I use a thru-hike to field test a rain poncho. I give it a C+.

Birds celebrate a new day with what they do best, sing. I cuddle in a bit longer but spy a red sky and run to the overlook to watch the brilliant sunrise from the magical perch. I don’t even tie my shoes. 

It’s deep purples and pinks, the sun a squashed yellow. What do they say about red sky in morning? I head back to the tent to eat and pack – not a soul showed up last night, neither man nor beast – and check the forecast. 

Rain. All day. Every hour. Beginning at 7:00 am. 

I guess that answers my question about whether I should hang around Grand Marais for fireworks.

I leave quickly just as the colors fade into a bleak gray. Thunder rumbles somewhere in the distance. It’s dry now as I carefully negotiate tiny kinetic pebbles laying in wait for my foot so they can roll me backwards. 

No slips as I reach a creek and head up again into forest. Kevin told me yesterday that he took the west side of the Cascade River even though there’s a detour marked. It saves me a mile at least, so I head down 99 steps and risk it. 

The closure is because of road work on the bridge I’ll need to cross at the end. But today is the Fourth of July, and I doubt anyone’s working today. Still, I make a little prayer that the rain holds off until I’l through this mess. 

The sound of the rapids is glorious, tumbling white noise that changes timber as I climb away, then come down near the water. Entire trunks stripped of their bark beach on flat stone, refugees from the recent record breaking spring melt. 

I take a few pictures as I pass a swank little stealth site and I’m glad I do because steep stairs send me deep into woods and away from the river for good. 

It’s a wild ride and never flat, up and up, then steeply down to cross small feeder creeks. At one, the bridge has been smashed to bits left in a heap. Right now, I can step across. 

I pass two campsites far from any water and deep back in the trees. I wonder who planned their location. Up I go again on log stairs screwed into the ground. My legs are getting incredibly strong. 

I finally pop out at the road where piles of gravel await duty and dump trucks and earth movers sit idle. The bridge is perfectly fine. I imagine the crew just didn’t want hikers in the way during working hours. Just as I drop down to the next section of trail, a truck comes flying past, kicking up dust and stones. 

I climb up above the Cascade River, less loud up here, and spy the distinctive profile of Eagle Mountain, Minnesota’s highest point. And just like that, it begins to rain. 

Whoever’s in charge waited as I’d requested. It’s light so I just keep walking, already heated up from the hills. I run into two SOBO thru-hikers, Gungadin and Shady, who give me beta on trail closures ahead plus that the mosquitos are epic. 

I’m pretty sure I’ve met those mosquitos’ friends and family, but I’ll keep an open mind. “It’s all swamp from here to Canada!” Gung assures me, as we wish each other luck. I wonder if he’s having a good time?

The rain may only be in the trees now and not hitting me, but it’s soaked the plants and this section of trail is extremely overgrown. I feel like I’m running through a car wash – my shoes, socks, pants, shirt, my head for god’s sake are all soaked. 

We cannot have this. I stop and take off my hiking shirt as mosquitos swarm my bare flesh, and quickly swap into a sturdier (and dry) top. Then I take out something I’m trying on this hike – a rain poncho. It may be the dumbest thing I’ve ever done giving new gear a try, but here we are surrounded on four sides by damp. 

It’s made by Frog Toggs and was rated high on ‘breathability,’ Also, cheap. I just wonder in a warm, humid environment if a poncho is a better choice than pants and jacket. 

I can’t tell if maybe this is the child’s size as it only covers my upper thigh and the sleeves barely reach past my elbows. A glorified high tech trash bag, it has enough girth to cover the top of my backpack, but not my rear end. 

I put my mosquito net over my hat, the hood over that and I’m cozy in here, warm and definitely dryer. Of course, the rain stops altogether and it’s just sopping wet plants I avoid, especially at my core. 

Is it too much or just right? I look absolutely ridiculous, but I bounce along past two campsites on a pond shrouded in fog. I sit on a log to eat and the mosquitos do indeed swarm, but not in any greater number than my worst days on trail. You gotta do better than that!

Grand Marais

The trail meets a bench looking out to Sundling Creek, now Sundling pond. I notice a small dock-like protrusion. Oh wait, that’s the trail! I realize now what is about to happen here since I passed stacks of wood and metal bridge building materials. Plans are in the works for improvements.

Right now, the walkway is wooden. Two-by-fours covered with chicken wire are held in place by wooden supports every ten feet or so, built directly into the beaver dam. Winters have done their work and it’s a wavy traverse over this gem of a pond, neatly encircled with firs, a few purple irises adding color on this gloomy day.  

I’m lucky that today is a smaller views day. I still had a glorious sunrise at the lookout and Eagle Mountain wasn’t yet swallowed up in fog. It’s a day to look at the incredibly healthy forest at my feet. Nurse logs hold a variety of plants and fungus in their loamy bodies, even trees reaching toward the canopy. 

I startle a garter snake, yellow, white and black scales and a pink forked tongue trying to figure out who I am and what I’m doing. I wonder if the rain keeps him from moving away. Perhaps he has to wait for his pad to dry out. 

I’m drying out fast once the rain stops and I enter pine forest without encroaching ferns. I meet another SOBO thru-hiker named Jason with a deep, baritone voice and hearty laugh, especially when I ask where his bug net is and he tells me he misplaced it. He carries bear spray and a good attitude. God speed in the swamps, Jason. 

The trail crosses a road and soon joins the State Trail again. That’s relatively good news since snowmobile tracks tend to be flatter and not filled with rocks and roots. But it’s wet and weedy and it immediately starts raining. 

Now the poncho is put to the test. Within seconds my dried pants are soaked, but that’s mostly from brushing against plants and sloshing through pools of water. 

My gloves and the ends of my top get damp, but honestly, I feel ok. The temperature hasn’t dropped so much and I’m moving, so my core stays dry and warm. I wouldn’t want this to go on for days but thus far, I can manage. 

I catch a view into Grand Marais, Artists Point and the lighthouse almost hidden in fog.  A long, steep, carefully placed descent delivers me to the Gunflint Trail, the main highway into the boundary waters lakes. I scoot across, then have another few miles of woods before reaching a parking lot. 

It’s completely empty, naturally on such a dour day, except one man who snaps my picture and offers me oatmeal. The trail on pincushion mountain has been reinforced with clay? Something to keep it from eroding to a muddy glop. Many boardwalks snake through forest, birds singing as the rain abates. 

It’s straight down a dirt cliff reinforced with wooden steps and I can hear the wild Devils Track river where I’ll camp. Somehow I set before it begins raining in earnest, then dive in for the remains of food. I saved my olives from League City, TX for this last night before getting a real meal. 

The river is loud and I’m cuddled in cozy and warm, my wet gear stashed beyond my feet. Veeries and nuthatches punctuate the din. Even damp and gray – and full of mosquitos – I’m deeply in love with this wondrous place. 

Life is (not) glamorous on trail, especially in rain with bugs, but Blissful still has a sense of humor.

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