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.

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