There is something infinitely healing in the repeated refrains of nature – the assurance that dawn comes after night, and spring after winter.
Kieran James Cunningham is a climber, mountaineer and writer for My Open Country based in the Italian Alps. He’s climbed a handful of 6000ers in the Himalayas, 4000ers in the Alps and loves nothing more than a good long-distance wander in the wilderness. He climbs when he should be writing, writes when he should be sleeping, has fun always.As someone living with bipolar disorder, he is passionate about the mental health benefits of time spent in nature.
I was home visiting my parents in Scotland and due to return to work the next day after a month of sick leave.
I’d gotten out of my second self-induced coma in as many years a few days previously. All signs seemed to point towards the fact that my suitability for existence on this earth had run its course.
That night I made my way to the shed at the bottom of my parents’
garden, my grandfather’s Smith and Wesson revolver in hand, resolved to finish
off the job I hadn’t quite been able to accomplish with a cocktail of
The world, however, looks a whole lot different with a gun in your mouth.
Returning home is the most difficult part of long-distance hiking; You have grown outside the puzzle and your piece no longer fits.
Working my way back to Manchester airport from another seaside town, Scarborough. Gritty, charmless, yet full of people on a Saturday afternoon shopping in the pedestrian street, families pushing prams, tattooed singles with dogs, eating, vaping and all ignoring the cross signals, as I do too, ensuring I look right before pressing into traffic.
It’s maybe a fitting way to end this walk. It somehow seems more real than striding out on moors and atop fells, looking for a good place to pitch the alicoop, avoiding midges and cooking a meal in the Jetboil. Oddly enough I feel less sad and more satisfied than I often do at the end of these things. Maybe it’s the fact that within just minutes the train hurtled me out of the throng of humanity and right back into the green and pleasant land my feet trod, wide open and far less foreign to me now after three weeks. Or perhaps it’s that I was able to find a charity shop right around the corner from the station. The woman in charge saying yes she did have suitcases but they weren’t “modern.” Yes! just what I was looking for! A behemoth to hold my backpacking kit safely for the journey home, at just £5 and it even has wheels.
Also fitting might be that the day is cloudy with some rain. Was I ever lucky, even copping rays in sun-filled Northern England. As one after another Coast-to-Coaster threw a pebble into the sea, we all commented on our good fortune, avoiding clag in the Pennines, no need for mincing footsteps in the non-existent boggy moorland, fabulous views in the Lakes.
What captures my imagination now is the variety of all I saw – fell, dale, moor and plain. Of course anyone walking the C2C would enjoy this gradual shifting of terrain as they walked west to east, but I upped the ante by adding another 60 miles and cracking up all the highest peaks plus some.
I would recommend adding the Ali-loop to the traditional trail. It’s a longer walk and once you rejoin the classic trail at Hellvellyn, the mileage remaining might feel daunting, but it’s a hell of a ride. And I would most definitely suggest backpacking. I only saw a few people carrying gear – and that’s only on the classic walk, there was not a soul backpacking in the Lakes. “Wild camping” is tolerated in the Lakes, and I was absolutely alone in every spot I chose. And when it was not convenient to be up in the hills, there was always a place to pitch at a farm or next to a pub. I found it exhilarating to have that freedom.
That being said, I mostly saw older people walking the classic trail in shorter stages with all their gear sherpa-ed to the next B&B. School is still in session in England, so it’s possible only retirees are free to walk now. It is the most lovely time with all the flowers blooming and the lambs frolicking in the fields, but it made me feel a bit out of place. It’s not to say the hike isn’t challenging, but even the French Alps with all the refuges and villages charmants, did not feel packed with weekend walkers. I’m eager for a solo hike in wilderness where the next pub is days rather than hours away by foot. Though, snob that I am, I still learned a thing or two from a few rambling retirees, like purchasing anti-blister sock liners next time and not having to tape every piece of skin on my foot after developing one nasty hot spot. No hiker knows it all, that’s for sure.
So what about the kit, how did it go, you ask. Aside from my hairband – which turned up inside my sleeping bag when i got home, nothing was lost or broken. Even the ancient Jetboil, its starter replaced and busted, the innards falling apart in my hands at Ennerdale Water on day one, held up and worked brilliantly. I’ll be looking for a lighter weight alternative to my most favorite MSR pump, which I did not bring this time and instead used pills. They worked just fine, but I was more remote than I expected and relied on them for all the days and nights in the lakes. The 4-liter dromedary was perfect, as were two fizzy water bottles, that never leaked or cracked. I always forget how much I crave a sweet energy additive for the water and this time packed a ziplock with a few weeks worth.
The alicoop, the sleep set up, my clothing – except for the terribly fitting Fits socks, the heel sliding under my foot, and my lack of full sun protection for my hands – all worked well. I kept my hair in a ponytail with a buff as a hairband. It was that hot! But also, the curls stayed under control when the wind picked up.
I am in need of a new backpack. I love this Granite Gear style, basically just a big bag with two pockets and a few straps, but I wear a men’s and after a week, I lose so much weight, I simply can’t tighten the straps. I’ve actually known this for some time, but have gotten too busy – or too cheap – to do anything about it. But the time has come to find a better fitting pack for the next adventure.
I did so love wearing quick drying, light weight, but rugged, fell runners. North Face even managed to patent a shoelace that never had to be retied. As one walker commented, “Brilliant! Superb!” My only concern was how my arthritis made itself known after a long day’s walk. Am I just getting older or do I need a boot next time, or maybe a more robust inner support?
Two small things I brought turned out to be quite useful. At the last minute Richard gave me a cleaning cloth for the iPhone. It’s stuffed into a little water resist pouch and hangs off the waist belt. It got a bit wet, but dried quickly and lost none of its cleaning ability. I used it in the sunglasses, the screen and the camera lens with great results. I also packed a Sea-to-Summit mini backpack that closes into a tiny ball. I used it when buying groceries, and will use it now on the plane for the items I don’t want checked.
The compass got a workout, and everyone should carry one and know how to use it. Following a bearing can keep you from walking in circles when the mist comes down, and the C2C is not the best signed trail to say he least. I used the gps to send a bread crumb home, but a quick look at my location came in handy when everything disappeared in fog.
Food was a bit of a problem. I was determined to stay on the Whole30 diet and managed to do so for the first several days, but it was far too difficult to resupply. The best meals were dehydrated eggs and tomato, potato bark with broccoli and pepper, beef jerky and larabars. In the past, I’ve dehydrated a complete stir fry meals of veggies, vegan sausage and brown rice. I think I’ll be heading back in that direction for the next hike to ensure I get enough calories. Indeed, pubs were frequented and some were better than others, but I found steak pie with mushy peas and a side of chips got a little repetitive and I longed for more variety, especially with vegetables. Though I’m not complaining at all about the selection of hand-pulled ales. Early on, I was convinced I needed the carbohydrates.
I used my headlamp once the entire walk, attempting to read just before sleeping on the first night. The sun set around 9 or so, but the sky was light til almost 11. By 4, the birds were in full song. I awoke, but usually drifted back to sleep. Every day was hours of walking, but I always felt like I had enough time and never rushed.
Would I suggest this walk to friends? Of course. It can be taken on in any fashion that suits, guided and planned with a pint and a shower awaiting your every stage, gritty and come-what-may in my style, and every way in between. As an American it particularly fascinated me to hear the accents, see how people live and go on holiday, and discover how family-oriented this country is, even when it comes to the pubs. I never once felt in danger and it’s safe to say, I fell in love with this lovely place, as I learned on my walk to speak a bit more “English.”
There are two kinds of climbers, those who climb because their heart sings when they’re in the mountains, and all the rest.
Sitting in a steppe above a tarn below Dollywagon Pike. Feet are in crocks, tea’s steeping, the alicoop is ready for my weary body. There’s just enough wind to keep the midges from finding my delicious O+. A few sheep bleet from various ledges. Not only is it stereophonic, but in a third dimension of altitude.
Today has been the most glorious day yet. But it did not start that way. Last night, a cool breeze moved in and cleaned the mist from Blencathra just as I began eating dinner. Clouds turning golden as the sun lazily set close to 11. All this was good news for the next day, as cooler air might push out the humidity and thunderstorms, as well as the view-destroying fog.
But late at night, it crept in settling right on the alicoop. I love sleeping with both vestibules open, but had to quickly close into the chrysalis for the remainder of the night.
And it stubbornly remained in my little dell by the beck when I awoke. I needed to wear both rain coat and pants to stay dry as I fixed my breakfast and rued the fact that this would be my last major peak climbed in a white out.
My plan was to crack up the gully and meet the meandering trail along the Dodds ending at the magnificent horseshoe-shaped Helvellyn, England’s second highest peak and highly recommended by Wainwright as the most thrilling ridges between St. Bees and Robin Hoods Bay. Yesterday was a bit of a disappointment with Blencathra in mist and tackling its Sharp Edge out of the question with the recent rain.
But the skies began to look like they were changing, so I packed up and started the day. The trail was not entirely obvious, just packed down in areas through sucking marsh. The English don’t bother with “spats” or gators. You pretty much have to make your peace with the fact that you will get wet. Rusty brown water oozed over the tops of my trainers as each step made a thwappy kind of sucking sound.
But what a reward to reach the ridge, a main trail like a super highway and to come this time not into mist but above the cloud shyly revealing the peaks I’d walked, first Blencathra, then Skiddaw in the distance. Ahead, the Dodds unfolded – Calfhow Pike, Great Dodd, Watson’s Dodd, Stybarrow Dodd, and the Browncove Crags in sensual rolling curves easy to walk and filled with views becoming more apparent as the day warmed up.
Soon the long upward sloping angle of Helvellyn herself appeared and I counted myself exceedingly lucky to be granted the perfect day of little wind and full sunshine. As I mentioned, the fell is shaped like a horseshoe with the two craggy arms reaching down to a sparkling tarn. Beautiful enough from the top, I threw off my bag for a snack to take in the magnificent view. It was a catalog of the last week of hiking. Ennerdale Water in the far distance to the south, and each peak I’d climbed one after another: Pillar, Sca Fell, Great Gable – where Napes Needles positions herself at the base – Cat Bells, Skiddaw and Blencathra.
But what to do about the edges? On a day like today I simply had to be on them, but my pack wold make it awkward if not dangerous. It occurred to me that I could simply leave my pack at the top and do a little loop going down Swirral Edge, pass Red Tarn and shoot back up Striding Edge. And glory hallelujah, I have my mini daypack with me to take a few items like my camera and passport.
I can tell you after seven days of pushing all out up and down peaks, there was nothing like cruising without a pack. My breath is good, my strength is really up and my balance surprised me, especially on the exposed rocky portion where I skipped from rock to rock, truly feeling like I was striding.
I should mention here again that this portion of the hike has not been part of the official Coast-to-Coast trail, but even its creator, Alfred Wainwright suggests we all come up with our own path, so adding the three peaks over 3000 feet, plus some climbing and some spectacular ridges, I added maybe 50 more miles to the total hike, but have had the most incredible time. Carrying all my kit does slow me down, but it has made me far more nimble and free.
Helvellyn is an option for those doing the official C2C, so as of now, I am back on the trail. In a few days, I leave the Lakes, sated and happy. For now, it’s a possible dip in the tarn, some food and a long nap in the sunshine. In the words of e. e. cummings, “I thank thee god for most this amazing day.”
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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