Day 8: Thursday, September 8: Big Bend to Bagley Campsite
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.