wrap I’d packed along was getting too jostled to stay contained in its foil wrapper. At that moment, I saw the guys up ahead I’d been following for some time now. I hollered once I got close enough and they both jumped off of the trail. I commented that I seemed to have scared them and they agreed because they didn’t hear me coming. I told them I’d been following for quite some time…
After passing those two guys, I figured that 1pm was a good time to eat, so I grabbed the tattered foil wrapping with my lunch underneath. I picked off aluminum foil and wolfed it down. It was pretty dang tasty. I washed it down with slush. The snow I’d gathered hadn’t melted in the little bit of water that was in each bottle. Oh well, snow works fine. Two hours in and I was right on track, things were going good and the woods were truly beautiful while dusted with snow. The next hour wouldn’t go so good, however.
Once I got past Rossini Road, I wondered how far I’d get into the Lake County Demonstration Forest. After doing some calculations, I figured I could at least get to the intersection of the long Demo Forest trailhead spur and SHT main trail. I was going slow as I passed Fergeson Campsite and losing time on my goal of covering four miles every hour. Minutes slowed down as I approached my turnaround spot. I know for sure that I’d want to make the U-turn at no particular mileage, but at 3 hours regardless of what happens. I had a small fear that I’d not be able to even-split the run and would be in the dark for quite some time. This time of year, it is quite dark by 5pm. From memory and recognition, I knew I was kind of close to the official start of the Lake County Demo Forest section after crossing a road and some climbing. That afforded some great views of of the landscape, although it was cloudy, foggy, and very grey.
I didn’t get that much further until I saw the 50’s in the minute column and 2 changed to 3. At 3 hours in, on the dot, I turned right around in my tracks and started to head all the way back to the car. I was nearly at 12 miles when I made the turn, still not feeling super great. I think the pain or toughness was not rooted in physical wear, but more a boredom of frustration of being out here alone and having to go all the way back. My legs were feeling good, actually. I was able to run pretty well but just felt a little flat. My feet and socks had definitely been wet from within the first hour out there, so that was causing a little discomfort. Nothing serious, luckily, but just that having wet feet isn’t the most pleasant feeling in the world. My clothing choices were on point, though, and I was perhaps just slightly warm while running. I wouldn’t want to be with less clothes, and there were long stretches where rolling up my sleeves was a perfect way to vent and cool a bit.
It seems to be a mental change to make that turn on be “on the way back” and I felt that for sure. Time started moving faster and I did too. I caught back up to my goal pace and was in auto-pilot. I knew that the temperature was dropping with the sun because I sensed a more pronounced crunch under my feet as the slushy wet snow solidified. I know pondered what tomorrow would be like, since I was headed right back out in the morning. Would it be super crusty? Icy? The same or better conditions? Yep, all in all, it had been really good the whole way northbound. With a frozen ground and less than two inches of snow, you can’t get much better early winter conditions.
I luckily didn’t feel thirsty and I shoveled almonds into my mouth, and decided I could take the rest of my water at any time and just rely on snow. So I drank all my water with an hour or so left, and enjoyed scooping snow and letting it melt in my mouth. When I passed Big Bend campsite, I remembered that it took me almost exactly one hour to get there from the car, so that was my gauge. Criss-crossing the West Branch Knife River is a little technical and I realized that the first and last mile of the trek was probably the worst conditions with water and puddles under a small frozen layer of ice and snow. Despite having wet feet already, it was really not nice to get a full dunk of my foot into a puddle. I tried to push off finding my headlamp, and just as darkness set in, I hopped over a couple mangled trees and knew I was right at my car. I looked at my watch and had to do laps around the parking lot. I was so close to 23.8 and had to get there. Why? Well, to get my 50 miles on the weekend, if I stopped at 23.8 today, I’d simply need an even marathon of 26.2 for the next day.
I peeled my nasty wet socks off and drove home barefoot. The max heat setting in my car was very useful. My body seemed to be holding up fine with no major issues. A perfect setup for the next day.
Day 1 – Sunday, November 25, 2018
I woke up on Sunday morning with the intention to hit it early. I was very creaky getting out of bed. Ooof. The last thing on my mind was going back to the trail, putting the vest back on and going out and back 3+ hours one way, again. I knew I needed to go, though, so I just drug my feet around the house, sluggishly collecting my items. Water filled… CHECK! Food, trekking poles, put on my gear, nice fresh socks that will be soaked in a few hours, coffee. I ate breakfast and looked at my trusty SHT guidebook. The day before, I covered from Fox Farm Road to the intersection of the Lake County Demonstration Forest trailhead spur trail and the main trail. I looked at the Normanna trailhead page and was suprised to see that I could get really close to my goal mileage by heading north from there to Fox Farm Road. I’d likely need to make up some mileage somewhere… I thought maybe that’d be on the Sucker River trailhead spur. A little out and back from there would be perfect. Food in the system, and I got out early enough despite feeling apprehension and fatigue.
It was a cooler morning and I wondered if the previous day’s slush would be frozen, hard and slippery. I got out to the trail and started almost by 10am. The sun was shining and the cool air felt really great. Within a few steps, my sluggish nature seemed to disappear and I was once again very happy to be out in the woods racking up some miles.
The first few miles out of Normanna were a little icy. Not too bad but certainly hard-packed. It didn’t seem like the slush from the day before had seriously hardened, though. In my mind, I rehearsed my game plan: go out a half marathon, then turn around. Pretty simple! I wanted to stick to my 4 mph goal as well, but there is kind of a different mindset when going for time versus distance. Also, an out-and-back has a different mindset. I kind of like the out-and-back trips for some reason. It’s a little funny to just flip a 180 degree turn in the middle of nowhere just because my watch flashes 3 hours or 13.1 miles. I think each direction has its own character, too, and I like knowing the trail like the back of my hand.
The early miles clicked back with ease. I passed Heron Pond campsite right away, crossed the little creek near the dogsledding road intersection, and I was bombing the big hill down to the Sucker River valley in no time. The day was perfect. The conditions were ideal, temperature right in the sweet spot of 25 degrees, and sun shining. Mmm, a little vitamin D energized me after full clouds 24 hours ago.
When I got to Sucker River, about 1:20 and a bit over 5.5 miles for the day, I smelled a familiar smell. That smell is my wrap cover becoming uncovered in my pack and barbecue sauce seeping out. It was barely 10:30am but I ate the whole thing anyways. Gah, I had probably 5 more hours out here and I was chowing down the majority of my calories. I’d just eaten a big meal perhaps two hours before that wasn’t hungry really at all. Oh well, I ate it all, and only for the sake of not making a mess in my little pack. At least I had about 1.6 liters of water to wash it down. I hiked along the Sucker River, eating simultaneously, and feeling good that I was right on track.
Things were pretty uneventful from there to the turnaround. Spectacular conditions, very few people on the trail, and I was right on track. After passing Fox Farm Pond campsite, I decided that I’d stop there on the way back for a nice afternoon break. I made a guesstimate that it’d be around .1 miles down the spur trail to the campsite, so I’d want to turn around at about 13.0 miles. When I popped out to the empty parking lot that held my car the day before, my watch said not even 12.5 miles. Back to the Fox Farm section… I fondly remembered the huge trees down right away. Climbed over those. I also fondly remembered the postholes I’d made yesterday nearby the West Branch Knife River in a likely swampy area in the other three seasons. I was able to dodge around those and get to my special 13.0 mark. I promptly turned around and headed all the way back, feeling pretty great and under pace with 3:08 on the clock. My 4 mph time for 13.0 miles should have been 3:15, so almost a half mile ahead.
I was surprised in the course of 1 mile how someone would arrive at the trailhead and set off, but sure enough, I popped back out to Fox Farm Road trailhead and an old Subaru had clearly just arrived. I inspected the tracks… a person and a dog. Maybe a wolf chasing a person. Probably not. I chased the tracks, noting my own facing the opposite direction.
While in my own mind, I had to laugh to myself how crappy I felt in the morning and how great I was feeling now. I remembered the day before getting to the turnaround and dragging. It was hard to keep pace for a few hours there, but today I was really cruising with ease. Perhaps the conditions were better… my shoes weren’t deluged. Perhaps my mental condition was better… three more hours and I was to be done for the day! Then, in the morning, how I felt like anything would be better than heading to the trail, but I made it out and made it this far and was going to make it home. YES!
I finally caught up to the car owner and her dog and passed them up. I was still sticking to my 15 minute pace, which is a healthy combination of hiking and running, really. So it was kind of a weird pass because her dog wanted to hang and I felt their presence for a long time right behind me. I didn’t want to stop and pee because I knew they’d be right there behind me. Oh well, before long I’d left ’em for good.
I saw a few more hikers near my break spot of Fox Farm Pond campsite. I had fond recollections of staying there four years ago almost to the day. The break was fine but I got cold and it kind of interrupted my flow. But once I got back moving again I realized that it was nice to have the break. I continued on with a renewed mindset. It was kind of hard to get my hands warm, though, and I seemed to have so many little things to do with my fingers like rearrange my pack or fiddle with my water bottles. I dumped a half liter bottle of water into my main containers and spilled a bit of water on my hands. Dang, they were freezing! Well, I kept moving, because that was the best way to warm them up.
The portion of trail between the Sucker River trailhead spur and Sucker River campsite took forever. It was a little mentally strenuous and I was ready to be done. What was good, though, was my body holding up really well. I thought of other times in my life where I set out on long trips like this, and became very proud of my commitment to the training program I was using and how it was really paying off. That positivity carried me to the Sucker River campsite, where I zinged right through, still ahead of pace. At this reference point, I looked at my watch and saw 5 hours. My mileage was at 20.5 or so, still about a half mile ahead of where I need for even 15 minute per mile splits.
As the sun sank lower in the sky, I spotted Heron Pond campsite on its little hill, trucked right past it and onto the hard-packed last mile. I really noticed the traffic of this area compared to the softer, grittier, almost tackier miles that made up 24 miles of my day. I didn’t bring a headlamp, and wouldn’t need one, but the sun was setting fast. When I got within eyesight of the van, I did a double check. There was no way I’d stop my watch without 26.2 miles or more. I was unfortunately short, but not by much. I headed south on the trail, instead of onto the spur trail. I almost made it to the bridge over the French River, just a stone’s toss away, but turned around with palpable excitement, almost jittery, to get back to my van and drive home and be done.
My watch clicked to 26.2 miles and I stopped my run, poles in hand. After banking some time early, I’d kept my quick pace up all day, for better or worse. My body felt better after 50 miles than after 23.8, somehow. But how encouraging is that! A bit discouraging was that there were no days off… the next day, my “daily” jog increases by five minutes to 40 minutes and another four week training block was in front of me. But I was already kind of looking forward to that next long trip.