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SHT: day 7, Castle Danger to SE Split Rock, 20 miles

It’s a glorious sleep at Elaine and Sandy’s and I wake up to the croissant aroma. Too bad I lose my appetite from the antibiotic, but I bounce pack quickly and Nick and I are delivered where we left off – late enough, I might add, to miss a short morning thunderstorm. 

The air is cool as the trail shoots up on hand-built rock stairs to overlooks of the big lake from white pine shaded cliffs. A chorus of warblers – chestnut sided, yellow, mourning, blackbutnian, and black and white nashville – compete for most lovely. Black snakes with one yellow back stripe slither out of their sunny perches as I pass. 

I loved spending time with Nick’s friend’s moms. We were told our only job was to entertain, so we both shared trail stories before Sandy suggested we get showers because we really stank. Elaine felt like a big sister and I clicked immediately. 

At Mike’s Rock the heat gets turned up and my clean clothes are soaked through with sweat. The view is gray, the air slightly hazy from humidity. A hermit thrush sings through its ‘syrinx,’ two tones rising in synchrony. 

As the trail dips back into the forest, I move fast through mud, side trails to avoid the main channel becoming just as slippery. It’s nowhere near the level of New Zealand but my socks are wet and mud reaches up my calf. 

Miles and miles of muddy forest full of music finally take me to the Gooseberry River. Richard and I camped here years ago on another hot, buggy set of days. The water was much lower and I lay down on a gravel sand bar only a few inches of water cooling my skinny self. 

I heard the hikers before seeing them unsure if I should warn them that a naked middle age lady was ahead. Somehow, even at a distance of ten feet or so, they never saw me. Maybe the sun was in their eyes. 

Now the water is high, but the river is still filled with gravelly bars and grasses. The water is latte brown as it coils around making its way to a series of falls. 

It’s a scene from Jurassic Park in here – humongous ferns spread wide next to wild carrot, taller than my head. A profusion of bloodroot borders the eroded banks, their white cups wide open to the sun. White thimbleberry blossoms nod as the wind brings up. 

“Bring it!” I say, holding my arms aloft to dry the pits. 

Everywhere are signs of flooding, entire banks falling into the water and leaving only a tiny trace of trail. I pass  four sites, empty now and inviting, but it’s too early to stop. Soon I reach a wider path that takes me to Fifth Falls, white and rushing into a deep pool where bathers dip in their toes to test the temperature. 

I see lots of tourists now, jarring after being totally alone in the woods, but I love arriving in this glorious state park from the mud. Lunch is on rocks and a family joins me, both parents glued to their phones. As I head on, more tourists pass, two – Brad and Sue from Sheboygan – stop to ask about what I’m doing. It’s the big, bright blue mattress which draws attention. 

While I pull off leaves and twigs picked up as I tried to skirt the mud fields, I tell them I’m walking the trail. “Sleeping out?” Of course, but not always easy to understand from the perspective of someone who’s never backpacked. This big blue accordion, I tell them, is the best mat for sprawlers.   

They wish this sprawler luck before I find the walking bridge under the driving bridge and head to the bike trail. 

Years ago, the story goes, some backpackers harassed a local as he drove and ATV and hunted on his own property. They were on trail, but it crossed his land with his permission, which he immediately revoked. 

I can see why he’d be annoyed, but it now means hikers walk out in the open on a paved trail right next to highway. Even this close to the lake, it’s hot and I take down my hair to cover my ears. 

It was here on this very path on a different trip that I came up with the idea to sell my professional flute so I could walk the Te Araroa in New Zealand. Such an inspiration and one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. (Incidentally, I heard a recital recently given by the owner of that flute and she sounds amazing) 

A few bikers pass, and I meet a father and two sons backpacking. There is one small section that drops to the beach of smooth, flat stones. The water is absolutely still and I skip a few on its surface. 

It’s not far before I cross 61, the main route up the shore, and climb up Blueberry Hill Road. Thru-hiker Tiffany is coming the other way and brags about a week of zero bugs. I tell her what’s coming up will make up for it.

I’m back in woods briefly before climbing up to a long ridge looking out to that still lake, the Apostle Islands dark blue humps on the horizon. The hike down to the Split Rock River is only mildly muddy, but the steepness takes me by surprise, even though I’ve walked this many times. 

Up and up on log stairs, then down again through squishy mud, the river roaring to my right. A tributary is crossed by bridge where a group films a bearded man with piercing blue eyes in a cape for a medieval fantasy film. The camera woman gives me a coke. 

Just as I reach the two crumbly orangish basalt pillars that give the river its name, a young man asks me if he’s anywhere near the river crossing. I say yes and to follow me. Bryce is from Nebraska and this is his first visit. He lost a friend and tacked on this trip, his first all alone, after visiting the grave. 

We move briskly up and down to what remains of the bridge and I realize he would not have crossed on his own, not knowing a rope has been affixed at a calmer section below, but hard to spot. 

It’s still deep, nearly to my crotch, but there’s very little current and we both slosh through using stable rocks as a second guide. 

The site I have in mind is a fabulous one, completely empty when I arrive. It just out into the river, the split rocks in front, another basalt tower splitting the river downstream and a good set of falls upstream, loud and frothy. 

Bryce heads on much more confident he’ll get back before dark. I offer advice on a few favorites, then sit on my rock patio soaking my feet and soaking in this brilliant place. 

Like a modernist sculpture, the rock is all sharp angles and simple geometric shapes. The water is surprisingly warm and there are very few mosquitos feeding hovering dragonflies. 

My tent is set, dinner eaten, food bag hung and it’s time to close my eyes with balsam filling my nostrils, cascades filling my ears and cool air soothing my skin. 

All I can say is, “Bring it!”

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SHT: day 6, McCarthey Creek to Castle Danger, 19 miles

Just as the sky lightens, or maybe before, a wood thrush begins in with his twittery uptalk. 

tweety-tweet?

tweetely-tweet? 

tweetle-tweety-tweet?

tweety-tweety-tweet?

It’s a conversation with himself. I get it. I talk to myself all day. 

So I’m up early and trot up to the latrine (long drop) in my homemade flip-flops. I feel clever and badass making my own, but they barely work. A castoff shoe bed and twine, they protect me from rocks and other sticky items, so maybe I shouldn’t judge. 

Other birds join in a morning chorus – the oven bird’s ktweet ktweet almost a north woods cliche and the black throated green warbler de de de doo deee?also a question. 

I love my mornings – dappled light, cool air, birds and yes, so many mosquitos. I’m surprised I sleep well on the blue mat. Along with a quilt, I can sprawl close to the ground. No one joined me last night, and I love it all to myself. 

The trail is all alone too, through dense forest filled with more birds. I never see them, or rarely, and only hear their songs as if right above me. The Canada warbler ending a sassy flourish; the slurpy kiss of a red eyed vireo; a hollow ratatat followed by high-pitched chips of a hairy woodpecker. 

I can hardly believe everything is so loud, as if I walk from one room to the next and each is having its own party. 

The land begins to transform to rough rock piled thick with dark green moss and a lighter blue-tinged lichen, one plush the other crispy. Ahead are voices in a campsite, not nearly as good as mine but close to a stream. 

I slip by unnoticed into a maple forest, dense and dark. Blue jay sends an alarm before settling above me gulping loudly and with forceful abandon. I pass ponds reflecting what sky peaks through the trees. A warty toad hops away from my footfall. 

This is the mosquito nursery, and that  one over there as well as that one ahead. Ponds or just water collection in a marshy wood? An oily-black garter snake S’s into the grass. 

All along here are no trespassing signs warning hikers not to step one foot off the trail corridor and don’t even consider setting a tent. The Superior Hiking Trail passes through federal land, state forest, state park and a lot of private land with the permission of the owner. I can’t imagine how it’s possible to go off trail, it’s far too thick. 

A northern parula clears mucus from its throat as I pass from the sweet almost tasty scent of balsam to the earthy pungency of fern. Far off I hear my first loon. 

At the next site, I wave at two women packing up. They wisely wear dark colors to deter bugs, plus gloves and head nets. Would anyone survive in shorts? There’s not enough deet in the world for this trail. 

I giggle when I finally hear the Johnny One Note song of the small but mighty red breasted nuthatch. Like a car alarm or the sound you get when you misdial, it’s hardly a song. 

A weed whacker sits idle by the side but the evidence is stunning of a truly talented and persistent whacker. I thank this absent expert in whacking with a wide, clear trail before me. Jim and Sue walk towards me, he a trail worker but primarily with loppers. No trail workers means no trail. It would simply be swallowed up. 

A northern flicker guffaws hysterically and nearby I hear my first black capped chickadee. I come to a road under a trestle which likely carried taconite-loaded trains from the Iron Range down to the two harbors. 

It’s a long, hot descent on exposed rock leads me to Reeves Road, where I dodge puddles walking to Highway 2.  I need to make a decision whether to hitch to town for food or try and keep walking with what I have. It’s far, about eight miles, and I’d need a ride back.

The trail will provide, I say as I thrust out my thumb. The first car swings into the other lane as if to make a point, but the second car stops. Father and son plumbers out on the job. And wouldn’t you know it, they’re headed down to buy something at the store right next to the supermarket, then headed right back up. 

What luck, thanks trail! 

I throw my pack on bits of pipe and squeeze in back as Jason and Trevor let me babble on all about life on the trail. They’re used to hitchhikers, they tell me, all needing food right about now. We buy what we need, then wait almost an hour for takeout. 

I assuage my hiker hunger and back up the hill we go. At the trailhead I see another backpacker, fully decked out like me with his pants tucked into his socks for extra protection. At first I think it’s the guy I’ve been following who signs the trail registers with his life story, bragging about how far he’s come on the North Country Trail. 

Instead, it’s a mild mannered young thru hiker named Nick on his first big walk. We set off together straight into thick mud, the mosquitos equally thick as the afternoon heats up. He has friends plucking him off trail at the next road. 

I ask where he’s from and surprised he went to both school and church at St. Ambrose my flute gigging outlet. He then shares his why has something to do with serious hardship at grad school, although the trail too has been hard. 

My pace is faster, so I move on, but assure him we’ll meet again and send a prayer his way as I slosh into more mud. (I learned the prayer part from Susie) 

The mud continues, but the trail also begins the sudden, dramatically steep climbs – and equally intense descents – it’s famous for. They take me out of bug infested mud trenches high into white pine and icy air with views over all I’ve walked through. Note: it looks like a snap from above. 

It’s a shocking change on these rock ridges covered in soft brown needles and bunchberries. More signs emphasize this is private property one explaining camping is now forbidden after someone set a fire illegally. Backpackers can sometimes be real jerks. 

I head steeply down to the Encampment River and fill up a liter I instantly chug. Again, it’s back up then steeply down, this time the Crow River deep in a steep sided canyon. I fill up more, thirsty in the heat and get buzzed by a bird speeding a low altitude. 

It’s short but steep enough for three flights of stairs up and out to the road where I meet Elaine, Nick’s friend’s mom. I assure her Nick is just behind me and we begin chatting about the unusual heat and abundance of mosquitos. And then she invites me to join them. 

I have to think about it for a few seconds, wanting my outdoor experience. But I smell awful and my feet are damp and who wouldn’t prefer a bed?! 

Nick arrives and Elaine’s wife Sandy drives us to a restaurant. I’m almost finished just as it begins pouring rain and need to run for cover for the last bites. Would I have gotten set up by now? 

They offer showers and laundry – a hiker’s dream – and we sit in a screened-in porch for desert when I notice a large red oval-shaped rash on my thigh. Did I get bitten by a tick?! 

Elaine just happens to have doxycycline on hand and a quick search suggests a round of antibiotics is in order even if only as a prophylactic. So she sets me up with a baggie of pills. I guess I got in the car with the right people. 

Yesterday was my favorite day for weather and today the trail provided to perfection. The cherry on top was juicy conversations with cool people I loved hanging around with. So I got my fill of both – friendship, care, a rescue plus plenty of alone time with the birds. 

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SHT: day 5, Normanna Road to McCarthey Creek, 23 miles

I take a day to heal my toe. It’s red and oozing, so Susie calls one of her herbalist friends who suggests I make a poultice of yarrow and plantain (an opportunistic weed). I get to masticate the bitter greens myself. We first tincture the toe with an oily concoction of echinacea, lemon and other helpful ingredients I have forgotten, then squish on gobs of green goo and wrap it in a paper towel. 

I don’t know how it works, but those plants pull out the infection and everything quiets down. Good food, good beer and good conversation helps too and I’m up with the birds and back where I started, right into the swamp filling my clown shoes with water. 

The mosquitos are still here awaiting my arrival. I slosh through the muck and keep my bug net on tight. It’s chilly out with wild wind quacking every aspen leaf. 

Still I hear an American redstart and black throated green warbler through the din, their simple question-like song, the sound of this forest. 

I’m not on the ‘state trail’ long before cutting into the woods on a footpath. Two logs are set over a deep, almost still, creek. At the first campsite sitting high above heron pond, I pop in to use the loo. It’s a hole, of course, but with a fancy seat above that’s been closed so I keep a dry bum. 

Again, the trail is relatively flat, but undulates up to thick forest, leaves whooshing like a jet engine in wind gusts – then down to beaver ponds filled with dead trees, sentinel totem poles above bright yellow lily pads in sky-blue reflections. 

Today is my favorite day already because it’s dry, chilly and my feet feel amazing. I can’t believe their resilience. A bit of rest, some chewed up green leaves and correctly fitting shoes and I’m right as rain. 

I climb up to a knoll filled with giant oaks. I’m not sure I have ever seen ones like these before – extremely tall and straight. There’s not much below, so the feeling is like a manicured park. I catch a glimpse of Lake Superior, blue-gray and forbidding. 

This section travels far inland and won’t get close to the lake until Gooseberry Falls. That means a lot of woods, but these are really interesting woods. A sign tells me that recently, the trees – primarily aspen, birch, balsam fir, basswood, maple, and oak – were showing signs of distress and decay. 

As a remedy, the Department of Natural Resources has been thinning the older trees to allow for natural regeneration – although they are also planting white spruce and white pine. 

Every mile or so, a different sign pops up telling me when the public sale of timber happened and what the strategy is for regrowth. Happily, the forest is behaving just as intended, growing back lush and thick, though it will be another decade before all the scars are gone. 

I leave the new forest to dip low to a beaver pond, crossing on his dam and looking to a lodge thick with purple irises. The wind is so brisk, I don’t need my bug net. 

At the Sucker River I crack up wondering if they’re referring to me. Two cranky teenaged boys carrying enormous packs and smelling of smoke fly by with barely a grunt. The parents, Missy and Don, are not far behind and tell me they’re training for Isle Royale. Don’s theory is the boys are less cranky and more speechless running into a lone female hiker. 

I’m startled to see anyone after so much solitude the day before, only to realize this is a much prettier locale than the snowmobile swamps. 

Giant ferns grow as high as my chin and I meet a mother-in-law and daughter who call themselves Breathless and Bellows. They’re knocking off sections one weekend at a time and are so happy the humidity is gone today. 

Me too. Funny how weather can make or break a hike. 

It rains just a little, sprinkling up in the tops of the canopy and never reaching me. I reach more views of the lake far in the distance. Bright orange and yellow hawkweed along with daisies seem to smile as I pass. 

Seeing Gitcher Gumee puts that silly song my Neil Diamond in my head:

Gitchee Gumee,

Gitchee Gaddy,

Sit your laddy down on your daddy’s knee.

And ain’t it a nice place to be? 

I have no idea what it means but it’s a catchy tune. 

I keep singing and loving every minute of this very best day when I come upon Chris and son Wyatt in matching neon orange jackets and headnets,  their sweet lab, Reilly, leading the way. She immediately leans into me with her butt within scratching distance and Wyatt proudly tells me how far they’re headed today. It’s kind of a super highway out here in the blustery wind.

The drops of rain give way to sun which dapples the light in my green sanctuary. A grouse peeps, then panics, crossing the trail behind me, peeping all the way. “You’re never going to scare off predators behaving like that!” To which she crosses in front this time, the volume ever so much louder, and giving me the side eye before she chills out in the trees. 

The trees pull back to reveal a set of ponds with yellow flowers like fists reaching to the sky. A dragonfly with a turquoise body and velvety black wings flutters to a leaf at eye level. A from k’thunks. 

My campsite sits right on a bend of McCarthey Creek as it glissades down a moss-covered rock to a deep pool, the water tinted a reddish-brown from leaf litter. I set the alicoop and eat dinner under my head net, then head to the magic glade to soak my feet. 

Nymphs dance in the air above me eating or scaring away the mosquitos which only moments earlier swarmed me. I can hardly believe my toe looks totally normal as if there had never been a problem at all. A song sparrow fills the air with music of enough complexity to keep Messiaen in business. 

I think how lovely it was with my friends yesterday – Susie who sends prayers to anyone and everyone in need, and Brian of the infectious smile who said marrying Susie was the best decision he ever made. They left an impression on me of accepting the joy of each day as a gift, of looking for adventure in small things and of being full of gratitude. 

I am so grateful for whatever was in that healing elixir, and for the time I could take before starting again with new shoes and better weather. I’m entranced by this mystical grotto where my feet are soothed in the cool. 

But what is this? Leeches! Just two, well, four…I pull their long, slimy bodies off and head up to the tent. In bed before it’s dark and sung to sleep  by the forest.  

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SHT: day 4, Chester Creek to Normanna Road, 16 miles (more or less)

Overseeing cock at Lone Tree campsite

The day is overall a bit boring, a lot maddening and designed to destroy a hiker’s soul. Still, I found things to love.

I leave Susie and Brian’s as early and quietly as I can, instantly locking myself out with my trekking poles still leaning next to the flag inside. So I have to wake them up to retrieve them, but I’m toast anymore without my sticks.

It’s funny that it was right here in the Superior Hiking Trail so many years ago that I first realized I needed walking sticks. The terrain is wet and steep with a slip that could plunge you down a rocky chute close at hand most of the time.

Yet today, at least after I leave the Duluth section, is described as ”relatively flat.” Funny how I never considered flat to mean swampy, but that was still hours away in my future.

Now, it’s on easy path sidling the rushing river on a ramp. I’m continually amazed by the number of streams – many bonafide trout streams – rushing through this city. It’s a deep green in here of cedar and hemlock. The birds are awake and loudly letting everyone know. It’s already hot.

At the lot, I lose the trail fascinated by the Chester Bowl mini ski hill. A sign asks us to text what the water height is today and I see the trail heading straight up into more woods on rough stairs to a road walk. Who is this woman and why is she carrying a backpack?

I share the Bagley Nature Area with mountain bikes and dog walkers. A trail runner smiles as I trudge past a campground, but I have a small ’mountain’ all to myself, up and over with a glimpse of Superior, gray in soupy air, the horizon hard to distinguish.

I use the bathroom and fill my water bottle at the Hartley Nature Center. Stacks of skis, snowshoes and boots await winter which feels entirely foreign as the humidity rises a few notches. I’m soaking wet and my right toe hurts.

A young woman with black hair to her waist talks to a group of children while holding a leaf. I follow the parking lot to one stretch of woods followed by a road walk.

A beautiful cemetery surrounds me giving me the creeps. I understand monuments to our deceased loved ones and all but I can’t help imagining all those bodies laid in rows as mine moves on, alive to what’s interesting and also what’s causing suffering. I guess I’d prefer my physical self part scattered around rather than taking up space.

The road changes from paved to gravel and a car speeds past, uninterested in the dust cloud I’ll have to walk through. I’d love to scatter his physical self, I mutter just as the trail leaves the road.

The SHT probably could simply deliver the hiker through this part on road. It’s faster, but defeats the purpose of a quasi ’wilderness’ experience, even if the road noise is an audible din.

Yet, my wee step away takes me on a ridge, the trail full of pink rock. My mood changes from a gotta-get-there thru hiker mentality to, ”what do we have here?” I can’t see the stream below, even as I’m even with treetops. A few boards are placed over wet bits exploding with pale blue stickseed.

I glance at my phone as I approach Martin Road where the next section officially starts. Cars give me plenty of room and I see a 70% chance of thunderstorms just as I join a wide trail. Identified a ’State Trail’ by a faded yellow sign, a tamped down portion pushes through weeds up to my knees, hidden puddles beneath.

It’s a snow mobile route, utterly unmaintained for hikers while easy to follow. Blowdowns cover my path end-to-end, here a long time as evidenced by herd trails in mud around their exposed roots. A few I climb over, and you know how I love that.

I swear the humidity has notched higher and I’m wet through from the water I slosh through, dewy plants acting as car wash, and stinking sweat. Now, mosquitos swarm in high pitched death squadrons. Not one gets my permethrined coverings, so I approach the whole awfulness with a lopsided curiosity.

bzzzzzzzzzz, slosh slosh, bzzzz, slosh, bzzzzzzzzzzz, slosh, bzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz

The birds must be punch drunk on the food supply and sing with a wild abandon. It’s New Zealand redux, but I can’t help comparing this particular nightmare as amateur hour since I’m really only wet and not muddy (much)

Needless to say, I don’t meet a soul in here and cackle all to myself. I stop for an early lunch near balsam fir, sweetly pungent and see my big toe is on its way to losing a nail. Aw, sh*t! My toes are deformed now, pushed on top of each other. La Sportiva discontinued my favorite shoes, but sent me another which must be exacerbating the crowding.

As I continue through the jungle, one lone bridge over the narrow deep chasm of the Lester River my only solace, I call a running store and purchase a pair of shoes with the biggest toe box on the market. It is a misery in here, even as I leave the wide shared track for a rolling one on pine needles, but I praise the goddess – and my friends – for a slackpacking day and the opportunity to return to Duluth, heal my toe and change out gear.

Drugs kill the pain and knowing I’ll be done with this soon. The narrow footpath heads up again to a hill clear cut five years ago. It’s regenerating and planted with spruce but feels so much in the middle of nowhere just 20 minutes from the city.

I’m surprised by the few, tidy campsites positioned near water with fire-ring, benches and flat tent spots along the way. One comes with a protective cock. But I’m cooked now and cut through private property for the road and call my friends to get me.

Two people stop to check on me as I sprawl on the median. Even the sheriff ensures I’m ok before telling me all about his favorite parts of trail, this not being one of them. There’s no mosquitos on the road.

My new shoes appear made for clowns, but my toes have room to expand. Thunderstorms are predicted and my friends invite me to zero and heal. I haven’t gotten very far, but I think back to major trails that all had hiccups at the start, events managed and utterly forgotten as I moved forward.

My toe’s been soaked, medicated, poulticed and elevated and darn it if the air just turns icy cold and I have to put on a sweater.

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SHT: day 3, Grand Avenue Chalet to near Chester Creek, 17 miles

Of course, we talk most of the morning after I take thirds on French Toast and sausage. Hiker Hunger strikes early on this hike. 

A late start means it’s already hot and I’m already damp. It’s a stiff climb up rushing Kingsbury Creek. Right here next to the ski slopes are cascades tumbling over dark brown rock. The veery disappear but white throated sparrow fill the space with their descending pentatonic scale, TWEEE-twee-tweed’dee, d’dee, d’dee. 

I’ve stuffed in so much food, I already need to go to the bathroom and find a nice off-trail spot where I somehow stir up a nest of ants, angrily crawling on my gear and my pants already at my ankles. I’m quick, though, and flick them off before any find bare skin. 

Clouds move in and the sun disappears. I wouldn’t mind some shade, but the sky is a tease, turning robin’s egg blue as I break out of the trees. 

I learn a new word: depauperate. It means an ecosystem lacking in numbers and variety. Ash, birch, aspen on repeat with a few balsam fir, black spruce, eastern hemlock and white pine. Will I lose my mind on this hike? Another white throated sings loudly, this time his melody ascending. 

And I ascend too, up and around this creek, followed by creeklets and another biggie, Keene Creek. Duluth has thirty-seven named creeks, and, in this heat, I stop at nearly every one.  

The trail parallels Interstate 35, trucks like dorsal fins suddenly appearing above the trees. It’s a big drop to the lake and many use engine breaks that rattle like jackhammers. Cheery orange and yellow hawkweed reach to the sun as I melt in an open area. 

It strikes me as odd that from from woods, loud and wild, water crashing and ferns threatening to take over, I’m delivered to a road right under the freeway, then back under trees before another road and the Allyndale Motel. An SUV races out without stopping so as not to have to wait for me to pass. 

Trail workers pass me on their way to replace a long boardwalk through a wetland. 

“Are you walking to Canada?” 

“Not today!” 

I’m hot and exhausted, so stop at a tiny stream with a view of the city, the river arriving at the lake and the iconic lift bridge. A couple arrives with s sweet dog and asks why walk the whole thing. “Because things happen on thru-hikes.” 

They wish me luck with any ‘transcendental shit’ before moving on. I see them again near a group sitting right on trail in the shade. One is overcome by the heat and it’s a wakeup call to listen to my body. 

And it’s water and more water as I continue – plus views, though hard to relax looking down at the serpentine Bong Bridge under this sun. It’s 89 degrees and I’m wilting. I see the rescue crew come straight up the hill and point towards the group. They thank me when I offered all my water. 

It’s up and down, rocky and so steep the crew built stairs. I stop at a falls and douse my head and then at the next one, fill two more liters. My new friends Susie and Brian text me to call whenever I need a pickup. I’m starting to wonder if hiking in this heat is asking for trouble. 

I come to a soft pine-needle carpet that leads up some more to Enger Park and its peaceful Zen garden. I strike the peace bell with a large log-as-clapper and its ring oscillates before dying. 

Now it’s all down, easy trail but open to the sun. I pass remnants of an encampment, one still in place but abandoned. A pedestrian bridge takes me over the freeway then down to the lake, just as the sightseeing train disembarks. 

It’s a paved bike trail I’ve ridden before bringing me to Duluth’s heart. The wind is up, but hot, a rootbeer colored chop complete with foamy crests lap at the wall. 

The lift bridge comes into view and I ask a foursome of tourists which one is the paparazzi. There’s some fluster and confusion but one manages a reasonably well-framed snap just one of the others asks, “Who is she and why is she wearing s backpack?” <shrug> 

I don’t bother enlightening them but offer thanks before searching out a soda. So many restaurants. So many tourists. I find a coke right near the bridge as an Amish family passes, the women in full-on gingham. Everyone says hello as I continue along the shore, no relief at all even with more liquid. 

Just as I come to Leif Erickson park with its goofy stage bookended by medieval towers, a cool gust envelopes me. I tingle all over and thank the goddess before taking stairs to the rose garden (redolent of lilacs this early in summer) and follow the road towards Chester Creek. 

Why am I still thirsty?! I stop again at a coffee truck serving lemonade, then decide I’m done. Just this wee hill into the park and two blocks to my friends, who have read me often enough to know to put beer in the fridge. Absolute bliss! 

Both scientists, we speak about streams and trees and birds, then they offer to let me ‘slackpack’ tomorrow in more heat plus thunderstorms, though it appears those storms are building now and a huge streak of electricity followed by a crash send us indoors.

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SHT: day 2, Red River Valley to Grand Avenue Chalet, 26 miles

OK, I know, too damn far on a dangerously hot but, but just of those moments where I just started moving and didn’t stop for practically the entire day. 

The minute there’s even a hint of light, the veery chorus starts up – slide-whistles in stereo. One barred owl joins in with a hoo-hoohoo-hoowhaaaaa. I sit up and turn on my phone. 4:30. 

To be honest, a train woke me in a whoosh sometime when it was dark and absolutely silent. I never saw it but I felt as if on the tracks. 

My bear hang stayed safe overnight and I grab a bar before packing and retracing my steps. After 100 or so, the bug net goes on. Trippin passes me for her final miles near the parking lot, and suggests I grab a gatorade from her truck. What a lovely person. 

A short road walk deposits me in more woods, brilliant green and loud up a narrow esker. I feel the deep thumps in my chest from a ruffed grouse. A bridge trestle spans a chasm and I wonder if my midnight train goes that way. 

From here, the views are of far off mountains above a deep valley, but only for a moment before I’m swallowed up in forest, a bit of mud and buzzy bugs desperately trying to get my blood but barred by mesh. 

I enter Jay Cook State Park and the trail immediately gets wider. The geological makeup is slate and grawacke, which rises in rows of triangles like teeth from the St. Louis River, funneled into fast moving rapids, which I hear as a roar miles before seeing the water. 

I run into Scott loaded up and moving slowly from his site within the park. Long gray hair and 73, he points out the rocking chair with shade cover he’s packed. 

I cross the stunning suspension bridge with views to the magical rocks and make my way to the vintage 1930s all stone bathrooms – which are locked! A few expletives slip out and maybe a hand gesture before I head back into woods and make my own bathroom. Daisies and white throated sparrow cheer me up, as does a picnic table at a high point with absolutely no view, but it lets me rest. 

I skirt a dam and meet Tom wearing a Superior Hiking Trail hat. He tells me to return on May 20th for trillium and July 4th for lady slippers before “guaranteeing” I’ll hate Gill Creek coming up. 

I can’t imagine what could possibly be so bad as I slip back into the forest, noisy with birds and full of bright yellow lady slippers, the leaves twisted like carelessly untied laces. The trail briefly follows the paved Munger bike path before a sign announces Gill Creek. 

I take a deep breath and head in – down mostly, on hand built stairs of logs pressed in the mud. It’s zigzags and steep, but I’m down in less than a minute to the creek, burbling and cool. 

I fill up, realizing I’m parched, even in relatively easy walking and humid air. I wet my face, my hair, even dunk my hat luxuriating in cold freshness before heading back up. Nothing appears amiss and my only guess as to guaranteed hatred is the simple fact that to get to a stream within a ravine requires some serious work.

But this act is repeated all day – up and down and up some more. I follow the St. Louis again, now wide and placid. An azure sky and cottony cloud reflect in the stillness. Here I meet Tortoise and Bungee Cord, who is planning five weeks to walk the SHT. We cut our conversation short when the mosquitos find us. 

It’s a trade off with these thick woods – shade means mosquitos, but as soon as I climb out into sun, they leave, and I cook. I drink all my water before cracking up exposed rock towards Ely Peak. The river changes color to a dark lapis from up here, winding through the valley on its way to the big lake. A train toots its horn and I yearn for shade. 

But bright sun brings wild strawberries, tiny and succulent. A dark tunnel leads back into forest of ups and downs and obscured views. Perhaps better without leaves. 

I reach a road with warnings of a shoulder leading to oblivion. A bridge festooned with pointy rocks spans a chasm. At the end is a grotto dedicated to Samuel Frisby Snively, mayor, road builder and lover of parks. All this land up here was his and he gave it to the city. 

I’m beginning to run out of steam when a car comes by and Colin and Michelle hop out to load me up with cans of La Croix. I drank all day, liter after liter and I needed every drop. 

After last night’s spot, there’s no camping in this entire 50-mile section, so I arrange to stay with friends. Wanting to make the pickup easy, I plan to stop at Grand Chalet near the road. Lori and Stephen pick me up and take me to Clyde Works where I drink some more. 

All of this bit is new to me and I’m surprised how by much it rolls and works my body – but also surprised by how far I roam, listening to the birds sing and ratatat, the toads hop into the brush, some sort of crickets saw away and stream after stream call to me to dip in my head. All the while, I conversed with the spirit and sang, even exhausted and soaked through with sweat, joyous in this beautiful setting. 

And now, a shower and a bed after a day this full is about as sweet as it gets. 

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SHT: day 1, Wild Valley Road to Red River Valley, 2.3 miles

It’s fitting that the last bit of work today is a presentation about my New Zealand hike. I have a small but completely engaged audience at St. Andrew’s Village that laugh at my jokes, ask great questions and tell me I’m “a natural” at public speaking. 

Richard dozes while I drive the two hours north, the maple and oak replaced by spruce and white pine, the hot and humid by a cool breeze. We leave the interstate for a two-land highway along verdant fields and woods, a vibrant early-summer green. Earlier in the day, we reserve a table at Brick’s Pub and Grub in W? but the place is only half-full. 

A pint and a blue cheeseburger fuels my start, only a few minutes away on an ungraded farm road where Richard immediately bottoms out. We took bets on how many cars we’d see and if anyone was camping in the one site at the Wisconsin border. It’s hard to say if either of us lose as there’s just one truck with a thru hiker planning to camp inside it. 

“Trippin” has just the two miles left to finish and is too hot and tired for anymore tonight. Her day was long under a hot sun with this glorious wind only showing up after she arrived. 

A narrow, dark hole cuts through the thick foliage the few miles to the Wisconsin border. Like the PCT and the AZT, to head to the start requires hiking in the opposite direction first. 

Richard joins me for a bit, the ferns up to our chests. I wisely picked up a long sleeved shirt and treated it with permethrin, but he’s getting chewed up by mosquitos, so we kiss goodbye on a boardwalk crossing a dry creek and I push on. 

The forest is loud with veery thrushes and their two-toned spiraling scale. 

The sun still shines at the tallest bits of birches shaking in the breeze. I’m sweaty as the trail rolls up and down. A train creeps by in the distance. 

I pass the spur to the campsite, then cross a bridge where coffee colored water burbles below. It’s a good pull on switchbacks, the packed dirt secured with wooden beams and a few stairs. And there it is! A simple wooden gateway with a sign welcoming me to Wisconsin. 

The Superior Hiking Trail is part of the North Country Trail which passes through ? states. I just touch my foot across before heading to the campsite. Mile 0. It may be the longest day of the year, but it’s almost 10 and the sky is getting dark. 

The site is lovely high above the water. I’m all alone and claim the spot open to the breeze. Someone brought a couple of plastic chairs and I use one for my gear as I set up the alicoop 2 trying not to allow any mosquitos inside. 

I surprise myself with a perfect bear hang on a high limb just as the land begins to descend to the stream, then crawl in as thrushes give way to frogs that give way to crickets that give way to fireflies and finally, just the wind in the trees. 

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Superior Hiking Trail thru-hike

The legend lives on from the Chippewa on down,
Of the big lake they called Gitche Gumee

–Gordon Lightfoot
The Superior Hiking Trail, also known as the SHT, is a 310-mile long hiking trail in northeastern Minnesota that follows the rocky ridges of the Sawtooth Mountains through forests of birch, aspen, pine, fir, and ceda and overlooks Lake Superior and the boreal forests of the Boundary Waters.

Beginning next week – on the longest day of the year – I plan to walk the Superior Hiking Trail end-to-end in one fell swoop. Over the years, I have walked everything north of Two Harbors bit by bit, but without any plan, and often repeating favorite sections. Somehow, with a tagline of “solo female middle aged titanium reinforced long distance backpacker,” it only makese sense for me to walk this glorious track as a thru-hike – a part of the much longer North Country National Scenic Trail – and one that’s close, nearly in my back yard.

It’s not glamorous, it’s definitely not distant or exotic, and I already know the trail so well, I might get bored, but there’s a curious pull to it to anyway. I want to see what happens to my body, mind and spirt on this thru-hike, end to end. 

All romantic notions aside, in Saint Paul it’s pouring rain and thundering – oh, and now it’s hailing. I could have plenty of that – and more – as well as ticks, mosquitos, black flies and mud. Let’s just hope I don’t start calling the trail the SH*T!

So plan to join me beginning next week on the longest day of the year for whatever might happen on a thru-hike of the SHT.

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Water, water, everywhere…

The waterfall falls but shamelessly and joyfully.

Unknown
Celebrating our twentieth anniversary, Richard and I head “up nord” where the Boundary Waters drain into Lake Superior.

Over the long Memorial Day weekend, Richard and I celebrate our twentieth wedding anniversary in a place we love – Minnesota’s North Shore of Lake Superior. A very generous friend loans us her house on-the-rocks above this monstrous inland sea. And even though it rains and hails for more than half our visit, we relish that perch as if captain and skipper at the prow of our own private love-boat above the crashing waves. (I’ll let you work out who’s who in this scenario)

Knowing full well the weather will not be conducive to much outdoor activity, we cram in walks and bike rides between the raindrops and take in some of the most dramatically overflowing cataracts we have ever seen, beginning at Gooseberry Falls, where a lovely young man patiently snaps photo after photo of us near the root beer-tinted water in varying degrees of sensual and silly.

Somehow our absurd posing convinces a few other couples to line up and that poor guy is left snapping their photos too.

Located on the Canadian Border, the Voyageurs took a nearly ten-mile portage to climb around these massive falls and access the inland lakes superhighway.
The spectacular view from Mount Josephine looking towards the Susie Islands and Thunder Bay. Out of the frame is the lump of Isle Royale, rising like a sea serpent from the cold depths.

We walk over muddy and exposed roots on an undulating path lined with tender green shoots. White Throated Sparrows and Veery Thrushes sing loudly, both to establish territory and to show off for the ladies. Narrow falls carve through ancient volcanic basalt and rhyolite, dark but for a lace of fluorescent green lichen inches above the waterline.

Cedar, Red and White Pine plus Birch thrive in this humid, fog-drenched climate – at least now, after the long cold silence of winter. A spray of Spring Beauties catches my eye, trillium still in tight buds. This is the Superior Hiking Trail and I feel an urgent pull to walk its 310 miles all at once, even after ticking off those miles piecemeal over the years.

At “Middle Falls” on the Pigeon River, we realize why the Voyageurs named this area Le Grand Portage, since it required a nearly ten mile hike to avoid impassable rapids. Those intrepid little men carried 100 pounds of compressed furs by tumpline at their forehead, a birchbark canoe like a hat. We only carry lunch and eat it on the rocks right above the boiling cauldron.

It’s a steep and muddy 5-mile hike to these rapids on the international boundary Pigeon River, but you can sit right above the action.
The trails are muddy, rooty and steep – a bit like New Zealand, but on a far smaller scale.
200 stairs down and back up to Stair Step Falls in Northern Minnesota, dumping millions of gallons of water a day into Lake Superior. What a sound!!

The ranger warns us we will get wet at High Falls, and so we do, the mist in our faces the same mist that creates a perpetual rainbow. “I wonder what this looks like from the Canadian side?” I query and we attempt to enter, only to be thwarted with a crashed website and long line of cars.

Fortunate for us, as it gives us the time to bag Mount Josephine. Likely the best bang-for-the-buck on the North Shore, it’s a 1,000-foot climb in a single mile that brings us to a perfect sitting place of exposed granite above the sapphire lake dotted with the uninhabited Susie Islands and the beast that is Isle Royale, 12 miles off the coast.

In our four days, we visit more rivers in spate – the Devils Track, Baptism, Cascade and Kadunce – and end the celebration atop a favorite – Lookout Mountain, the scene now back to thick boreal forest as the weather clears for just a moment before we need to retreat to our ship-at-sea deck and the sky above the “Big Lake” Gitcheegumee fills with lightning.

Lookout Mountain high above boreal forest in early spring.
Hidden and winding around on itself, the Kadunce River in Northern Minnesota enters rocky grottos that can be scaled in drought.
Part of the Superior Hiking Trail in Northern Minnesota, the Devils Track River rushes through steep canyons to Lake Superior.

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a day on the North Country Trail

I never kill insects. If I see ants or spiders in the room, I pick them up and take them outside. Karma is everything.

Holly Valance
Finally out of the trees at Juniper Rock overlook on the NCT.

I am covered head to toe in deet, but that doesn’t dissuade gnats and even one mosquito from dive bombing my eye balls, drowning in the moist corners.

And I’ve only been out an hour.

Richard and I drove up to Northern Wisconsin on country roads a few days ago to visit friends from Houston who summer at a cabin on Lake Namekagon. These are friends we sang with at Christ Church Cathedral, went on tour with, and were part of the early days of us coming together to tie the knot. Our fondest shared memory is escaping Hurricane Rita barreling towards the Gulf Coast by hunkering down with lots of singing, card games and booze until the wee hours.

Not much has changed.

And yet, my goals on this visit include testing my mettle on trail. So we get ourselves up and out earlier than the rest to give the North Country Trail a try, the trailhead just a few miles away on windy gravel roads so deep in forest, it’s easy to lose all sense of direction.

Like the Appalachian and Pacific Crest Trails, the North Country is a federally recognized long distance trail. At 4,700 miles, it is the longest running, from North Dakota to New York. I don’t know anyone ‘thru-hiking’ it, probably because it lies so far north, it’s not possible to walk in one season.

None-the-less, I meet an ‘end-to-ender’ catching as much as possible in 2021. Joe sprawls out on a narrow bridge to pump water. He talks non-stop in the way those who have hiked alone too long do, spending equal time talking to me as if I know the trail and educating me like I’ve never walked it.

Which I have, all the juiciest parts in Minnesota anyway – the Superior Hiking Trail, the Border Route and the Kekekabic. But here I’m burdened with only a day pack and, with Richard picking me up wherever I end up, the freedom to walk as much or little as I like.

Joe is an ‘end-to-ender,’ hiking the North Country Trail over a few years.
This part of Wisconsin is all glacial till, with deep woods and thousands of lakes.
There was far more fungus in Wisconsin than Minnesota which was not subject to drought.
Only aquatic and marsh flowers hold on deep into August.

It’s been an unseasonably hot summer, humid and buggy deep into August. I love the first few miles in the fresh cool, the sunlight dappled through the thick forest of maple, oak, birch and white pine. Richard drops me near Drummond, and I disappear into the Chequamegon National Forest (pronounced shuh-MAH-go-in) 1.5 million acres set aside by the federal government to harvest trees but also simply to enjoy.

The trail through the Porcupine Wilderness is easy walking on soft ground, the moss thick as the trail moves up on an esker along the eponymous Lake. I’m amazed how quickly the outside world vanishes – no cars, no noise whatsoever, only wind high above in the trees.

The trail is not blazed, but signs point me in the right direction when I hit exits towards parking ‘lots,’ more wide spaces along empty dirt roads. I spy lakes tucked in behind trees, then a pristine babbling brook begging me to take a bit of respite by its banks.

My attitude is not entirely centered in on the loveliness of this place. Trees just seem to go on and on, and I get impatient. The bugs are no help and even in here, I’m hot and sweaty.

But I move fast, vacillating between wanting to grab as many miles as I can and enjoying the surprises along the way, mushrooms in fanciful colors and frogs in my path.

The North Country Trail is the longest in the United States.
I walked about 18 miles of the NCT in Northern Wisconsin.
Aminata pop right out of the leaf litter when the ground is moist.
Beaver pond and lily pads.

And this is precisely how I get into trouble, pushing too hard in the heat, putting off my break for a suitable ‘view,’ and losing sight of what surrounds me.

I meet a couple at a lake just as I find myself turned around by herd trails to various campsites. When I ask them if I’m headed the right way, they tell me they’ve never been here before, though they helpfully suggest I walk an entirely different trail.

Fortunately, it’s not entirely different and where I’m headed later in the day, a part of this same trail ‘system.’ They promise good views before I snap their picture and head on, deep into forest and still more.

Robert Louis Stevenson said when you hike, “you sink into yourself, and the birds come round and look at you.” True enough. I am a visitor just passing by, and birds flit from tree to tree, checking me out and no doubt commenting on my furious pace.

I head straight up from the lake on a well worn path, digging in my poles. It takes me to a super site with a well constructed fire ring that must have a splendid view in fall. So I head right back down again, fairly certain whatever this path is must be the right one.

And as if the universe heard my call, I come upon a woman who assures me it is. I warn her of the maze of side trails and she shares her own warning of a beaver dam to negotiate with bog on each side ready to suck in the careless walker. “But you’ve got sticks and should be fine.”

I notice her hiking pants are free of dirt and tears while my bare legs are spotted with mud (from where in this drought?) scratched and bleeding with one red, itchy and swollen bite the size of a half dollar.

Nothing in here is hard, only the monotony of forest and the heat sucking at my will. The dam is just as she warned, a narrow path of pressed down bushes, Joe Pye and thorns grabbing as if refusing my passage without a price. My reward is a small handful of plump blackberries.

A couple offers tips in front of one of thousands of small lakes carved out by glaciers.
The path atop a beaver dam.
The day was absolutely silent with very few people, although the ones I passed had good advice.

I reach a road to cross that sends me out of wilderness and into the Hardwood Scientific Area. I’m later told each section is managed by different agencies, some federal, some state.

I decide here to keep moving and take my break at the upcoming overlook at Long Mile Lookout. This requires a lot of up and down, just when I get to the breaking point of thirst, but there’s nowhere in the leaf litter to stop.

Still, this is one of my worst habits. I push myself not wanting to lose momentum and I like to chill at a view. But it’s been about ten miles already so I make a mental note to affix a bottle holder to the front of my pack for sips during my more manic phases of walking.

The woods have an odd darkness, as if they’re their own society separate from the world. It’s as if I’m not outdoors at all. The only other time I’ve felt this way was in Utah in Buckskin Gulch, a long slot canyon that embraced me tightly like a high, narrow cathedral.

I contemplate this feeling of being inside as opposed to out when a long line of backpackers catch me. They’re young with big packs, laughing as I take a film of them marching past.

Their presence reminds me to chill out and stop taking myself so seriously – and for the goddess’s sake, stop rushing. Though I protest to the ether that my view is just beyond, up one more hill.

Which of course, it is not.

Up I go, then down, up and down and up again, one more to a sign pointing to the overlook. Finally! The wind is up and I hear a mournful whine in the enormous tower above. Am I meant to climb that?!

But, how? There appear to be no stairs. No, there are not stairs. Only a ladder. And the first twenty feet have gone missing.

I am definitely not meant to climb it, or even able to. This is a tower all right, and my view from below it is non-existent. There’s a nice spot to sit anyway on the concrete blocks holding the tower in place looking deep into trees. At least the wind is up.

The long line of backpackers in the Chequamegon.
A tower but no way to climb it.
The blue blaze marks the path on the NCT.

After I down all my water in two shakes – chocolate peanut butter and mango chia seed – the forest continues, but mostly down until I shoot back up over a lump of moraine to head quickly back down again. It’s another four miles of this in dappled light before I reach another overlook. This is the one the couple from the start assured me actually affords a view.

I cut off for ‘Juniper Rock’ feeling a bit cynical though this time around, I’m rewarded with quite the view into a deep valley of oak, aspen and maple, the distant high points sharp and steep.

I sit down on the pinkish rock to savor it as long as I can, even as the sun burns down on my shadeless patch before diving back into the forest towards ruins of a Swedish settlement from the late 1800’s.

Immigrants found their way to Wisconsin during a time of famine, taking advantage of the Homestead Act. It granted them land as long as they lived on it for five years and ‘attempted’ to farm. One couple – Gust and Ida – did their best, the gal garnering the nickname ‘goat’ for her ability to run up and down these steep and lush hills above the Marengo River.

I come upon remains of a spring house made of concrete and try to imagine life in those times – hard, for sure, but tight knit, neighbors needing to rely on one another for everything from help harvesting to company when lonely. It didn’t help that these hardy souls attempted to farm on glacial til. Pictures of the time reveal cleared woods, but now it’s all grown back, and I’m swarmed by bugs.

So off I go, taking only a precursory look at the other remains before pressing on into a planted forest of red pine, tall and straight, the light streaming in long rays. It almost feels primeval with huge ferns, like New Zealand.

Ledge fungus on a birch.
The spring house is all the remains of a Swedish Settlement.
The red pine farm.

Two more view points open up, but nothing offers as much as the first so I barely sit down before marching on. I’m hot and tired, feeling like I’ve seen all I want to see when I really haven’t done that much hiking. Ole Ida the ‘goat’ would take her churned butter ten miles to market in Grand View and must be snickering at me from the beyond wilting carrying only a day pack.

The trail begins to descend and I’m fairly certain I’m heading out now, though the path plays tricks on me turning sharply left and going deeper into the gloom. I laugh and wonder if choosing this trail was a good idea in the dog day’s of summer.

To paraphrase Paul Theroux, “Hiking suggests hope. Despair is the armchair; it is indifference and glazed, incurious eyes. Hikers are optimists.”

My outlook is certainly more optimistic these days learning my heart has no blockage, no weakness or structural damage and is not verging on any life threatening arrhythmias. Whatever weird heart beat I have occasionally has proven elusive and we can’t seem to catch it in the act, so my cardiologist has suggested for now medication, vagal nerve maneuvers and an Apple watch – plus more hiking.

I’m finally spit out onto a road, not a soul around just me and the bugs. I send Richard a message that I’m stopping here and squat down on a rock to gobble up a leftover thru-hike lunch.

My wait is long since his drive from a disc golf course he played and mapped is winding and complicated. I flick away a black and white spider from my leg, and he simply crawls right back up. Such persistence; such hopefulness and optimism that spider maybe looking for salty sweat and warmth on my beaten up shin.

The trails will see me once again as soon as I can organize my schedule to get back. This short ‘trial trail’ just to whet the appetite, and likely more interesting on paper and as a ‘hoped for’ experience than what it turned out to be.

But I didn’t stay at home or complain about the woods of Northern Wisconsin not living up to the standards of the Rocky Mountains. I went and walked and took it as it comes. I moved forward, each step taking me towards a possible overlook, a tiny surprise, a joy in moving.

I’ll take that – bugs, heat and all – over standing still any day.

Hikers are optimists.