After 1,123 miles, I crossed into my home state of Minnesota on Aug. 19, 3 1/2 months after starting my halfway thru hike of the North Country Trail.
I shouted with joy when I saw the beautiful, new wooden sign hanging like an archway over the trail.
Reaching this spot on the trail had kept me going on so many hard days, most recently when I’d wanted to quit in the Porcupine Lake Wilderness in Wisconsin.
I jumped up and tapped the wood. And then I cried a little bit.
Crying on trail has become a pretty regular thing for me, and it’s not because I’m sad, quite the opposite. I cry when I’m moved, just a few tears that rise to my eyes from a great joy inside. Over the past couple weeks, it feels like someone turned up the volume on my emotions.
I’ve found myself crying while watching tamaracks dance over their bog in a strong breeze. I’ve cried while watching a tiny spider weave its web between rocks on the bank of the Amnicon River. I’ve cried while walking down the blacktop of a quiet, country road in Wisconsin, hay bales drying in bright green fields beneath perfectly blue skies.
It’s mystifying, these huge emotions, like they had to grow to match the grandeur of the scenery.
The phenomenon started as I drew closer to Solon Springs, where I’d meet up with Kim Smith and Carrie Oestreich Nolin, the first people to offer me assistance with my halfway thru hike more than a year ago. Kim, Carrie and I met on a group hike I helped organize on the Superior Hiking Trail in June 2018. Hiking to reunite with them jumpstarted my feeling of homecoming.
After a restful stay with Kim and her husband, Chris, Carrie dropped me back off in Solon Springs. The previous day, she’d also generously shuttled me around Minong as I did my town chores. Thank you Kim, Chris, and Carrie!
After consulting with Peter Nordgren, the Brule St. Croix Chapter Membership Coordinator, I felt much less stressed out about the 40 miles of roadwalking ahead of me. I planned to disperse camp in Douglas County Forest parcels along the way, which requires a $35 “Special Camping” permit, which is laminated and you hang outside of your tent.
Permit secured, hug from Carrie received, I walked out of Solon Springs into a wildlife sanctuary for birds. Expansive views of rolling meadows punctuated by ponds stretched as far as I could see.
Enjoying the change in scenery, and with only 14 miles to hike until a campsite on the St. Croix River, I hiked slowly and happily.
At lunch, I realized my math was off. Again. I keep waiting to get better at trail math, but I don’t think it’s going to happen.
For me, trail math feels like trying to solve a Rubik’s cube while hiking. I have X amount of days to get Y amount of miles. The equation should just be Y/X, no?
A simple division problem often would have me camped on private land. Sometimes water sources are scarce. The day is rare when I can hike exactly 20 miles, my current goal. And I have to choose each day, do I hike more than 20 miles or less?
I spent the rest of my day trying to figure out a new plan to get me to downtown Duluth by 4:30 p.m. on Aug. 21. Why such a specific deadline? Because the Jefferson Lines bus to Minneapolis leaves Duluth at 5:20 p.m. And I was determined to take my rest day at home with my mom and dog, Buddy.
As I reached the St. Croix River, my excitement grew. Here was a river from home. I’d swam in its waters, hiked along its banks, and camped near it many times in my life.
I rounded a bend in the trail and was surprised to find an old cabin on the river, the Gibson cabin, now on the historical register. The cabin is open, and you can go inside and step 100 years back in history.
At camp that night, as the sun set, I finally solved the Rubik’s cube and figured out a hiking plan that would get me home, but it meant doing 20-mile days, no matter what, and camping in a tiny square of county forest alongside railroad tracks instead of a cushy site at Pattison State Park.
Plan in place, I settled into the beginning of a 32-mile roadwalk. A group of ORV riders who’d gotten lost called me their “guardian angel” when I gave them directions back to civilization. “Finally,” I thought, “I get to be someone’s trail angel!”
The two days of roadwalking passed uneventfully until I got to my third night, the night when I’d camp in a tiny square of county land bordered on one side by a road and the other by railroad tracks.
As I neared the spot, I saw “Road Closed” signs. I realized that meant my night might be quiet and peaceful because no traffic would be going by. As I walked under two huge metal tunnels, I tried to figure out what the heck the project was. Why would they be building a tunnel over the road?
I wanted to get past the heavy machinery so I didn’t pop out on the road the next morning into the path of a backhoe, which meant bushwhacking through extremely dense forest until I found a clearing just big enough for my tent. I ate dinner, and went to bed with plans to get hiking early so the construction crew would never know I’d been there. A train blowing its horn and the ground shaking beneath me like an earthquake woke me at 1 a.m., and 2 a.m. and… you get the idea.
As I filtered water in the Little Balsam River in the morning before 7 a.m., I looked up to see a man looking down at me quizzically from the road. The question on his face was clear: What the heck is this woman doing in the Little Balsam River at the crack of dawn? The construction crew had already arrived.
“Am I in your way?” I called up to him. He shook his head. I finished filtering the water, climbed out of the gully, and realized what I’d thought were tunnels were new culverts for the river.
Instead of getting yelled at for camping off of a closed road or in their work zone, the construction crew peppered me with questions about my hike, friendly and curious. After I’d hiked on a ways, I looked back to see a backhoe tearing up the pavement exactly where I’d been standing talking to the workers. I had absolutely been in their way.
My spirits soared: I had just 13.5 miles to the Minnesota border. It felt weird to cross Wisconsin in just two weeks when I’d spent months in Michigan.
The trail got off the road and back on a foot path in the McQuarrie Wetlands, which offered more expansive views and few trees.
Although nights are cooling down, mornings warm up fast. I still sweat through my shirt every day. After a morning without shade, I was grateful to find a shade awning at the Oswald Viewing Platform. I spread out my tent and down quilt to dry in the sunshine. I realized the platform was a memorial for “AO,” the initials of the maker’s marks I’d been seeing on the wonderful benches at the vistas on the Brule St. Croix section. “AO” was Atley Oswald, a founding member of the chapter. A sign explained that when health problems prevented Atley from doing trail maintenance anymore, he started making the wooden benches, trail signs, and more. He died in 2013.
I felt so sad that Atley would never know how his woodworking made my hike better. Here was another emotion that felt louder than usual. I didn’t try to edit my sadness, or tell myself I was weird for feeling sad about someone’s death whom I’d never met, which probably would’ve been my normal reaction. I just let myself feel sad, and touched by his dedication to the trail.
I packed up and headed on. I knew after one last short roadwalk, a brand new stretch of trail existed to connect the NCT in Wisconsin to the southern terminus of the Superior Hiking Trail. The last time I’d been there in 2017, I was finishing my very last miles of my thru-hike and also feeling some very powerful and mixed emotions. In 2017, the terminus dead ended in a wall of forest. I’d tried to imagine what the trail would feel like when it was connected. Now I was practically running down this new trail, with its raw tread and fresh-wood bridges.
I had my moment of joy at the border, then signed the trail register, and found a sweet note waiting from Jo Swanson, the Superior Hiking Trail Association’s Trail Development Director. I spent the year before leaving for my NCT hike writing “Thru-Hike the Superior Hiking Trail,” my first book, a guide. Jo helped me edit the book.
I know the Superior Hiking Trail like an old friend. As I hiked down a path I remembered, a deep relaxation came over me. I’ve hiked the next three sections of trail, 400 miles, before. I was a bit shocked by how good it feels to know what lies ahead. Didn’t I set off on this journey because of the adventure of every day being an unknown?
I hustled down the next five miles of trail, grinning at how much of the trail I didn’t remember. I started groaning as I hiked the half mile off trail to my backpacking campsite at Lost Lake in Jay Cooke State Park as the mosquitos appeared again. I hadn’t been bitten any for the past two days. I started laughing when I saw why the lake is called “Lost Lake,” because it’s a marsh. It’s not a lake anymore. I threw my food in the bear locker, and crawled into my tent, exhausted but so excited to do my first full day on the SHT the next day.
By the end of my SHT thru-hike in 2017, I realized I’d seriously underestimated what I was capable of. I suspect with this hike, I’ve overestimated my abilities. That remains to be seen. Hiking the SHT again is already revealing to me how much I’ve changed as a backpacker. I never would’ve attempted a 21-mile day on the rugged SHT in 2017. I thought people who hiked these kind of miles were super athletes, and I was not.
This trail is like walking through my memories. As I hiked the rolling hills in the Fond du Lac section, I remembered where I’d had lunch and called my mom on a high vista point because I miraculously had service. As I took a break along Knowlton Creek, I remembered how proud I felt to be hitting 100 miles on my first hike (I’d hiked the Border Route Trail before I got to the SHT). In one day, I was covering the same distance it took me two days to hike in 2017.
After a taxing and fun boulder scramble up Ely’s Peak, my body felt like it remembered the trail, the cadence of my feet adjusting to a trail comprised less of dirt and more of rocks and roots. Step over this root, dance across the tops of those rocks, pause at yet another heart-soaring vista.
I made it to the bus to go home. The magic of the SHT in Duluth is you walk a corridor of forest through a city. I feel like I’m in a secret garden as I hike. I went from standing on a granite cliff overlooking the city of Duluth at 4 p.m. to hugging my mom and giving Buddy a kiss in St. Paul by 9 p.m.
Already, re-hiking the SHT is showing me how much I’ve grown as a hiker and outdoorswoman. I’m stronger, more confident. I’m hoping to get another boost in confidence to do higher miles. The nights are already growing colder, the fields are already filled with migrating geese, and the trail is already lined with fallen, yellow birch leaves. To make it another 1,200 miles before winter sets in feels unlikely. All I can do is wake up every day, and hike as far as I can for as long as Mother Nature gives me.
Section: Solon Springs, WI to Duluth, MN
Correction: This post incorrectly identified Peter Nordgren as the Brule St. Croix Chapter President. He is the Membership Coordinator.