Hike Date: August 12-15, 2016
Trail: Superior Hiking Trail
Trip Plan: 4 days, 3 nights, and to hit goal pace of 35 miles per day, 140 miles total
Day 1 – Hike north from the side of Gunflint Trail to Hazel Campsite (34.5 miles)
Day 2 – Hike north from Hazel to Arrowhead Trail parking lot, turn around and hike south to Kimball Creek Campsite (32.8 miles)
Day 3 – Hike south from Kimball Creek to Indian Camp Creek Campsite (35.3 miles)
Day 4 – Hike south from Indian Camp Creek to Britton Peak Trailhead (24.7 miles)
- Total miles: 127.3
- Total time: 78:31 (3 days, 6 hours, 31 minutes)
- Time hiking: 41:13
- Time at camp: 37:18
Gear and Food: 8-12-16
Day 1 – Friday, August 12, 2016
I dropped my car off in the fog, at Britton Peak, and then rode far north to Grand Marais, MN with my friend Kris early Friday morning. I had two days off work–a long weekend to try and belt out a real tester run before hiking the entire Superior Hiking Trail. I figure that averaging 35 miles per day could be realistic, as a top-end estimate of finishing the entire 310-mile trail, and so my goal with these four days was to replicate that. That breaks out to 140 miles. No dog, no friends, just me. I didn’t care to hike late into the day on Monday, drive back to Duluth and go to work the next morning, so I planned on having three big days of at least 35 miles, and a smaller, 20+ mile day. Also, I wanted to get a taste of what the northern reaches of the trail were like as I’d never been on any SHT past Lutsen. For the sake of my ride Kris, I decided to do a little yo-yo loop up north.
When Kris dropped me off on the side of the Gunflint Trail, just outside of Grand Marais, I was more nervous than ever. This is more pressure than the through-hike! If I can’t finish 4 days, I’d certainly have to cancel or seriously rethink my trip, now officially scheduled for September 1, just a few weeks into the future. What if my body gives out after two 35-mile days? What if my gear isn’t on lock down? Do I have the time to test something different? What if I decide that I hate backpacking??
I set off north. Right off the bat, I had to tell myself to take it one day, one hour, one step at a time. If I start thinking how tomorrow will go, or how the FKT attempt in a few weeks will be so tough, it creates a bad mental state. My mantra, which I said to myself in the quiet, overcast woods, was “if it’s not positive, it’s negative. It has to be all positive from here on out.”
My final plan was to hike north all day, 35 miles, lollipop Saturday for 37 miles, hike south Sunday for 38 miles, and finish it up with a 25 miler back south to my car. My mom would meet me out on the trail for fun to hike the last few miles. Reasonable enough, and it would certainly be a confidence booster to make it back to my car.
The clouds burned off in just an hour of hiking, and the sun was peeking out at the great overlook onto Grand Marais at the city ski trail parking lot. I made an early stop at the restroom there, must be the coffee, I thought, and was happy to use the toilet paper there instead of the few squares that I’d packed!
I filled up my empty water bottle at a small creek under the ski trail, and was really surprised by the clarity of the water! That’s how you know you’re way up north. Before long, the sun was fully out, and I entered into some signature singletrack trail on the way down to Devil’s Track River. I saw a few other day hikers, and was having a great time already. Yes, there are the nerves, just starting out a very challenging trip–anything can happen–but great to be off of work with nothing to do except be in the woods for four whole days. I ate a bit of food and tried to readjust the heavy pack, weighed down in majority by my food stash. And this is less than half of what I’ll have to bring in a few weeks…
I passed Woods Creek and grabbed the final SHT map, ‘Woods Creek to Canada’. It was classic SHT through here, with bubbling brooks, cascading streams, big woods, and the constant up and down on rocky and rooty singletrack. My ongoing joke is that the SHT is always rockier and rootier than I remember it. I was laughing to myself about that.
A few more creeks, past the Durfee Creek campsite, and I came to a huge overlook on Lake Superior. I traversed a field for a half mile or so, with the biggest view of the lake you can imagine. Beautiful. It gave me a chance to check out the weather. The clouds had moved back in, which actually felt great. It was perfect hiking weather. The berries were out in full force and I ate some thimbleberries and raspberries along the way. I had my eye on blueberries, but just reds for now.
With a couple of hours under my belt, I started getting tired and sore already. Perhaps because I hadn’t slept much the night before, perhaps my pack was heavy (16 whopping pounds), but I could feel my feet and legs aching already. I stopped for water and food, and sat down for a few minutes at the Kimball Creek bridge. Just 5 minutes sitting was great. From there, it was rocky highland hiking for a while, and then down, down, down to the Lakewalk. I saw several backpackers through this bit, which was nice.
I was so excited to get to the Lakewalk because it immediately is such a change of scenery. The Big Lake Superior is enchanting. Only a few steps in the rocky beach made me realize that it’d be slow going on this 1.7-mile section. I craned my neck downwards to look for agates. A half hour later, no agates, my pace had slowed, and I was sick of the rocks. It was pretty cloudy at this point, and I wondered if it would rain. I stopped to get water, and was pleased with the crystal clear, cold product straight from Lake Superior. It tasted delicious, and I sipped and sucked as much as I could through the tight filter. Finally, I turned off into the woods, then across Highway 61, then further into the woods.
It was slow going to Judge C.R. Magney State Park, but I knew that was my next stop, and the big landmark before my final destination. I did a few calculations and wondered if I’d done some bad math. I was supposed to get to the campsite on Carlson Creek at 35 miles, but that seemed really far away. Oh, well, there were a few cop-out campsites and I can always alter my plans.
I was dragging ass into the State Park, but it was again good to see people. I zipped right through to the Devil’s Kettle, a waterfall on the Brule River at Magney State Park. There were plenty of tourists around, and found a nice place right above the falls to sit down, fill up on water, and eat a bit of food. No time to dawdle, however, and I was back at it quickly.
It was a grind up the Brule River out of Judge C.R. Magney State Park. The wide walking path deteriorated to a narrow, overgrown and very technical trail. The tourists were gone and at was again just me out here in the woods. I felt the end coming near as I hit a roadwalk along Camp 20 Road. It was rough going, I felt my legs throbbing and the bottoms of my feet hurting, different things cropping up, and I was just having a nice conversation with myself on this lone road. “Feet hurt, knees hurt, ears don’t hurt, butt doesn’t hurt, stomach feels fine, big toe hurts…”
I finally turned off of dumb Camp 20 Road and was so happy to get back onto the dirt. I looked at the signpost at the parking lot, and realized I’d definitely miscalculated my mileage back at home. It was closer to 38 miles to the first Carlson Pond campsite. At this point, I was over 32 miles and it was nearing 7 o’clock. So, six more miles would take two hours, which puts me at 9 o’clock. Nope. Nooooooope. I could hike three more miles to the nearest campsite and be at my planned 35 for the day. However, I’d be too far out to complete my initial plan of hiking out and back to Jackson Lake Road Trailhead the next day. I pulled out my map, but had to put it back because it was too muddy to walk and read the map simultaneously.
The three miles between Camp 20 Road and Hazel Campsite felt different–very, very remote. It was moose country up here. The trail was muddy and very overgrown with droopy brush. I was relentlessly crouched and swatting brush away from my face. And yet, I pushed through and kept the legs churning forward. Right on time, I arrived at Hazel Campsite, all to myself.
I made a point to set up my tarp in the soft grass first, because I couldn’t be sure the rain would hold out on the cloudy evening. I unpacked my things, and felt obligated to collect firewood. It’d been raining recently and every stick seemed wet. I tried to multitask by looking for standing sticks on the way to get water, and found enough for a small fire. The water was from a six-inch-deep hole in a tiny crick, but it was clear as ever. Mosquitoes wanted my blood, so I buttoned up and used my headnet.
Day 2 – Saturday, August 13, 2016
I woke up to my alarm ringing at 7am and rain falling on my tarp. I didn’t know if I should get out of the dry safety into the rain, but after 20 seconds of deliberation just did it. It wasn’t raining at all, actually, and all that was falling was water clinging to leaves above me. My body was definitely sore, but feeling good and up for another day as far as I could tell. I didn’t spend much time lounging around to break in the day, so threw everything into the bag and set off. My tarp was sopping wet and I ate on the go.
I kept going north and decided that Arrowhead Trail would be a fine turnaround point. Jackson Lake Road, my planned turnaround point, is the next trailhead north, but that is just too far. If I can’t make it far enough south today, it pushes the final two days back to big miles. As well, I was hoping for a shorter day on Monday to allow for driving back to Duluth, unpacking, and potentially surgically reattaching my tendons. Well, hopefully it wouldn’t come to that. So I set off with my sights on Arrowhead Trail. Luckily, there wasn’t too much droopy brush right off the bat. Again, this section felt so much different, like deep woods Canada. It was a dreary day once again, but I didn’t complain. I did complain, however, about the abundant mosquitoes.
I was looking hard for moose, because it just seemed like this is their habitat. Swamps, boreal forests, and dead silence. I’d stop and look for one at a vantage point, but immediately get swarmed by the biting insects. The spiders were working hard, too, and I destroyed hundreds, if not thousands of their bridges across the trail via my face. Early morning frustrations.
Surprisingly, I saw another southbound hiker an hour in. She stopped and asked me where I was going and stuff. Very chatty, which was nice to stop and have some interpersonal interaction. She was headed south to Grand Marais over the weekend. I said I’d probably see her later since I was headed back south after Arrowhead Trail. Once we crossed paths, I wondered what her deal was. Where would I see her again? If she’s going 2.5mph, I’m going 3mph, I’m walking 6 miles more, we crossed paths at 8:30… I couldn’t do the math in my head, but it was certainly something to fixate on. I wonder what her name is?
It was tough going to Arrowhead Trail. The deep woods singletrack was pretty rugged up here. The mystery girl had said it was her favorite part of the trail, and I could see why. However, I was sick of mosquitoes and sick of spider webs and I wasn’t truly joyous about hiking at the moment. How am I going to complete this trip? If I can’t make it two measly days, how can I do nine? Then, I thought about today. I can finish today. Before long, I had made it north to Arrowhead Trail, turned around and south back to Hazel, about 11.5 miles and over 4 hours in for the day. It was good to get an idea of how this section of trail is. It’ll probably be a short blip in three weeks.
In the muddy and droopy brush headed back to Camp 20 Road, it started sprinkling. I told myself I’d take the rain poncho out if my shirt got wet. Only a few drops so far. The rain tapered off. Nice. Then it started sprinkling again. It didn’t let up and I had to get the rain poncho to avoid getting wet. I threw the thing on over me and my backpack, which was good timing as the steady rain started. I made it to Camp 20 Road for the two miles on gravel, and I got a good look on the horizon. It was dark, and so rain came down hard. I walked the stupid road in pouring rain. My pants became fully saturated, as my shoes and socks. I put my head down and kept trucking. No sense to stop in this mess.
I made it to an overlook on the Brule River valley, far north from Devil’s Kettle, and didn’t see even a patch of blue. The rain had tapered off, though, and I was able to drink a lot of water and eat some food. Down to the Brule, and the day switched quickly. All the sudden, I saw a glance of blue sky, then the sun peeked out, then the clouds and rain burned away and I took of the muggy rain poncho. It was mid-day by now, and I ate a lot of food. The Sriracha beef sticks were incredible, paired with squeaky, warm cheddar cheese. I was rejuvenated, and hoofed it down to Devil’s Kettle. Tourists were abundant in the fresh sunshine.
I remembered the Lakewalk being right after Magney State Park, but time slowed down. I slipped on a bridge on my last step off of the slick wood and became angry. My mood switched and I was frustrated that I was tired, sore and it was already 3pm. I’d made a big chunk of the day, but still had many more hours of walking. I wasn’t on 3mph pace and was bored if nothing else. I slipped on another bridge near the Little Brule River, on the last step off of the stupid bridge, and my trekking poles went flying, I fell down to my knees and my pants snagged on a nail, ripping a gaping hold in them. Luckily, my body had no tears and I was fine. I loudly yelled some choice swear words, but was laughing afterwards. I look like shit, I thought, all dirty, smell terrible, and with a huge tear in my pants.
This trip, I decided to do an experiment. I don’t know if performance enhancing drugs are a thing with the fastest known time (FKT) crowd, the backpacking crowd, but I wanted to experiment with performance enhancing drugs. I packed two joints with me, with the intent of smoking them on Saturday and Sunday, my two middle days. Is this a performance enhancing drug? Yes, or at least I hoped it would be! Enhancing mentally more than physical, though, but that still enhances the performance. Walking alone on this rugged trail with everything to survive on my back for hour after hour, mile after mile, is more of a mental challenge anyways. I had kept tabs on my mental state on Friday, and was going to compare with Saturday. It seemed fitting to smoke the Saturday joint at 4:20pm, and with my brain in a funk and a tear in my pants, I focused on that little upcoming break. My mood changed once again, and I got excited. Plus, this would be right before the Lakewalk. 4:18 came along and I smoked and walked. In a few puffs and a few steps, it was reduced to the tiniest roach ever, and I was feeling good. Not the overwhelming existential experience of a college freshman in a dorm room, but it was different enough to stimulate the brain.
I hit the Lakewalk in the sun, and tried to make good time. I couldn’t help but look down, and found several agates. They were washed completely smooth, like marbles, by the tumbling Lake Superior waves. Perfect. I emptied my shoes of rocks at the end, and started uphill towards the Kadunce River. I was still behind schedule, and still hadn’t seen the girl hiker from the morning. I took my hat off, put my head down, and took it home. No sense to stop now, I’ll be eating my hot mush before long.
1, 2, 1, 2. I was pushing on forward as the sun disappeared behind fast-moving clouds. It look ominous and I was nervous it’d rain on me right as I got to camp. Luckily, there were four campsites upcoming to choose from. I decided to push towards the last one, Kimball Creek, but could stop at a few different Kadunce River sites. I looked down and realized my hat, clipped to my waistbelt, was gone! NO! It was my hat from Ironman Wisconsin and had sentimental value up the zing-zang. So, I turned around to get it. No, no. It could be closer to the Lakewalk than not… I could add five miles just to get the hat. Is that worth it, I thought? No. So I turned around again, terribly disheveled, but didn’t let it become too much of an issue. A hat is all it is. Not ten minutes later, I got to the first campsite on the Kadunce and chatted with the mystery hiker girl from earlier. Cool! She’d made it a long, long ways, at least 20 miles, and I didn’t have much to say to her. In my tired state, with the loss of my hat, I was more focused on setting my pack down. I wished her goodbye, likely forever. As I walked away, I briefly reconsidered and thought about going back to set up camp, building a fire, eating food and talking it up, but did not do it. I pressed on and it was not too much longer that I arrived at Kimball Creek, alone at the campsite.
I set up camp quickly, got another fire together, although it was very tough to find firewood, and my feet hurt really bad. They were very, very wet and looked like moldy raisins. I set up my tarp to have it dry out, and it luckily did really quickly. I cooked and ate my mushy dinner, and relaxed by the fire as dusk set in. The ominous clouds had cleared out and it was a beautiful evening. Before pitch dark, I crawled into my shelter and slept better this second night.
Day 3 – Sunday, August 14, 2016
On the third day, I woke up to beautiful sunshine as my alarm went off at 7 o’clock. My legs felt surprisingly great. Why, I do not know. Perhaps because I slept better? I’m getting “trail strong”? Regardless, I made a point to not dawdle and get my things packed up quickly. Everything was bone dry this morning, which was nice. I was walking around without long sleeves, shirtless in fact, and very happy with the lack of bugs. I set off feeling good and excited to see more new trail. But first, back to Grand Marais.
The first few hours flew by and I was feeling good. I made a special point to drink water. In fact, water was a constant thought, and something that I literally had to focus on. The ridge near Durfee Creek was even more stunning than before. I avoided bridges at all costs, and would walk around them. I zipped through the Devil’s Track River quickly. It was good to see people recreating, and the ski trails in Grand Marais were hopping with people enjoying the beautiful, perfect Sunday morning. I stopped at the parking lot to take a survey for the National Forest, which was kind of entertaining. I was almost a mile ahead of schedule and could afford the time. “Are you: hiking? Obviously yes. Foraging for berries, fossils, rocks, things like that?” “Umm, I suppose yes.” “Traveling by non-motorized water?” “Nope.” “Doing any relaxing?” “Nope.” I was able to get a tiny bit of sunscreen from the nice National Forest employee, too, without my hat on this sunny day.
From Grand Marais, I crossed over the Gunflint Trail where I was dropped off two days prior, and it was a grueling climb. Up, up, up, but was eventually afforded a beautiful view of Grand Marais from high above. I was sweating, and again had to focus on drinking water. I bumped out onto the North Shore State Trail, and walked through the swampy brush for nearly two miles. I set a time to get back onto the singletrack, 1 o’clock. and hit it right on the nose, two miles later, 18 miles in for the day.
At lunch time, I stopped, sat down, and ate some delicious food. I ate up, washed it down, but got nervous about my water. I was half-full, but didn’t see any water sources on the map to my south. Regardless, I was feeling good, really good, and kept trucking. It was a long trek into featureless woods until the Cascade River State Park. This section was difficult. I filled up on water at Sundling Creek, which was more like a pond, and made my way through narrow trail. Finally, I saw a beautiful overlook to the Cascade River valley. My water stash had dwindled again, and I was really looking forward to mid-way to the 4 o’clock hour to take a quick break.
I knew there was a spur trail loop split at the north end of the Cascade River, and I kind of wanted to take the western bank, but didn’t look to hard at signage and ended up on the eastern side anyways. It was a beautiful section, typical riverside SHT. Up and down, steep trail and roots a-plenty.
I took a much-anticipated break on the flat rocks of the Cascade River, just 15 minutes, and continued on with plenty of time to spare. I was averaging well over 3mph somehow, and still feeling great on the day. I think that my relentless forward pursuit was taking a toll on my body, however, and I felt more specific muscles and tendons getting overworked versus the overall fatigue of the previous two days. My feet were only now starting to get sore, 31 miles and 10 hours on the day, but I knew I was pretty close to my campsite at Indian Camp Creek. It was quick to the bottom of the Cascade River, which was beautiful. This is somewhere I’d like to spend the whole weekend exploring. From the bridge over Cascade, it was up. Up, up, up to Overlook Mountain. I was sweating once again.
I was counting the seconds as I walked. Only 15 more minutes, I’ll be there. Ok, now only 14 more minutes. My wrist was getting a workout as I became eager to end the day and checking my watch over and over. Luckily, it was relatively early, and I finally got to the multi-group campsite around 6:30pm. There were a few bros at the site, but it was so big and sprawling I didn’t talk to them, just set up my own camp right off the short spur, with my own bench and fire pit. I set up quickly, my agenda becoming automatic. Unpack, set up tarp, get food stuff ready, get water. I found a lot of good firewood to make a raging fire amidst it all. Why I made fires this trip, I don’t know. Finally sitting down, I was on cloud 9, and opened up my phone to cell service. I uploaded my GPS data and checked messages. Tisk, tisk, using technology out in the pristine wilderness, but it was nice to stimulate the brain. My food stash was now nearly depleted, which was great. I ate everything, leaving just enough to get me through the final day, calculated at 25 miles. I relaxed under the clear skies and nice little fire, found a good position to sit and stretched my legs. They felt fine.
Once I crawled into my tarp and quilt, I saw a little field mouse running around. Great. Get out of here, ya’ vermin! I angrily whispered at him as not to alarm the fellow campers within earshot. It was humid, and my tarp collected the moisture. I didn’t fall asleep as easily as I thought and the illuminating moon made it clear as day.
Day 4 – Monday, August 15, 2016
I woke up especially early on the final morning. I heard my fellow campers arise before sunrise, likely to hike to Lookout Mountain for the view. Good idea, but I slept later than that. It was another sunny and beautiful morning, and I set off without haste. My gear was simply shoved away into the bag, last-day style. It was a steep climb out of Indian Camp Creek, and my legs were a bit fatigued. I felt certain small tendons and joints especially sore, but my feet luckily felt fine. I was eating a lot of my food early on, and trying to push on quickly to just get home. I’d made a plan with my mom to meet on the trail. She was going to park at Britton Peak as well, hike north as I hike south, and we’d meet and take it back to Britton together. I wondered where I’d meet her, and figured at the bottom of Moose Mountain. That was to be many hours in the future, however.
I got tired pretty quickly on this Monday morning. I thought of my colleagues at work as I happened to look at my watch at 8:01. I ate more food and pressed on. Despite my motivation to walk fast and avoid stopping, I was already behind schedule just a few hours in. There were so many spider webs, I couldn’t take it. A thought crossed my mind, of sadness, that this was my last day. The dread and agony of the first few days, a great third day, and I just wished it was the long hike. It is grueling, it is strenuous and tedious, but the freedom of having nothing to do but walk is fantastic. Eat, drink, sleep and walk. So simple.
By Jonvick Creek, I was fed up. It was the thought of being done today that pushed me through, but it felt more like a death march than a relaxing walk in the woods. I kept my head down, just peeking my head up enough to barely glance at the beautiful overlook of Caribou Lake. Lake Agnes was next, and that was enough to spur a change in thought. The trail became more walkable, and I had fun hooting and hollering over the lake, looking for a cool series of echoes. I saw some other backpackers getting some morning water on the very south end of Lake Agnes, and one guy was incredibly surprised that I was going 25 miles today. I didn’t brag to him how I’d already hiked 100 miles in the last three days. This is the easy day, bro!
It was slow going through the Poplar River. I figured I’d be right by Lutsen, but it took forever.
Once I got past Lutsen, I tried to remember the landscape of the trail from my memory of the Superior Spring 50k. With the more recent memory of 60 miles of the Superior Hiking Trail to the north, this part of the trail was extremely hilly. Up, down, up, down. Big up, steep, steep down. Relentless elevation. It was hard on the legs.
Up a huge, huge, climb, I was huffing and puffing and saw my mom coming down. It was nice to talk to her, and it diverted my attention from the tedious nature of the task at hand. From there, it was go time. After traversing Moose Mountain and going down the extremely steep south side of the ridge, it was pretty smooth trail from there. It took several hours, but we didn’t really stop at all. I didn’t eat much, and didn’t drink much, and we didn’t really talk much. I was really focused on getting to the car at this point. I thought I could maybe I could shave off a half hour from the 3mph average, and I went for it. I’d cruise past my mom uphill and 45 minutes later, she’d run back up to me. I was jealous of her ability to run, tried it on some very flat and easy sections, but couldn’t do it. It felt like my knees could tear, so reverted back to walking. It was fast walking, though.
I mentally clicked off the landmarks: Oberg Mountain, Leveaux, and then Britton. We sensed the end, and it was a glorious site to see the packed parking lot, with my old Subaru sitting as I left her. I dropped my trekking poles and touched the car with a huge smile. I could have gone 10 more miles, but would have hiked the previous 25 a bit differently. The root beer I’d stashed in my car was the tastiest gulp of my life. The real question is after another 10, would I be able to double that? Then, after that, would I be able to add another 30 miles? I didn’t even get half of the trail done. I felt pretty decrepit the rest of the day, but was it that far off from how I felt the first night out there? How does the spectrum of ‘degradation’ to ‘trail strong’ operate? Is it possible to feel trail strong but have certain body parts slowly give out? How long would that take? The questions didn’t stop. I won’t know the answers until I’m at Wisconsin, the southern terminus of the Superior Hiking Trail. Questions and doubts aside, this trip was good and built a sense of confidence that I could not get from any where else. It is go time.