Monday, May 25, 2009

Caribou to Carlton to Cascade

The hiking season of 2009 kicked off with a doozy. The last time I made for this trail I hiked 34 miles in 24 hours, sleeping without a pad and injuring my foot in the process. This weekend, I decided to take it up a notch. Memorial Day is the official kickoff to summer (so I hear) so—I kicked off hiking (summer) with a bang.

In other words, my feet feel like death.

I thought about leaving early Saturday morning and making the 50-or-so miles (the signage and trail guide do not really match, in other words, something doesn't quite add up, so to speak) in two 25 mile chunks. However, at least two things got in my way. First, I had three dollars in my wallet. Three. I didn't really need any money, but it's nice to have more than three dollars should something go wrong whilst hiking. So, I went to the bank Friday night, stuck in my card, and: "Card Expired." Whoops. Last month, too. I also spent enough frazzled time looking for my AquaMira and my SHT guide book that I didn't wake up until 8:00 on Saturday, and still had to pack up and go. I went to the bank and got money the old fashioned way—from a teller—and made for the north.

The drive up was uneventful but long. I parked at Temperance River State Park—no overnight parking at Caribou Wayside, my point of departure—and went to the road and stuck out my thumb. I got a ride from a pick-up who was willing to take me further than he was going because it was his dad's truck." Fine by me. We got to talking—he grew up about a mile from where I lived last year—and then he mentioned he lived in Boston. Where in Boston? Near Fenway. What street? (I love doing this.) Peterborough. "Oh, near El Pelon," which has now burned down again. He also directed theatre at the Turtle Lane Playhouse, which is less than a mile from where I grew up. Small world.

I bid him adieu and walked the 0.7 uphill miles to the trail to begin my walking. I immediately realized that I had made an error in judgement. I usually eschew sunblock when hiking in the woods—the trees' leaves filter the sun enough. The issue was that the trees this far north were not leafed out and the sun—a month off solstice—was streaming through. I knew that lobsterdom awaited. Along the North Shore there are two major types of deciduous forest: maple (at higher elevations, where it remains slightly warmer—well, less cold—in the winter) and birch. The birch had a bit of a head start, but were just beyond budding. In four months, the leaves will be falling. Summer along Superior is short.

The other immediately noticeable attribute of the forest was the beating it had taken in the ice storm this winter. Four days after I skied in the area in late March, it was hit with an ice storm, which trashed the ski trails. Then it started snowing and there was a bit of skiing in to May. But the birches had been pretty hard hit—most of the crowns were down—and the SHT folks had done a heck of a job clearing the trails. The ski trails, it appears, will take a little longer to clear. (Of course, they have until November. Or October.)

The first ten miles were nice, but unremarkable. Inland ponds, views of the lake, beautiful maple and birch forest. At one point, the birches were so thick that it felt like walking through a sea of white, especially with the leaves not out. Some of the downed birches were leafing out—their last time they'd do that. Hopefully it will be moist enough this summer they don't turn to straight tinder in the coming weeks. The trail wound around Dyer's Lake (as opposed to Dyer's Pond on Cape Cod) and across the last mining railroad of the trail—abandoned, for now, since the price of steel has plummeted.

Then, the trail got a bit more interesting. The rivers on the North Shore have a habit of slowly meandering across the escarpment at elevations of over 1000 feet and then crashing as they plummet down to lake level. The Cross River, of course, was no exception. It began with some rips, became class II rapids and then went in to a narrow chute as it shot downwards. By the bridges—an old, wooden one and a newer, higher, metal crossing which was not yet open—I passed a campsite I decided not to stay at. I wanted to put on a few more miles and avoid a 37 mile day on Sunday. I ate dinner (my diet consisted of a Coop-self-made trail mix and Cabot Cheese), filled water, and crossed the Cross river.

The next river appeared placid from above. In fact, it looked like a wide, slow stream flowing in towards Lake Superior, although due to the topography, it was impossible to see its entry in to the lake. When I hiked down to it, it also seemed wide and docile. Class II whitewater, maybe; something I'd be comfortable in a kayak in with no training. Hiking along it, the river seemed to disappear ahead—going for twenty yards across over a cliff. Which was the case. All of the sudden, the stream poured over a ledge and into a canyon which got narrower and narrower until it was only a few feet wide, funneling the water towards the lake. It was dramatic, beautiful, and above all, loud.

I crossed the river on a bridge and found some amazing photographs of the flowing water with the spray above illuminated by the setting sun. I then retraced the progression of the stream on the north bank, as the flow got calmer and the canyon wider until, again, the stream was a river again and quieter and calmer. The trail climbed away from the stream (with some nice views) and through a stand of birches which were all uniformly bent unidirectionally—evidence of the recent ice storm—and which had littered the forest floor with debris. And I took a lot of photos ot the Temperance.

I planned to camp on Carlton Peak but would have likely stopped at a grassy, but unofficial, site below the summit. It was, however, already taken and I didn't want to intrude, so I hiked up. Despite the time being after 9:00, the sky to the west was still pink and the summit open and rather bright. I hung bear ropes—which would have been a surprise had anyone hiked up for a sunrise, as the bag hung over the middle of the trail (and I still have my skills in bear rope hanging)—ate dinner, and fell asleep as the last of the light melted away and the starts came out overhead. It was not as secluded as most of the trail—I could see the lights of several resorts, taconite harbor, and even some faint music from below. It reminded me a bit of Peters Mountain in Virginia—where the lights shone in the valley below.

I woke up once in the middle of the night and the stars and Milky Way were spread out above my head. I attempted to take a star-trail picture which sort of worked, except I had to hold down the shutter of my camera for five minutes which both shook the frame (a little) and froze my hand—it was in the mid-30s out. I put away the camera and went back to sleep.

When I awoke, the sun was already coming up—I'd missed sunrise. Of course, with only six hours of really pitch black and maybe seven of proper darkness, I needed to get my rest. At these latitudes (47.5˚ north) and this season, the sun rises almost northeast, straight along the lake shore, which mean it rose behind trees. I was up, and cold, but knew I had a bit of a day of hiking ahead of me, and proceeded to get up, pack my bag, dress (fleece and long underwear), take down my bear ropes, eat breakfast (yup, trail mix and Cabot) and head down below.

As I passed below Carlton's cliffs, my legs did not want to coƶperate with hiking at any great speed. I'd had grand ambitions of hiking the whole bit of trail in nine hours and being done before 3:00 (it was close to 6:00 when I started off). At the rate I was going I was unlikely to do that. The descent took me down to the Sugarbush ski trail, where I'd been on snow less than two months ago. A few days later they'd closed due to the ice storm, with several feet of snow on the ground. The trails were pretty well trashed, but at least the storm occurred at the end of the season, so they'll be able to clear by next year.

The trail then wound through a section with a spur up Leveaux Mountain, which affords several views. I skipped this loop and the one on Oberg Mountain, as they both required extra hiking, and I wisely realized I didn't want to push with a thirty-mile day ahead. The terrain was familiar from my ski loop in March, dominated by beautiful stands of maple. I'd love to see it in the fall, when I can return to these trails. I spent some time in the privy at the Onion River trailhead (where there was skiing three weeks ago) and headed off towards Lutsen.

I began to feel better after my trip to the restroom and easily made the rather steep, rather long six hundred foot climb up Moose Mountain (yes, that qualifies as a long hike in these parts). The trail then went down the northwest flank of the mountain and in to some very runnable terrain around Mystery Mountain, where I took full advantage. I planned to refill water at the Poplar River but found a smaller, colder stream before it and double-filled my water bottles—my second and third liters of water of the day.

I was glad I didn't fill from the Poplar. The rule of water is that the smaller, colder and faster the source, the better. Small sources drain smaller areas (less potential for contaminants), colder water has been out of the ground for less time (fewer contaminants) and fast water generally doesn't have as much plant growth which can adversely affect the water's taste. The poplar was probably pretty cold, and where I crossed it, transitioned from slow to fast. Unlike many rivers which wound amongst basalt dikes and poured over ledges, the Poplar fell down an angled jumble of boulders, rollicking on towards Lake Superior. The sound and power of the water was tremendous; I began to wonder why no one had ever dammed the whole north shore in a hydroelectric scheme, and was glad they had not.

I began to wonder if anyone ever ran these rapids (and other falls along the North shore) in whitewater kayaks. It seemed pretty stupid, but, then again, whitewater kayakers did stupid things. It turns out people did, but not often. The section of the Poplar I was looking at was called "Bielek's surprise—the first time it was run was by accident (surprise!) by a guy called Bielek—and there is video (about a minute in). And the Cascade River (where I'd hike later in the day).

I continued at a good pace through Lutsen, where there were views of the still-snowy downhill slopes. The trail soon leveled out along the now-placid Poplar River, which wound through marshland. The trail was flanked by wildflowers, providing color to the rather gray landscape. By Lake Agnes, I had hiked 40-plus miles in twenty-four hours and was beginning to feel its effects. In other words, the next ten miles were rather painful.

I passed a woman who was running south, although since I was running at the same time she yielded to me across a bog bridge. Had I know that she was in the process of setting the female supported record for the trail I would have stepped aside. My other recollections from this section include the lovely Lake Agnes, views of the Poplar River, a section along a snowmobile trail where I forced myself to run (knowing only three or four miles remained) and then the descent to the Cascade River. There was one more hill which I sprinted up, yelling "die evil hill!" as I did so, and I got to the Cascade River—quitting time.

Well, not before I snapped a few pictures of the falls in the gorge, probably my favorite so far. I'll let the pictures tell the story. I went to the parking lot, right on the lake, and stuck out my thumb—it was not a bad place to try to catch a ride. I wound up with some Duluthians—a husband and wife and one of their fathers, whose accent was thicker than I can describe. It was fantastic. I found my car, hit the road and, along Highway 61, had a very cute moment—a pair of Canadian Geese were herding their chicks across the road, stopping traffic, a la Make Way for Ducklings (sans Officer Mike). I stopped for a bite and, aided by some Coca-Cola, got home before midnight.


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