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.