Monday, August 17, 2009

It was the best of trails, it was the worst of trails

So far on the SHT, my experience, trail-wise, has been entirely positive. A good tread, maintenance, every bridge in place as it should be, quick clean-up of storm damage (two months after a devastating ice storm the trail was clear of debris) and other measures of a well-maintained trail. And for the first fifty miles of this weekend, that was the case.
The problem with hiking north along a trail when you live south of it is that every time you want to get there, you've hiked yourself further away from home. My first two trips on the trail were day trips. Two Harbors is less than a three hour drive from the Twin Cities, so it was pretty easy to hike a marathon or so and still make it home (and it means a very light pack). The next two trips were weekend trips. By the time I'd reached Cascade, I was 100 miles up the shore from Duluth—about two hours on Highway 61—and had 70 miles left. With shuttling, this would be rough in two days (doable, maybe, but not fun), so a long weekend was in store.
The other issue is that the last 20 miles of the trail run almost due north, even as the shore turns further to the east. So, instead of finishing near Grand Portage and Highway 61, the SHT ends near the Canadian Border, but in real no-man's-land. So I needed to arrange a shuttle. My plan, at first, was thus. I'd drive up on Thursday after work to Magney State Park, close to five hours north. I'd camp there (or maybe cowboy camp down by the lake) and go spot a bike at the north end of the trail the next morning. I'd then park at Magney and hitch south to Cascade, and start the hike. The logistics would be, well, interesting, as would the 18 mile bike ride at the end, albeit mostly downhill. I do happen to know that my body does not always like 20 mile bike rides after long hikes.
But, better options soon began to present themselves. First, I found a friend's house to stay at in Duluth. He and his girlfriend were away, but I got a key and a promise of a couch. Second, I emailed a friend in Grand Marais who was away hiking in Idaho, but her email bounced to her boyfriend, who was more than willing to give me a ride around to the north end. So, life was becoming simpler.
The drive up was uneventful. I woke up at 6:30 in Duluth and was in Grand Marais by 9:00. I grabbed a snack and we caravanned up to the north end of the trail, taking smaller and smaller dirt roads until we wound up in a tiny parking lot a stone's throw from the Canadian border. I was thinking that, if I had the time and gumption at the end, I'd wade through the woods and surreptitiously cross in to Canada and back across the river for fun. I've never waded or swum a national boundary before.
The shuttle went fine (with one minor issue: I'd forgotten to get gas in Grand Marais and my gas light was flickering as I parked the car. I figured I'd have enough to get to the highway and probably Grand Marais, if not, I'd hitch in to town) and with the clock showing 10:45 I got dropped at Cascade and hiked up the trail. When I'd passed in the fog at 8:30, the lot was empty, by 10:40, with the fog thinning, it was humming. No one made it much past the falls, and within ten minutes I had the trail to myself. I hiked relatively easy, and the trail went away from the river a bit; by the time I was four miles inland, the clouds had burned off and I gathered some raspberries at a parking lot.
The next ten miles were relatively unremarkable. The trail bends inland and the topography is flatter than further south; it is dominated more by intermittent river valleys and the mountains of the Sawtooth Range. Some of the sections were a bit overgrown, but most of the overgrowth were raspberries, so I helped myself. At one point, I thought it had taken me until 2:55—more than four hours—to hike nine miles. It took a while, but I figured out that the clock that morning had been wrong; I hadn't started until 11:45. The trail then followed the North Shore Trail—a snow machine trail and dogsledding trail in winter—for quite a ways, which was easy but boring hiking. Finally, the trail dumped out on to the Gunflint Trail above Grand Marais, which had a nice, but hazy, view, and then continued towards Pincushion Mountain on ski trails.
There was some company on these trails, including a fellow on a mountain bike at the parking lot who gave me some water. Water had been scarce and stagnant, so I was waiting until the upcoming Devil's Track River to restock, his sips helped me through. Right before climbing the spur up Pincushion Mountain (good view off the top) I had other company in the name of a black bear up the trail. Hi, Mr. Bear. He ran off. I made some noise and descended down the canyon. I filled water at the bottom, eager to drink, and chatted with some folks camping there about the trail—they were thru-hiking south. I don't think they'd mentioned much about the condition of the trail further north; if they had I hadn't heeded the advice. I hiked up the other side of the picturesque valley and on to the Woods Creek campsite, where they'd mentioned the stream was flowing.
I thought I might have company there, but the two guys were packing up their camp at 7:45 p.m. I chatted with them a bit and they mentioned that a bear had been through camp the night before—considering how clean they left it (I had to pack on some of their trash, and they were walking out all of half a mile to their car) I wasn't that surprised. Nevertheless, I went to hang bear ropes.
I've always thought that I am a more than proficient bear rope hanger. On the AT I had some epic hangs (with 100 feet of line it's not that hard) including one in Shenandoah which was over a branch so thick that I talked with some camp counselors about hoisting a child up for fun. (This was not done.) However, up in Northern Minnesota, in the boreal forest, throwing bear ropes becomes a bit of a headier issue. The problems lie in the tree types. Oaks and maples (the latter predominating along much of the trail south of Cascade) tend to throw out thick branches ten to twenty feet off the ground, which are perfect for throwing a rock over and hoisting up a food bag.
Birches and pines, the staples of the boreal forest, each present problems. Pines are all but out—their branches are generally thin and it's too easy to get a rock and line caught in them. Birches have problems, too. First, they tend not to have branches until their tips, and if they split in to a Y, they do so very high up. Finding two Y-shaped shaped trees near each other could have solved the issue, but those such trees are few and far between. I tried threading a few needles but was unable to get a good throw, and then tried elsewhere. I went up the trail and back, and in to the woods to no avail. I could not find a good tree. I made many throw attempts but couldn't get a good hang. Finally, I followed the stream up a ways, found a tree which had been bent over so a portion of it was about 18 feet off the ground, threw a rope, and went to eat dinner.
After dinner, I went to hang the bag, but found out that birches have another issue: they are very soft. So, instead of gliding nicely over the trunk, my rope dug in, creating so much friction that I could barely move it without a food bag on it; when I tried to do so with the bag it wouldn't budge. More cursing. I took down the rope and set off, now by headlamp, down the riverbed to scout another throw. Due to flash flooding last year, many of the streams have wide debris paths with little water, so they are easy to follow (at least at this time of year). I did so, looking for trees, and finally realized that where the stream courses through a bit of a canyon, the eastern bank was about 25 feet higher than the western bank. So, if I were to scramble up the loose talus bank, tie off to a tree, tie to a tree on the other side, and then hoist, I could probably get a good hang. I set off to do so. I climbed up and tied to a tree, then went down and tied off on the other side. I then had to repeat the procedure to hang the bag, which, once done, was a thing of beauty. Especially since it had been done in the dark. It had been two hours since I'd gotten in to camp, and all but about 15 minutes were spent on the bear hang. It was, by far, the longest hang I'd ever had.
I went to sleep, having earned it with 24 miles of hiking and two hours of bear ropes. It was warm, humid and calm, and the mosquitos were out, although not in full force. Still, it necessitated zipping to my bivy sack, and while I didn't sleep well with the constant whine of the mozzies, I rested peaceably.
I awoke the next morning, with no visits from the bear, and found it easier to take down my bear bag in the light. Even with various dalliances, I was able to hit the trail before 7:00, climbing up a nice section along Woods Creek. The trail was then nice, but uneventful, as it wound through the forest and crossed several smaller streams (and saw another bear). I crossed the Kadunce River above a small waterfall pouring over red rock, and then experimented with shutter speeds at the next falls. The trail took me through more unremarkable forest and then began a long descent towards the lake.
There are many unique facets of the SHT, and most of them have to do with the big lake to the right (or, going southbound, the left). The most intriguing part, however, is the "Lake Walk." For a mile and a half, the trail crosses Highway 61 and goes on to Superior's beach and follows the shore of the lake. It's not really a trail, you just walk along the beach, although the "beach" is quite different from most ocean beaches. First of all, there's not really any sand. Because the beach is only a few thousand years old, the water has only had enough time to grind the rock there in to pebbles, so while it is soft and malleable (like sand) it is not grainy and won't blow around in the wind. There are dune structures and bogs just inland of the beach, similar to the ocean, but with no salt water the plant species are not differently adapted. Also, while there are waves (at times, Superior has large waves), there is no appreciable tide, so the water is almost always at the same level. It is very interesting and beautiful.
My first order of business was to treat water. I'd taken water at the Kadunce but didn't want to have to pause there to treat it, so I carried it down to the lake and sat down to treat. I took off my shoes, put my feet in the water, and waded out—what a way to soothe my legs! (The lake never gets above about 52 degrees.) I then packed up my bag and decided to walk barefoot down the beach, in and out of the water. I never really get to hike barefoot!
While I had been waiting, a group of women up the beach had begun to disrobe and enter the water. I picked my way along the beach, going slowly to let my feet rest, and one of them donned a towel (by disrobe, I mean disrobe) and came towards me (in a towel) and asked if I could "give them some space." I mentioned that they were skinnydipping on a hiking trail, and that of the 1000 miles (actually closer to 3000) of shoreline they could have chosen for their escapade, they chose the one with an established hiking trail. I conceded to putting on my shoes and walking along the inland shore of the beach. A few minutes onward, my water was treated, and I sat down for drinks and a lunch. The skinnydippers, now clothed, awkwardly walked by.
I ate lunch and soaked my feet and legs some more before setting off again. The lake walk was beautiful but rather hard with the soft surface; had I known, I would have planned to camp on the soft lake shore. The trail dipped back across 61 and in to the woods, climbing in rather straight sections along property lines. It was warm and humid, and sections in the sun were particularly hot, a rarity in these parts. The trail soon intersected a ski trail and descended to Magney State Park, where I used the restroom.
Magney Park is home to the peculiar Devil's Kettle Falls (more on that later) and the first mile of trail is very popular, although not particularly easy for the average visitor. Thus, there are signs admonishing people to be in good physical shape and to make sure to carry water—I was not concerned. However, as I ascended, I passed several groups who maybe should have heeded this advice, including one guy who, as I jogged by, exclaimed "This sucks!" as he slogged up. The trail climbed a bluff and then descended a long staircase to a swimming hole (I might have partaken had there not been 20 others there) before climbing to Devil's Kettle Falls.
The falls themselves are splendid. The Brule River splits in two and falls over a ledge. The eastern section falls on to a ledge below and continues towards Superior. The west section falls in to a deep pothole and disappears. Supposedly, the water winds its way underground back in to the river or in to the lake. And, supposedly, people have thrown dyes and ping pong balls in to the pothole and they've never been seen again. In any case, it's mysterious and beautiful and, because there's a second climb to get there from the swimming hole, not crammed with people.
From there, the trail once again became a narrow path and followed the now-calm Brule River. I passed a group from Menogyn and then didn't see anyone for a while. The trail climbed away from the river and then descended towards the Flute Reed River before dumping out on a road for a mile-and-a-half road walk.
I don't particularly like road walks but this one was relatively benign. There was one problem: mosquitos. With the warm, muggy weather and flatter terrain with more standing water, I was in mosquito territory. If I stopped, they'd swarm. Perhaps due to the seasons I'd been hiking, I'd not had trouble with mosquitos, but that was changing—fast. The gravel road climbed for a while and then passed through a swamps, mosquito central. Things were not looking too hot.
When the trail returned, it seemed different than the rest of the trail preceding it. No longer did it climb along the shore—it had begun its trek inland, towards the Boundary Waters. It was flatter, more out in the open, buggy and, above all, generally uncleared. One section had been weed-whacked for half a mile; the rest was waist- to chest-deep grass and raspberry bushes—they appeared not to have been cleared since spring. The raspberries were peaking which might have been a saving grace if it was possible to stop to pick them without mosquitos swarming, but it was not. In fact, I almost welcomed the grasses, which kept the mosquitos off my legs (where they particularly liked to feast. In five miles I'd gone from beautiful trail along a lovely river to overgrown trail in a fetid swamp. And I had 18 miles to go.
The trail dumped on to another, much less traveled road which was nice, as I could jog and keep the bugs at bay. One section wound around a swamp and right back to the road, prompting curses. It then climbed a low ridge and descended, along a swamp, to a campsite. There, there was company. I stopped for water and discussed the trail. The campers there, Jody and Ben, felt the same way I did. "This is horrid!" was the general exclamation. We commiserated. They were "very glad that I felt the same way I did" and that they were not just weaklings. I pulled the old AT out of my hat. "I hiked the whole AT and nothing was this bad. This is awful." I told them that if they could survive the next five miles, it got a lot better. They did not have the same kind of news for me.
According to them, the next two miles were terrible. Lots of brush, lots of bugs, and nothing to see. There was a short section on a ridge later on, but then more overgrown trail infested with mosquitos. I was not intrigued. I decided to push on to the next campsite (in retrospect, I should have stayed there, I could have used company) and camp there. After half an hour of water treatment and dinner (it was a less-buggy location) I made my way down the trail.
I got to the campsite and it was as buggy as the trail had been. I went in to set-up overdrive: every second I was out I was getting eaten alive. Bear ropes weren't too hard and, frankly, I didn't care that much. Within ten minutes I had my bag hung and had zipped myself in to my bivy sack, away from the mosquitos. It was 8:00—an hour or more to darkness. And with the mosquotos swarming outside the sack (thank goodness for its protection, at least) I didn't get bitten too much more. But outside, the buzzing was insane. And then it began to rain.
They say whatever doesn't kill you only makes you stronger. Or badly burns your hands. (Added after a klister-induced hand-burning.) Well, I didn't die, and while I may not be stronger, I am somewhat wiser. I learned a few things. First, my bivy sack will keep me drier, but definitely not dry, in the rain. I need to buy a lightweight tent. Second, making assumptions about the weather is a bad idea. I had assumed it would be warm without rain, or with only a passing shower. I was wrong. It rained all night.
The bivy did a pretty good job at wicking moisture—I watched as steam escaped and it dried out between downpours. Still, it was cold and clammy, and when I finally decided to unfurl my sleeping bag (down, so I was reticent) it got rather wet. I was sort of warm enough in my windbreaker-weight jacket and the wet bag, but very uncomfortable. I slept maybe an hour in all. I tried to stay warm by doing in-bivy core exercises and singing songs, and didn't lapse too far in to hypothermia. Had it been 10 degrees colder, I would have been in deep trouble. By 4:45 I was counting down the time to first light, and when I could make out nearby trees, I got out of the bag, threw my belongings in to my pack, donned my headlamp, and got the hell out of camp, the ubiquitous mosquitos still there. It was miserable.
I was a wreck. I warmed up rather quickly but was not having a good time. In four months on the AT, I had never been in this sort of state, even when I shivered myself to sleep in a shelter at 3500 feet in Maine. It was a mile to the road, which I'd heard from camp overnight (it gave me hope that I wasn't too far from civilization) and, with less than 14 miles to hike, I walked up to the road at about 5:45 a.m. and stuck out my thumb. I wasn't about to suffer in the rain, mud (it certainly had rained overnight) and fog for another ten miles to not get views of Isle Royale off the ridge and get more blood sucked from my veins.
The problem was that, by road, I was 10 miles, or so, from my car. And the roads are not well traveled. The first section is along the Arrowhead Trail which has some traffic. The third vehicle by was a construction truck who gave me a ride up a mile to the junction where I needed a ride on the much-less traveled Jackson Lake Road. I flagged a few cars, hoping someone would be willing to give me a ride a few miles out of their way, to no avail. Then, around 6:30, a guy came down on an ATV and, after chatting with a driver coming by, offered me a ride "as far as his gas tank would take him." I weighed the options, standing hoping for the kindness of strangers versus riding on a dangerous, 3-wheeled ATV probably not the whole way. I took the ride. I thanked the guy profusely but realized that this was probably fun for him, since he liked riding on ATVs. I can't say I enjoyed the experience, but it beat the hell out of walking.
He took me about two thirds of the way, before having to turn back. With four miles to go, I grabbed some food, the guide book with maps, and set off down the road. At least it wasn't overgrown, and the mosquitos were bad, but not as bad as the evening before. I started counting my steps to keep my sanity, 1000 strides per mile. 4000 strides to the car. I sang a song, and then calculated how many feet the song had carried me. Stan Rogers seemed to boom well, and The Mary Ellen Carter carried me more than a third of a mile. Barrett's Privateers another quarter. The calculations in between helped some too. About half a mile from the car, a red Yaris—not the car you'd expect in these parts—rolled by, turned around, and offered a ride. Yes, I'd accept. I didn't need it, I could walk the next mile, but I was happy for the offer. A transplant from Minneapolis, who now lived next to the border with Canada, drove me to the car. While I hadn't finished, per se, I was at the end of the Superior Trail. For now.
I've written to the Superior Trail folks and informed them that they need to state the trail conditions on their webpage, and do a better job maintaining the northern reaches of the trail. But, here's my advice to anyone hiking north of Devil's Kettle. First, do not hike the trail after Memorial Day or before the first freeze. The bugs will get you. Hiking in late September or October—before the first snow—would likely be best. Second, call the SHT office and make sure the trail has been recently cleared. If not, you'll be slogging through a miserable undergrowth. It's not fun. Finally, consider treating the trail as ending at Devil's Kettle. There's not much to see north of there. It seems it was built mainly because they couldn't get right of way along the coast and wanted to connect it to the Border Route and the Kekekabic Trail as part of the North Country Trail. It is not, however, much fun to hike. At least overgrown during mosquito season.
So I may hike it again. I may not. If it is clear and my schedule allows, I might think about a speed record attempt next spring (the current record of 4 days 3+ hours would require four 50 mile days, which, if I had no pack and support, seems doable, although my feet would hurt by the end). If I have time this fall, I'll consider it, but if I am going to drive five hours to Grand Portage, I might take the ferry over to Isle Royale instead. In any case, the Superior Trail is great, for the southernmost 180 miles. North of there, unless you have reason to hike it (North Country Trail hike, wanting to do a longer hike on to the Border Route and Kek Trail to Ely, &c.), don't bother.
The day was just begun, and my adventure was far from over. The first order of business was getting to Grand Marais on a thimble-full of gas. I started up the car and drove lightly down the dirt roads. I'd be in deep sneakers if I got stranded out here (with no traffic). I'd be in better shape on the Arrowhead Trail, where I could hitch, and even better on Highway 61, where I could hitch or rollerski to town for gas. Luckily, I had about 1000 feet to drop to get to Lake Superior, and while Jackson Lake Road was rolling, the Arrowhead Trail was almost all downhill. My gas light was still coming on and off (as it will do before it stays on for good) so I didn't take measures such as killing the engine for the coast down the Arrowhead Trail. I got to Highway 61 and turned south, rolling along about about 50 to coax the best mileage from the little engine. The miles counted down and the car didn't so much as sputter. The road in to Grand Marais is slightly downhill, and when I saw town I knew I had made it; if I had run out of gas I would just coast in to the station. But, I made it in without worries, 466 miles from my last fill-up, and with 11.25 gallons of gas, over 41 mpg.
From there, I took my time getting home. I stopped at Tettegouche for a while, thinking of a hike to High Falls, but rain intervened, and I just took a nap. I then stopped for an hour at Gooseberry to wade in the lake and then at the SHT office to become a trail member (and voice my complaints about the state of the trail up north). The sun was out by Duluth and I took the scenic route home due to traffic on 35 because of repaving. It took most of the day, but when I finally got home, I was never so happy to see a bed and shower.
And what of this page? It was meant to detail my thru-hike of the SHT, which I feel like I've sort of completed (despite some "yellow blazing"). It was meant to convey my impressions of the trail as an AT thru-hiker, which I think I've done. There are sections to which I'll return and may write about, and I'll post photos for this section soon. But for now, it'll become more dormant, until I decide to do more with the SHT.