10 Sep 2016
As I walked away from the future southern terminus of the Superior Hiking Trail, the Wisconsin border, finally done with the entire trail, I felt like the walking dead. My feet hurt bad, really bad. My shoes felt so uncomfortable, like walking on concrete slabs. My backpack was drenched in sweat and grime, and I was shirtless, walking so slow. It took a long time to get back to the road. No rush, though and I was beaming.
It was relatively emotionless right after finishing the thru-hike. Shock, awe, dumbfoundedness, I don’t know. But a great feeling all the same. I was done. It was complete. Thinking back to the true nature of what “unsupported” is, that was it. I was self-reliant, dealing with every challenge that presented itself and using my skills and what I had at my disposal to carry on.
On the return trip, I forgot to turn my watch off until I was speeding away from the St. Louis River bridge on Highway 23. So tired. I snapped a picture of Ely’s Peak, where I ate lunch six hours earlier. What a trip.
I wonder if it could be done faster? I know someone could run it, fully supported, and do it fast. I would like to try it someday. The Superior Hiking Trail has some magnetic attraction for me. Can it be done faster unsupported? No. As of September 2016, I don’t think that record will be broken in a long time. The gear, the preparation and the knowledge of the trail were an indispensable tool that would be hard to match. But I hope someone does break the unsupported record. Because if they do, that means that they understand not only the pain, the suffering, the agony and tediousness of this task, but also the extreme joy, happiness, freedom and satisfaction that it provides.
When my alarm went off at 3am, I hit the snooze button. Onto my very last day, but yet I still wanted to eek out that last little bit of sleep. I may have slipped back into REM sleep. Upon the next alarm, though, I started getting my things together. Pants on, shirt on, I carried my phone and headlamp to my pack, then went back for my quilt, then the sleeping pad. I shoved my breakfast into my pockets, wondering when I should eat it, put my socks on and then my finally-dry shoes. I took down my tarp, throwing the sticks I’d used for stakes back into the woods and shoved it deep into my pack, wishing I hadn’t lost two little sacks in the flood from the night before. 24 hours ago, I was just finally going to sleep… Now, I start hiking. I took a dump in the port-o-pottie, it was a clean break. Too much information, perhaps, but I only needed to use my last few squares of toilet paper that I packed. And then I started my watch, not to stop it again until I reached Wisconsin.
I made certain to hike back to the exact point where I veered off from the Superior Hiking Trail. I was a little creeped out hiking in Bagley in the pitch black, my dim headlamp lighting the way. I run in Bagley so often, I could have had no headlamp. On top of the lookout, I yelled “MORNIN” for all to hear.
It felt so weird walking in the dark! The SHT darts right through the UMD campus, and I saw one guy walking down the street with a guitar around his back. I hope not a robber, because he did not look like a student! Down 19th and into the Chester Creek. The water flowing guided my way. It was a complete new perspective on my favorite running trails. I tried to get a picture across the bridge.
Past Burrito Union, down 14th Avenue, and I was actually hoping I wouldn’t get mugged! I’d rather be back in the wilderness hiking at night! Not that Duluth is a crime haven, but these are not the best neighborhoods in town and it was barely 4am. I got to the Lakewalk, into Leif Erickson Park, and saw a homeless person who I’d seen before on the rough and tough streets of Duluth, smoking a cigarette on a bench. He said that winter is coming soon. I yelled back in agreement, keeping my pace. He said it’s not March. I did not respond.
I decided I’d eat my last four breakfast bars at Enger. The Lakewalk should be the easiest part of the whole day on fresh feet, but I was just fatigued. It was the feeling of wanting nothing more than to sit down for one second. I sat down on a bench looking out from the very corner of Lake Superior. No, I thought, this is where the seconds count. Every other day was just a setup for this day. Scott Jurek broke the Appalachian Trail speed record and set the fastest known time (FKT) by just three hours. I got up and walked along the very end of The Big AC, Lake Superior.
I was stymied at the Baywalk, on the other end of Canal Park. The Baywalk garage doors were closed, so I backtracked, walked around Adventure Zone, Famous Daves, Old Chicago and Red Lobster. I made the trek alongside the gigantic William A. Irving lake vessel, and back on track along the Bay of Lake Superior and the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center to my right. Through Bayfront Festival Park, across train tracks, and just like that, I was out of downtown Duluth and Canal Park. It was all trail from here. Time to crank.
Up, up and up, I climbed to Enger Tower, excited to get there and eat my last breakfast. I was feeling pretty good once on the singletrack trail, and my cardiovascular system was unfazed by the climbing. My pack weighed very little, and I don’t think I’d really adjusted it at all for a few days now! At Enger, I rang the big bell, 6am or so and 7.5 miles for the day, and started eating my last breakfast bars one at a time. The chocolate one was delicious. It wasn’t so smooshed. The pastry bar was completely obliterated, but delicious as I poured the crumbs into my mouth. I savored the taste, and was very satisfied with the last-minute decision to try these pastry bars. They did me well. The blueberry one was delicious as well, and I ate the fourth one hungry for about ten more after that.
I crossed the bridge over Piedmont Avenue with the sun starting to rise, a red glow illuminating the industrial bayside Duluth below me. I was cranking along as I entered the trail at Miller Creek, nearing the Lincoln Park neighborhood. The trail went quick, and I was onto 10th Street West in no time.
I saw the early risers starting their day as I hiked through a gate, across an open field, and then up towards to the Piedmont trail system. Up and up, and I was breathing decently hard. The sunrise was really quick and it was pretty bright in seemingly no time.
On the rocky outcroppings near Piedmont, I was regaled at the classic North Shore vibe of sweeping vistas. What a place to live, I thought! Duluth has got it all, and I felt a swelling of pride for where I call home. That gave me a boost of energy, coupled with the caffeinated chews that I was gobbling down, and I felt like I was cruising. With my music on, Jon Wayne and the Pain, the hike was going by easily.
Through some classic singletrack, down to Haines Road and under the tunnel, I was sad to see the graffiti taken down. It was sketchily-written phrases like “You Can Do It” and “Believe In Yourself” the last I’d seen! I was really in the zone climbing back up to Brewer Park, and noticed the heat a little bit after just zinging up to the top. It was nice to walk along the ridge, but just like any Sawtooth Mountain trail, it was soon to go back down, down, down to Merritt Creek. The trail was flying by.
I’d done this same trail backwards at least four times all the way through, from beyond Ely’s Peak north to Enger Tower and beyond, so I was pretty familiar with it. Hiking it southbound, which I’d done maybe only once, seemed easier. Maybe it was the music or the focus of the last day, but I was making really good time as I got to the roadwalk near Cody Street. Under the huge I-35 above, I walked parallel to a woman and her dog for a bit, but perhaps 50 feet apart. I jetted back into the woods on a seemingly new section of trail. I asked myself out loud if they just made this. Back up towards Spirit Mountain, but first is a tough section along the freeway. Up to some decent views of West Duluth and the narrowing St. Louis River, and along a lot of exposed rock.
I was getting a little bit tired back into the forest, over the four wheel trail, and further towards Spirit. I knew it was just a wave of fatigue, though, and put it out of my mind. I put on some more music, which helped. T.I.’s Trap Muzik did the trick, and I was feeling better. Down a lot of stairs, then up on the ol’ Voyageur course, near the turnaround on the the grueling climb back up Spirit. It didn’t seem as grueling today as it did 6 weeks ago. I heard some racket in the distance, and wondered if some hooligans were goofing off. That’s what that truck must be, parked on the non-maintained ATV trail along Knowlton Creek. Across the bridge, and I saw some people hauling lumber. I follow closely. It must be some trusty SHT volunteers again! Sure enough, a nice long hike in, and I saw the same guy from the day before and a few new volunteers making a bridge. I stopped to chat once again, made a point to ask if it was Larry Sampson (it was), and laughed when he said that I was the guy he was telling them about. Cool. I left pretty quick after they ushered me along. I tripped going across the gorge, but caught myself, and joked with them how they should build a bridge there. It was cool to see Larry twice in a row.
Another round of fatigue hit me while walking down to the chalet at the bottom of Spirit. My pinkie was causing me grief. Again, it wasn’t necessarily the pinkie itself, surprisingly, but the shim I was still using would constantly shift, and the bungee cord put pressure on certain parts of my hand. My ring finger would be incredibly tender on the very top and so I’d move the bungee to the side slightly. A stretch would hopefully create some slack, but ten minutes later and it’s all shifted back. I was experimenting with every grip possible trying to take the pressure off my my poor thumb and pointer finger having no help with the duty of gripping my trekking pole. I broke open my Clif Bar and ate a small chunk, trying to conserve. I made a plan to eat lunch at Ely’s Peak, and just needed to make the Clif Bar last until then.
Past the chalet, up and up, back up and I grinded my way to Skyline. The sun was out and it was a beautiful windy day. I thought of Voyageur, which shared the same course along the gravel Skyline Boulevard for the time being, and remembered being heckled for taking a terrible tangent. I made a point of following the tangent of the curving road this time. At Magney, I paid close attention and got on the right trail back into the woods. There were plenty of creeks all day, and I was feeling good on all fronts: hike, drink, eat, sleep. Well, I was totally sick of walking, desperately wanted to chug, could eat anything and an insane amount, and so fatigued I constantly thought about sitting down. But when push comes to shove, I was still walking, not going to die, and felt like I could hold a 3mph walking pace indefinitely. By Bardon’s Peak and my lunch spot in view, I was a solid mile ahead of schedule: 7 hours and 40 minutes in, 24 miles on the day. It was a few minutes past 11 o’clock.
Down a bit, up a bit, scrambling across open rock faces, and I was at the spur to Ely’s Peak. I didn’t take it, but started to keep my eyes peeled for a lunch spot. Across some very technical rocky sections, down a bit, and I stopped on a big rock. It was very windy, making it nerve-wracking to eat lunch with wrappers and such. I savored my last big stash of food, leaving one Lara bar, some smashed chips and few handfuls of soggy trail mix for the rest of the day. My ring finger on the bum right hand was very tender from the bungee cord pressing on it. I rewrapped it with my last bit of athletic tape, and ditched the bungee in my pack. I didn’t want to stand back up, but grabbed the power bank with plenty of juice left, hooked my phone in and set back off, no time to waste.
On the way down Ely’s, I noticed my finger more than anything. It was a major ailment! There is no better bone to break than the pinkie finger, but it was a domino effect where I had to alter my grip on the trekking poles, that made my finger sore, my hand felt off a little bit, putting more pressure on my left side.
I cruised on the Munger Trail, over Beck’s Road and back into the woods. I needed water from the creek, and decided to stop there. It was only a mile from my lunch break, but I spent the time to drink water and plan. With a renewed mindset, I set off towards the challenging Mission Creek sections. The more I thought about it, the more I wondered if I could run it in from the swinging bridge at Jay Cooke. I’d hiked that section only a few weeks prior, and it was flat, wide and runnable. I’d at least try! From here to there, my plan was to hike non-stop. There is no other reason to stop until my afternoon stop, which was probably going to be right after the swinging bridge. A straight shot for perhaps 12 miles, four hours at 3mph, and then run it home for the remaining 8 miles or so.
I put on some Rage Against The Machine, and was revamped from the lunch and mid-day breaks. I kept telling myself how this is where the seconds turn to minutes, minutes turn to hours. Every moment was crucial to make sure I’m making forward progress. In the hilly Mission Creek sections, I felt pretty good. A constant white-noise in the back of my mind was to sit down, but I looked away from any rock or stump or bench. Who puts a bench out here!?
There was a big climb, up and up out of Mission Creek, and I pulled out my last trail map, map 1 of 6. It looked like it was all flats after this big climb. To Palkie Road, flats, easy horse trails from there, and then beyond the swinging bridge, I was planning on running. Over the crest, and I entered Jay Cooke State Park. A slight downhill was enough to get the idea to run. I was feeling OK, but why not give it all? I awkwardly started a running gait, which felt so painful and foreign. Nope, not gonna happen, I thought, and stopped. I walked down the rest of the slight downhill, feeling a little defeated.
Easy horse trails, flat or slightly downhill ahead, and I had to try again. I remembered my triathlon experience, how running off the bike is always so weird right away with jelly legs, but you always get in the groove. I need to get in the groove. I started running again, through the pain and awkwardness and bouncing pack, and got into a groove. My pack was jumbling around everywhere, water spilling from somewhere on my water bottle. I tried to hitch the pack down on my back, holding my trekking pole balanced lengthwise in each hand. Poling didn’t work too well as I ran. I got into the groove! It was much more strenuous to run, of course, and my shoes felt like I had wooden inserts. I was relieved to see the Palkie Road trailhead, and ready to let ‘er rip on the Munger Trail. I’m sure the bikers on the trail thought I was insane. I stopped briefly for a picture, but was focused.
Into the woods, back onto horse trails through the state park, and I did some quick math from my watch’s data. I was making BIG time compared to hiking. I figured I was running at least twice as fast as I could walk. In running just a half hour or hour, I was about four miles ahead of my 3mph target for the day. This section was again part of the Voyageur course, and I put my mind back to July, where I was at this point at mile 45 or so. I ran then, I can run now. So I cruised, only stopping to walk on uphills. I was at Jay Cooke in a flash. I got my Facebook out, trying to do a live video across the bridge, but it didn’t work. I didn’t have fast enough cellular service, so walked across and decided to fill up water in the St. Louis River. Most of my water had spilled, but I was running about 6mph and only had about 8 to go. I drank as much as I could as I walked back up to the trail. I’d probably spill all of this water out anyways. Running was causing me to sweat completely through my clothes, and it looked like I got caught in rainstorm, but I wasn’t going to keel over and die from dehydration. Well, what would that feel like, anyways?
I stuck to the plan and kept running through Jay Cooke. It was getting dark with clouds, which felt nice, but was warm and I was definitely sweating. I stopped briefly to eat the rest of my food. The lemon Lara bar in one bite, a dump of chips in my mouth to finish those off, and a big squeeze of the nearly liquefied trail mix, which was delicious. The food did not phase me. I washed it down with the remaining non-spilled water, and kept running. I ran without stopping until the trail bumped back into the singletrack. This was the last part of the trail that I hadn’t been on at all, and I was looking forward to getting to Highway 23 and Wild Valley Road more than anything else. I figured I had five miles left total.
After the hill up into the singletrack, it flattened back out and I kept running. It was a little more challenging to run on windy singletrack, and I didn’t feel very sure-footed. Watch, I break both of my ankles five miles from the finish. There were a few screaming downhills. I still walked any big uphills. Out of nowhere, was spooked by a black bear, and it sounded like there were two that went separate directions from the trail. I caught a glimpse of one of them, and started yelling! Watch, I get mauled by a bear four miles from the end. I was focused.
I wanted to get to the finish at 4:20pm, the exact time that I stopped for an afternoon break eight days in a row now. I was pushing really hard given the circumstances, 40 miles in on the day, fatigued legs, a broken finger, a 10-pound pack on. I thought several times that I was right about to cross Highway 23, but nope, the trail would curve around and the clearing I thought I saw was just woods. Just more woods. Finally, I heard traffic, went down the ditch, up and over 23, and down the gravel Wild Valley Road to my car.
I was still running. It was great to see my car, and I stopped very quickly at it. I got my keys out, opened my car up, grabbed a bottle of root beer and a bottle of Gatorade. I shoved them in the back pocket of my pack, and continued running down the road. The Superior Hiking Trail was officially ended, but I was going for Canada to Wisconsin. The northern terminus at Canada is set at 270 Overlook. The future southern terminus, which I had scoped out twice in the previous month, was in the middle of the woods. I knew there was a trail cut, after a mile more on Wild Valley Road, and flagging into the woods even past the Wisconsin border, courtesy of the North Country Trail Association. On my previous GPS missions, I determined that the border was near a spur trail to the railroad, a stack of wood and two trees, parallel on opposite sides of the trail, with blue taped wrapped around. Larry Sampson confirmed this, so I definitely knew the spot. In fact, I initially pinpointed the location because I was stung by bees at the exact border, threw my trekking poles in the air, and zig zagged on the trail to go get them later! The GPS data told the whole story.
As I walked away from the car, I grabbed my phone to shoot another live video with my car in the background. I put my phone away, and set my sights forward. So, as the sun came out briefly through the cloud cover, I ran down the unmaintained dirt road to my final destination two miles away.
A car passed me, surprisingly, and kicked up some dust. I ran longer, thinking of how long it’d take if I was walking. How tedious is that?!? Speaking of which, I looked at my watch. It was 4:15pm. No way I’d make it across the Red River in 5 minutes!! But, I thought of the time I started, so long ago, eight days ago. It was September 1st at 8:39am. It is September 9th, and 4:39pm would make 8 days, 8 hours. That is my goal. So I picked it up. I passed a parked van. Was that the one that drove up on me? I turned the bend and saw a guy with his dogs. I caught up to him and just ran by. I may have said hi under my heaving breath. He said “ambitious!”, and I told him, while running past, how I was so close to the end of the trail. The pop and Gatorade were incredibly heavy, and probably added three pounds to my pack. After carving it down to around 10 pounds, the extra three weighed heavy on my shoulders as I ran. It was a little ridiculous, and I jogged out of sight.
Finally, the flagging into the woods appeared. I thought I’d missed it. Down the ditch, through the tall grass, and then onto the nice cut trail. I was really hauling ass, and checking my watch constantly. 4:20, then 4:25, still not at the Red River. 4:30, and an intersection flagged both ways. Pretty sure it was left… I went left and right down to the Red River. The SHT crew had begun to build a bridge over the river, and it was cool to see that stage of development. I scurried across the river bottom, in the grey clay, and up the other side.
Up out of the small gorge, I had to walk. 4:36. I started running and saw the void of trees to the right where the railroad tracks run. So close. I felt like I was running so hard, no feeling in my legs or my feet or my shoulders or pinkie finger. I saw the blue tape, I ran past the trees, past the spur trail and wood. I stopped, done. I hurriedly grabbed my phone and took a screen shot. 4:38. One minute short of 8 hours exactly. 8 days, 7 hours, and 59 minutes it is.
I stopped my watch, hoping that even in the Ultratrac GPS mode, that connects to satellites less frequently and therefore consumes far less battery life, I’d stop exactly at or slightly past the Wisconsin border. I saved the long, long day onto my watch, over 46 miles, and walked to the taped trees to take a finish selfie. There was nothing to say it was the border, no sign, no plaque. I wasn’t even sure if this was truly the border, but it’s close enough, and something to take a selfie by.
After the necessary finish line duties, I took of that stinking pack, promptly sat down on the stack of wood, and took out my drinks that I stashed from the car. I chugged the Gatorade first. Chugging was great. It was worth the weight. Next, the sweet, sweet root beer. What a treat. Then I just sat there, in awe. In a daze that it’s all over. In a stupor of fatigue, from running miles 298 to 308. Hmm, what now? Well, I missed my afternoon break time for the first time in 8 days, so I figured I’d do what I did every other day for my afternoon break.
I relaxed briefly, and then put my pack back on and started back to the car, back to walking.
Water is coming in. Not good, not good, not good. Oh, no!!! It was around midnight on my seventh night, and I hadn’t slept much. For three hours, I closed my eyes, drifting in and out of light sleep, nervous of the impending thunderstorm. In a half hour, it went from light rain, to thunder, to rain, to heavy rain, and it was really coming down outside of my exposed lightweight tarp. I could see the ground become saturated, right where water drips from the edge of the tarp, and I noticed the water moving. One little bubble, and I saw the bubble make its way along a small-scale natural stream from the puddle forming 12 inches from me on my left side, underneath the tarp, to the edge of my ground sheet. Water is coming in. I frantically scratched at the ground with my stick, trying to form a trough, I was just splashing the water and mud around, risking getting a corner of my precious, precious quilt soaking wet. My feet were unaccounted for, flailing about as I tried to work the stick with a broken pinkie. The rain came down harder, accompanied by a loud boom of thunder, and the weight of the water nearly caused the edges of the tarp to touch the ground. Water was weighing down my whole tarp setup, and the sheer volume of rain was now beyond saturating the ground–it had to go somewhere, and I was in a depression. The water quickly filled the tent pad. I turned around, on my hands and knees, and tapped the ground sheet. Luckily it was waterproof, and luckily, the water was flowing underneath it. Wow, close call! I’ll just stay right on top of the water. As long as I lay perfectly still, I thought, the water will flow directly under me, then down and away. I slowly and deliberately laid my head down on the pillow. First on the crown of my head, then the back of my head, I felt the water seeping in over the ground sheet. I was flooding.
I flipped back around to my knees, water flowing over my foam pad into the center where my weight was focused. It was inevitable, I was going to be completely flooded out. My dry island was being totally encompassed by water, and fast. The storm was not letting up and I had to make moves quickly. I tried to scrunch my now wet quilt into the center of the sleeping pad, and jumped out from the shelter into the pouring rain. My headlamp was on and I focused on the pack. I grabbed the poncho and shook it off, frustrated to see that it was flooded out too, as a sloppy wrap job left a whole wide hole open. A section of my pack was getting drenched in the open rain. I opened it up, grabbed my shirt and put it on, threw the rain poncho over that, quickly swiped my quilt and put it right on top, and zipped the backpack shut. I then stacked my foam pad up, and in a frantic rush, yanked the entire tarp system out of the ground and shoved it in the back pocket. I lifted the flooded ground sheet up, tried to recoup as many stakes as possible, and then got a glance at the real situation–I had set up camp in a puddle. The entire area of where I was laying 7 minutes before was flooded with perhaps two inches of water . What a travesty! Thunder crashed and lightning illuminated the midnight sky. An anxious grab into my bag for socks, I put them on, put on my soaked shoes, grabbed the last item, trekking poles, and arranged the emergency rain poncho over my pack. Again in just boxers, no time to splint my fingers, and I set off southbound into the stormy night. Of course, I started my watch. It was just past midnight. What the hell am I doing out here.
When I started walking, I was cold. Everything was really wet and I wondered what hypothermia feels like. Lightening all across the sky made me think of what getting electrocuted feels like. For the first time in the trip, I was scared. I wanted to talk to my mom. What a funny cliche that is, but that is what I thought of first, after the thought of not wanting to die. I started planning. I know that there is a shelter near the Sucker River campsite, right off the Superior Hiking Trail but technically on the North Shore State Trail. That would have a roof, maybe even a bench. I can stay there. Well, if I hike 33 miles to Bagley, I’d be there by 11am and could take a beastly nap. If I’d be there, I might as well try to haul ass all the way home! It is a speed attempt, after all. How could I walk 75 miles straight, though? My legs weren’t feeling recovered without a full nights rest. My body wasn’t feeling too terrible but 75 miles is ridiculous. Is it? My rapid-fire thought process was diverted by a massive flash in the sky. It was blinding. It took a second, but I remembered to start counting: “1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, BOOOOOOM!!!”, and a massive thunder rumble would follow. Nine miles away. Or is it a quarter mile per second? Either way, the storm is coming west, I’m going west, I’m going to get struck by lightening and die.
I crossed some bridges over the Knife River and its small tributaries. In the pouring rain, middle of the night, a tiny light on my head to see, this is where the major slipping happens. I thought about how devastating another injury could be, and realized that walking was my only defense against hypothermia in these conditions. It’s maybe a bit warm to get hypothermia, but if I can’t walk, it’d surely be a very uncomfortable night soaking wet. I kept on plugging, at an almost automatic rhythm, almost in disbelief to what was happening at the moment.
Once I got to Sucker I’d reassess and at least check out the shelter. I figured it was ten miles away. Er, eight. Maybe seven actually… no ten. I couldn’t remember and knew the map would disintegrate if I pulled it out in this rain. My boxers became soaked, and I wondered if there was any inch of me not wet. Terrible. In the blink of an eye, just enough to get a flash bulb view of the entire forest around me, lightening struck again, straight ahead. “1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12…” BOOOOOOM!! The delay was so eerie, and the thunder so loud and unrelenting. It sounded like a glacier scraping across the ground, amplified 100 times. The deep grumbling sound took just as many seconds to fade off and leave the sound of rain hitting my rain poncho and the “swish, swish”, as I walked in my plasticky rain cover.
I was so focused on my footsteps, my head down to shine the illuminating circle in the perfect spot just a few feet ahead of where my feet actually landed aground. I’d look up periodically, hoping to see a blue blaze. I thanked every one I saw, a feeling of indebtedness like someone saved my life. It was true relief to be sure I was on the right path. Before the rain ceased, I considered who that I know could pick me up from the Fox Farm parking lot a mile or so ahead. By the time I walked across Fox Farm Road, through that trailhead, I had discounted that idea completely.
Between Fox Farm Road and the Fox Farm Pond campsite, the rain tapered off. It looked like it was raining, and it was hard to hear the absence of rain falling with the loud crinkling of my poncho’s hood in my ears. I removed the hood and kept walking, feeling relieved that the rain stopped. I was almost in a trance. My focus did not wane and I desperately wanted to get to the shelter without incident. I knew it’d be the only option. Walking to morning is stupid, and there is nowhere else sensible to stop. Before long, I was incredibly pleased to walk past the Fox Farm Pond campsite. A mile or so left. Soon after, the beaver pond, signpost, and spur trail to the Sucker River trailhead. I’d made the walk to Sucker a million times, and it went quick. I recalled the bridge over a small creek, I knew I was close when I heard the Sucker to my right. Finally, I popped out to the Adirondack-style shelter on the North Shore State Trail, just ten feet from the Superior Hiking Trail as it joins the snowmobile path for a hundred yards. At 3am, it was a welcome sight. I’d just walked nine miles in three hours, right on my 3mph target, and left just about 24 miles for the next day according to my calculations.
The shelter was bone dry inside. There was a shovel, garbage can, map, and wooden bench two planks long. I emptied my pack, hoping my tarp would dry out somewhat. The tarp, bugnet, ground sheet, my pants, food bag, socks, shoes and boxers were absolutely soaked. I shook out my sleeping pad and laid it out on the bench. My quilt was not dripping wet, but it was definitely damp all over and the down stuffing was clumping up in the corners. I got naked, into the quilt, and finally shut my headlamp off. I was exhausted from the walk, and so ready to get some rest. A buzz in my ear from a mosquito was like salt in the wound. Not another night without the bug net, I thought. The plank was not comfortable, but it must have been a bit cooler this night. Perhaps I was just more tired. Either way, I dozed off in the sticky and damp quilt, curled up inside to hide my whole body from bugs.
When my alarm went off, I turned it off and went back to sleep. My day was only about eight hours of easy and familiar walking, so by far my easiest hike on paper. Having shaved off nine of the miles already, I was looking at my smallest day by about six miles. My pack is almost the lightest it’ll be, with only perhaps 3 pounds of food left after lunch. The trail into Duluth is plain easy and I’d done these sections more than any other, especially through Hartley Park, my backyard running trail, where I’d run on the Superior Hiking Trail hundreds and hundreds of time. It’s an easy day to Bagley campsite on the University of Minnesota-Duluth campus, where I’d be camping a mile from my house and my warm and comfy bed and dresser full of clean clothes.
I woke back up with the light of day around 7:30am. I moseyed on around without a big sense of urgency, and took my time arranging the wet gear sprawled about upon my arrival just hours prior. Walking in the storm almost seemed like a dream, but my tiredness and fatigue was a reality check. My stomach rumbled and I took a dump at the outhouse. Unlike the Superior Hiking Trail campsites, the NSST sites each feature an Adirondack Shelter, metal fire ring and cooking grate, and an outhouse. I left quickly thereafter, setting out in the wetness of the early day. Not that it mattered, because my shoes were still soaking wet.
I made it past the Sucker River campsite quickly, and into the woods towards Normanna Road. I ate my breakfast bars, their shape obliterated by heavier food smashing them down for 8 days, and drank my water collected from Sucker River. I made sure to drink a lot, because I didn’t take a sip during the three-hour hike earlier in the night.
Another day walking. Just walking, walking. I started to get frustrated and upset. I was pretty run down from the night before. My legs didn’t necessarily hurt, but I was slogging along and just wanted to stop for one second. I considered using the facilities at the Sucker River shelter. I didn’t pack in that toilet paper in the outhouse, but used it. I brought in the damp map 3 of 6 to use first, but it wasn’t enough. I won’t go into too much detail, but the map wasn’t enough and I used the toilet paper off of the roll in the outhouse. Because of this, I realized it wasn’t a true unsupported through-hike and I got really upset. I wasn’t going to pull the plug here, but just resented that action so much. I wasn’t even thinking! And was so mad at myself. I stopped and sat at a stump near the Heron Pond campsite, my head in my hands. No, just keep walking, I thought, and ate a small chunk of my Clif Bar, fighting the strong urge to eat the whole thing. I got up, started walking again, and ate the majority of it.
I got through Normanna Road and trudged onwards on the North Shore State Trail. It luckily was not too boggy, but the tall grass was making my pants wet. Eventually, the trail turned to a wide swath of mud, and I kept trucking, sinking my trekking poles deep into the sticky, muddy mess every time. I was sick of being in my own mind and turned on music.
It was a really nice morning, and I was moving along pretty good actually. My finger was holding up OK, but I could tell the injury was having an effect on the rest of my hand. My finger was probably not healing in the best way, and the altered grip made other parts of my hands hurt even worse than my pinkie! I could still pole away just fine, though. I saw a couple backpacking, thru-hikers going north, and they were surprised at my progress. I guess me too! But I was too exhausted to really get to cheery. When we continued our separate ways, I turned Stone Temple Pilots back on and put my hat back low, cranking away. The muddy mess gave way to classic NSST once again: the wide path, tall grass, and one narrow walkway.
With the sun shining, I snaked through the last bit of singletrack before Lismore Road. The road walk to the Lismore parking lot was warm, and I decided I’d stop for lunch on the Lester River, one mile in from the trailhead. By this time, a quarter to noon or so, I was 4 hours and 20 minutes in for the day and at just about 13 miles, just a tad down from the 3 mph target.
I had a huge buffer on time, and figured I had ten miles left for the day, which is just 3 hours and 20 minutes… I’d be to the site with hours and hours to spare before dark. So I took my sweet time at the bridge on the North Shore State Trail across the Lester River. I unpacked everything and let it dry out in the bright, hot and abundant sunshine. It was great. I laid on my mat and ate as much food as seemed fit to save for the next day, the long day. The last day. My gear dried out instantly, but my last bag of trail mix somehow got saturated and it was really gooey. I dropped one Reeses Pieces on the bridge and it melted quickly. I took my socks off, and closed my eyes. I didn’t know what to think. Such a dumb long trip. I was so tired, so sick of being in my own head, and didn’t want to think about whether unsupported should include toilet paper at an outhouse. It seems so fricken stupid, like that is the most ridiculous rule, one square and you’re done. It made me just pissed, not positive at all. But I was still out here. Better than work, I thought, and just sat there, resting. Reseting.
Eventually, I got back up. I shoved everything away quickly–it’s easy with plenty of room to spare, and got back to walking. I was stopped for maybe thirty minutes, and so had some room to make up. After lunch, my next stop is at 4:20pm just like everyday, and I was projecting to get to Bagley at exactly that time. I blasted through one of my favorite “in-town” sections south of Lismore, enjoying the beautiful day.
When I bumped back out to the NSST for the final three miles of the snowmobile trail section, I put on music. I felt justified in doing it on the boring hour ahead on the snowmobile trail. I essentially zoned out, hiking along at a very consistent rate, only slowed by ADD-fueled checks of my phone, when I’d stumble along, swerving from the main cut through the wide pathway. The music helped soothe my irritated brain.
At the Amity River bridge, I stopped again. I don’t care, I thought, I’m tired and it doesn’t matter if I stop today. I sat down in the sun, my hat pulled down low, and prepared for the final four mile push on singletrack and roads through Duluth, until my final campsite. I definitely felt the lack of sleep paired with the nine miles preloaded on the day from the morning debacle. What a day…
After resting on the bridge, I felt anew. My brain was content, my legs and feet felt fine, and my fatigue was present, but not going to be a factor. I cruised through the Martin Road trailhead, where a traditional thru-hike of the Superior Hiking Trail ends, and was making good time. I saw my friend Melissa on the trail, and it was great to stop and chat. It was going to be great to go through my hometown, and I was excited to see some friendly faces. I zinged through the Amity Creek section, admiring the great views, and was on Vermillion Road in a flash.
It was tough walking on the Vermillion Road. I passed some people, which was nice, but my feet were hurting on the hard ground. I was in shock at how my body was holding up. It seemed like the challenges of the past few days, with a busted pinkie, wet gear, extreme thunderstorms and night hiking, were actually diminishing the challenge of hiking. Maybe I can only go through so much pain, or it was a true fight-or-flight, instinctual reaction. However, my goddamn feet hurt. It was quick to Hartley, though, and I was excited to hike on the trails that I’ve run almost every single day for years.
I enjoyed the unique experience walking through Hartley being in the middle of a thru-hike. There was a detour from storms only a few months earlier, and I hadn’t even seen the reroute (in that direction), so I took notice of some cool downed trees and destruction. Into the most familiar SHT section right in the meat of Hartley, up and down two hills, and I tried to compare with the formidable North Shore. I figured it was by far the most comparable in the past 60 miles! Across Tischer Creek, and I was on the home stretch towards Bagley. I knew every step…
It was funny to cross busy Arrowhead Road, with the Duluth pre-work rush traffic heating up. A left turn into Bagley, and I knew this was the closest I’d be to my house, less than a mile away! It was about 3:30pm, eight hours and thirty minutes in on the day, and my watch read 24 miles. I was texting friends and on Facebook, and made an audible note to myself of where I peeled off of the SHT to get to the Bagley campsite, although I had planned it out 20 times beforehand. I saw my friend Kris and her dog Lacie at the trail intersection before the campsite, and we chatted on the final quarter mile.
I sat down on the table, flustered with what I even have to do. Every night was such a routine, so simple. My brain felt so fried I couldn’t even carry on a conversation with Kris and focus on what I was doing. My gear was half unpacked, half about to eat food, half going to plug in my devices, almost getting ready to start the beginning of the process of loading my GPS data. Gah! Lacie was barking so Kris took her back to the car. I set up my tarp, got everything settled, and was relaxing on the table when Kris got back. Chris Rubesch and Eric Nordgren ran by and we talked for a bit. My friend Ann rode her bike up, and my roommate Matt brought the dogs. My dog Diamond seemed in disbelief that I was alive and the dogs were excited. I was excited, too.
I went with Matt and the dogs down to Tischer Creek, which was an uncomfortable walk when there was a running tap twenty feet from my picnic table. I got some weird looks when I said that I was not going to use a non-natural source of water. I started boiling some water, and flip-flopped roommates as Matt left and Jack stopped by. I had done a lot of camping trips in the past year with Jack, and as my final meal cooled off, he started up a huge fire in the pit at Bagley. We sat around the fire and Gregg Robertson stopped by. We told some stories, and I almost forgot how tired my legs were! I felt like the biggest dirtbag in my tattered, dirty clothes, like Oliver Twist or something.
When dark fell on the campsite, the fire dwindled and Jack went back home. I could follow him… But I turned my headlamp on, made sure that everything was packed away in a sensible order, for me to shove away the tarp for one final time and hit it bright at early the next morning. I crawled into my tarp, on the beautiful soft and grassy lawn, and had just one last little shudder as I felt dew already collecting on the tarp as I took off my ratty pants and shirt. I set my alarm for 3am, and was out sleeping in a flash, more comfortable then ever. Oh, c’mon, I was sleeping on a foam mat on the ground.
I woke up to my alarm early in the morning, but snoozed for an additional 10 minutes. I seemed to drift off again, even in the short period of time. Tim, the guy two feet away from me, was snoring still, sleeping flat on the ground, sleeping pad twisted beneath him and his sleeping bag curled over him like a botched tootsie roll re-wrap job.
I packed up as it was just getting light. I wanted to get an early start because the forecast had said afternoon and evening thunderstorms. Bring it on. I stopped at the latrine in the early morning on my way out, and lets just say I saved my precious toilet paper strips in lieu of my extra boxers that had been soaking wet for about 60 hours. Once I got them wet in the East Branch Baptism River, they never dried completely. And so I left them in a hole, but the sacrifice was worth the refreshment and weight savings. I was definitely the first person to stir, and I left quietley in the early morning dawn. A few steps down the Crow Creek and I filled up my water, ate four smooshed breakfast bars and sipped deep on my water. It was definitely getting gunked up and I’d have to backflush the filter at the Big Bend campsite, 34 miles away. Hopefully not in the rain. On the first big overlook, I checked my phone.
It was shaping up to be another day of good hiking, but thunderstorms overnight. Not bad, I’d done it before. Twice the past three nights, in fact. I thought about how I’d set up at Big Bend, a site I had camped at several times before. One time, I hiked in three miles, set up for two nights to have a long weekend of trail running. After one night, on the Saturday, my dog Diamond got quilled by a porcupine a quarter mile from the campsite. We packed up, walked three miles back out with quills poking out everywhere and cut the trip short a night.
I knew it was an easy hike, and once past Reeves Road, it’d really be on. That is about 2oo miles in, 100 miles to go. Plus, I pulled the plug on a long weekend trip earlier in the year at the Reeves Road parking lot because the forecast called for thunderstorms. This time, I’d get redemption. Bring on the thunderstorms. Nothing I believe will change what weather does.
In the meanwhile, I trucked past some deep river gorges, the beautiful Castle Danger, and got my feet all wet at the Encampment River. The rain made the creek swell and I wasn’t able to rock hop.
It was very muddy through County Road 301. I thought of my buddy Pete at the Crow Creek campsite the night before, hiking in on his thru hike, 7 miles on the very first day to stay at Crow Creek. By now, 2 hours and 30 minutes into the hike, 7.5 miles on the day and it was barely 9:30am. Was Pete even awake? How many miles will he make the day he gets past Judge C.R. Magney State Park?
It was tough walking along Silver Creek. This is such a cool section, but I was draggin’. All I wanted to do was chill by the river and eat my whole Clif Bar. Just scarf it down. But I did not, I ate one small bit, quickly filled up my water bottle and kept walking. The fatigue didn’t cease out of Silver Creek onto the tall and wet grass all the way to County Road 2 and the Reeves Road trailhead. However, I was excited to get to the big section through the Lake County Demonstration Forest, and just pushed on through with excitement for that.
I anxiously checked my phone on the half-mile roadwalk south on County Road 2, just north of Two Harbors. It really was shaping up to be a perfect day of walking–the morning was windy and cloudy, just how I like it. There were no bugs thus far, but I’d seen reports of bad bugs right in this section between Two Harbors and Duluth. The storms were inevitable, but they were pushing them off later and later, and the forecast was calling for fair skies until at least dark. Perfect. I can take any storm as long as I can set up in fair weather. I was in good spirits into the Lake County Demo Forest, but I could definitely tell that my body was starting to feel the fatigue. I couldn’t remember if I was walking any faster or slower than the first day with fresh legs. Well, 4 hours and 20 minutes in and 13 miles is right on track for 3 mph. It was day 7, so my food stash was down 2/3, meaning a scant five pounds left. My whole pack weight, less one pair of boxers, was probably even below 15 pounds. It no issue to haul it, and it was no issue to walk. The monotony and tediousness of not stopping walking was the hard part.
Through the woods, I heard people, and some trash bins clanging together or something. It must be private land. Nope, it was a road, some guys were loading up trash bins or something. Wait, it was a Superior Hiking Trail maintenance crew! Cool! I chatted away with a few of the guys. One was definitely in charge, and I wondered if it was Larry Sampson, who I’d seen on so many SHT newsletters and such. I didn’t ask, though, and they ushered me along after talking about speed hiking for a bit. Time is of the essence! Yeah, yeah, ‘ya gotta stay moving, but I laughed how trivial just a few minutes of leisurely chatting is. They seemed to think it was a marathon mindset where every second counts, and I was laughing to myself walking walking away. Nope, THIS is what speed hiking looks like. Regular ol’ walking.
My online campsite calculator was somehow way off and at 14 miles on the day, I was calculating a much smaller day, around 30 miles or less total, to Big Bend. I was looking at a nice and early night into camp. Things were good, dry and good, walking through the Demonstration Forest.
I started thinking about lunch, and wanted to get to a river to eat. It wasn’t going to happen, so I sat on a rock outcropping. There was a tiny slice of rock not wet or mossy. I took of my socks to air out my feet just a bit, and they were really wet from the dew on the grass near Silver Creek. Another day of trench foot…
The food was so tasty, and I was having a tough time rationing. I could finally see and really plan out the last bit of food, and was really happy to remember that I packed four bags of Lays and three Cheetos. I thought it was three and three, so decided to save the bonus bag of chips for Friday, my ninth and final hike. It was great to sit down, and I calculated my final afternoon stop at 4:20pm sharp to be near 12 Mile View and just a few miles from the campsite. That was motivating, the day felt still young, and I was happy to cruise through the easy woods.
I filled up water in Stewart River and hiked up the little climb just past the campsite out of the river valley. It seemed like the steepest hill in the winter, when I stayed at the Stewart campsite 9 months prior, but after the signature ups and downs of the true North Shore, I was up and over it in a flash! I sped through the woods, past the Demo Forest spur trail, into one of my favorite sections through Rossini Road. In the endless forest, with little dips and the gentle winding of the trail, it was easy walking. I actually started to yearn for some climbing and descending just to switch it up. But, I felt good and was making good time.
Out of nowhere, mosquitoes. I noticed a few fly around me, and then got swarmed. Here they come, I thought. I covered up and was only bothered by bugs in my face and on my hands. They’d find their way all over my hands and bite away. I had a few big bites on fingers and my wrists and the tops of my hands. I was paying attention to smack ’em, but they’d catch me inattentive for one second and go for it. I killed one, full of blood, on my palm! Trekking poles in action, and somehow a mosquito finds space to bite me on my left palm, the one absent of a sketchy splint. Also, they were on my clothes. I noticed it mostly on my shoulders and back where the pack wasn’t touching. I couldn’t feel a bit, but was obsessively swatting anyways. I was so happy when I forgot about a swarm. A mile of walking and I realized that there were no mosquitoes and it must’ve been a swampy mosquito zone or something. All right! The forest was in great hiking shape and I was still cooking along and feeling fine.
Before I knew it, I was past Rossini Road. It is just a three mile walk from here, one hour, and I was 9:20 in for the day and just 28 miles. A few minutes behind pace, but it was only 4:15 and I was ready for my daily stop. I hunched down in the middle of the woods and relaxed, no sense of urgency. I kept hiking and felt pretty sluggish, but ready to take it home and relax at Big Bend. I missed the 12 Mile View, not noticing until I was way past. It is a pretty lame view anyways, and only cool for the sake of novelty. I enjoyed the view of the beaver pond, and set up shop at Big Bend in no time. I was the only one there. The wind and the gurgle of the creek, the West Branch of the Knife River, kept me company enough.
It was not even 5:30pm, so I took my sweet time at Big Bend. I didn’t have enough phone service to get a weather update, but I’d seen it at some point since Two Harbors and was still looking good for the evening. It was certainly cloudy, but not threateningly rainy. I backflushed my water bottle filter and started to carefully scope the ground for a spot to set up. Nowhere popped out at me right away. I considered a sloping tent pad on one side of the site, but didn’t want water flowing right down on my head. I didn’t want to sleep with my feet up either. I envisioned the water running down the gentle grade right through the middle. Across the site, I looked at the tent pad I stayed at one night when Diamond got quilled. If I could set it up to drip far enough out from me, there would be enough of a trough and enough of a downward slant to allow the water to drain completely away from me. It did look like a slight depression where so many campers have likely stayed before me. But, if the water drips far enough out… and so I set the tarp up right there. I wanted to be meticulous, and it looked fine. It was hard to do anything with the broken pinkie, but I even managed to get a patch over the dripping seams over my face by using band-aids and a plastic grocery store bag once used to hold food.
I tried to use the alcohol stove to cook, but it was windy. I used my mat as a shield, careful to not set that on fire. That would make for two uncomfortable nights! I actually started a fire and cooked my pasta and soy protein isolate quickly, using a lot of olive oil in it. The fire barely burned the remaining soggy maps I had, and I saved my last two maps for the last two days of the trip, only 75 or 80 miles to go.
I was so dirty. Everything was dirty, I felt dirty, caked in dried sweat, dirt under my fingernails, stained shirt, dirt-stained skin on my ankles. And I smelled bad. Not much worse than any other day, though, as I’d maintained a varying level of stank from day two.
As the sun set, I clamored into my shelter, opting once more to put my rain poncho over my backpack, everything I need stuffed away inside. In my tarp, the bare essentials. Ground sheet, mat, quilt, pillow, phone in plastic baggie, and headlamp. I couldn’t tell if the sounds over my tarp were falling seeds or sticks or light raindrops. I expected the rain, didn’t see any moisture on the ground, and questioned what would happen if it poured on me. I even had a stick to dig a trough, from my prone position, to let the water drain away from me. I closed my eyes, not quite asleep, but comfortable. When will the thunderstorms hit?
In between swatting mosquitoes, I drifted off to sleep in the early morning hours of my fifth night camping. An infuriating buzz in my ear canal would cause me to stir, but what completely woke me up was another round of thunder. The only precipitation I heard was left-over rain falling from the leaves, until I heard the now-familiar sound of a freight train coming towards me. Thunder rumbling meant another round of rain. Constant lightning flashing meant I could see my whole campsite like the light of day. Just as I predicted, the rain came next. Slow at first, the thunder gets louder, and the rain falling on my lightweight tarp gets louder, and in a matter of minutes, all I can hear is an indiscernible rush of wind and water dumping from the sky with so much volume, the individual raindrops all mash together. It was early in the morning, perhaps 2am, and I was wide awake, headlamp on, watching tiny droplets of water form directly above my eye, on the inside of my tarp, collecting into one big droplet of water, and dripping onto my eye or my preciously dry quilt. I picked a fantastic spot to sleep, because the falling water was draining to the side of me. I wondered how my pack was faring over on the picnic table. The only wetness was near my head as the heavy rain was still splashing mud towards me. The dirt a foot on either side of me was completely saturated, but I was dry. This second round of storms was brief, and a half hour later, all I heard was light sprinkles.
If I’d kept my bug net on, I’d actually be comfortable. Unfortunately, the mosquitoes were relentlessly biting me. It wouldn’t be so bad if the temperature was 10 degrees cooler, but I was sweltering in my quilt and it was a major struggle to decide what was less uncomfortable, the muggy heat inside my quilt or the cool but buggy open air. By the time I noticed light not from lightening, around 6am, I wasn’t sure if I’d slept for even one minute. As soon as I decided I had enough light to see my pack, I got up and started packing. My rain poncho held out all of the water and my pack was dry. Nice. I tried to snap a pick of my humble shelter before I ripped it down, and again shoved the wet items into the outer pocket.
I hadn’t started earlier than I did this day, and it was hard to see my first steps out of the Penn Creek campsite. I was sure happy to leave that bug infested zone, but wondered if it was going to rain on me all morning. The clouds alluded to rain, and a very foggy landscape as I continued south.
I was excited to bang out this sixth day. It was going to be tough walking, but after this day, it is a few days of really easy walking into Duluth. Only three more nights of camping. I was nervous that I’d have to deal with more mosquitoes from here on out. On the flip side, I yelled at the trail how it’s been too easy so far and to give me a real challenge! Bring on the rain, bring on the mosquitoes! I can take it.
Any overlook was shrouded with fog, so I put my head down and cruised through Silver Bay. The rocks were slick, and I made sure that I would not slip. That could truly be the last straw, so staying on my two feet was a high priority. When I came across a wooden bridge, I considered every single step.
I made it through Silver Bay in a breeze, and felt back in my groove of walking and drinking and eating. Walk, drink, eat, sleep. This whole trip is broken down into four simple functions. In order of importance: walk, drink, eat, and sleep. I ate my breakfast bars and had to consciously limit my intake of chews. I wanted to eat them all. I ate large chunks of my Clif Bar and realized that I was in a calorie deficit. If I’m hungry, it actually means I’m thirsty. That is what I told myself. I focused on drinking water, filled up at the Beaver River, and continued on my way. After walking across the big snowmobile bridge across the Beaver River, the sun peeked out of the clouds. I thought of Soundgarden’s “Black Hole Sun” and hoped this Black Hole Sun would wash away the rain.
I hadn’t hiked south from Beaver Bay to Gooseberry in years, and didn’t feel very familiar with the trail. It was technical and featured a lot of elevation gain. Luckily, I felt great. I didn’t adjust my pack for hours at a time, meaning that it was comfortable as is. My feet were holding up great, and my body as a whole was fit for another long day of hiking, despite the poor sleep the night before and busted, painful finger. I cruised towards Split Rock River and figured that I could stop for lunch right alongside that majestic flowing body of water.
Atop a ridgeline, looking out toward the intimidating Lake Superior, I spotted the Split Rock Lighthouse and figured I was close. The sun would break out of the clouds now and then and shine for a moment, and I hoped that I would be able to take my socks off in the sun while I ate lunch. It took much longer than anticipated to get to the trail alongside the Split Rock River.
I was checking my map and watch constantly, so excited to sit down and eat lunch. I made ground on two girls hiking. Passed them, and they stopped me to ask if they were going the right way to cross over the river. Yep, I told them it was a half mile ahead or so. I wanted to keep my distance, because I could tell that I smelled bad. Not that it matters, but I was really conscious about it in front of two cute college-aged girls. I finally got to a great rocky outcrop right on the river, and treated myself to a long lunch. I took off my socks, and just as I hoped, the sun came out in full force. It was hot! As I ate my beef sticks and chips, I checked the time, around 1pm. It was rough to put my nasty socks back on, put my sweaty and stinky shirt back on, and start back walking. But I did anyways, and felt depressed as I considered my next stop in about three hours. Pure walking until then…
I was about 6:20 in for the day, just more than 18 miles. That means I was down about a mile, or 20 minutes, from my 3 mph goal. If I hoofed it to Gooseberry, I figured I can make it up. There is a roadwalk section almost 3 miles, and if I hit 3.5 mph on that, a brisk walk for sure but doable, I’d be sitting pretty for the home stretch past Gooseberry. The afternoon was really shaping up, but hot. Split Rock is beautiful, but my content and tranquil attitude was quickly put to rest as I slipped once more, on a wet root sloping downwards. Luckily, I only suffered a muddy arm, but any jostle pained my broken pinkie from the day before quite a bit. I brushed myself off, put my head down, and worked.
As I hiked up and away from the Split Rock River, it started getting hot. I put my hat down to shield the sun, drank water to cool off, and suffered through the exposed yet beautiful ridgeline of Blueberry Hill. Any shade was so relieving, and I filled up my whole water bottle at a small creek near the Blueberry Hill campsite. Soon after, I entered the detour where a private landowner permanently closed the singletrack through the woods. It was actually well received, and I cranked down the hill towards Highway 61. I put on some music, and jammed out to the Soundgarden songs stuck in my head since the dreary morning.
I was jamming along the entire bike path detour until I got to Gooseberry Falls State Park. My feet hurt from walking on the pavement, but I sure did make good time. My shoulders and back were feeling good, and despite the sore and tired feet, I knew I had many more miles in ’em. The bigger challenge was telling my brain that I was OK to keep walking. With every bench, there was a strong urge to sit down for one second. But I did not. Before long, I got to Gooseberry Falls and started hiking up along the river. I stopped near a falls, close to the big bridge over the river, and it felt great to relax. From here, it was a big push along the Gooseberry, past Mike’s Rock to Crow Creek. This section had been frustratingly muddy a month before, but I mentally prepared myself for one last section for the day and hit it. A source of inspiration was to think about where I was at. Here I am, finishing up day six, past the crux, past two nights of terrible storms, and looking at a fantastically clear night. After today, it’s two days of easy walking and then the final day. My finger was still intact, I was feeling physically in-control, and really started to believe that this was going to happen. I was going to finish this thing up.
Along the Gooseberry River, I found a huge agate while filling up water. Neat. I hooked left away from the Gooseberry River, and it luckily was not too muddy or too buggy. Perfect. I was cranking along. Up to Mike’s Rock, back down, and the mud came on heavier. I tried to dodge the deep puddles.
Before long, I saw a few people set up with tents and bags and stoves, and walked in to the Crow Creek campsite to see a huge group set up with massive tarps and tents everywhere. I looked around for a campsite, but first filled up with water and backtracked to where I saw the stragglers set up. That looked better. I talked to a guy named Pete who just graduated college in Milwaukee and decided to take as much time as he needs to walk the whole Superior Hiking Trail. His only obligation was jury duty in October sometime. He started at County Road 301 and it was his first night on the trail after a 6 miler with a huge 50 pound pack. Been there, bro! I remembered my first day with terribly sore shoulders and thought about how strong I’d become since then, on my sixth day of hiking, and setting up my camp for the sixth time. I had to laugh as he pulled out carrots from his food stash. That has to be the least calorie dense food besides celery… I was truly envious of his luxurious five pound tent, though.
I set up my tarp, and it dried out immediately. I took the time to set up my bug net, too, cooked my food over the alcohol stove, and looked very forward to sleeping in the clear night. Unfortunately, I for some reason set my tarp up really close to another guy, Tim. I apologized for it, but he just said as long as I don’t snore, he doesn’t care. The only unfortunate part is that he snored! A really weird guy, he had been at this site for the past two nights and was fiddling around with his crap until dark. Tim then decided to sleep outside of his tent, not set up yet, and was snoring loudly! Loud enough to keep me awake. Did I hear him wrong? Either way, I was fatigued after my biggest mileage day thus far at over 35, and definitely fell asleep before long. Out cold. No bugs, a perfect temperature, it was exactly what I needed.
I woke up to rain in the middle of the night. By this fourth night, I found that an unobstructed night of sleep is not really realistic out in the woods. Each night, something stirring or a wind gust through the trees or a rock or root in my back would wake me up. This night, it was rain. I didn’t feel wet, so dozed back off to sleep.
By 3am, it was raining steadily. I checked the time, but didn’t bother to look around much more, so dozed off once more. By 6am, the rain was continuing to fall, and I could tell that the flaps of my quilt were sopping wet. I tried to tuck them under me, in hopes that I’d keep everything completely dry if on the sleeping pad. Similarly, I shuffled my pants, shirt, and any other trinkets laid out towards my body centered on the pad. Rain started seeping in from the bug net connectors directly above my face, trickling down the net and collecting into bigger and bigger droplets. The final drip would be right on my face or shoulders. A half hour of tossing and turning and worrying about my stuff getting wet, and I started to think about how I’d get out of here. My alarm hadn’t rang, but I started formulating a plan. It was raining very steadily and had been for hours. I knew now that it was very wet out. I sat up precariously, causing water from every angle to fall on me. It was light enough to see the scope of the situation. My clothes were getting really wet, by shoes were probably soaked, and my backpack was in a puddle. Water from the tarp had pooled directly under my pack, and it looked like it was actually displacing puddle water! Oh, no, I thought, everything is soaked! I tried to organize my precious quilt into a dry ball in the middle of my pad as I shuffled around, careful to not get any wetter than I had to. I picked up my pack, dripping water onto my quilt, and started to panic a bit. Not good, not good. I decided to whip out my emergency poncho, trying to get ready hunched under my claustrophobic tarp. I crawled out into the falling rain, put on my shirt, the poncho over it, and set my backpack under a tree in hopes the falling rain would not be able to saturate its contents. My shirt was dry enough, I was staying dry enough under the poncho, but everything else was getting wetter by the second. I grabbed my sopping wet pants, took out my 1-day old socks from the pockets and stood on one foot at a time to get them on my feet. My shoes were soaked. What a terrible feeling to put wet feet in wet socks, then into wet shoes.
I grabbed my yellow stuff sack, and shoved the quilt in from hunched under the tarp. Into the bag, I began frantically shoving stuff in. I was able to fit my pad in the pack instead of outside, where it’d been strapped the previous days. I hastily grabbed a few breakfast bars and whatever snacks I could fit in my shirt, and then quickly ripped down the tarp and shoved it in my pack’s back pocket, as not to saturate the internal pack items like food and the precious top quilt. I was packed up, very wet, and very frantic. Watch… start the watch and start hiking.
I saw Diane hunched under her cuben fiber tarp, starting to pack up to hike to her car at the Finland Rec Center. I hollered at her, sounding cheery enough, but my mental state was not cheery. What the fuck, that was bad preparation, I thought!! How is everything going to dry out? How did all that water pool under my pack? I felt the bottom of the pack, crested right above my butt, and it was completely wet. When can I put my pants back on? Am I going to get hypothermia here?? I luckily wasn’t cold…
As the rain came down, it dripped from the emergency poncho down to my bare legs and shoes. My boxers seemed dry enough, but I soaked my first pair of boxers in the creek just 12 hours prior, so if my second pair gets wet I’ll have two pairs of wet boxers. Great.
The soaking wet tarp and bugnet were being compressed to the bottom of the outer pocket and dripping down my back. From my waist down, I was very wet, besides the front of my pelvis, where I had one dry spot on my boxers. My precious dry spot. I knew that I’d have to stop at the Finland Rec Center to dry my things out and reassess my situation. Diane was driving back to the cities and her car is at Finland… If I reassess and everything is too wet, there is my cop-out…
I got to Sonju Lake and did not stop. Everything was wet–rocks, roots, bridges, dirt turning to mud–the walking demanded full focus in order to stay upright on my two soggy feet. I did not stop, but was thirsty. I’d be able to drink later, and maybe I’m getting hydration through osmosis via my feet. I don’t think it works like that. I saw a guy in matching top and bottom rain gear untangling his bear bag nearby the southern Sonju Lake campsite. I accidentally took the spur to his site, but saw the bench and fire ring and turned around.
Ok, only five or six miles to Finland, and then I can drink water and dry my stuff out and really reassess. I think there is an indoor bathroom there where I could lay everything out… If the bathroom is locked there is least some sort of roof. I ate a few breakfast bars and kept walking. Egge Lake came and went and I didn’t see any other people. It was still raining steadily. By now, 9;30am, over two hours and five miles in for the day, and it had been raining steadily for at least six hours. Terrible. I couldn’t shake the thought of how bad this situation was. Everything soaked, no order in my pack, just wet shit sharing its moisture with my precious dry items. What is even dry? My pack might as well have been submerged in Lake Superior! A thought that provided solace was Erin and Zach’s campfire stories from a few nights ago where they one time woke up to rain, hiked past Sonju and Egge Lakes in the rain, rain all day just like me, and had to set up camp in the rain that night. They made it, although Erin said it was terrible. It is terrible.
A few miles later, I bumped out from the woods to a brief roadwalk on County Road 7, which means I was very close to the .3 mile spur to the Finland Rec Center. The road was so wet and muddy, I was in my boxers like a lunatic, hiking in the pouring rain. A truck hauling a small boat sped by and I kept my head low. At the spur to the Rec Center, I kept walking. I’d been thinking for hours of getting to the Rec Center to reassess. I don’t need to reassess shit. I crossed the East Branch Baptism River once more and realized how thirsty I was. Not yet, though. It’s too hard to drink with the thin rain poncho on. I took a peek at the milepost sign and figured I’d right on track to eat lunch at Section 13. After that climb, I’d be through a very tough section in the rain, which is a great accomplishment. My mindset further improved when the rain tapered off. Not that the sun came out in a big way, but the constant downpour ceased. I put my plastic poncho hood down.
I kept hauling, past the empty Leskinen Creek Campsite, next stop Section 13. It’s pretty easy walking through this section, and I was happy to be making great time. I passed Park Hill Road, a huge glacial erratic, and onto the big Sawmill Bog. I still hadn’t changed out of the rain poncho, or really done anything besides walk, since waking up. I didn’t stope because the sky looked like it could rain again at any moment. The big Section 13 cliffs began to appear through the foggy swamps.
I was walking on boardwalk after boardwalk through the Sawmill Bog. My shoes were soaked and the wooden planks were completely saturated. A straight stretch and BOOM!, I slipped. My feet went left, my upper body went right. My right hand, still gripping the trekking pole, hit the soft mossy bog first, and I landed on my butt in the wetness. I saw it out of the corner of my eye first, then slowly lifted my right hand up, palm down, to see my pinkie finger at an extremely grotesque angle. Oh, no, I thought. No pain, but my pinkie was fucked up. From the main joint, it was bent to the right, and then again to the left, like a zig zag. Completely askew. So askew. My first inclination was to set it straight. I put my palms together as if I was clapping, bent my left fingers around the outside of my busted right hand, around my pinkie finger, and then in one swift movement slid my left hand upwards to form my pinkie back straight. It made a sound like ripping a chicken wing apart, the sound of cartilage and joints shifting under my skin. I expected extreme pain and screamed. It wasn’t as bad as I figured, and knew I had to get to Section 13 to figure this injury out. I stood up, held my trekking poles in my left hand and made my way through Sawmill Bog very carefully. I was intensely angry at the bridges for making me slip and fall. Fuckin’ bridge. Only a few steps later, I got to a trail register. I wanted to write my mantra of the moment that I was saying to myself: “Hike, Drink, Eat, Sleep”, but when I grabbed the pencil, my right hand was not working well and I could only shakily muster one word, barely legible:
Once I started back hiking, the pain multiplied. I saw with my own two eyes my hand swell, and my pinkie was still pinning off from my other fingers. Not good. What the hell am I doing out here? Is this the end? How will this effect my hike? Am I risking permanent damage? I hadn’t felt confident about finishing the trip all day. But I was still hiking. Up, up and up to Section 13. I stepped off the trail to let a group of 10 kids backpacking pass. Rain poncho, tall socks, no pants on, broken finger in extreme pain, but I smiled at them.
When I reached the Section 13 campsite, I took my backpack off and noticed that my lower back was soaked but my chest was pretty dry. My finger did not feel good, was swollen and beginning to bruise. I grabbed my phone for the first time of the day, and looked at the positive side of things: it was not raining anymore. I found a perfectly shaped piece of wood and a bungee cord near the fire ring. I took off my belt made of grosgrain ribbon and wrapped the wooden shim around my pinkie and ring fingers, trying my best to secure it with the belt. I ate lunch, and posted my grievances to the world of Facebook. I took a selfie with my normal face, and then my “if it’s not positive, it’s negative” face.
Luckily, the forecast was looking good for the rest of the day, and I’d likely be able to dry myself out. I took off the poncho, put my pants on and used the bungee as a belt. Then, I set back off. I took care of this injury and I can still walk.
Section 13 is awesome. The views are incredible, and I made up for not taking pictures at all while it was raining by snapping a few. I screamed off one big outcropping: “FUCKKKKKKKKK!!!!”
Down, down, down, and I filled up my water bottle in a creek before the County Road 6 trailhead. Removing my backpack was much more challenging with a bum finger, and any jostling sent shockwaves of pain through my pinkie. I saw the parking lot ahead, a welcome sight, and some guy fiddling around with a stick. What is that guy doing, I wondered. Then, he turned towards me and yelped in surprise. It was my running buddy Paul Wilken, getting a lay of the land for his pacing duties for the upcoming Superior Fall trail races, and he was sketching a note in the ground “Get Some Mike”. We just so happened to meet at the right place and right time, and chatted for a bit. I immediately complained about my struggles and told him I didn’t even know why I was out here doing this stupid thing. So much discomfort. He said that when he’s out west climbing mountains, he says the same thing to himself. But you just do it anyways. I wished him goodbye and kept hiking. Onto County Road 6, across the road and up, up, up. I was able to pole with both hands, but my right hand was very tender. I couldn’t jam the pole into the ground as it would jolt my hand and finger too much. The climb was worth it for the spectacular views of Section 13, and I thought about how I missed my chance to ride back with Paul. I should have asked Paul to drive me home.
I was trucking through the trees, along the ridgeline past Sawmill Dome and towards Wolf Ridge Environmental Learning Center. The dark rain clouds were clearing out slowly but surely, and I talked to a few backpackers heading north. They were definitely chatty, and I was a little too bitter with my circumstances to have a good conversation. Luckily, my legs were feeling great, and I hadn’t even adjusted my pack all day because it was riding relatively comfortably. I started to feel the hours of relentless forward progress catch up, and decided to sit down for a second. I felt a bit unsure of what to do so called my dad. I told him all that happened, and he seemed concerned that my finger would get infected. Well, it didn’t break the skin, I told him. He didn’t tell me what to do one way or another, but as I spoke, the sun came out. I said that was a sign to continue on and hung up. I peeked at the weather while I had my cellular on, and the forecast called for more overnight thunderstorms. Not rain, thunderstorms. For now, though, the sun was coming out and I pushed forward onto the hardest section of the trail. Up and down, up and down, broken pinkie, there is no way it’s not broken. This is the crux, though!
I was making good time through Wolf Ridge ELC, and the walking and sunshine dried out my shirt and pants completely. I saw a couple of backpackers finishing up their last day, and filled up water with them at Kennedy Creek. I made a point to drink as much as possible to refill from my dehydrated morning. It was sunny by now, and the overlooks getting into Tettegouche were spectacular. My legs and feet felt the most fresh since the very first few hours of hiking four days earlier. This was perhaps because my pain sensors were maxed out on my pinkie, which was throbbing. The belt wrap didn’t work great, and I had to re-wrap it several times throughout the day.
By the time I hit High Falls, I was about nine hours in for the day, but just 24 miles. That means I was a full hour off of my 3mph pace. It was almost 4pm and I started thinking about my afternoon break. I stopped on the outskirts of Tettegouche State Park, and then prepared myself for the hard push past Bear and Bean Lakes to my campsite at Penn Creek.
I saw a girl meditating on an overlook, perhaps Mount Trudee, and I interrupted her by yelling off of the cliff for a spectacular echo. I smelled so bad and probably looked terrible, but it was fine. I kept trucking, and was in good spirits.
Down to Palisade Creek and it started getting really muddy. I saw a couple guys camping and getting water from Palisade, and they said they didn’t see anyone at Penn Creek. I kept pushing, looking forward to Bear Lake. I still was doing fine, fatigue-wise, and figured that I was getting trail strong. A huge question going into this trip was whether I would get “trail strong” or experience a slow deterioration. The next day would be a better test, but day five was going great given the circumstances. My finger still hurt, and I would jostle it every now and again, wincing and yelling in pain. My mantra was “silent suffering”, a term I learned from my running buddy Nick Nygaard. When we’d do workouts, I’d always be grunting and groaning, and he told me about “silent suffering”, especially in a race scenario to strike fear in the other competitors. I was laughing by repeatedly yelling “SILENT SUFFERING! SILENT SUFFERING!”, which is the exact opposite ideology of the mantra, but hilarious.
More mud, up and up and I knew I was close to Bear Lake. Right around the bend…. and more climbing. Ok, right around this curve and… no Bear Lake, just more uphill. I was breathing hard and had sweat through my shirt five times through. Finally, as the afternoon sun dipped low and the evening set in, I came out to the spectacular overlook of Bear and Bean Lake. I had to bellow “EVENIN'” across the two lakes, and booted up my cellular network as I rounded the two high cliffs overlooking the tranquil lakes below. Down and up to Bean Lake, and I was really excited to get to camp, although nervous that I’d not get my things dried out for the night. Based on the forecast, it was certainly going to thunderstorm overnight, but I knew exactly what I had to do to stay dry. I took some pictures, went on social media, and was descending from the lakes in no time. It was getting dark.
I got to the Penn Creek campsite after a long day. It was a gritty day. I felt pretty proud for sticking it out and crushing the two crux days. There were challenges, but I stayed gritty, kept my head down and powered through. No time to relish in the accomplishment, though, no time to rest. I immediately went to work. It was getting dark and I had to make SURE that I was set up to avoid another wet disaster like the night before. The mosquitoes were out, and I got more bites in five minutes than the previous four days on the trail. I considered ditching the unsupported style and hiking into in Silver Bay, but reserved that for an emergency, knowing that it’d be just a few hours of walking to complete dryness at a motel. I set everything out, and was very happy to see my quilt relatively dry. My tarp was sopping wet, but set it up and it dried out enough. I made a strong point of finding a piece of ground that was not in a trough. Even the smallest depression is enough to collect water, and I spent the time to consider every option for where to sleep. The bug net was soaked, and I took it off of the tarp, despite the bugs swarming me. It was too wet, and had dripped on me in the heavy rain the previous night. I’d rather be buggy than wet.
I tried to get a small fire up to dry out, but everything was wet. It was a waste of time, and I was frustrated as the birch bark fizzled out. I used my alcohol stove to make dinner, and was luckily eating in no time. That was really nice. I wrapped my fingers together, happy to have athletic tape in my tiny first-aid kit. As darkness set it, I stuffed everything into my pack besides my headlamp, hat and emergency poncho. I set the backpack on the picnic table, shoved my shirt and pants on top, covered the whole pack with my poncho, and scurried to my tarp. As I laid down, mosquitoes buzzing in my ear, the campsite started to light up with lightning. No thunder, but constant flashing from high in the atmosphere. My eyes were wide open, fearing what the night would hold. I set my tarp up high, because the night before with my tarp low, water pooled on the sides.
An hour of staring at the tarp with constant flashing, and I heard rumbles come towards me like a freight train. Louder and louder, and then the rain started. Sprinkles at first, flashes illuminating the campsite, then a thunder rumble over my head and the rain started pelting down. A gust of wind brought a heavy downpour, and I stayed awake with my headlamp on, fully alert, bugs in my ears, trying to decide if I’d flood or not. I could tell that water was falling hard, and it was splashing behind me, spraying mud onto my snow-white hat. My head was probably full of dirt. The seams directly above my face were dripping water onto my face, but no flooding. The thunder waned and the rain tapered off. I was relieved, but hot. All I desired to do was stick my sweaty hot leg from the quilt. No, if the mosquitoes are biting my face and ears like this, they’d have a field day on my leg. Whatever, it’s unbearably muggy in this stupid sack. So I slipped my leg out, careful to keep my quilt on the dry sleeping pad, and felt the cool relief immediately. Just as fast, mosquitoes swarmed and started biting. It was going to be a long night.
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.
I woke up from the first night on the trail feeling refreshed and ready to rock. My tarp was unfortunately sopping wet with dew, but I tried to shake it all off and stuffed it away wet. I was dawdling around trying to depart, even booted up my phone, 95% battery, and took a few pictures. Regardless, I made it out nice and early, excited to hit the lakewalk in the early AM. The morning was great, and I ate my first four breakfast bars before crossing Highway 61 and getting to the beach.
The lakewalk was gorgeous right away, although hot. The sun was beaming down on me from the first step out of the woods and I started sweating. My head stayed down, always scanning for agates, and I did find a few pebbles, which went into my pocket. I filled up water directly from the Big Lake and drank as much as I could right then and there. The loose footing became burdensome on my stride and I was happy get back onto the dirt trail 1.7 miles later.
On the way up to the Kadunce River, I made sure to keep an eye out for my prized, lost Ironman hat that slipped off of my belt three weeks prior in this exact section. How cool would that be, to find that old hat laying there!?
I didn’t see the hat. The last shred of hope washed away as I saw some fellow campers at the first Kadunce campsite. One woman was packing up, and another commented on me speed hiking! Good eye… but I didn’t stop to divulge the details of my trip. I wrote in the trail register at the Kadunce parking lot spur trail, right before crossing over the tall river gorge. I didn’t have a mantra, so wrote the song lyrics I had stuck in my mind at the moment, from Atmosphere’s ‘It Goes’:
“It’s like this y’all, it’s like that y’all.”
Soon after, I made a stop to get more water, drank as much as I could and grabbed a small snack.
I was feeling really good this morning, and happy that my legs felt good and my shoulders felt good. I was bummed that my back hurt, my lower back where the bottom of the pack rests, and so I hitched it above, high on my back, as I set back off from the Kadunce. Past Kimball Creek, up and down to a creek, up and into the woods, down to a creek, up again and then down to Durfee Creek, up to the campsite and I saw a few runners. They disappeared from my view on the beautiful field past Durfee Creek. This is one of my favorite views on the trail, and it was a perfect morning to hike along the meadow and soak it all in. I felt bad for all my friends at work.
It was a quick jaunt back into the woods to the rightly named Woods Creek. This is the end of the first map, map 6 of 6. I stopped near the trailhead to fill up on water in Woods Creek itself. It’s here that I ate lunch, but it was a hasty 10 minute stop all in all. I made a point going forward to focus on drinking water, especially because I knew that after Grand Marais, it is pretty dry.
Devil’s Track was more relentless up and down, but it went by quickly and it was entertaining. I was beginning to fatigue once again, and I felt it in my back and shoulders mostly. I had even sat down and readjusted the height of my backpack to put more load on my shoulders, which was good on the back but hard on my tender trapezii. I noticed the heat and stank in the open and exposed ski trails near Pincushion Mountain near Grand Marais. I saw a few day hikers and felt cool in the thru-hiker garb, truckin’ along with my trekking poles. It was nice to have some flat and easy walking to change things up, and I filled up one last time with water under a ski trail bridge, knowing it’d be a while in the hot sun before I have another good water source.
I made it through the ski trail parking lot and figured I’d get cell reception before a big push up past the Gunflint Trail and onto the boggy North Shore State Trail. I turned my phone back on, and checked Facebook, checked the weather, and felt glued to my screen–a dose of modernity as I fumbled across rocks and roots. I realized that if I use 11% of my charge per day, I won’t even have to recharge once! I was at 92% or so, meaning I could get down to 78% this day and be right on track. I was being too stingy with my cell phone use and so kept it on but in Airplane Mode.
Up the big climb outside of beautiful Grand Marais, up, up, up, across a long boardwalk and I was at the State Trail. I tried to blitz this section, but it was slow going. I had the power to push pretty hard, but didn’t want to overexert myself just try to and make good time on the flats. The bog was crappy, it was hot and sunny, but I was in good spirits anyways.
By the time I was back in the woods, I was ready for a break. I figured I could make it to the big Bally Creek pond by break time, and I made a push to do so. Unfortunately, I was just short and stopped for a much-needed break on a log instead. I was beat, but still ready to rack up a few more miles for the day. I filled up quickly at Bally Creek and high-tailed it towards the Cascade River. I remembered this section being slow going and full of downed brush, so I wanted to just get through it.
It was a perfect late summer afternoon, and I was very happy that the low brush was gone. It allowed me to hang out in my own mind, zone out, and before I knew it, I was atop a ridge, mere miles from the Cascade River.
I was sore, tired, and so ready to put my pack down when I walked the spur trail to the empty North Cascade River campsite. It was a big site, full of good wood and a few decent spots to sleep. I immediately took my shoes and socks off and rubbed my feet. What a feeling.
I was sad to see that my tarp hadn’t dried out, stuffed away in my bag all day. In fact, it seemed wetter! Well, the leaves and grass around me were already wet with dew. Either way, I set up the tarp, and then headed down the trail to the river. I realized it was a long, long walk to get to the Cascade, and figured the river was even louder back by the site. I turned around, went back to my site, and headed down a very steep embankment instead. It was worth it, though, for a perfect rocky river bed, ideal for soaking one’s feet.
I made a big fire, using the hot flames to boil my water and burn the map that I completed. I figured it was the thru-hiker thing to do. I ate, hung out by the fire, resting my legs, and finally retired to my tarp at dark.
The big trip started with an early wakeup call before 6am. I was sleeping in my dad’s travel trailer at Cascade River State Park. We both got up quickly and were on the road within minutes. We drove north to Grand Marais and I ate as much food as I could at a small diner. From there, we drove further north. We drove all the way north, and parked at the Otter Lake Road parking lot, the northernmost trailhead on the Superior Hiking Trail. It was shaping up to be a perfect day to begin this trek, partly cloudy, not too hot and a nice breeze.
My dad and I walked to the Border Route Trail signpost, and then began the 1.2 mile stretch of trail that is shared by the Superior Hiking Trail and the Border Route Trail–to the 270 Degree Overlook. My pack was heavy, the heaviest it would ever be during the next 9 days, and I definitely felt the weight on my shoulders. Up and up, and we got the sign marking “End Of Superior Hiking Trail” and a great view of Canada to the north and the Swamp River to the south.
I wrote in the trail register:
“If it’s not positive, it’s negative. It has to be all positive from here on out.”
I noted the time, 8:39am. I told my dad I’d wait a minute so it’s a more even time, 8:40. Wait, who cares? I can remember 8:39, and so I started my watch and we hiked back to the car. Starting with no water, I filled up from the Swamp River, hiked to the Otter Lake Road trailhead sign and I wished my dad a final farewell. I wrote in the Otter Lake trail register as well, another mantra. I decided there I’d write the mantra of the moment in every trail register. The mantra in my mind at this moment was a quote from The Sandlot:
“Legends never die. Follow your heart and you’ll never go wrong.”
I cut through some tall and wet grass to get to a logging road where the trail was flagged. It was a pretty lame first few miles of the trail, and I even got turned around a bit at a logging road intersection, which was frustrating. I had to remind myself to be positive, found my way again, and then the logging road bumped out to the signature SHT singletrack. After a few miles of easy walking through swamps, lowlands and forests, I wondered if I’d see anyone before Judge C.R. Magney State Park.
I did see a couple of hikers heading north, and it was kind of funny to say that I’m thru-hiking, but just a few hours in. The trail got a bit more difficult with some up and downs, and I eventually climbed up to reach the highest elevation on the hiking trail. There was a sign in the middle of the woods for it–not too dramatic!
I tried to enjoy this section of trail that I had never experienced, knowing that after today, I’d hiked or ran 99.5% of the remaining trail at one point or another.
The elevation started to change from the flat swamps to climbing up through woods. The clouds rolled in and I decided to nibble on a little bit of food, although I wasn’t hungry at all. I stopped to take a picture of Jackson Lake, descended to the creek and campsite, and recognized the first signs of fatigue in my legs and shoulders. Here it is, I thought. I figured I get some sorts of sore within a few hours and here it is, 9 miles and less than 3 hours into the whole trip. In other news, right on track for the 3mph average, but I wondered if I’d ever feel that fresh legs feel ever again for the next nine days.
The trail went up and down a few times, and then up steeply, but I was rewarded by a fantastic ridgeline, just as the sun peeked out and glimmered across the deep blue Lake Superior wide in my view. My phone was off to conserve battery and I decided after 20 minutes of traversing the skinny trail that I’d eat lunch on the next flat rock I’d see. At a spectacular overlook, I set down my oppressive pack, rubbed my shoulders and pulled out my beef sticks and Cheetos for lunch. I wasn’t even hungry but it was nearly 1pm. With my mind on the clock, I ate my daily 5 beef sticks, a handful of chips and set back off.
Before long, I started following a creek and passed the spur trail intersection to Arrowhead Trail. I hiked this section just a few weeks before and I remember it being tough going. Carlson Pond, low brush, up and down, and a lot of bridges. This time, however, the trail just flew by in a breeze. I stopped to pick peppermint leaves at the rock crossing of little Carlson Creek and I was through–down the steep hill to Tom Lake Road. I got circled around here, because the sign said 1.3 mile roadwalk, that is what I did three weeks prior, but my eye caught a blue blaze to the right, just a few hundred feet in on Tom Lake Road. I turned off and followed the clear SHT marking. The trail circled around, curving sharply around trees and onto a bridge. I stopped, skeptical about this new path. It felt like I was walking the opposite way, like I did a 180 from Tom Lake Road. The map matched the sign saying that Tom Lake Road was the route. Hmm, I thought, do I follow this mystery path or take the way I know. Way I know for sure!!! And so I turned around, following the blue blazes back to Tom Lake Road, a little perturbed with confusion. A few steps and I saw a blue blaze on the roadwalk. Interesting…
By the time I got back into the singletrack, passed the Hazel campsite and filled my water bottle from a concerningly tiny dribble of water, it was getting late in the afternoon and I decided to stop. 4:20pm was a good time to stop and I decided that I’d break at this exact time every afternoon. Late in the day, big miles racked up and getting close to the campsite, on the 2o minutes to make easy math for my 3mph goal, it seemed like the most reasonable time and milestone to look forward to and focus on each day. Today, I stopped at a bridge. It felt incredible to sit down and relieve the pack from my shoulders.
After a brief stop, drinking as much as possible and a little snack, I was back in action with a renewed mindset. My shoulders were beginning to get very sore from the bulging pack. I tried to focus on drinking water, but slinging the pack over my one shoulder was unbearable. My water bottled didn’t even fit in its pouch, and I was trying to fiddle with it all while walking.
Camp 20 Road went slow. All I noticed was my sore body. My Achilles tendons started to feel overstrained and I began noticed the dreaded sore feet. I pushed through, and given the long afternoon break made good time through Judge C.R. Magney State Park. Past the Devil’s Kettle, onwards to my first campsite. There were a few early vacationers for the Labor Day weekend, enjoying the beautiful night, and I started counting the remaining miles as I hit 30 on the day.
“It’s one mile to this little kink in the trail then one mile more from there”, I thought to myself as I hoofed it to my first campsite. It was getting dark on the trail, but I could tell that it’d be sunny if I was in an open field. No time for stopping, I was cookin’ through the final miles to the Little Brule River, just south of the Brule River in Magney State Park, where there are three Superior Hiking Trail campsites in close proximity. I was looking for company, ideally a single girl who has made a roaring bonfire and a hot bed of coals. I finally got to the first two sites, side-by-side on the trail, but didn’t hear anyone or get a sense of company. I thought I heard a branch snap downriver, and decided to push the extra tenths of a mile to get to the last one, Southwest Little Brule River Campsite. Darkness was setting in as I finally arrived to the vacant site after 8pm.
I set up camp in the smoothest-looking spot with my last shreds of light. I started the alcohol stove simultaneously, grabbed my headlamp, and by the time the tarp was perfectly pitched, the fuel had burned and the water was not boiling. My water source was down a very steep scramble, but I soaked my feet and there was plenty of flowing water to fill up.
I decided that it was still early enough to cook a fire as I wanted to conserve the alcohol fuel. I surprisingly got one up and steady very easily, and had enough dry firewood on the ground to cook my first meal. It tasted good, and I relaxed and ate, sitting on the ground and barefoot, in the darkness.
I hunkered in for my first night, feeling good but sore, and ready to hit it early in the AM. I set my alarm for 7am and dozed off comfortably in the clear night.
10 Sep 2016
One task. It’s simple: walk on the Superior Hiking Trail from end to end. North to South. Walk, eat and sleep. Simple! The ultimate challenge is completing this task as fast as possible.
My life focus in 2016 is to train my body, accumulate gear and experience, and execute a fast through-hike of the entire Superior Hiking Trail. The ~320 mile trail should be finally done this year. If everything goes according to plan, I’ll have hiked the entire trail as fast as my two feet can carry me, knowing that I left everything I have out on the trail. (Of course, not literally. I won’t leave anything on the trail as per Leave No Trace principles!)
Instead of devoting my free time to training for triathlons and running fast, I’ll spend my time conditioning my body and mind for hiking big miles day after day, and camping in the woods night after night. Of course, I want to write about what works, what doesn’t, and the trips and adventures that will prepare me!
The plan is to backpack as many weekends as possible during the year, and set off on the entire trail sometime in August, September, or October. Hopefully by then, I’ll know what’s possible, what’s realistic, and what sort of speed it will take for this adventure to stand up as the Superior Hiking Trail’s Fastest Known Time forever.
I wrote those words on a newly formed Backpacking webpage in January 2016. This idea of thru-hiking the Superior Hiking trail was over two years old at the time, but had been festering in my mind for the whole year of 2015. I trained for Ironman, timed races on the weekends, and didn’t camp much. But I thought about hiking the SHT. I thought about FKTs, and thought about how cool it would be to have a Fastest Known Time forever, one that would be untouchable. In January 2016, it because reality and I set out plans.
My initial thought was extreme mileage, and unsupported. I figured 50 miles per day would be realistic. I set out 10 hiking trips over the year that would get me in shape for a speed hike. This would of course hinge on the daily grind of becoming proficient at exercising at a very low and sustainable intensity. My first training program wanted to incorporate these 10 trips:
- 160 miles in 4 days (40 miles per day)
- 120 miles in 3 days (60, 15, 45)
- 120 miles in a weekend (60 miles per day)
- 100 miles in a weekend (20, 55, 25)
- 80 miles in a weekend (10, 45, 25)
- 75 miles in a weekend
- 60 miles in a weekend (10, 25, 15)
- 60 miles in a weekend
- 50 miles in a weekend
- 40 miles in a weekend
25 weekends from the last weekend in April to the last week in September, hike on 10 weekends. BOOM.
As I started, the plan modified drastically. I quickly realized how hard it was to plan and execute a trip. It was more than just the weekend, and to sleep in the woods the only two non-work nights was difficult. The planning and packing took time, and it was easy to drop out of a trip! I bailed on a couple. However, I got some good hiking in. My final training plan is here:
#2 – May 13-15, 2015 – 65 miles.
So only 7 trips instead of 10, but I didn’t really count a few long weekends of hiking that were just too boring to write about. Also, I got in some long running races, two 50-milers, a 50k, and a marathon. I was in good shape going into the hike, and the long trip on August 12 was by far the biggest confidence booster and the only real test.
Mentally, I knew the trail very well. There were certain parts that I had traveled many, many times–hundreds of times–and only perhaps 10% to the very north that I hadn’t hiked at all. I plotted out my campsites exactly. I knew exactly how many miles I was to hike each day, and where I’d sleep that night.
I fiddled with my gear all year, knew pretty much exactly what I was going to take, and only made a few last minute adjustments and additions. I spent the week before the hike, that last week in August 2016, preparing my food and making sure things were in place. I did one last recon mission to the southern terminus with Chris Rubesch and dropped my car off on that Monday, and I was nervous and excited as I packed up on Tuesday, and work Wednesday was not very productive.
When I biked home from work, I saw my brother. Random! He said he was going to my house. My dad came over to pick me up, and all my roommates were around as I took the final weigh-ins. My pack was about 25 pounds before water, and there was no debate that it was dense and heavy.
I wished everyone a good bye, especially my doggie Diamond. Me and my pops set out to the North Shore on a beautiful night. On the ride up, I made some last proclamations on social media and forums. We stopped at a delicious restaurant outside of Beaver Bay and mowed on pizza and chicken wings and beer. My last meal…
As it was getting dark, we drove farther north. Into the blackness, with the big Lake Superior to our right, and finally to Cascade River State Park. I chatted with my dad on early morning logistics once we got settled in to his travel trailer. 5:45am it is! I slept like a baby that last night in civilization.
22 Aug 2016
Hike Date: August 12-15, 2016
Trail: Superior Hiking Trail
Trip Plan: 4 days, 3 nights, and to hit goal pace of 35 miles per day, 140 miles total
Day 1 – Hike north from the side of Gunflint Trail to Hazel Campsite (34.5 miles)
Day 2 – Hike north from Hazel to Arrowhead Trail parking lot, turn around and hike south to Kimball Creek Campsite (32.8 miles)
Day 3 – Hike south from Kimball Creek to Indian Camp Creek Campsite (35.3 miles)
Day 4 – Hike south from Indian Camp Creek to Britton Peak Trailhead (24.7 miles)
- Total miles: 127.3
- Total time: 78:31 (3 days, 6 hours, 31 minutes)
- Time hiking: 41:13
- Time at camp: 37:18
Gear and Food: 8-12-16
Day 1 – Friday, August 12, 2016
I dropped my car off in the fog, at Britton Peak, and then rode far north to Grand Marais, MN with my friend Kris early Friday morning. I had two days off work–a long weekend to try and belt out a real tester run before hiking the entire Superior Hiking Trail. I figure that averaging 35 miles per day could be realistic, as a top-end estimate of finishing the entire 310-mile trail, and so my goal with these four days was to replicate that. That breaks out to 140 miles. No dog, no friends, just me. I didn’t care to hike late into the day on Monday, drive back to Duluth and go to work the next morning, so I planned on having three big days of at least 35 miles, and a smaller, 20+ mile day. Also, I wanted to get a taste of what the northern reaches of the trail were like as I’d never been on any SHT past Lutsen. For the sake of my ride Kris, I decided to do a little yo-yo loop up north.
When Kris dropped me off on the side of the Gunflint Trail, just outside of Grand Marais, I was more nervous than ever. This is more pressure than the through-hike! If I can’t finish 4 days, I’d certainly have to cancel or seriously rethink my trip, now officially scheduled for September 1, just a few weeks into the future. What if my body gives out after two 35-mile days? What if my gear isn’t on lock down? Do I have the time to test something different? What if I decide that I hate backpacking??
I set off north. Right off the bat, I had to tell myself to take it one day, one hour, one step at a time. If I start thinking how tomorrow will go, or how the FKT attempt in a few weeks will be so tough, it creates a bad mental state. My mantra, which I said to myself in the quiet, overcast woods, was “if it’s not positive, it’s negative. It has to be all positive from here on out.”
My final plan was to hike north all day, 35 miles, lollipop Saturday for 37 miles, hike south Sunday for 38 miles, and finish it up with a 25 miler back south to my car. My mom would meet me out on the trail for fun to hike the last few miles. Reasonable enough, and it would certainly be a confidence booster to make it back to my car.
The clouds burned off in just an hour of hiking, and the sun was peeking out at the great overlook onto Grand Marais at the city ski trail parking lot. I made an early stop at the restroom there, must be the coffee, I thought, and was happy to use the toilet paper there instead of the few squares that I’d packed!
I filled up my empty water bottle at a small creek under the ski trail, and was really surprised by the clarity of the water! That’s how you know you’re way up north. Before long, the sun was fully out, and I entered into some signature singletrack trail on the way down to Devil’s Track River. I saw a few other day hikers, and was having a great time already. Yes, there are the nerves, just starting out a very challenging trip–anything can happen–but great to be off of work with nothing to do except be in the woods for four whole days. I ate a bit of food and tried to readjust the heavy pack, weighed down in majority by my food stash. And this is less than half of what I’ll have to bring in a few weeks…
I passed Woods Creek and grabbed the final SHT map, ‘Woods Creek to Canada’. It was classic SHT through here, with bubbling brooks, cascading streams, big woods, and the constant up and down on rocky and rooty singletrack. My ongoing joke is that the SHT is always rockier and rootier than I remember it. I was laughing to myself about that.
A few more creeks, past the Durfee Creek campsite, and I came to a huge overlook on Lake Superior. I traversed a field for a half mile or so, with the biggest view of the lake you can imagine. Beautiful. It gave me a chance to check out the weather. The clouds had moved back in, which actually felt great. It was perfect hiking weather. The berries were out in full force and I ate some thimbleberries and raspberries along the way. I had my eye on blueberries, but just reds for now.
With a couple of hours under my belt, I started getting tired and sore already. Perhaps because I hadn’t slept much the night before, perhaps my pack was heavy (16 whopping pounds), but I could feel my feet and legs aching already. I stopped for water and food, and sat down for a few minutes at the Kimball Creek bridge. Just 5 minutes sitting was great. From there, it was rocky highland hiking for a while, and then down, down, down to the Lakewalk. I saw several backpackers through this bit, which was nice.
I was so excited to get to the Lakewalk because it immediately is such a change of scenery. The Big Lake Superior is enchanting. Only a few steps in the rocky beach made me realize that it’d be slow going on this 1.7-mile section. I craned my neck downwards to look for agates. A half hour later, no agates, my pace had slowed, and I was sick of the rocks. It was pretty cloudy at this point, and I wondered if it would rain. I stopped to get water, and was pleased with the crystal clear, cold product straight from Lake Superior. It tasted delicious, and I sipped and sucked as much as I could through the tight filter. Finally, I turned off into the woods, then across Highway 61, then further into the woods.
It was slow going to Judge C.R. Magney State Park, but I knew that was my next stop, and the big landmark before my final destination. I did a few calculations and wondered if I’d done some bad math. I was supposed to get to the campsite on Carlson Creek at 35 miles, but that seemed really far away. Oh, well, there were a few cop-out campsites and I can always alter my plans.
I was dragging ass into the State Park, but it was again good to see people. I zipped right through to the Devil’s Kettle, a waterfall on the Brule River at Magney State Park. There were plenty of tourists around, and found a nice place right above the falls to sit down, fill up on water, and eat a bit of food. No time to dawdle, however, and I was back at it quickly.
It was a grind up the Brule River out of Judge C.R. Magney State Park. The wide walking path deteriorated to a narrow, overgrown and very technical trail. The tourists were gone and at was again just me out here in the woods. I felt the end coming near as I hit a roadwalk along Camp 20 Road. It was rough going, I felt my legs throbbing and the bottoms of my feet hurting, different things cropping up, and I was just having a nice conversation with myself on this lone road. “Feet hurt, knees hurt, ears don’t hurt, butt doesn’t hurt, stomach feels fine, big toe hurts…”
I finally turned off of dumb Camp 20 Road and was so happy to get back onto the dirt. I looked at the signpost at the parking lot, and realized I’d definitely miscalculated my mileage back at home. It was closer to 38 miles to the first Carlson Pond campsite. At this point, I was over 32 miles and it was nearing 7 o’clock. So, six more miles would take two hours, which puts me at 9 o’clock. Nope. Nooooooope. I could hike three more miles to the nearest campsite and be at my planned 35 for the day. However, I’d be too far out to complete my initial plan of hiking out and back to Jackson Lake Road Trailhead the next day. I pulled out my map, but had to put it back because it was too muddy to walk and read the map simultaneously.
The three miles between Camp 20 Road and Hazel Campsite felt different–very, very remote. It was moose country up here. The trail was muddy and very overgrown with droopy brush. I was relentlessly crouched and swatting brush away from my face. And yet, I pushed through and kept the legs churning forward. Right on time, I arrived at Hazel Campsite, all to myself.
I made a point to set up my tarp in the soft grass first, because I couldn’t be sure the rain would hold out on the cloudy evening. I unpacked my things, and felt obligated to collect firewood. It’d been raining recently and every stick seemed wet. I tried to multitask by looking for standing sticks on the way to get water, and found enough for a small fire. The water was from a six-inch-deep hole in a tiny crick, but it was clear as ever. Mosquitoes wanted my blood, so I buttoned up and used my headnet.
Day 2 – Saturday, August 13, 2016
I woke up to my alarm ringing at 7am and rain falling on my tarp. I didn’t know if I should get out of the dry safety into the rain, but after 20 seconds of deliberation just did it. It wasn’t raining at all, actually, and all that was falling was water clinging to leaves above me. My body was definitely sore, but feeling good and up for another day as far as I could tell. I didn’t spend much time lounging around to break in the day, so threw everything into the bag and set off. My tarp was sopping wet and I ate on the go.
I kept going north and decided that Arrowhead Trail would be a fine turnaround point. Jackson Lake Road, my planned turnaround point, is the next trailhead north, but that is just too far. If I can’t make it far enough south today, it pushes the final two days back to big miles. As well, I was hoping for a shorter day on Monday to allow for driving back to Duluth, unpacking, and potentially surgically reattaching my tendons. Well, hopefully it wouldn’t come to that. So I set off with my sights on Arrowhead Trail. Luckily, there wasn’t too much droopy brush right off the bat. Again, this section felt so much different, like deep woods Canada. It was a dreary day once again, but I didn’t complain. I did complain, however, about the abundant mosquitoes.
I was looking hard for moose, because it just seemed like this is their habitat. Swamps, boreal forests, and dead silence. I’d stop and look for one at a vantage point, but immediately get swarmed by the biting insects. The spiders were working hard, too, and I destroyed hundreds, if not thousands of their bridges across the trail via my face. Early morning frustrations.
Surprisingly, I saw another southbound hiker an hour in. She stopped and asked me where I was going and stuff. Very chatty, which was nice to stop and have some interpersonal interaction. She was headed south to Grand Marais over the weekend. I said I’d probably see her later since I was headed back south after Arrowhead Trail. Once we crossed paths, I wondered what her deal was. Where would I see her again? If she’s going 2.5mph, I’m going 3mph, I’m walking 6 miles more, we crossed paths at 8:30… I couldn’t do the math in my head, but it was certainly something to fixate on. I wonder what her name is?
It was tough going to Arrowhead Trail. The deep woods singletrack was pretty rugged up here. The mystery girl had said it was her favorite part of the trail, and I could see why. However, I was sick of mosquitoes and sick of spider webs and I wasn’t truly joyous about hiking at the moment. How am I going to complete this trip? If I can’t make it two measly days, how can I do nine? Then, I thought about today. I can finish today. Before long, I had made it north to Arrowhead Trail, turned around and south back to Hazel, about 11.5 miles and over 4 hours in for the day. It was good to get an idea of how this section of trail is. It’ll probably be a short blip in three weeks.
In the muddy and droopy brush headed back to Camp 20 Road, it started sprinkling. I told myself I’d take the rain poncho out if my shirt got wet. Only a few drops so far. The rain tapered off. Nice. Then it started sprinkling again. It didn’t let up and I had to get the rain poncho to avoid getting wet. I threw the thing on over me and my backpack, which was good timing as the steady rain started. I made it to Camp 20 Road for the two miles on gravel, and I got a good look on the horizon. It was dark, and so rain came down hard. I walked the stupid road in pouring rain. My pants became fully saturated, as my shoes and socks. I put my head down and kept trucking. No sense to stop in this mess.
I made it to an overlook on the Brule River valley, far north from Devil’s Kettle, and didn’t see even a patch of blue. The rain had tapered off, though, and I was able to drink a lot of water and eat some food. Down to the Brule, and the day switched quickly. All the sudden, I saw a glance of blue sky, then the sun peeked out, then the clouds and rain burned away and I took of the muggy rain poncho. It was mid-day by now, and I ate a lot of food. The Sriracha beef sticks were incredible, paired with squeaky, warm cheddar cheese. I was rejuvenated, and hoofed it down to Devil’s Kettle. Tourists were abundant in the fresh sunshine.
I remembered the Lakewalk being right after Magney State Park, but time slowed down. I slipped on a bridge on my last step off of the slick wood and became angry. My mood switched and I was frustrated that I was tired, sore and it was already 3pm. I’d made a big chunk of the day, but still had many more hours of walking. I wasn’t on 3mph pace and was bored if nothing else. I slipped on another bridge near the Little Brule River, on the last step off of the stupid bridge, and my trekking poles went flying, I fell down to my knees and my pants snagged on a nail, ripping a gaping hold in them. Luckily, my body had no tears and I was fine. I loudly yelled some choice swear words, but was laughing afterwards. I look like shit, I thought, all dirty, smell terrible, and with a huge tear in my pants.
This trip, I decided to do an experiment. I don’t know if performance enhancing drugs are a thing with the fastest known time (FKT) crowd, the backpacking crowd, but I wanted to experiment with performance enhancing drugs. I packed two joints with me, with the intent of smoking them on Saturday and Sunday, my two middle days. Is this a performance enhancing drug? Yes, or at least I hoped it would be! Enhancing mentally more than physical, though, but that still enhances the performance. Walking alone on this rugged trail with everything to survive on my back for hour after hour, mile after mile, is more of a mental challenge anyways. I had kept tabs on my mental state on Friday, and was going to compare with Saturday. It seemed fitting to smoke the Saturday joint at 4:20pm, and with my brain in a funk and a tear in my pants, I focused on that little upcoming break. My mood changed once again, and I got excited. Plus, this would be right before the Lakewalk. 4:18 came along and I smoked and walked. In a few puffs and a few steps, it was reduced to the tiniest roach ever, and I was feeling good. Not the overwhelming existential experience of a college freshman in a dorm room, but it was different enough to stimulate the brain.
I hit the Lakewalk in the sun, and tried to make good time. I couldn’t help but look down, and found several agates. They were washed completely smooth, like marbles, by the tumbling Lake Superior waves. Perfect. I emptied my shoes of rocks at the end, and started uphill towards the Kadunce River. I was still behind schedule, and still hadn’t seen the girl hiker from the morning. I took my hat off, put my head down, and took it home. No sense to stop now, I’ll be eating my hot mush before long.
1, 2, 1, 2. I was pushing on forward as the sun disappeared behind fast-moving clouds. It look ominous and I was nervous it’d rain on me right as I got to camp. Luckily, there were four campsites upcoming to choose from. I decided to push towards the last one, Kimball Creek, but could stop at a few different Kadunce River sites. I looked down and realized my hat, clipped to my waistbelt, was gone! NO! It was my hat from Ironman Wisconsin and had sentimental value up the zing-zang. So, I turned around to get it. No, no. It could be closer to the Lakewalk than not… I could add five miles just to get the hat. Is that worth it, I thought? No. So I turned around again, terribly disheveled, but didn’t let it become too much of an issue. A hat is all it is. Not ten minutes later, I got to the first campsite on the Kadunce and chatted with the mystery hiker girl from earlier. Cool! She’d made it a long, long ways, at least 20 miles, and I didn’t have much to say to her. In my tired state, with the loss of my hat, I was more focused on setting my pack down. I wished her goodbye, likely forever. As I walked away, I briefly reconsidered and thought about going back to set up camp, building a fire, eating food and talking it up, but did not do it. I pressed on and it was not too much longer that I arrived at Kimball Creek, alone at the campsite.
I set up camp quickly, got another fire together, although it was very tough to find firewood, and my feet hurt really bad. They were very, very wet and looked like moldy raisins. I set up my tarp to have it dry out, and it luckily did really quickly. I cooked and ate my mushy dinner, and relaxed by the fire as dusk set in. The ominous clouds had cleared out and it was a beautiful evening. Before pitch dark, I crawled into my shelter and slept better this second night.
Day 3 – Sunday, August 14, 2016
On the third day, I woke up to beautiful sunshine as my alarm went off at 7 o’clock. My legs felt surprisingly great. Why, I do not know. Perhaps because I slept better? I’m getting “trail strong”? Regardless, I made a point to not dawdle and get my things packed up quickly. Everything was bone dry this morning, which was nice. I was walking around without long sleeves, shirtless in fact, and very happy with the lack of bugs. I set off feeling good and excited to see more new trail. But first, back to Grand Marais.
The first few hours flew by and I was feeling good. I made a special point to drink water. In fact, water was a constant thought, and something that I literally had to focus on. The ridge near Durfee Creek was even more stunning than before. I avoided bridges at all costs, and would walk around them. I zipped through the Devil’s Track River quickly. It was good to see people recreating, and the ski trails in Grand Marais were hopping with people enjoying the beautiful, perfect Sunday morning. I stopped at the parking lot to take a survey for the National Forest, which was kind of entertaining. I was almost a mile ahead of schedule and could afford the time. “Are you: hiking? Obviously yes. Foraging for berries, fossils, rocks, things like that?” “Umm, I suppose yes.” “Traveling by non-motorized water?” “Nope.” “Doing any relaxing?” “Nope.” I was able to get a tiny bit of sunscreen from the nice National Forest employee, too, without my hat on this sunny day.
From Grand Marais, I crossed over the Gunflint Trail where I was dropped off two days prior, and it was a grueling climb. Up, up, up, but was eventually afforded a beautiful view of Grand Marais from high above. I was sweating, and again had to focus on drinking water. I bumped out onto the North Shore State Trail, and walked through the swampy brush for nearly two miles. I set a time to get back onto the singletrack, 1 o’clock. and hit it right on the nose, two miles later, 18 miles in for the day.
At lunch time, I stopped, sat down, and ate some delicious food. I ate up, washed it down, but got nervous about my water. I was half-full, but didn’t see any water sources on the map to my south. Regardless, I was feeling good, really good, and kept trucking. It was a long trek into featureless woods until the Cascade River State Park. This section was difficult. I filled up on water at Sundling Creek, which was more like a pond, and made my way through narrow trail. Finally, I saw a beautiful overlook to the Cascade River valley. My water stash had dwindled again, and I was really looking forward to mid-way to the 4 o’clock hour to take a quick break.
I knew there was a spur trail loop split at the north end of the Cascade River, and I kind of wanted to take the western bank, but didn’t look to hard at signage and ended up on the eastern side anyways. It was a beautiful section, typical riverside SHT. Up and down, steep trail and roots a-plenty.
I took a much-anticipated break on the flat rocks of the Cascade River, just 15 minutes, and continued on with plenty of time to spare. I was averaging well over 3mph somehow, and still feeling great on the day. I think that my relentless forward pursuit was taking a toll on my body, however, and I felt more specific muscles and tendons getting overworked versus the overall fatigue of the previous two days. My feet were only now starting to get sore, 31 miles and 10 hours on the day, but I knew I was pretty close to my campsite at Indian Camp Creek. It was quick to the bottom of the Cascade River, which was beautiful. This is somewhere I’d like to spend the whole weekend exploring. From the bridge over Cascade, it was up. Up, up, up to Overlook Mountain. I was sweating once again.
I was counting the seconds as I walked. Only 15 more minutes, I’ll be there. Ok, now only 14 more minutes. My wrist was getting a workout as I became eager to end the day and checking my watch over and over. Luckily, it was relatively early, and I finally got to the multi-group campsite around 6:30pm. There were a few bros at the site, but it was so big and sprawling I didn’t talk to them, just set up my own camp right off the short spur, with my own bench and fire pit. I set up quickly, my agenda becoming automatic. Unpack, set up tarp, get food stuff ready, get water. I found a lot of good firewood to make a raging fire amidst it all. Why I made fires this trip, I don’t know. Finally sitting down, I was on cloud 9, and opened up my phone to cell service. I uploaded my GPS data and checked messages. Tisk, tisk, using technology out in the pristine wilderness, but it was nice to stimulate the brain. My food stash was now nearly depleted, which was great. I ate everything, leaving just enough to get me through the final day, calculated at 25 miles. I relaxed under the clear skies and nice little fire, found a good position to sit and stretched my legs. They felt fine.
Once I crawled into my tarp and quilt, I saw a little field mouse running around. Great. Get out of here, ya’ vermin! I angrily whispered at him as not to alarm the fellow campers within earshot. It was humid, and my tarp collected the moisture. I didn’t fall asleep as easily as I thought and the illuminating moon made it clear as day.
Day 4 – Monday, August 15, 2016
I woke up especially early on the final morning. I heard my fellow campers arise before sunrise, likely to hike to Lookout Mountain for the view. Good idea, but I slept later than that. It was another sunny and beautiful morning, and I set off without haste. My gear was simply shoved away into the bag, last-day style. It was a steep climb out of Indian Camp Creek, and my legs were a bit fatigued. I felt certain small tendons and joints especially sore, but my feet luckily felt fine. I was eating a lot of my food early on, and trying to push on quickly to just get home. I’d made a plan with my mom to meet on the trail. She was going to park at Britton Peak as well, hike north as I hike south, and we’d meet and take it back to Britton together. I wondered where I’d meet her, and figured at the bottom of Moose Mountain. That was to be many hours in the future, however.
I got tired pretty quickly on this Monday morning. I thought of my colleagues at work as I happened to look at my watch at 8:01. I ate more food and pressed on. Despite my motivation to walk fast and avoid stopping, I was already behind schedule just a few hours in. There were so many spider webs, I couldn’t take it. A thought crossed my mind, of sadness, that this was my last day. The dread and agony of the first few days, a great third day, and I just wished it was the long hike. It is grueling, it is strenuous and tedious, but the freedom of having nothing to do but walk is fantastic. Eat, drink, sleep and walk. So simple.
By Jonvick Creek, I was fed up. It was the thought of being done today that pushed me through, but it felt more like a death march than a relaxing walk in the woods. I kept my head down, just peeking my head up enough to barely glance at the beautiful overlook of Caribou Lake. Lake Agnes was next, and that was enough to spur a change in thought. The trail became more walkable, and I had fun hooting and hollering over the lake, looking for a cool series of echoes. I saw some other backpackers getting some morning water on the very south end of Lake Agnes, and one guy was incredibly surprised that I was going 25 miles today. I didn’t brag to him how I’d already hiked 100 miles in the last three days. This is the easy day, bro!
It was slow going through the Poplar River. I figured I’d be right by Lutsen, but it took forever.
Once I got past Lutsen, I tried to remember the landscape of the trail from my memory of the Superior Spring 50k. With the more recent memory of 60 miles of the Superior Hiking Trail to the north, this part of the trail was extremely hilly. Up, down, up, down. Big up, steep, steep down. Relentless elevation. It was hard on the legs.
Up a huge, huge, climb, I was huffing and puffing and saw my mom coming down. It was nice to talk to her, and it diverted my attention from the tedious nature of the task at hand. From there, it was go time. After traversing Moose Mountain and going down the extremely steep south side of the ridge, it was pretty smooth trail from there. It took several hours, but we didn’t really stop at all. I didn’t eat much, and didn’t drink much, and we didn’t really talk much. I was really focused on getting to the car at this point. I thought I could maybe I could shave off a half hour from the 3mph average, and I went for it. I’d cruise past my mom uphill and 45 minutes later, she’d run back up to me. I was jealous of her ability to run, tried it on some very flat and easy sections, but couldn’t do it. It felt like my knees could tear, so reverted back to walking. It was fast walking, though.
I mentally clicked off the landmarks: Oberg Mountain, Leveaux, and then Britton. We sensed the end, and it was a glorious site to see the packed parking lot, with my old Subaru sitting as I left her. I dropped my trekking poles and touched the car with a huge smile. I could have gone 10 more miles, but would have hiked the previous 25 a bit differently. The root beer I’d stashed in my car was the tastiest gulp of my life. The real question is after another 10, would I be able to double that? Then, after that, would I be able to add another 30 miles? I didn’t even get half of the trail done. I felt pretty decrepit the rest of the day, but was it that far off from how I felt the first night out there? How does the spectrum of ‘degradation’ to ‘trail strong’ operate? Is it possible to feel trail strong but have certain body parts slowly give out? How long would that take? The questions didn’t stop. I won’t know the answers until I’m at Wisconsin, the southern terminus of the Superior Hiking Trail. Questions and doubts aside, this trip was good and built a sense of confidence that I could not get from any where else. It is go time.