The North Country National Scenic Trail is the longest in the United States stretching 4,800 miles across eight states from North Dakota to Vermont. I have hiked the Superior Hiking Trail, the Kekekabic and the Border Route.
Sometimes, you just need to take advantage of a situation.
It was a significant drive from Saint Paul up to Lake Superior and the soulful Porcupine Mountains, where I’d set aside several days to walk a loop as fall was just beginning its audacious celebration of death. A place I’d always hoped to visit – and take my kayak – is only three hours drive from the State Park.
Three hours in the opposite direction from home!
Still, I asked several paddling friends if they might want to meet me there on a whim and with fingers tightly crossed we’d have no wind and few waves.
No one could go.
So, I stuffed the idea in the back of head and gave it little thought as I immersed myself in the emerging colors, the luminous light, and the intimate sounds of the Porkies. But, as has happened so often when I’m out in the field, on the next-to-last day I ran into another backpacker I’d met on day one. We took photos, shared stories and then she mentioned that she had worked at Pictured Rocks and I was not to miss it – especially the sunset cruise and Chapel Falls loop.
After checking in at home and with my clients, I was cleared to tack on a few more days to see this astonishing natural wonder, and walk a few more steps of the North Country Trail.
Michigan’s Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore hugs the northern coast of Lake Superior at its widest point. It’s named such because of dramatic 200-foot sandstone cliffs that are dramatically colored as if a painter spilled her pots down the side. The four pigments are from minerals leeching out of the rock – red iron, white limonite, blue copper and black manganese.
In addition to the cliffs, there are magnificent formations looming above remarkably clear water, in shapes that have acquired apt names like Miner’s Castle, Chapel Rock and Indian Head (Gitchee Gumee Manitou by the original people’s meaning “Great Spirit of the Big Water).
While it was a bummer to be without kayak – or any of my paddling gear – hiking above the cliffs offers striking vistas as well. In fact, 42 miles of the North Country Trail follows the length of the park with several developed (but primitive) backcountry sites.
I bolted to Munising, nabbing one of the last seats on the day’s final launch of Pictured Rocks Cruises. Funny how even when the weather turned blustery and cold with 5-7 foot waves, no one backed out. It helped that someone passed around Dramamine in line
Due to the waves, our trip was shortened, but thrilling. We all bonded in line then on the boat, “oohing and ahhing” at the spectacular scenery as the boat bounced and shook. I was terrified my phone would bounce right into the lake and held tightly to take photos, walking up and down the third deck even when warned to stay seated.
That night, I found a stellar little site right on the lake at Bay Furnace near Christmas, Michigan. Northern Lights were predicted, but I slept through it all – if it actually happened.
I had my eye on the brilliance promised the next day – a magical combo of crystal clear skies and fall leaves. Ernest Hemingway is long associated with Key West and yet he spent vacations in the UP (Upper Peninsula, Michigan) He said, “The best sky was in Italy or Spain and in Northern Michigan in the fall.” Ain’t that the truth.
My sky was cerulean and vied for attention with the equally dazzling water, more a a light azure in many shades, like an interior decorator’s paint-chips. It’s five miles from the county road on bumpy and rutted dirt to the trailhead. I chose to walk counter-clockwise and take in Chapel Falls first.
Chapel Falls is one of hundreds of falls in the “UP” (Upper Peninsula) of Michigan. Framed by hemlock and maple, fuzzy semi-circles cling to the exposed cliff as the water makes an 80-foot journey. I view it from all sides before I continue through the forest to the lake.
Here, I meet Chapel Rock, a remnant of Cambrian-age sandstone carved and eroded, leaving its lone white pine stranded except for one thick root reaching to the cliff behind it. I take a photo in the chilly shade and talk to the other hiker, a Japanese man teaching at a school in Southern Michigan.
At this point in my hike, I was starting to talk to myself and mull over my life, but Daiske crashed in and changed the tenor of the walk. “Let’s walk together!” he suggests and I say ok with laugh, as my day becomes a shared one, where silliness and playfulness infuse the walk.
It’s a very easy 10 miles, down to sandy Chapel Beach, skipping stones begging to be skipped and a sandy ledge calling to my Frankenstein post-holing. At Indian Head, we wonder at the views and snap photos of each other, stopping for a snack on an impossible precipice.
Daiske’s English, of course, if superb while I can only sputter out Kon’nichiwa to the amusement of passersby and a very formal Arigarogozaimashita when my picture is taken. Daiske will have none of this, chattering away in Japanese and hoping I pick up a few words, like my favorite, Sugoi – amaaaaazing!
As we walk in an out of yellowing Aspen, Daiske takes out his phone to write down the slang I use over and over. He tells me that his Judo pals in Southern Michigan say things like, “I gotta split,” or “I’m outta here!” when saying goodbye. I suggest using a phrase from the surfer community of yore, “Let’s blow this popsicle stand!” I’d love to be a fly on the wall when that comes out of his mouth!
A tour boat slowly follows the shoreline below us. It might have been a better day to see the cliffs from the water, but I loved last night’s bumpy ride in orange light. Kayakers skim by as do sailboats. One takes our picture as we climb steeply down to Lover’s Leap, warned not to leap as the water is only about six-feet deep.
Soon, we meet Mosquito Beach, where Sandstone erodes into flaky pancakes, crispy under our feet. A shelf underwater reveals ridges as if still in motion but now solid, formed by waves of another eon. People from a nearby campsite build tall, triangular cairns from flat rocks, dwindling in size from large to teeny.
We walk in the water to meet the trail out and say goodbye to this magical shoreline. The forest walk takes us past a few more falls, not as impressive, but rushing and musical. The forest itself begins to glow in the late afternoon light as if the air has also changed colors for the season.
I drive Daisuke back to his car, five miles out, then five miles back in on another rutted road. It seems he had a different hiking plan, but was having so much fun, he stuck with mine. I have a huge meal at the Bear Trap Inn, sampling local brew and yet, again, sharing my experience by inviting a couple to sit at my table. We all do “mystery shots” before I drive south and grab a campsite in the National Forest on Colwell Lake.
Only one other camper hunkers in the woods next to his fire and I turn in as the last of the light glows on the alicoop.
Affectionately known as the “Porkies,” this Lake Superior wilderness in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula boasts the largest primary stand of hemlock in the Great Lakes along with hundreds of cascades on volcanic rock.
I crawl into the alicoop – my tent – before it goes completely dark, watching the rays of sunlight pierce the thick forest, creeping slowly into open areas and leaving long shadows on a beaver pond reflecting the brilliant red of autumn. Squeaks and chirrups fill the canopy, ones I quickly learn may sound like birds but are actually chipmunks, busily collecting and stashing food before this brilliant Indian Summer gives way to a long, harsh winter.
They’ve become my companions on my three-day backpack trip in Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park, scurrying across the trail then stopping to give me a sidelong stare, their fleecy tails quivering before they dart away.
I wonder if my food bag is safely out of reach hanging from a metal bear pole. Couldn’t they just launch from the hemlock brushing its sleek side, grab the bag and begin chewing it open? Unlikely. What’s left of my food is wrapped in ziplocs, inside a thick odor-proof bag, and inside yet another bag with a weave like kevlar. Still, one fearless chipmunk poses on a nearby stump only a few feet from my head, his black lashed eyes looking deep into mine as if to say, C’mon, you know I’m cute and want to feed me.
Sorry, pal, all my food is hanging on that pole and besides, I’m laying down now at the end of a good, long day of walking and not about to get up. So he joins his friends who are joined by others as if to reprimand or entertain – a couple of howling wolves, a barred owl’s who cooks for you, who cooks for you-alllll, and what seems like non-stop slaps kersplash! from a set of hard-working beavers long after the stars come out, so bright I see their reflection on the water.
Sleep matters, but I love the show – and that’s precisely why I’m here.
The best sky was in Italy and Spain and Northern Michigan in the fall.
The Porcupine Mountains, affectionately knows as the “Porkies,” abut Lake Superior on the northwestern part of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. The park was established in 1945 to save the largest primary stand of hemlock and hardwood in the Great Lakes, 35,000 acres to be exact. Untouched virgin woodland is tucked deep under an escarpment of volcanic basalt that rises abruptly from the lake. It’s perfectly situated as if a viewing platform to this “forest museum,” one filled with an ecologically diverse system including gray wolf and coyote, beaver and otter, fisher, marten, and minks, bobcats, lynx and cougar, 200 black bears, and, of course, porcupines.
Environmentalist and conservationist Aldo Leopold wrote, “The richest values of wilderness lie not in the days of Daniel Boone, nor even the present, but rather in the future.” He joined efforts underway to save this strikingly beautiful mountainous piece of land, the highest between the Alleghenies of West Virginia and South Dakota’s Black Hills. Retrieving it from timber and mining companies cost the state a million dollars, about $21-million in today’s dollars.
Nearly thirty years after the park was founded, the state of Michigan created a Wilderness Act that gave the park a new designation along with ninety miles of trails (part of which is shared with the North Country Trail), backcountry campsites and cabins along with interpretive centers and easy access to the highlights by road, including Lake of the Clouds and the Summit Peak Observation Tower.
For me, it was a chance to backpack close to home (a five-hour drive from Saint Paul) and take in fall in all of its heavenly beauty, enjoying forests and lakes as well as a feature I was unaware of before – hundreds of water falls and rapids made up of crystal clear water shooting down billion-year-old rock beneath piney boughs, a subtle and smaller-scale pleasure from the Rocky Mountains, Sierra or Alps but one that surprised and delighted me to my core.
I am not a person who meticulously plans every hike. Sure, I pull together maps, check the average temperatures and historic weather patterns, pack the right gear and food, consider escape routes, etc. so when I learned that I had to reserve specific campsites ahead of time for this backpack trip, I was slightly annoyed. I love the freedom of not knowing where I’ll stay each night, walking as far or as little as I want to go and letting the day unfold.
That was not to be the case this time around. Though it turns out for good reason. Overcrowding and campers definitely leaving a trace led the park supervisors to limit the number of hikers to designated campsites, no longer allowed “dispersed camping.” The good news is I’d know where I’d end up, have it all to myself and that there would be a flat spot to set the alicoop. The bad news is I had no idea where I wanted to go.
That’s when I decided to call the park and ask. And who would answer the phone but Katie Urban, Park Interpreter. Katie was amazing. She obviously loves the park and gave me good advice on how to create a hiking loop as well as listing some of her favorite sites (and those to avoid which included most of the lakefront due to deep mud) The most critical bit of information she shared was that, unlike national parks, the Porkies does not have a policy of holding back permits for walks-ups. Once a site is reserved, it’s gone, and while I was hiking mid-week, my trip was smack dab in the middle of “leaf peeping” season and the park could fill fast.
Katie gave me courage – and a nudge – to get my act together a few weeks before heading up. I found the reservation website manageable, but the cost a bit steep – $20 per night plus an $8 service charge. This trip was getting spendy! Even after I clicked purchase, my receipt was not a permit and required picking up at the Visitor Center where a ranger would presumably detail all regulations and requirements before I could start walking.
I took my time before pressing purchase, though, to be certain I made the best choices because there’s quite a complicated cancellation policy. I have gone ahead and included it below so you can share in the irritation amusement…
Customers may change or cancel a reservation through the reservation call center or online with a registered account. The reservation fee is non-refundable and additional cancel fees will apply. After the date a campsite reservation is created, it cannot be cancelled or modified more than 5 months prior to the arrival date. If a reservation is cancelled, or modified by shortening the stay, the following fees will be assessed:$10 cancel/modification fee, and, a percentage of the value of eligible unused camp night fees, based on number of months the reservation has been held, from 10% of the value of the eligible nights for reservations changed or cancelled within 2 months of the reservation creation date, up to 40% for reservations changed or cancelled more than 5 months after the reservation creation date. If cancelled on the day of arrival or later, the first night’s fee and the value of any additional past nights are forfeited. Reservations that are cancelled on the same day they are created will be assessed the $10 cancel/modification fee. Modifications to reservations that do not affect the length of stay, will only be assessed the $10 cancel/modification fee. Modifications to reservations that results in an increase in the length of stay, will NOT be charged a cancel/modification fee. No-Show Reservations are held until 3pm, two days after the scheduled arrival date. If not checked in, no-show reservations will be cancelled resulting in a loss of 2 nights fees. Any remaining unused nights will be eligible for refund less the percentage value indicated in the Cancellation/Modification Formula Chart. Once a booking has been checked in at the park, if a customer chooses to reduce their stay or check out early, the refund due will be the value of unused nights less the percentage value based on the original reservation creation date. A night is considered used if the check out occurs after 1pm on that date. Please check online for more information on reservation policies.
day one, Government Peak Trail Head to BC-3 – 6 miles
The Visitor Center is crowded, but Ranger Nickie gives me all the time I need for questions, underscoring the Artist-in-Residence program and my need to carry water on the escarpment since I won’t cross a stream for over nine miles.
I leave my car on the road finding the trailhead parking full and walk up a cobblestone path in a fresh, lake air-conditioned 46-degrees through a thick stained glass forest of crimson, amber and umber, chickadees clicking and shushing. A ruffed grouse, known also as a wood hen or partridge is in full camouflage making a racket as it squawk-flies through the thick understory.
It’s steep here and I use my poles to pull myself to my first view looking out across a tapestry of color. My feet move from crackling maple leaves to soft pine, even this close to the road, it’s silent except for the chips of a yellow-rumped warbler. The history of this place is all fire and ice, its geologic name of mid-continent drift seeming to portray a more casual leave-taking and nothing like the eruption of magma that occurred when the land was ripped in half.
Much of the Upper Great Lakes is tree-covered. Yes, there are millions of lakes including the Greats, and wisely the first peoples and subsequent trappers and traders used water as their super highways, avoiding the nearly impassable forests. Here, though, the rock of the Keewanawan Supergroup is exposed, and the edge, while steep, is easy to navigate opening to jaw-dropping views of a serpentine river feeding the lake beyond.
The trail rolls up and down following the ridge, sumac in a flaming crimson and low yellowing blueberry bushes free now of all fruit thicken the floor. Autumn is just starting to put on its finery in the North Woods, and random Sugar Maples stick out as if on fire, or maybe haphazardly painted a blinding red.
I meet a fellow backpacker named Tawnee carrying far too much but smiling just the same. Like me, she stops every few minutes to gawk and admire, taking picture after picture, trying to hold this moment forever. A pileated woodpecker, big and bold, its red cap vying for dominance in this red world, pushes itself off a tree trunk, laughs loudly then floats into the valley.
This is a good place to pause in the shade of white pine, clinging to the rock and bent by wind and weather. It’s cool out of the sun and everywhere is evidence of magma – rock full of holes breaking into geometric chunks. This is Lakeshore Traps Basalt, tilted bedrock above a shallow inland lake that gets its name from the fog blanketing it each morning. Now it’s a deep cobalt reflecting the nearly cloudless sky.
My walk today is short even if I get a late start – only six miles to my site with sunset around 8:00. Up and up I go high above, then down again meeting day hikers afraid to step on slippery dirt while descending. I reach out to help one like Katlyn helped me on the Wind River High Route and she smiles. “You’re sleeping out here tonight? How cool!”
More and more walkers pass coming from the parking lot nearby. A campsite sits close to the junction and I send a silent thank you to Katie for suggesting I camp further on. Here are stairs made of wood, making the walking easier and helping prevent erosion. It leads to a complex of decking allowing the scarred earth below from so many tourists to heal. Everyone is in a good mood, the warm air, the pungent, earthy smell and the soft colors a balm.
When I move on, a sign warns me again to ensure I have a permit to camp and that the trail ahead is rough. The last part is directed not so much at me, but at those wanting to venture on from the safety of the ADA compliant platform. It’s just a few more miles with views down to the outlet and more startlingly bright colors.
I meet a young backpacker planning to walk to his car and ask if he might share a bit of water since he’s headed out. I drink right from his bottle, squeezing river water into my mouth from the filter. I tell him i have enough, but a bit nervous with just the two liters. Truth is, I can’t comfortably carry much more, so try to “camel up” before walking. He assures me I have enough but is happy to share before racing on.
BC-1 has the camper directly on the ridge looking back at the lake. No wonder it was nabbed before I began planning. BC-2 sits back a bit with an apron of rock. When I reach mine, I see I’ll be setting inside the forest, but my site marks the end of the high trail with a long front deck looking deep into the forest, out towards the Big Lake and back.
The sun aims deeply into the woods, yellow and warm making long shadows. As I set, two Air National Guard jets fly over piercing the sky with an explosive boom. So much for wilderness. I set up my bear hang, then take dinner to my deck, white pine silhouetting the setting sun. I stay here as the sky becomes a watercolor of apricot and a silver sliver of moon peaks through wispy clouds.
Just then, a man crashes through the trees. He’s dressed in camo and tells me he lives in nearby Ontonagon. “I need to come out every week to see where the leaves have gotten to,” he tells me before loping back the way I came.
A barred owl’s call echoes below and a wolf barks low and long. Hermit thrushes chip as the magenta sky becomes a burnt sienna and the first star appears. I can’t leave as I think back on this day, the first where I’m still adjusting to what’s presented, not sure how fast to go or how long to stop. For a moment I feel uncertain in my choice of coming here even though I felt compelled to see what was so close to where I live and get inside it.
The wind picks up and the darkness deepens revealing the Milky Way. A tufted titmouse rasps his scrappy call as I crawl into bed unsure just how cold it could get tonight. I stuff my water filter and electronics inside my bag in case it freezes then lay back to sleep, tired from the long drive and walk.
Suddenly, I hear a crash. Hey! Silence. Then another crash, tentative and more like a rustling and crunching. Hey! Get outta here! I shine my light out onto an empty campsite, far too big for me alone. I find my food bag twisting solemnly in the breeze.
Another crash, and now it’s right at me. HEYYYY!
It’s an acorn. And then, another acorn. Let’s call it the attack of the killer acorns. OK, I think I can survive this war. Go to sleep, Blissful, you have another hiking day tomorrow.
day two, BC-3 to LC-7 – 14 miles
The acorns back off and let me sleep deeply before I crawl out to watch the sky turn orange – another tip from Katie, Park Interpreter that the sunrises are particularly special from up here. Feeling confident this will be an easy day of hiking, I crawl back in and fall asleep as the sun slowly filters in and I realize it’s a lot later than I thought.
Leaving the escarpment, I walk under 1,500-foot Cuyahoga Peak, a steep overhanging cliff of eroding talus bright in the sunlight. I enter my first Hemlock forest. The Eastern Hemlock or pruche du Canada is a long-living pine with gentle and soft needled branches gracefully fanning away from its giant trunk shedding tiny pine cones. Shade-tolerant and water-loving, they grow easily on slopes, straight up for 100 feet.
It feels primeval in here, the trees clearing the floor of most other plants except maidenhair ferns. It’s looks cultivated, though by the hands of a character from a fairy tale. The light filters differently from the hardwoods, the rays exposed in shafts of dust and mist. I walk on a shelf of land, flat and open. Squirrels chatter and a red tailed hawk shrieks. I am now in the forest museum, amongst its residents.
At the Visitor Center I’m told that the wolves living in the Porkies all immigrated here when the park was created, their very existence on the planet on the verge of being eradicated. I leave the talus and move deeper into the forest, my trees (I call them now) edging towards the trail where I can touch the delicate fringe of their branches.
All around me are fallen trees, left (mostly) where they fell to act as hosts for new life in the form of bugs and fungi. So many fungi in reds and yellows, orange, brown and white. Gardens spring up and nurse logs sprout infant trees. Soon, I reach the Big Carp River, secreted in a blaze of red and yellow leaves. I’m temporarily blinded by diamonds of light on the water as I navigate to a crossing and plunge into its bracing coolness. A golden crowned kinglet solos in a high coloratura above the burbling water.
I move up and down on high banks above the water, the rushing never far from earshot and begin seeing backpackers. Most are older and carrying too much. I think it’s safe to say this is a beginner backpacker’s paradise. Not too hard, but still remote and full of surprises like this wondrous forest and the birds and animals I mostly hear but never see.
Trees along the ridge are so uniform they appear planted and then come upon the biggest surprise of the day. It’s here I meet the Big Carp River and its series of falls. Flying down shapely rock called Porcupine Volcanics Andesite, there’s usually not more than 5-10 feet of drop, yet in this intimate setting of pine boughs as curtains, the effect on me is more powerful than Niagara.
Silvery cascades of cold clear water dance beneath ancient hemlock in a wonderland of sound, rushing toward Lake Superior. But not before pausing briefly in deep pools where moss clings to the stair-stepping rock in hushed shadow. Shining Cloud, Big Carp and Bathtub Falls blend together in a chain of froth, fervent and relentlessly carving the stone to a smooth slide.
As if in a trance, I walk on a beach of river-smoothed rocks, the place all to myself and wonder if tonight I’ll have a campsite near something as glorious as this. A chickadee swishes at me, Yesiree, yesireeee-ee-ee!
The many falls on Big Carp River were a highlight of my backpack trip.
Leaving the river to climb high again, I use my hands on exposed to roots to pull myself up and over towards Lake Superior. The Ojibwe named it Gitchee Gumee, which simply means Big Water. I sing Neil Diamond’s nonsense lyrics from a song of the same name as I descend to a cabin at the shore, waves lapping at a sand-bar of tumbled pebbles.
I meet a boardwalk and move down the shore through a muddy swamp of thimbleberry and aspen. Many sites appear right on a stony beach under shapely cedar. Backpackers have been hard at work building wind breaks out of driftwood. I can’t imagine staying here during black fly hatch. Every site stands empty except for one at the junction where the occupants hang clothes in every reachable branch.
A posse of three generations passes, the youngest proudly carrying bear spray and, in an earnest voice tells me he hopes never to have to use it. Much space was devoted at the Visitor Center educating us on black bears like the fact that they’re are about 20,000 living in the Upper Peninsula alone and bears have a sense of smell 2,100 times stronger than our own. As well, the now obvious plea not to feed or approach bears sits right next to a picture from the early days of the park where a mother and two cubs peer into a car window awaiting a reward.
I don’t see any trace of bears and I’m not letting them have any of my food.
The forest continues in hardwoods turning yellow, the light golden. I join the Little Carp River which also promises a trio of falls and I’m not disappointed with Traders, Explorers and Trappers one after another. Small islands of Copper Harbor Conglomerate peak out as if someone dropped a bag of rocks into concrete. Andesite wears into hexagonal and moss-festooned stairs.
I’m tired and look for my site, but briefly leave the river after a small dammed section where a great blue heron slowly flaps his majestic wings to move out of my way. The hemlock return along with miniature cones and a needle carpet. Three sites appear in a row and I wonder if it will get loud tonight.
But no one comes and I claim a soulful spot near a small falls for the night, eating dinner against a rock as the lemon-yellow leaves brighten in their reflection, charging the air with color so intense, it hums.
day three, LC-7 to GP-6 – 14 miles
I lie in my nest watching sunlight climb slowly up the tree trunks before breaking camp and heading off into a forest of yellowing aspen. My steps are soft on an esker avenue of hemlock. Cedar line this part of the river and I the timbre changes as I walk up the cascades. Red leaves so bright they strain the eyes are scattered along the path.
People’s voices catch me from another cabin and I ask if they might have a beer to sell. Sadly, one’s at the car. It’s too early anyway and I march on along a boardwalk crushed by ferns to Overlooked Falls, a perfect chute over a block of stone so uniform he might have worn braces in his youth.
Back in the forest, maples tower above, their yellow leaves nearly out of site. The bark peels in large folds that I could lose an arm in. A dark eyed junko snaps at me while a quarrel of white throated sparrows jabber in popcorn staccato. A downy woodpecker gives a high-pitched laugh answered by the coach’s whistle of a golden crowned kinglet.
It’s blue on blue here fringed in kodachrome. Two snakes slither away from my step but pause to take my measure, lips parted. Lily Pond appears next to another cabin, empty and locked. I stop for water at a beaver dam with its own small falls and sit near dragonflies parked on the wooden steps.
It’s a short walk now through a magical forest of stained glass color towards another parking lot and hordes of tourists heading up to Summit Peak. Made of Volcanic Rhyolite it’s the highest point in the park at 1,958 feet, made higher by a wooden lookout. Most of the way is easy on wooden stairs and platform and it’s here I run into Tawnee again.
She looks well, but tells me she gave up her hike after falling twice on the steep section at the start. Still, she met a man who snaps our picture and they both tell me I need to visit Pictured Rocks National Seashore after I finish giving me all sorts of beta on camping, trails and the sunset cruise.
After we say goodbye and wish each other luck, I climb the tower and look out towards what I’ve walked. All I can see from here is the rocky crag of Cuyahoga Peak and a ring of fiery maples hiding Lake of the Clouds. It’s a steep descent to more forest, then another short mile of birds and luminous light before reaching glorious Mirror Lake.
Again, I feel fortunate Katie dissuaded me from staying. Not that it’s not splendid, but it’s crowded with three cabins and seven campsites, all taken. I can hear laughter and men’s voices yelling, likely at other men standing right next to them.
It’s a boardwalk through exploding cattails and loud frogs back into deep woods where I meet many backpackers preparing for their weekend with heavy packs and slow paces. I snag some water at a muddy stream which filters to clear, crisp liquid then search out my site.
It’s perfect. Reached by a short spur, it’s a private beaver pond surrounded by a cacophony of animals. I eat leaning on a rock couch before turning in early and reading late into the night, my friends unwilling to let me sleep peacefully until the stars glow bright, reflecting back to the dark velvety sky from the still water.
day four, GP-6 to Government Peak Trailhead – 6 miles
I lie in my sweet nest next to a private beaver pond and watch the sun catch the cardinal-red leaves at the shore’s edge. Three ducks splash into the water then cruise silently into its red and yellow middle, tipping over with butts in the air to feed.
I barely got any sleep, but what I did was delicious. It’s a climb to the top of Government Peak where two sites await their campers. The view is obscured, but I can just make out the sea of fall color reaching up and over the escarpment to the inland sea of blue.
Trap Falls is a large triangular spray to a large pool, but I’m mostly taken with the rapids after that rush along a flat slab of sandstone, taking a U-turn into a dark cavernous overhang of rock before slaloming toward a series of leaf-strewn basins.
There’s something about fall that touches every sense, reminding me of the brevity of life in its audacious celebration of death. I breathe it in, take pictures, touch, see, taste and listen.
Another beaver pond, the thick forest and then, I’m out.
epilogue and tips
What a trip! I got to the Porkies at the best time just as the leaves started changing and the air was still warm, the sun making everything glow. It’s not easy to find precisely the right time to visit, but I can’t imagine walking through in rain or slapping away mosquitos while savoring the waterfalls. That being said, if it was a bit warmer, I would have been in those falls and planned a far leisurely time to do so.
Here are a few tips to plan your trip:
location: Upper Peninsula, Michigan
distance: 90 miles of trail
best time to go: late summer (to avoid black flies) and fall but the trails are hiked all year round
highest point: 1,958 feet on Summit Peak
lowest: Lake Superior
type of travel: foot traffic only
dogs: must be leashed at all times
camping: 65 sites and 16 rustic cabins plus numerous car camping sites, more here
cell service: spotty
permits: All backcountry campers are required to carry and display a permit and it’s best to reserve ahead of time although you will have to pick up the actual permit at the Visitor Center, open 8am – 8pm, May 15-Oct 14. Disperse camping is prohibited.
water: There are many water sources except on the escarpment, so plan accordingly and always filter before drinking.
bears: While I never saw a bear, there are plenty of them unperturbed by human presence as well as all manner of clever “mini-bears’ (squirrels, chipmunks, etc). Not every site has a bear pole, so be sure to take some paracord to hang your food out of reach, ten feet high and ten feet away from a tree.
Campsites: 94, first-come-first-served but must be shared
Type of travel: foot traffic only
If you thought the Midwest of the United States was just flat and boring and that Minnesota specifically can be filed under “flyover country,” think again. The rugged and scenic Superior Hiking Trail (SHT), a 310-mile path starting just south of Duluth and following the North Shore of Lake Superior to Canada, puts all those notions to rest.
I hiked every section of the trail, except for the southern portion south of Two Harbors, over the 15 years that I’ve lived in Minnesota, fitting pieces in here and there between more famous trails. I was shocked this spring when a voice inside me compelled me to walk the SHT as a thru-hike all in one go. What happened surprised me—that this trail would become one of the most soulful backpack trips of my life.
About the SHT
Construction of the trail in what was then very wild country began in the mid-1980s. The plan was to connect some of the most interesting geological formations in the state, including the steep and rocky billion-year-old volcanic ridges of the Sawtooth Mountains consisting of basalt, rhyolite, anorthosite, and gabbro that offer expansive views of the big lake itself, plus copious ponds, lakes, streams, rivers and deep gorges where immense waterfalls race to the lake.
Dipping down into hardwood forests on the very edge of boreal, the trail is surrounded by birch aspen, pine, fir, and cedar. The footpath feels like a living organism, with voices from an abundance of birds and other creatures a daily soundtrack. By 2013, the trail was complete, ending at the Wisconsin border to officially become part of the North Country Trail, a 4,800-mile national and scenic trail that extends from North Dakota to Vermont.
When to Go
I might have chosen the worst time to go (June) – buggy, hot, and humid, and too early for berry picking. The SHT can and is hiked all year long, with fall being a favorite time as the maples and aspen turn brilliant colors.
I’ve backpacked in all seasons, including snowshoeing in winter (skiing is nigh near impossible on this steep terrain), which presents its own set of challenges due to extreme cold and deep snow. Spring can be very muddy and wet, and summer brings humidity and bugs until early to mid-August.
Early summer was the best fit for my schedule, so I packed a head net, permethrined my long-sleeved shirt, long pants, socks, and gloves, and simply went for it.
I should note here that ticks are prevalent at all times of year except during the hard freeze. Both species of blacklegged ticks, primary vectors for Lyme disease and other nasty illnesses, have spread into Minnesota, so every precaution should be taken to manage a bite.
Which Way to Go
I started south of Duluth and walked north. It does help to live in the state and have a driver and friends willing to shuttle me about. For many, having to be retrieved at such a remote, northern location as Otter Tail Road is a hassle. The Superior Hiking Trail Association provides a handy guide with transportation options. I’ve used Superior Shuttle in the past, and it’s doable to arrange a pickup/drop off at nearly any road crossing – for a price.
That being said, which direction you walk is a matter of taste. I found the buildup walking north (technically east) more exciting, moving from a more populous area to a feeling of wilderness. However, the terminus, about eight miles east of Jay Cooke State Park, is fairly remote in and of itself, requiring a short out-and-back to the Wisconsin Border. Remember, though, that when heading north, the sun will mostly be at your back and the wind in your face, which felt ideal in early summer.
I found the Superior Hiking Trail maps a bit wonky. The SHT Association puts out maps, a guidebook, and a databook that provide loads of information plus topography. Still, the maps themselves are small, and I took my own CalTopo map on Gaia so I could zoom in and out to get a better lay of the land.
The mileage also feels a bit clunky, with distances given between road crossings and not campsites. A local backpacker, Mike Ward, has put up a really cool distance calculator for planning. On the trail, signs give mileage to “next campsites” and upcoming roads/landmarks in robin-egg blue letters indented into classic wooden signs. Still, there are so many blue blazes that it’s practically impossible to get lost.
It might not surprise you that a NOBO’s elevation gain over the span of the trail is more than 37,000 feet. In some ways, I find walking this type of terrain, which is rugged underfoot and requires careful placement of the feet, harder than the long ramps of the Pacific Crest Trail. Sure, there are no altitude issues, and the trail is far shorter, with dangers mostly consisting of dramatic electrical storms, disease-carrying insects, and a selfie gone wrong at the edge of a cliff, but constant day-long ups and downs take a toll on the body.
These ups and downs also offer impressively striking changes, from wetlands to a semi-alpine environment within minutes. The inclines are steep and fast but never more than a few hundred feet. Perhaps that’s why I’d wager a fit and experienced thru-hiker can walk the SHT in 2-3 weeks as I did.
Non-waterproof trail runners: Just a note here that I wear trail runners without waterproofing. Experience has proven that the minute water gets inside a waterproofed shoe, I end up carrying that water around most of the day as waterproof shoes are slow to dry. On a related note, definitely take extra socks. You will get wet.
GPS: I should point out that many places on trail are out of cell range and that, even though the trail is close to roads and towns, much of it is very remote. I hiked in high season, but for many hours, sometimes days, I wouldn’t see a soul. If you couldn’t move, not having a communication device could cause difficulties.
Trekking poles: It’s not just going up where sticks help pull the hiker along. Having “four legs” helps stabilize going down on what often seems like a 90° angle, reinforced only with a few well-placed rocks. I saw people without poles, but I save weight by setting up my tent with them and wouldn’t ever venture into this rugged country without them.
A Quick Note About Bears
Just a word here about bears: I have never seen a black bear on the Superior Hiking Trail. While campsites on the Apostle Islands and in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness have sometimes had to be closed due to aggressive bear activity, as far as I know, the SHT has been free of problems.
I believe that’s because campers practice Leave No Trace principles by keeping clean campsites, eating away from their tents, and hanging their food or storing it in a hard-sided container. I personally think a hard-sided container is overkill and bear spray is not necessary, as black bears can usually simply be hazed. But I highly recommend storing your food in an OPsak, Ursack, or similar odor-proof bag and hanging it at night.
I bring a small bag for rocks, 30 feet of 500-pound paracord, and a tiny carabiner. As I moved north, it was harder to find limbs for hanging 10 feet away from the trunk and 10 feet from the ground. Still, keeping the food out of reach and out of sight (bright colors can attract bears, so I use black) kept “mini-bears” or rodents from finding my food.
The point to remember is that if a bear gets your food, it might ruin your trip, but it could also result in the bear becoming habituated, associating humans with food and eventually needing to be destroyed.
Superior Hiking Trail Section by Section
Section 1: MN/WI Border to Duluth, 50.2 miles
The first section offers many challenges, not the least that there is only one free, official SHT campsite along the way, and it’s right at the border.
Strategies to manage this section include camping at Jay Cooke State Park, although that requires a reservation far in advance for sites that are highly competitive to obtain. Another option is Spirit Mountain (about 26 miles from the border), which has numerous (expensive) walk-in sites and Bagley Nature Center Campground (about 45 miles from the border).
Of course, there are also motels and taxis/Lyft that can take you there. I know it sounds like a real pain, but I would not skip this section. Perhaps the most unanticipated part of walking along the St. Louis River towards Lake Superior is how difficult it is. There are lots of challenging ups and downs through maple forests that, while deep in mud in late June, were filled with orchids like lady’s slippers, plus wild roses, red columbine, butterwort, phlox, northern bluebells, and fading trillium.
Jay Cooke itself boasts a stunning swing bridge over the St. Louis River, where water crashes down giant sliced bread-shaped shale popping up from the toaster. The two-tone slide-whistle of veeries followed me through these forests, plus the solar-plexus pressure of a ruffed grouse thumping.
The trail leaves the forest for exposed balds, affording astounding views of the St Louis river valley, the city of Duluth and Gitche Gumee (the Ojibwe name for Lake Superior, meaning “huge water”) itself. Along the way, the trail crosses stream upon stream. There was so much water: beautiful, fresh, and rushing often with rapids or waterfalls, destinations in and of themselves. Duluth has 43 named streams within its city limits. This boded well for a backpacker giving this exposed area a go on one of the hottest days of the summer, with temperatures reaching into the 90s. I filtered and drank ten liters the day I walked through Duluth!
I should mention here that nearly all of the water is brown from tannins left over as leaf litter decays. It’s harmless and did not affect the flavor, but all streams contain giardia, and I recommend carrying a good filter, like a Sawyer Squeeze.
Eventually, the trail heads down to a Lake Walk, about three miles and the only flat part of this section. The trail (on sidewalk here) passes two of my favorite restaurants, Fitger’s Brewhouse and Sir Ben’s, plus a Super One grocery store – not to mention all the stores on Superior Street should you need new shoes, which I, in fact, did. But that’s another story.
Section 2: Duluth to Two Harbors, 57.2 miles
The second section is the beginning of official campsites on trail. I would be lying if I said I’ve never stealth camped on the Superior Hiking Trail, but the association requests that we camp in designated sites and be prepared to share them. Why? Because it concentrates the impact and controls campfires and human waste.
Honestly, the forest is so thick and lumpy that it’s difficult to find a place to pitch a tent. The designated sites are primitive with a few luxuries including vault latrines with seats (!), wooden benches, fire pits, and relatively flat places to pitch a tent. They’re also mostly near a water source, though I was surprised as I moved north that some creeks dry up after the spring melt.
There’s road walking in this section as well as the dreaded North Country Trail, a snowmobile route that is a mosquito-infested swamp in summer. At least the birds were punch drunk here, and I identified seven different warblers and three thrushes.
The lupine was extraordinary (a non-native flower but connected now with the North Shore), as were the wild irises, morning glories, shelf fungi, the secretive Knife River, and the iridescent turquoise and black jewelwings. I camped at my own private waterfall over mossy rock, where a small swarm of damselflies kept the mosquitos at bay but leeches found my bare soaking feet.
Section 3: Two Harbors to Silver Bay, 44.6 miles
Here, the trail actually starts to feel as if you are on the North Shore, with big climbs up (and down) hand-built stairs of rock and logs – or directly on the lichen-covered rock itself. The trail hits two state parks – Gooseberry and Split Rock – both boasting multiple and wondrous falls, superb views, and strenuous walking on rough terrain. I lucked out and nabbed the SE Split Rock site right under falls with a rocky terrace looking straight at the split rock. Another fantastic site is S Beaver River, perched above rushing rapids through a chute in the rocks.
A few issues arise in this otherwise splendid section. Much of the SHT crosses private property, with land-use agreements hammered out over many years. Signs are posted when entering these areas, with requests to not camp or go off trail. But not all hikers heed the warnings, and a number of years back, hikers allegedly harassed an owner when he rode an ATV and hunted on his own property.
The result was his choosing to shut down that section of trail, forcing walkers to use the paved Gitchi Gami bike trail along Highway 61, followed by a road walk up Blueberry Hill. While it’s less than three miles, it’s not ideal to walk in direct sun next to a highway, except for one respite during a tiny dip down to the rocky beach.
In addition, the bridge across Split Rock River was destroyed six winters ago and has yet to be replaced. The state left it to the SHTA, which decided, due to cost, complexity, and ambiguous regulations, to decline replacing it, leaving the hiker to cross at her own risk. After so many very risky crossings in New Zealand, this one felt like a piece of cake and was helped by a fixed rope. That being said, the water was at normal flow, just mid-thigh.
At both the beginning and end of this section, I resupplied my food stores. The Association offers good information on post offices and package hold options here, but I didn’t find them necessary since I planned to carry all I needed after my last stop until Grand Marais, about 110 miles.
It’s a long way into the Super One in Two Harbors down Highway 2, but hitchhiking was pretty straightforward. I was lucky enough to meet people heading in for lunch, then back up again, so we also shared a meal before I returned to the trail!
The drive to Zup’s Food Market in Silver Bay is much closer with a hitch on Penn Avenue, and they’re stocked with almost everything a hiker could want/need except actual backpacking meals.
Section 4: Silver Bay to Caribou Falls, 45.3 miles
When my husband and I first backpacked on the SHT, after hiking in the Sierra, the Rockies, Italy, Chile, and the Karakorum, we realized we needed to buy trekking poles STAT. Nothing emphasizes this need as much as this section, which includes spectacular Bean and Bear Lakes, glacially scoured basins below basalt towers; high, exposed Mount Trudee above the “drainpipe” (which has wisely been reinforced with wooden stairs); the seemingly endless rollercoaster ridge above Wolf Lake to the unbelievable crags at Section 13; plus the long, view-laden Horseshoe Ridge between roiling Manitou and Caribou Rivers.
Even on seemingly “easy” parts along the Baptism River, on the Sawmill Bog, or past gorgeous Sonju Lake with its tiny island of exposed Canadian Shield, poles help move aside overgrown plants to see if a rock or stump is waiting to trip me or help determine the depth of a stream I needed to cross.
It was on this section that I made friends with literally thousands of Arrowhead Spike tail dragonflies, giant black and white aeronautical marvels that stayed close since I had become a food source vector. I would call this section the most difficult yet the most rewarding.
As of this writing, the bridge across the High Falls of the Baptism River in Tettegouche State Park is damaged and uncrossable. This requires the hiker to venture down to the highway to cross the river. The west side of the river is a road and easily hitchable; the east side is a very well-maintained path. Take the extra 0.3 miles to see the falls, the largest within Minnesota’s borders. It’s well worth it.
Section 5: Caribou Falls to Lutsen, 34.5 miles
This section has some of the most gorgeous waterways of all, including precious Alfred’s Pond, where evil-looking pitcher plants seemed to whisper “Feed me!” when I took their picture, and lovely Cross River with a rock patio surrounded by falls at the first campsite. The Temperance River, with its deep pools, rapids, and falls, is one of the best swimming rivers on the North Shore.
This is followed by Carlton Peak, not the highest point on the trail (that is near the Canadian border, deep in a spruce forest with no views) but one that’s electrifying, especially in fall. Then it’s a series of mountains – Britton, Leveaux, Oberg, and Lutsen – all reached by spur trail from deep forest with rolling ups and downs.
Section 6: Lutsen to Grand Marais, 35.2 miles
Most dramatic in this section is stunning Agnes Lake, with one of the best campsites on the trail on its own rock peninsula that catches the prevailing northwesterlies. The view of snaking Poplar River from a high rocky perch feels almost fantastical, as does Lookout Mountain in Cascade River State Park, with its own private basalt tower placed just so for viewing and pictures.
I watched the sunset and sunrise here, not noticing that I was camping in a reservation-only site until I’d already set and it was getting dark. I should have known, since it has a picnic table, a shelter, and a bear-proof locker.
I came across red squirrels and chipmunks, loads of whitetail deer, a beaver who slapped loudly as I approached his pond, garter snakes and toads, and a pack of wolves howling around 2:00 am one quiet night. Mostly, it was a symphony of birdsong (and mosquito whines and deerfly drones). I highly recommend loading the Cornell Merlin Bird app on your phone because you will be overjoyed by the sheer number of creatures living in the north woods – and it’s free.
Section 7: Grand Marais to 270 Degree Overlook, 54.2 miles
Again, a hitch into Grand Marais to Gene’s Foods down the Gunflint Trail is fairly easy from the popular Pincushion Mountain parking lot. I was lucky to nab the superb E Devil Track River site to myself deep in a gorge. It’s the first in a series of beautiful and private creeks – Woods, Durfee, Cliff, Kimball, Crow, Kadunce (technically a river), and Timber Wolf.
White-throated sparrows sang their crystalline falling pentatonic scale as I worked my way to the 1.5-mile beach walk on smoothed stones and up to Judge C.R. Magney State Park, named for the man who lobbied to save this land for public enjoyment. After the wild Devil’s Kettle, the trail begins to move north toward the Pigeon River and Canada rather than east because no agreement could be reached to allow for trail through the lands of the Grand Portage Band of Ojibwe.
The ground was damp, as were the overgrown plants, acting as a carwash as they brushed up against me, quickly soaking through everything. Even in the heat, I wished I’d brought rain pants.
Sweeping views along with road walks constitute the last part. I found much to like, including the hidden pools of the Flute Reed River, raucous frog ponds, hundreds of swallowtail butterflies, and squalls passing over the Big Lake at Hellacious Overlook. The highest point at 1,829 feet comes after a series of PUDS through dense forest, and the trail just peters out onto Otter Lake Road, which may be why the builders have the hiker join a mile of the Border Route to a high point that looks towards the Pigeon River, a superhighway for the Voyageurs, and into Canada.
From my perch, I sent a note to my friend near the Kadunce River that I’d finished and was ready for pickup. I needed to send it via my Garmin inReach Mini (many places on trail are out of cell range).
Is it worth it?
I’d say yes, especially with the challenging terrain and splendid variety. There are many loops for day-hiking and sections easily tackled in a weekend. I met two women walking it piece by piece, and the return to trail year after year bonded them to each other and to the land.
As far as thru-hikes, the Superior Hiking Trail is relatively short yet still acts like a thru-hike with resupply and travel challenges, the delight in meeting trail angels (mostly people section hiking who wanted to share food or a beer), extremes in weather that require just marching through, and the transformation that occurs when we’ve lived in an environment for long enough.
The beauty is stunning, enlivening every sense – the touch of your shoe on grippy rock, the smell of balsam fir, the sound of the avian chorus, the taste from rushing streams (and a few tiny strawberries on a sunny ridge), and, of course, the sight of vast forests and ridges and the Big Lake herself – and yet it’s also subtle and requires an openness to embrace. But give this place a chance, and I promise it will grow on you.
The least incline available was right next to the fire ring with one guyline tied around the bench. Still, I slid through the night. And Girard faffed even more than me. Around 2:00, I woke abruptly from one of those nightmares where everything is falling apart around you and you’re unable to move as if swimming through a pool of taffy. Still, it was a good thing, because then I got to hear the wolves howling.
Also, sleeping next to a pond is normally a bad idea. The cold air tends to collect in a strata of damp then blanket my single wall tent in moisture, which gathers on my quilt. I’m chilly and sit right up as the birds start their morning chorus. Sometimes, you just gotta know when it’s the right moment to get moving.
I’m methodical in the morning. Dressing and packing all in one flourish before exiting the tent, all items stowed in order before I eat or take my constitutional. Call me neurotic, but I tend not to lose things this way – or think too much about not wanting to keep moving and crawl right back in.
Just as I click my buckles, it begins to rain. Unexpected and no way to finish this hike, but it’s what you sign up for when backpacking: full exposure.
The sister and brother duo are deeply asleep, so I depart softly, directly the wrong way. The path is overgrown and covered with blowdown and I climb over and under, scraping my bag and myself before I realize this must be an access trail to water and not meant to walk on, bur heck, I’m already this far so keep moving forward until I hit a more reasonably well-trodden trail.
Which goes straight up.
I said goodbye to views last night thinking that would be it, no more until the bitter end. But it turns out my little pond sits in the middle of the ridges and up I go again to an even more dramatic overlook, especially as squalls pick up steam on the big lake through the colorful sunrise.
I’m told Isle Royale is in the distance, but it’s hard to tell if that’s a magnificent island or a cloud bank. A sign points out this is Hellacious Overlook and indeed, it’s a pretty nice one, nearly 180-degrees as if I’m on some sort of peninsula and the lake surrounds me. And it’s cliff upon cliff rolling down to the water. Don’t let anyone tell you that Minnesota is flat.
It’s steep down again and the rain lets up. Off goes the garbage bag/rain poncho hopefully for the last time. I’m kind of amazed how much I love this hike. Richard and I celebrated our 20th anniversary staying at a friend’s house (you rock, Karen!) and walking bits and pieces of the SHT. Even though I’d been doing just that over the 15 years we’ve lived here and ticking off all the sections, I felt a pull to come and see what walking all of it at one go felt like.
Pretty damn amazing, to be honest.
It’s has all the thru-hiking qualities – resupplying food and being starved most of the time, big mile days so I can finish at a reasonable time, gear fails that had to be dealt with and replaced, trail angels and magic arriving just when I needed it, and a kind of daily grind that resulted in a transformation of spirt – and yet it’s not all that many miles relative to the Pacific Crest Trail for instance.
And, it’s right here in my home state!
I wouldn’t go so far as to say this is the best time to hike the trail. I’m swarmed by mosquitos, it’s hot and humid and the foliage is so dense, some of the views are obscured. That being said, a very wet and late spring brought me one of the most raucous forests I’ve even been in, and that includes New Zealand bush. So many warblers and thrushes, sparrows, chickadees, veerios, on and on. This hike felt fully in three dimensions.
I drop down to Jackson Lake Road, then head right back up again for a view of Jackson Lake where large white birds swim lazily. I hear one honk and think they must be snow geese but it’s hard to tell from this far away. Jackson nestles in the woods and Gitchee Gumee shimmers beyond.
Rosebush Ridge is all in woods, rolling but with some steep inclines that take my breath away even after being out here a few weeks. It’s in here I come upon a beautiful sign nailed to a seemingly random tree in a seemingly random bit of woods: Highest Elevation of SHT 1829 feet
Oh geez, I was utterly wrong about Carleton Peak. It was not the highest point by a longshot, but certainly the most vivid views. Here I see more basswood, birch, aspen, spruce and pine. <sigh>
I drop down fast now and hit Andy Lake Road where a man is spraying himself with deet. He appears to be walking a section with just a daypack and whoever dropped him off is nowhere to be seen. His eyes dart about and he barely grunts a hello. I ask him if he’s ok and he nods. Well, of, then. I don’t think I’d trust deet to keep these bugs off my face, but be my guest, friend.
As if making a statement to that effect, the bugs instantly get worse. Deerflies join the mix and circle me with bassy drone. As I said, deet works, but you can’t spray it in your eyes or up your nose or down your throat. My wee bug burka protects me even if they land and fuss, their wings a whir as they try to make purchase.
I start to wonder if I’ve totally lost it, not even noticing I’m surrounded. Other issues arise like the aspen so thick on this last bit of trail, I could use a machete. Nothing’s wet anymore, thankfully, and I just press through, my sticks pulling bits of overgrowth aside. I step into a few puddles and sink into muddy water over my ankles, but the cool actually feels good as the day heats up.
As I approach a blowdown, a man comes the other way, dressed much like me covered head to toe and sporting a big smile. I offer to go first, negotiating a kind of up and over then quick duck to get through. Mike is friendly and proudly tells me today is day number 1. “And it must be your last, then?” asking the obvious, but with such a joyous manner, I can’t help but catch his enthusiasm.
Indeed it is my last day and what a splendid hike it’s been. We give each other a bit of beta, though at this point knowing mud awaits me is hardly anything to get too worked up about, then part, Mike to make his own adventure and me to savor mine as a memory.
The trail eventually meets a track filled with deliciously perfumed Horton-hears-a-Who clover, before spitting me out on a dirt road and a slightly uninspired ending. That may be why the Superior Hiking Trail Association sends the hiker across the Swamp River to join the Border Route Trail, the next section of the larger North Country Trail through the Boundary Waters Wilderness, so we can end in style.
It’s just a mile up to the rocky 270 Degree Overlook where I at last see the Pigeon River, a very important water highway during the Voyageur era, which divides the United States from Canada. I have it all to myself and sit on heated up granite looking at chunky mountains shaped less like the Sawtooth Range in Minnesota and more like bowlers.
I’ve been here before – at the start of the Border Route and when I hiked south from this section ten years ago. How different I feel now. Back then, I was doing all the things I wanted to do at the radio station, I was a star and succeeding, but I was unsettled and unhappy. Who knows why exactly. But now as an independent who’s learning to live with the fear and uneasiness that come with not ever knowing for sure how things will come together, I’m, on the whole, far happier.
That confidence and sense of self kind of snuck up on me, but became glaringly obvious on this hike. It’s not the Rockies, the Sierra or the Alps. There’s something more subtle and gentle in the beauty of Northern Minnesota, but as I opened my ears and eyes, the wonder of this place grew on me – or maybe more accurately, became a part of me. And as I walked each step, I relaxed more and more into the hiker I am, and liked what I saw.
That instinct to see what it feels like to walk the SHT in one feel swoop was a good one and I am so glad I listened to it.
It’s always a great sleep in a bed. So comfy at my friend’s house. I pack up clean and dry (!) gear and head out into a perfect day of sunshine, clear skies and cool air.
The beach walk is one of the special aspects of the Superior Hiking Trail. You’ve spent so much time looking at it from afar, now you get to skip stones on it.
And what perfect skippers! All the jagged, geometrical volcanic rock I saw on the rivers and under my feet gets tumbled smooth by the waves. They come in a variety of reds and grays.
My feet sink in and it’s not the easiest walking, but lovely with the sun glowing on completely placid water. It boggles the mind the sheer mass of Lake Superior. Get the wind blowing and you can get monster waves.
I pass a large chunk of stone, magma frozen and metamorphosed. A lichen-covered rock island with requisite spruce pushing through the cracks has its own sand bar bridge. Drift wood scatter at the entrance.
I say goodbye to the beach and hello to the carwash. I doubt the damp will last long. An d birch peels revealing a soft pink skin.
I meet up with the hidden jewel of the Little Brule, softly gurgling under shading branches. The path cuts through a deep layer of moss and lichen exposing stone like pavement.
The final state park is Judge C.R. Magney. I judge you beautiful! I say aloud, just as a broad winged hawk lets out a screeching chkeeeee! He must agree. I meet the Timberdoodle Self Guided Nature Trail and learn how to ID dogwood, (hint: red branches) but I’m sent through a parking lot, instead, handily past a water spigot.
As I work my way towards the actual Brule River, I try to figure out what C.R. stands for by playing with name combos –
A sign informs me his name was Clarence, though I never do learn what the R stood for.
Truth is, the guy does not deserve to be made fun of. He was a justice of the Minnesota Supreme Court and a “defender of wilderness.” Ole Judge Clarence Magney came up with the idea to save these stunning places for all of us to enjoy by way of state parks. He’s my hero.
It’s a good climb up to the Devils Kettle, “a waterfall,” another sign reads “that disappears into a pothole of unknown depth.” It’s a frothy, steamy, boiling cauldron that I find a way to see even if the stairs to the observation rock are goners.
At the top, right at the edge of that pothole of unknown depth I offer to take a couple’s picture and they nudge me out too for mine, stepping very carefully from rock to rock.
I leave the tourists to cut through a ‘trail closed’ sign. All the thru-hikers have passed by, but it’s a bit tricky on eroded trail covered in blowdown. The river was so furiously swollen it pushed rock up in a wall as if a bulldozer to close one route, then ground down the banks and took trees with it.
I get off trail once crashing through young trees, then climb over a three tree pile up, tossing my sticks ahead to use my hands to negotiate through.
It’s a climb high above the river, the forest opening up to reveal sweet meadows on exposed rock covered in wildflowers.
Down I go again into another deep canyon this time for the soulful Flute Reed River. Not sure I know what that is; the whole point of the flute is to not need a reed. Still, a lovely name.
And a lovely spot of deep pools shaded by overhanging trees, their green leaves mirrored in the river, the light waving back on the leaves.
The tranquility is short lived as I need to walk on road. Of course it’s faster on road not looking at your feet and taking long strides, but it’s tiring and hot and a deer fly is buzzing me.
Still, it’s better than walking in that spruce bog I’m passing. I eventually end up back on trail, an overgrown tangle of plants that are thankfully dry now.
Even in this jungle – formally known as the Hovland Woods Scientific Natural Area – I find it interesting. Butterflies are everywhere and the wind shimmers the tiny heart-shaped leaves of immensely tall aspens. I share my bug net with a hundred flying insects, but overall, I’m loving it.
I leave the trail to walk steeply down rocky Tom Lake Road. It appears to go right into a wetland where a hiker would be swallowed up completely, but thankfully, there’s a detour.
I meet a hiker named Mike warning me the mosquitos get worse. No wonder with all these ponds and grassy wet areas. But I still haven’t experienced anything worse than what I’ve bern through. The permethrin really works.
Eventually I leave the swamps for a fast and furious straight up climb to a ridge. Views open to another ridge, the big lake behind. Somehow, my ridge is such the lake appears to surround it as if a wide angle lens. This is my last view of the lake on the hike.
I dip down briefly to a classic beaver pond, frogs trilling and water overflowing in a mini falls. A beaver slaps his tail like a cannonball, and when I linger to listen to the sounds, he slaps again.
I can take a hint. There’s not much ridge left, dead-ending to a rocky outcrop where I sit as the sun drops looking at beaver ponds and streams in between the two ridges, the lake as backdrop. The lake is in surround as are the birds. On the horizon is a dark blue line separating the light blue lake from light blue sky.
White aspen shoot up above everyone else like bunches of Side Show Bob’s.
The breeze is icy, and it’s time anyway to carefully head down to the tiny site, not one truly flat space for a tent. I make do hanging over the bench. Brother and sister thru-hikers, Girard and Margaret, are already set and have no intentions of building a fire.
It’s the last site for this hike and filled with frog song. The kids are asleep before I finish dinner and I am about to join them.
I make it out to the gorgeous rushing Devil Track in my homemade flip flops in between rain showers. More rapids, more geometric designs on rock, more breathtaking beauty.
But this is no place to linger like at Split Rock. It’s damp and cold and the mosquitos are on me. Just as I get back in the tent, it rains.
Still, it’s perfect because I need the rest and to finish my book, Fox and I by Catherine Raven. I weep at the end, but fall asleep feeling a kinship with another person who loves nature and being alone with it.
Packing is less awful than expected. The tent is absolutely soaked and most things whole some level of damp. But it’s not raining and even my wet pants slip on and seem to dry on me.
The worst is stuffing the alicoop in her tiny sack. I get wet and dirty, but just wipe off my hands on the pants. The ‘car wash’ plant-lined trail will take care of them.
It’s a big climb right away on finicky steps. The bird chorus is revved up, the volume high to be heard over the roar of the river. The Devil Track is special so deep in its gorge. It’s secretive too, inaccessible except at this bridge and barely seen from the tops.
Mist covers the lower reaches but the crash of water follows me up then directly down as I cross one streamlet after another, four in all on sturdy planks.
It is a popular walk and the trail is wide. Still, I slap water off low hanging branches to avoid a baptism. A sign tells me I’ve reached a falls overlook, but it’s so far away, I only see a tiny glint of moving water.
As you can imagine, the morning is absolutely empty of people. I have it all to myself and love the sensation. I take great care going down on wet mud and breathe heavily heading up. There’s little break, but the bird chorus cheers me on.
I cross beautiful Woods Creek then follow it into more dense woods. This is the first in a series of creeks, Woods, Durfee, Cliff, Kimball, Crow, Kadunce (technically a river) and Timber Wolf.
I climb next to them, over steep hills, down ravines and out to the loveliest meadows. One is filled with bright orange lilies and populated by dozens of white throated sparrows, coloraturas with crystalline tone.
It’s foggy and wet with no view and I remember a decade ago hiking here in the same conditions. I lose my wide trail and enter thick ferns arching into the trail and soaking my pants. The forecast called for cloudy skies, but it begins to rain.
Cliff Creek is destroyed by debris and I can barely make out its shape, the one sketched for me in watercolor on site by an artist friend. I’m glad I filtered water at gentle Durfee since I can’t see sitting here.
Another meadow with exposed rock covered by light sage lichen is fully in mist, spruce appearing as ghostly silhouettes. A tiny bird flies in close to check me out. Why do you sing, friend? Is it for joy?
It is a symphony in here, I can’t remember hearing so many different songs and calls. Cedars lean this way and that, their roots like long tresses. Someone pooped in the trail and it’s got a lot of hair in it.
Even the creeks have creeklets, with a two-board bridge to cross. But J learn my lesson fast when my foot slips on the damp. No striding on those.
Each breath brings in fresh air – more rarified, damp, musky than anything yet on trail. A sturdy bridge takes me over Kimball and I meet a hiker on the steep ascent who opted to sleep in his car last night.
Lunch is at the gorgeous Crow, the stream splashing down a deep red slab. I miss most of the Kadunce which Richard and I enjoyed when in heavy flood earlier this year as that trail is a spur access. But somehow we missed the climax finale after the bridge when the river runs a series of gentle falls fanning out on smooth rock. Too bad it’s cold today, but I’ll be back.
The woods continue, tall and straight basswood to the very low Timber Wolf next to my friend’s cabin. A short day, a ‘nero,’ where I wash clothes and myself, buy food and most important, dry out!
Birds celebrate a new day with what they do best, sing. I cuddle in a bit longer but spy a red sky and run to the overlook to watch the brilliant sunrise from the magical perch. I don’t even tie my shoes.
It’s deep purples and pinks, the sun a squashed yellow. What do they say about red sky in morning? I head back to the tent to eat and pack – not a soul showed up last night, neither man nor beast – and check the forecast.
Rain. All day. Every hour. Beginning at 7:00 am.
I guess that answers my question about whether I should hang around Grand Marais for fireworks.
I leave quickly just as the colors fade into a bleak gray. Thunder rumbles somewhere in the distance. It’s dry now as I carefully negotiate tiny kinetic pebbles laying in wait for my foot so they can roll me backwards.
No slips as I reach a creek and head up again into forest. Kevin told me yesterday that he took the west side of the Cascade River even though there’s a detour marked. It saves me a mile at least, so I head down 99 steps and risk it.
The closure is because of road work on the bridge I’ll need to cross at the end. But today is the Fourth of July, and I doubt anyone’s working today. Still, I make a little prayer that the rain holds off until I’l through this mess.
The sound of the rapids is glorious, tumbling white noise that changes timber as I climb away, then come down near the water. Entire trunks stripped of their bark beach on flat stone, refugees from the recent record breaking spring melt.
I take a few pictures as I pass a swank little stealth site and I’m glad I do because steep stairs send me deep into woods and away from the river for good.
It’s a wild ride and never flat, up and up, then steeply down to cross small feeder creeks. At one, the bridge has been smashed to bits left in a heap. Right now, I can step across.
I pass two campsites far from any water and deep back in the trees. I wonder who planned their location. Up I go again on log stairs screwed into the ground. My legs are getting incredibly strong.
I finally pop out at the road where piles of gravel await duty and dump trucks and earth movers sit idle. The bridge is perfectly fine. I imagine the crew just didn’t want hikers in the way during working hours. Just as I drop down to the next section of trail, a truck comes flying past, kicking up dust and stones.
I climb up above the Cascade River, less loud up here, and spy the distinctive profile of Eagle Mountain, Minnesota’s highest point. And just like that, it begins to rain.
Whoever’s in charge waited as I’d requested. It’s light so I just keep walking, already heated up from the hills. I run into two SOBO thru-hikers, Gungadin and Shady, who give me beta on trail closures ahead plus that the mosquitos are epic.
I’m pretty sure I’ve met those mosquitos’ friends and family, but I’ll keep an open mind. “It’s all swamp from here to Canada!” Gung assures me, as we wish each other luck. I wonder if he’s having a good time?
The rain may only be in the trees now and not hitting me, but it’s soaked the plants and this section of trail is extremely overgrown. I feel like I’m running through a car wash – my shoes, socks, pants, shirt, my head for god’s sake are all soaked.
We cannot have this. I stop and take off my hiking shirt as mosquitos swarm my bare flesh, and quickly swap into a sturdier (and dry) top. Then I take out something I’m trying on this hike – a rain poncho. It may be the dumbest thing I’ve ever done giving new gear a try, but here we are surrounded on four sides by damp.
It’s made by Frog Toggs and was rated high on ‘breathability,’ Also, cheap. I just wonder in a warm, humid environment if a poncho is a better choice than pants and jacket.
I can’t tell if maybe this is the child’s size as it only covers my upper thigh and the sleeves barely reach past my elbows. A glorified high tech trash bag, it has enough girth to cover the top of my backpack, but not my rear end.
I put my mosquito net over my hat, the hood over that and I’m cozy in here, warm and definitely dryer. Of course, the rain stops altogether and it’s just sopping wet plants I avoid, especially at my core.
Is it too much or just right? I look absolutely ridiculous, but I bounce along past two campsites on a pond shrouded in fog. I sit on a log to eat and the mosquitos do indeed swarm, but not in any greater number than my worst days on trail. You gotta do better than that!
The trail meets a bench looking out to Sundling Creek, now Sundling pond. I notice a small dock-like protrusion. Oh wait, that’s the trail! I realize now what is about to happen here since I passed stacks of wood and metal bridge building materials. Plans are in the works for improvements.
Right now, the walkway is wooden. Two-by-fours covered with chicken wire are held in place by wooden supports every ten feet or so, built directly into the beaver dam. Winters have done their work and it’s a wavy traverse over this gem of a pond, neatly encircled with firs, a few purple irises adding color on this gloomy day.
I’m lucky that today is a smaller views day. I still had a glorious sunrise at the lookout and Eagle Mountain wasn’t yet swallowed up in fog. It’s a day to look at the incredibly healthy forest at my feet. Nurse logs hold a variety of plants and fungus in their loamy bodies, even trees reaching toward the canopy.
I startle a garter snake, yellow, white and black scales and a pink forked tongue trying to figure out who I am and what I’m doing. I wonder if the rain keeps him from moving away. Perhaps he has to wait for his pad to dry out.
I’m drying out fast once the rain stops and I enter pine forest without encroaching ferns. I meet another SOBO thru-hiker named Jason with a deep, baritone voice and hearty laugh, especially when I ask where his bug net is and he tells me he misplaced it. He carries bear spray and a good attitude. God speed in the swamps, Jason.
The trail crosses a road and soon joins the State Trail again. That’s relatively good news since snowmobile tracks tend to be flatter and not filled with rocks and roots. But it’s wet and weedy and it immediately starts raining.
Now the poncho is put to the test. Within seconds my dried pants are soaked, but that’s mostly from brushing against plants and sloshing through pools of water.
My gloves and the ends of my top get damp, but honestly, I feel ok. The temperature hasn’t dropped so much and I’m moving, so my core stays dry and warm. I wouldn’t want this to go on for days but thus far, I can manage.
I catch a view into Grand Marais, Artists Point and the lighthouse almost hidden in fog. A long, steep, carefully placed descent delivers me to the Gunflint Trail, the main highway into the boundary waters lakes. I scoot across, then have another few miles of woods before reaching a parking lot.
It’s completely empty, naturally on such a dour day, except one man who snaps my picture and offers me oatmeal. The trail on pincushion mountain has been reinforced with clay? Something to keep it from eroding to a muddy glop. Many boardwalks snake through forest, birds singing as the rain abates.
It’s straight down a dirt cliff reinforced with wooden steps and I can hear the wild Devils Track river where I’ll camp. Somehow I set before it begins raining in earnest, then dive in for the remains of food. I saved my olives from League City, TX for this last night before getting a real meal.
The river is loud and I’m cuddled in cozy and warm, my wet gear stashed beyond my feet. Veeries and nuthatches punctuate the din. Even damp and gray – and full of mosquitos – I’m deeply in love with this wondrous place.
The light is mysterious in the maple forests. Shining low yet somehow from above on these rolling hills, it glows on individual leaves. The ferns appear larger, more ancient. A lightning designer would kill for this.
I’m really dirty. There is so little water in the creek, I don’t bother rinsing and have just gotten used to my brown toes, my oily hair, my greasy pants. It’s good for everyone that I’m alone.
An ovenbird begins the morning chorus joined by the sucky knocking of goldfinch in stereo. I pass the next sites below Leveaux Mountain, right next to a beaver pond and full of damp.
I’ve climbed Leveaux and the view is much as I’ve seen along trail looking out over bird-filled forest to Lake Superior. So, I skip it and move on to the Onion River to collect water. The bridge is seriously beat up and I have to wade across.
I walk the road to a parking lot – a large one for the crowds who head up Oberg Mountain. It has some of the best views of hardwood forest, so jam packed in Autumn. I’ve also walked it, so skip along.
I think mosquitos are less happy in the maple forests, because the second I leave, thousands descend. My head net is sealed tight and I’m covered head to toe to nearly tips of fingers. They only seem to find the tiny bits of bare skin when I stop. Which is why I don’t stop.
Looking back, I see the giant basalt pillars of Oberg before the trail begins to climb. It’s a long climb, a surprisingly long one through the green tunnel to gain the ridge. Beautiful Rawlins creek tumbles down through the forest and several backpackers pass.
My views are obscured but the lake peaks out, as do more mountains to my left covered in trees. Still, I love the ridge, high and aerie. Though it’s not flat but instead rolls with a few sharp rises and falls before a sign points toward Moose Mountain where gondolas ferry hikers to Lutsen Village.
Not this hiker, heading straight down now, out of water and ready to collect more at the Poplar River. I meet Aaron and Tannon wearing seriously bright colors for the woods – and, in day one, still spotless. They ham it up for a picture. Why does everyone like having their picture taken?
I hear the roar of the river and it’s massive falls under a sturdy bridge. I can see it, but can’t touch. I sip what’s left and head back steeply up where eventually I hit the Poplar far more placid.
Another thru-hiker named Kevin passes maybe a bit too kitted out. He tells me he’s tired and carrying too much, though it’s mostly food. I dunno, I spy a couple of heavy bits of gear strapped to his pack.
He gives me beta on what’s ahead then tells me he’s rating every campsite. That’s not always easy since some require a bit of walking in to get to. I assure him I’ll keep in touch so I can share his notes with everyone.
I pass a gorgeous bald – a bit of exposed granite with a view towards mountains, then head steeply down ready to get to the water. Just then, I hear a bizarre screeching. An raptor? An owl? An animal is distress?
No, it’s a child. I ask him what he’s doing and without so much as an eyebrow lift, he emits an ear shattering screech just through his teeth. He tells me they’re eagle screeches and he is doing them to scare away the birds.
Knock it off!
Before I have a chance to actually say what I’m thinking, his mother arrives and moves him along. Either a kid with a superb imagination and curiosity or a pain in the ass, I’ll never know.
I get my water and find the perfect tree to lean on and have lunch watching the river in its tranquil state under cerulean skies. I have eaten a bit lopsided with a bit of cheese, four packets of tuna, a few wraps and bars and one embarrassingly fat summer sausage remaining until I meet my friend’s brother near the Kadunce River.
I feel good though, and move on through a marshy section where the boardwalks have seen better days. There’s bouncy ones, flimsy ones, some that lean or stick up like a ski tip. Others seesaw as I move forward, make a dippity doo or clatter with each step. Nails stick up in inopportune places. Some appear to have teeth rotted out or missing all together, leading to trap door deal breakers.
Truth is, after all the mud south of here, it’s pretty dry now and I don’t need the boardwalks. Still, a big pile of new boards await stacked off to the side and beautiful newly constructed walks still have that fresh cut smell.
Soon, I climb again and a view opens to the Poplar River making smooth S-curves far below. I pass three women – Jill and her two daughters, Hannah and Britta. Adorably dressed in tights and a bit of July 4th gear, they’re day hiking the highlights of the SHT. Sounds good to me right about now.
They ask how far I go each day and I tell them over 20 miles. It astounds most people. It astounded me until I walked the PCT and saw what the title ‘full time pedestrian’ really means. It means you walk all day. I take breaks and enjoy. I don’t go very fast either, but all day, like twelve hours of walking, gets you far.
I mention my pack is light too and almost out of food, so they pile me up with carrots. I only meant to say I’m carrying less and not ‘Yogi’ for food (I wonder what’s in that pic-a-nic basket!) Still, my diet could use some vegetables.
I drop down to lovely kidney bean shaped Lake Agnes, the Boundary Waters in miniature with a campsite right on the water. I pop in to get some to drink and sit against a spruce, her long arms creating just the right mix of shade and sun sneaking through.
The wind blows across the water, waves large enough to catch light in their crests. Dragonflies sun on the long swirl of canadian shield that is my beach. Iris peak out amidst grasses and I shiver, loving the icy air after intense sun on the balds.
More day hikers pass smelling sweet and clean. I dig in my poles to climb steeply up to another view, and a set of benches with an alter. Talk about a stairway to heaven, you gotta work here to get close to god. Far below on the lake is the Cathedral of the Pines. Explains why this spot is getting overgrown from little use.
This is the hardest part when hiking: we’re only passing through and have to savor each bit before needing to press on. It’s such a metaphor for life that nothing lasts and everything changes.
In no time I dive down again and meet a peaceful beaver pond at Jonvick Creek. The grass is high and tight against the thin matted down footpath. Essentially a tick farm.
I take a mental picture of the sound, smell, and touch of the place before heading up the trail. All along, someone had their chainsaw fired up so it was far from idyllic. I pass the culprits making boards for the trail! Their daughters sell firewood in bundles to passersby but so far, no takers.
Back up on the ridge, I catch glimpses of even more mountains through the trees. A black throated blue warbler welcomes me to this new ridge with his raspy question, Ha-ving a good tiiiiiiiimmmme?
A Blackbutnian kchee-kchee’s through a strainer in response. Oh, answering for me, are we? Chunky black beetles make a break through it as my foot threatens to annihilate them. Run, beetle, run! Not one is harmed.
Something has changed up here. I see plants I haven’t seen yet, tiny ferns that look like Christmas trees in miniature. I run into a backpacker named Loomi using my same pack – Gossamer Gear Gorilla in bright yellow, though his is noticeably less dingy.
Af Spruce Creek, the bridge is out of commission and the cold wade feels magnificent. I start to wonder if I set my sights too high hoping to get to Cascade River State Park before dark. It leaves me a manageable day tomorrow for Grand Marais and possibly fireworks.
It helps when I join the snow mobile route – I never thought I’d write that, but up here, the trail is bone dry. I hit a series of serious ramps racing deep down then back up on repeat, like a smooth roller coaster. Jerry Evjen gets his own honorary view.
The sky goes gray and soupy and I ask passing backpackers if rain’s coming. Maybe, who knows. It feels a bit oppressive but then I’m down again on ball bearing rocks to the musical Indian Creek. I almost leave without water, then check the site to see if worth staying.
It’s average and the music doesn’t reach the site, so I head on with water entering Cascade, as was my plan, and camping at the site on top of Overlook Mountain.
There’s a picnic table, a ‘throne’ privy, even a bear proof locker! No water up here, but I remembered to get it at the last stream. I set the alicoop and eat some food. Just as I lock it up planning to take a look at the million dollar view, I see a sign stating this spot must be reserved at the office.
It is after-hours, but suppose the rightful reservation holders show up? I set in the best spot.
Oh well, nothing to do now, so I pop over to the view point. It’s a cliff with several tall basalt towers shaped like statues looking out on the beauty beyond.
One of the features is a flat bit of tower top accessible to sit on like a pedestal. I carefully walk out, zipping my phone in a pocket. A veery noisily fills the air, but I can also hear Cascade Falls from a slight indentation in the distance.
One mountain rises like a wave, and, to finish the day in a kind of synchrony, the sun angles in for a final dramatic flourish of golden glow on millions of trees.
People are setting of fireworks in the distance and the only rain are a few drops.
A clear, pure and very forte whippoorwill wakes me just as the sky lightens. The view out my tent (through an army of mosquitos awaiting the unzipping) is of shades of sherbet – orange, lemon, lime – on the big lake through birch. The air is cool.
And everything is damp. How does this ridge create so much moisture? I pack wet hoping to find somewhere to spread out all my gear, garage-sale style, and dry out. But now is my favorite part of the day, and I’m ready to move.
I really love the girls who run by my tent a dozen or so times carrying bags of food, rope and anxious advice. We need bug spray right now! followed by a few high pitched stage whispers of She’s trying to sleep! to which all I can do is laugh. I’m cozied in and happy with the ruckus. It’s such a tiny spot so I warn them about one stake reaching slightly into the trail, but no one whacks a toe on it.
The frenzy is a direct result of their asking if they should hang their food away from bears. Meanwhile, I can’t find a branch, so end up sealing everything – including garbage – tightly in an odor-proof bag and stick it under my head. Some expert.
No one’s awake as I pack up and I see dozens of shoes piled in the tents’ annexes. One girl has slumped into the side. The bear hang was a failure and it appears they settle for storing the bags on top of stumps, one bag left unzipped with food spilling out. Thankfully, all seems undisturbed.
I cross a covered bridge, some trail worker’s folly, then find another in a random bench faced towards the view. I follow it through this lovely wood, a red eyed vireo in conversation with himself.
It’s forest for a long way, but past ponds of zingy red winged blackbird and snappy croakers, before I reach a favorite place in Alfred’s Pond. A boardwalk leads over a fen, which I step on for a moment to avoid mud feeling its juicy bounce like a pool cover.
Two triangular benches give me space to have a snack and observe this perfect north woods environment. A few purple irises nod their heads in the sun, but most interesting are large blood-red pitcher plants on bendy stems.
I love another swamp flower, the lady slipper, but these have more whimsy – and a touch of menace. Did one just say, “Feed me!”
I follow a ridge with views up the shore where I’ll walk. There’s Carlton Peak soaring like a tidal wave above the rest of the Sawtooth Mountains. I will be up and over him later today, but there is s lot of forest in between.
At gorgeous Dyer Creek, where the girls told me they bathed and were attacked by leaches, I stay clear and just collect water. I’m fine on the bridge.
The river is full and racing, but a few months ago, it raged eroding several feet of bank, including part of the trail. I walk on a newly hacked out path giving some idea how hard trail building/maintaining must be.
A man dressed like me covering every bit of body passes by. Jacob is SOBO on his first thru-hike. He stopped in Grand Marais for water proof shoes. I find waterproof only succeeds in keeping water in the shoe without drying out. I hope they work for him.
I pass a girl wearing a suit of bug netting before Boney’s Meadow, the mosquito breeding ground. This whole morning is a series of gentle ups and downs through forest filled with birds. Views open to the lake and icy air (“Bring it!”) but my head net stays on.
Cross River feels soulful on smooth rock in the sun. Water races down rock slabs before funneling into fissures in bubbly whiteness. I eat snack nuts and lean against my backpack enjoying dry air for a change.
I head steeply up a ladder missing its lower rungs as an older woman comes down making me feel pretty wimpy.
I’m all alone with views through Aspen and tall, slender red pine to the lake. Icy air makes the going easier as I climb up, then carefully down on tiny stones that make it their life’s work to send me skidding.
The skidders lead to large rock and I repeat a sensation I feel often of this hike of looming over s precipice so vertical, I can only guess how to descend until I place a trekking pole and gingerly step down. It’s tiring ascending, but going down is dangerous.
I hear the crashing of the Temperance River, one of the wildest on the north shore filled with screaming cascades, deep pools and finally, a tight, high walled chute.
I find smoothed rocks to sit on and soak my feet. The water is surprisingly warm. I look towards cliffs where a man prepares to jump. He moves in position, then backs off rubbing his arms as if chilly. I get his attention to show I’m taking his picture, and off he goes, launching out in a run with arms high.
The rock so smooth I find a perfectly formed seat for my butt. I gather water and eat an unpleasant store-bought dehydrated meal leftover from the Arizona Trail before heading up to the peak I saw from the ridge 13 miles back.
It’s named for an early trader and made of hard granite in large slabs. I’ve climbed its single pitch and the rock feels good under the fingers.
The first time I came here, I had never seen forest like this. Now, especially after this thru-hike, the edge of the boreal forest is my home. I’m surprised there’s so little mud and the trail is gradual, up until a straight up bit on broken rock.
Many tourists come down, one asking my average mileage. The summit is accessed by walking up on rock slab, trusting in friction to hold you upright.
I’ve been here many times, but today, the light is astounding. Perhaps lack of humidity makes it clearer. I also have a new relationship to all that forest below me having walked around 200 miles of it.
I’m 1500 feet above sea level but only 900 above the lake. Still the height affords grand views and the rock’s clinginess gives me a feeling of invincibility.
Still, I avoid the edge.
The other side is a bit shorter beginning with a fast rock descent. My walk now rolls gently through sugar maple forest shared with mountain bike trails
It’s been a long but magnificent day and I set up at the first site, sharing it with a lovely, quiet couple Nathan and Melissa on their first backpack trip un rental gear. The fire is going and sweet Yuri the dog comes over for scratches.
Until Nathan accidentally sets the stove on fire (rookie mistake). Fortunately the fire happens in dirt and we’re far away when the gas can pops. But Yuri doesn’t seem to trust me anymore.
We’re all tucked in before dark as birds continue singing and a high pitched whine of mosquitos stand sentry at my tent door.
To their credit, the late arrivals are instantly quiet the minute I ask, and I sleep deeply. The birds wind up early and I join them through muddy bugginess and into a maple forest.
Years ago, when we first moved to Saint Paul, Richard and I walked for a half week at autumn’s climax. We could see the maple forests for miles from the ridges, their leaves a particularly vivid shade of yellow, the air glowed as if charged with golden particles.
Today, it’s green, but no less intense as if the freshest salad I’ve ever eaten.
I climb steeply up a hill and think how unique this trail is with its quick ups and downs. There’s nothing sustained for long, but overall, there’s a lot of gain and loss.
I grab water at the Baptism River where each drop will go over those big falls. Mist rises in the cool morning air as the sun hits the water.
I enter a section of forest where white throated sparrows sing in slightly different keys. I wonder what they’re saying to each other. Egge lake appears through the trees, a deep blue encircled by pines. A ruined building, maybe an ice fishing lodge, sits by the trail.
My first hiker of the day comes rushing past. Andy says he’s always in a hurry to crush miles. In fact, this stop to chat he considers a break.
I daren’t keep him another moment, so press on avoiding piles of moose poop. I’ve seen tracks, but no animals yet. A black throated green and a black throated blue warbler sing as I descend on steep rock.
Boys yell to each other when talking would work just as well at beautiful lake Sonju’s campsite. I scatter dragonflies sunning on the boardwalk and head to Lilly’s Island. It’s a taste of the Boundary Waters – exposed Canadian Shield, a few birch, cedar and pine giving me shade as I eat second breakfast.
I still hear the boys as I head on, passing a funny little homemade seat quite randomly placed in the big woods.
A grouse gives a thump-thump-thump-thumpthumpthumpthump-thumpumpumpumpump. It’s low pressure that I feel in my solar plexus more than I hear.
An expansively high bridge spans a trickle which most recently was a torrent as evidenced by a set of stairs grabbed violently and twisted. I test the main bridge tentatively and it appears strong. Nevertheless, I dart across.
These wetlands filled with green slime sprout a profusion of the most delicate yellow lilies. Bluebells also grow under trees fully leafed out, though their flowers are pale to the point of being translucent.
The trail at this section has come so far inland. I see no sign of the big lake, but I do join the east fork of the Baptism River. It’s lined with cedars, their gnarly roots exposed by flood. Several plastic cones house baby cedars just planted, protected now from browsing deer.
The water is heavenly falling over slabs of rock in a series of rapids followed by cool pools. I dip my hat and let the water drip down my head. One site sits in the triangle of land created by a creek joining the river. I plan to camp further on but take note.
More backpackers pass out for the long holiday weekend. Julie tells me she walked 450 miles of the PCT and is bringing some young girls out here. People come with dogs and a big YMCA group gets stuck at a blowdown until I show them the path around.
I pick up more water at a creek near Aspen Knob then walk on road to Crosby-Manitou State Park. George H. Crosby donated over 3,000 acres of land on the Manitou River and it was set up as Minnesota’s first backpacker only park. Richard and I came here one wild, windy November night. I found the place a bit bleak.
Of course it was November, what was I expecting? It’s verdant now under blue skies and a man blocks the road to offer me a beer from his cooler. Wow, the good stuff.
It’s a short walk on manicured trail – no bugs, no mud and a nashville warbler and northern parula for company. I remember quickly why I walk with trekking poles when I descend steeply, carefully controlling a fall to the rushing river and a debris-covered bridge.
There’d be no way across this without that bridge. I’m glad it’s still here. Everything so far today was pretty easy, but now what went down must go back up and it’s a long, up and down ridge walk.
My views are down into deep canyons covered in trees, mature white pine with long, graceful limbs, stick out above everything else. It’s so lovely, all day long. But I’m starting to fade and it’s still a long way down.
I get more water at Horseshoe Ridge as Eva bounces down, light and happy having handed her backpack to her parents. The trail flattens out, crosses the Bob Silver logging road then heads down and down to another bridge at Caribou Falls.
Eva’s nowhere to be found and I have just enough energy to get to the next site a mile away – the longest mile of the day. Views open through old, thick birch to the lake stretching to the horizon. That’s where I’ll camp!
I hear hysterical high pitched laughter and walk in on seven 14-year-olds and their college-aged leaders. They offer to make room, but there’s one tiny spot on the side of the trail where I drop my pack.
“Hey, do you want Mac-n-Cheese?”
Never has a question been so welcome. I’d rather not bother with food so I bring my spoon and dig into a glutinous glop of deliciousness for this tired walker, although one curious ‘chipmunk,’ as they named themselves, asks if I brought my own food. Yes, of course, just happy to let you feed me.
I love this age. The girls are curious, smart, fun and not yet hung up on looks or boys, as far as I can tell. We talk and laugh, wash up at the wee stream and I become the ‘expert’ they ask about backpacking.
But my energy is shot, so I set the alicoop and crawl in before dark, wishing them sweet dreams and to make as much noise as they want – which they joyfully go right ahead and do.