12 Jan 2020
Trip Plan: Ski pulk to Buzz Ryan Campsites in the Boulder Lake Management Area. Winter camp two nights in the hot tent and explore the area on fat skis.
Date: December 20-22, 2019
Day 1 – Friday, December 20, 2019
My dream had come true. How many hours had I yapped to Kris about winter camping dreams and actual trips I’d planned and executed, gear and wish list items? Kris always talked about getting me this hot tent rig to try. 6 months prior, she told me she got it from her ex-husband. She got it for me! WHAT!? So when winter finally came around in Duluth, with a force, I was very eager to try this setup out. Kris told me she’d come along and help me set it up and enjoy a winter’s night out in the woods. We figured out a date that worked. Luckily we have pretty similar weekend schedules as partners of a weekend-based race timing business!
I was so eager that I asked Kris if I could go out on Friday. She couldn’t go but said she’d find me the next day out at Boulder Lake. After working a half-day on Friday, I packed up as quick as possible, and Diamond and I drove to Kris’s to get the rig and ship up to Boulder Lake 20 minutes outside of town.
Kris gave me the rundown. The entire hot tent rig first consists of a large pulk sled. Very heavy but it obviously slides. The tent itself is canvas plus a wooden center pole. Then the wood stove has four pipe attachments, the stand and a little shelf extension all packed within the stove itself. The door was rusted shut. Skeeter rushed to grab some brand new metal lubricating anti-rust spray he’d just purchased for his bike. Kris quipped about how she’s glad she checked the door! Yep, that would be a challenge if I set up the entire tent, got wood, got my lighter out, and the door is closed tight. Even if it opens, a rusty door would make feeding the stove obviously difficult. So we lubed it up, I got some last minute setup tips, and we roughly coordinated on the meet-up tomorrow. By this point, it was 3pm, and we still had to drive out! The sense of urgency hit me. It would be dark soon.
Off to Boulder, and I wondered what the repercussions may be about parking my van on the side of County Road 4. I’d been thinking of this… to the point of trying to look up Minnesota and Saint Louis County laws and regulations! I couldn’t find anything. Must be legit then. We arrived in a snap, the feeling of darkness looming heavy. I struggled with attaching some last second gear and settled for a somewhat looseleaf configuration within the sled. I neglected to pull up the flap cover, which was a mistake. With the entirety of my gear strapped to the sled (Diamond carried some of her own load), it was extremely cumbersome at best to get the sled out of my van. Yeah, this wouldn’t be possible without a minivan with the seats out! I dragged it down with a thud, focusing on keeping Diamond out of the 60mph roadway, but only had 12 inches to work with on the narrow shoulder. I had driven into the snowbank slightly to create about one inch of clearance from the white line in the road. While tinkering around with the waistbelt I heard a rumble from far away. Moments later, I stood helpless as a massive lumber transporting truck zoomed past. I felt the displacement of air, seemingly wavering in place as the truck roared on. I second guessed my parking spot, but resolved to just folding my mirror in.
I finally got all strapped in: Diamond, pulk sled and all. I was wearing my Altai Hok fat skis and using much-too-short trekking poles. I felt unsteady. Then I realized that the bottom of the pulk sled had something on it. Like a sticky substance of some sort. Sheesh, how would I get this mystery material off? I can’t slide this sled like this? Maybe ice chunks on the bottom. No, none of that make sense!! The sled was just heavy. Unbelievably heavy. I was in denial that I couldn’t muster the strength to make the sled budge. I leaned obnoxiously forward and tried lurching in jerky spurts to get some semblance of momentum. First, barely a nudge, then some sliding, then I was able to keep my momentum up and actually got going!
As dusk settled in, Diamond and I made our way to the Buzz Ryan campsites. I knew it was just less than 2 miles in. The dog and the sled were frustrating. Too much shit attached to myself. I’d get the sled into a rut, Diamond into a tangle. If I lost my momentum it was like an critical failure. Keep the sled sliding under any circumstances! We trucked along and made it to the very first campsite available, the same one that we had been to about 4 weeks earlier. Every new moment seemed to be noticeably darker. It was that point where your eyes kind of change over from light to dark. I could still see, but not many minutes could pass before I’d need to find my lamp. Ok… let’s see how this thing sets up. I figured the wooden pole was for the direct center. I neglected to bring a shovel, which proved to be a huge mistake for the setup phase of the hot tent lifestyle. I tried to pack down snow with my skis, to make a platform. Diamond trounced all over it and ruffled up the snow. Ugh! I swore at her, my booming voice echoing off the shoreline opposite. Hehe, that’s kind of fun. I shook the tent free from its bag. I found the center pole hole and also the door. I felt it a useless endeavor to try and lay out the tent. I’d move one corner and the other side would furl onto itself. I’d stomp over to the other side to unfurl, the back would pull up from its spot. Terrible. I decided to go for the center pole first. Then I found corners. Luckily, they had cord tied to the grommets. There were many, many more untied grommets. But having the four corners tied gave me an idea of the tent’s dimensions. When I got the center piece in I started tying down the corners. It was similar to stringing up my upside-down trekking pole rain tarp. Frustrating but once you get two sides it comes up. It was a challenge to tie down onto far-away trees and shrubberies. I tied one side to a log and buried it in the snow. Then the tent popped right up! I went around and tightened up each corner, readjusted the center and all the sudden I had myself a sturdy shelter. At this point, I had to get my headlamp. I put my brand new tarp down as a floor, brought the wood stove in, and shoved everything else from the shed right in. Immediately, I knew there was too much snow in there. Crap. I started using my arm to move snow from inside to out. The floor soon became bare to the forest floor. That is good, less to melt and turn into water, I thought. With all the snow on my arms I started getting cold. It was not too long before I had my area pretty well set up, though. It seemed like a rushed setup. I can optimize later. Firewood is the next big concern.
In just as much of a rush as the rest of the evening thus far, I got burnable lumber as quick and easily as possible. It was a few armfuls of twigs and sticks, plus a bundle of birch bark. I got a fire going real quick. I had to stoke the fire with new twigs, to the brim, every 20 minutes. My initial wood pile was enough to warm up dinner and keep me warm while I ate. Then I needed to get more wood. I got a similar pile of sticks and twigs, enough to last me until bedtime. Then I’d let the fire go out. I was prepared for the forecasted mid-20’s overnight. It was an ecstatic evening. So this is it! The hot tent setup was so cool. I couldn’t believe I was out here. So awesome. I had ample entertainment just stoking the fire, taking in this new shelter space, and day dreaming up where I could take it. Diamond seemed happy and snug in her new DIY lightweight winter doggy bed.
Day 2 – Saturday, December 21, 2019 (Winter Solstice)
How goofy is it to spend the entire day outside on the winter solstice? The shortest day of the year? In northern Minnesota that day’s not very long! When I finally got up at 7:30 or so it was dawn, kind of similar to when I arrived here last night… no sun, not dark, but light enough to see pretty well. I spotted a crescent moon framed nicely in between some very tall pines. Beautiful! I took a deep breath through my nostrils, my brain flooded with serotonin and knew today would be a great day. Breakfast, then ski all day. The snow conditions were deep, fluffy, beautiful. Even the snowmobile-tracked Buzz Ryan Road back to the van would be nice to scoot along on the fat skis. But before breakfast, me and Dimey took to the lake to get a lay of the land. The first slush reports came back positive. It seemed like rock hard ice underneath a fluffy snowpack. The lake seemed a bit windblown, but still decent snow on top. We made a loop, then back for breakfast. Oatmeal and coffee was delicious. I was excited to go off even further. So I ate quickly, geared up for a longer tour, we zipped up the tent door and started off! Diamond was completely in her element running free in the woods in the snow. I felt a little stiff from the sleep on the ground but loosened up quickly as sunshine and blue sky spread across the landscape. Looking high to the treetops was picturesque. The day was shaping up to be truly incredible with great temperatures and snow conditions. I couldn’t help but smile, even laugh out loud, even hooting and hollering! Where else would we rather be, I shouted to Diamond. She didn’t take the time to respond. Too many sniffs.
Diamond and I headed toward the van parked on the road to try and find some logging road or snowmobile trail or cut in the woods… whatever it is, I’d scoped out many trails totally untracked in this Buzz Ryan area of the Boulder Lake Management Area. And exploring those through feet of snow is a perfect job for the fat skis! We found one after another, all leading in a dead end, but all enjoyable to just take the trail wherever it may lead, enjoy the nearby trees, the sunshine, blue sky and clouds, the soft snow blanketing everything in sight. Wonderful. I checked on the van, not smashed, good. Then we headed back to the tent. I wanted to call Kris to ask when she’d be there, where to meet her, etc… My phone was at 1% battery. CRAP! So I called Kris quick and blurted out my question. She said she’d park around 1pm. OK BYE!! Then I wrapped my phone in my jacket to try and keep it warm and from dying. And we went back out. A few hours of exploring every nook and cranny of Buzz Ryan and we headed back towards the County Road to meet Kris. When we arrived at around 12:45pm, no Kris. No sense waiting around, I thought, she’ll find us eventually. I had to start getting firewood. So we trekked back.
Tonight’s fire pile would be different. I wasn’t messing around this time. No more twigs and sticks. I harnessed into the empty pulk sled and Diamond and I skied out to an area that I’d spotted a lot of leaning dead trees. When we got there, I saw so many valid pieces of quality lumber I couldn’t wait to get to work. Diamond sauntered off into the deep woods and I started pushing, pulling, shaking and tossing tree limbs from the dense woods onto the trail by the sled. Ooo, this was going to be a haul! I paused the collections process to start breaking them into manageable pieces, then into the sled. Eventually I noticed a blonde dog trouncing down the trail. Lacie! Then Skeeter then Kris. They came right to me! Look at that! It was good timing as I had nearly filled up the sled. So I packaged it up and we all headed to the tent. I was embarrassed about my half-assed string-up job in dusk the night before, but it wasn’t so bad after all. Kris was ready to sleep in the woods, but didn’t make a rock solid commitment. And then I showed my friends the area.
We went out onto the lake, then to the furthest west campsite of 5 Buzz Ryan campsites. We tracked the campsite’s trails in entirety, then back to my lumber yard for another haul. It was nice to have helpers, and I filled that sled up to the brim with choice burnables in no time. Back to the tent, I started stacking and Kris seemed more than eager to whip out the saw and start cutting the bigger logs. When Skeeter decided he should probably head out, and Kris had to make a decision, she decided to stay. Easier decision when the wood pile is heaping! Lacie, that barker, left as well. In no time, it was dark again.
The rest of the night was relaxing, enjoyable, and warm. That lumber made the difference, and that tent got HOT! It was so hot, and the hot air kind of clumped towards the top of the tent, that you tried to get as low as possible to avoid the dizzying heat. It had to have been 80 degrees in there! I eventually dozed off, and Kris stoked the fire every hour until morning. I woke up a few times during the refueling process and drearily asked “fire still going?” or something meaningless like that. It was warm overnight.
Day 3 – Sunday, December 22, 2019
Kris and Diamond and I started to stir and pretty much got right to making oatmeal and coffee. I think we both were pretty keen on getting out of the woods without too much dilly-dallying. Diamond seemed to be feeling the whopping 15 mile ski the day before. I was too. I could go another day, but ooof, I was also ready to go home and unpack and take a shower. Drying, cleaning and storing this gear would certainly be a long and difficult process in and of itself. Much more so after another long ski, not to mention the 2 mile pulk out.
We did take another little spin across the lake. The clouds were very low lying… a fog, really. Regardless, it seemed kind of hazy out, kind of humid, mostly cloudy… kind of an interesting morning. Diamond didn’t have her usual peppy puppy energy levels, and I felt a little sluggish for sure. Skiing was more of a chore today than it was a blissful glide yesterday. So before long Kris and I reconvened, packed up our heaping mounds of gear, and tracked back to the cars. The sled pull was much better this time around with the experience and knowledge to utilize the sled cover and pack nicely. We were back to the cars in no time.
What a trip. Close to home, yes. Nothing extreme, no. But the nature was stunning and incredible. The hot tent setup was so cool. Such a game-changer. The skis and snow conditions, being outside all day, moving through nature, fellowship of my faithful dog Diamond and friends Kris and Skeeter gave me the feeling of having my best day ever. I think that Saturday was the best day of my life so far! Ya can’t get better than that.
18 Feb 2019
Hike Date: February 16-17, 2019
Trail: Superior Hiking Trail, Duluth Traverse Mountain Bike Trail
Trip Plan: Simulate a supported thru-hike effort but solo, by operating out of my house. Hike and run 65 miles over two days at 4 miles per hour.
Day 1: Run 40 miles with several stops at home by utilizing local trail loops.
Day 2: Run around 12 miles out and 12 miles back on the SHT westward from home.
Running miles: 65 miles
I started this trip in my running gear plus my jacket, headphones in, plus a mug of coffee. I just started walking down the street. I knew I just had to start walking.
Rewind the last three months and my training plan for thru-hiking the Superior Hiking Trail has going half perfect and half totally falling apart. As it was written, every four weeks was supposed to be a “long trip” that is a thru-hike simulation, five in total. The first one was dead on. The second one was dead on. The third long trip was a bust. It was very icy. Very, very icy. I tried to take the SHT north from Jay Cooke State Park, way south on the trail, and it was impossibly icy and I pulled the plug when I was supposed to be loading up on pizza at my van. I just ate the pizza and drove off after racking 14 miles in 4 hours. The fourth long trip was just a complete bust. I just didn’t do it! Zero miles. Too hard, too cold, too snowy, I don’t know. It just didn’t materialize in the slightest bit and it kind of crushed me. I questioned the whole training program. Before this last long trip, I was two for four on arguably the most crucial component of this thru-hike training program.
Then again, the rest of my training plan was well above 50% execution rate. Other components were spot on with remarkable consistency. Daily runs were very consistent and so was strength work. Going into week 20 of 22 I felt so good that I questioned if I should have put on more miles. I mean, I was doing 55 miles per week or so, with plans to peak mileage volume at week 22. 55 miles is nothing extraordinary. Then again, sniffing 20 hours a week with strength, walking and running. My body and mind were stretched pretty far. I ultimately argue that the most crucial component of this whole plan is long runs, and I was 100% on those with a really nice progression. The only other shortcoming was with speed work, where I’d skipped most. Speed workouts seemed to set off my hamstrings and every week I was too nervous to proceed, opting for another easy jog. All in all, training to go fast on the Superior Hiking Trail and excel at ultramarathons was going very excellent. However, rounding off training season with a perfectly executed “long trip” and final two week peak would be a major boost of confidence and strength and power going into race season.
So that is what I was thinking about while walking around my neighborhood with a coffee in my hand, watch counting tenths of a mile until it gets to 40.0. Rewinding again from that moment, just 10 minutes, I was stirring oatmeal. I had food sprawled everywhere, gear crowding my back door, and the clock glared 7:31 in my eye. I was so anxious to go, knowing that I was going to relentlessly pursue running 40 miles in 10 hours. The anxiety was stemmed in the feeling that I was dawdling. So I left right then and there! I had a glimpse of a plan.
So as I walked, I hashed it out: I would finish this cup of coffee, circle back to the house, grab my oatmeal and pull the ole eat-and-walk, then just crank ass from there. BOOM. It took no time at all to empty my coffee cup and get back home to eat my oatmeal. I’d gotten cold so grabbed wind pants. I was listening to podcasts: Joe Rogan Podcast with 2020 presidential candidate Andrew Yang. I ate my oatmeal on the go but couldn’t fit my coffee in my other hand, so made another really quick loop to grab a coffee refill to wash it down. The dogs in their kennels looked at me like I was trying torture them. I apologized for not taking them along but said I would in, like, 6 hours. I made a long loop around UMD, my alma mater, while listening to a riveting conversation, drinking a coffee, bundled up and very comfortable. This is very relaxing, I thought! I was broken from my euphoric state as I noticed a text message from my friend and business partner Kris. She was asking about my run today. I responded in my head, “funny you should ask, I’m running literally all day today!” But actually called her right away in excitement, to get some conversation and a running buddy into my life.
Kris answered and I pleaded my case, how that I was out for a long training day and aiming for 15 minutes per mile pace but already down on my pace so wanted to run any distance and when to swing by her house. So I planned to bring my coffee mug back home and load up for a longer loop, and altered my trajectory accordingly.
When I stopped at home, I ditched the jacket and wind pants, switched from road to trail shoes, ate some quick snacks and grabbed a block of gummis. I said “hi” to the dogs but was ashamed to look them in the eyes. I slugged some water, grabbed my trekking poles and headed out back to Chester Park. I told her I’d be on the east side of the creek, and she was texting me questions as I headed out the door, so wasn’t too sure that I’d find her with ease. I found Kris and Skeeter both right below Skyline in Chester, with ease. I was about 9 miles in and 2.5 hours had gone by. That means I was about 1 mile down on my goal pace.
It was a major relief to get to share some miles with my great friends Skeeter and Kris. Right away, Skeeter kind of fell back and Kris shrugged it off, saying he’ll just catch right back up and that’s just the way he is. I made Kris lead because I wanted her to select the pace, and she begrudgingly did so. We made our way on a beautiful tour of Duluth, out of Chester Park back onto the UMD campus to Bagley Nature Area, right through to Hartley Park and we stopped at the Hartley Nature Center. I was able to swig a bit of water from the drinking fountain there. We got back going and got stuck in some deep untracked snow. Skeeter went above onto the road. Kris lost her traction device in the snowbank and it took a second to get back reformulated. Through the cemetery towards Vermillion Road we ran. This was a similar route to countless long runs I’d done over the years and Duluth is truly blessed to have a network of interconnecting trail systems throughout the entire city.
We made the outer end of the loop near Hawk Ridge and Skyline Boulevard, but turned onto the snowmobile trail to head back. I could tell Skeeter was getting gassed and both he and Kris were sweating profusely. I was lucky to be the perfect temperature. I had eaten all of my gummis, was not too thirsty, and I felt really pretty good. We were chugging along at a good clip, though, and I could tell it was a different effort than the leisurely coffee walk that morning. But UMD’s manicured concrete sidewalks and a mug in hand are not good representations of thru-hiking the Superior Hiking Trail. Snowmobile trails and mountain bike trails were. Once we crossed back Jean Duluth Road, Skeeter had seen enough snowmobile trail and said he was peeling off. Kris said she wanted to continue onto the trail and I did too, so on we went, aimed towards where we initially met up hours prior.
I my mind, I was formulating the second half of my trip. I announced the point in time that I hit 20 miles on the day. A minute later, I hit 5 hours on the day, which meant I was exactly half way through and right on pace. I dropped Kris off near her house and continued to Chester by making a bee line to the trail. That gave me enough time to plan out exactly what I’d do at home to be as time efficient as possible. A couple minutes later, I carried out those plans.
When I opened my back door, I first let the poor dogs out to roam. They thought they were going to do something cool, but only one was. I ate my prepared lunch of a plant-based wrap and lemon fizzy water, and it went down very easily. I also shoveled down a lot of dried fruit and a couple pieces of chocolate candy. I changed my socks as the dogs clamored back in from the yard. I’d already decided to take Chally first. By using food as bait, I coaxed the other two dogs into their cages. I switched out of my soaking shoes into my old backup trail shoes. I switched my gloves, ditched the balaclava and dashed out the door. Chally and I walked out of the alley and cruised a loop of Chester, which is about five miles. I figured that would take 1:15 if I did it perfectly. I did it perfectly, or a bit fast. Chally was a nice partner and spiced things up a bit. Meanwhile, it was becoming a beautiful, sunny and crisp winter afternoon.
In no time, I was back at home and made the dog switch. Tilly was next and I saved Diamond for last. For reference, Chally is Emily’s dog and we were babysitting Tilly for the week. Chal and Diamond get a lot of running training and that was not the case for Til Bil. She wanted to sniff all 200 dog pee marks in Chester. So we were out for a half loop and I was happy to pick up Diamond, a purebred runner. I planned to take Diamond on a full loop of Hartley, likely to round out the day. After Tilly’s loop, I loaded up my food for a longer effort, changed my socks once more, and put my other, slightly dryer trail shoes back on. The newer shoes felt like pillows and I was excited to finish this baby off with Diamond in tow. The timer read around 7:45 and I was just over 30 miles on the day. Therefore, I was more than a mile ahead of my goal pace, and I could take the last 10 mile loop pretty easy.
Once we got into Hartley Park, the sun seemed to be lower and my energy level dipped to match. My socks were soaking wet once again and I was really tired of that trench foot feeling. Diamond tugged me along and it was again nice to have a companion of any type to add a different element than just me versus the trail.
My form was becoming sloppy and I was kind of just slogging along in a very gritty fashion. Overall, though, the day was pretty simple. I was impressed with the controlled effort and eventless execution. From the bizarre coffee-toting start, to rolling miles with Kris and Skeeter and the dogs, time seemed to just flow by, the miles clicked off, and my body was taking the punishment like an inert object designed to take punishment. Of course I’d be draggin’ ass a little bit by 50+ kilometers, but feeling strong was a testament to my training. I was going to pull this out and continue on to set an FKT on the Superior Hiking Trail that would be untouchable. I was hyping myself up a bit, but just as quick as those thoughts popped in my mind, I’d be overwhelmed by fatigue and tell Diamond that I couldn’t. Couldn’t what? Couldn’t run, I guess. Gah. I felt the feeling of exasperation. I felt the feeling where hiking was so uncomfortable and labored but I could really hike forever, and the feeling where running is like floating but it kills ya.
Time seemed to slow a bit on the back end of Hartley and I started to wonder where I’d be on the day. I figured if I took the same lollipop loop home, through Bagley and Chester, I’d actually be way over 40 miles. As it turns out, I’d misjudged my mileage in Hartley. Darn. Oh well, at least 41 miles today would mean just 24 and an even six hours tomorrow. I decided to pop out at Kenwood Avenue and Diamond and I took some frustrating roads back to College Street. We popped into Chester from there and took the most direct route home. The downhill bomb was great because I knew the end was near. Therefore, my muscles numbed. By the time we hit the alley, I was over 41 miles. Inside, Emily was home and my stinky crap was sprawled out everywhere. I collapsed onto the floor with a huge grin on my face.
I left the door on Sunday a bit after 9am with full supplies for 6 hours in the woods. I also knew I needed to get about 23.5 miles in on the day to make it a planned 65 miles for my long trip goal to be completed. By sticking to exactly 15 minutes per mile, that distance would take a tad under 6 hours to do, and 9am was not quite the time I was hoping to leave by, but I was dawdling, dragging my feet, putzing, and more. I finally got out the door with headphones on.
I started off back into Chester, and it was another perfect day based on temperature and snow conditions. Chester and Hartley Parks, for the most part, were about as good winter trail running as you can get. Because I was working with a buffer seemingly most of the day yesterday, and started that day off coffee-walking in the alley, I figured I could ease into things and walk up and out of Chester. From there, the plan was to travel the Duluth Traverse to Enger Tower, link with the Superior Hiking Trail, and west to the West Duluth McDonalds and eat lunch. Then head back.
Just outside of Chester Park on the Duluth Traverse, it was deep, drifted snow at many various depths. I immediately backed out and went up the road to where the DT continued. The trail was decent right away and in some spots, but there were also plenty of drifted-over areas that were really deep in snow. Drifts became more frequent deeper into the woods between Rice Lake Road, and by the time I got through there to Central High School I was just over an hour, and just over 3.5 miles in, already a bit down on time.
I ran on Central Entrance to nearby apartments and kind of forgot where the Duluth Traverse met back up again. I thought it was on roads for a bit into the antennae farm but couldn’t remember. Roads weren’t bad and I was jogging a bit while I could. It was a nice jog on the gravel roads in the middle of Duluth, but I still wasn’t really in the best of moods. I became frustrated thinking about the long day and the long one just before. How was I going to do this today, plus the miles from yesterday, plus five more, all in one day, then have 6 hours in between runs instead of 15, THEN run 70 more miles the next day? The mechanics of my thru-hiking ideas were boggling. This long trip was supposed to replicate a supported thru-hike as much as possible. But how? Doing a 70 miler and another run back to back in training is either too hard to make time for, or counterproductive, or both. Or maybe neither but it’s too risky to find out.
I found the actual DT trail after several miles of being on the road and it was bad. There was barely any track at all, and I don’t think I was on any trail regardless. It was one person’s footprints through deep drifted snow. I waded and waded and climbed to see Enger Tower and looped around on some high exposed areas, still in deep snow. Finally, I saw a packed down trail right before Enger. The doubts continued. Negative thoughts entered my mind and I told myself that it was stupid, and too hard, and too long, and I’d done enough. Across Twin Ponds to Enger, I got caught in another stupid snowdrift and got no relief on the climb to the actual park area. There were criss-crossed footprints in deep snow everywhere. I followed one set to the great peace bell and gave it a big ring. There was absolutely no track going back down Enger but I was just trucking through and not even noticing or giving mind to the deep snow. Chester was groomed to such a greater degree it is crazy! There are that many more walkers on the lower Chester trails and essentially zero at Enger Tower on the Superior Hiking Trail? Really? I met up with the SHT on the back side of Enger, just as I’d planned. I took a leak and ate some food into the woods a bit. My mind seemed slow to respond and non-receptive to emotions besides gloom. My body seemed surprisingly fresh, but the difficult conditions were taking their toll.
Continuing west, it was just completely drifted, deep, frustrating snow as far as the eye could see. No relief, why? When? Never? I slogged up a big berm, not even sure if it was any trail at all or if the owners of the three-feet deep footprints had been just bushwhacking. My mind wasn’t even processing the fact that it was such bad running conditions, such a bad representation of what the SHT could be like in late May. Atop the ridge, I saw another trail below. Perhaps it was the Duluth Traverse. It didn’t look any better. I had to stop. I ate a gel. I didn’t want to stop now, so early, but I did. I sat down in the snow and meditated for several minutes.
I was about two hours and 10 minutes in, not even to 7 miles, and should be closer to 9 miles to be on schedule for 4 miles per hour. I was essentially 1.25 miles down which is essentially a few minutes shy of 20 minutes behind where I should be. GAH! Stupid. I’d done enough, I decided I’d turn around and run the road back home. It’s like two miles, I can do that in 20 minutes. 2.5 hours on the day, oh well. Good enough. I did well over 40 miles the day before so that’s just fine. I punched through over-my-knees snow to Skyline Boulevard, and ran that baby back to Twin Ponds. On my way over, I was a bit scared for my life because of the low shoulder and blind corner. Ugh, running on the roads was really terrible. There wasn’t too much slop because the temperature high was forecasted to be 12 degrees or so, but winter road traffic is always a hazard.
Once I got back running, I surged, looked at my watch and was a little bummed to see over 8 minutes per mile pace. The legs were a little heavy I guess. I suddenly had a change of heart and a new idea came into mind. I would run through the woods between Central Entrance/Rice Lake Road and Kenwood, but peel up towards St. Scholastica’s campus and make my way to the local Arby’s for lunch. That is within striking distance of Hartley Park, which I knew from the previous day was in pretty good condition. Once I got to Hartley, I could make up all the time I need.
So I peeled off back into the antennae farm area, and got back onto the DT. Compared to the SHT west of Enger, where I turned around, the trail was loads better. At least runnable. It seemed like no time before I got to the apartment complex again and I seemed invigorated by the new plan. At least I wouldn’t be post-holing into the unknown.
Into a headwind and slight uphill, I utilized my trekking poles while on the sidewalk of Central Entrance. With cars whizzing past me, I felt a little exposed, perhaps a little embarrassed. I probably looked like a maniac out here with a pack on, water bottles, trekking poles flailing, speed walking mixed with jogging on the sidewalk. Oh well, gotta get my miles in. Across the busy road and onto the side street Pecan Avenue, it was not any better. In fact, way worse. There was literally no shoulder, and the snowbank took up over half of the actual driving lane at some spots. This road was sketchy. The cars saw me, luckily, but it was a hairy uphill grind where it seemed like a car could crest the hill and BOOM there I am running in literally the middle of the road. Hey, I was still as close to the snowbank as can be. I didn’t get smashed by a car, and was happy to get back into the woods. I remember this section not being too terrible, and it was actually pretty smooth running. I already had the mentality to make up time, and the running on roads and back through the DT saved me five minutes. That means 15 minutes down. At an intersection, I followed my internal compass and took a left, what seemed to be a different way than I had came. I saw a lady before the turn, then her four small dogs from behind a snowbank. They barked and jumped around me protectively, then one bit me! I was surprised, and definitely felt it on my calf! I yelled out “YOUR DOG BIT ME!!” But she seemed so nonchalant I wondered if I happened to be on her private property. A lot of neighborhood trails were in this area. After some huffing and puffing up a hill, I was happy to see that I definitely was not on a neighborhood trail and actually onto the St. Scholastica campus. I jetted through and starting looking forward to a lunch. I didn’t feel ravenously hungry, with a bunch of food on me and continuous eating. But I was looking forward to getting some hot delicious food at Arby’s. I’d passed it the day before at mile 35 or so, so remembered the captivating, dreamy images of current menu items pasted onto the windows. It was a mile or so of more uncomfortable road running and I was there.
When I got to Arby’s, I had a self-directed sense of urgency. Straight to the counter. I thought fast while the person behind me was ordering. Mmm yep turkey sandwich. Done. I got to the counter and spoke fast. The clerk seemed kind of odd, but no offense, most Arby’s clerks are kind of odd. After the transaction, I kind of had a reality check. I’m in this running gear, trekking poles in hand, backpack with water bottles, literally ran to the door. Just like on the busy road… I figured I looked like a complete maniac in that setting. Oh well. I got my sandwich, squirted some sauce on it, threw away the bag and headed right out the door. I immediately started eating on the go. Yep, look like a maniac for sure.
The sandwich went down like nothing and it sure felt good. My body started using that energy right away. I tossed the trash and was right into Hartley. Time to crank. I knew I probably went down some time waiting for the sandwich. A peek at my watch confirmed that I was down by about 20 minutes once again. I had logged not quite 13 miles in 3:30 as I entered into Hartley. That means about 10 miles to go. That means I’d have to go two minutes or three minutes fast for like… 6 miles? 6 hours? I couldn’t do the math, but knew I had to crank some fast miles. My body felt OK. I was running. I also felt pretty ragged. I certainly couldn’t push it. The miles clicked right off in Hartley and I was on drag mode. Just keep pushing. It was a mentality of run whenever I can. The previous day, working with a buffer of time, it was more a mentality of walk whenever I want.
I decided to just not look at my watch, do the whole outer guardrail loop, do the SHT loop, every inch of Hartley I could within a great loop, and see where I’m at. That may put me close to where I need to be. I ran some quick projections, home is maybe three miles away from Bagley, one mile from the Skyline bridge. It would be pretty close. That energized me. To run a great loop in Hartley was mentally feasible. I could see that happening. It was almost unbearably bleak hours ago below Enger Tower. I could finally really see the light on this long and arduous weekend. So I kept cruising. The conditions were fair. I observed some funny pole marks that I’d made the day before. Not really funny. Ok moving on…
It was mindless walk-running for a couple hours. That is perhaps the runners high. Thinking back, it seems like a trance state. Oh well, what else is there to do? Just zone out, get in the rhythm and crank out miles. The walk/run combination seemed so natural. Maybe by focusing instead of relying on “natural” instincts I could be more efficient. Fuck efficiency, just get the damn miles DONE. Run when I can, walk when I have to. Click, click, tick, tock, the miles went by and the watch progressed and I was finally on the back side of Hartley. In a flash, I was out. Through Bagley and back into Chester. It was a quick bomb out to touch all three parks. A classic long run combination. It was strange to convert what has typically been a trip up the shore to an effort right at home. It was going to work, though.
When I got into Chester, I knew I could just take it straight downhill home. Well, it would be close. Without incident, I flew down the best trail surface in the whole city, and was elated, yet exhausted, to be so close to home and close to done. I’d scraped myself back to goal pace and was pretty much right on time. With the downhill running, I even put a little time back into the positive category. My average pace would be faster than 15 minutes per mile. When I got to the last bridge before 4th Street, my turnoff, I knew I needed just a bit more mileage. I did a tiny loop down to 4th Street, and straight back home to definitively make 65 miles on the weekend. I walked the last half of the alley, the same speed as I started this long trip weekend, and was happy to be done. Relieved to be done. Infused with confidence now that I was done. And hungry.
17 Dec 2018
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.
04 Dec 2018
I think it’s safe to say that winter is here in Duluth, MN and there is no turning back until the very beginning of spring. So, mid- to late-April. There are a few overnight backpacking trips that stick out to me as some of the most enjoyable times spent in the woods, period. It’s so hard, uncomfortable, cold (duh), but also relaxing, rewarding, and fun!
My first time winter camping was pretty tame. That’s how it should be, though. Almost four years ago to the day, I hiked out to the Fox Farm Campsite with Diamond. Click here for the whole story.
The next time I went out, it was with Diamond and Nick. This was a really short trip and more about cooking brats over an open fire and enjoying a couple beers. Click here for the Quickie Overnighter story.
In 2016, I started hitting it hard with aspirations of thru-hiking the Superior Hiking Trail. I also got serious about documenting gear and conditions. This trip was pretty difficult with deep snow and somewhat challenging conditions. In between Duluth and Two Harbors on the SHT can seem pretty remote and rugged. Click here for the next adventure and be sure to check my winter gear list!
It took my a while to make it up to a two-night excursion. There is a little more to lose in that scenario. This was a real backpack trip with hefty mileage and yes, two nights! Check out my Cross River adventure here.
Well, that’s a lot of reading but it’s a long and cold winter by the fireplace. Maybe you’ll become inspired to ditch the fireplace and hit the Superior Hiking Trail.
04 Nov 2018
Hike Date: October 27-29, 2018
Trail: Superior Hiking Trail
Trip Plan: Backpack in to Fault Line Creek campsite, set up for two nights. Then trail run/hike 45 miles at 4 miles per hour.
Day 1 – Backpack in ~4 miles from County Road 4/Beaver Bay trailhead to Fault Line Creek campsite. Set up my tent, and run south for 16 miles/2 hours out and back.
Day 2 – Run north for 3 hours out and back, 6 hours total for hopefully 24 miles.
Day 3 – Backpack back out to the trailhead.
Backpack miles: 7.5 miles, Running miles: 38.5 miles
Day 1 – Saturday, October 27, 2018:
Garmin Data (hike in):
I started the day a bit late due to a race timing gig earlier in the day. Emily and I went for breakfast and I loaded up on calories, but didn’t make it onto Highway 61 until well after noon. I parked at Lax Lake Road right outside of Beaver Bay, solo and in a cloud of mist. It looked like it could rain at any moment. I heaved the huge backpack onto my shoulders, grabbed a bag of beer in one hand and a gallon of water in my other hand.
Oof, my shoulders were instantly pained. I was used to walking between 15 and 20 minutes per mile with the dogs in training and the first mile was a struggle and over 20 minutes. I was anxious to get to camp quickly because I knew I wanted to get as close to 20 miles in as possible with the fast pack right after setting up my tent. I did some quick math–I could do two hours out and back and if I stick 4 miles per hour that makes 16 miles. Then I can do 24 miles tomorrow, plus the 4 miles that I was hiking at the moment almost adds up to my goal mileage of 45. It was around 2:30pm at this point, if I could get the fast pack on and get out to the trail by 3:30pm, I’d be back to camp for the night by 7:30pm. It started getting dark at around 6pm… I’d be running in the dark for sure.
The trail was slick, a lot of rocks were exposed in this section and it made for even slower walking. I thought about biffing it with the huge pack on… it must have weighed at least 50 pounds as I was planning on setting up camp for two nights and camping nicely. Luckily I did not go down. My hips hurt from the waist belt, my shoulders only got more pained and I started to feel like a wuss. Sheesh, I should practice backpacking more, I thought! That makes you real rugged and tough. Mentally, too. But today, I was practicing fast and light at 4mph on the dot.
The Fault Line Creek campsite was right around the corner, and I knew because of the ridiculously rocky section right alongside the beaver pond upon which my campsite was situated. I finally got there and was very relieved to take the pack off. I quickly set up camp and got everything organized in a way that would make my life in the dark easier. I pre-packed the fast pack and hit it as soon as possible.
Garmin data (run):
With trekking poles in hand, hydration pack on my back, I was ready to roll. I set out southbound from Fault Line Creek campsite towards the Split Rock River. I didn’t know exactly how far I’d make it, but knew there were several spur trails and loops and such in the Split Rock River section and could probably tack on some segments to get to two hours, then turn around. I found it hard to run right out of the gate. It was a bit muddy, really rocky, and all of the rocks were really slippery.
I’d purchased a new pack and was excited to try it out. It’s the Ultimate Direction Jurek FKT vest, aptly named for my purposes. I was excited to test a pack with front holders for water. My “old” fast pack/hydration pack has no pockets or anything on the front, which means everything is the back. I don’t mind having a hydration bladder in the back, but nixed that today in lieu of the two front water bottles that came with the vest. The first few miles with it felt awesome. I was cruising, right on pace despite the challenging conditions. But that is just the Superior Hiking Trail… it’s not easy no matter what. The weather was holding–no rain but definitely cloudy. I expected rain, especially overnight and early Sunday morning. Given the recent wet weather, the trail was in pretty dang good shape, actually. I had a bit of a time buffer and decided to power hike along the Merrill Grade to see if I could haul ass near 15 minutes per mile on a flat, non-rocky section.
Miles were clicking off but time seemed to be moving a little bit slow as I could sense dusk settling in. I was not looking forward to running in the dark. I climbed to a ridgeline with a great view of Split Rock Lighthouse and some cool rock formations near the mouth of the Split Rock River and figured I’d get pretty close to the Split Rock River itself. I decided I’d just take the regular SHT route to the bridge crossing, which was out at the moment. Maybe I could scope out the former bridge location… maybe I could cross it my rock-hopping, I thought. To try as hard as possible to get to exactly 8 miles at exactly 2 hours, I was cruising and running pretty hard once I entered the State Park. I got to exactly 2 hours in between the two East Split Rock River campsites, somewhere around 7.95 miles. Perfect.
My goal for the return trip was to perfectly even-split the trek and feel good. At this point, I was running up out of the river valley as darkness was beginning to wash over the entire landscape. I hadn’t seen anyone all afternoon at all. My body was holding up really well with a healthy combination of hiking and running. I was definitely frustrated about the slippery conditions but in reality there was really not too much to be frustrated about. I was out here in the woods, three days to explore and spend time on the trails, feeling good.
I ran Merrill Grade on the way back. Midway through, I ate some food and put my waist light and headlamp on. Darkness seems to come so quick… all the sudden BOOM! You can’t see a thing! In that time between dusk and total darkness, albeit a brief time, it seems like you need a headlamp but it almost does more bad than good for actually seeing the ground. 5 more minutes and it was dark.
I felt myself slow down in the dark but tried to keep moving. I didn’t want to slip on the steep downhill rock faces, that would really mess up my whole trip! It was kind of creepy in the dark. Halloween weekend, dreary and misty and cloudy, and the section leading into Fault Line Creek campsite was full of small black spruce and other coniferous trees and thousands of birch. Some of those birch trees can play tricks on your eyes and mind in the dark. They look like faces, like people, like monsters.
The trail became notably more technical and challenging with one mile to go left to camp. I didn’t necessarily feel tired or hungry so gave up on my quest for an even 4 hour/16 mile trip and started looking for good firewood. I collected some birch bark and found a few sticks. After carrying those around a bit, I realized that it was kind of stupid… I might as well get back to camp and search from there. I’d left a trail of brittle birch bark along the trail just because I couldn’t carry it all and said to myself “forget it”, hurled it all into the woods along with my stick. I got to camp, stopped my watch, took off the pack and began to multitask.
I got my water boiling, gathered some fresh birch bark (which was everywhere) and some damp sticks. I was lucky enough to find some premium firewood, but everything was damp. I cooked my dinner, got a fire going, gathered some more wood, and soon enough was eating next to a roaring fire with a beer in hand. Nice.
I wanted to hit the trail at 8am sharp. Without setting an alarm, I was shocked to check my phone and see 7:35am. After a restless night of sleep and rain, I felt like I finally fell into a deep sleep in the dawn hours. I jolted up and started to prepare for a 6 hour day on the trail. I began to multitask–boil water, cordon off my breakfast of coffee and oatmeal from the rest of the junk strewn about my tent, wipe off the excess moisture seeping in from everywhere, put on my running shorts, shove essential items into my running pack, pour boiling water into my camp french press, begin cooking the oatmeal. I made a trip to the latrine, ate quickly and was off on the trail right after 8am. I was impressed by my efficiency, but felt rushed all the same. It had rained for hours the night before, seemed to have mostly stopped, yet was very misty. It seemed like regular raindrops had split into 1,000 tiny raindrops and didn’t have enough weight to completely fall to the ground and so were suspended in the air. Heading north today, I made it around the beaver pond and spotted my tent from a couple hundred feet away. I warned the beavers to not mess with my shit while I was away.
I got to the top of the fault line ridge and was glad I brought my camera along for pictures. Before long, I was back to my car. There was one other vehicle in the parking lot on this overcast, crummy day. I wondered if anyone else was on the trail… It was the last weekend before rifle hunting season for deer began, so perhaps there were others like me trying to get one last backpack trip in before the deep winter set in. That didn’t look like the case, though.
Along Beaver River, it was just me and the roaring river. There was a huge yellow plastic divider thing pinned against some rocks and trees that caught my eye. No people at the sites, no people on the trail. Mud was at a minimum and I made it into the Silver Bay area without incident. I was munching on a caffeine Clif Bar and noted how the time seemed to be flying by today in contrast to yesterday’s tough hike into the night. I discovered a nice trick with my new pack to put my arm in the opposite shoulder strap and swing it around to my front to access the back compartments that were full of food.
I was making good time though Silver Bay, although this section seemed especially difficult. With last night’s rain, it was even more slippery on certain rocks with a light layer of moss on top. And in the cliffs above Silver Bay, there is a lot of slick rocks with a light layer of moss on top. But that also means no mud… so when I got to a section of non-muddy dirt trail, it felt so awesome. My feet seemed to slip out from under me with each foot strike.
Across Penn Boulevard, I checked my watch, checked the trail sign with upcoming landmarks and mileage, and I figured I could make it really close to Bean and Bear Lake… perhaps to the far trail register. I was hoping to get 12 miles in before the turnaround but knew a couple hours in that that wouldn’t happen. I was falling behind in the tough, wet conditions. I was running when I could, but it was really hard to find runnable sections! It seems like there were so many rocks… much more than I remembered. It’s always rockier and rootier than one can recall. However, the trail heading up to Bean and Bear is one of the most popular of the entire 310-mile Superior Hiking Trail and just as I’d hoped, it was well worn and seemed like a superhighway compared to the tight, technical, and obscenely rocky pieces of trail south of Beaver Bay. On the flip side, there were a few really serious mud pits. Knowing that I only had one pair of shoes for the whole weekend, I tried my best to avoid the mud, which slowed me down a lot. The worst part is that you can’t avoid it and my feet got drenched, my socks inundated with mud and water, and mud splashed continually onto my calves and shins.
Bean Lake was stunning as always, even in the dreary and cloudy conditions. I ran hard along the ridge, not taking a moment to dilly-dally to get as close to 12 miles as possible within my allotted 3 hours to head north before turning around. With one eye on my watch, I turned around a few paces before the far northern edge of Bear Lake right at 3:00:00. That was just over 11 miles. Not terrible…
On the way back, it was my goal to crush a few miles. Might as well push it, I thought. I really cruised through Bean Lake and down to Penn Creek and its campsite. I had seen a few people in this section, which wasn’t super surprising given its popularity. We were all lamenting over the mud, I’m sure. Time was moving quickly and before long I had made up some really good time back up along Silver Bay.
The rest of the trip was pretty low-key. I made good time and was focused. In a flash, I was back to my car. I stopped there, filled up my water bottles with water and picked up a banana. I made a plan to eat the banana at the “Fault Line Overlook”, which is a made up overlook with a distant view of Lake Superior and the end of the long beaver pond that my campsite was on.
It was slow going back to the overlook. I think the 11.3 mile section with Split Rock to the south and Beaver Bay to the north is perhaps overlooked as one of the toughest on the Superior Hiking Trail. It is just so rugged. The elevation isn’t super extreme but the rocks are. Soon enough, I made it to the overlook, less than a half mile back to camp. I’d lost some time on the last hour, but paused my watch and enjoyed the view of flat white. It’d really gotten foggy and I almost expected a downpour. You could feel the moisture in the air.
I ate my banana and started to get vertigo with the deep fog and haze. It was almost like a sensory deprivation or something… I didn’t spend a ton of time at the soggy and dank overlook and left right after my last bite of banana.
After getting back to camp, I tooled around a bit. I had recently adopted the campsite I was at, the Fault Line Creek campsite, and so wanted to do some maintenance. Well, there really wasn’t much to do and everything was wet anyways. My body felt great from the 20+ mile trek, which was very positive. I put on my rain gear and kept on the endless task of gathering firewood. Everything was damp, and I didn’t even need to lay a finger on a tree to know, I could see the drops of dew on every branch, leaf, and stick. Ugh.
Eventually, I gathered a bunch of quality firewood and stood it up next to the fire ring. I started looking for birch bark and was able to find some really good pieces deep in the woods. That stuff burns so well. After a few close calls of the fire burning out completely, I did get a good rager going. I enjoyed it for a while, and as I began preparing for dinner, a beautiful beam of sunshine hit the opposite side of the fault line’s bluff, illuminating a towering stand of bare birch trees. I looked up and was greeted to a small, small, tiny section of blue sky. It seemed that the soggy day was moving on.
The clouds washed away. When the sun sank below the horizon and the blue turned to indigo and then to black, I was treated with a stunning panoramic view of the Milky Way. It was a great end to a tough day of dealing with the moisture.
Day 3 – Monday, October 29, 2018:
I woke up late to bright sunshine. It was great and very refreshing to see the sun. Also, it made cleaning up camp much easier. I dug out the fire pit, destroyed an “illegal” pit on a different part of the campsite, and took my time to make breakfast and pack up my campsite. Also, I did my strength workout on my camp pad in the open air, and that was really nice. Nice, and nice to get it out of the way… I definitely don’t think I would have done it at home!
The hike out was really nice. I had a chance to reflect on the weekend. Monday brought perfect weather, and I took the other part of the Cove Point Loop trail that I hadn’t been on this trip, including a half mile that I had never been on. It was a nice section of trail, and mentally easier since I had gone on the ~4 mile regular SHT section from my car to the campsite 3 times already on the weekend. My back and shoulders didn’t hurt nearly as much on the way out, but I had eaten and drunken quite a bit of weight! I certainly took my time hiking out, with no regrets whatsoever. Success on my first long trip of this training cycle leading up to a thru-hike in May 2019.
10 Sep 2016
As I walked away from the future southern terminus of the Superior Hiking Trail, the Wisconsin border, finally done with the entire trail, I felt like the walking dead. My feet hurt bad, really bad. My shoes felt so uncomfortable, like walking on concrete slabs. My backpack was drenched in sweat and grime, and I was shirtless, walking so slow. It took a long time to get back to the road. No rush, though and I was beaming.
It was relatively emotionless right after finishing the thru-hike. Shock, awe, dumbfoundedness, I don’t know. But a great feeling all the same. I was done. It was complete. Thinking back to the true nature of what “unsupported” is, that was it. I was self-reliant, dealing with every challenge that presented itself and using my skills and what I had at my disposal to carry on.
On the return trip, I forgot to turn my watch off until I was speeding away from the St. Louis River bridge on Highway 23. So tired. I snapped a picture of Ely’s Peak, where I ate lunch six hours earlier. What a trip.
I wonder if it could be done faster? I know someone could run it, fully supported, and do it fast. I would like to try it someday. The Superior Hiking Trail has some magnetic attraction for me. Can it be done faster unsupported? No. As of September 2016, I don’t think that record will be broken in a long time. The gear, the preparation and the knowledge of the trail were an indispensable tool that would be hard to match. But I hope someone does break the unsupported record. Because if they do, that means that they understand not only the pain, the suffering, the agony and tediousness of this task, but also the extreme joy, happiness, freedom and satisfaction that it provides.
When my alarm went off at 3am, I hit the snooze button. Onto my very last day, but yet I still wanted to eek out that last little bit of sleep. I may have slipped back into REM sleep. Upon the next alarm, though, I started getting my things together. Pants on, shirt on, I carried my phone and headlamp to my pack, then went back for my quilt, then the sleeping pad. I shoved my breakfast into my pockets, wondering when I should eat it, put my socks on and then my finally-dry shoes. I took down my tarp, throwing the sticks I’d used for stakes back into the woods and shoved it deep into my pack, wishing I hadn’t lost two little sacks in the flood from the night before. 24 hours ago, I was just finally going to sleep… Now, I start hiking. I took a dump in the port-o-pottie, it was a clean break. Too much information, perhaps, but I only needed to use my last few squares of toilet paper that I packed. And then I started my watch, not to stop it again until I reached Wisconsin.
I made certain to hike back to the exact point where I veered off from the Superior Hiking Trail. I was a little creeped out hiking in Bagley in the pitch black, my dim headlamp lighting the way. I run in Bagley so often, I could have had no headlamp. On top of the lookout, I yelled “MORNIN” for all to hear.
It felt so weird walking in the dark! The SHT darts right through the UMD campus, and I saw one guy walking down the street with a guitar around his back. I hope not a robber, because he did not look like a student! Down 19th and into the Chester Creek. The water flowing guided my way. It was a complete new perspective on my favorite running trails. I tried to get a picture across the bridge.
Past Burrito Union, down 14th Avenue, and I was actually hoping I wouldn’t get mugged! I’d rather be back in the wilderness hiking at night! Not that Duluth is a crime haven, but these are not the best neighborhoods in town and it was barely 4am. I got to the Lakewalk, into Leif Erickson Park, and saw a homeless person who I’d seen before on the rough and tough streets of Duluth, smoking a cigarette on a bench. He said that winter is coming soon. I yelled back in agreement, keeping my pace. He said it’s not March. I did not respond.
I decided I’d eat my last four breakfast bars at Enger. The Lakewalk should be the easiest part of the whole day on fresh feet, but I was just fatigued. It was the feeling of wanting nothing more than to sit down for one second. I sat down on a bench looking out from the very corner of Lake Superior. No, I thought, this is where the seconds count. Every other day was just a setup for this day. Scott Jurek broke the Appalachian Trail speed record and set the fastest known time (FKT) by just three hours. I got up and walked along the very end of The Big AC, Lake Superior.
I was stymied at the Baywalk, on the other end of Canal Park. The Baywalk garage doors were closed, so I backtracked, walked around Adventure Zone, Famous Daves, Old Chicago and Red Lobster. I made the trek alongside the gigantic William A. Irving lake vessel, and back on track along the Bay of Lake Superior and the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center to my right. Through Bayfront Festival Park, across train tracks, and just like that, I was out of downtown Duluth and Canal Park. It was all trail from here. Time to crank.
Up, up and up, I climbed to Enger Tower, excited to get there and eat my last breakfast. I was feeling pretty good once on the singletrack trail, and my cardiovascular system was unfazed by the climbing. My pack weighed very little, and I don’t think I’d really adjusted it at all for a few days now! At Enger, I rang the big bell, 6am or so and 7.5 miles for the day, and started eating my last breakfast bars one at a time. The chocolate one was delicious. It wasn’t so smooshed. The pastry bar was completely obliterated, but delicious as I poured the crumbs into my mouth. I savored the taste, and was very satisfied with the last-minute decision to try these pastry bars. They did me well. The blueberry one was delicious as well, and I ate the fourth one hungry for about ten more after that.
I crossed the bridge over Piedmont Avenue with the sun starting to rise, a red glow illuminating the industrial bayside Duluth below me. I was cranking along as I entered the trail at Miller Creek, nearing the Lincoln Park neighborhood. The trail went quick, and I was onto 10th Street West in no time.
I saw the early risers starting their day as I hiked through a gate, across an open field, and then up towards to the Piedmont trail system. Up and up, and I was breathing decently hard. The sunrise was really quick and it was pretty bright in seemingly no time.
On the rocky outcroppings near Piedmont, I was regaled at the classic North Shore vibe of sweeping vistas. What a place to live, I thought! Duluth has got it all, and I felt a swelling of pride for where I call home. That gave me a boost of energy, coupled with the caffeinated chews that I was gobbling down, and I felt like I was cruising. With my music on, Jon Wayne and the Pain, the hike was going by easily.
Through some classic singletrack, down to Haines Road and under the tunnel, I was sad to see the graffiti taken down. It was sketchily-written phrases like “You Can Do It” and “Believe In Yourself” the last I’d seen! I was really in the zone climbing back up to Brewer Park, and noticed the heat a little bit after just zinging up to the top. It was nice to walk along the ridge, but just like any Sawtooth Mountain trail, it was soon to go back down, down, down to Merritt Creek. The trail was flying by.
I’d done this same trail backwards at least four times all the way through, from beyond Ely’s Peak north to Enger Tower and beyond, so I was pretty familiar with it. Hiking it southbound, which I’d done maybe only once, seemed easier. Maybe it was the music or the focus of the last day, but I was making really good time as I got to the roadwalk near Cody Street. Under the huge I-35 above, I walked parallel to a woman and her dog for a bit, but perhaps 50 feet apart. I jetted back into the woods on a seemingly new section of trail. I asked myself out loud if they just made this. Back up towards Spirit Mountain, but first is a tough section along the freeway. Up to some decent views of West Duluth and the narrowing St. Louis River, and along a lot of exposed rock.
I was getting a little bit tired back into the forest, over the four wheel trail, and further towards Spirit. I knew it was just a wave of fatigue, though, and put it out of my mind. I put on some more music, which helped. T.I.’s Trap Muzik did the trick, and I was feeling better. Down a lot of stairs, then up on the ol’ Voyageur course, near the turnaround on the the grueling climb back up Spirit. It didn’t seem as grueling today as it did 6 weeks ago. I heard some racket in the distance, and wondered if some hooligans were goofing off. That’s what that truck must be, parked on the non-maintained ATV trail along Knowlton Creek. Across the bridge, and I saw some people hauling lumber. I follow closely. It must be some trusty SHT volunteers again! Sure enough, a nice long hike in, and I saw the same guy from the day before and a few new volunteers making a bridge. I stopped to chat once again, made a point to ask if it was Larry Sampson (it was), and laughed when he said that I was the guy he was telling them about. Cool. I left pretty quick after they ushered me along. I tripped going across the gorge, but caught myself, and joked with them how they should build a bridge there. It was cool to see Larry twice in a row.
Another round of fatigue hit me while walking down to the chalet at the bottom of Spirit. My pinkie was causing me grief. Again, it wasn’t necessarily the pinkie itself, surprisingly, but the shim I was still using would constantly shift, and the bungee cord put pressure on certain parts of my hand. My ring finger would be incredibly tender on the very top and so I’d move the bungee to the side slightly. A stretch would hopefully create some slack, but ten minutes later and it’s all shifted back. I was experimenting with every grip possible trying to take the pressure off my my poor thumb and pointer finger having no help with the duty of gripping my trekking pole. I broke open my Clif Bar and ate a small chunk, trying to conserve. I made a plan to eat lunch at Ely’s Peak, and just needed to make the Clif Bar last until then.
Past the chalet, up and up, back up and I grinded my way to Skyline. The sun was out and it was a beautiful windy day. I thought of Voyageur, which shared the same course along the gravel Skyline Boulevard for the time being, and remembered being heckled for taking a terrible tangent. I made a point of following the tangent of the curving road this time. At Magney, I paid close attention and got on the right trail back into the woods. There were plenty of creeks all day, and I was feeling good on all fronts: hike, drink, eat, sleep. Well, I was totally sick of walking, desperately wanted to chug, could eat anything and an insane amount, and so fatigued I constantly thought about sitting down. But when push comes to shove, I was still walking, not going to die, and felt like I could hold a 3mph walking pace indefinitely. By Bardon’s Peak and my lunch spot in view, I was a solid mile ahead of schedule: 7 hours and 40 minutes in, 24 miles on the day. It was a few minutes past 11 o’clock.
Down a bit, up a bit, scrambling across open rock faces, and I was at the spur to Ely’s Peak. I didn’t take it, but started to keep my eyes peeled for a lunch spot. Across some very technical rocky sections, down a bit, and I stopped on a big rock. It was very windy, making it nerve-wracking to eat lunch with wrappers and such. I savored my last big stash of food, leaving one Lara bar, some smashed chips and few handfuls of soggy trail mix for the rest of the day. My ring finger on the bum right hand was very tender from the bungee cord pressing on it. I rewrapped it with my last bit of athletic tape, and ditched the bungee in my pack. I didn’t want to stand back up, but grabbed the power bank with plenty of juice left, hooked my phone in and set back off, no time to waste.
On the way down Ely’s, I noticed my finger more than anything. It was a major ailment! There is no better bone to break than the pinkie finger, but it was a domino effect where I had to alter my grip on the trekking poles, that made my finger sore, my hand felt off a little bit, putting more pressure on my left side.
I cruised on the Munger Trail, over Beck’s Road and back into the woods. I needed water from the creek, and decided to stop there. It was only a mile from my lunch break, but I spent the time to drink water and plan. With a renewed mindset, I set off towards the challenging Mission Creek sections. The more I thought about it, the more I wondered if I could run it in from the swinging bridge at Jay Cooke. I’d hiked that section only a few weeks prior, and it was flat, wide and runnable. I’d at least try! From here to there, my plan was to hike non-stop. There is no other reason to stop until my afternoon stop, which was probably going to be right after the swinging bridge. A straight shot for perhaps 12 miles, four hours at 3mph, and then run it home for the remaining 8 miles or so.
I put on some Rage Against The Machine, and was revamped from the lunch and mid-day breaks. I kept telling myself how this is where the seconds turn to minutes, minutes turn to hours. Every moment was crucial to make sure I’m making forward progress. In the hilly Mission Creek sections, I felt pretty good. A constant white-noise in the back of my mind was to sit down, but I looked away from any rock or stump or bench. Who puts a bench out here!?
There was a big climb, up and up out of Mission Creek, and I pulled out my last trail map, map 1 of 6. It looked like it was all flats after this big climb. To Palkie Road, flats, easy horse trails from there, and then beyond the swinging bridge, I was planning on running. Over the crest, and I entered Jay Cooke State Park. A slight downhill was enough to get the idea to run. I was feeling OK, but why not give it all? I awkwardly started a running gait, which felt so painful and foreign. Nope, not gonna happen, I thought, and stopped. I walked down the rest of the slight downhill, feeling a little defeated.
Easy horse trails, flat or slightly downhill ahead, and I had to try again. I remembered my triathlon experience, how running off the bike is always so weird right away with jelly legs, but you always get in the groove. I need to get in the groove. I started running again, through the pain and awkwardness and bouncing pack, and got into a groove. My pack was jumbling around everywhere, water spilling from somewhere on my water bottle. I tried to hitch the pack down on my back, holding my trekking pole balanced lengthwise in each hand. Poling didn’t work too well as I ran. I got into the groove! It was much more strenuous to run, of course, and my shoes felt like I had wooden inserts. I was relieved to see the Palkie Road trailhead, and ready to let ‘er rip on the Munger Trail. I’m sure the bikers on the trail thought I was insane. I stopped briefly for a picture, but was focused.
Into the woods, back onto horse trails through the state park, and I did some quick math from my watch’s data. I was making BIG time compared to hiking. I figured I was running at least twice as fast as I could walk. In running just a half hour or hour, I was about four miles ahead of my 3mph target for the day. This section was again part of the Voyageur course, and I put my mind back to July, where I was at this point at mile 45 or so. I ran then, I can run now. So I cruised, only stopping to walk on uphills. I was at Jay Cooke in a flash. I got my Facebook out, trying to do a live video across the bridge, but it didn’t work. I didn’t have fast enough cellular service, so walked across and decided to fill up water in the St. Louis River. Most of my water had spilled, but I was running about 6mph and only had about 8 to go. I drank as much as I could as I walked back up to the trail. I’d probably spill all of this water out anyways. Running was causing me to sweat completely through my clothes, and it looked like I got caught in rainstorm, but I wasn’t going to keel over and die from dehydration. Well, what would that feel like, anyways?
I stuck to the plan and kept running through Jay Cooke. It was getting dark with clouds, which felt nice, but was warm and I was definitely sweating. I stopped briefly to eat the rest of my food. The lemon Lara bar in one bite, a dump of chips in my mouth to finish those off, and a big squeeze of the nearly liquefied trail mix, which was delicious. The food did not phase me. I washed it down with the remaining non-spilled water, and kept running. I ran without stopping until the trail bumped back into the singletrack. This was the last part of the trail that I hadn’t been on at all, and I was looking forward to getting to Highway 23 and Wild Valley Road more than anything else. I figured I had five miles left total.
After the hill up into the singletrack, it flattened back out and I kept running. It was a little more challenging to run on windy singletrack, and I didn’t feel very sure-footed. Watch, I break both of my ankles five miles from the finish. There were a few screaming downhills. I still walked any big uphills. Out of nowhere, was spooked by a black bear, and it sounded like there were two that went separate directions from the trail. I caught a glimpse of one of them, and started yelling! Watch, I get mauled by a bear four miles from the end. I was focused.
I wanted to get to the finish at 4:20pm, the exact time that I stopped for an afternoon break eight days in a row now. I was pushing really hard given the circumstances, 40 miles in on the day, fatigued legs, a broken finger, a 10-pound pack on. I thought several times that I was right about to cross Highway 23, but nope, the trail would curve around and the clearing I thought I saw was just woods. Just more woods. Finally, I heard traffic, went down the ditch, up and over 23, and down the gravel Wild Valley Road to my car.
I was still running. It was great to see my car, and I stopped very quickly at it. I got my keys out, opened my car up, grabbed a bottle of root beer and a bottle of Gatorade. I shoved them in the back pocket of my pack, and continued running down the road. The Superior Hiking Trail was officially ended, but I was going for Canada to Wisconsin. The northern terminus at Canada is set at 270 Overlook. The future southern terminus, which I had scoped out twice in the previous month, was in the middle of the woods. I knew there was a trail cut, after a mile more on Wild Valley Road, and flagging into the woods even past the Wisconsin border, courtesy of the North Country Trail Association. On my previous GPS missions, I determined that the border was near a spur trail to the railroad, a stack of wood and two trees, parallel on opposite sides of the trail, with blue taped wrapped around. Larry Sampson confirmed this, so I definitely knew the spot. In fact, I initially pinpointed the location because I was stung by bees at the exact border, threw my trekking poles in the air, and zig zagged on the trail to go get them later! The GPS data told the whole story.
As I walked away from the car, I grabbed my phone to shoot another live video with my car in the background. I put my phone away, and set my sights forward. So, as the sun came out briefly through the cloud cover, I ran down the unmaintained dirt road to my final destination two miles away.
A car passed me, surprisingly, and kicked up some dust. I ran longer, thinking of how long it’d take if I was walking. How tedious is that?!? Speaking of which, I looked at my watch. It was 4:15pm. No way I’d make it across the Red River in 5 minutes!! But, I thought of the time I started, so long ago, eight days ago. It was September 1st at 8:39am. It is September 9th, and 4:39pm would make 8 days, 8 hours. That is my goal. So I picked it up. I passed a parked van. Was that the one that drove up on me? I turned the bend and saw a guy with his dogs. I caught up to him and just ran by. I may have said hi under my heaving breath. He said “ambitious!”, and I told him, while running past, how I was so close to the end of the trail. The pop and Gatorade were incredibly heavy, and probably added three pounds to my pack. After carving it down to around 10 pounds, the extra three weighed heavy on my shoulders as I ran. It was a little ridiculous, and I jogged out of sight.
Finally, the flagging into the woods appeared. I thought I’d missed it. Down the ditch, through the tall grass, and then onto the nice cut trail. I was really hauling ass, and checking my watch constantly. 4:20, then 4:25, still not at the Red River. 4:30, and an intersection flagged both ways. Pretty sure it was left… I went left and right down to the Red River. The SHT crew had begun to build a bridge over the river, and it was cool to see that stage of development. I scurried across the river bottom, in the grey clay, and up the other side.
Up out of the small gorge, I had to walk. 4:36. I started running and saw the void of trees to the right where the railroad tracks run. So close. I felt like I was running so hard, no feeling in my legs or my feet or my shoulders or pinkie finger. I saw the blue tape, I ran past the trees, past the spur trail and wood. I stopped, done. I hurriedly grabbed my phone and took a screen shot. 4:38. One minute short of 8 hours exactly. 8 days, 7 hours, and 59 minutes it is.
I stopped my watch, hoping that even in the Ultratrac GPS mode, that connects to satellites less frequently and therefore consumes far less battery life, I’d stop exactly at or slightly past the Wisconsin border. I saved the long, long day onto my watch, over 46 miles, and walked to the taped trees to take a finish selfie. There was nothing to say it was the border, no sign, no plaque. I wasn’t even sure if this was truly the border, but it’s close enough, and something to take a selfie by.
After the necessary finish line duties, I took of that stinking pack, promptly sat down on the stack of wood, and took out my drinks that I stashed from the car. I chugged the Gatorade first. Chugging was great. It was worth the weight. Next, the sweet, sweet root beer. What a treat. Then I just sat there, in awe. In a daze that it’s all over. In a stupor of fatigue, from running miles 298 to 308. Hmm, what now? Well, I missed my afternoon break time for the first time in 8 days, so I figured I’d do what I did every other day for my afternoon break.
I relaxed briefly, and then put my pack back on and started back to the car, back to walking.
Water is coming in. Not good, not good, not good. Oh, no!!! It was around midnight on my seventh night, and I hadn’t slept much. For three hours, I closed my eyes, drifting in and out of light sleep, nervous of the impending thunderstorm. In a half hour, it went from light rain, to thunder, to rain, to heavy rain, and it was really coming down outside of my exposed lightweight tarp. I could see the ground become saturated, right where water drips from the edge of the tarp, and I noticed the water moving. One little bubble, and I saw the bubble make its way along a small-scale natural stream from the puddle forming 12 inches from me on my left side, underneath the tarp, to the edge of my ground sheet. Water is coming in. I frantically scratched at the ground with my stick, trying to form a trough, I was just splashing the water and mud around, risking getting a corner of my precious, precious quilt soaking wet. My feet were unaccounted for, flailing about as I tried to work the stick with a broken pinkie. The rain came down harder, accompanied by a loud boom of thunder, and the weight of the water nearly caused the edges of the tarp to touch the ground. Water was weighing down my whole tarp setup, and the sheer volume of rain was now beyond saturating the ground–it had to go somewhere, and I was in a depression. The water quickly filled the tent pad. I turned around, on my hands and knees, and tapped the ground sheet. Luckily it was waterproof, and luckily, the water was flowing underneath it. Wow, close call! I’ll just stay right on top of the water. As long as I lay perfectly still, I thought, the water will flow directly under me, then down and away. I slowly and deliberately laid my head down on the pillow. First on the crown of my head, then the back of my head, I felt the water seeping in over the ground sheet. I was flooding.
I flipped back around to my knees, water flowing over my foam pad into the center where my weight was focused. It was inevitable, I was going to be completely flooded out. My dry island was being totally encompassed by water, and fast. The storm was not letting up and I had to make moves quickly. I tried to scrunch my now wet quilt into the center of the sleeping pad, and jumped out from the shelter into the pouring rain. My headlamp was on and I focused on the pack. I grabbed the poncho and shook it off, frustrated to see that it was flooded out too, as a sloppy wrap job left a whole wide hole open. A section of my pack was getting drenched in the open rain. I opened it up, grabbed my shirt and put it on, threw the rain poncho over that, quickly swiped my quilt and put it right on top, and zipped the backpack shut. I then stacked my foam pad up, and in a frantic rush, yanked the entire tarp system out of the ground and shoved it in the back pocket. I lifted the flooded ground sheet up, tried to recoup as many stakes as possible, and then got a glance at the real situation–I had set up camp in a puddle. The entire area of where I was laying 7 minutes before was flooded with perhaps two inches of water . What a travesty! Thunder crashed and lightning illuminated the midnight sky. An anxious grab into my bag for socks, I put them on, put on my soaked shoes, grabbed the last item, trekking poles, and arranged the emergency rain poncho over my pack. Again in just boxers, no time to splint my fingers, and I set off southbound into the stormy night. Of course, I started my watch. It was just past midnight. What the hell am I doing out here.
When I started walking, I was cold. Everything was really wet and I wondered what hypothermia feels like. Lightening all across the sky made me think of what getting electrocuted feels like. For the first time in the trip, I was scared. I wanted to talk to my mom. What a funny cliche that is, but that is what I thought of first, after the thought of not wanting to die. I started planning. I know that there is a shelter near the Sucker River campsite, right off the Superior Hiking Trail but technically on the North Shore State Trail. That would have a roof, maybe even a bench. I can stay there. Well, if I hike 33 miles to Bagley, I’d be there by 11am and could take a beastly nap. If I’d be there, I might as well try to haul ass all the way home! It is a speed attempt, after all. How could I walk 75 miles straight, though? My legs weren’t feeling recovered without a full nights rest. My body wasn’t feeling too terrible but 75 miles is ridiculous. Is it? My rapid-fire thought process was diverted by a massive flash in the sky. It was blinding. It took a second, but I remembered to start counting: “1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, BOOOOOOM!!!”, and a massive thunder rumble would follow. Nine miles away. Or is it a quarter mile per second? Either way, the storm is coming west, I’m going west, I’m going to get struck by lightening and die.
I crossed some bridges over the Knife River and its small tributaries. In the pouring rain, middle of the night, a tiny light on my head to see, this is where the major slipping happens. I thought about how devastating another injury could be, and realized that walking was my only defense against hypothermia in these conditions. It’s maybe a bit warm to get hypothermia, but if I can’t walk, it’d surely be a very uncomfortable night soaking wet. I kept on plugging, at an almost automatic rhythm, almost in disbelief to what was happening at the moment.
Once I got to Sucker I’d reassess and at least check out the shelter. I figured it was ten miles away. Er, eight. Maybe seven actually… no ten. I couldn’t remember and knew the map would disintegrate if I pulled it out in this rain. My boxers became soaked, and I wondered if there was any inch of me not wet. Terrible. In the blink of an eye, just enough to get a flash bulb view of the entire forest around me, lightening struck again, straight ahead. “1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12…” BOOOOOOM!! The delay was so eerie, and the thunder so loud and unrelenting. It sounded like a glacier scraping across the ground, amplified 100 times. The deep grumbling sound took just as many seconds to fade off and leave the sound of rain hitting my rain poncho and the “swish, swish”, as I walked in my plasticky rain cover.
I was so focused on my footsteps, my head down to shine the illuminating circle in the perfect spot just a few feet ahead of where my feet actually landed aground. I’d look up periodically, hoping to see a blue blaze. I thanked every one I saw, a feeling of indebtedness like someone saved my life. It was true relief to be sure I was on the right path. Before the rain ceased, I considered who that I know could pick me up from the Fox Farm parking lot a mile or so ahead. By the time I walked across Fox Farm Road, through that trailhead, I had discounted that idea completely.
Between Fox Farm Road and the Fox Farm Pond campsite, the rain tapered off. It looked like it was raining, and it was hard to hear the absence of rain falling with the loud crinkling of my poncho’s hood in my ears. I removed the hood and kept walking, feeling relieved that the rain stopped. I was almost in a trance. My focus did not wane and I desperately wanted to get to the shelter without incident. I knew it’d be the only option. Walking to morning is stupid, and there is nowhere else sensible to stop. Before long, I was incredibly pleased to walk past the Fox Farm Pond campsite. A mile or so left. Soon after, the beaver pond, signpost, and spur trail to the Sucker River trailhead. I’d made the walk to Sucker a million times, and it went quick. I recalled the bridge over a small creek, I knew I was close when I heard the Sucker to my right. Finally, I popped out to the Adirondack-style shelter on the North Shore State Trail, just ten feet from the Superior Hiking Trail as it joins the snowmobile path for a hundred yards. At 3am, it was a welcome sight. I’d just walked nine miles in three hours, right on my 3mph target, and left just about 24 miles for the next day according to my calculations.
The shelter was bone dry inside. There was a shovel, garbage can, map, and wooden bench two planks long. I emptied my pack, hoping my tarp would dry out somewhat. The tarp, bugnet, ground sheet, my pants, food bag, socks, shoes and boxers were absolutely soaked. I shook out my sleeping pad and laid it out on the bench. My quilt was not dripping wet, but it was definitely damp all over and the down stuffing was clumping up in the corners. I got naked, into the quilt, and finally shut my headlamp off. I was exhausted from the walk, and so ready to get some rest. A buzz in my ear from a mosquito was like salt in the wound. Not another night without the bug net, I thought. The plank was not comfortable, but it must have been a bit cooler this night. Perhaps I was just more tired. Either way, I dozed off in the sticky and damp quilt, curled up inside to hide my whole body from bugs.
When my alarm went off, I turned it off and went back to sleep. My day was only about eight hours of easy and familiar walking, so by far my easiest hike on paper. Having shaved off nine of the miles already, I was looking at my smallest day by about six miles. My pack is almost the lightest it’ll be, with only perhaps 3 pounds of food left after lunch. The trail into Duluth is plain easy and I’d done these sections more than any other, especially through Hartley Park, my backyard running trail, where I’d run on the Superior Hiking Trail hundreds and hundreds of time. It’s an easy day to Bagley campsite on the University of Minnesota-Duluth campus, where I’d be camping a mile from my house and my warm and comfy bed and dresser full of clean clothes.
I woke back up with the light of day around 7:30am. I moseyed on around without a big sense of urgency, and took my time arranging the wet gear sprawled about upon my arrival just hours prior. Walking in the storm almost seemed like a dream, but my tiredness and fatigue was a reality check. My stomach rumbled and I took a dump at the outhouse. Unlike the Superior Hiking Trail campsites, the NSST sites each feature an Adirondack Shelter, metal fire ring and cooking grate, and an outhouse. I left quickly thereafter, setting out in the wetness of the early day. Not that it mattered, because my shoes were still soaking wet.
I made it past the Sucker River campsite quickly, and into the woods towards Normanna Road. I ate my breakfast bars, their shape obliterated by heavier food smashing them down for 8 days, and drank my water collected from Sucker River. I made sure to drink a lot, because I didn’t take a sip during the three-hour hike earlier in the night.
Another day walking. Just walking, walking. I started to get frustrated and upset. I was pretty run down from the night before. My legs didn’t necessarily hurt, but I was slogging along and just wanted to stop for one second. I considered using the facilities at the Sucker River shelter. I didn’t pack in that toilet paper in the outhouse, but used it. I brought in the damp map 3 of 6 to use first, but it wasn’t enough. I won’t go into too much detail, but the map wasn’t enough and I used the toilet paper off of the roll in the outhouse. Because of this, I realized it wasn’t a true unsupported through-hike and I got really upset. I wasn’t going to pull the plug here, but just resented that action so much. I wasn’t even thinking! And was so mad at myself. I stopped and sat at a stump near the Heron Pond campsite, my head in my hands. No, just keep walking, I thought, and ate a small chunk of my Clif Bar, fighting the strong urge to eat the whole thing. I got up, started walking again, and ate the majority of it.
I got through Normanna Road and trudged onwards on the North Shore State Trail. It luckily was not too boggy, but the tall grass was making my pants wet. Eventually, the trail turned to a wide swath of mud, and I kept trucking, sinking my trekking poles deep into the sticky, muddy mess every time. I was sick of being in my own mind and turned on music.
It was a really nice morning, and I was moving along pretty good actually. My finger was holding up OK, but I could tell the injury was having an effect on the rest of my hand. My finger was probably not healing in the best way, and the altered grip made other parts of my hands hurt even worse than my pinkie! I could still pole away just fine, though. I saw a couple backpacking, thru-hikers going north, and they were surprised at my progress. I guess me too! But I was too exhausted to really get to cheery. When we continued our separate ways, I turned Stone Temple Pilots back on and put my hat back low, cranking away. The muddy mess gave way to classic NSST once again: the wide path, tall grass, and one narrow walkway.
With the sun shining, I snaked through the last bit of singletrack before Lismore Road. The road walk to the Lismore parking lot was warm, and I decided I’d stop for lunch on the Lester River, one mile in from the trailhead. By this time, a quarter to noon or so, I was 4 hours and 20 minutes in for the day and at just about 13 miles, just a tad down from the 3 mph target.
I had a huge buffer on time, and figured I had ten miles left for the day, which is just 3 hours and 20 minutes… I’d be to the site with hours and hours to spare before dark. So I took my sweet time at the bridge on the North Shore State Trail across the Lester River. I unpacked everything and let it dry out in the bright, hot and abundant sunshine. It was great. I laid on my mat and ate as much food as seemed fit to save for the next day, the long day. The last day. My gear dried out instantly, but my last bag of trail mix somehow got saturated and it was really gooey. I dropped one Reeses Pieces on the bridge and it melted quickly. I took my socks off, and closed my eyes. I didn’t know what to think. Such a dumb long trip. I was so tired, so sick of being in my own head, and didn’t want to think about whether unsupported should include toilet paper at an outhouse. It seems so fricken stupid, like that is the most ridiculous rule, one square and you’re done. It made me just pissed, not positive at all. But I was still out here. Better than work, I thought, and just sat there, resting. Reseting.
Eventually, I got back up. I shoved everything away quickly–it’s easy with plenty of room to spare, and got back to walking. I was stopped for maybe thirty minutes, and so had some room to make up. After lunch, my next stop is at 4:20pm just like everyday, and I was projecting to get to Bagley at exactly that time. I blasted through one of my favorite “in-town” sections south of Lismore, enjoying the beautiful day.
When I bumped back out to the NSST for the final three miles of the snowmobile trail section, I put on music. I felt justified in doing it on the boring hour ahead on the snowmobile trail. I essentially zoned out, hiking along at a very consistent rate, only slowed by ADD-fueled checks of my phone, when I’d stumble along, swerving from the main cut through the wide pathway. The music helped soothe my irritated brain.
At the Amity River bridge, I stopped again. I don’t care, I thought, I’m tired and it doesn’t matter if I stop today. I sat down in the sun, my hat pulled down low, and prepared for the final four mile push on singletrack and roads through Duluth, until my final campsite. I definitely felt the lack of sleep paired with the nine miles preloaded on the day from the morning debacle. What a day…
After resting on the bridge, I felt anew. My brain was content, my legs and feet felt fine, and my fatigue was present, but not going to be a factor. I cruised through the Martin Road trailhead, where a traditional thru-hike of the Superior Hiking Trail ends, and was making good time. I saw my friend Melissa on the trail, and it was great to stop and chat. It was going to be great to go through my hometown, and I was excited to see some friendly faces. I zinged through the Amity Creek section, admiring the great views, and was on Vermillion Road in a flash.
It was tough walking on the Vermillion Road. I passed some people, which was nice, but my feet were hurting on the hard ground. I was in shock at how my body was holding up. It seemed like the challenges of the past few days, with a busted pinkie, wet gear, extreme thunderstorms and night hiking, were actually diminishing the challenge of hiking. Maybe I can only go through so much pain, or it was a true fight-or-flight, instinctual reaction. However, my goddamn feet hurt. It was quick to Hartley, though, and I was excited to hike on the trails that I’ve run almost every single day for years.
I enjoyed the unique experience walking through Hartley being in the middle of a thru-hike. There was a detour from storms only a few months earlier, and I hadn’t even seen the reroute (in that direction), so I took notice of some cool downed trees and destruction. Into the most familiar SHT section right in the meat of Hartley, up and down two hills, and I tried to compare with the formidable North Shore. I figured it was by far the most comparable in the past 60 miles! Across Tischer Creek, and I was on the home stretch towards Bagley. I knew every step…
It was funny to cross busy Arrowhead Road, with the Duluth pre-work rush traffic heating up. A left turn into Bagley, and I knew this was the closest I’d be to my house, less than a mile away! It was about 3:30pm, eight hours and thirty minutes in on the day, and my watch read 24 miles. I was texting friends and on Facebook, and made an audible note to myself of where I peeled off of the SHT to get to the Bagley campsite, although I had planned it out 20 times beforehand. I saw my friend Kris and her dog Lacie at the trail intersection before the campsite, and we chatted on the final quarter mile.
I sat down on the table, flustered with what I even have to do. Every night was such a routine, so simple. My brain felt so fried I couldn’t even carry on a conversation with Kris and focus on what I was doing. My gear was half unpacked, half about to eat food, half going to plug in my devices, almost getting ready to start the beginning of the process of loading my GPS data. Gah! Lacie was barking so Kris took her back to the car. I set up my tarp, got everything settled, and was relaxing on the table when Kris got back. Chris Rubesch and Eric Nordgren ran by and we talked for a bit. My friend Ann rode her bike up, and my roommate Matt brought the dogs. My dog Diamond seemed in disbelief that I was alive and the dogs were excited. I was excited, too.
I went with Matt and the dogs down to Tischer Creek, which was an uncomfortable walk when there was a running tap twenty feet from my picnic table. I got some weird looks when I said that I was not going to use a non-natural source of water. I started boiling some water, and flip-flopped roommates as Matt left and Jack stopped by. I had done a lot of camping trips in the past year with Jack, and as my final meal cooled off, he started up a huge fire in the pit at Bagley. We sat around the fire and Gregg Robertson stopped by. We told some stories, and I almost forgot how tired my legs were! I felt like the biggest dirtbag in my tattered, dirty clothes, like Oliver Twist or something.
When dark fell on the campsite, the fire dwindled and Jack went back home. I could follow him… But I turned my headlamp on, made sure that everything was packed away in a sensible order, for me to shove away the tarp for one final time and hit it bright at early the next morning. I crawled into my tarp, on the beautiful soft and grassy lawn, and had just one last little shudder as I felt dew already collecting on the tarp as I took off my ratty pants and shirt. I set my alarm for 3am, and was out sleeping in a flash, more comfortable then ever. Oh, c’mon, I was sleeping on a foam mat on the ground.
I woke up to my alarm early in the morning, but snoozed for an additional 10 minutes. I seemed to drift off again, even in the short period of time. Tim, the guy two feet away from me, was snoring still, sleeping flat on the ground, sleeping pad twisted beneath him and his sleeping bag curled over him like a botched tootsie roll re-wrap job.
I packed up as it was just getting light. I wanted to get an early start because the forecast had said afternoon and evening thunderstorms. Bring it on. I stopped at the latrine in the early morning on my way out, and lets just say I saved my precious toilet paper strips in lieu of my extra boxers that had been soaking wet for about 60 hours. Once I got them wet in the East Branch Baptism River, they never dried completely. And so I left them in a hole, but the sacrifice was worth the refreshment and weight savings. I was definitely the first person to stir, and I left quietley in the early morning dawn. A few steps down the Crow Creek and I filled up my water, ate four smooshed breakfast bars and sipped deep on my water. It was definitely getting gunked up and I’d have to backflush the filter at the Big Bend campsite, 34 miles away. Hopefully not in the rain. On the first big overlook, I checked my phone.
It was shaping up to be another day of good hiking, but thunderstorms overnight. Not bad, I’d done it before. Twice the past three nights, in fact. I thought about how I’d set up at Big Bend, a site I had camped at several times before. One time, I hiked in three miles, set up for two nights to have a long weekend of trail running. After one night, on the Saturday, my dog Diamond got quilled by a porcupine a quarter mile from the campsite. We packed up, walked three miles back out with quills poking out everywhere and cut the trip short a night.
I knew it was an easy hike, and once past Reeves Road, it’d really be on. That is about 2oo miles in, 100 miles to go. Plus, I pulled the plug on a long weekend trip earlier in the year at the Reeves Road parking lot because the forecast called for thunderstorms. This time, I’d get redemption. Bring on the thunderstorms. Nothing I believe will change what weather does.
In the meanwhile, I trucked past some deep river gorges, the beautiful Castle Danger, and got my feet all wet at the Encampment River. The rain made the creek swell and I wasn’t able to rock hop.
It was very muddy through County Road 301. I thought of my buddy Pete at the Crow Creek campsite the night before, hiking in on his thru hike, 7 miles on the very first day to stay at Crow Creek. By now, 2 hours and 30 minutes into the hike, 7.5 miles on the day and it was barely 9:30am. Was Pete even awake? How many miles will he make the day he gets past Judge C.R. Magney State Park?
It was tough walking along Silver Creek. This is such a cool section, but I was draggin’. All I wanted to do was chill by the river and eat my whole Clif Bar. Just scarf it down. But I did not, I ate one small bit, quickly filled up my water bottle and kept walking. The fatigue didn’t cease out of Silver Creek onto the tall and wet grass all the way to County Road 2 and the Reeves Road trailhead. However, I was excited to get to the big section through the Lake County Demonstration Forest, and just pushed on through with excitement for that.
I anxiously checked my phone on the half-mile roadwalk south on County Road 2, just north of Two Harbors. It really was shaping up to be a perfect day of walking–the morning was windy and cloudy, just how I like it. There were no bugs thus far, but I’d seen reports of bad bugs right in this section between Two Harbors and Duluth. The storms were inevitable, but they were pushing them off later and later, and the forecast was calling for fair skies until at least dark. Perfect. I can take any storm as long as I can set up in fair weather. I was in good spirits into the Lake County Demo Forest, but I could definitely tell that my body was starting to feel the fatigue. I couldn’t remember if I was walking any faster or slower than the first day with fresh legs. Well, 4 hours and 20 minutes in and 13 miles is right on track for 3 mph. It was day 7, so my food stash was down 2/3, meaning a scant five pounds left. My whole pack weight, less one pair of boxers, was probably even below 15 pounds. It no issue to haul it, and it was no issue to walk. The monotony and tediousness of not stopping walking was the hard part.
Through the woods, I heard people, and some trash bins clanging together or something. It must be private land. Nope, it was a road, some guys were loading up trash bins or something. Wait, it was a Superior Hiking Trail maintenance crew! Cool! I chatted away with a few of the guys. One was definitely in charge, and I wondered if it was Larry Sampson, who I’d seen on so many SHT newsletters and such. I didn’t ask, though, and they ushered me along after talking about speed hiking for a bit. Time is of the essence! Yeah, yeah, ‘ya gotta stay moving, but I laughed how trivial just a few minutes of leisurely chatting is. They seemed to think it was a marathon mindset where every second counts, and I was laughing to myself walking walking away. Nope, THIS is what speed hiking looks like. Regular ol’ walking.
My online campsite calculator was somehow way off and at 14 miles on the day, I was calculating a much smaller day, around 30 miles or less total, to Big Bend. I was looking at a nice and early night into camp. Things were good, dry and good, walking through the Demonstration Forest.
I started thinking about lunch, and wanted to get to a river to eat. It wasn’t going to happen, so I sat on a rock outcropping. There was a tiny slice of rock not wet or mossy. I took of my socks to air out my feet just a bit, and they were really wet from the dew on the grass near Silver Creek. Another day of trench foot…
The food was so tasty, and I was having a tough time rationing. I could finally see and really plan out the last bit of food, and was really happy to remember that I packed four bags of Lays and three Cheetos. I thought it was three and three, so decided to save the bonus bag of chips for Friday, my ninth and final hike. It was great to sit down, and I calculated my final afternoon stop at 4:20pm sharp to be near 12 Mile View and just a few miles from the campsite. That was motivating, the day felt still young, and I was happy to cruise through the easy woods.
I filled up water in Stewart River and hiked up the little climb just past the campsite out of the river valley. It seemed like the steepest hill in the winter, when I stayed at the Stewart campsite 9 months prior, but after the signature ups and downs of the true North Shore, I was up and over it in a flash! I sped through the woods, past the Demo Forest spur trail, into one of my favorite sections through Rossini Road. In the endless forest, with little dips and the gentle winding of the trail, it was easy walking. I actually started to yearn for some climbing and descending just to switch it up. But, I felt good and was making good time.
Out of nowhere, mosquitoes. I noticed a few fly around me, and then got swarmed. Here they come, I thought. I covered up and was only bothered by bugs in my face and on my hands. They’d find their way all over my hands and bite away. I had a few big bites on fingers and my wrists and the tops of my hands. I was paying attention to smack ’em, but they’d catch me inattentive for one second and go for it. I killed one, full of blood, on my palm! Trekking poles in action, and somehow a mosquito finds space to bite me on my left palm, the one absent of a sketchy splint. Also, they were on my clothes. I noticed it mostly on my shoulders and back where the pack wasn’t touching. I couldn’t feel a bit, but was obsessively swatting anyways. I was so happy when I forgot about a swarm. A mile of walking and I realized that there were no mosquitoes and it must’ve been a swampy mosquito zone or something. All right! The forest was in great hiking shape and I was still cooking along and feeling fine.
Before I knew it, I was past Rossini Road. It is just a three mile walk from here, one hour, and I was 9:20 in for the day and just 28 miles. A few minutes behind pace, but it was only 4:15 and I was ready for my daily stop. I hunched down in the middle of the woods and relaxed, no sense of urgency. I kept hiking and felt pretty sluggish, but ready to take it home and relax at Big Bend. I missed the 12 Mile View, not noticing until I was way past. It is a pretty lame view anyways, and only cool for the sake of novelty. I enjoyed the view of the beaver pond, and set up shop at Big Bend in no time. I was the only one there. The wind and the gurgle of the creek, the West Branch of the Knife River, kept me company enough.
It was not even 5:30pm, so I took my sweet time at Big Bend. I didn’t have enough phone service to get a weather update, but I’d seen it at some point since Two Harbors and was still looking good for the evening. It was certainly cloudy, but not threateningly rainy. I backflushed my water bottle filter and started to carefully scope the ground for a spot to set up. Nowhere popped out at me right away. I considered a sloping tent pad on one side of the site, but didn’t want water flowing right down on my head. I didn’t want to sleep with my feet up either. I envisioned the water running down the gentle grade right through the middle. Across the site, I looked at the tent pad I stayed at one night when Diamond got quilled. If I could set it up to drip far enough out from me, there would be enough of a trough and enough of a downward slant to allow the water to drain completely away from me. It did look like a slight depression where so many campers have likely stayed before me. But, if the water drips far enough out… and so I set the tarp up right there. I wanted to be meticulous, and it looked fine. It was hard to do anything with the broken pinkie, but I even managed to get a patch over the dripping seams over my face by using band-aids and a plastic grocery store bag once used to hold food.
I tried to use the alcohol stove to cook, but it was windy. I used my mat as a shield, careful to not set that on fire. That would make for two uncomfortable nights! I actually started a fire and cooked my pasta and soy protein isolate quickly, using a lot of olive oil in it. The fire barely burned the remaining soggy maps I had, and I saved my last two maps for the last two days of the trip, only 75 or 80 miles to go.
I was so dirty. Everything was dirty, I felt dirty, caked in dried sweat, dirt under my fingernails, stained shirt, dirt-stained skin on my ankles. And I smelled bad. Not much worse than any other day, though, as I’d maintained a varying level of stank from day two.
As the sun set, I clamored into my shelter, opting once more to put my rain poncho over my backpack, everything I need stuffed away inside. In my tarp, the bare essentials. Ground sheet, mat, quilt, pillow, phone in plastic baggie, and headlamp. I couldn’t tell if the sounds over my tarp were falling seeds or sticks or light raindrops. I expected the rain, didn’t see any moisture on the ground, and questioned what would happen if it poured on me. I even had a stick to dig a trough, from my prone position, to let the water drain away from me. I closed my eyes, not quite asleep, but comfortable. When will the thunderstorms hit?
In between swatting mosquitoes, I drifted off to sleep in the early morning hours of my fifth night camping. An infuriating buzz in my ear canal would cause me to stir, but what completely woke me up was another round of thunder. The only precipitation I heard was left-over rain falling from the leaves, until I heard the now-familiar sound of a freight train coming towards me. Thunder rumbling meant another round of rain. Constant lightning flashing meant I could see my whole campsite like the light of day. Just as I predicted, the rain came next. Slow at first, the thunder gets louder, and the rain falling on my lightweight tarp gets louder, and in a matter of minutes, all I can hear is an indiscernible rush of wind and water dumping from the sky with so much volume, the individual raindrops all mash together. It was early in the morning, perhaps 2am, and I was wide awake, headlamp on, watching tiny droplets of water form directly above my eye, on the inside of my tarp, collecting into one big droplet of water, and dripping onto my eye or my preciously dry quilt. I picked a fantastic spot to sleep, because the falling water was draining to the side of me. I wondered how my pack was faring over on the picnic table. The only wetness was near my head as the heavy rain was still splashing mud towards me. The dirt a foot on either side of me was completely saturated, but I was dry. This second round of storms was brief, and a half hour later, all I heard was light sprinkles.
If I’d kept my bug net on, I’d actually be comfortable. Unfortunately, the mosquitoes were relentlessly biting me. It wouldn’t be so bad if the temperature was 10 degrees cooler, but I was sweltering in my quilt and it was a major struggle to decide what was less uncomfortable, the muggy heat inside my quilt or the cool but buggy open air. By the time I noticed light not from lightening, around 6am, I wasn’t sure if I’d slept for even one minute. As soon as I decided I had enough light to see my pack, I got up and started packing. My rain poncho held out all of the water and my pack was dry. Nice. I tried to snap a pick of my humble shelter before I ripped it down, and again shoved the wet items into the outer pocket.
I hadn’t started earlier than I did this day, and it was hard to see my first steps out of the Penn Creek campsite. I was sure happy to leave that bug infested zone, but wondered if it was going to rain on me all morning. The clouds alluded to rain, and a very foggy landscape as I continued south.
I was excited to bang out this sixth day. It was going to be tough walking, but after this day, it is a few days of really easy walking into Duluth. Only three more nights of camping. I was nervous that I’d have to deal with more mosquitoes from here on out. On the flip side, I yelled at the trail how it’s been too easy so far and to give me a real challenge! Bring on the rain, bring on the mosquitoes! I can take it.
Any overlook was shrouded with fog, so I put my head down and cruised through Silver Bay. The rocks were slick, and I made sure that I would not slip. That could truly be the last straw, so staying on my two feet was a high priority. When I came across a wooden bridge, I considered every single step.
I made it through Silver Bay in a breeze, and felt back in my groove of walking and drinking and eating. Walk, drink, eat, sleep. This whole trip is broken down into four simple functions. In order of importance: walk, drink, eat, and sleep. I ate my breakfast bars and had to consciously limit my intake of chews. I wanted to eat them all. I ate large chunks of my Clif Bar and realized that I was in a calorie deficit. If I’m hungry, it actually means I’m thirsty. That is what I told myself. I focused on drinking water, filled up at the Beaver River, and continued on my way. After walking across the big snowmobile bridge across the Beaver River, the sun peeked out of the clouds. I thought of Soundgarden’s “Black Hole Sun” and hoped this Black Hole Sun would wash away the rain.
I hadn’t hiked south from Beaver Bay to Gooseberry in years, and didn’t feel very familiar with the trail. It was technical and featured a lot of elevation gain. Luckily, I felt great. I didn’t adjust my pack for hours at a time, meaning that it was comfortable as is. My feet were holding up great, and my body as a whole was fit for another long day of hiking, despite the poor sleep the night before and busted, painful finger. I cruised towards Split Rock River and figured that I could stop for lunch right alongside that majestic flowing body of water.
Atop a ridgeline, looking out toward the intimidating Lake Superior, I spotted the Split Rock Lighthouse and figured I was close. The sun would break out of the clouds now and then and shine for a moment, and I hoped that I would be able to take my socks off in the sun while I ate lunch. It took much longer than anticipated to get to the trail alongside the Split Rock River.
I was checking my map and watch constantly, so excited to sit down and eat lunch. I made ground on two girls hiking. Passed them, and they stopped me to ask if they were going the right way to cross over the river. Yep, I told them it was a half mile ahead or so. I wanted to keep my distance, because I could tell that I smelled bad. Not that it matters, but I was really conscious about it in front of two cute college-aged girls. I finally got to a great rocky outcrop right on the river, and treated myself to a long lunch. I took off my socks, and just as I hoped, the sun came out in full force. It was hot! As I ate my beef sticks and chips, I checked the time, around 1pm. It was rough to put my nasty socks back on, put my sweaty and stinky shirt back on, and start back walking. But I did anyways, and felt depressed as I considered my next stop in about three hours. Pure walking until then…
I was about 6:20 in for the day, just more than 18 miles. That means I was down about a mile, or 20 minutes, from my 3 mph goal. If I hoofed it to Gooseberry, I figured I can make it up. There is a roadwalk section almost 3 miles, and if I hit 3.5 mph on that, a brisk walk for sure but doable, I’d be sitting pretty for the home stretch past Gooseberry. The afternoon was really shaping up, but hot. Split Rock is beautiful, but my content and tranquil attitude was quickly put to rest as I slipped once more, on a wet root sloping downwards. Luckily, I only suffered a muddy arm, but any jostle pained my broken pinkie from the day before quite a bit. I brushed myself off, put my head down, and worked.
As I hiked up and away from the Split Rock River, it started getting hot. I put my hat down to shield the sun, drank water to cool off, and suffered through the exposed yet beautiful ridgeline of Blueberry Hill. Any shade was so relieving, and I filled up my whole water bottle at a small creek near the Blueberry Hill campsite. Soon after, I entered the detour where a private landowner permanently closed the singletrack through the woods. It was actually well received, and I cranked down the hill towards Highway 61. I put on some music, and jammed out to the Soundgarden songs stuck in my head since the dreary morning.
I was jamming along the entire bike path detour until I got to Gooseberry Falls State Park. My feet hurt from walking on the pavement, but I sure did make good time. My shoulders and back were feeling good, and despite the sore and tired feet, I knew I had many more miles in ’em. The bigger challenge was telling my brain that I was OK to keep walking. With every bench, there was a strong urge to sit down for one second. But I did not. Before long, I got to Gooseberry Falls and started hiking up along the river. I stopped near a falls, close to the big bridge over the river, and it felt great to relax. From here, it was a big push along the Gooseberry, past Mike’s Rock to Crow Creek. This section had been frustratingly muddy a month before, but I mentally prepared myself for one last section for the day and hit it. A source of inspiration was to think about where I was at. Here I am, finishing up day six, past the crux, past two nights of terrible storms, and looking at a fantastically clear night. After today, it’s two days of easy walking and then the final day. My finger was still intact, I was feeling physically in-control, and really started to believe that this was going to happen. I was going to finish this thing up.
Along the Gooseberry River, I found a huge agate while filling up water. Neat. I hooked left away from the Gooseberry River, and it luckily was not too muddy or too buggy. Perfect. I was cranking along. Up to Mike’s Rock, back down, and the mud came on heavier. I tried to dodge the deep puddles.
Before long, I saw a few people set up with tents and bags and stoves, and walked in to the Crow Creek campsite to see a huge group set up with massive tarps and tents everywhere. I looked around for a campsite, but first filled up with water and backtracked to where I saw the stragglers set up. That looked better. I talked to a guy named Pete who just graduated college in Milwaukee and decided to take as much time as he needs to walk the whole Superior Hiking Trail. His only obligation was jury duty in October sometime. He started at County Road 301 and it was his first night on the trail after a 6 miler with a huge 50 pound pack. Been there, bro! I remembered my first day with terribly sore shoulders and thought about how strong I’d become since then, on my sixth day of hiking, and setting up my camp for the sixth time. I had to laugh as he pulled out carrots from his food stash. That has to be the least calorie dense food besides celery… I was truly envious of his luxurious five pound tent, though.
I set up my tarp, and it dried out immediately. I took the time to set up my bug net, too, cooked my food over the alcohol stove, and looked very forward to sleeping in the clear night. Unfortunately, I for some reason set my tarp up really close to another guy, Tim. I apologized for it, but he just said as long as I don’t snore, he doesn’t care. The only unfortunate part is that he snored! A really weird guy, he had been at this site for the past two nights and was fiddling around with his crap until dark. Tim then decided to sleep outside of his tent, not set up yet, and was snoring loudly! Loud enough to keep me awake. Did I hear him wrong? Either way, I was fatigued after my biggest mileage day thus far at over 35, and definitely fell asleep before long. Out cold. No bugs, a perfect temperature, it was exactly what I needed.