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.

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