Lake County Demonstration Forest, In Winter
Hike Date: January 1st – 3rd, 2016
Trail: Superior Hiking Trail
Trip Plan: 3 nights, ~50 miles, park at Lake County Demonstration Forest
Day 1 – Hike North to Silver Creek campsite (15 miles)
Day 2 – Hike South past Demo Forest parking lot spur to Big Bend Campsite (25 miles)
Day 3 – Hike North to Lake County Demonstration Forest
|First Aid Kit
|3/4 full hand sani (2 oz)
|6 band aids
|2 large gauze pads
|small roll athletic tape
|Iodine taste tabs
|4 AA batteries
|In a quart baggie
|Full size Bic
|Book of Matches
|In a quart baggie
|Energizer lamp light combo
|Red fuel canister
|Dark Blue Wool Sweater
|TNF Thermoball jacket
|Composition Book w/ pen
|Triple pad: al ccf, 2/3 ccf, Gander self inflator
|TNF Cat's Meow and compression sack
|Fly Creek UL 1 tent
Day One – January 1st, 2016:
A new year is here, and what better way to spend the first three days than backpacking? The more I think about a Superior Hiking Trail through-hike, the more amped up I get. Therefore, I’m pretty dedicated on training myself as best possible to hike big miles day after day. Yeah, triathlons are very fun. Also, to be able to run really fast is great. However, I’m putting everything on the wayside (including, largely, my social life!) to best prepare myself for long distance backpacking. Long and slow, baby! I think it’s kind of funny talking to my running buddies… “nope, I’m going for the slow and long training approach this year. Really slow, like walking.”
Anyways, I knew I had a three-day weekend for the New Year, and started planning routes a bit out. I wanted to do a yo-yo style where I could just park in one spot and sandwich a big day between two shorter ones. Also, I wasn’t really getting any takers to come with for the whole trip, except my roommate Jack wanted to get out there for a night. Truth be told, a winter multi-day trip is pretty intimidating. I wanted to do one last year and didn’t get to it, and was super excited to face a whole different set of challenges. So without the ability to go point-to-point, I planned a 30-mile trip from the Demo Forest outside of Two Harbors, MN. Then, I started thinking…. I can do more. 25 miles in a day is possible, but it would take all day, sun up to sundown. I have to go out on a limb here, I have to put myself through the same rigors of Ironman training but for backpacking. I mentally prepared for some big miles, and decided that this is definitely the way to go.
Looking at my gear, I decided that the best bet for water would be a mid-layer water bladder carrier worn backwards on my chest. I used that for the Heck of the North bike race and it worked great. I can fill up using an empty 1-gallon jug and iodine purification tablets. Melting snow is slow and uses a lot of fuel and can result in nasty tasting water. Not that iodine is delicious… because it’s not, but I figured I can melt snow if push comes to shove, too. I got food that would probably not freeze, and the real mystery was pb&j sandwiches for lunch. As long as they’re not rock hard, they’d be edible. My last real concern was Diamond. Would she be able to haul ass for 8+hours a day? How much abuse can her teats sustain before they freeze off?? I’d just picked up a really nice dog jacket, though, and thought that would really increase her comfort levels at camp.
So on Friday, New Year’s Day, I loaded up the car and got ready to head out. I told Jack “I’d be there” in regards to meeting up on Saturday night at the Big Bend campsite. We were kind of slow getting going, and we left maybe an hour later than I was shooting for. It was no issue, though, and I was simply hoping to get to the first camp at Silver Creek before 4. If we can hike 3 MPH, that would be easy.
I thought I was going to get stuck at the hardly-plowed Demo Forest parking lot. I found a spot without getting stuck, but pondered the terrible situation of hiking 50 miles, then not being able to leave the lot, stuck in a rut all by myself!
We set off walking at around 10am and headed north out of the 1.2-mile spur trail from the lot. I decided to use snowshoes, cloth gaiters and lightweight trail runners. With the multiple pairs of socks, I knew I’d be able to have dry socks at night and to start the day, but I also knew that there’s probably no way around stone-cold frozen shoes in the mornings. The snowshoes were pretty clutch because there was a decent amount of powder on the ground, I’d say 8-12 inches, and I was breaking trail right off the spur trail.
I quickly noticed that the heavy snow had bent any weak limb in towards the ground with the aid of gravity. In sections of bramble or tight tree-lined corridors, the trail would be nearly entirely blocked. I could shake away the snow and the trees would spring back to their vertical stature, but to be shaking snow off and lifting trees many times each mile made for slow going and cold hands. And when the wind blew, or if I slightly nudged a branch, or perhaps an earth tremor occurred, I’d be at the risk of a cold dump of snow down the back of my neck. On the flip side, Diamond was having a blast.
I was making my way along and actually feeling pretty cold. Diamond’s sleeping bag and mat didn’t stay on her pack for one second, so I was carrying it in my hands as a warmer. I could already feel my feet soaking wet, but luckily not cold at all. I got to a section where it looked like a cross country skier made their way through. That must have been rough… all of the sticks and bramble were tough enough for my little running snowshoes. I couldn’t imaging getting through that thick with long, cumbersome skis on.
I was thinking about when I could stop for lunch and put on a layer. I knew there were a few campsites before the next trail head on Reeves Road and County Road 2 near Two Harbors. That would be a good spot perhaps halfway through the first day. I figured I was 4 or 5 miles in when I got lost. It had happened once or twice already, where Diamond and I got off track in the homogenous landscape–brown trees blanketed in white as far as the eye could see–to feel lost in it was dizzying. So we turned around and found the last blue blaze, then looked ahead. Never mind, we were on the right track after all! We kept trucking. Except it wasn’t the right way… there is no way that was the trail. So we stopped and looked around. I was squinting for a blue blaze on any tree. None! So we backtracked once again. I tried to coax Diamond into leading us to the correct bearing using her trail instincts. Once again, we were bushwhacking. I thought there was huge tree blocking the real trail, we hiked around it, but no nothing! Lost! I felt really panicked for a second. My feet were freezing, hands freezing, this is stupid! What am I doing? Ok, get back on track here. What can we do? There were a few options in my mind: hike back to that last blaze AGAIN and try something different, or keep going forward from here with no compass and no idea where on the map we actually are, or scrap this whole dumb trip. We’d already wasted at least a half hour just walking in circles in this small area in the woods in the middle of nowhere. Yep, we’re going back. I anger-walked back to that stupid last hash. I took one more glance around to see if I could come up with any other ideas on where to go. A straight-shot trajectory puts us right into a pine branch. Maybe that’s the right way, but today it is not. We’re going back. So I continued with the anger-walking and we backtracked. My chronograph said 2:15 or so.
The walking was much, much easier back through my own tracks. We were making pretty good time given the knowledge that in a few miles we’d be back in the car with the heat blasting. While hiking back to the car, defeated, I thought about staying overnight at a shelter near the Demonstration Forest parking lot. We could still meet Jack. Nah… this is over, we need to recoup. Plus it’s cold out. I figured Jack and I could come up with a totally new route for the next night.
We got back to the car in a flash, perhaps an hour and half or so. Luckily, the Subaru started up with no issue and we got out lickety split. We hungrily stopped at Culver’s in Two Harbors and then Diamond and I embarrassingly headed back to Duluth. It wasn’t very nice to explain to my roommates that I bailed after, like, 1/10th of the journey, and I also posted a valiant exclamation on Facebook about this trip. But alas, we were back. I figured we trekked between 6-10 miles all said and done, which is still 3 hours and 40 minutes of great practice!
Later that night, I talked with Jack and we decided it could work to park one car at Reeves Road and County Road 2, the other car back at the Demo Forest, and do the 11-mile section from the opposite way I was going the day before, camping at the Stewart River campsite right in the middle. This would be great because we would come to where got lost from the other direction, which would be nice to at least know where I went wrong! Jack and I didn’t make a solid commitment until right before bed, and aimed to get on the road by 9:45, stop at the gear shop to get Jack a closed cell foam sleeping pad, and be off by around 10:02 AM.
Day Two – January 2, 2016:
The next morning, we were a little slow to get off. Jack and I drove in separate cars to the Minnesota Surplus in downtown Duluth. When I parked and walked in, Jack was already hurriedly walking out, pad in hand, and said he forgot to go into work! He had to do a few simple work duties, and it would only take 15 minutes or so. We ended up caravaning up north by 10:40 or so.
The plan was to leave Jack’s car at the Demo Forest, drive up with my car to Reeves Road, and hike back to Jack’s car. Jack got terribly stuck in the Demo Forest parking lot and we both got pretty wet and worked up and frustrated getting the car out. Eventually we did, though, and were off in the Subaru. The Reeves Road lot was not plowed and we uneasily parked my car right on the side of County Road 2. Neither of us knew the laws on that and figured that I bike to work anyways! It’s not a huge deal if my car gets towed away. Jack smashed two sandwiches while we were getting ready, we saddled up, locked up, and set off.
We hiked a quarter mile of snowmobile trail right off the bat, then got into the woods. I recalled my experience with the droopy, snowy trees, and we both got big dumps of snow down our backs pretty quick into the trip. The day was beautiful, however, and it was hard to be in bad spirits! It was great to be back on the trail, warm and ready to get to camp!
I made a few substitutions to my pack over the night at home. I took out a bunch of the snacks, my two pb&j’s and threw Diamond’s sleeping bag into my pack. I may have made a few switch-a-roos with clothes and such, and I packed on two beers, too. A fitting brew for the journey is Bent Paddles Harness Winter IPA. Also, I ditched the snowshoes and trail runners for waterproof hiking boots. I was curious to see what would work better.
It was tough going, and we realized we were walking pretty slow about an hour in. We passed the first campsite and hiked through some hilly country, up and up and then alongside creek ravines. It reminded me of the mountains out west. The sun was shining and we were doing good. I was surprised Jack was hauling ass with me since he had a 52 pound pack and I had only about 28 pounds on me.
Jack soon realized his inner legs were chafing pretty bad. He was wearing running tights–nothing else. I was wearing bamboo boxers, running tights, and rain pants over it everything and was getting warm. Also, I threw on a running windbreaker this time, and it made all the difference. Warm legs, yes, but I could regulate easily and for all intents and purposes, perfectly comfortable.
Neither of us brought a map this time. The hike out was 5.9 miles, and we through we’d be doing 3 MPH. At 2 hours in, we definitely weren’t going that fast. Also, both of us were feeling ready to get to camp and relax for a second. It was a textbook trudge through the snow. We made a bunch of wrong turns, but would quickly realize and get back on track. It was so clutch to have someone else besides Diamond to consult with, because again, we were breaking the trail and it wasn’t a very clear path.
Evenutally, I broke away from Jack. Not intentially, but I got into a rhythm, looked back to see nothing, and just kept going. At least he could see my tracks! I didn’t think we’d get separated or go the wrong way or anything. Every now and again, I would hear a shriek. I’d stop, and notice the complete silence of the windless winter day. Stopped, all I could hear was the white noise of my brain’s electrical circuitry. I yelled back, “WHAT?!??”, and nothing. So I kept going, and it happened three other times! At this point, I was just excited to get to camp, so Diamond and I were trucking.
Finally, I saw the Stewart River. There was a big bridge and the river was not the crick I’d envisioned. It was open in some spots, and the ice formations were cool. I knew the campsite was right over the bridge, and we hooked a right off the bridge to find it. My spirits got a boost, I yelled out that we were at the Stewart River but with no reply. I couldn’t find the campsite, though! I was trudging around, and went back to the bridge. I saw the hash to the left, and had to blast past a huge brambly bush covered in snow to get to the trail. There were so many sticks in the way, but a few footsteps away was the campsite. Nice! My watch chronograph said 3:08 or so. I started clearing away and packing down snow and looking for what I needed to find first, a good place to set up my tent and some easy firewood.
My plan was to cook some lunch right away. Since breakfast, I’d just been munching on chocolate and snacks. I boiled some water and tried out my zip-lock cheese noodles and mashed potatoes. It was an experimental recipe. Jack trudged in just a few minutes after me.
Getting camp set up was a low point. Jack immediately went into survival mode because he was chafed, cold and wet. I tried to do my own thing while he frustratingly set up the tent in his hiking garb. It went up and I got a fire lit somehow. He took forever to change in his tent, and I was checking on my food and the fire and trying to set up my tent. Meanwhile, Diamond was terrorizing me by running around like a maniac through camp and barking really loudly. I yelled, “aren’t you tired?!??” I got frustrated when a gust of wind threatened to lift my tent back to St. Louis County, which is when the fire went out. CRAP! This is stupid… there is now way I would be able to hike 25 miles and then set up camp in the dark. I would have been a frozen stiff!
Jack walked out of his tent with a huge parka and a smile back on his grill. He looked like an arctic explorer and very warm and comfortable for once. It sounded like his loins were pretty chafed up from the repeated friction, but I’m sure it was nice to simply get that huge pack off. I got my tent pitched decently well, and then focused my entire world on warming my hands back up! I looked at the small indent in the snow where the tiny twig fire burned out, and check on my noodles. They were freezing cold and crunchy hard. Ok, I guess snow as an insulator doesn’t work in this situation!
I munched on a few handfuls of nuts, and we decided to really go hard on getting some firewood before anything else. The sun was starting to fall behind the ridge line of our gully campsite and we’d definitely need a lot of quality firewood if we wanted to be comfortable outside of our sleeping bags.
We found a tree that was definitely dead, and had a bunch of lodged logs stuck up there. We worked on pulling some down, and within no time had a really big pile of good dead wood. We got the fire back going again, and it was roaring soon enough. I put my noodles into my kettle and shoved that over the fire to heat up. Also, I added my bag of instant potatoes to soak up some of the water. Now things were starting to look up. Before long, we had a roaring fire, food on the stove, and we were finally warm and somewhat dry. And it was dark.
We ate, which was another warming agent. Despite the snow and the cold, it was sure good to be out in the wilderness. We both kind of questioned our sanity and whether we’d ever do this again. Probably not… The first had burned a big hole in the ground and it took a bit of blowing to get oxygen to the bottom where the coals lay. But we had a lot of dry sticks and could keep it bright and hot with a quick minute of fire maintenance. Just getting up and moving was a chore… once you found a nice dry spot where all your stuff was perfectly placed around you–flashlight, big gloves, food–it was a bummer to have to get up!
Diamond was anxiously barking and stealing my stuff to bring into the woods. Also, she would dig into the snow and circle around and try to lay down, but then realize that it’s all snow and nothing is warm. I tried to bring her into my arms or on the foam pad between my legs, but then have to get up and she’d run away. Eventually, I threw her in the tent, unraveled my sleeping bag and hers, and got everything set up. I wondered how we would be comfortable in the one-man ultralight tent. But she was certainly comfortable, because we didn’t hear a peep the rest of the night!
It was a great night. The campsite was really cool. We could hear a strong wind high up in the trees, but we were in a valley right next to the river and there was hardly a breeze at our surface level. The flowing river added another ambiance on top of a crackling winter fire. Yep, this is fun even despite my wet feet inside these boots that are beginning to freeze solid. It’s risky to get my nice gloves wet, but worth it to be enjoying natures bounties! Or this mentality is my brain’s way of convincing itself I made the right decision. Winter camping is a lesson in cognitive dissonance.
A few hours went by and I made my second dinner, freeze dried lasagna. Backpacking meals are so easy, it’s no wonder why they’re more expensive. Calorie for calorie, and considering ease of use, they’re probably equally expensive! Also, Jack boiled some water for me to fill up my water bladder. Getting water from the river was a bit sketchy. The hot water was really warm on my chest as I hadn’t taken off my reverse chest water pouch.
When every rock in the fire pit was eventually exposed and the fire waned to an orange glow of the embers, we went to bed. It was 9 PM or so. I hit the headlamp, shuffled some things between the tent and backpack and bench, careful to avoid dropping anything heavy! It would be a bummer to have to come out repeatedly in the spring to look for a tool lost in the snow.
Diamond was pretty sound asleep, which made it hard to scoot around and find a comfortable position for myself. She’s a lug. Also, she made a huge indent in the snow. I guess just stomping around and setting up my tent didn’t do much to compress the powder beneath. I started peeling off layers, and decided to keep my water bladder on, but pretty much took everything else off. I had my long underwear and socks nearby, but decided to go no socks and just boxers for now! My feet were wet and this would hopefully give them a chance to dry. It would be very hard to sleep with freezing wet feet, but they actually felt fine getting into the sleeping bag and liner. I wrote my thoughts for the night, and me and Dimey shuffled around to get into a good position to sleep in. The ultralight tent was surprisingly accommodating! It was going to be nice to get some shuteye.
I dozed off pretty quickly. Like any overnighter in the woods, I wonder if I really slept at all. Sure enough, the morning light was there in no time. The night was actually super comfortable. Diamond didn’t really peep, and seemed warm the whole time. I was even sweaty during the night, and woke up to take my legs out of the bag liner! I could feel a very wavy contour under my body where my hips protruded into the snow, but my divot actually felt nice! I was joking with Jack that sleeping on snow is like a memory foam mattress–it conforms to your body, but then freezes solid!
Day 3 – January 3, 2016
I fed Diamond from in the tent at around 6 AM. She ate from where she was sitting and we went back to bed until 8 or so.
When I got up, it was a beautiful morning with a dusting of fresh snow. I was kind of anxious and worried that I’d be so cold with no dry clothes left, but once I got situated and moving, it was just my feet in the frozen solid boots that were cold. Also, I couldn’t really use the gaiters as they were completely hardened frozen, so every wrong step packed more snow into those frozen boots. I boiled some water to make coffee, and started munching a bit to engage my digestive system and get some more blood flowing. Jack got up too, and we contemplated making a fire. I decided to take some pictures instead.
We thought we could be back on the trail in an hour or so, and started packing up shop. Half of my gear was frozen solid.
Jack lent me his gaiters, which I initially lent him from home, and he stuck with the plastic bags on his feet. Finally, we were ready to rock, a bit behind schedule. Diamond’s gear was very icy, and I felt bad putting it over hear face! Jack’s pack was huge… to see everything go back into it reminded me.
We both had the feeling that this was going to be a tough hike out, but it was reassuring to know that once we got to the point I bailed the day before, it would be pretty smooth sailing. Jack said his chafed legs were feeling pretty rough, but we suited up, gave our farewells to the campsite, and headed up the big hill out of the Stewart River valley towards Jack’s car 5.1 miles away at the Demonstration Forest parking lot.
The theme was just keep hiking, and we’ll be out soon enough. We motorboated through the first few miles, and it was nice to see my snowshoe prints about 55 minutes into our hike home.
We kept pushing, and seeing the spur trail to the Demo Forest was great. We stopped for a rest not too long after.
1.2 miles later, I saw a familiar rock, and we turned out of the narrow single track to the Demo Forest parking lot. Then, we saw Jack’s car. I got the moment on camera as we neared the car, and took our packs off for good.
We got to my car at Reeves Road, and it was doin’ fine! I still don’t know the laws for parking on a road like that… but no harm no foul. We were talking food and decided to go to Culver’s. When in Rome, as they say. The food was great, and we felt good about the trip being in civilization and certain safety.
There are a few tweaks I can make clothing-wise to cut down. Also, there are always creature comforts to make the camping better, but I am already excited to the next opportunity to go backpacking in the snow and the cold! Why it’s fun, I’m still not sure. Or maybe it’s not fun at all. I just don’t know. Regardless, we’ll be back.