Just as the sky lightens, or maybe before, a wood thrush begins in with his twittery uptalk.
It’s a conversation with himself. I get it. I talk to myself all day.
So I’m up early and trot up to the latrine (long drop) in my homemade flip-flops. I feel clever and badass making my own, but they barely work. A castoff shoe bed and twine, they protect me from rocks and other sticky items, so maybe I shouldn’t judge.
Other birds join in a morning chorus – the oven bird’s ktweet ktweet almost a north woods cliche and the black throated green warbler de de de doo deee?also a question.
I love my mornings – dappled light, cool air, birds and yes, so many mosquitos. I’m surprised I sleep well on the blue mat. Along with a quilt, I can sprawl close to the ground. No one joined me last night, and I love it all to myself.
The trail is all alone too, through dense forest filled with more birds. I never see them, or rarely, and only hear their songs as if right above me. The Canada warbler ending a sassy flourish; the slurpy kiss of a red eyed vireo; a hollow ratatat followed by high-pitched chips of a hairy woodpecker.
I can hardly believe everything is so loud, as if I walk from one room to the next and each is having its own party.
The land begins to transform to rough rock piled thick with dark green moss and a lighter blue-tinged lichen, one plush the other crispy. Ahead are voices in a campsite, not nearly as good as mine but close to a stream.
I slip by unnoticed into a maple forest, dense and dark. Blue jay sends an alarm before settling above me gulping loudly and with forceful abandon. I pass ponds reflecting what sky peaks through the trees. A warty toad hops away from my footfall.
This is the mosquito nursery, and that one over there as well as that one ahead. Ponds or just water collection in a marshy wood? An oily-black garter snake S’s into the grass.
All along here are no trespassing signs warning hikers not to step one foot off the trail corridor and don’t even consider setting a tent. The Superior Hiking Trail passes through federal land, state forest, state park and a lot of private land with the permission of the owner. I can’t imagine how it’s possible to go off trail, it’s far too thick.
A northern parula clears mucus from its throat as I pass from the sweet almost tasty scent of balsam to the earthy pungency of fern. Far off I hear my first loon.
At the next site, I wave at two women packing up. They wisely wear dark colors to deter bugs, plus gloves and head nets. Would anyone survive in shorts? There’s not enough deet in the world for this trail.
I giggle when I finally hear the Johnny One Note song of the small but mighty red breasted nuthatch. Like a car alarm or the sound you get when you misdial, it’s hardly a song.
A weed whacker sits idle by the side but the evidence is stunning of a truly talented and persistent whacker. I thank this absent expert in whacking with a wide, clear trail before me. Jim and Sue walk towards me, he a trail worker but primarily with loppers. No trail workers means no trail. It would simply be swallowed up.
A northern flicker guffaws hysterically and nearby I hear my first black capped chickadee. I come to a road under a trestle which likely carried taconite-loaded trains from the Iron Range down to the two harbors.
It’s a long, hot descent on exposed rock leads me to Reeves Road, where I dodge puddles walking to Highway 2. I need to make a decision whether to hitch to town for food or try and keep walking with what I have. It’s far, about eight miles, and I’d need a ride back.
The trail will provide, I say as I thrust out my thumb. The first car swings into the other lane as if to make a point, but the second car stops. Father and son plumbers out on the job. And wouldn’t you know it, they’re headed down to buy something at the store right next to the supermarket, then headed right back up.
What luck, thanks trail!
I throw my pack on bits of pipe and squeeze in back as Jason and Trevor let me babble on all about life on the trail. They’re used to hitchhikers, they tell me, all needing food right about now. We buy what we need, then wait almost an hour for takeout.
I assuage my hiker hunger and back up the hill we go. At the trailhead I see another backpacker, fully decked out like me with his pants tucked into his socks for extra protection. At first I think it’s the guy I’ve been following who signs the trail registers with his life story, bragging about how far he’s come on the North Country Trail.
Instead, it’s a mild mannered young thru hiker named Nick on his first big walk. We set off together straight into thick mud, the mosquitos equally thick as the afternoon heats up. He has friends plucking him off trail at the next road.
I ask where he’s from and surprised he went to both school and church at St. Ambrose my flute gigging outlet. He then shares his why has something to do with serious hardship at grad school, although the trail too has been hard.
My pace is faster, so I move on, but assure him we’ll meet again and send a prayer his way as I slosh into more mud. (I learned the prayer part from Susie)
The mud continues, but the trail also begins the sudden, dramatically steep climbs – and equally intense descents – it’s famous for. They take me out of bug infested mud trenches high into white pine and icy air with views over all I’ve walked through. Note: it looks like a snap from above.
It’s a shocking change on these rock ridges covered in soft brown needles and bunchberries. More signs emphasize this is private property one explaining camping is now forbidden after someone set a fire illegally. Backpackers can sometimes be real jerks.
I head steeply down to the Encampment River and fill up a liter I instantly chug. Again, it’s back up then steeply down, this time the Crow River deep in a steep sided canyon. I fill up more, thirsty in the heat and get buzzed by a bird speeding a low altitude.
It’s short but steep enough for three flights of stairs up and out to the road where I meet Elaine, Nick’s friend’s mom. I assure her Nick is just behind me and we begin chatting about the unusual heat and abundance of mosquitos. And then she invites me to join them.
I have to think about it for a few seconds, wanting my outdoor experience. But I smell awful and my feet are damp and who wouldn’t prefer a bed?!
Nick arrives and Elaine’s wife Sandy drives us to a restaurant. I’m almost finished just as it begins pouring rain and need to run for cover for the last bites. Would I have gotten set up by now?
They offer showers and laundry – a hiker’s dream – and we sit in a screened-in porch for desert when I notice a large red oval-shaped rash on my thigh. Did I get bitten by a tick?!
Elaine just happens to have doxycycline on hand and a quick search suggests a round of antibiotics is in order even if only as a prophylactic. So she sets me up with a baggie of pills. I guess I got in the car with the right people.
Yesterday was my favorite day for weather and today the trail provided to perfection. The cherry on top was juicy conversations with cool people I loved hanging around with. So I got my fill of both – friendship, care, a rescue plus plenty of alone time with the birds.