Easy, and hard

My first night back on trail after my rest day in the Twin Cities, I hiked through Chester Park in Duluth as night fell. Although I was in the city of Duluth, no street light reaches into the park, a long north shore river gorge.

As dark closed in, I held off on using my headlamp as long as my fear allowed. This was my test run for night hiking, something I won’t be able to avoid much longer.

I felt easy, and strong on my return to Duluth. I’d come off a great week of 20-mile days. I was tickled by being able to walk a grand total of nine blocks to get from my mother’s house in St. Paul to the trail in Duluth, the rest of the journey a series of public transportation. The trail always felt so far away; it’s been close all along.

Hopping back on trail in the Lincoln Park neighborhood, I walked past an abandoned park, creepily delightful. I was soon at the peace bell in Enger Park, where I watched people make birch bark baskets for a few moments. Then I was dropping down from the rock knobs above the city onto the Lakewalk in Canal Park, crossing directly under the Aerial Lift Bridge.

The peace bell in Enger Park.

I was sauntering. I had just 8 miles to go to my campsite for the night at the Bagley Nature Center. I ate dinner at the Super One grocery store by the rose garden. I was feeling so confident and flexible that I almost stopped to watch the movie in the park. Everyone looked so joyful trundling in with their cozy blankets and snacks to a screen set up right on Lake Superior, but I was already asleep on my feet.

The Lakewalk in Duluth on the NCT.

After the darkness of Chester Park, I emerged on the University of Minnesota Duluth campus into the infectious chaos that is Friday night in any college neighborhood. I walked past a young man getting lectured by police for pushing his friends down the street in a laundry cart. I may have participated in similar hijinks as a college student. Let’s just say I’m really glad Facebook didn’t exist yet.

Despite all the college parties raging away, the clearing that serves as the campground at Bagley was peaceful and quiet.

The next morning, I eagerly hiked toward Hartley Nature Center, where I planned to meet up with my friend, Caroline Cox.

Caroline Cox, left, and I met in 2017 when we were hiking opposite directions on the Superior Hiking Trail.

We hiked about 10 miles, passing out of the city of Duluth. Caroline is a joy to hike with for many reasons. She forages and has taught me many safe things to eat along the trail. Ok this day, she was looking for a good Lobster mushroom to cook for dinner.

We chattered away about the woods, plants, and her upcoming wedding. She found a lobster mushroom at the end of our day. Then her future sister-in-law, Marika, picked us up, and hosted us for the night. We ate dinner on Marika and her fiancé Biagio’s back deck: pasta with a white sauce, lobster mushrooms, roasted red pepper and shrimp.

A foraged dinner with Caroline, Biagio and Marika.

After dinner, Biagio built a fire and we roasted marshmallows and talked until hiker midnight, 9 p.m. Biagio cooked us eggs and biscuits the next morning, and snuck a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup into my backpack. I continue to be blown away by the generosity and fast friendship I receive from people along the trail.

Caroline hiked about half the next day with me. Near the Lone Tree campsite, we heard something charging out of the woods, and then saw the buck heading right for us. Without thinking, I sprinted out of its path right into Caroline. I wish I could say I was throwing myself heroically in front of her, but no. I was just running to get out of the way. As soon as the buck saw us, it pivoted without breaking stride, a doe following hot on his heels. We watched the woods, expecting whatever was chasing the deer to suddenly appear. Wolves? But nothing appeared, and we started laughing, a specific, relieved laugh for when you thought you were about to be charged by a carnivore, but it all turned out OK.

I was sad to see Caroline go at midday, but we plan to hike the border section of the NCT together in just a couple weeks, so hopefully I’ll see her again soon. Also immediately after she left, my left foot started hurting in a new way. My feet hurt every day, but it’s a familiar, constant pain. This was a new pain, and building with each mile.

It rained all night at the Fox Farm campsite, and big gusting winds rattled the forest. As I broke camp at dawn, I realized I’d be hitting the halfway mark of my hike in just a few miles. And just like when I crossed the 1,000-mile mark, I ended my hiking early for the day because of fatigue and foot pain. Despite a recent rest and a couple short hiking days, my body was already demanding more rest.

I set my tent up after a hot lunch at Big Bend site, and took a nap as the rain continued on and off all day.

I was elated to reach 1,200 miles, but the fallish weather underscored that I likely don’t have another two months of hiking in my future. It feels like winter is going to come early.

Hiking on a lichen-covered boulder on the stretch of trail between Duluth and Two Harbors.

I set out from Big Bend planning to hike 22 miles, traveling along Silver Creek, one of my favorite stretches of trail on this southern part of the Superior Hiking Trail. The flat lands were ending, and I entered into the beginning of the Sawtooth Mountains as I neared the Encampment River, getting expansive views of Lake Superior again as I climbed to the top of pine-studded ridges.

Climbing rewards hikers with views of Lake Superior.

I only managed to hike about 17 miles, and 18 miles the next day, shorter than I’d planned. I was a day behind schedule. At this point, I was running out of food, but loving hiking along the Gooseberry River, which you watch grow from a creek into a roaring, waterfall-lined river.

I stopped at the Gooseberry Falls State Park Visitor’s Center, which had WiFi and snacks, to let my mom know I’d be a day late to town.

I ended my day early again on the Split Rock loop, my fatigue so great, I just couldn’t push through it.

Fall colors along the Split Rock River.

Near camp, I met a thru-hiker, Bruce, who was using my guide to help him plan his hike, which was a delight. He’s the first I’ve met on trail.

The next morning, I forded the river. The bridge has been out for years. After I made it across, I was filtering water when a young woman and her dog arrived at the crossing. She didn’t know the bridge was out. Just as someone spotted me as I forded the river my first SHT thru-hike, I waded downriver from her and crossed with her, ready to catch her if she went in. I knew she’d be fine, but I’d really appreciated having the option of help; it’d been my first River ford. I think it was her first too. On opposite sides of the river, she said “Thank you!” and I waved goodbye.

I planned to hike all the way to Silver Bay, or at least the Beaver Bay trailhead where I could catch a cab to town. The day was perfect, the wind gentle again, skies blue, aspen leaves along the river fluttering peacefully as the birds sang. I entered Split Rock State Park and stopped at a trail junction to brew a second cup of coffee. I ate every snack in my hip belt, and still found myself lying on the trail, half asleep. The prospect of hiking another 10 miles felt impossible.

I gave up. Instead of heading up the trail, I headed into the park to the office to use their WiFi to call Cadillac Cab, a hiker shuttled in the Silver Bay area. Within half an hour of making the call, I was checking into a motel, ordering a pizza, and taking a shower.

For the first time in my life, I ate an entire large pizza by myself in one sitting. I slept and ate all day.

Tomorrow, I head back out to the trail. Between the weather turning chilly and feeling so much fatigue this week, it’s hard not to give up on getting to North Dakota. I’m going to keep going for as long as I can. I’m not ready to leave the birds, the sassy red squirrels, the sound of the wind in the trees.

Section: Duluth to Split Rock State Park

Miles: 92

Total miles: 1,254

14 Comments on “Easy, and hard

  1. Haha! You might make it to the sound of wind sweeping over the plains with no trees. Cold and lonely. But beautiful in its own way. You are doing great, even if you don’t make it to Lake Sakakawea this season. It’s a big trail. Occasionally you will feel as if it’s eating you alive. As you discovered… eat a pizza instead.


  2. Annie, hang in there! We thought of you as we hiked a tiny bit of the NCT in Valley City, North Dakota, on our way to Wyoming. Kristin and Jeff


  3. Proud of you Annie! Can’t wait to be chasing your heels soon and join you (chasing will be the most likely scenario). You are doing great! Also – I can’t believe you’ve only eaten a large pizza by yourself once. 😂 Pretty sure I’ve been guilty of that hundreds of times. 😂😂 Keep hiking! I’ll see ya soon!


  4. Hi Annie!

    I’m hoping and praying your rest and pizza will rejuvenate your body! I just came off 3 weeks of backpacking in the Swiss Alps (yes, short compared to your trek). But I “get” that feeling of exhaustion…and hunger! I totally surprised myself when I suddenly felt exhausted, hungry and thirsty near a mountain cafe. I sat down, ordered a huge meal of seriously buttered hash browns heaped with roasted veggies and topped with a fried egg and 4 thick slabs of bacon, then proceeded to drink 2 cups of coffee and a huge glass of water. The waiter looked in amazement at my empty dishes! I never knew I could pack away so much food in one sitting. Rest easy, Girl! You had the sense to listen to your body. You’re doing GREAT! I hope your recent aches dissolve soon. Sending a tight hug!

    Thanks for generously sharing your journey. I’m really enjoying traveling vicariously with you.

    Sally Dykhuis
    Traverse City, MI


  5. Hope to meet you! I’m SOBO, camped at W. Kennedy at the moment. Your book has been a tremendous help to me. I also want to see that chair of yours.


  6. Take care of yourself! A day of eating and sleeping is what your body needed, as you well know there are going to be some tough climbs ahead. You need energy to stay safe and warm as our August has been pretty chilly.


    • Will do! August was chilly, though it’s warmed up a bit again now. The climbs are slowing me down significantly. My 20-mile plan for today is already scuppered lol.


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