My alarm went off early, and I was on the trail in no time. With rain coming on the crux day, I wanted to get out early, and I was the first camper of perhaps 10 at the Springdale Creek campsite to depart. It was barely light out.
I ate my four breakfast bars before the Sawbill Trail parking lot. Very soon after that, I crossed County Road 2, past the sign for Carlton Peak, and knew I had a wake-ya-up climb in my near future. Up and up and I saw some big patches of fog in distant valleys. After my third night, I was very happy to feel a bone dry tarp this morning. My socks from the first three days were packed away and relatively dry, and I broke out some brand new Smartwools for the crux day. I knew today was going to be one of the harder days, in terms of trail difficulty, of the whole trip.
Luckily, the climb up Carlton wasn’t too bad. Quite the ascent, no doubt, but I got to the trail register with enough gumption to set down my pack and scramble up the bald rock faces to get a great morning view. I could not resist a large bellow: “MORNIN'”, and listened carefully for a faint echo from the forest far below me. By this point, I was about 100 miles in. I was setting off on the middle third of my trip, which means I was down five pounds on my food already, and broke into my second batch of rations. The view was stupendous, and I spent a few precious moments taking pictures, logging in to social media and checking the weather, and writing in the trail register:
My goal for today was to take it smoothly, to feel good, and to get to camp, far away, with enough energy and daylight to set up for the thunderstorms that were looking more and more inevitable to hit overnight. So I set off, munching down several chews at a time and breaking into my Clif Bar early and leaving the Lara Bar for the afternoon. It wasn’t enough food to satisfy my hunger. It now became a matter of rationing out my food versus eating when I please. After the quick descent to the always photogenic Temperance River, I was feeling great. Hungry, but the body and mind were great.
I saw several outdoor enthusiasts through the Temperance River State Park, but only from afar as they were exploring the rocks and cliffs along the roaring Temperance River. My phone was on and it was hard to resist capturing the majestic beauty of the raging torrent that has carved such a deep gorge over thousands of years.
I drank from the Temperance, my mind always on taking in water, and was climbing up to the Cross River before long. I’d hiked this section many times this year, and it’s now one of my favorites. It’s hard to beat the beautiful morning sunshine, and I was carting along nicely. I chatted briefly with a guy coming from a Cross River campsite. I said I was speed hiking, he ushered me along as not to waste my time! Kind of funny, but at a certain point the social interaction is worth much more than five minutes lost.
The Cross River section is always great. I was feeling good and passed a few other hikers. I intruded on a girl’s very comfy looking setup right along the Cross River as she read in her hammock. I filled up my water bottle, quickly on my way, but daydreamed about dropping the pack, setting up a hammock, and reading for 6 hours instead of racking up 18 miles. But, it was a fleeting thought, and my mind soon wandered back to strategy. Walk to Fredenberg Creek, boom. Get to Cramer Road and Dyer’s Creek, boom. Keep walkin’.
It was surprisingly lonely through Dyer’s, but it allowed me to click off miles, and the trail was in great shape for doing so. As the sun rose higher in the sky, I came across another backpacker making his way. He stopped, and I skirted around him, but paused myself to take a short rest and chat. This guy was thru-hiking as well, having never hiked before at all, and was on his ninth day. We both started walking again, and he hung with me for many miles, despite a pack twice the size. This guy was named Aaron, from St. Cloud area, and he took a few weeks off work to do this backpacking trip. He was going to make it as far as he could, a series of factors leading to the realization that a long hike is the best way to spend his vacation time. It was great to get into the mind of someone besides my own self, and we hiked for almost an hour. At Sugarloaf Pond, I had planned to stop for lunch, and Aaron continued on. He was pushing for the Caribou River to break for a while.
By the time I ate my beef sticks and drank water in the hot mid-day sun, it was past 1pm, over 6 hours in and just more than 18 miles on the day. I kept truckin’, and passed a big family in the pine stands just past Sugarloaf Road. I was eager to get to one of my favorite overlooks on the way to the Caribou River, but definitely felt a little post-lunch fatigue coming on. I blitzed through the wonderful traverse overlooking Great Lake Superior, and arrived at the Caribou River before long. It was a tough walk ahead, and I was nervous about the impending storms. It was such a beautiful day, such a beautiful four day stretch, how could it turn nasty now?? I wrote in the trail register right before the bridge over the Caribou River. A mantra that I felt was never more fitting:
“We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it. Take it one day at a time and we’ll make it there.”
By the time I was hiking out from the Caribou River, I was about 7 hours and 20 minutes in on the day at about 22 miles, right on track. Almost 3pm, I knew I could push hard and make up some good ground for my 4:20pm rest break. It would be a hell of a push, and it started with the big climb up to Horseshoe Ridge. I didn’t remember it being such a grueling ascent. I definitely smelled bad, but noticed it only as the sweat soaked through my shirt. The fatigue had set in already, but I found a point where I could keep walking very strongly despite any discomfort in my feet, ankles, shins, knees, hips, back and shoulders. I saw another hiker as I made the last steps up and over Horseshoe Ridge.
I braced myself for the long few miles through Crosby-Manitou State Park. I remembered these sections as very difficult, but I knew that once I got to the parking lot and through the park, it’d be a relatively easy jaunt to my campsite. There was a lot of up and down, just as I recall, and the trail is just so technical in this part. You never get into a good hiking groove. Luckily, this is a cool section with a different vibe every 15 minutes. Before long, I crossed over the roaring Manitou River and kept my eyes open for a nice spot for a well-deserved rest.
I made my way through the state park trail, past a few backcountry campsites, up out of the river and back, and snuck off trail to a rocky bend in the Manitou. I took a fantastic break there, very satisfied with my progress on the first day of the crux. I didn’t take more than 10 minutes, but it was enough to eat a bit of food, let my feet rest, and continue hiking with a renewed take on life. I was ready to smash this last section, get to camp and hunker down for this rain coming in. It was quick to the parking lot. I felt ragged, but kept on walking.
Back into the woods, I made a point to push until I arrived at my site. I felt a few rain sprinkles and decided to quick stop after all. Sprinkles did not cease, so I pulled out my rain poncho for easy access. To my surprise, it was a passing shower after all, and the sprinkles quickly after the brief stop. I kept hiking. I considered stopping at earlier sites, but pressed on. A guy at an earlier site said he didn’t think it’d rain at all, but it was just wishful thinking.
I passed a really cool campsite on Blesner Creek, and soon after arrived at my target campsite on the East Branch Baptism River. It was very relieving to get there and take off my shoes. The skies opened up a bit and it looked like it was going to stay clear for the time being, and I had plenty of daylight left–just past 6pm. I racked up a monster 33.3 miles on the day. A rustle came from a nearby hammock setup, and I chatted with my site-mate Diane for a bit. She was an ultralight enthusiast out on the trail, chiefly a Boundary Waters person, but getting into backpacking as well. It was awesome to talk with her and share my story and also hear hers. I enjoyed talking DIY gear with her, but she retired to bed early. I cooked my food over a roaring fire, soaked my body from butt down in the creek, and drank as much water as I possibly could.
I took the risk of packing my bag up, food and all, and keeping it in my tarp area. If it was going to rain in the wee morning hours, I didn’t want to deal with a soaking wet pack and food. So I shimmied everything under the tarp and hoped that she’d keep the water out.
I woke up from my second night to sprinkles. I looked from under my tarp and saw sun, so was confused. It was a damp morning, and I truly noticed that when I arose and saw dew literally dripping off of the leaves and branches above me. There were clouds of morning mist! It looked like another morning of a wet tarp, but I knew the drill and packed everything away as-is.
The morning was beautiful because of the dense fog and moisture, but of course made walking less than ideal. I felt sweaty immediately. The hike down to the Cascade River went quickly, and I followed blue blazes to the west side of the Cascade, which I hadn’t hiked. It was equally challenging as the east side in terms of elevation change, and the sun peering through the misty morning haze gave the forest a “Land Before Time” feel.
I saw just a few people in the early morning through Cascade River State Park, and as I left the river and hiked up toward Lookout Mountain, the sun burned away any excess moisture from the air and I was certain the moisture collecting on my own body was sweat. My legs were soaked from encroaching wet brush. It was all worth it, though, to bellow “MORNIN'” off of the large overlook to any late risers in the valley below. Well, it was only 9am, and I’m the weirdo up here waking up at 7 to hike all day…
Along the ridge past Lookout Mountain, heading southeast, I got in the zone. I was movin’ good, and kept a steady pace until Spruce Creek. It was a perfect place to stop, and so I took my pack off, drank as much as I could and ate a small bit of food. It was about 10:30am and just over 10 miles in for the day. I was feeling pretty good. My legs and shoulders and body had been a little stiff right out of the gate, but since felt better and better even. I felt focused and kept telling myself that I know exactly what I need to do. Right now, it’s all about drinking water. Water is the lubrication for my joints and ligaments and muscles. Luckily, the few pounds of decreased weight and increased strength of my shoulders made slinging my backpack aside easy, and drinking on the go was a common occurrence. Still, there is no need to carry extra weight on my back when I can carry that water weight inside me. As I sat on a rock slugging down as much water as I could, my socks off, to dry out from being drenched by the dew-riddled overgrowth, a couple guys skirted past me heading southbound over the Spruce Creek bridge. Weird! I realized I was dawdling, although just a 10-minute stop, and packed up and started walking.
I headed up a steep grade out of Spruce Creek and quickly caught up to these guys. They let me pass, but I immediately got in a conversation and they tailed off of me. I felt bad because I could smell my own self and it was not good. I learned they’d stayed at the Spruce Creek campsite the previous night. When I told them I was thru-hiking and going for a speed attempt, they started asking me questions, and it was fun to tout my lightweight gear. We got into a fruitful conversation regarding rechargeable power banks. These two guys were out for the long weekend, one from Minneapolis and one from Michigan, although I did not catch their names. The one guy had to adjust his moleskin patch on a hotspot on his foot and I left ’em.
I cruised through Jonvick Creek and saw a small family who had stayed at Spruce Creek as well. The couple had a dog and a toddler with them, so I’m sure it was a luxe camping setup. I didn’t stay and chat and made my way to Lake Agnes. On the way, I saw a fellow Facebook user, who I mutually agreed with to high-five. It was so cool to see this guy Micheal in the flesh and I was smiling big time after our real life high-five. The density of other hikers on this beautiful Saturday was definitely boosting my confidence. By Lake Agnes, it was like a tourist attraction! I walked a few steps with some day hikers, chatted with a few hammock backpackers that had come from the south (and they mentioned missing the Springdale Creek campsite that I was headed to), and wrote in the Lake Agnes trail register as the wind whipped along the ridge. I forgot the mantra. I was feeling good through the splendid overlook of the winding Poplar River, descended and ate lunch on a rock right on the Poplar. It was my day for pepperoni for lunch, and it tasted surprisingly delicious with a handful of Cheetos.
I started feeling a little more sluggish and tired after lunch. Thinking of the trail ahead, I knew the crux of the whole trip was to be day four and five. Day four is up Carlton Peak right away, down to Temperance, up past the Cross River, all the way over to the Caribou River, up to Horseshoe Ridge, and then a grueling last 10 miles through Crosby-Manitou State Park to my campsite. Then, the next day is past Sonju and Egge Lakes (which I recall as a really arduous section), up Section 13 and onto the most difficult and relentless elevation change on the whole trail through Tettegouche State Park, and past Bean and Bear Lakes! But after those two days, there is no way I can fail. If I can overcome the crux of days four and five, it is mentally manageable from there. STOP! I had to remind myself to take it one day at a time. It is stressful to worry over the perceived difficulty of upcoming days, and there is no need for it. So I hiked through Lutsen in the warm mid-day sun with my mind focused on getting to Springdale Creek today.
I knew that upcoming was some serious climbing and decending, but it was smooth sailing and easy walking after Moose Mountain. I passed the Mystery Mountain campsite, walked down, down, down, to the valley floor, and then awaited the strenuous climb up Moose Mountain. My legs and shoulders were feeling sore, and that familiar ache in my feet and big toes was coming back. It was hot. I drank some water, but knew I had to conserve. I had faith that my body would hold up, and pushed up through Moose Mountain, dripping in sweat as I reached the top, and then back down the western end. From there, I figured I’d take my afternoon break around Oberg Mountain, and so walked without stopping until I reached the Onion River where I found a flat rock to sit down.
After a brief break, I knew I was just a few miles from the Springdale Creek campsite. I saw a few day hikers near Leaveaux Mountain, and then talked to a backpacker couple who missed the Springdale Creek campsite, we talked about it and they kept hiking northbound.
I passed one other guy sitting on the trail as his buddies were checking out an overlook, but I did not stop and chat for long. I was so close to the site, and very eager to set down my pack and relax. On the home stretch, I walked straight on to a couple sitting on a bench next to a fire ring. I was confused, as I didn’t remember the trail going right directly by the campsite… I asked if it was the campsite. They confusedly said yes, and I realized that my question was super unclear. What campsite? They said the sign marking the campsite fell down, and I walked right into it! Ahh. I immediately looked for a good tent pad and started unpacking.
I chatted with the couple at the site already, and learned their names, Erin and Zach. They were backpacking for the weekend, and had made a push to be near the Britton Peak trailhead, a mile away and where their car was parket. I set up my wet tarp and went to the crick to get water. It was pretty dry, but had enough pools to fill up, drink as much water as I possibly could, and soak my feet. I got the campsite really early, and it felt great to have a few hours of downtime before night.
When I got back to the fire ring, a fire was made. Nice. In addition, I had internet access, so synced my GPS data, posted on Facebook, and checked the weather. Storms for late tomorrow, Sunday evening into Monday morning, which was Labor Day. My phone’s battery was doing great, and I felt less obligated to be constantly considering my usage. I charged up my watch, boiled water over the fire, and burned map 5 of 6. It was a great evening, and I was so happy to talk to this cool couple Erin and Zach. Meanwhile, several other groups showed up and before long, the Springdale Creek campsite was full to the brim. Everyone else kept to themselves. As the fire died out and the sun sank below the trees, I clamored away to bed, happy to feel a bone dry tarp.