SHT: day 16, Caribou Pond to 270 Overlook (Northern Terminus) 13 miles

Across that river is Canada.

I’d be lying if I said I had a great sleep.

The least incline available was right next to the fire ring with one guyline tied around the bench. Still, I slid through the night. And Girard faffed even more than me. Around 2:00, I woke abruptly from one of those nightmares where everything is falling apart around you and you’re unable to move as if swimming through a pool of taffy. Still, it was a good thing, because then I got to hear the wolves howling.

Also, sleeping next to a pond is normally a bad idea. The cold air tends to collect in a strata of damp then blanket my single wall tent in moisture, which gathers on my quilt. I’m chilly and sit right up as the birds start their morning chorus. Sometimes, you just gotta know when it’s the right moment to get moving.

I’m methodical in the morning. Dressing and packing all in one flourish before exiting the tent, all items stowed in order before I eat or take my constitutional. Call me neurotic, but I tend not to lose things this way – or think too much about not wanting to keep moving and crawl right back in.

Just as I click my buckles, it begins to rain. Unexpected and no way to finish this hike, but it’s what you sign up for when backpacking: full exposure.

all things leaning

The sister and brother duo are deeply asleep, so I depart softly, directly the wrong way. The path is overgrown and covered with blowdown and I climb over and under, scraping my bag and myself before I realize this must be an access trail to water and not meant to walk on, bur heck, I’m already this far so keep moving forward until I hit a more reasonably well-trodden trail.

Which goes straight up.

I said goodbye to views last night thinking that would be it, no more until the bitter end. But it turns out my little pond sits in the middle of the ridges and up I go again to an even more dramatic overlook, especially as squalls pick up steam on the big lake through the colorful sunrise.

I’m told Isle Royale is in the distance, but it’s hard to tell if that’s a magnificent island or a cloud bank. A sign points out this is Hellacious Overlook and indeed, it’s a pretty nice one, nearly 180-degrees as if I’m on some sort of peninsula and the lake surrounds me. And it’s cliff upon cliff rolling down to the water. Don’t let anyone tell you that Minnesota is flat.

It’s steep down again and the rain lets up. Off goes the garbage bag/rain poncho hopefully for the last time. I’m kind of amazed how much I love this hike. Richard and I celebrated our 20th anniversary staying at a friend’s house (you rock, Karen!) and walking bits and pieces of the SHT. Even though I’d been doing just that over the 15 years we’ve lived here and ticking off all the sections, I felt a pull to come and see what walking all of it at one go felt like.

Pretty damn amazing, to be honest.

It’s has all the thru-hiking qualities – resupplying food and being starved most of the time, big mile days so I can finish at a reasonable time, gear fails that had to be dealt with and replaced, trail angels and magic arriving just when I needed it, and a kind of daily grind that resulted in a transformation of spirt – and yet it’s not all that many miles relative to the Pacific Crest Trail for instance.

And, it’s right here in my home state!

I wouldn’t go so far as to say this is the best time to hike the trail. I’m swarmed by mosquitos, it’s hot and humid and the foliage is so dense, some of the views are obscured. That being said, a very wet and late spring brought me one of the most raucous forests I’ve even been in, and that includes New Zealand bush. So many warblers and thrushes, sparrows, chickadees, veerios, on and on. This hike felt fully in three dimensions.

I drop down to Jackson Lake Road, then head right back up again for a view of Jackson Lake where large white birds swim lazily. I hear one honk and think they must be snow geese but it’s hard to tell from this far away. Jackson nestles in the woods and Gitchee Gumee shimmers beyond.

Rosebush Ridge is all in woods, rolling but with some steep inclines that take my breath away even after being out here a few weeks. It’s in here I come upon a beautiful sign nailed to a seemingly random tree in a seemingly random bit of woods: Highest Elevation of SHT 1829 feet

Oh geez, I was utterly wrong about Carleton Peak. It was not the highest point by a longshot, but certainly the most vivid views. Here I see more basswood, birch, aspen, spruce and pine. <sigh>

I drop down fast now and hit Andy Lake Road where a man is spraying himself with deet. He appears to be walking a section with just a daypack and whoever dropped him off is nowhere to be seen. His eyes dart about and he barely grunts a hello. I ask him if he’s ok and he nods. Well, of, then. I don’t think I’d trust deet to keep these bugs off my face, but be my guest, friend.

As if making a statement to that effect, the bugs instantly get worse. Deerflies join the mix and circle me with bassy drone. As I said, deet works, but you can’t spray it in your eyes or up your nose or down your throat. My wee bug burka protects me even if they land and fuss, their wings a whir as they try to make purchase.

I start to wonder if I’ve totally lost it, not even noticing I’m surrounded. Other issues arise like the aspen so thick on this last bit of trail, I could use a machete. Nothing’s wet anymore, thankfully, and I just press through, my sticks pulling bits of overgrowth aside. I step into a few puddles and sink into muddy water over my ankles, but the cool actually feels good as the day heats up.

As I approach a blowdown, a man comes the other way, dressed much like me covered head to toe and sporting a big smile. I offer to go first, negotiating a kind of up and over then quick duck to get through. Mike is friendly and proudly tells me today is day number 1. “And it must be your last, then?” asking the obvious, but with such a joyous manner, I can’t help but catch his enthusiasm.

Indeed it is my last day and what a splendid hike it’s been. We give each other a bit of beta, though at this point knowing mud awaits me is hardly anything to get too worked up about, then part, Mike to make his own adventure and me to savor mine as a memory.

The trail eventually meets a track filled with deliciously perfumed Horton-hears-a-Who clover, before spitting me out on a dirt road and a slightly uninspired ending. That may be why the Superior Hiking Trail Association sends the hiker across the Swamp River to join the Border Route Trail, the next section of the larger North Country Trail through the Boundary Waters Wilderness, so we can end in style.

It’s just a mile up to the rocky 270 Degree Overlook where I at last see the Pigeon River, a very important water highway during the Voyageur era, which divides the United States from Canada. I have it all to myself and sit on heated up granite looking at chunky mountains shaped less like the Sawtooth Range in Minnesota and more like bowlers.

I’ve been here before – at the start of the Border Route and when I hiked south from this section ten years ago. How different I feel now. Back then, I was doing all the things I wanted to do at the radio station, I was a star and succeeding, but I was unsettled and unhappy. Who knows why exactly. But now as an independent who’s learning to live with the fear and uneasiness that come with not ever knowing for sure how things will come together, I’m, on the whole, far happier.

That confidence and sense of self kind of snuck up on me, but became glaringly obvious on this hike. It’s not the Rockies, the Sierra or the Alps. There’s something more subtle and gentle in the beauty of Northern Minnesota, but as I opened my ears and eyes, the wonder of this place grew on me – or maybe more accurately, became a part of me. And as I walked each step, I relaxed more and more into the hiker I am, and liked what I saw.

That instinct to see what it feels like to walk the SHT in one feel swoop was a good one and I am so glad I listened to it.

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Published by alison young

Alison Young is the Blissful Hiker, a voice artist and sometime saunterer. 📣🐥👣🎒

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