Sunday, October 19, 2008


In sickness and in health, 'til death do you part.

Sadly, in the past three weeks, I've had much more of the former. It started off with the hurt foot I had from my escapade running a half marathon and then covering 35 miles on the SHT. By the time I would have next been able to get on the SHT, I was coughing and wheezing my way through a cold—which morphed in to a sinus infection. That's kept me grounded for the past week. Much of that time my teeth and jaw and head would hurt when I ran; every time my foot hit the ground. This is not conducive to hiking.

So, no hiking. I think I'm over everything, but it has not been my month. I might hit the trail next weekend for a ways, but with shorter days and snow coming, it might be nearing the end of hiking season for me. Which is not all that bad, it means ski season is right around the corner!

(And yes, if I have a choice between driving four hours to hike on the SHT versus four hours to ski at ABR, I'm probably going with the latter.)

Wednesday, October 1, 2008


I've spent some time putting together a table of distances on the SHT. Basically, the Superior Trail Guide publishes each hike as a "section" which often includes an approach trail or some other such trivialities. When you are reeling off three or four "sections" a day it makes it a pain to calculate mileage between different points.

I searched online quite a bit and didn't find anything, so I put something together myself. A chart of distance on the Superior Hiking Trail. There might be a couple problems as some of it was entered kind of late at night (and in some other cases, the SHT guide was not very helpful with its descriptions) but we'll do with it what we can.

I think it's helpful. It makes it easy to see if I am going to do something easy, hard or stupid.

Next SHTing is probably the weekend of the 11th to 12th. There are two reasons it might not happen. One is weather; there is some chance of lots of rain in coming few days which would put a damper on the hiking. The other is me being stupid. You see, there is a marathon up in Wisconsin that weekend. 26 miles, downhill 600 feet, on a rail bed (less knee killing). Why, in god's holy name, would I run this? Well, I sort of want to run Boston. By sort of I mean that at some point in my life, having grown up on the route, I want to run it. The main issue? I have to run a 3:10 marathon — that's 7:20 miles — to qualify.

Recently, I've been doing that. I raun 6:50s over 9+ miles a couple weeks ago, 8:00s in a half trail marathon on a brutal course, and 7:00s yesterday in a bit of a time trial. My main issue right now is some residual foot pain from aforementioned shenanigans a couple weekends ago. If that goes away, and I am having good runs and think I can run a 3:10, I might go for it. Then I'd have to start planning a trip home in April.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

34 miles in 24 hours

Start: Minnesota Highway 1
Finish: Caribou Wayside, via Spur Trail.
Approximate time and mileage: 32.9 miles in 23:10
(including sleeping). (Plus 0.7 miles on spur trail.)

I got home from my run on a nice ride on the Greenway where I was able to draft some. I took a quick shower and began packing my bag. With temperatures forecast to be in the mid 30s, I decided to go with my two-pound, 0˚-rated sleeping bag (versus my one pound, 40˚ bag). There was one problem — I couldn't find its stuff sack.

I tried several; none worked. Finally, on the second attempt to get it in to my thermarest sack, I saw something inside the sleeping bag. What was it? A stuff sack. Designed for just that sleeping bag. And after twenty minutes of cursing, it — lo and behold — fit perfectly. Now, it also happened to mostly fill my wee backpack, so I wouldn't have room for things like, say, a stove or a pad or pretty much everything. Which is good, because I didn't plan to bring them. It was to be my best attempt at ultralight packing.

I made a sandwich for the car and, with a dozen or so Clif Bars, set off. With the shenanigans with the sleeping bag, I didn't get started until almost 2:00. The drive up was very uneventful, and by 5:20 I had pulled in to the parking lot at Highway 1, with 8.2 miles to go to a campsite and nary two and a half hours until dark.

The trail begins through an area with once type of tree all of a young age (all aspens, and all maybe 25 feet high). With this uniformity, Tom Wessels teaches us that that there must have been some event that cleared the land, such as a clear cut or a fire. A clear cut, however, would probably have left stumps to sprout multiple trunks, which we don't see. So this was likely a fire. And a friendly sign tells us that yes, indeed, there was a fire there in 1990. In 18 years the landscape has definitely begun to regenerate. It's all aspens, too, a tree which colonises open area but doesn't grow well in the shade. At many other points on the trail, we see areas where, long before, such trees had taken over, only to be replaced by shade-tolerant evergreens. At this rate, this section will be spruce and fir in a century or so.

For most of the next eight miles, the SHT is rather nondescript. This is not to say it isn't nice — it is quite pleasant, especially with the trees turning red. The lake makes a couple appearances, and with the sky clear and blue it was a good hike. I was a bit sore and tired from the morning, but made an effort to run a few bits in order to try to make camp by dark. As advertised, there were some sections which followed the contour, and others which were a bit more climby.

The sun had just about gone down over a red valley when I crossed the next road and met a group of rock climbers stumbling out of the trail, who assured me that the next campsite was not far. I took water at a stream and started up a bit of a hill in the dark, my headlamp leading the way. Since I had found a lot of campsites in the dark on the Appalachian Trail I had little trouble recognising the trail junction, and found another tent and dying embers of a fire. After a bit of conversation whilst I hung bear ropes (It's easy with maples, although the other guy there had poorly hung his against a tree above his tent.) I bedded down in my sleeping bag in my bivy sack with my head on my backpack. I didn't have much else.

Sleeping without a pad is not something I'd do more than one night at a time. I need to get a slightly larger bag so I can carry a pad and still go very light. I was tired enough from (including warm ups) 24 miles on my feet and 24 miles on a bike so I slept straight through from about 9:00 to 3:30. After that, the moon was too bright for me to sleep well and the ground too bumpy. I slept in fits, heard a few red-eyes fly over, and finally got up around 6:45. I grabbed my wee food bag (also the bivy bag), packed up, had some water and food, and hit the trail by 7:00. The other guy was fast asleep.

The day had dawned cloudy and cool, but it had definitely not dipped in to the 30s the night before. I was probably carrying an extra pound of weight, and it was also a pain to keep my pack from being overfull. The SHT Guide called this section "impressive" as far as terrain goes, but that didn't mean that it was all that hard. The cliffs above the trail were somewhat impressive, however, and I could see that they might be fun for rock climbing. The trail levels out and passes through more very red maples, and soon crosses a long bog bridge over a beaver dam. For some reason, the SHT calls bog bridges "boardwalks" although I'd disagree with the terminology. Bog bridges (or puncheon, although this too may be a misnomer) are the appropriate term, in my opinion, for planks laid parallel to the trail balanced on short supports, whilst boardwalks are planks of wood placed perpendicular to the trail. In any case, the walk along the pond was nice.

After crossing a branch of the Baptism River (where I stretched on the bridge, my legs still quite tight) the trail had a 0.2 mile roadwalk on one of the best dirt roads I'd ever seen. Then it was back in to the woods, where I took some time to take a look at my left foot, which had a bit of pain. The arch was a bit swollen, and whilst it eliminated much running, I was able to walk without any major issues. The next section of trail was a dozen miles long and described as being pretty easy. It was. Had I been in better shape foot-wise I would have run more, but instead I made about 3 mph.

As I passed a campsite at Egge Lake I took a break to grab a bite to eat and was met by the first SHT thru-hiker I've met. (The guy at the campsite last night was only doing about three quarters of the trail.) We chatted for a while and, as an aspiring AT thru-hiker, was interested in stories. So I told some. What amazed me was how slowly this guy and others make to hike the trail. He was averaging seven or eight miles a day. On the AT, I never did back-to-back sub-10 mile days on full-hiking days (i.e. days not going in to town or something). In other words, I never went camp out-hike less then 10 miles-camp out-hike less than 10 miles-camp out. Not once. Most of the SHT thru hikers seemed to be hiking six or eight miles per day. I'm all about hike your own hike, but I could never do it. It means you wake up at 9, hit the trail by 11, and hike 1.5 miles per hour until 5 with an hour break for lunch. It's not hard hiking, there are no long climbs, and I'd just get bored on a trail that's about as exciting as the AT (with, perhaps, a bit more opportunity to swim, although not in late September).

But this fellow was a nice guy, and managed to keep up with me for 3.5 miles (in a bit more than an hour). He said he liked the pace and was going to try to keep it up. At one point I was talking about my pack and asking about his (he had an AT thru-hiker help him pare it down and frankly it didn't look too big). He asked what it weighed and I guessed about ten pounds (2 for the sleeping bag, 2 for the pack, 1 for the bivy, 3 for food and water, 2 for extraneous). He was astonished. Without breaking stride, I took it off and tossed it to him; he caught it easily. I do quite like hiking thirty-some miles and not feeling it in my shoulders, hips or back at all. I stopped at Sonju Lake and took lake water which tasted like lake water, even with Aquamira. He took a break and I sauntered off.

There was a bit more easy walking as I passed through more maples (where the glacial drift was thick) and boreal forest (where the soil over the laurentian shield was thin). At one point I passed a group doing trail maintenance. As I passed each member of the group, each holding a pair of clippers (no pick-maddocks, though), I thanked them. When I thanked the guy at the front of the group, he turned and said to me, very matter-of-factly, "we're doing trail work." Yup, I got it, that's what all the clippies are for.

The trail dumps out on the access road to Crosby Manitou State Park. There was good water at one point, so I dumped the lake stuff and pumped it up. Sweet elixir. I walked the rest of the road (about half a mile) and found my way on to the park's trails. About a quarter of a mile in I saw a couple other hikers, one of whom looked very familiar. We stopped and looked at each other and I said "what are you doing here?" It was a Macalester senior who had been on a hike with me in the Boundary Waters in 2005. He was up for a weekend of camping and hiking, headed back to the car. My feet were pretty well beat and I thought about asking for a ride out from there, but that would necessitate starting the next leg inland from Highway 61, making hitching almost impossible. We talked for a while, and then I hiked on.

The SHT Guide calls this section of trail more rugged than most of the rest, and I'd agree. The Manitou River cuts a deep gorge and the trail drops 300 feet in to it, and then climbs 500 feet out. I crossed the river on a pretty sturdy bridge, and then huffed and puffed up the hill. After nearly thirty miles I was not in shape to run, and I stopped at the top for a bite to eat and a sip of drink. After a day, I was getting tired of Clif Bars. Next time I'll at least supplement it with some cheese. I stumbled along, slowly ticking down the miles to the end of this trip. The trail goes around Horseshoe Ridge through maples, then easily descends towards the Caribou River.

I found the river and crossed it on a bridge high over a gorge. Halfway down the spur trail to the road, tired, I was faced with the option of hiking down a set of stairs to what I surmised was a waterfall. I decided to do so and was not disappointed. It was not as high or strong as High Falls on the Baptism at the end of the last trip, but it was splendid. Even with the sun out, it was too cool for a swim, and having not run, I had only made about three miles per hour, so it was getting late. I then had to hike up the stairs (154 of them — I counted) and then down to the road, with some recent mass wasting, probably from this spring quite evident.

The Caribou Wayside is on a bit of a reverse curve which was not a great place for a hitch. Still, it took only about ten minutes before I got a ride down Highway 61 right to the car. Going north, it had taken about 24 hours on a trail which zigged and zagged. Straight along the coast, we made it in about that many minutes.

I'll be back, but not too soon. This weekend I am off to Dallas and Austin, and the next weekend have friends in town. It's not worth it to drive 200+ miles for a day hike as I get further up the trail, so I need about three weekends to hike the rest. As long as the weather cooperates on weekends (not too much rain, no snow) I should be fine. If not, I'll be happy, too. Especially if I decide to do something stupid, like run a marathon.

Monday, September 22, 2008

A half marathon (not on the SHT) as a precursor

I had the best laid plans. I followed them to a T. Everything worked out, almost better than could have been expected. And holy cow do my legs hurt.

After my encouraging run last weekend, I decided to run a half marathon (and follow it up with some hiking). My choices were on the Birkie Trail and the City of Lakes Trail Loppet. I'd classify both as "known unknowns". That is to say, I knew both of them, but I didn't know exactly what to expect. I did know, however, that the City of Lakes race was a 45 minute bike ride, and the Birkie Trail was a three hour drive. That made my decision.

I was up a bit before 7:00, having carbo-loaded the night before I had a half a clif bar and set off for Minneapolis. It was already pretty warm, and I don't race well in warm weather. When I did my time trial a week earlier it was 53 and drizzle, perfect running weather (although maybe a tad on the hot side). It was already 60 with the sun coming up. The Greenway was eerily quiet; definitely no one to draft. I got through Uptown and headed north to Wirth Park. I registered and set about warming up.

Every time I had run this week, I'd had cramps in my upper right chest from about the 1/2 mile marker to the 1 1/2 mile mark. Today would be no exception. Thus, I made sure that I warmed up at least two miles so that it would not occur during the race. I ran in to the woods and found some of the course and was surprised that it quickly went down to a singletrack trail with some sections of tricky footing. This was probably to my advantage (lots of hiking has helped me how to best land on trails) but I figured that most of the trail would be on the wider, more gradual ski trails. Even though Wirth has some nasty hills, none are too long or steep. I warmed up for about 20 minutes, and then went back to the start to sip down some more gatorade and wait for the start.

Now, I had no idea what to expect in this race. This was mainly because I had, to that point, never run a running race. Of any kind, shape or form. Both my parents stopped running by the time I was about five years old, and neither they nor friends in high school convinced me to run cross country. I started running only as ski training, and I hated it. I really despised it. It was something to do to get to skiing, but it had little value on its own. So I begrudgingly ran. And as I did so, over the years, I began to like it a little more. By college, I would have some training runs where it felt good. Especially on trails — a 20k pole hike on the Birkie trail ended with me sprinting to the end (to my credit, there was a van full of food). I didn't run much on the AT, owing to a heavy pack and, at times, bad ankles, but it learned me to appreciate monotony.

In the past year, however, I have really begun to like running more. I can think of several times I've gone on "great runs," which I never thought I'd have. One was an ad hoc run on a cool evening to the tops of West Newton Hill, the hill near Newton Corner and the top of Heartbreak Hill (at night). Another was a run on a frosty morning right before I moved out to Minnesota. Another was a twelve miler over the Ford Bridge and Franklin Bridges. And a trail run from Zealand Hut to Shoal and Ethan Ponds. And the aforementioned 9.4 miles at 6:50s last weekend. So I was up for a race.

I had no specific goal, other than to finish and not make too much of a fool of myself. I looked around at the starters and started about five rows back, just in front of the "there's no way in hell that guy's running faster than me" group. The gun went off, and I quickly realised that I was with some slow people. So I ran on the outside (is there running race etiquitte?) to get to about fifteen or twenty guys from the lead. The pace wasn't too fast so I went with the flow. At first, I did well on the steeper sections, both up and down. I know how to ascend, and would get on my toes and dig in to the hill, and on descents, would let gravity gather in to the next uphill — I passed a few folks during both these exercises. The trail wound about around Eloise Butler and then passed a feed where the 5k went back to the start. Supposedly your first race should be a 5k. Or something.

I took the feed but I was feeling pretty beat. Probably something about never having run a race before. I could have gone out slow, but this year I am trying to be stronger at the start. I know my endurance is "there", I've been feeling great at the ends of marathon hikes, but my strength and speed at the starts is not (note to self: more strength and speed work). So after three miles, I slowed down a bit as the trail wound in to the Quaking Bog, home to big hills. And it did not take the ski trail. There were lots of singletrack sections, with logs to jump over, branches to duck under and trees to squeeze through. I felt pretty dead at the top of the big hill there but pushed on through some minor cramps. At one point two runners in front of me took a left instead of a right and I had to yell at them to go the right way — they would have run to Uptown.

The trail flattened and went back through Wirth Beach near where it started. As we ran the sun-beaten pavement one other participant commented "this is brutal." I sort of agreed — although I had nothing to compare it to. The course wound around, up to the Olsen Highway and then made a couple of U-turns to duck under 55 before a flat, open section. Then it was along some mountain bike trails (again, nothing flat, wide and long enough for any sort of rhythm), ski trails and then in to a section of single track at the base of an esker by Twin Lake. It was heartening to see, where the trail doubled back on itself, a lot of people, many of whom looked to be in good shape, a mile behind me. I was running with a couple guys where the course was marked straight up a hill. We took a couple switchbacks and it seemed to climb a steep, scramble of a hill, where hands were required. This was running? We made it to the top, wondering if we were on the right trail, when we finally saw another marker.

Supposedly the course would be flatter, but the organisers managed to find every bit of topography they could that wasn't on the golf course. We ran around the chalet at Wirth, then on some barely-used slabbed trails so narrow I was grabbing trees to keep my balance. Finally we hit the flats along Bassett Creek and under 55 again, where I had a cup of water for the last mile. I thought it would be an easy time back to the finish. Wrong. We followed the creek, then climbed a up a steep hill, went back down and hit the streets of Bryn Mawr. I as running with a woman and we were commenting on how this was a brutal last mile. We headed back in to the trails I knew would lead to the finish — volunteers told us it was a tenth of a mile. It was more like a third. On that downhill, feeling a wee bit of energy, I let loose and put some time on her, and then mustered whatever kick I could in to the finish. I wound up in the chute and drank about six cups of liquid, dazed but pretty excited about having finished my first half marathon.

I cooled down, picked up my bike, and glanced at results. It turns out a bunch of runners had followed one misguided soul off the course like lemmings. They had all run a fourteen or fifteen mile race. So with them out of the picture, I came 18th (out of 233, 15th out of 128ish men). I was fourth in my age class. Top three get prizes. Gack — I didn't really expect to win anything. I got on my bike and rode home.

Now, why did I write all this? This is an SHT blog, right? Well, because a normal person would run a trail half marathon and call it a weekend. (And not an easy half, either. A friends mom who ran it, and is going to Kona for the Ironman in a few weeks, and is sponsored and such said it was a very hard course, and I'd concur. It was definitely a trail run. The Birkie Trail, all on a ski trail with grass and dirt tread and, from OO to Fish Hatchery, few major hills, would have been far easier. The winner of this race ran it in 1:30, 6:52 miles, or three seconds slower pace than my training run a few weeks back. To top it off, it was 70, sunny, with 60 degree dewpoints.) For me the weekend was just starting — I planned 34 miles on the Superior Trail, and all that separated me was a bike ride home (nice and easy), some packing, and a drive.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

No, I didn't hike this past weekend, either

I have my reasons. The first is rain. It rained most of the weekend. James was going to come up and we were going to hike Sunday and Monday but his car broke so he was marooned down south. And I didn't want to hike 34 miles in the rain on my own.

Why 34 miles? Well, the trail meanders away from Highway 61 for 34 miles. If I wanted to get back, I'd have to spot a bike or try my luck hitching on very small roads to 61. But I have a plan for this weekend.

On Sunday, when it was 53 and drizzly here, I decided to go for a run. I thought of it as a baseline run and a fast run, from my house to the river, up to the Lake Street Bridge, down to the Ford Bridge, then back home. I was shooting for running 7:30 miles, but wanted to see how fast I could do it.

I had an ulterior motive, too. There are two trail runs this weekend, both of which traverse lovely ski trails I'll be hitting up this winter. Both are half marathons. I know I can run a half marathon (I ran 17+ miles the weekend before this past one) and I know I can run pretty fast, but I wanted to see how fast, and how good I'd feel, and whether I should try one of these half marathons (Birkie Trail and City of Lakes Trail). The answer was...yes.

I had a few minor cramps which worked out by the river. I really turned it up once I'd crossed the Lake Street Bridge in howling winds, and started south along the river. This was one of the runs I've had in the last couple years where I was happy (this never happened before — I used to despise running). As I climbed to the Ford Bridge, mist keeping me cool and happy (53 and drizzle is perfect running weather) I passed a couple decent-looking runners and left them in my dust. I was moving. I hit the Saint Clair Hills and then sprinted from Fairview. I ran in to the house, checked the time (1:04) and after a few minutes cooling down (mostly on a hammock) outside I looked up the distance. 9.4 miles. I'd run 6:49 miles for 15 km. Extrapolate that over a half marathon (I know, hills and trails and distance will slow me down — although given my endurance distance is probably not the biggest issue) and I'd have fun.

So the plan for this weekend:

Saturday: bike to the Trail Loppet in Minneapolis (I decided not to leave at 5:00 to run on Birkie Trail), run the race, eat a free brat for not driving there, and bike home. Throw my pack together and drive north. Hike 9 miles in to a campsite. Sunday: Hike the rest of the way to Highway 61, hitch down, drive home.

If it works out, it will be very fun. And I will be very sore.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Sadly, no SHT this weekend

After I got off the trail last weekend, it got hotter. Sunday and Monday were mid-summer. And then by Tuesday: instant fall. So today is cloudless down here (but cloudy up north) and cool — maybe topping out above 60. Good hiking weather. Alas, I have to be up tomorrow at a very ungodly hour (especially for a Sunday) for the Bike Classic, so driving and hiking and waking up at 4:15 doesn't sound like too much fun.

But, since I will work a 12-hour Sunday tomorrow, I might well take off next Friday and get a three day weekend on trail next weekend. So it goes.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Split Rock to Tettegouche

Start: Split Rock State Park, Spur Trail
Finish: Highway 1, near Tettegouche State Park
Approximate time and mileage: 26.6 miles in 8:00
(including two water stops and a swim). (Plus 0.5 miles on access trail.)
In my first 25 miles of the SHT, I gave it the benefit of the doubt. I was lukewarm towards the trail. I compared it to the long green tunnel portions of the AT (with some Superior views) and called it "pleasant." It was meant to be faint praise. The trail is in great condition and well-laid, but just not exciting.

I set out from where I'd left off after an "alpine start" (<6:00) and a pleasant drive up through Duluth. I went up the same path I'd descended last time, jogging the hill and on to the trail. And I was prepared for more of the same. Some rivers, some views, lots of relatively boring but relatively easy walking.
And at first, I was unsurprised. There were some nicer bits — especially when the trail crossed through mossy meadows. And it was a bit less dusty with some rain in the past week. Still, there was a lot of viewless ridge walking, and the shade was rather sparse. I realised that one of the qualms I had with the trail the first day is that the forest, when made up of aspen and birch, does not well filter the sun. Even if it is cool out, the sun can bake the trail and the hikers. Much of the area was logged and the aspen and birch are the early colonisers, so there are not good coniferous shade trees to keep the trail cool.

Still, the ten miles from Split Rock to Beaver Bay are generally nice, and pretty remote. The trail passes near a couple beaver dams with sludgy, brown water and is otherwise quite dry, and hot. There was also a meadow — brown and dry without recent rains — which happened to be on the east side of the trail. With the sun still in the east, it was baking. Temperatures on the North Shore stayed in the 70s all day, but it was much hotter on this stretch. I was draining water alarmingly fast, and didn't want to settle for mud from one of the beaver ponds.
There were some perks. Where there were views they were generally good. The ones inland were rather flat but a long carpet of forest. The trail skirted a ridge with a nice ravine in between, which was also nice, especially looking back towards the big lake. By this point, I could again hear civilisation — the whistle of a train horn — and soon descended to a paved road, the first on the trail since a road less than a mile in.

Crossing roads is always interesting when you are hiking. In our everyday urban lifestyle (for those of us who manage to walk places) crossing roads is an afterthought every block. Stop, look, and cross. Getting to a road when you've been in the woods for miles is quite a different experience. Rarely is there a crosswalk — you instead look both ways and scamper across, five or six steps on concrete which feels, well, weird. Then it is back in the forest.
Well, some semblance of the forest. The five miles from Beaver Bay to Silver Bay on the SHT are the the most urban stretch so far (and, most likely, of the whole trail north of Two Harbors). The trail skirts the town itself — none of the SHT is down Main Street like parts of the AT — but it is definitely near this industrial, company town. And Silver Bay is an industrial, company town.

It exists mainly because there is a taconite plant there. Taconite is the low grade iron ore mined along Minnesota's iron range, and it is milled in to pellets which are shipped to steel plants elsewhere on the Great Lakes. Silver Bay's taconite plant is connected to a mine in Babbitt by a two-track railroad which serves no other purpose than to ship ore from the mine to the plant, as well as a pipeline which sends tailings up to ponds a few miles from the lake. In the past they were dumped in to the lake, but pesky environmentalists put an end to that.
The trail crosses the Beaver River on a snowmachine bridge and follows the river, only a few feet from the railroad at times. I took water near a falls (the river is relatively clean — I hope), crossed the tracks, and went up over a hill. The main sight was the pipeline, to which I descended and over which I crossed. When the trail was in the woods, the conditions were similar to the first 35 miles: dry, sparsely shaded and often on relatively thin soils. My ankle was also bothering me a bit; my achilles seemed to be popping when I ran up hills. Now, a simple solution would have been to walk the hills, but where's the fun in that. It was somewhat ameliorated when I stopped and loosened my shoe, but I was still musing over stopping at the next road and hitching out — it was the last chance for ten miles.

But it was before 2:00 and I decided to hike on. I had only come 15 miles and with the ease of the terrain on the North Shore, 15 miles is little more than walk in the woods. And I was glad I did. It seems that the SHT only really begins north of Silver Bay. The trail climbs out of the town, having crossed three roads, a railroad and a pipeline, and through some scrub, before it finally finds the real woods. I took water, again, at Penn Creek. I had been swilling water all day, and filled a litre-plus, hoping that it would get me the rest of the way to Tettegouche. I'd been feeling great, and running some, and even the five minute break mandated by AquaMira didn't crimp my style. From Penn Creek the trail rose up to the best scenery so far: views of the Twin Lakes, Bean Pond and Bear Pond. Bean Pond I skipped, it was accessible both by a spur trail and, I'd learn later, an ATV Trail.

Bear Pond, however, was more isolated and more spectacular. Set in a deep valley, it was a deep, blue glacial pond with talus slopes on two sides and thick forest elsewhere. The trail starts off high above it, but descends to where a spur leads to a campsite. In the hot sun, I was jealous of the swimmers I saw far below slowly gliding through the water. By the time I got to the spur to the campsite, I decided that I might as well go down to the lake to see what it was all about. I was reticent to actually swim, as I had no change of clothes and hiking in wet clothes is always asking for trouble.

However, three factors led me in to the water. First, the sun was still blazing (it would soon hide behind clouds from time to time). The water was also a perfect, cool-but-not-Superior-frigid temperature (Superior barely breaks 50˚, even in the summer). But the kicker was the rope swing attached to a tree arcing over the water. It did not take long before I had doffed my shoes, socks and shirt and was gripping the swing, gliding out over the water, and then — splash, I was in, swimming about in the deep, clear water. I swung and dropped about a half dozen times, trying a couple self-time shots (failures) before passersby took my picture. Had I know how splendid the lake was, I'd have packed a sleeping bag and pad. This is a spot worth coming back to. Although maybe not on Labor Day weekend; it was pretty busy.
By the time I had finally resigned to hiking on, I was thoroughly refreshed and I'd convinced a family to go in the water as well. It was that nice. I bid adieu to the lake and hiked up on to the trail, passing some folks I'd seen earlier who had leapfrogged me during my diversion. Soon I found what was my favorite portion of trail. The SHT stays up on a ridge, passing through dense maple forests which were quite cool and shaded, with generally dirt tread — it was perfect for a nice easy trail run, and I partook.
According to the very useful and informative Superior Trail Guide (although I wish they'd tally cumulative distances beyond short sections, I'm doing so myself from their statistics) I learned that the maples here are a bit of an anomaly. The trees here should be more northern species: birch, aspen and various pines. However, two factors come in to play to allow the maples to not only grow, but thrive and dominate the forest. The first is temperature. Maples generally don't grow where temperatures drop below -40 with an regularity (as they are full of sap, such cold temperatures ostensibly freezes the sap and ruptures the wood). In northern Minnesota, -40 is reached every so often — in 2004 Embarrass hit -54 and in 1996 Tower found -60, although unofficial reports from Embarrass had it at -66. Along the Range, cold air will settle in and create conditions cold enough to inhibit maple growth, which is why most maple sugar comes from areas further south in Minnesota and Wisconsin. But along the SHT, this is not the case. Lake Superior rarely freezes (and if it does, it does so later in the year, once the coldest weather has passed). On higher ridges, there is generally enough convection from the lake, even on clear, cold nights, to keep the temperatures moderated just enough for maples to survive (-35, however, is still very cold). So the ridges traversed by the SHT have maple forests — islands of a warmer biome in the frozen north.
It is through these maple forests that the trail passes for several miles. It is not all maples, there are more exposed ridges with scrub oak and pine, but the predominant feature is the cool, relatively damp maple forest. The area seems to have been logged many years ago, as the trees are in uniform age, with a new batch of undergrowth underneath. Much of the trail reminded me of the AT in Vermont and New Hampshire where it traverses maple groves — which is definitely a compliment to the SHT.

With the holiday weekend in full swing (and perfect weather, which we have gotten used to this summer) there was quite a bit of traffic on the trail, both day and overnight hikers. By the time I reached Tettegouche Park, I was seeing a lot of obvious day hikers. The reason was that the trail skirts High Falls on the Baptism River, the highest falls fully within the state of Minnesota. The falls are rather developed (to inhibit erosion, the whole trail is steps and boardwalk) with a metal suspension bridge across the river. The falls themselves are impressive, dropping sixty feet in to a splendid bowl below. I eschewed the chance to swim, still damp from my earlier jaunt in to Bear Lake, but as it is quite close to the trailhead, I plan an excursion to this pool (and a jump off some rocks, although jumping the whole falls — 60 feet — would take some gumption) my next time up (if the weather cooperates).
At the falls I found a pair of pink sunglasses. I didn't wear them, but did my part to pack out rubbish. I ran the stairs and made for the road. The trail climbs up from the river and within earshot marked the first time I was flummoxed as to the direction of the path. It makes a sharp turn without blazing, but I quickly found the trail, found a blaze, and made my way down to Highway 1. I stuck out my thumb and the first car which passed gave me a ride all the way down to the car. It can't get any easier than that.

So I'm now very excited for the next segment of the trail. My expectations are higher, and if the rest of the SHT rivals the segment I've hiked so far, I'll be a happy camper once the snow files and hiking season ends later this fall.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

First day on the SHT reflections

It's now a couple days since my first twenty-five miles on the SHT. A few thoughts:

• The trail is in very good shape. There are sections which are a bit overgrown but most is manicured with a foot of cut grass on either side of the treadway. It is probably in as good or better shape than most of the AT. It sure helps that there is no mud.

• The trail is also pretty easy. There are no 2000 foot climbs to sap your energy — it's just a few short hills.

• After hearing about the state bird of Minnesota (the mosquito) I didn't see any of them. Or any wildlife, really, except for some deer on the road in Duluth.

• I need to eat more when I am hiking. I managed to go in to major calorie deficit which carried over in to Monday. It was partially cured by more than a pound of brats from TJ's in Mahtowa on the way home.

• The color of the rock — generally bright red — is really amazing, especially as the sun gets lower.

• Lake Superior is really beautiful.

• My legs can take 25 miles. It's time for my first marathon hike of this year. I hiked one marathon last year and, oh, fifteen the year before.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Two Harbors to Split Rock

Start: Route 301 Trailhead
Finish: Spur Trail, Split Rock State Park
Approximate time and mileage: 24.3 miles in 6:15.
(Plus 0.5 on access trail.)
In five years, on and off, in the Twin Cities, I'd never set foot on the Superior Hiking Trail (The SHT). When I was in college, I had an excuse: I never wound up spending a summer in the Twin Cities. This year, the excuses were a bit lamer, mainly dealing with travel many weekends since the snow melted in May (yup, in May). But with a car with new brakes and an oil change, I had no excuse this past weekend (other than gas prices). It was too damn nice to spend both days in the Twin Cities, so I planned my route and went off.

I planned to wake up wicked early, but that didn't pan out. Instead, I was up around 6:45, and hit the road around 7:30. There was some traffic up 35 and along the North Shore, but not enough to slow me down, and after listening through Weekend Edition twice, I reached the trailhead around 10:40. In my pack was 3+ litres of water, two snickers, three clif bars, half a bag of peanut M&Ms and a plastic bag with soy nuts and cheez-its. Or as we call it, the Hiker's Variety Pack.
And I had no idea what to expect. Despite 2175 miles on the Appalachian Trail this would be a new experience in a new region of the country with new flora (and maybe fauna), new soils, new rocks, new views, new people — new everything. And it was nothing like my first day on the AT. There was no bid goodbye to civilisation for months, or too-heavy pack (I had two pots when I started the AT! Ha ha!), or too-weak ankles. I was prepared for a day hike, since I have a job I can only feasible section-hike the SHT, so this will serve as my log of the trail this fall.

Another difference between the SHT and, well, completed trails is that the trail is incomplete. It currently has two sections: one of thirty-nine miles in Duluth, and the main 200-mile-long section from Two Harbors to damn near Canada (this is the part on which I'll focus). Another difference? The SHT is part of a much longer, major (and, yes, incomplete) National Scenic Trail, the North Country Trail. Now, the NCT doesn't have any major appeal to me. It starts in the Adirondacks, goes through NY and Penna, then loops south through Ohio (North Country?) and Michigan before hitting the real North Country in the UP, following the SHT, the Border Trail and the Kekekabic Trail before traversing prairies and petering out in North Dakota. Yup, it's a trail to nowhere. But, for those who like analogies: the SHT::NCT as the JMT::PCT. And as the JMT is arguably the most scenic part of the PCT, the same can be said of the SHT (it's all relative).
In any case, the SHT is completed to a bit south of Fors Road in Two Harbors (a.k.a. The Boondocks). From a small parking area, it dead-ends a mile south (land acquisition is a problem, but there are plans to go to Duluth), so I turned and went north. And the first few miles reminded me of, well, not really of anything. On the AT you get really good at savouring the few views you might see during the miles in "The Long Green Tunnel." So when there were two road crossings before any view, I didn't worry.

The first view is, surprisingly, not of Lake Superior. The great Gitchi Gummi enters a small corner, but the view is of the slight, tree-covered hills rolling west. It's nothing spectacular. The trail then rolls up over a hill (there is rarely more than 300 feet climbing at a time, which is good for shorter hill sprints) or three and down to the Encampment River which was — dry. As was Crow Creek a few miles later. Despite flooding in June, when Grand Marais received five inches of rain in nine hours, the streams were bone-dry. Which is too bad, the would be picturesque with water.
No matter, I climbed on. Well, I walked. The only climbing was in and out of these little stream valleys, where there would be a few hundred metres on talus before dirt, which was generally the rule (a bonus was that with so little rain recently, there was no mud, a far cry from hiking in the White Mountains in New Hampshire a week before). In the sun it felt quite dry, although it is little more than seasonal up here. Rain and snow will come again.

There were some sights. Every few miles the trail will flank a hill to the east, and you'll get dramatic views over the endless blue that is Lake Superior. It's pretty much the same view the whole time (with only the islands and distant shores — where you can see them — moving slightly). And each time, looking over the deep azure waters that stretch hundreds of miles east, it's just as beautiful.
I made it to the Castle Danger Trailhead and on towards Gooseberry Falls. The trail actually intercepts the Gooseberry River upstream of the falls and follows it for quite some time (a lot of runnable trail here), crosses an old rail grade (now ATV trail — ick), and has a few relocations due to floodwaters eroding away the bank. It finally drops in to a bit of a valley which the trail follows, crosses and then descends to Highway 61 (yes, that Highway 61). I was hungry, but with the noise of the road I walked a bit on the Gooseberry Falls ski trails for a while before dipping in to some Peanut M&Ms (the soy nuts bag developed holes necessitating they be eaten first). Except for the park and trailheads (anywhere near the roads) trail use was sparse. In 25 miles, there were a couple backpackers, but for what is pretty much the premier backpacking trail for 1000 miles in any direction, use seemed sparse.

That didn't change in the next four pleasant miles to Split Rock State Park. I was running low on water, and thanks to dried-up Aquamira, I didn't have any treatment. Still, when I had a chance to bail after about 21 miles, I had enough water (700 ml) to make the loop along Split Rock Creek. And I would not be disappointed. The trail skirts a deep gorge with several waterfalls (probably more interesting when the river is higher — at least it was running) to a point where there are two narrow pillars as well as a mass of pink rhyolite splitting the river in two. There were several campsites, many occupied, before the river was bridged (although today it would be a rock hop) and the trail went down the other side. This was definitely the most-used section of trail (other than right near 61 at Gooseberry); it was nice to have company on the trail after quite a bit of time alone. I took in the surroundings — the pink rock walls and waterfalls, and made for the road. I'd have one more treat before the day was done — right before the access trail to Highway 61 was a sweeping vista of Superior in all its grandeur. After 25 miles I was hot and tired, and after one day I've hiked about an eighth of the trail (after one day on the AT I'd hiked less than 1/100th of the way). My interest piqued, I'll be back.

I got down to 61 a bit after 5:00, stuck out my thumb and after a few minutes got a ride with a nice guy in a beat-up pickup from Two Harbors. He took me to the car (no need for an extra road walk) and refused money when I offered it. "I've hitched hundreds of times" was his response. I guess he's paying it forward — my karma from picking up AT thru-hikers this summer is intact.