Day 5: Monday, September 5: East Branch Baptism River to Penn Creek
I woke up to rain in the middle of the night. By this fourth night, I found that an unobstructed night of sleep is not really realistic out in the woods. Each night, something stirring or a wind gust through the trees or a rock or root in my back would wake me up. This night, it was rain. I didn’t feel wet, so dozed back off to sleep.
By 3am, it was raining steadily. I checked the time, but didn’t bother to look around much more, so dozed off once more. By 6am, the rain was continuing to fall, and I could tell that the flaps of my quilt were sopping wet. I tried to tuck them under me, in hopes that I’d keep everything completely dry if on the sleeping pad. Similarly, I shuffled my pants, shirt, and any other trinkets laid out towards my body centered on the pad. Rain started seeping in from the bug net connectors directly above my face, trickling down the net and collecting into bigger and bigger droplets. The final drip would be right on my face or shoulders. A half hour of tossing and turning and worrying about my stuff getting wet, and I started to think about how I’d get out of here. My alarm hadn’t rang, but I started formulating a plan. It was raining very steadily and had been for hours. I knew now that it was very wet out. I sat up precariously, causing water from every angle to fall on me. It was light enough to see the scope of the situation. My clothes were getting really wet, by shoes were probably soaked, and my backpack was in a puddle. Water from the tarp had pooled directly under my pack, and it looked like it was actually displacing puddle water! Oh, no, I thought, everything is soaked! I tried to organize my precious quilt into a dry ball in the middle of my pad as I shuffled around, careful to not get any wetter than I had to. I picked up my pack, dripping water onto my quilt, and started to panic a bit. Not good, not good. I decided to whip out my emergency poncho, trying to get ready hunched under my claustrophobic tarp. I crawled out into the falling rain, put on my shirt, the poncho over it, and set my backpack under a tree in hopes the falling rain would not be able to saturate its contents. My shirt was dry enough, I was staying dry enough under the poncho, but everything else was getting wetter by the second. I grabbed my sopping wet pants, took out my 1-day old socks from the pockets and stood on one foot at a time to get them on my feet. My shoes were soaked. What a terrible feeling to put wet feet in wet socks, then into wet shoes.
I grabbed my yellow stuff sack, and shoved the quilt in from hunched under the tarp. Into the bag, I began frantically shoving stuff in. I was able to fit my pad in the pack instead of outside, where it’d been strapped the previous days. I hastily grabbed a few breakfast bars and whatever snacks I could fit in my shirt, and then quickly ripped down the tarp and shoved it in my pack’s back pocket, as not to saturate the internal pack items like food and the precious top quilt. I was packed up, very wet, and very frantic. Watch… start the watch and start hiking.
I saw Diane hunched under her cuben fiber tarp, starting to pack up to hike to her car at the Finland Rec Center. I hollered at her, sounding cheery enough, but my mental state was not cheery. What the fuck, that was bad preparation, I thought!! How is everything going to dry out? How did all that water pool under my pack? I felt the bottom of the pack, crested right above my butt, and it was completely wet. When can I put my pants back on? Am I going to get hypothermia here?? I luckily wasn’t cold…
As the rain came down, it dripped from the emergency poncho down to my bare legs and shoes. My boxers seemed dry enough, but I soaked my first pair of boxers in the creek just 12 hours prior, so if my second pair gets wet I’ll have two pairs of wet boxers. Great.
The soaking wet tarp and bugnet were being compressed to the bottom of the outer pocket and dripping down my back. From my waist down, I was very wet, besides the front of my pelvis, where I had one dry spot on my boxers. My precious dry spot. I knew that I’d have to stop at the Finland Rec Center to dry my things out and reassess my situation. Diane was driving back to the cities and her car is at Finland… If I reassess and everything is too wet, there is my cop-out…
I got to Sonju Lake and did not stop. Everything was wet–rocks, roots, bridges, dirt turning to mud–the walking demanded full focus in order to stay upright on my two soggy feet. I did not stop, but was thirsty. I’d be able to drink later, and maybe I’m getting hydration through osmosis via my feet. I don’t think it works like that. I saw a guy in matching top and bottom rain gear untangling his bear bag nearby the southern Sonju Lake campsite. I accidentally took the spur to his site, but saw the bench and fire ring and turned around.
Ok, only five or six miles to Finland, and then I can drink water and dry my stuff out and really reassess. I think there is an indoor bathroom there where I could lay everything out… If the bathroom is locked there is least some sort of roof. I ate a few breakfast bars and kept walking. Egge Lake came and went and I didn’t see any other people. It was still raining steadily. By now, 9;30am, over two hours and five miles in for the day, and it had been raining steadily for at least six hours. Terrible. I couldn’t shake the thought of how bad this situation was. Everything soaked, no order in my pack, just wet shit sharing its moisture with my precious dry items. What is even dry? My pack might as well have been submerged in Lake Superior! A thought that provided solace was Erin and Zach’s campfire stories from a few nights ago where they one time woke up to rain, hiked past Sonju and Egge Lakes in the rain, rain all day just like me, and had to set up camp in the rain that night. They made it, although Erin said it was terrible. It is terrible.
A few miles later, I bumped out from the woods to a brief roadwalk on County Road 7, which means I was very close to the .3 mile spur to the Finland Rec Center. The road was so wet and muddy, I was in my boxers like a lunatic, hiking in the pouring rain. A truck hauling a small boat sped by and I kept my head low. At the spur to the Rec Center, I kept walking. I’d been thinking for hours of getting to the Rec Center to reassess. I don’t need to reassess shit. I crossed the East Branch Baptism River once more and realized how thirsty I was. Not yet, though. It’s too hard to drink with the thin rain poncho on. I took a peek at the milepost sign and figured I’d right on track to eat lunch at Section 13. After that climb, I’d be through a very tough section in the rain, which is a great accomplishment. My mindset further improved when the rain tapered off. Not that the sun came out in a big way, but the constant downpour ceased. I put my plastic poncho hood down.
I kept hauling, past the empty Leskinen Creek Campsite, next stop Section 13. It’s pretty easy walking through this section, and I was happy to be making great time. I passed Park Hill Road, a huge glacial erratic, and onto the big Sawmill Bog. I still hadn’t changed out of the rain poncho, or really done anything besides walk, since waking up. I didn’t stope because the sky looked like it could rain again at any moment. The big Section 13 cliffs began to appear through the foggy swamps.
I was walking on boardwalk after boardwalk through the Sawmill Bog. My shoes were soaked and the wooden planks were completely saturated. A straight stretch and BOOM!, I slipped. My feet went left, my upper body went right. My right hand, still gripping the trekking pole, hit the soft mossy bog first, and I landed on my butt in the wetness. I saw it out of the corner of my eye first, then slowly lifted my right hand up, palm down, to see my pinkie finger at an extremely grotesque angle. Oh, no, I thought. No pain, but my pinkie was fucked up. From the main joint, it was bent to the right, and then again to the left, like a zig zag. Completely askew. So askew. My first inclination was to set it straight. I put my palms together as if I was clapping, bent my left fingers around the outside of my busted right hand, around my pinkie finger, and then in one swift movement slid my left hand upwards to form my pinkie back straight. It made a sound like ripping a chicken wing apart, the sound of cartilage and joints shifting under my skin. I expected extreme pain and screamed. It wasn’t as bad as I figured, and knew I had to get to Section 13 to figure this injury out. I stood up, held my trekking poles in my left hand and made my way through Sawmill Bog very carefully. I was intensely angry at the bridges for making me slip and fall. Fuckin’ bridge. Only a few steps later, I got to a trail register. I wanted to write my mantra of the moment that I was saying to myself: “Hike, Drink, Eat, Sleep”, but when I grabbed the pencil, my right hand was not working well and I could only shakily muster one word, barely legible:
Once I started back hiking, the pain multiplied. I saw with my own two eyes my hand swell, and my pinkie was still pinning off from my other fingers. Not good. What the hell am I doing out here? Is this the end? How will this effect my hike? Am I risking permanent damage? I hadn’t felt confident about finishing the trip all day. But I was still hiking. Up, up and up to Section 13. I stepped off the trail to let a group of 10 kids backpacking pass. Rain poncho, tall socks, no pants on, broken finger in extreme pain, but I smiled at them.
When I reached the Section 13 campsite, I took my backpack off and noticed that my lower back was soaked but my chest was pretty dry. My finger did not feel good, was swollen and beginning to bruise. I grabbed my phone for the first time of the day, and looked at the positive side of things: it was not raining anymore. I found a perfectly shaped piece of wood and a bungee cord near the fire ring. I took off my belt made of grosgrain ribbon and wrapped the wooden shim around my pinkie and ring fingers, trying my best to secure it with the belt. I ate lunch, and posted my grievances to the world of Facebook. I took a selfie with my normal face, and then my “if it’s not positive, it’s negative” face.
Luckily, the forecast was looking good for the rest of the day, and I’d likely be able to dry myself out. I took off the poncho, put my pants on and used the bungee as a belt. Then, I set back off. I took care of this injury and I can still walk.
Section 13 is awesome. The views are incredible, and I made up for not taking pictures at all while it was raining by snapping a few. I screamed off one big outcropping: “FUCKKKKKKKKK!!!!”
Down, down, down, and I filled up my water bottle in a creek before the County Road 6 trailhead. Removing my backpack was much more challenging with a bum finger, and any jostling sent shockwaves of pain through my pinkie. I saw the parking lot ahead, a welcome sight, and some guy fiddling around with a stick. What is that guy doing, I wondered. Then, he turned towards me and yelped in surprise. It was my running buddy Paul Wilken, getting a lay of the land for his pacing duties for the upcoming Superior Fall trail races, and he was sketching a note in the ground “Get Some Mike”. We just so happened to meet at the right place and right time, and chatted for a bit. I immediately complained about my struggles and told him I didn’t even know why I was out here doing this stupid thing. So much discomfort. He said that when he’s out west climbing mountains, he says the same thing to himself. But you just do it anyways. I wished him goodbye and kept hiking. Onto County Road 6, across the road and up, up, up. I was able to pole with both hands, but my right hand was very tender. I couldn’t jam the pole into the ground as it would jolt my hand and finger too much. The climb was worth it for the spectacular views of Section 13, and I thought about how I missed my chance to ride back with Paul. I should have asked Paul to drive me home.
I was trucking through the trees, along the ridgeline past Sawmill Dome and towards Wolf Ridge Environmental Learning Center. The dark rain clouds were clearing out slowly but surely, and I talked to a few backpackers heading north. They were definitely chatty, and I was a little too bitter with my circumstances to have a good conversation. Luckily, my legs were feeling great, and I hadn’t even adjusted my pack all day because it was riding relatively comfortably. I started to feel the hours of relentless forward progress catch up, and decided to sit down for a second. I felt a bit unsure of what to do so called my dad. I told him all that happened, and he seemed concerned that my finger would get infected. Well, it didn’t break the skin, I told him. He didn’t tell me what to do one way or another, but as I spoke, the sun came out. I said that was a sign to continue on and hung up. I peeked at the weather while I had my cellular on, and the forecast called for more overnight thunderstorms. Not rain, thunderstorms. For now, though, the sun was coming out and I pushed forward onto the hardest section of the trail. Up and down, up and down, broken pinkie, there is no way it’s not broken. This is the crux, though!
I was making good time through Wolf Ridge ELC, and the walking and sunshine dried out my shirt and pants completely. I saw a couple of backpackers finishing up their last day, and filled up water with them at Kennedy Creek. I made a point to drink as much as possible to refill from my dehydrated morning. It was sunny by now, and the overlooks getting into Tettegouche were spectacular. My legs and feet felt the most fresh since the very first few hours of hiking four days earlier. This was perhaps because my pain sensors were maxed out on my pinkie, which was throbbing. The belt wrap didn’t work great, and I had to re-wrap it several times throughout the day.
By the time I hit High Falls, I was about nine hours in for the day, but just 24 miles. That means I was a full hour off of my 3mph pace. It was almost 4pm and I started thinking about my afternoon break. I stopped on the outskirts of Tettegouche State Park, and then prepared myself for the hard push past Bear and Bean Lakes to my campsite at Penn Creek.
I saw a girl meditating on an overlook, perhaps Mount Trudee, and I interrupted her by yelling off of the cliff for a spectacular echo. I smelled so bad and probably looked terrible, but it was fine. I kept trucking, and was in good spirits.
Down to Palisade Creek and it started getting really muddy. I saw a couple guys camping and getting water from Palisade, and they said they didn’t see anyone at Penn Creek. I kept pushing, looking forward to Bear Lake. I still was doing fine, fatigue-wise, and figured that I was getting trail strong. A huge question going into this trip was whether I would get “trail strong” or experience a slow deterioration. The next day would be a better test, but day five was going great given the circumstances. My finger still hurt, and I would jostle it every now and again, wincing and yelling in pain. My mantra was “silent suffering”, a term I learned from my running buddy Nick Nygaard. When we’d do workouts, I’d always be grunting and groaning, and he told me about “silent suffering”, especially in a race scenario to strike fear in the other competitors. I was laughing by repeatedly yelling “SILENT SUFFERING! SILENT SUFFERING!”, which is the exact opposite ideology of the mantra, but hilarious.
More mud, up and up and I knew I was close to Bear Lake. Right around the bend…. and more climbing. Ok, right around this curve and… no Bear Lake, just more uphill. I was breathing hard and had sweat through my shirt five times through. Finally, as the afternoon sun dipped low and the evening set in, I came out to the spectacular overlook of Bear and Bean Lake. I had to bellow “EVENIN'” across the two lakes, and booted up my cellular network as I rounded the two high cliffs overlooking the tranquil lakes below. Down and up to Bean Lake, and I was really excited to get to camp, although nervous that I’d not get my things dried out for the night. Based on the forecast, it was certainly going to thunderstorm overnight, but I knew exactly what I had to do to stay dry. I took some pictures, went on social media, and was descending from the lakes in no time. It was getting dark.
I got to the Penn Creek campsite after a long day. It was a gritty day. I felt pretty proud for sticking it out and crushing the two crux days. There were challenges, but I stayed gritty, kept my head down and powered through. No time to relish in the accomplishment, though, no time to rest. I immediately went to work. It was getting dark and I had to make SURE that I was set up to avoid another wet disaster like the night before. The mosquitoes were out, and I got more bites in five minutes than the previous four days on the trail. I considered ditching the unsupported style and hiking into in Silver Bay, but reserved that for an emergency, knowing that it’d be just a few hours of walking to complete dryness at a motel. I set everything out, and was very happy to see my quilt relatively dry. My tarp was sopping wet, but set it up and it dried out enough. I made a strong point of finding a piece of ground that was not in a trough. Even the smallest depression is enough to collect water, and I spent the time to consider every option for where to sleep. The bug net was soaked, and I took it off of the tarp, despite the bugs swarming me. It was too wet, and had dripped on me in the heavy rain the previous night. I’d rather be buggy than wet.
I tried to get a small fire up to dry out, but everything was wet. It was a waste of time, and I was frustrated as the birch bark fizzled out. I used my alcohol stove to make dinner, and was luckily eating in no time. That was really nice. I wrapped my fingers together, happy to have athletic tape in my tiny first-aid kit. As darkness set it, I stuffed everything into my pack besides my headlamp, hat and emergency poncho. I set the backpack on the picnic table, shoved my shirt and pants on top, covered the whole pack with my poncho, and scurried to my tarp. As I laid down, mosquitoes buzzing in my ear, the campsite started to light up with lightning. No thunder, but constant flashing from high in the atmosphere. My eyes were wide open, fearing what the night would hold. I set my tarp up high, because the night before with my tarp low, water pooled on the sides.
An hour of staring at the tarp with constant flashing, and I heard rumbles come towards me like a freight train. Louder and louder, and then the rain started. Sprinkles at first, flashes illuminating the campsite, then a thunder rumble over my head and the rain started pelting down. A gust of wind brought a heavy downpour, and I stayed awake with my headlamp on, fully alert, bugs in my ears, trying to decide if I’d flood or not. I could tell that water was falling hard, and it was splashing behind me, spraying mud onto my snow-white hat. My head was probably full of dirt. The seams directly above my face were dripping water onto my face, but no flooding. The thunder waned and the rain tapered off. I was relieved, but hot. All I desired to do was stick my sweaty hot leg from the quilt. No, if the mosquitoes are biting my face and ears like this, they’d have a field day on my leg. Whatever, it’s unbearably muggy in this stupid sack. So I slipped my leg out, careful to keep my quilt on the dry sleeping pad, and felt the cool relief immediately. Just as fast, mosquitoes swarmed and started biting. It was going to be a long night.