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.

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