I’d barely left Grand Marais after a rest day before the 80-degree heat of the day started getting to me. Luckily, to get into Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, I was walking the sandy beach along Lake Superior. I jumped into the lake with all my clothes on.
I’ve been hearing about how amazing Pictured Rocks is for years, so after doing 18- to 20-mile days on the first stretch of the UP, I decided to slow down to savor its beauty.
Walking the road along Grand Sable Lake, a car suddenly stopped in the road in front of me, clearly waiting for me. “This could be very good for me,” I thought, “or very bad.” To my delight, it was a couple I’d met days earlier on the other side of Grand Marais, Sherry and Hans (sorry for probably misspelling your names, guys!).
Sherry was so excited about my halfway thru-hike when I first met her. I get very mixed reactions from people I meet along the trail. I’d just gotten a particularly strong, “YOU’RE ALONE?! DO YOU HAVE BEAR SPRAY?!” reaction on the beach from some day hikers. I shouldn’t take these negative reactions to heart, but sometimes I can’t help it. I get a little peeved on behalf of the woods because some people fear them so much as to turn them into some kind of boogeyman. I have yet to develop the courage to quote statistics to these folks. Bears kill fewer than one person a year, according to a 2015 report by the Wilderness Medicine Institute of NOLS. According to the National Safety Council, more than 40,000 people died in car accidents in 2017. I want to say to them “If you’re getting behind the wheel of a car today, you’re in more danger than I will be.”
So discovering Sherry and Hans were in the vehicle with their beaming smiles and enthusiasm was a huge gift. They excitedly showed me a beautiful agate Hans had found, and I soaked up the joy and energy of these two people who love the outdoors as much as I do.
As I’d seen so few people on the North Country Trail in the UP, I was really looking forward to interacting with other backpackers in the popular and more crowded Pictured Rocks. I saw almost no one until I reached my camp at Sevenmile Creek, however.
I woke the next morning eager to hike as slowly as I wanted. I planned to hike just 11 miles to famous Chapel Beach. So far, the shoreline hadn’t differed much from the previous 50 miles, but as soon as I reached the Coves campsites, I realized why everyone raves about this park. The aquamarine waters and soaring sandstone cliffs shaped by millennia of erosion are enchanting. The beauty cast a spell over me.
I started taking breaks every mile or so, sometimes perched on soaring cliffs amongst the seagulls and ravens, sometimes on a beach with the wave-born breeze keeping the mosquitos and sable flies at bay.
I reached Chapel Beach as a light rain started to fall. I sat in my rain gear, the usually busy beach deserted, and ate dinner. The fact that the rain felt as comfortable to me as the sunshine earlier drove home the transformation I’m experiencing on this long hike. I was completely content. Satiated on jerky and snickers, I watched as a kayaker pulled onto the beach. Was this Tom, the friend Alex had told me to keep an eye out for? Indeed!
Tom handled a strange woman accosting him on the beach, in the rain, with much grace. We agreed to meet up later.
The rain strengthened as I settled in for the night. It felt downright odd to be in camp before 8 p.m. Feeling like I was taking a little vacation from the halfway thru hike, I slept late. I talked with a Boy Scout troop from Wisconsin. I discovered I’d be crossing paths with one of its members, Cameron, in the fall when I get to the Boundary Waters stretch of trail as he’ll be working at an outfitter where I plan to take a rest day. I also hung out in Tom’s camp for an hour talking with him.
I hiked to the Cliff’s campsite through muddier stretches of trail, and more forested cliffs with fewer views. I was alone on the trail and in camp again, except for a doe so tame she barely stepped off the spur trail to camp as I passed her.
The next morning, I hiked into Munising where I’d been planning to hop directly onto the ferry to Grand Island. I found myself instead bellied up to the bar eating a cheeseburger at a restaurant in town. I decided to take a rest day at the Terrace Motel, recommended to me by Patty and Dave. Despite hiking fewer miles per day through Pictured Rocks, I was exhausted.
Danielle Foerstch, a former Minnesotan who’d moved to the UP in March, joined me on trail my first day out of Munising. I was grateful for her good company, especially considering the bugs were out in full force. Having hiked many of the same trails in Minnesota, we fell easily into conversation. We talked about her move to the UP, our favorite trails back home, and she told me a bit about what to expect in the second half of the UP. “You’ll do fine in the Trap Hills,” she assured me.
The bugs were ferocious this stretch from Munising to Marquette. I concede, UP, you have bugs as bad as Minnesota. It’s a tie right now.
I pitched camp in the Rock River Canyon Wilderness and was half asleep when a mysterious, rhythmic booming noise started off in the woods. At first I thought the noise was a thunderstorm, but the booming was too short, just two beats. Over and over it sounded for 5-10 minutes. I couldn’t locate exactly where the sound was originating in the forest. There are few north woods night noises I don’t recognize, but I had no idea what this was. My sleepy brain ran through every possibility: brontosaurus (lol, no), human-made explosions, a cougar sitting outside my tent trying to decide if I’d make a tasty meal, Sasquatch. In the rational light of day, I’ll guess now it was a grouse, but I’ve only heard them do long drumming, not short beats. I was too sleepy to record audio of the noise, which I regret greatly now.
I’d decided to take four days to hike to Marquette, which started to feel like an egregious use of hiking time. I could’ve gotten there in three days. I started worrying I’m not making the right decisions to get to the western terminus before winter sets in. Every day’s plan feels like a gamble.
The trail gets more technical west of Munising. I spent the next days almost never walking a flat path. Hoards of mosquitos seized every opportunity to bite me as I slowed down through muddy pits, or picked my way carefully across boulders.
The humidity is at 80-90 percent. Combined with wearing my extra layer of bug netting, the heat started getting to me. The smell of my sweat changed as electrolytes and salt started pouring out of me. And the heat kills my appetite, a recipe for creating a weak, struggling hiker.
I missed out camping at the Lakenland Shelter as I hadn’t read my notes closely enough before leaving Munising, and it’s not marked on the NCTA maps. I was so mad! The shelter was built by Tom Lakenen at his fantastic sculpture park east of Marquette. I spent more than an hour wandering the park, and speaking with Tom, who gifted me cold water and half-frozen Powerade. Thank you, Tom! Manna from heaven.
After the artistic hiking interlude, I headed back out on trail, eager to get to Marquette and meet my host, Lorana Jinkerson, the chapter president of the North Country Trail Hikers Chapter. Tonight, she’s hosting a potluck for chapter members and me. I look forward to meeting them, and getting their invaluable knowledge of the trail to help me make the best plan for the remaining 269 miles of the UP, the best plan to get me to North Dakota before bitter cold and deep snows thwart me.
Section: Grand Marais to Marquette
Total miles: 640