The legend lives on from the Chippewa on down, Of the big lake they called Gitche Gumee…
Beginning next week – on the longest day of the year – I plan to walk the Superior Hiking Trail end-to-end in one fell swoop. Over the years, I have walked everything north of Two Harbors bit by bit, but without any plan, and often repeating favorite sections. Somehow, with a tagline of “solo female middle aged titanium reinforced long distance backpacker,” it only makese sense for me to walk this glorious track as a thru-hike – a part of the much longer North Country National Scenic Trail – and one that’s close, nearly in my back yard.
It’s not glamorous, it’s definitely not distant or exotic, and I already know the trail so well, I might get bored, but there’s a curious pull to it to anyway. I want to see what happens to my body, mind and spirt on this thru-hike, end to end.
All romantic notions aside, in Saint Paul it’s pouring rain and thundering – oh, and now it’s hailing. I could have plenty of that – and more – as well as ticks, mosquitos, black flies and mud. Let’s just hope I don’t start calling the trail the SH*T!
So plan to join me beginning next week on the longest day of the year for whatever might happen on a thru-hike of the SHT.
Over the long Memorial Day weekend, Richard and I celebrate our twentieth wedding anniversary in a place we love – Minnesota’s North Shore of Lake Superior. A very generous friend loans us her house on-the-rocks above this monstrous inland sea. And even though it rains and hails for more than half our visit, we relish that perch as if captain and skipper at the prow of our own private love-boat above the crashing waves. (I’ll let you work out who’s who in this scenario)
Knowing full well the weather will not be conducive to much outdoor activity, we cram in walks and bike rides between the raindrops and take in some of the most dramatically overflowing cataracts we have ever seen, beginning at Gooseberry Falls, where a lovely young man patiently snaps photo after photo of us near the root beer-tinted water in varying degrees of sensual and silly.
Somehow our absurd posing convinces a few other couples to line up and that poor guy is left snapping their photos too.
We walk over muddy and exposed roots on an undulating path lined with tender green shoots. White Throated Sparrows and Veery Thrushes sing loudly, both to establish territory and to show off for the ladies. Narrow falls carve through ancient volcanic basalt and rhyolite, dark but for a lace of fluorescent green lichen inches above the waterline.
Cedar, Red and White Pine plus Birch thrive in this humid, fog-drenched climate – at least now, after the long cold silence of winter. A spray of Spring Beauties catches my eye, trillium still in tight buds. This is the Superior Hiking Trail and I feel an urgent pull to walk its 310 miles all at once, even after ticking off those miles piecemeal over the years.
At “Middle Falls” on the Pigeon River, we realize why the Voyageurs named this area Le Grand Portage, since it required a nearly ten mile hike to avoid impassable rapids. Those intrepid little men carried 100 pounds of compressed furs by tumpline at their forehead, a birchbark canoe like a hat. We only carry lunch and eat it on the rocks right above the boiling cauldron.
The ranger warns us we will get wet at High Falls, and so we do, the mist in our faces the same mist that creates a perpetual rainbow. “I wonder what this looks like from the Canadian side?” I query and we attempt to enter, only to be thwarted with a crashed website and long line of cars.
Fortunate for us, as it gives us the time to bag Mount Josephine. Likely the best bang-for-the-buck on the North Shore, it’s a 1,000-foot climb in a single mile that brings us to a perfect sitting place of exposed granite above the sapphire lake dotted with the uninhabited Susie Islands and the beast that is Isle Royale, 12 miles off the coast.
In our four days, we visit more rivers in spate – the Devils Track, Baptism, Cascade and Kadunce – and end the celebration atop a favorite – Lookout Mountain, the scene now back to thick boreal forest as the weather clears for just a moment before we need to retreat to our ship-at-sea deck and the sky above the “Big Lake” Gitcheegumee fills with lightning.
Magic exists. Who can doubt it, when there are rainbows and wildflowers, the music of the wind and the silence of the stars?
Three years ago, I was at one of the lowest moments of my life. Everything I’d believed in and counted on had been turned upside down and nothing made sense. At least it seemed that way. I was and still am lucky that Richard is in my life – my rock, my “smackles” – but even with his help, I had no clue who I was anymore, how I fit in or where I was headed.
I find it funny that it sometimes takes hitting rock bottom to show us just how fragile we are. I remember being so physically depressed, I could hardly move my body. Somehow, though, I managed to drive myself to a tiny state park nestled in a bend of the Whitewater River and part of the “driftless zone” of bluffs and towering white pines about an hour and half southeast of my home in Saint Paul, .
I drove there because someone mentioned that the bluebells were reaching their climax on Thursday. I had nothing going on that Thursday – or any day for that matter – so I decided to make a date with these ephemeral wildflowers.
That Thursday in early spring was one to remember. Carley State Park was blanketed in a sea of blue. So delicate and light were these flowers, it was as if I’d entered a holy shrine and dared not utter a word. Because my paralysis kept me from taking an ordinary hike through this magical performance, I spent the entire day moving like a Kabuki dancer in comically slow motion, leaning in to each bush for a better look, placing my body beneath trumpet-shaped flowers as delicate as crepe paper, examining the shriveled sacs of unopened buds in pink and purple, waiting patiently for a bumblebee to land just so.
In so doing, my handicap became my strength. Lethargy was just what was needed to not only observe and record the moment, but to become positively intoxicated by the beauty, whimsy and sheer joy in this astonishing moment.
As a celebration of spring, now that warm air has (finally) arrived in Minnesota, I again share with you this short film – Password: Bluebell. The “password” is one the Minnesota Hiking Club posts somewhere along the way of one of their 68 designated walks, a word a hiker can record in their diary to check this hike off their list. For me, the password took on magical proportions of a fairy tale, words that transform the heroine from victim to warrior.
In the spring, at the end of the day, you should smell like dirt.
The volume’s turned up at William O’Brien as I take a half-day’s walk on muddy trails, ears open to the music of early spring. Pileated woodpecker’s rat-a-tat competes with the vibra-slap trill of the redwing blackbird. Ratcheting turkeys interject mirth in between chickadees’ mournful insistence. Wind-up toy robins, two-toned honking geese, a gold finch gushing a string of ‘tweety-bird’ before alighting on a C-shaped roller coaster, riding an invisible air-track. At a flooded stream, a warbler checks me out, coming close on hopping feet before darting out of sight behind a drooping willow.
Staccato scolds, slide whistles, and single peeps follow me through the forest, a carpet of withered oak leaves, dusty hepatica thrusting violet heads up through the thick layer. Mud sucks at my shoes where ferns in fisted scrolls poke up next to last year’s remains. Frogs click maracas in a pond, fresh tracks telling the story of deer soothing their thirst at this very spot. Some kind soul stacked branches over a flooded section where trillium grows, too early yet to see their flowers dressed in first-communion white. I head deep into the woods over another’s scramble. A train sounds in the distance.
At the prairie, a blue jay looks on lazily as swallows dive bomb, like kamikaze, swooping within inches of my face. I try not to flinch, but fail completely. Scat in in the middle of the trail is wound tight with fine strands of hair. Twin mallards swim silently in a pond, their wake blurring the reflected birch in shimmery vibration. It’s cold as the sun moves behind a cloud and the wind picks up. A trio of turkey vultures tips unsteadily on massive wings, heads trained on the ground, eyes sharp. Fungus like diseased toe nails covers fallen logs. I snap them and make my own music, a kind of thumb-piano with size determining pitch.
I reach the top of the hill where a trail runner humble-brags, telling me his wife says he’s crazy running “Superior” and speaking to me as though I’d never heard of it. “Good on you!” I tell him as I walk away into the widest views yet of prairie and forest not needing to brag, thinking my husband says I’m a miracle. Evidence of last winter’s snow is harsh, flattened grasses stretch into marshland. A lone sandhill crane, all gangly wings and legs, floats silently overhead, gifting me just a mordant of his clacking call. I pass bluebird houses built by zealous state park workers. A swallow claims one as his own and trains his gaze on me, his white throat wobbling like an aging soprano, daring me closer and closer until at last he flits away. A bluebird watches from a tree.
At the Saint Croix River far below, the water is high, islands crisscrossed by canals. A swollen stream races down to unload its contents into the river, moss-covered rocks crowded by skunk cabbage and yellow marsh marigolds. The sun is at a sharper angle now and it’s time to head home.
Spring’s ritual is
familiar to me after thirteen years in Minnesota. Few things surprise anymore,
though I find the sameness comforting, the never-changing a balm for the
changes and the unknown in my own life. Life’s renewal at spring offers me a
chance to accept renewal for myself, to believe it’s on offer. Walking in the
woods and prairie always heals me and perhaps in knowing that fact, I surprise myself
that something so simple – so available – can reliably make things right.
I walk to my car, lighter than I’ve been over the past month, happy and whole – at least for the moment. And I wonder, where I ‘ll go tomorrow.