Superior Hiking Trail: Day 1, 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.

Published by alison young

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

Reader Comments

  1. Thimbleberries? Common name or a nickname? Look like little red balls of sweetness!

    If you’d like a little more humidity, we have some extra here for you…

    1. Thanks for the link. Never heard my parents (Iowa farmers) speak of them. I do remember my Mom being thrilled to find gooseberries on a trip to a family lake house in extreme southern MN, however.

      I gotta move…

  2. Thanks for the description of some very familiar hiking! I may be in CO but it was nice to “hike along the SHT” for a few minutes too! Glad things are going well. The pics were great, as usual! I especially like the Joe Pye and the mom/son smiles.

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