hike blog

a taste of the SHT: Fredenberg Creek to Sugar Loaf Road, 9 miles

You can be the lead in your own life.

Kerry Washington
Après-hike on the shore of Gitchee Gumee with Carlton Peak far in the distance.
Après-hike on the shore of Gitchee Gumee with Carlton Peak far in the distance.

I wake to clear skies and the squirrels chattering again. Their mutterings sound like the gurgling of the tiny creek I’m camped above. I lay in the alicoop cozy and not so sure I want to stir. Yesterday I was full of spit and vinegar, moving fast and strong up those famously rocky and steep bits of Minnesota’s North Short – a trifle compared to anything in the “real” mountains, but a slog in that minuscule span of time, the breath heavy and the (healthy) heart pounding.

The squirrels aren’t going to let me sleep, one visiting just to see if I might have gotten careless with my food. No such luck! OK, I’ll get up, sitting up first in the palace that is the alicoop 2, my Gossamer Gear “The One,” a single walled, single piece tent set with my walking sticks and six pegs. It rained last night, so I’m careful not to brush against the ceiling, damp to the touch. But as I said, it’s giant and I have loads of room to pack up, throw out my gear bit by bit, then dress and prepare to go

I have no idea why this became such a habit, but I don’t eat until I’m well along on the trail. Did that do me in, not getting enough nutrition and liquid? Or is it just wanting to get a move on as if dawdling will slow the momentum. Yesterday I felt like a thru-hiker, moving fast and smooth, ticking off miles while still taking pictures and breaks at the best spots. Today I’m getting a small taste of the other side of the thru-hiker, the one beginning to feel like they’ve walked past the same tree a hundred times and less thrilled about a steep ascent right at the start.

But it takes me out of the dense green and up to exposed rock. “Tower View” a sign reads and there it is, a tower closer to the lake. The sky is clear, but thick and humid. My view isn’t obstructed by mist, by neither is it crisp. The trail takes a sharp turn and goes right back into the forest as if through a leafy tunnel.

My mind wanders and I think of the ease in yesterday’s non-stop conversation with the air, the laughter at my sometimes silly mistakes and the feeling that with each step I was coming closer to that state of bliss where I feel the spirit close at hand. Today, it’s a bit more forced over warped boardwalks, along root-filled paths strewn with boulders where I have to watch every step and down steeply on dried mud.

The Superior Hiking is lovely every season of the year.
The Superior Hiking is lovely every season of the year.
A decommissioned train track I cross before hitting country roads.
A decommissioned train track I cross before hitting country roads.
Granola at Alfred's Pond.
Granola at Alfred’s Pond.

The next site feels much further away than the mileage indicates. I’m so glad I stopped myself from moving further last night even when I felt so good. It was 6:30 when I finally arrived and I would have been walking this in dim light indeed. The site is not all that special either, next to a river and tucked among the trees.

My goal is Alfred’s Pond, a place I sat for hours a few years back, so still dragonflies landed on my knees. First I cross a road, then again just before a truck passes. I do like meeting people at roads who might “sell me a beer” but when they’re driving by and kicking up dust it always spooks me a little if they see me crossing, so I move fast and let the forest swallow me back in.

From Dyer’s Creek, it’s back up and I feel my legs now, tired from yesterday’s overkill exertion, ready for a break. A horsefly buzzes me as if to emphasize that today is a new day and I’m going to feel the challenge more deeply. I grab my bug burka out of a side pocket and throw it over my head. He doesn’t take the hint, but at least won’t land on my face. I stop to scoop up a few raspberries, perfectly plump and tart falling into my fingers right when I touch them. As I reach for seconds, the horsefly lands on my outstretched hand, noticing his lovely pale brown wings folded back before I swat him dead.

Forest fungus.
Forest fungus.
An over achieving burl.
An over achieving burl.
Scroll work.
Scroll work.
This moment here is why I go out on hikes.
This moment here is why I go out on hikes.

It’s not long before I follow a meadow again to my right hidden by a scrim of trees and nestled inside is the pond, just as I remember it, trees reflected in its placid blue surface. A dragonfly with a sporty blue striped body hovers close by, clearly keeping the place clear of mosquitos and horseflies. There’s a boardwalk to the edge with two triangular benches. I pull out the bear canister from my pack and make breakfast, first cereal, then a shake followed by two bars. It didn’t take long for hiker hunger to hit me. The raspberries clearly weren’t enough.

I look down at my GPS thinking I probably ought to check in with Richard. I fully intended to hike all day, but what’s this? “I’m in Duluth and will check in when I hit Silver Bay!” He’s already on the North Shore. I was prepared to keep walking, but come to think of it, I think I might have had enough for this test trip. I bluetooth the phone to the GPS and write a message – short, since only 140 characters are allowed like Twitter – and suggest we meet at the next state park, Caribou Falls.

I pack up and begin moving, suddenly realizing I’ll be crossing yet another road and maybe he just wants to get this pick up over and done with, so I amend my message and press send hoping we don’t miss each other. Just then I hear the lovely descending melody of a White Throated Sparrow, perhaps my favorite of the birds in my north woods world. His gentleness feels encouraging, you’ve done well here, you came back to the trail and you soaked it in both as an observer who lingered and slept out and as one simply moving through.

There is so much peace in walking and I feared I’d lost touch with that feeling. I was desperately out of sorts in Montana, I realize now walking these final miles to meet Richard on rickety boards over a swamp, one high above a wash out and bouncing as I put my weight on it. On the CDT I was suffering in the heat and from having to climb over so many blowdowns as well as never clicking with the people I was walking with, if you can call it that since I never could keep up with them.

The real problem, I think, is that I was disconnected with myself. I somehow lost the sense that what I was doing mattered, that, in fact I mattered. And then my body betrayed me and just gave up out there. Next week I’ll know more about how we plan to move forward with a heart that begins racing out of control every so often, but out here on these three days, I’ve had no symptoms whatsoever.

Thank goodness.

The walking is flat and easy now, as long as I carefully step over exposed roots and stay upright on the boards. I start to sing one of my favorite songs of all, Randall Thompson’s setting of Robert Frost’s “The Pasture.” I whistle the piano part then sing the last line, taking a huge pause in between lines.

I sha’n’t be gone long.—You come too.

Just as I get to the end of the second stanza, I hear whistling coming down the path. It’s Richard!

Surprises in the bushes.
Surprises in the bushes.
Not picking, just bringing near for their close up.
Not picking, just bringing them near for their close up.
Music I often sing on trail.
hike blog

a taste of the SHT: Poplar River to Fredenberg Creek, 25 miles

Embrace your life journey with gratitude, so that how you travel your path is more important than reaching your ultimate destination.

Rosalene Glickman
A big smile and strong legs and heart on day two kept me moving all day.
A big smile and strong legs and heart on day two kept me moving all day.

I wake as it gets light and wonder if I really need to get right up and walk. But I decide, yes, let’s see how it feels to mimic a thru-hike and get moving in the early hours.

There’s no sound from the other tent, so I quietly let the air out of my mattress and pillow and go through the routine of packing each piece in its place: sleeping bag, tent, mat, electronics, extra clothes and bear canister – with the rain gear nestled at the top since I expect it all day.

It’s misty now and humid as I push straight up towards the Lutsen ski area. Switchbacks and steep rock-strewn trail give me a workout first thing in the morning, but I feel strong, my breath even and my heart pounding loudly.

A huge flat rock bald opens out to a white out. I have breakfast here of pecan-fortified raisin bran and powdered whole milk. I’m carrying two liters of water not exactly certain where my first stream will be. Very light mist moistens my skin. I hear something crashing in the forest.

The trail is steep, rocky and rooty. I push myself hard and realize that it’s right here I’ll know if my hiking mojo can be rekindled. I think about some of the stories Julie and Felix tell me. They stopped at a campsite and a man was there with a growling dog. When Julie asked if he liked people, the man told her no adding, “There’s no room here”

The thing is sites have to be shared, but they moved on, put off by his manner. Felix tells me some people are very loud. He went to a Quaker school, learning how to be quiet and simply be. It would be useful if everyone had a bit of ‘how to be quiet’ training, but right now, I don’t see a soul.

I cross a bridge and enter the ‘Mystery Mountain’ ski trails. One orange tent is set at the campsite and I’m glad I didn’t push here last night because there is very little water in a creek far below and it appears not to be moving.

The path moves steeply up and down through dark green forest. Sometimes I get switchbacks, but oftentimes, the trail simply shoots straight up or down and I have to use my hands to keep from slipping. Raindrops patter the canopy, but never reach me. Nonetheless, I’m soaked in sweat as I cross Moose Mountain, high on a ridge without views.

I meet four backpackers, happily chatting and we snap each other’s pictures. They are the first people I’ve seen all day. Up and up I go, the trail never seeming to level off. The forest is quiet and dense, fungus crawls up the side of a tree and a woodpecker leaps from tree to tree, clinging upright to its side.

Breakfast at Glove Rock all in mist.
Breakfast at Glove Rock all in mist.
Dew-touched spider web.
Dew-touched spider web.
Fungus among us.
Fungus among us.

A sign indicates a spur to a view, but I skip it knowing everything’s in fog. Even at famous Oberg Mountain, I pass the loop and push on, waiting for sun to peak out and burn off the mist. I catch a glimpse of its massive cliffs through trees, solid and slightly menacing in the dim light.

I have a snack at the first campsite, so close to the parking lot, there’s a picnic table. I make a note to return here when fall’s at peak color and also in winter with snowshoes on a crystal blue day. There’s no sense to climb up on the Leveaux loop either, so I content myself flying fast through the forest, eating raspberries and talking to myself.

This is when I know I’m walking well, when I cover a lot of topics and laugh at myself over ‘interesting choices’ in my past.

I’ve walked all of the Superior Hiking Trail in sections, never with any planning, just grabbing parts here and there over the 14 years I’ve lived here. Some places I know well and others I forget about, finding new surprises when I return, like incredibly steep ascents I’d forgotten about, or dense forests that go on a bit too long.

But this section I remember because I brought my friend Debby years ago. We set up camp at a site only a mile from the road, then headed to Carlton Peak for the spectacular views and returned to the same spot.

There’s no water between that site and the peak, and I remember this when I overheard a group of backpackers unsure where to camp. I graciously offered to share our site which sits by a creek. They were good enough neighbors if a bit unwise storing garbage in a plastic bag within reach of the squirrels.

So I take note to stop here and fill up my water – as well as drink a lot, all that heavy breathing on steep ascents and profuse sweating in the humidity has made me very thirsty. I plan lunch on the peak, I place I’ve been dozens of times.

But that doesn’t mean I remember just how steep it is. In a little over a mile, the trail gains 600 feet and the path is strewn with boulders, more of a climb than a hike. By the time I reach the summit, I’m soaked through with sweat, and hungry. I find a shady spot and mix up a cheese dip with crackers plus a banana/chocolate shake.

The first people I saw with half the day gone.
The first people I saw with half the day gone.
Someone's been hard at work.
Someone’s been hard at work.
The Temperance River in severe drought.
The Temperance River in severe drought.

The sun has burned off most of the fog up here and I can see deeply into the tree-covered Sawtooth Mountains like waves towards the horizon. There’s a few concrete pads with rusting pieces, all that’s left of a gondola from many years ago. I have the place to myself, except four guys who come to tell me they’re from Colorado, so this is no big deal. Why, I wonder, do these types bother coming here?

The fog still covers Superior and the men quickly leave. It’s pretty beautiful up here just as it is. Ancient volcanic rocks, crushed and moved by glaciers leaving spectacular formations like these cliffs as well all the steep mountains I’ve walked over all day.

It’s hot, and there’s nowhere to camp here, so I head down, taking a wrong turn which puts me on a ‘short cut’ I scoot on my butt, tossing my Lekis down first. This side is all steep on massive boulders, each step carefully calculated. I meet a man and his grandson, the elder sweating like me. His granddaughter sits at a picnic table below, too afraid of heights.

Years ago, I climbed up the rock, tied to another climber. It’s exhilarating up here with Gitchee Gumee 1000 feet below and views for miles. Much of it is on a slab, where friction and carefully placed feet and hands carry you up. Less brute force and more technique.

But now I’m headed down through thick raspberry bushes and wonky wooden platforms over dried up streams. One is high and bouncy and I hope it holds me. It’s a long way down to the Temperance River, low water exposing boulders. Boys throw rocks into mist-filled falls.

It’s spectacular looking into the tight shoot, where the water has carved deep, rounded tunnels, large rocks acting as drills spinning and digging holes. I cross a bridge which gives me a view straight in, but the low water is softer, without power.

I follow the river to a parking lot and spy a fly fisherman working a pool. From here, the trail heads straight up, never quite wanting to level off. I dig in, breathing hard but feeling my heart pumping well, no sign of it racing beyond where I control it.

I reach a ridge with views in fog, but it’s up some more and more before finally heading down to Cross River. I intend to camp past here at a creek, but I don’t trust that the water’s running, so I look for a place to fill up. I pass two sites and the trail takes on New Zealand proportions, heading straight up and down to avoid a cliff.

I’m often far from the river, and wonder if I made the right choice to keep moving, but eventually reach an access, and head in. It’s still moving, but obvious that only in the past few weeks it’s drying up, the smooth river rocks exposed. I sit on one and find a small falls to fill up with ‘dirty water’ that needs to be filtered.

Spotted Touch-me-not.
Spotted Touch-me-not.
An early fall in the dry conditions.
An early fall in the dry conditions.
Absinthe wormwood.
Absinthe wormwood.
A meadow hidden by a scrim of branches.
A meadow hidden by a scrim of branches.

I punched holes in my water bags and affixed a string so I can let gravity do the work, the water passing through the filter and into a bottle held on by a screw on joiner. I decide to make dinner here, soaking noodles for a cold pad thai.

My food is working well, but it’s a bit messy squeezing two packets of peanut butter into a bag of noodles, vegetables and spices. There’s almost no way to avoid spilling as I gobble up every last bit.

I’m full and happy with just two miles to go through forest. I pick a few raspberries before entering a cedar forest, the spindly branches like a curtain covering a massive meadow, a rich light green in the light.

I see the creek, mostly a dry bed, but there is a tiny bit gurgling under the sound of a raucous squirrel family in a dead tree. I have the place to myself and set alicoop 2, brush my teeth and crawl in, just as darkness falls and everything goes silent.

I went far today and it felt wonderful. I didn’t tire on the steep ascents, even as I hit the final one ten hours after the first. Yes, this is easier terrain – steep but for short periods. There’s no altitude and I may be sweaty but I’m not overheating. I’m stopping when I want to and going as far as I like. I’m eating a lot and drinking enough.

I don’t know what set my heart racing and caused me to become so weak I could hardly move. I’ll know more when I see the cardiologist again and hopefully I can do as much walking as I want to still.

What’s funny is that I’ve given myself an opportunity to push as hard as I do on a thru-hike, but only for a few days – and I can always take my foot off the gas at any time; I have an out, as long as I can meet a road which is usually only 5 miles or so away.

Perhaps this is all I need. A practice run to see if I can do it, not so much so I can run right back out on a four-month thru-hike, but to prove to myself that I am still strong and that I have options.

Just knowing that is empowering. And, blissful.

Happy little hikers engulfed in ferns.
Happy little hikers engulfed in ferns.
hike blog

a taste of the SHT: Cascade State Park to Poplar River, 15 miles

Life’s challenges are not supposed to paralyze you; they’re supposed to help you discover who you are.

Bernice Johnson Reagon
Blissful at Lookout Mountain above the Cascade River in Northern Minnesota.
Blissful at Lookout Mountain above the Cascade River in Northern Minnesota.

I sneak out from under the covers without turning on a light. It’s 4 am and I figure if I get an early start, I’ll have the whole day in front of me to hike. But when I head into the kitchen to fry some eggs, Richard appears, dressed and ready to drive me to one of the Superior Hiking Trail trailheads, then pick me back up in three days.

Ever since the rescue in Montana, I’ve suffered from a bit of trail PTSD. The heat, the wrong companions, the blowdowns all contributed to my wildly beating heart and leaden fatigue, but it’s made me question if I have it in me to manage a backpacking trip – not just physically, but emotionally. Do I even want to do this anymore?

Packing was a cinch since all my gear is still sprawling on our basement floor – and I have plenty of food still, food I meant to send forward for resupply now waiting patiently in large plastic boxes to be consumed.

The only problem is I’ve sent my quilt off for a repair and my raincoat kicked the bucket. So I borrow Richard’s massive gear, made for his 6’4” build. The bag is just laying on me anyway and I hope it doesn’t rain, even if the sky is soupy the entire drive along the big lake.

I’m nervous and prefer hanging with Richard to testing my body. I’m Simone Biles for three days, on a trail that’s fairly easy, well maintained and close to civilization. There are steep sections where I could wipe out, but it’s a good test only four hours from home to answer some burning questions – Did I push too hard? Was it just bad luck? Can I go back? Will my conversations with the goddess continue?!?

When I told my mother I was planning a trial backpack trip, she told me, “You’re unstoppable.”

I have walked all of the SHT in sections over the decade+ I’ve lived here, but always find new surprises when I return.
Even in drought, the wildflowers were abundant.
Even in drought, the wildflowers were abundant.
Lots of raspberries and thimbleberries to eat, as well as ones I left for the birds.
Lots of raspberries and thimbleberries to eat, as well as ones I left for the birds.
Stair-stepping fungus.
Stair-stepping fungus.
Joe-Pye and bumble bee at the Poplar River.
Joe-Pye and bumble bee at the Poplar River.

The geology of Minnesota’s North Shore of Lake Superior is over a billion years old, some of the oldest rock on the earth’s surface. Granites of the Laurentian shield form parts of the middle of the Forest, basalts and rhyolites form the Sawtooth Mountains and shore. This rockiness makes it steep with sudden, astounding views looking out for miles on boreal forest.

Moose, black bear, deer, migratory birds, a few wolves and the usual chipmunks and squirrels call this vast area of birch, aspen, pine, fir and cedar home. And today, thru-hikers, backpackers, walkers and tourists use the 310-mile trail free of charge thanks to a smart and hard-working group of volunteers who began building the trail in the mid-‘80s. It passes through national forest, private land and seven state parks, characterized by waterfalls that empty thousands of glacial lakes in spectacular fashion into the Big Lake.

I choose a random spot to hit the trail at Cascade State Park near Grand Marais. There’s a parking lot right along the highway and Richard walks me to the first falls view of a massive smoothed out oval in rhyolite with just a small spigot of water rushing down, my first sign of this stubborn drought.

He kisses me several times, and once more for good luck and I power up the spur to the main trail, stopping often for plump raspberries and juicy thimbleberries, crushing between my pinched fingers causing me to lick off the juice.

I slow down and remind myself how perfect this hike is since I have no real destination, just taking each day as it comes. Several groups play in the small pools, fishing and posing for pictures. The sky is gray and the wind is up, perfect for hiking even if a bit humid.

Northern Minnesota is on the edge of the boreal forest. There are plenty of white pine and fir interspersed with shapely cedar, their complex root system a challenge for foot placement. Aspen quake in the breeze and birch peel back to reveal a meaty and vulnerable pink. Alder and ash thrive in the marshy areas where wooden walkways in various states of disrepair lean and twist in the path.

My first uphill hits one false summit after another before opening to s spectacular lookout, a tower of rock the best picture spot. A man brings a laptop and two stuffed animals here for inspiration as he works on a short story. Several day hikers pass plus a loud family with six children all wearing backpacks. I’m happy they’re going the other way.

I use the loo at the top with a view and follow the ridge as the trail meanders up and down opening to more stunning views of low tree-covered mountains. The sky is just overcast and the smoke, thankfully, has blown away.

Tiny yellow throated vireos cheep as they flit from tree to tree. A chickadee chirrups. I take breaks at each campsite, sitting on a rock bench and ensuring I’m getting liquid and calories. The streams are low, though the water moves in miniature falls.

A relatively new and stable walkway over marsh.
A relatively new and stable walkway over marsh.
Lunch spot above Lake Agnes.
Lunch spot above Lake Agnes.
Sharing the rock with a day hiker at Spruce Creek.
Sharing the rock with a day hiker at Spruce Creek.
The Poplar River from the ridge.
The Poplar River from the ridge.

I’m mesmerized by the silence – just wind, birds, water and my breathing. A month ago, I broke the silence constantly calling for bears and it takes time for me to get used to the quiet and unlikely possibility that a bear will lumber past. Only a squirrel hisses and scolds while one chipmunk peeps before disappearing through a hole.

Sun peaks out and filters through the green leaves. Goldenrod and fireweed grow higher than me. The trail suddenly goes steeply up and I slow to keep control of my breath. When it crests, I immediately go down, then up again, staying in the forest with no views but giant lichen shelves clinging to tree trunks.

I reach the road, passing benches in a semi circle looking out on a lake. It’s only a mile until Lake Agnes where I thought I might camp though it’s far too early. I meet two young men and share beta on the campsites I passed. It’s warm, so I head up to a bald for another snack, looking down on the pretty lake, a massive beaver house placed next to a peninsula carpeted tightly in pine trees.

I’m feeling stronger as I move on, up and down through forest, mostly maple now and a place I visited many years ago at the peak of Autumn when the color was so brilliant, the air took on a golden glow.

I pass a backpacker who tells me there are tents in both sites on the Poplar River. I was sort of hoping to be alone and wonder if I should plan to push further as it’s only 5:00. The river is wide and more of a pond here with lily pads and grasses.

A group yells out a “hi!” from the first site, their tents and hammocks taking over. They seem nice and tell me I’m welcome but that the next site is just ten minutes ahead.

Why not check it out, I think as I thank them and push on. It appears a beaver dam stilled the water and further on, it gurgles and babbles. I like that sound, like a lullaby.

There is a tent here and I hear two people at the water. I take off my pack and sit down. Soon, a boy walks up with a fishing rod.

“Catch anything?”

“Just small stuff.”

A woman in braids follows him and I ask about the next sight. They tell me it’s fine but not near water, then invite me to stay. Julie is a soil scientist at the U and has been hiking with Felix every year on the SHT since he was seven, adding a bit more each time.

Julie and Felix at the campsite. We clicked right away.
Julie and Felix at the campsite. We clicked right away.
Richard's rain gear will have to do.
Richard’s rain gear will have to do.

I set up the alicoop 2, change my shirt, get my cold soak going and head to the river to filter water. We connect right away, sharing stories about hiking, Outward Bound, unusual encounters and how much we love being on this gorgeous trail right here in our state.

I make my buffalo pasta salad (which uses six packages of mayonnaise!) and we sit on the wooden benches, interrupting each other, laughing and making this one of the best nights I’ve had on trail in a while. All that stuff about wanting to be alone is completely forgotten.

I read a piece in the New York Times about getting old and one idea really stuck with me:

“People have the potential to see possibility instead of problems; aging itself can be a catalyst for rich new experiences, offering a way to renew passions and reinvent oneself.”

At one point, Julie said something that revealed her age. Felix responded that her being born in the ‘70s made her “really old.” I enlighten him with my age coming into this world in the final weeks of 1964.

I’m not really old, but I’m pretty seasoned. I have to be careful where I place my feet – I rolled my ankle once and fell down on my knee today, the sticks couldn’t catch me. Perhaps in Montana, my heart went wild because too many things stacked up. I can handle a lot, but not everything all at once.

I walked well today and was strong the entire way. I made sure I took breaks, took pictures, ate and drank and stayed happy and connected – and it worked. That fear and trauma-induced stress is lifting and I’m connecting again with this thing I love so much. Perhaps I can set rules and boundaries that work for me and can still do the walking within those bounds.

It’s 8:30 and we’re all tucked into our tents. The river is singing and a few creatures peep every now and then. Richard’s giant sleeping bag covers me like a blanket and I’m ready to sleep and dream about what I’ll see and who I’ll meet tomorrow.

The best news of all is my heart is happy.

hike blog

Superior Hiking Trail in spring

In the spring, at the end of the day, you should smell like dirt.

Margaret Atwood
The SHT crosses Beaver “Creek” thankfully on a bridge.

This past weekend, I packed up my new pack, slung it over my shoulder and headed out on the Superior Hiking Trail for a twenty-something mile section to test my new titanium hips doing the real thing. It was absolute bliss.

I started by visiting my friend Karen in Grand Marais, a follower who I had only met online. She’s the one to thank for helping me get to Isle Royale, The Kekekabic and up Quandary Peak since each time I used one of her homes as a base and her feisty spirit as motivation. We had a grand time talking, running the dogs and finally bounding up to the cliffs at Section 13 where she saw me off for my southern walk.

Weather moving in. The SHT is steep and rocky to one bald after another along the Sawtooth Mountains.
Beautiful planked walkways take the hiker over wetlands and through birch in early spring on the SHT.

I had forgotten how steep the trail is on the Superior Hiking Trail, taking the hiker from one ridge to the next with exposed cliffs and balds and giving the out-of-breath climber spectacular panoramic vistas. At the top of Sawmill Dome, my perfect, sunny and warm day with a gusty, cooling breeze disappeared into a threatening thunderstorm over the Boundary Waters Wilderness and appeared headed my way. Happily, I was well-supplied with rain gear and a tent, though a few drops pattered on my cap.

The trail wend its way from Canada to Jay Cooke State Park just south of Duluth mostly through the Superior National Forest and one state park after another. The geology boasts some of the oldest rock on the earth’s surface. Granites of the Laurentian shield, basalts and rhyolites laid down 1.1 billion years ago plus 2 billion year old iron ore, fossil mounds and breccias formed after a cataclysmic meteor strike. For the hiker – and rock climber – it’s heavenly out here to push yourself up steep sides or use technical gear to climb vertical slabs. From my perspective, it was a chance to see if I could pull together both muscle and pulmonary strength in the kind of symbiosis I was used to in my long distance hiking.

As glorious as the views were deep into Northern Minnesota and across the vast expanse of the “Big Lake,” Lake Superior, I was astonished by the quiet yet expectant woods. Just at the edge of the so-called “boreal forest” the flora is made up of balsam fir, white spruce, paper birch, and mountain ash, though entire pockets are home to mountain maple, which turn a brilliant red in the fall and can be viewed in a sea of color from the ridges. In early May, the forest floor is covered with their leaves, completely bleached to an almost iridescent egg-shell white, as if the forest glowed.

Peepers take over the tiny ponds, loud and insistent while black capped chickadees flute, and red bellied woodpeckers pounde into still standing dead logs, their tops and branches gone. Mostly the walk is quiet and totally alone, not a soul sharing this gorgeous section. Maybe it’s too long or too far from the closest town or state park. I love having it all to myself.

Massive shelf fungi amidst a bleached maple leaf carpet.
peepers peeping
Bloodwort about to unfurl. These were the only wild flowers I saw all weekend.

A seasonal spring crosses the trail, so I stop to filter water and have some food. My new pack is built with a sit pad, so it has to be removed from the back strapping to use. I don’t like faffing with gear, so I stand up to clean water and eat. I hope that won’t become a hassle on the CDT. Later, I come to Kennedy Creek with a bridge to cross, but I have plenty of water for the night and it’s time to look for a place to sleep. There is a campsite deep in the woods, but I’m alone and don’t plan to make a fire, so stealth camping is just fine.

High above again on the cliff, I see deep Wolf Lake below, steep sides of rock rising sharply above. I browse around here, but nothing is flat and there are too many branches and bushes. Sure, in a pinch I’d be fine, but I still have time until dark. The trail continues up, heading straight out towards the lake and suddenly I see a rainbow, bright and colorful. As if leading me on, I come out on the high ridge to get the best picture.

And that best picture spot is right at a flat area above the trail. I pop into a wee spot where I set up the new tent, needing to find a few stones to hold down the stakes on this rocky soil. Bed is set, gear is out and now food. I find a little log to sit on to begin dinner, a cold soak of marinated chickpeas which has become one of my favorites – savory, filling and easy to make. The sun goes down fast and with the evening comes a chill. I crawl in and open the entire front of the tent so I can look out.

All night the wind howls, shaking the tent but never knocking it down. OK, gold star right there. I snuggle deeper into the bag as a magenta moon emerges over the horizon, producing a pathway of light all the way to my shore. I leave the bug next off to see it better and one mosquito finds me. Where did you come from?!?

Rainbow over Gitchee Gumee.
“The One” tent and the “Gorilla” pack given to me by Gossamer Gear. Both worked splendidly and the tent withstood some fierce gusts on the ridge.

I’m up just as the sun rises and a man walks by. Later, he walks back and apologizes if he woke me, telling me he was just out for the sunrise. I am not too far from the highway to Ely, though I never hear it and as I pass a side trail to an overlook, I wonder why this man passed the overlook and instead opted for my spot. The day warms up and I look around for a suitable place to dig a cat hole. Up and down and steep and bushy, nothing appears for some time.

By the time I really need to answer nature’s call, I scramble to pull my pants down – a cute pair of zip-offs made by PrAna that I found for five bucks at Goodwill. And right there at my waist is an itsy bitsy tick. He’s crawling and hasn’t latched on, but where the heck did he come from?!? I pick him off and proceed to check the rest of my mostly naked flesh pretty sure he’s a harmless wood tick, then head on down – and up – and down again, a roller coaster to Tettegouche State Park and its massive waterfalls.

It’s a long day of walking, more up to spectacular balds like Mount Trudy the very first place I hiked to on the SHT when I first relocated here 13 years ago. That day I forgot my tent poles and ended up swaddled in my tent to stay dry. When a group of deer browsed too close, I heard them sneezing wildly unable to figure out who or what was in front of them on the cliff’s edge.

Wetlands, beaver houses and lakes appear below before I cut out onto a slab of granite above Bear and Bean Lakes. I see the first person of my trip here seemingly waiting to take my picture,. I tell her about camping below, once in deep snow where I had the place to myself except for a lone wolf, who’s tracks I see inside my snow shoe tracks; the other, after I buried Sasha, my beloved cat, when the sky lit up with wild lightning as I said goodbye to my furry friend.

Beyond I cross swollen and rushing Beaver Creek, one of thousands of waterfalls and rapids that empty the 10,000 lakes of the glacially formed Boundary Waters above. I see way more people now with massive backpacks all hoping to get the perfect site at the lakes or near the rapids. But I head on, more up and down, more spectacular views, and more deep forest along beautifully built boardwalks over wetlands until I meet another friend, Courtney, at Split Rock State Park. She immediately hands me a beer.

I’m tired but my body didn’t betray me, carrying me up and down on this perfect spring weekend. Am I ready for a long distance thru-hike? I think so. After all, thru-hiking is really just a whole lot of section hiking strung together. I learn that I need to go slow – at least for starters – and make sure I get plenty to drink, which became obvious after I slammed down two beers all at once. My pack is pretty small and most backpackers I met had no idea I slept out at all, but keeping it small helps me. Massage and stretching also help, loosening the muscles, though that tingly neuropathy in my left left still nags. Maybe it’ll be gone by the end of the CDT.

Maybe there will be me at the end of the CDT, having walked from Canada to Mexico.

Let’s hope!

Bean and Bear Lakes, inland from Lake Superior and hugely popular. I camped below one year in deep snow and shared the place with a lone wolf.
hike blog

The Kekekabic

You never know where a blessing can come from.

Teena Marie
Gabimichigami Lake as seen through regenerating forest of Aspen.

Day One, Gunflint Trail to Agamok Bridge 12.6 miles (plus 1.5)

What strikes me at first walking on the Kekekabic, or ‘the Kek,’ is how quiet it is. Wind sets the Aspen leaves quaking, a deep gold against the soft blue sky, gray clouds hanging near the summits, a mosaic of yellow and dark green. 

Richard and I drove up in pounding rain and bumper-to-bumper traffic, but we woke in Grand Marais to clear skies above Gitcheegumee and hopped up the Gunflint Trail, an hour’s drive deep into forest and the land of millions of glacier-made lakes begin.

I woke up again in a panic about my future, feeling ungrounded and unsettled, learning just this past week my right hip joint is ground to nothing – and the left is not far behind. A cortisone shot is only going to buy me time until I’m going to have to get new ones. 

But I’ll get to call myself the bionic hiker! Turns out it’s genetics and there’s not much I can do about it. Nonetheless, Rich and decide I’ll hike in an hour then send him a message via GPS if I need to turn around. 

Only a few miles before a view of Canada, we meet the trailhead and see four cars parked. I wonder if I’ll see many people on Minnesota’s most rugged and remote trail. 

Richard grabs his sticks and a few photos, then starts walking with me up the hill. It feels like the Te Araroa when so many lovely trail angels who became friends got me started on the next section after their town. It gave them a chance to experience at least a taste of what I’ll see, and give me just the right sendoff.

This area was burned to the ground by the Ham Lake Fire and the new growth is mostly Aspen, bright yellow now with a bit of Maple in such a deep red, it could almost be called purple. Nearly a mile in, we take the spur trail for the fire tower, only a stone foundation, its metal housing crumpled in the bushes. 

Richard lags slightly behind, due to asthma, and tells me at the top, “Even with gimpy hips, you kick my ass!” We flush two grouse, flapping their wings in a spastic panic that lifts their bodies just enough to clear one side of the trail to the other. We decide that I’m going to go for it. I’ll take my time – and my Vitamin I – then meet him on the other side, about a 4 1/2 hour drive near Ely, Minnesota and three days walking.

At a little over 40 miles, the ‘Kek’ is not a long trail, but it’s remote and rugged.
Fall was at peak when I started the Kek in late September.

It’s always a bit strange to kiss then go in opposite directions, turning our backs, each step pulling us away from each other. What awaits me ahead? When I woke up last night shaky and insecure, something calmed me, a voice telling me to say, “Yes” to all things, including uncertainty. That definitely goes against the grain, but what I believe it means is to accept the challenges I face rather than deny or question them or feel picked on. I think perhaps agreeing instead of arguing with just might give me more power of myself. 

The trail sidles a hill and even after last nights rain the bushes are bone dry. This trail is infamous for being so overgrown with brush, people get lost. In fact, there’s a word to describe this – getting “Kekked.”

Established in the 1930s as a route to a fire tower, the Kekekabic Trail is a 41 mile long trail through the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness from the top of the Gunflint Trail to Fernberg Road, near Ely. I put it off for years because it’s incredibly inconvenient to get to either trailhead, the Gunflint about an hour north of Grand Marais, which is about four hours north of my home of Saint Paul.

And Ely on the western end is another four and half hour drive from the trailhead. You need a permit to hike in this wilderness of moose, wolf bear and beaver habitat and it is notoriously difficult to follow because its remoteness makes it’s difficult to maintain.

After its heyday in the ‘70s, the trail fell into disrepair until volunteers established a a club in the ‘90s, but severe blowdowns as recent as 2016 with 100 mph straight-line winds took down millions of trees and left the trail a jumble of impassible limbs. Only last year was the trail cleared end to end and I feel confident I can manage it.

I’m moving well even on rocky and uneven trail, but I’m careful, using my sticks to stay upright and take off some of the stress. And this hike is not just about pushing myself on a deteriorating joint, I’m also experimenting with cold soak food, leaving my stove, fuel and pot at home. The weight and volume savings is eradicated by my half-size plastic bear canister, a bit of gear I thought wise to carry as hungry creatures prepare to hibernate.

The views are beautiful looking down to a pond filled with lily pads, spruce trees a mirror image on the opposite bank. I meet a day hiker named Wendy, impressed I’m walking all the way. I know I must sound cocky when I answer her question about having picked out all my camp spots along the way. Truthfully, this might be the first hike where I’m not sure how far I’ll get limping along on shorter days. 

Yellow birds come when I call, “psh-psh-psh-psh,” but they make no sound this time of year, only the wind whistles in the pines. I pass mines from the nineteenth century, fences in place to keep people from slipping in. At aptly named Mine Lake, trail crews cut a steep detour straight up, then straight down to avoid a notoriously wet section. 

The trail crew made hiking easy.
Warclub Lake filled with Lily Pads.

I soon enter the Boundary Waters Wilderness, stopping at the stunning campsite on Bingshik Lake with views on three sides. It’s definitely too early to stop, but I drink a liter of “sweet (electrolyte-fueled) water.” A man passes me totally distracted by his headphones jammed in. I suggest he enjoy nature’s sound. “I’ve heard it for three straight days,” he retorts. I guess not everyone needs the quiet as much as I do. 

Quiet except for the wind and a banditry of black-capped chickadees, whirring as they flit from tree to tree. I work my way between a series of lakes – Honker, Glee, Fay, Warclub – and get lost momentarily, shooting confidently right down a portage that ends at the water’s edge and having to shoot right back up. When I return to the intersection and see the blue ribbons pointing the way, I realize everything looks the same making it near impossible to tell which way to go. 

Hooray for the compass which is never wrong. Sure, I know to turn right but I check anyway that I’m headed west, more ribbons and giant rock cairns keeping me on track. Five hikers come my way, joined by a ‘caboose’ of two more – what’s the term for a group of trail crew? They’re all packing loppers and made things passable!

I take a picture and gush with gratitude, one commenting, “I didn’t realize we were celebrities!” Indeed you are. The scrappy opportunists that take over a burn area could potentially erase any hint of trail, and teams like this keep it open for hikers like me from getting lost. 

They tell me they’re happy people are walking it and I head on into a mossy area of rocks and sun-dappled light through trees. Massive erratics sit isolated right where they were dropped thousands of year’s ago by a sheet of ice. I cross streams, beaver dams, and step gingerly over boulders. I laugh remembering that I told Richard on our drive up here that I never feel alone hiking anymore. He responded, “That’s good…right?” I guess he thinks I have a stable of imaginary friends. 

I am alone and that requires being careful I don’t get into trouble or hurt myself, but I feel full and happy with my own company. And lookie here, I’m definitely not all alone as another young man comes my way. He’s friendly with advice of sites ahead, confident that I’ll make it to Agamok Bridge before dark, my intended stopping point. 

I take a pause at the wee campsite at Howard Lake to filter water for a peanut butter/chocolate shake and eat a few dried mangoes. The young man told me I’d have lots of views ahead, and I need to drink up before heading uphill. 

The trail goes up and down steeply, never very far, but enough to get me breathing hard. It’s rugged – rocks, roots and plants obstruct the path and I stay vigilant. To my left are waves of golden aspen glowing in the setting sun above chains of azure lakes. The color is so bright and rich, the air itself pulses with color. 

I’m on a ridge, but out of views now, so I press on, the trail obvious though still rough. I just got to have one more of those amazing mangos I dehydrated, so I slip my sticks under my arm and reach in my pocket. At that moment, my foot catches a stump hidden under grass and trips me sending me flying through the air. 

Pristine falls from the bridge.
The colors were so intense, the air glowed.

It’s true that accidents often seem to go in slow motion. I try to right myself but my sticks are under one arm, my hand stuck in my pocket and I fail, landing with a thud on my shoulder followed by a kind of afterthought of a face-plant.

I stand up and look behind me to see if I had an audience, brushing off bits of dried grass stuck to my blouse. Nope, I’m still alone and not hurt in the least, though from now one, no more walking this trail without a stick in each hand. 

Before heading down, I get one last view of golden hillsides, dark clouds forming quickly above. I hear the waterfall below and walk straight into a brief whiteout of rain. But it passes quickly and I don’t bother putting on my raincoat. 

It’s steep now and I pay extra attention to where I put my feet on the wet rocks. I cross a beaver dam, negotiating a few holes in the mud that cements together stacked logs with beaver-teeth sharpened points. Agamok Falls is a cataract cutting through ancient exposed magma, crossed by a splendidly engineered wooden bridge. 

I’m slightly disappointed in the site, just a large flat opening in the forest. But I have the bridge, the falls, and two rock ledge verandas on separate bodies of water where I split my time to filter water and soak noodles for dinner. 

It’s absolutely deserted, only the susurrus of the falls keeping me company. Suddenly I hear a kind of banging sound followed by yelling. “Henry!” Well, there goes the neighborhood. I stand up and head into the site to ensure I claim the one flat tent spot. 

There’s more banging and laughing, but I never see anyone. Aha! That banging is made by canoes! Of course, there’s a portage past these falls and just down the trail a bit more, hidden in the trees. This canoe party likely has no intention of carrying their canoe over here. 

And I’m right, as I hear their voices – and the banging – fade slowly before disappearing entirely, leaving me utterly alone with my falls in this magical spot. 

And I’m rewarded with a delicious cold soaked meal gobbling it up before it goes pitch dark at 7:30. The moon guides me back to the alicoop just before a light rain patters the tarp. I’m tucked into Big Greenie, marveling at this day of peak autumn colors, beautifully maintained trail, no injury from a wicked fall and this sweet solitude . 

My big brother Eric also wore his hip to the nubs and had it replaced a few years ago. When I called to ask for advice I admitted I was feeling down. “DON’T BE DEPRESSED!” he emailed me in all caps. “Life is a stokeathon,” – I should point out that Eric lives in a beach town in Southern California – “It’s a bag of blessings.”

Eric’s absolutely right. Safe and warm inside the ‘coop, I’m counting those blessings before my eyes get heavy and I rest up for tomorrow’s edition.  

On the final descent to Agamok Falls, the weather changed.
My cold soak noodles precluded any need for a stove and tasted delicious.

Day Two, Agamok Bridge to Strup Lake 8.9 miles

Should you shield the canyons from the windstorms you would never see the true beauty of their carvings.

Elisabeth Kübler-Ross

A gibbous moon shone into the alicoop creating a spectacle of leaf shadows. But it didn’t last long before it started raining – on and off all night. I’m cozy warm, but everything is damp when I wake up. I drink up a peanut butter/chocolate shake and put on all my rain gear. I scored bringing my bear vault on this hike as here comes a chipmunk looking for handouts. 

The trail leaves the lakes behind and heads directly into forest, dark, wet and slippery, the rocky path hard to negotiate. Now my sticks are firmly in hand and stab bright red maple leaves like an old fashioned receipt spindle.

The brush acts as a carwash and I sweat under my jacket, out of breath on a steep undulating track. I’m supposed to come to a view, but every time I ascend to what looks like a clearing, I go right back down again. The trail is obvious, but it’s hard walking and starting to look, as my friend Neil in Christchurch would say, “samey.” It’s so silent in here, like I’m inside, though a few chickadees chip as a woodpecker knocks. Massive black fungi cling to trees, now all conifers as I pass out of the burn zone. 

I unwisely step directly on a root and wipe out fast like I’m wearing roller skates. I’m ok and thankful I’m geared up for the wet leaves that break my fall.. The forest is pungent with a spicy freshness mixed with a thick but fleeting balsam that portends life rather than decay, the moist air magnifying the sweetness. 

Ahead is a pond with a giant beaver house, so old, half of it is sporting grass. The only way through this wetland is over a dam, a fifty foot serpentine pile of pointy logs. I step carefully, not wanting to repeat my latest wipeout especially here where a fall could launch me into the water or onto one of those spikes. 

A rock cairn that would fit in on Easter Island.
A yellow carpet extends into the horizon.

It’s not so hard, and I love the openess to the sky for a change even if a flat gray. Just around the corner is Harness Lake, a rock slab veranda sloping to the water’s edge. I stop for a snack looking out into white pine twisted like palm trees high above perfect triangles of spruce, and bright yellow aspen. 

It begins to rain, and I shiver in the damp cold, shoving off. It’s up steeply now towards views out to big lakes, including this trail’s namesake. It’s hard to know how far I go before taking a sharp left. Judging from my map, it’s up, down then up again. But the trail is not as clean as topographical lines and after an hour – even on this ankle twisting, Blissful tripping terrain – I’m fairly certain I’ve walked the two miles to the junction. 

But I never see it. Lost in thought, I begin heading steeply down, careful on slick rock hidden by autumn leaves. A bit of view to a massive lake opens to my left, and then an even bigger lake to my right. Wait a minute, this trail is heading steeply down to that massive lake – and the two lakes are actually one and the same. 

I pull out my compass and see I’m heading directly north now. Maybe the trail turns west? Not on your life! Somehow, I missed the intersection and just kept going. 

It’s a big climb back up, but I am naturally gifted for up – and tend to wipe out less often. It’s up and up, but where the hell is the intersection? F-bombs drop from my mouth as a raindrops join in. I come upon a few blue ribbons I hadn’t noticed before, so I guess I’m back on trail. But which way am I going, and why am I not seeing a junction? 

I check the GPS, which shows me connecting with my trail and seemingly heading the right way. But with no sun and everything looking exactly the same, walking the wrong way is an easy mistake to make. So forget the GPS, let’s take another look at the compass. I set the dial to north, then spin the baseplate so my direction of travel is heading southwest and hold it up to the map. Yup, this is the right way.

But how in God’s green earth did I miss the intersection, not just coming, but going?!

One of several masterfully constructed beaver dams along the Kek.
Beaver House.

The answer to that question is never forthcoming, and maybe it doesn’t matter even if it puzzles me. I start to feel more confident when I pass a tree taken over completely by stacks of white fungus. There’s no way I would have passed this without stopping for a picture. A few more minutes walking and I come to a blue triangle nailed to a tree reading, “Kek” with arrows pointing east and west. I really could have used that sign back a few yards, guys, but at least now I’m heading the right way. Late’s better than never. 

I think back to the Guest Post by my friend Alison Heebsh, warning us backpackers that day two always sucks. It’s wet and dreary, the views are obscured and I got “Kekked.” But c’mon, now, Blissful, there’re views coming up and you’re back on trail.

As I get closer to a burn area, I see a pile of moose poop, but never come upon one, more elusive in the vastness of the Boundary Waters than on Isle Royale. Young Aspen in showy yellow flutter like thousands of jazz hands.

My path is overtaken with massive ferns, dried tan and crumbling.  A few white pines survived the Cavity Lake fire, which must have burned hot, leaving several towering sentinels, blackened and solitary. But the fire opened the view of sprawling blue lakes below cliffs of gold. A wood pecker pounds into one of the towering trunks. 

The path leaves the ridge and returns to thick boreal forest and its intense autumn bromide. I cross a stream carefully on rock rather than the slippery boards and take a spur to Strump Lake. On the way in, I spy the throne toilet, sitting right out in the open below a tiny rise to the camp spot, an apron a granite dropping into the tranquil water, white oak and aspen beyond. 

I set the alicoop soaking wet, but it quickly dries in the wind. I change into dry clothes and hang the wet ones on branches away from sticky sap, then head to the water for another cold soak meal. It’s quiet and perfect, the sun trying to peak out just as two hikers wander in. 

Glad I brought the bear vault.
Opportunistic ferns obscure the path in the Cavity Lake fire section of the Kek.

OK, so obviously when hiking, we have to share, but what is it with people? It’s like they’re annoyed I’m here and rather than engage, don’t say a word and begin searching for a place to set.

Finally I say hi, and the man says, “How are you?”  Now, why exactly does this annoy me? Don’t get me wrong, I understand sharing, but there’s an art to it. Rather than barge in all assuming and aggressive, how about a more deferential tone, “Hi! Would it be ok if we shared tonight? We’re really quiet and we’re really tired and…we’ve got chocolate!” 

No, that did not happen. 

So it’s up to to me to introduce myself and welcome them, which finally softens the edges. Anna and Sam. They give me campsite beta, admire the view, pull out some food and relax on the rocky apron. They then tell me about coming upon an occupied site, where “the people took the best tent pad and didn’t seem to want us there.”

Right, pal, that’s because there’s an art to sharing.

Well, they turn out to be pretty nice, really, and quiet as church mice, their exceedingly low voices just a mumble under the wind as I take a wee nap in the ‘coop after an early dinner. I’m awakened by a cocky camp chipmunk standing right on top of my bear canister.

I head back to the water’s edge with my book as Chippie hoovers up leftover crumbs. The clouds part in a burst of sunshine, but close after only a few minutes.

My neighbors are in bed by 6:00.  

Helpful sign located in a less than helpful place.
Luminous fungus.

Day Three, Strup Lake to Benezie Lake 13.3 miles

The only thing that makes life possible is permanent, intolerable uncertainty: not knowing what comes next.

Ursula K. Le Guin 

It rained all night, sometimes just loud pingy drips shaken from the trees, but mostly a steady pattering that left me feeling down and damp. 

I had a dream mixing my former boss and my flute playing. Obviously it left me anxious at 4 am when I woke with a start. The book I loaded in my Kobo reader helped, “The Great Influenza,” though maybe a bit of a sick joke at this particular moment in time.

I’m glad I brought it anyway and sat out reading on the rock veranda looking out to the row of rocks – a humpback whale and shark fins – until it was almost too dark to find my way to the tent.

I’m warm inside even a few stray drips hit the sleeping bag. My chipmunk – or one of his friends – is creeping through the dried leaves looking for crumbs. I fall back asleep awakened by a cannonball beaver tail splash and the sky lightening. The rain’s let up for a few moments, so time to move while it’s relatively dry. 

The air is thick and gray, almost making it too dark to see. A light drizzle follows me onto the trail, all ‘flat and easy’ today, which is just fine. My hip is making fewer protests and I move along smoothly on a wet carpet of yellow, orange and red. I pass a beaver pond misty in the drizzle, black stumps reaching into the gloom. 

James meets me coming the other way as he begins his bid to walk all the way to Duluth.
At the intersection for Disappointment Lake. I skipped it because I’d likely share a site with canoeists.
A coil of saw in the woods betrays the Boundary Waters past.

Ducks quack loudly, not bothered at all by a little moisture. Ahead, dozens of chickadees flit from branch to branch, noisily chattering. One lands right near me for a better look. 

The trail is easy, though I still need to watch my step to avoid wiping out on moss-covered rocks or oily roots. I straddle one blow down after another, then crawl on my hands and knees under a few more. I notice hundreds of trees today brought down by a massive windstorm in 1999 followed by another in 2016. 

The trail crew has worked mighty hard to remove the mess, and it’s especially incredible the work they do, since only hand tools are allowed in wilderness areas. I wonder how they moved some of the biggest as I bounce along a tunnel of sawed trunks. 

At the falls between Hatchet and Thomas Lakes, I gingerly cross on rocks to avoid the slippery log bridge. I hear canoeists on the portage. Moose tracks are everywhere, but I never see one, just chattery red squirrels. 

I cross a spectacular beaver dam of mud and humpy grass. I am exactly at the level of the water with a healthy drop to my right. I can’t see a house but I hear a huge warning splash. A vole peaks out of the sticks as I pass.

Even in rain the fall colors were astounding.
A slippy log bridge at the rapids between Hatchet and Thomas Lakes.

The trail heads on through alder turning yellowish-green and spruce in perfect Christmas-tree shapes. A man comes towards me. “James!” I yell. “Bliss!” It’s the young trail worker from two days ago now starting his journey of the Kek, the Border Route, and finally the Superior Hiking Trail. 

We share beta and commiserate about the weather just as it begins to rain hard. He ensures I’m ok and tells me tomorrow the weather will be worse, so I decide to keep moving and walk as far as the last of the sites before the short walk to the end. 

I take lunch at Moiyaka Lake, my view a perfect rectangle of rock with a brilliant yellow aspen growing out of a chink. The sun peaks out from the clouds as I sit next to a gigantic downed white pine. It would be hard to get water here, so I press on. 

A coiled up bit of saw marks the turn off for Drumstick Lake where I need the privy. Again, the site seems an awkward distance from water. But no matter as I have my eye on a site down a side trail James told me about. The sites on Benezie and Becoosin Lakes are not on canoeists’ maps, in fact I don’t think there’s any portage to them at all. Hopefully that means I’ll find my own private nook.  

The sun comes out strong now and I stop to take off my rain coat and put on my hat. Leaves twirl as they fall like glittery gilt snow. The turnoff is marked with a pink ribbon and takes me on an undulating and recently cleared path. The first site is ideal, the actual tent pad above the lake, but a glorious rock veranda next to it. 

Cloud reflections building into a thunderstorm at Benezie Lake.
The moonrise and Maxfield Parrish hues.

I set the alicoop to dry in the sun and filter water for dinner, watching the clouds change shape in mirror reflection. Thunder rumbles in the distance and even as the sun turns clouds pink, droplets fall in absolutely silent rings. I stay for the show until they pelt down harder in a ricochet of ‘plinks’ and ‘plunks’ causing me to race up the hill and dive into the ‘coop. 

But it doesn’t last long and I return to Maxfield Parrish colors, the clouds seemingly lit from inside. To the south, an enormous thunderhead in the shape of a wise woman in a billowing blouse glows orangey-pink. Lightning zig zags out of her followed by menacing rumbling.

A duck quacks and fusses his feathers. A small fish jumps and a beaver splashes in the distance. In front of me are rock cliffs studded with spruce and aspen. To my left, sherbet clouds float past, a large white head riding atop. I spy the first twinkle star of the night, though I’m pretty sure it’s orange brightness means it’s Mars, joining the clouds in reflection.

Just then, as if to cap off an extraordinary day, a gold orb sneaks out of hiding behind gray clouds. I realize I’m facing east and don’t even need to turn my head to see the full moon rising.

I greet her and remind myself that just because I hadn’t seen her, she is always there. Her regal self reflects in the lake before disappearing behind a cloud only to shine more brilliantly as she’s expelled from a silver cushion of light. Just a few months ago, the Boundary Waters was named a Dark Sky Sanctuary, one of only thirteen in the world.

And it’s getting dark now, though clouds are bringing rain. As my moon moves towards a thicker cloud, I say goodnight, and head back up to my perch for my last, solo night on the Kek, the rain falling hard on the ‘coop. 

Day Four, Benezie Lake to Snowbank Lake 6.2 miles

The key to abundance is meeting limited circumstances with unlimited thoughts.

Marianne Williamson
Bright gold aspen leaves fade to black in the rain.

Today was supposed to be worse and yet after the heavy rain just as I cuddled in, the night was dry and the morning, clear. I’m on the trail fast sending Richard a message I’m ‘starting my trip,’ though unsure if he’ll see it with the forest making connection to a satellite difficult.

It’s just a mile to Becoosin Lake up and down through brushy trail, mostly cleared of fallen logs. The sites are not so great and neither looks east. I scored at my little spot last night where I looked directly at the rising moon.

James told me about these sites on this little loop, but he didn’t come down the trail because of a mossy mini rock cliff I have to descend. Even this young man with good hips didn’t want to take chances on twisting an ankle at the beginning of his thru-hike.

When I arrive, I decide to slide down safely on my wet behind. A beaver dam holds back a small pond right at the trail intersection, where I take off my rain gear, tempting the skies to stay clear until I’m off the trail.

The final beaver dam and slick rock climb on the Benezie-Becoosin loop.
The final miles of the Kek are on land owned by the timber industry.

And they do, a cool breeze leading me up steep climbs to views of Snowbank Lake, one more dam and one more view with a sign explaining the benefits of forest clearcutting for the wildlife residents. In my final descent and deep again into the forest I come around the corner and there’s Richard followed by our good friends Debby and Todd.

I can’t tell you how wonderful it is to be met on the trail by loved ones. We chit chat the mile and half back to our cars, arriving just in time for a few photographs before the rain starts up again and we drive back to their home in Biwabik, and even before I can change out of my clothes, head right back out and up to the top of Giants Ridge for a last look at autumn’s splendor.

Having checked off one of just two trails I’d planned for this season, I muse on the panic that still overtakes me – trying to very literally get a foothold in my career during a pandemic-fueled recession and now facing surgery and a recovery that will hopefully allow me to continue being a Blissful Hiker.

Remember that message I received just before I started this trip to simply say “yes” to all things, good and bad? Well, there’s a lesson in this hike. It rained and I somehow managed to say “yes” not allowing it to wreck my mood. I chose an attitude of abundance, that things will change, and there’s no reason to let the fact that it’s less than ideal to ruin my trip.

And it’s not like I just sit back with a dopey grin on my face. It’s more like I’m prepared for the problems that will inevitably come. I accept them with grace and that gives me the power to decide how I will react, freeing me to plan and then to act.

And at this moment the action I will take is to head into a sauna – and as my big brother Eric would say, life’s a bag of blessings, a “stokeathon.”

Blissful at the western end of the Kekekabic Trail on the Snowbank Lake Road near Ely, Minnesota.
Debby and Todd walk into a postcard on Giant’s Ridge near Biwabik.
Border Route

Border Route Trail, MN

The no-boundaries waters and trail of secrets…

HikerA and HikerB

Last autumn, I went on my first thru-hike with a chick.

I mostly like to hike alone or with my husband or with guys who go fast and don’t mind how bad I smell after being on the trail so many days.

There wasn’t really any particular reason I hadn’t invited a woman to backpack, but the longer time passed, the less likely it seemed it would happen.

The best thing one can do when it’s raining is to let it rain. – Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Until I met Brenda. Brenda is a super woman of the outdoors. She grew up in northern Minnesota exploring the back woods by four-wheeler before getting her drivers license. She rock climbs, paddles, bikes and makes wonderful films about people like us finding adventure in Minnesota.

When I mentioned I had hiked the Superior Hiking Trail and wanted to continue another section from the end of the SHT to the Gunflint, she said let’s make it happen. And in no time, we picked a date, called ourselves HikerA and HikerB and began to plan. We chose fall for fewer bugs, fewer people, gorgeous colors and clear blue skies.

As they say, hope springs eternal.

The original bag lady.

What makes this hike so special and why do it? Well, it’s remote and aside from one boat we heard wheezing away on the edge of the wilderness, it’s absolutely silent. There are fewer people walking the BRT. You feel like you’re truly in the wilderness.

But remoteness is remote. It’s a four-hour drive to Grand Marais from The Cities, then another 90 minutes to the end of the Gunflint. There’s a short-cut about half-way back, but it’s still another hour after leaving a car to shuttle to the eastern trailhead. By the time you start walking, half the day is gone.

The BRT is so special because it’s remote.

Pro tip 1 : You’ll need a boundary waters wilderness permit and you have to pick it up in person in Grand Marais between 8:00 and 4:00.

The trail was planned and built in the early 1970s by the Minnesota Rovers Outing Club, the first long-distance, wilderness backpacking and hiking trail in Minnesota planned and constructed by volunteers. The BRT folks are a doggedly energetic bunch clearing brush and downed trees twice each year and marking the way in more dense sections with bright blue plastic ties.

They also maintain a superb website with updates on trail work. Do take seriously the damage done by blowdowns and believe them when they say a campsite is closed.

Blue ribbons mark the way.

Pro tip 2: Buy the BRT map book and check the website for updates.

Before setting out, we camped in the Grand Marais campground right on Lake Superior. We started on the more wild east side and walked west towards the resorts with a waiting burger and brew egging us on.

It was a dreary morning when we started out. Several people in soggy rain parkas were going our way and we felt a twinge of disappointed having to share our little adventure. As it turned out, they were all headed to the overlook less than a mile from the lot, which – with its stunning view of the Pigeon and Stump Rivers – made a finer starting point for the SHT than a wide space in the dirt road. They were the last people we saw for days.

After a few photos, we waded into the deep tunnel of damp foliage of the BRT: steep climbs, wet rock-strewn trails and an endless succession of fallen logs.

All smiles and still clean where the SHT and BRT converge.

Pro tip 3: Wear boots with good ankle support, gators to keep the mud off your pants (and out of the tent) and use trekking poles. You will thank me later.

We stopped at the one random picnic table on the trail for lunch next to a leaning and rickety bridges. The air was pristine, the place beautiful and – when we took a breather from our non-stop gabbing – the silence swallowed us whole.

The official campsites are quite decent and some even have vault toilets. Our first night we pitched at a “potential” campsite, a bit sketchy with room for a single tent right along rapids on the Pigeon River.

Cozy.

Pro tip 4: There is no decent stealth camping on the BRT. It’s too steep and rocky, and for us, too wet and far from a water source. Plan accordingly!

The next day, it rained.

All day.

It rained until nightfall when the clouds opened for a sliver of moon. But we had good gear and enjoyed the many overlooks from high cliffs looking into Canada. Fungus was among-us, with myriad bright mushrooms in all shapes and sizes. The trail has a kind of fascination in far views after arduous climbs juxtaposed with tiny, intimate communions with forest life at your feet. Feet that got soaked through in spite of gore tex and never managing to dry.

The forest floor was carpeted with mushrooms in brilliant colors and odd shapes.

The trail is exhausting and for many hours, we both longed for just “100 feet of joy” finally finding some along sections of pine forest, needles soaking up our footfall.

After a big day, we set up camp on the Pine Lake portage just as the trail entered the Boundary Waters. We celebrated our continued buoyant spirits in spite of foul weather by sharing all of the whiskey.

Pro tip 5: Bring more whiskey.

The next morning, I awoke early and went to the lake to pump water and make breakfast for my sleeping companion. The only problem was, I could not seem to open our bear canister. Somehow, perhaps a bit careless the night before, I overtightened the seal and it jammed.

Once HikerB got up I had banged, thrown, gouged, dropped it in the lake and screamed at the canister to no avail. A problem-solver and finding even both of us trying to pry it open a bust, HikerB set to work jamming tent stakes in to jimmy the top off, though the threads are too wide and it would not budge. The last resort was to use our one swiss army knife and cut directly into the lid.

A canister so good, it kept bears and humans out.

Which quickly snapped every blade…
except one.

The smallest blade that never gets used she tapped into the lid with a rock and slowly, patiently cut a whole wide enough to retrieve our food. Heaving a sigh of relief and gobbling up our breakfast we packed up and shouldered onward, not stopping to consider how we’d manage to keep the food from hungry creatures.

Busy beavers at work created a dam to cross.

Pro tip 6: Don’t over-tighten the bear box, and if you think you might, bring a better multi-tool and a rope.

So here we were, the shredded bear box in my pack, the day half gone, and feeling a bit shaken up. At least the weather was better. We passed Gogebic Lake, a beautiful possible site and pushed on to Clearwater Lake and a deserved reward. The site sits on a shelf with 180-degree view for both sunrise and sunset. We strung a line in the wind, made a tiny fire, cooked up a nutritious dinner and watched the stars twinkle in a clear sky.

An almost cliche Boundary Waters campsite with 180 degree views.

It was hard to leave such a lovely spot, but Rose Lake and the biggest cliffs yet were ahead. Bushwhacking up and down, we came upon numerous tracks along the muddy trail – moose, bear, wolf – and began to find our pace. When we got to Rose Lake, it took us by surprise how fast we moved, but the stretch was completely flat and we strode confidently toward the first site which was inhabited by a chatty canoeist. A bear stole all his food, leaving him just the Brussels sprouts.

Wise bear.

It was too early in the day to stop and site 2 on Rose felt cramped, so we climbed the enormous cliff to some of the finest scenery in Minnesota. Massive whimsically shaped cliffs tower over an inland chain-of-lake highway used for centuries by Native Americans and voyageurs. We met four guys on the rocks curious and friendly, who cheerfully handed us updates on the trail ahead. Having lost time with the bear box debacle, we ignored the updates and pushed ahead setting our sites on camping at Partridge Lake.

Spectacular views above Rose Lake.

Pro tip 7: Don’t assume anything.

There was no warning as we took the spur down to the lake. We were tired and ready to set up, so we walked down a path that became more and more obscured. The brush was thick and fallen trees blocked our way, but we pressed on.

Soon we were stopped in our tracks by a twelve foot high root ball of a fallen giant. It was here that I thought to glance at the updates the lovely fellas at Rose Lake handed me and I discovered why the trail was so hard to navigate. The campsite was open, but only if you were approaching from the water. We needed to turnj and hike back out. But when we did, hike  the path we had been on only moments ago, was obliterated. This was the stuff of nightmares.

Blowdown on the Border Route.

My compass helped us find the direction and we recognized one tree we climbed over, and that set us back on our way. But we only had an hour of daylight left and a long way to go to the next official campsite. We moved fast, up and up over slick rock and brushy trails. One more overlook put us face to face with storm bearing down so we abandoned high ground for South Lake, far below us.

Evidence of the blowdown was everywhere and our spirits sunk surmising a repeat of an impassable trail. Until we heard a dog bark. Someone’s here! And that meant we could get there too. The campsite was a lumpy war zone barely large enough for one tent let alone two. But our companions were simply lovely, their dogs’ kisses brightening our spirits.

Pro tip 8: After a long hard day, make bouillon right away. It’s easy, warm, filling and salty.

We set up the tent, filled one of our water proof bags with all the food and hung it gently with  my ultralight clothes line. There were bear tracks everywhere, but somehow, they ignored us.

Bears were here.

The next day we bounded up the hill, proud to push through what the BRT Association calls “spasmodic thimbleberry bushes” heaving and quaking in our path. At the fork, all smiles and eager, we took a wrong turn, heading east by mistake to what turned out to be the other site on Partridge. I am here to advise that it’s a terrific little site, even if we hiked out of our way and wasted time for that tip.

Our spirits lifted as we came into a wholly new environment. In 2007, the Ham Lake fire destroyed 75,000 acres of forest extending all the way to the BRT. These wide-open vistas of ghostly white and scorched trunks standing sentinel over bright reds and yellows in the recovering cliffside put us into a dreamy mood. Camping here was possible, but we were far from water. Later, as we approached Bridal Veil Falls, we searched for a “potential” site, but found nothing.

The Ham Lake fire cleared the way for this dreamy view.

Our thought was that the many views ahead over the Gunflint would surely have a small pad for our tent, so we pushed further.

As we came closer to the resorts, the signage was heavier. On Loon Lake, a trail angel left a dual Adirondack chair, great for photos, but not much else. We climbed some more, up and up above the lake, though most of the views were obscured  here and far too small to camp. They also faced north, and as the sunset took on the deep purplish-pink vividness known in this part of the north country, we moved faster a faster to catch a last look.

Catching the final overlook over the Gunflint just in time.

It was pitch dark when we descended to the other side of Loon Lake and our last night.

We awoke to a perfect breakfast spot on a rocky bench, a little sad to be leaving. After so many long days, this day would prove short and on wide – and obvious – ski trails. From the cliffs we heard gunfire and pulled out anything orange and began making a lot more noise. The sun came out in full as did the people making a short day hike to magnetic rock, where we held the compass and watched it twirl.

Trail angel double adirondack on Loon Lake.

Pro top 10: If hiking during hunting season, wear orange.

The last bit we walked with our new friends who applauded our accomplishment in the parking lot, HikerB’s battered Toyota awaiting our return.

With a few detours, we figured we walked about 70 miles in total. Not the longest thru-hike, but never-the-less, one with problems to solve, less than perfect weather and a some mistakes to learn from. We have heard comments that we look a bit like sisters, or at least cousins. We do share toothy grins and wild, curly hair that got even wilder in the constant humidy as well as optimistic and adventurous spirits. We made a good team and I hope later this season, we’ll keep walking from Magnetic Rock to Snowbank Lake. The Kekekabic Trail, like the SHT and BRT, is another section of the North Country Trail. Stay tuned!

And why, you might ask, did we name our hike no-boundaries waters and trail of secrets? Let’s just say there was a lot of girl talk and to paraphrase an old saying, what’s shared on the BRT, stays on the BRT!

We had pristine Watap Lake all to ourselves.

  • Where: The Border Route Trail, Northern Minnesota
  • When to go: Early spring or late summer to avoid bugs
  • Gear tips:
    Bear canister
    rain gear/gators
    curly girls, bring hair bands to harness the wildness
    good boots
    walking sticks
    orange hat
    multi tool/rope
    stove – no fires allowed outside fire rings in wilderness
    compass
    pump/iodine/dromedary – sometimes far from water source
    dry bags and extra ziplocs
  • More general tips at my ten essentials blog
  • You will need a BWACW wilderness permit