Hike Date: April 29-30, 2016

Trail: Superior Hiking Trail

Trip Plan: 2 nights, 40 miles. Park at Rossini Road and hike home.

Day 1 – Hike south from Rossini Road to Big Bend Campsite (3 miles)

Day 2 – Hike south from Big Bend Campsite to Bald Eagle Campsite (24 miles)

Day 3 – Hike south from Bald Eagle Campsite to Home (near Hartley Park)(11 miles)

Garmin Data:

Gear: 4-29-16

Weather:

Two Harbors Temp 4-29

 

Trip Synopsis:

Day 1 – Friday, April 29, 2016

The journey to hike the entire Superior Hiking trail officially starts here. I’ve planned out ten backpacking trips, of varying distances and time, to prepare me for the long haul. The very first one is now. The plan was to start off relatively easily—I’d get the whole weekend to hike just 40 miles. It seems ridiculous, because the Superior Hiking Trail guidebook and maps recommend planning 1-2 miles per hour, and 40 miles is a long way to walk in a weekend! However, based on the time off of work and the time I’m willing to spend in the woods to complete the entire SHT, 35 miles per day is the least amount I can do. That sounds pretty grim for a hike of nearly 320 miles!

The first backpack trip should be pretty easy, then, since I had all Saturday and Sunday to hike, plus I could get a few miles in on Friday. I made a plan to hike home. I’d drive out to the Rossini Road trailhead on the SHT and hike south around 40 miles straight back to my house. When I split off from the hiking trail in Hartley Park, it’s a bit less than two miles back home. It would be a bad omen to bail on the very first trip, so I figured it would be slightly easier to complete the full 40 miles without an easy option to pull the plug and walk back to the car.

I was trying a few new things on this trip. One was a new backpack I’d bought: the Granite Gear Lutsen 35. I hadn’t really given the inline water filter a shot, so I set up my 2 liter Camelback bladder with a Sawyer Mini water filter in between the hose. Fill ‘er up with water, and just suck it through the filter to purify. I brought a coffee filter along in the case of some skuzzy water. Finally, over the long, lonely winter, I sewed up some hammock gear. I had a custom-designed, DIY underquilt, top quilt, and tarp. Based on the ratings on the Climashield synthetic insulation, I thought I’d be plenty warm in the mid-30’s low temperatures that were forecasted for the weekend. In fact, I skipped the sleeping bag liner. I set the entire hammock up, tarp and all, in the backyard a few times and knew it was pretty simple to put it together.

Without my dog Diamond, packing was a bit easier. I tried to be diligent with my gear, but there are always the things you think you need, probably won’t need, but definitely want to have in a time of distress or emergency. I took the new backpack, and everything was fitting in easily. I planned to leave on Friday right after work to get to the trailhead around 7pm. The hike in is from Rossini Road south to the Big Bend Campsite on the West Branch Knife River. The next day is a long haul to the Bald Eagle Campsite, the most southerly official SHT campsite, good for around 24 miles. The last day, Sunday, is a leisurely trek home expected to be around 11 miles. I packed enough food for two days, banking on the fact that I can eat dinner after work on Friday, and lunch and dinner at home on Sunday. I didn’t really pack a ‘lunch’ for Saturday, either, but had plenty of food (7,750 calories worth according to my calculations).

Jack agreed to come along for Friday night and peel off at the Sucker River trailhead. We dropped his car off on the way to Rossini, and he was in for an 8-mile hike on Saturday. I knew 8 of 24 miles will be nice to have some company.

With everything ready and prepared on Thursday, we loaded up the car on Friday and set off. It always takes so long to get the hell out of the house… and the solemn nature of hiking itself is in stark contrast to the stress and rushed feeling of packing up the car to go. I ate cold pizza on the ride out, and it was a great ride out as the sun sank lower in the sparsely clouded Duluth spring evening sky.

We got to Rossini Road and locked the car, time to go! I started my watch and we set off. Within a mile is 12-Mile View, a lookout towards Lake Superior 12 miles away. My timeless joke is that ¼-mile view is much more scenic. 12-Mile View boasts a tiny sliver of Lake Superior that you can barely see through the trees. The novelty of it much more impressive than the lookout itself.

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I asked Jack to see the map. It was on the top of the car. Oh, well, ought to run back, I thought. I set down my pack and went back to my old rusty Subaru one last time for the weekend.

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It was a beautiful night on the trail. The sinking sun was making the clouds turn pink, orange, and indigo. We passed some signs of beavers with ponds and downed trees, heard frogs croaking, and saw pile after pile of moose scat.

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Jack and I presumed that a moose momma and child likely tromped down this same trail in the wintertime, and the melting snow left a lot of poop piles. We couldn’t think of what else it could be besides moose… these were no deer pellets!

After a fast hour, we saw smoke, signs of people, and a barking dog. The dog ran out from the trail to make sure we were friendly. Around the bend, Jack and I saw two other tents, and then two fellow hikers sitting around a smoldering fire. We asked if we could stay for the night, and looked for a good spot to set up. Jack set his tent right onto the trail itself, and I hung my hammock nearby. It went up quick, but Jack’s tent went up faster.

Starting dry, I brought my new water contraption down to the Knife River. The spring melt meant the crick was rushing pretty good, and as I kneeled towards the river bank, fiddled with the coffee filter to let it sit over the opening. I tried to hold the bladder and coffee filter in place as the rushing water fought to take it downstream, when the cap of my bladder came off. Time seemed to slow down as it bobbed in the water, then caught the current. I grasped for it, but the cap was in for a ride. Immediately realizing the scope of the situation. I dropped everything to run for the cap. With a brambly bush up ahead, I had ten feet to reach for it. At the last possible minute, I dropped to my knees and lunged for the cap. I’ll take a wet sleeve over dehydration any day. To lose the bladder cap would be detrimental. I didn’t really have a backup plan.

I got back to the fire pit, and Jack had his whole gig set up. I told my new friends of the bladder cap debacle and took a large sip of water. The filter worked perfectly. The rest of the night, we stoked the first and engaged in general chit chat. Emily was likely in her 20s, and worked at a church in Duluth. Randy had adopted two campsites on the SHT (Big Bend being one of them), and was up to clear brush from Waterloo, Iowa. At 10:30, we all decided to hit the hay.

Day 2 – Saturday, August 30, 2016

It was a cold night. Uncomfortably cold, thanks to the a underquilt. I wondered if I actually slept at all. But then, next thing ‘ya know the sun was up. I had an hour until my alarm was to ring, so I figured I’d try to adjust my very drafty underquilt. That was the ticket, and I could feel my body warmth collecting under me immediately. I closed my eyes a bit more, and decided to get up a half hour late, at 7:30am. I’d told Jack on a few occasions of my plans to leave before 8:01am under any circumstances. If I have to pack my bag while walking, so be it! Well, he woke up around 6am to make eggs and coffee, and we still couldn’t hit the trail until 8:10! The extra shut-eye was nice, but my breakfast consisted only of a few Lara bars while walking.

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I was pretty chilly still walking, but it was a perfect day to be on the trail. With abundant sunshine, and light breeze, and the awakening of the entire northern Minnesota woods in early spring, there was no better place to be, and I felt very energized because of it. I must’ve slept last night, I thought…

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We agreed to stop for lunch, and after a couple hours, we sat down on a few stumps to eat. Jack and I both were feeling really good, fatigue-wise. We spent a solid 10 minutes or so basking in the sunshine and taking down some tasty calories. I was gearing to go, knowing that I had a pretty big day ahead of me, and soon enough, we were back on track. I was spitballin’ with Jack about my plans, and briefly thought about hiking the whole way back today. After a cold night, thinking about a good night’s sleep in my own bed seemed to outweigh the arduous 36-mile hike. That is a long way. I told Jack I’d be back at night, in the case I walk the rest of the way in one day. Soon enough, we passed Fox Farm Pond, and the spur trail to Jack’s car was right ahead. He wished me good luck, and offered me a good luck slice of toilet paper. So long, friend!

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The heat of the day was upon me as I kept hiking, and I definitely cranked down my pace once Jack peeled off. I decided I’d stop again at the Sucker River campsite, eat lunch and fill up the water bladder. It was a quick hour, and I stopped and sat down on the banks of the Sucker River around 10am. At this point, I was feeling pretty good. Five hours in the hike, and I started to do some calculations. I told Jack that I’d probably just take it all the way home if I got to the Bald Eagle campsite before 4pm. That way, I’d be able to get those last 10 or 12 miles in by 8pm. That sounded like a good plan, barring extreme exhaustion. To stay on track, I’d have to get to the Normanna trailhead by noon. With a plan in mind, I stashed some food in my pockets and set back out.

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Things were going good between Sucker River and Normanna. I didn’t feel the need to stop and rest and could manage my pace really well. My spirits were high, and it was a perfect day to walking in the woods! An hour passed and I felt like I was on the home stretch into Normanna with maybe a half hour until the trailhead. Another hour passed and it was in the afternoon. I didn’t really recognize where I was at, but knew that I’d pass the Heron Pond campsite about a mile before getting to Normanna. No campsite. The miles started showing their effect on my body and I got a little tired, and little frustrated, and a little concerned that I’d missed my noon target. I couldn’t remember how far it was from Normanna to Sucker… was it 3 miles? No, pretty sure it was 5.6 miles. Or 6.5? No… 5.63?? It doesn’t really matter, anyways, I walk and I get there. But why did I think noon was a reasonable estimate to arrive? ‘Just get to Normanna’ was my mantra.

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A clearing in the woods, and I saw a large pond off to my right. I saw a familiar bluff with some tree cover and recognized the area. In a few minutes, I passed the Heron Pond campsite and contemplated stopping. Well, I just didn’t stop. I couldn’t think fast enough to make a decision to rest at the campsite and it just passed me by! 20 minutes later, and I saw a large rock in the sun where the SHT conjoins with the North Shore State Trail. I took my pack off, took my shoes off, took my socks off and ate as much food as I could. Boy, the Havarti cheese was good. My socks hadn’t even gotten wet, and I was blister-free! Sitting was a great reprieve from walking, but 5 minutes was all it took to munch and get going again. Onto to the wide open state trail.

The CJ Ramstad/North Shore State Trail is a MN DNR-maintained snowmobile trail in the winter, and a multi-use trail in the other months. The SHT conjoins with the NSST quite a bit, especially in the sections just north of Duluth. I’d walked through this section before, and knew it was a lot of state trail. This is good and bad. The good is that it’s just something different. It’s generally easier walking… no big rocks and roots, and not technical. However, it’s wet and swampy, and pretty boring. There are plenty of times where you see the bend in the trail to take, only to then see a very, very long and straight stretch ahead. I figured I could make a good pace on these sections, so set off pretty hard.

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I was playing games. I tried to estimate how many steps it would take to get to a sign ahead of me. The first one, I figured it was 600 steps. Nope, 300. Way off. I saw an overhanging branch up a small hill and guessed 550 steps. 551. Better! Then, I saw a large pine tree way off, and guessed 880 steps. I got to 880 and stopped counting. When I got closer to the tree, it was indiscernible which tree I was looking at 880 steps previous, and I decided that this is a stupid game. I found a tick on my butt. Luckily, it was the only one that stuck onto me.

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The 6.9 mile section from Normanna south to Lismore Road went by really fast. I could feel my legs getting heavy, and I could feel a few twinges in my knees and hips and feet. Also, the bottoms of my feet were getting sore. I thought I may have a blister forming on my left long toe, but nothing was too serious. The final half-mile road walk into the Lismore parking lot was tough because I knew I was close, and hadn’t stopped at all since Normanna a few hours earlier. Once I got to the Lismore trailhead, though, I took off my shoes, soaked through with water and mud, and peeled my socks off like the skin of a banana. I hoped the wicking tech socks would be able to dry on the rock by the time it’d take me to eat as much as my body would allow. That wasn’t the case. This time, the salty trail mix and chunks of Snickers really hit the spot. No blisters, and my feet were looking OK, despite being white and wrinkly from the swamp water. When I put my socks back on, not 10 minutes later, it didn’t feel good. Standing up felt worse.

Heading south from Lismore Road, I knew I had around 3 miles to the Bald Eagle campsite, or around 15 miles all the way back home. Based on my mileage and pace so far, I was looking at either one hour, or five additional hours. It was around 4pm at the time, so I definitely missed my 4 o’clock cutoff to continue on from the Bald Eagle Campsite, but the idea of hiking all the way home had been building in my solemn mind for hours since Jack left me. I ultimately pondered, out loud to myself, the pros and cons of hiking home today. The pros were that I could be home tonight, sleep in my bed, and wake up tomorrow with the whole day to recover, eat, naps, do whatever. Also, there is a benefit of hiking big miles. If I can do it all, nearly 35 miles in one day, that is a big boost of confidence knowing that I may be capable of 50+ miles for consecutive days later in the summer. The downside was regarding my body. What if I push too hard? What my legs are busted after this one? For months?? How terrible would those additional 12 miles be? The con is going against the plan. Also, camping is fun! It’s nice to wake up to the birds chirping and get back on the trail. However, the sides were stacked resoundingly in favor of going home tonight.

South of Lismore enters some singletrack trail, which is a nice change from the state trail, but it was the muddiest section of trail I’d been on! Well, my shoes and socks didn’t dry out at all, so there really wasn’t any point to pussyfoot around the mud. I was walking fast at this point, but definitely noticed some soreness and pain increasing as I hit 20 miles on the day. I got to the Lester River and Lone Pine campsite very quickly and kept on truckin’. I passed another hiker… I scared him. He said he saw a person at the Bald Eagle site.

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Passing two massive beaver ponds was cool. I knew I was getting into town, but it still feels like the middle of nowhere. I looked at my watch and saw 5pm. I’d been hiking for just about 9 hours, nearly straight, and saw the trail to the last campsite on the SHT. I passed the Bald Eagle site without even thinking twice.

Once I passed the Bald Eagle, fatigue set in. Yes, I was feeling some sore spots during miles previous, and it is arduous, but I finally felt the sun and the mud and endless walking and poor night’s sleep really catch up to me. I just felt tired. I thought it out, and figured I’d be back by 8pm. Only three more hours of walking. Three hours is so much walking. I exited the woods and was back on the state trail. The rest of the trip consists of state trail, then singletrack trails, then some roads in Duluth, then into Hartley. Hartley is the final stretch, where I peel off onto a spur trail and beeline it home.

I had to stop on the state trail. My shoulders and back were getting so sore, and I couldn’t find a comfortable position at all. The best way was to hitch it down, right on top of the worst friction areas, and just forget about it. My feet were not feeling happy, and my right foot hurt to flex. I worried about plantar fasciitis. I was talking to myself, taking stock of my situation.

“Ok, legs feel ok. Hm. Shoulders hurt. Mind is still good. Well, except I’m talking to myself…”

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I took my pack off, which felt incredible. I knew I was about 6 miles out. I sat on the ground, ate some food, and tried to forget about my pace or time. This is supposed to be fun, after all, I thought. I ate any food that sounded good, and started to think of what I’d gorge on once I got home. It took a few minutes to get back up and going, but I knew I was getting into town. I’d run these snowmobile trails plenty.

I did more calculations, and confirmed my initial 8pm estimate. The last of the NSST sections were over soon enough, I crossed Martin Road, and started towards Hartley Park. From the Martin Road trailhead into the official Duluth sections of the SHT, it is about 3.1 miles south to Hartley Park. My estimates were around 1.5 or 2 miles from there back home. When I got back into the singletrack, I was feeling good. A runner passed me, and I thought about how I’d look to my own self as I passed by, running at a smooth 8 miles per hour.

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Into Duluth, the SHT is sandwiched between Vermillion Road and Amity Creek. The trail is very rugged with irregularly shaped boulders and rocks jutting out at all angles, just inviting one’s foot to get stuck and twisted. I took it slow and easy, though, and the trail soon bounced me right onto the gravel Vermillion Road. I tried to shorten my steps as to ease my busted joints and tendons. I could sense the sun lowering in the sky. The road turned to pavement, the graveyards on either side changed to a neighborhood, and here I was, a scraggly backpacker walking through peoples’ neighborhoods as they play with their kids on the swing set. I wanted to let them know I was from here, but didn’t say anything at all, just kept on a-walkin’ and a-hikin’.

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Hartley was a welcome sight. The park was eerily empty, but that is generally the case in the wet and muddy spring. I didn’t stop to take in the beautiful sun peeking from behind a few clouds over Hartley Pond, as I had my sights set on the driveway. After 35 miles, I left the Superior Hiking Trail main trail for a spur up to Rock Knob, my favorite place in the world. It is one of my favorite past times to run up to Rock Knob and yell “MORNIN’” to the great city of Duluth. It took me three times as long to get up to the bald rock face, and given the time of day, I opted to yell “EVENIN’!!!!”

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I jumped down the steep gorge on the other side of Rock Knob and knew that I had just a small little bit of trail left, and one that I’ve been on hundreds of time before. Luckily, COGGS (Cyclists of Gitchee Gummi Shores, the local mountain bike source) had been working on some new bridges and it was mentally stimulating to see a different trail than I was used to! In fact, it was probably my first time through Hartley since the winter. I popped out of Hartley onto the street, and it is a quarter mile to the driveway from there. The excitement started building.

I was all smiles, and probably looked like a crazy person to my neighbors. I got to the very end of the driveway and just said “YEAH” loudly, and clapped my hands once. I took off my shoes and socks, released the backpack from my tender back and shoulders, and knew I was done for the rest of the day. I arrived just before 8pm, finishing nearly 37 miles in about 12 hours total.

After sitting a while, my legs were really sore. Parts of my knees and hamstrings and all sorts of tendons were inflamed and tight. Parts of my body that I didn’t notice as being stressed were sore now, and I was movin’ slow. A few days is all it took to recover fully, and I was pleased to complete the hike in one day after all.

For the next hike, I need to get the weight of my pack down. At over 15 pounds, I felt each gram more and more as my mileage increased. That is a sure fire way to make things easier. The next trip will involve some bigger mileage for multiple days, and I’m already excited for that next chance to walk through the woods!

Hike Date: January 1st – 3rd, 2016

Trail: Superior Hiking Trail

Trip Plan: 3 nights, ~50 miles, park at Lake County Demonstration Forest
Day 1 – Hike North to Silver Creek campsite (15 miles)
Day 2 – Hike South past Demo Forest parking lot spur to Big Bend Campsite (25 miles)
Day 3 – Hike North to Lake County Demonstration Forest

Gear: 1-1-16

1/1/16GramsOuncesPoundsTotal OZTotal LBS
First Aid21.521.34
First Aid Kit31611.150.70
Reflective blanket
3/4 full hand sani (2 oz)
6 band aids
2 large gauze pads
small roll athletic tape
Iodine
Iodine taste tabs
Chap stick
4 AA batteries
15 matches
In a quart baggie
Quick Kit331.160.07
Full size Bic
Book of Matches
3 band-aids
In a quart baggie
Energizer lamp light combo2619.210.58
Multitool
Kitchen20.101.26
Red fuel canister9.50.59
Msr Stove40.25
Blue Spork100.350.02
Kettle1776.240.39
Clothes26.811.68
3 socks1445.080.32
1 boxer
Long Underwear1675.890.37
Dark Blue Wool Sweater31511.110.69
TNF Thermoball jacket
Fleece Hood1344.730.30
Work Gloves
Leather Choppers
Comfort Items13.210.83
Pack towel3.40.21
Composition Book w/ pen2789.810.61
Sleeping170.1810.64
Triple pad: al ccf, 2/3 ccf, Gander self inflator117341.382.59
TNF Cat's Meow and compression sack45.22.82
Fly Creek UL 1 tent99835.202.20
Bag liner12.050.75
Diamond's Bag36.352.27
251.8115.74

Trip Synopsis:

Day One – January 1st, 2016:

A new year is here, and what better way to spend the first three days than backpacking? The more I think about a Superior Hiking Trail through-hike, the more amped up I get. Therefore, I’m pretty dedicated on training myself as best possible to hike big miles day after day. Yeah, triathlons are very fun. Also, to be able to run really fast is great. However, I’m putting everything on the wayside (including, largely, my social life!) to best prepare myself for long distance backpacking. Long and slow, baby! I think it’s kind of funny talking to my running buddies… “nope, I’m going for the slow and long training approach this year. Really slow, like walking.”

Anyways, I knew I had a three-day weekend for the New Year, and started planning routes a bit out. I wanted to do a yo-yo style where I could just park in one spot and sandwich a big day between two shorter ones. Also, I wasn’t really getting any takers to come with for the whole trip, except my roommate Jack wanted to get out there for a night. Truth be told, a winter multi-day trip is pretty intimidating. I wanted to do one last year and didn’t get to it, and was super excited to face a whole different set of challenges. So without the ability to go point-to-point, I planned a 30-mile trip from the Demo Forest outside of Two Harbors, MN. Then, I started thinking…. I can do more. 25 miles in a day is possible, but it would take all day, sun up to sundown. I have to go out on a limb here, I have to put myself through the same rigors of Ironman training but for backpacking. I mentally prepared for some big miles, and decided that this is definitely the way to go.

Looking at my gear, I decided that the best bet for water would be a mid-layer water bladder carrier worn backwards on my chest. I used that for the Heck of the North bike race and it worked great. I can fill up using an empty 1-gallon jug and iodine purification tablets. Melting snow is slow and uses a lot of fuel and can result in nasty tasting water. Not that iodine is delicious… because it’s not, but I figured I can melt snow if push comes to shove, too. I got food that would probably not freeze, and the real mystery was pb&j sandwiches for lunch. As long as they’re not rock hard, they’d be edible. My last real concern was Diamond. Would she be able to haul ass for 8+hours a day? How much abuse can her teats sustain before they freeze off?? I’d just picked up a really nice dog jacket, though, and thought that would really increase her comfort levels at camp.

So on Friday, New Year’s Day, I loaded up the car and got ready to head out. I told Jack “I’d be there” in regards to meeting up on Saturday night at the Big Bend campsite. We were kind of slow getting going, and we left maybe an hour later than I was shooting for. It was no issue, though, and I was simply hoping to get to the first camp at Silver Creek before 4. If we can hike 3 MPH, that would be easy.

I thought I was going to get stuck at the hardly-plowed Demo Forest parking lot. I found a spot without getting stuck, but pondered the terrible situation of hiking 50 miles, then not being able to leave the lot, stuck in a rut all by myself!

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We set off walking at around 10am and headed north out of the 1.2-mile spur trail from the lot. I decided to use snowshoes, cloth gaiters and lightweight trail runners. With the multiple pairs of socks, I knew I’d be able to have dry socks at night and to start the day, but I also knew that there’s probably no way around stone-cold frozen shoes in the mornings. The snowshoes were pretty clutch because there was a decent amount of powder on the ground, I’d say 8-12 inches, and I was breaking trail right off the spur trail.

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I quickly noticed that the heavy snow had bent any weak limb in towards the ground with the aid of gravity. In sections of bramble or tight tree-lined corridors, the trail would be nearly entirely blocked. I could shake away the snow and the trees would spring back to their vertical stature, but to be shaking snow off and lifting trees many times each mile made for slow going and cold hands. And when the wind blew, or if I slightly nudged a branch, or perhaps an earth tremor occurred, I’d be at the risk of a cold dump of snow down the back of my neck. On the flip side, Diamond was having a blast.

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I was making my way along and actually feeling pretty cold. Diamond’s sleeping bag and mat didn’t stay on her pack for one second, so I was carrying it in my hands as a warmer. I could already feel my feet soaking wet, but luckily not cold at all. I got to a section where it looked like a cross country skier made their way through. That must have been rough… all of the sticks and bramble were tough enough for my little running snowshoes. I couldn’t imaging getting through that thick with long, cumbersome skis on.

I was thinking about when I could stop for lunch and put on a layer. I knew there were a few campsites before the next trail head on Reeves Road and County Road 2 near Two Harbors. That would be a good spot perhaps halfway through the first day. I figured I was 4 or 5 miles in when I got lost. It had happened once or twice already, where Diamond and I got off track in the homogenous landscape–brown trees blanketed in white as far as the eye could see–to feel lost in it was dizzying. So we turned around and found the last blue blaze, then looked ahead. Never mind, we were on the right track after all! We kept trucking. Except it wasn’t the right way… there is no way that was the trail. So we stopped and looked around. I was squinting for a blue blaze on any tree. None! So we backtracked once again. I tried to coax Diamond into leading us to the correct bearing using her trail instincts. Once again, we were bushwhacking. I thought there was huge tree blocking the real trail, we hiked around it, but no nothing! Lost! I felt really panicked for a second. My feet were freezing, hands freezing, this is stupid! What am I doing? Ok, get back on track here. What can we do? There were a few options in my mind: hike back to that last blaze AGAIN and try something different, or keep going forward from here with no compass and no idea where on the map we actually are, or scrap this whole dumb trip. We’d already wasted at least a half hour just walking in circles in this small area in the woods in the middle of nowhere. Yep, we’re going back. I anger-walked back to that stupid last hash. I took one more glance around to see if I could come up with any other ideas on where to go. A straight-shot trajectory puts us right into a pine branch. Maybe that’s the right way, but today it is not. We’re going back. So I continued with the anger-walking and we backtracked. My chronograph said 2:15 or so.

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The walking was much, much easier back through my own tracks. We were making pretty good time given the knowledge that in a few miles we’d be back in the car with the heat blasting. While hiking back to the car, defeated, I thought about staying overnight at a shelter near the Demonstration Forest parking lot. We could still meet Jack. Nah… this is over, we need to recoup. Plus it’s cold out. I figured Jack and I could come up with a totally new route for the next night.

We got back to the car in a flash, perhaps an hour and half or so. Luckily, the Subaru started up with no issue and we got out lickety split. We hungrily stopped at Culver’s in Two Harbors and then Diamond and I embarrassingly headed back to Duluth. It wasn’t very nice to explain to my roommates that I bailed after, like, 1/10th of the journey, and I also posted a valiant exclamation on Facebook about this trip. But alas, we were back. I figured we trekked between 6-10 miles all said and done, which is still 3 hours and 40 minutes of great practice!

Later that night, I talked with Jack and we decided it could work to park one car at Reeves Road and County Road 2, the other car back at the Demo Forest, and do the 11-mile section from the opposite way I was going the day before, camping at the Stewart River campsite right in the middle. This would be great because we would come to where got lost from the other direction, which would be nice to at least know where I went wrong! Jack and I didn’t make a solid commitment until right before bed, and aimed to get on the road by 9:45, stop at the gear shop to get Jack a closed cell foam sleeping pad, and be off by around 10:02 AM.

Day Two – January 2, 2016:

The next morning, we were a little slow to get off. Jack and I drove in separate cars to the Minnesota Surplus in downtown Duluth. When I parked and walked in, Jack was already hurriedly walking out, pad in hand, and said he forgot to go into work! He had to do a few simple work duties, and it would only take 15 minutes or so. We ended up caravaning up north by 10:40 or so.

The plan was to leave Jack’s car at the Demo Forest, drive up with my car to Reeves Road, and hike back to Jack’s car. Jack got terribly stuck in the Demo Forest parking lot and we both got pretty wet and worked up and frustrated getting the car out. Eventually we did, though, and were off in the Subaru. The Reeves Road lot was not plowed and we uneasily parked my car right on the side of County Road 2. Neither of us knew the laws on that and figured that I bike to work anyways! It’s not a huge deal if my car gets towed away. Jack smashed two sandwiches while we were getting ready, we saddled up, locked up, and set off.

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We hiked a quarter mile of snowmobile trail right off the bat, then got into the woods. I recalled my experience with the droopy, snowy trees, and we both got big dumps of snow down our backs pretty quick into the trip. The day was beautiful, however, and it was hard to be in bad spirits! It was great to be back on the trail, warm and ready to get to camp!

I made a few substitutions to my pack over the night at home. I took out a bunch of the snacks, my two pb&j’s and threw Diamond’s sleeping bag into my pack. I may have made a few switch-a-roos with clothes and such, and I packed on two beers, too. A fitting brew for the journey is Bent Paddles Harness Winter IPA. Also, I ditched the snowshoes and trail runners for waterproof hiking boots. I was curious to see what would work better.

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It was tough going, and we realized we were walking pretty slow about an hour in. We passed the first campsite and hiked through some hilly country, up and up and then alongside creek ravines. It reminded me of the mountains out west. The sun was shining and we were doing good. I was surprised Jack was hauling ass with me since he had a 52 pound pack and I had only about 28 pounds on me.

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Jack soon realized his inner legs were chafing pretty bad. He was wearing running tights–nothing else. I was wearing bamboo boxers, running tights, and rain pants over it everything and was getting warm. Also, I threw on a running windbreaker this time, and it made all the difference. Warm legs, yes, but I could regulate easily and for all intents and purposes, perfectly comfortable.

Neither of us brought a map this time. The hike out was 5.9 miles, and we through we’d be doing 3 MPH. At 2 hours in, we definitely weren’t going that fast. Also, both of us were feeling ready to get to camp and relax for a second. It was a textbook trudge through the snow. We made a bunch of wrong turns, but would quickly realize and get back on track. It was so clutch to have someone else besides Diamond to consult with, because again, we were breaking the trail and it wasn’t a very clear path.

Evenutally, I broke away from Jack. Not intentially, but I got into a rhythm, looked back to see nothing, and just kept going. At least he could see my tracks! I didn’t think we’d get separated or go the wrong way or anything. Every now and again, I would hear a shriek. I’d stop, and notice the complete silence of the windless winter day. Stopped, all I could hear was the white noise of my brain’s electrical circuitry. I yelled back, “WHAT?!??”, and nothing. So I kept going, and it happened three other times! At this point, I was just excited to get to camp, so Diamond and I were trucking.

Finally, I saw the Stewart River. There was a big bridge and the river was not the crick I’d envisioned. It was open in some spots, and the ice formations were cool. I knew the campsite was right over the bridge, and we hooked a right off the bridge to find it. My spirits got a boost, I yelled out that we were at the Stewart River but with no reply. I couldn’t find the campsite, though! I was trudging around, and went back to the bridge. I saw the hash to the left, and had to blast past a huge brambly bush covered in snow to get to the trail. There were so many sticks in the way, but a few footsteps away was the campsite. Nice! My watch chronograph said 3:08 or so. I started clearing away and packing down snow and looking for what I needed to find first, a good place to set up my tent and some easy firewood.

My plan was to cook some lunch right away. Since breakfast, I’d just been munching on chocolate and snacks. I boiled some water and tried out my zip-lock cheese noodles and mashed potatoes. It was an experimental recipe. Jack trudged in just a few minutes after me.

Getting camp set up was a low point. Jack immediately went into survival mode because he was chafed, cold and wet. I tried to do my own thing while he frustratingly set up the tent in his hiking garb. It went up and I got a fire lit somehow. He took forever to change in his tent, and I was checking on my food and the fire and trying to set up my tent. Meanwhile, Diamond was terrorizing me by running around like a maniac through camp and barking really loudly. I yelled, “aren’t you tired?!??” I got frustrated when a gust of wind threatened to lift my tent back to St. Louis County, which is when the fire went out. CRAP! This is stupid… there is now way I would be able to hike 25 miles and then set up camp in the dark. I would have been a frozen stiff!

Jack walked out of his tent with a huge parka and a smile back on his grill. He looked like an arctic explorer and very warm and comfortable for once. It sounded like his loins were pretty chafed up from the repeated friction, but I’m sure it was nice to simply get that huge pack off. I got my tent pitched decently well, and then focused my entire world on warming my hands back up! I looked at the small indent in the snow where the tiny twig fire burned out, and check on my noodles. They were freezing cold and crunchy hard. Ok, I guess snow as an insulator doesn’t work in this situation!

I munched on a few handfuls of nuts, and we decided to really go hard on getting some firewood before anything else. The sun was starting to fall behind the ridge line of our gully campsite and we’d definitely need a lot of quality firewood if we wanted to be comfortable outside of our sleeping bags.

We found a tree that was definitely dead, and had a bunch of lodged logs stuck up there. We worked on pulling some down, and within no time had a really big pile of good dead wood. We got the fire back going again, and it was roaring soon enough. I put my noodles into my kettle and shoved that over the fire to heat up. Also, I added my bag of instant potatoes to soak up some of the water. Now things were starting to look up. Before long, we had a roaring fire, food on the stove, and we were finally warm and somewhat dry. And it was dark.

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We ate, which was another warming agent. Despite the snow and the cold, it was sure good to be out in the wilderness. We both kind of questioned our sanity and whether we’d ever do this again. Probably not… The first had burned a big hole in the ground and it took a bit of blowing to get oxygen to the bottom where the coals lay. But we had a lot of dry sticks and could keep it bright and hot with a quick minute of fire maintenance. Just getting up and moving was a chore… once you found a nice dry spot where all your stuff was perfectly placed around you–flashlight, big gloves, food–it was a bummer to have to get up!

Diamond was anxiously barking and stealing my stuff to bring into the woods. Also, she would dig into the snow and circle around and try to lay down, but then realize that it’s all snow and nothing is warm. I tried to bring her into my arms or on the foam pad between my legs, but then have to get up and she’d run away. Eventually, I threw her in the tent, unraveled my sleeping bag and hers, and got everything set up. I wondered how we would be comfortable in the one-man ultralight tent. But she was certainly comfortable, because we didn’t hear a peep the rest of the night!

It was a great night. The campsite was really cool. We could hear a strong wind high up in the trees, but we were in a valley right next to the river and there was hardly a breeze at our surface level. The flowing river added another ambiance on top of a crackling winter fire. Yep, this is fun even despite my wet feet inside these boots that are beginning to freeze solid. It’s risky to get my nice gloves wet, but worth it to be enjoying natures bounties! Or this mentality is my brain’s way of convincing itself I made the right decision. Winter camping is a lesson in cognitive dissonance.

A few hours went by and I made my second dinner, freeze dried lasagna. Backpacking meals are so easy, it’s no wonder why they’re more expensive. Calorie for calorie, and considering ease of use, they’re probably equally expensive! Also, Jack boiled some water for me to fill up my water bladder. Getting water from the river was a bit sketchy. The hot water was really warm on my chest as I hadn’t taken off my reverse chest water pouch.

When every rock in the fire pit was eventually exposed and the fire waned to an orange glow of the embers, we went to bed. It was 9 PM or so. I hit the headlamp, shuffled some things between the tent and backpack and bench, careful to avoid dropping anything heavy! It would be a bummer to have to come out repeatedly in the spring to look for a tool lost in the snow.

Diamond was pretty sound asleep, which made it hard to scoot around and find a comfortable position for myself. She’s a lug. Also, she made a huge indent in the snow. I guess just stomping around and setting up my tent didn’t do much to compress the powder beneath. I started peeling off layers, and decided to keep my water bladder on, but pretty much took everything else off. I had my long underwear and socks nearby, but decided to go no socks and just boxers for now! My feet were wet and this would hopefully give them a chance to dry. It would be very hard to sleep with freezing wet feet, but they actually felt fine getting into the sleeping bag and liner. I wrote my thoughts for the night, and me and Dimey shuffled around to get into a good position to sleep in. The ultralight tent was surprisingly accommodating! It was going to be nice to get some shuteye.

I dozed off pretty quickly. Like any overnighter in the woods, I wonder if I really slept at all. Sure enough, the morning light was there in no time. The night was actually super comfortable. Diamond didn’t really peep, and seemed warm the whole time. I was even sweaty during the night, and woke up to take my legs out of the bag liner! I could feel a very wavy contour under my body where my hips protruded into the snow, but my divot actually felt nice! I was joking with Jack that sleeping on snow is like a memory foam mattress–it conforms to your body, but then freezes solid!

Day 3 – January 3, 2016

I fed Diamond from in the tent at around 6 AM. She ate from where she was sitting and we went back to bed until 8 or so.

When I got up, it was a beautiful morning with a dusting of fresh snow. I was kind of anxious and worried that I’d be so cold with no dry clothes left, but once I got situated and moving, it was just my feet in the frozen solid boots that were cold. Also, I couldn’t really use the gaiters as they were completely hardened frozen, so every wrong step packed more snow into those frozen boots. I boiled some water to make coffee, and started munching a bit to engage my digestive system and get some more blood flowing. Jack got up too, and we contemplated making a fire. I decided to take some pictures instead.

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We thought we could be back on the trail in an hour or so, and started packing up shop. Half of my gear was frozen solid.

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Jack lent me his gaiters, which I initially lent him from home, and he stuck with the plastic bags on his feet. Finally, we were ready to rock, a bit behind schedule. Diamond’s gear was very icy, and I felt bad putting it over hear face! Jack’s pack was huge… to see everything go back into it reminded me.

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We both had the feeling that this was going to be a tough hike out, but it was reassuring to know that once we got to the point I bailed the day before, it would be pretty smooth sailing. Jack said his chafed legs were feeling pretty rough, but we suited up, gave our farewells to the campsite, and headed up the big hill out of the Stewart River valley towards Jack’s car 5.1 miles away at the Demonstration Forest parking lot.

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The theme was just keep hiking, and we’ll be out soon enough. We motorboated through the first few miles, and it was nice to see my snowshoe prints about 55 minutes into our hike home.

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We kept pushing, and seeing the spur trail to the Demo Forest was great. We stopped for a rest not too long after.

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1.2 miles later, I saw a familiar rock, and we turned out of the narrow single track to the Demo Forest parking lot. Then, we saw Jack’s car. I got the moment on camera as we neared the car, and took our packs off for good.

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We got to my car at Reeves Road, and it was doin’ fine! I still don’t know the laws for parking on a road like that… but no harm no foul. We were talking food and decided to go to Culver’s. When in Rome, as they say. The food was great, and we felt good about the trip being in civilization and certain safety.

There are a few tweaks I can make clothing-wise to cut down. Also, there are always creature comforts to make the camping better, but I am already excited to the next opportunity to go backpacking in the snow and the cold! Why it’s fun, I’m still not sure. Or maybe it’s not fun at all. I just don’t know. Regardless, we’ll be back.


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