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.