After standing quietly for a minute, not wanting to startle the skunk 30 feet down the trail from me into spraying, I finally called, “Hey, skunk! Coming through!”
I expected this skunk to do what most animals do in the forest when they realize a human is nearby, which is run away.
Not this skunk. It went on sniffing the underbrush like I wasn’t there, and then even started moving toward me. “Is this guy deaf?” I wondered. That would be a bad combination, a deaf animal equipped with a mighty stink bomb. Hikers smell bad enough when we get to town.
The skunk finally realized I was there, but instead of running off, it took in my scent and appeared to be trying to figure out what I was, coming toward me again. Finally it ran away, but down the trail. I followed a far distance behind, hoping I didn’t startle it a few hundred yards later, but I had the prospect of a sub sandwich, pop, as many donuts as I could eat, chips and hot coffee driving me forward. I was out of food and planning to camp at a beautiful site on the Cross River on the Superior Hiking Trail, just a 1.5-mile spur trail away from Schroeder, Minn. and the Schroeder Baking Company.
After a day and a half of rest in Silver Bay, I was eager to return to the trail Sept. 1 for more experiences like with this skunk.
Jeff Asmussen, operator of the Cadillac Cab service, picked me up at 7 a.m. and dropped me back off at Split Rock Lighthouse State Park. I planned to hike to the West Palisade Creek campsite, 20 miles up the trail. But I had a rare moment of cell service and received a text message from Andy Mytys of the Western Michigan Chapter of the NCT. He and two other NCT chapter members, Gail and Doug, were camped out just a few miles up the trail from me.
Whenever I started feeling discouraged by my slow pace, some happy coincidence happens like this to show me I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be. If I’d stuck to my “schedule,” I would’ve missed meeting these guys.
The stretch of trail between Split Rock River and Section 13 is a 35-mile stretch of hard climbs and glorious views. I never get sick of this hard, stunning trail.
I hiked down the spur to the Penn Creek campsite and found the huge, multi group site full of people. I’d only seen a small thumbnail picture of Andy, so I was just going to wander and ask people if they were him, but Gail recognized me first. Greetings and hugs were exchanged. All three of these guys have been following my trek the entire time, and started asking great, specific questions. We talked until after dark.
I was up before dawn, planning a 20-mile day to take advantage of a generous offer from Luke “Strider” Jordan to sleep in the screened porch of his family’s cabin near Finland, Minn.
Andy’s group was up early too, so we ate breakfast together and Andy offered me a bunch of yummy snacks, which I snatched up “faster than a raccoon,” Andy said.
From Penn Creek, hikers heading north climb up to amazing views of first Bean and then Bear Lake. The SHT has about 41,000 feet of elevation change as it runs through the Sawtooth Mountains. For every hard climb, you’re rewarded with a vista that insists you stop, catch your breath, and look awhile.
Andy’s snacks kept me well fortified as I spent the rest of the day climbing, up Mount Trudee, up to Kennedy Creek, up Sawmill Dome, before finally catching view of towering Section 13, my final climb of the day.
As I reached the top of Section 13, a stabbing pain shot through my left knee. My feet had already been complaining for hours, but what’s new there? I decided to end my hike early, again, rather than push myself into an injury. I set up camp as night fell, the wind gusting violently, signaling a storm was likely. I checked the trees above for any hanging dead branches, called “widow makers” by hikers. All clear. After a quick, cold dinner, I climbed into my cozy down quilt and fell asleep. I woke to more cold, violent winds and rumbling thunder.
I sat out the worst of the rain in my tent, watching as rivulets of water flooded the bathtub, the bottom part of the tent meant to keep water out. When a small break in the flood came, I broke camp, rolled up my sopping tent and stuffed it in my pack.
I hiked through a drenched forest, past a huge glacial erratic, getting drenched myself. The temperatures were in the high 40s, and the wet conditions showed no signs of improving. I decided to take my morning break at Luke’s cabin, grab some water from the cache there, and hang up my tent on the porch to see if it would dry out.
I sat for an hour as more mist and rain fell, and my tent dripped in the corner of the porch, showing no signs of drying. The safety concern when my tent is drenched is that my down quilt will also get soaked from making contact with the wet bathtub. Wet down doesn’t loft, which is how it keeps you warm. We’ve officially entered “shoulder season,” when cold, wet weather can present dangers. I decided to get into dry clothes and my quilt to warm up for a bit. As I pulled everything out of my pack, I noticed a bit of water had breached my waterproof bag containing my quilt and sleeping clothes. Relieved to have discovered this before nightfall, I climbed in, and got warm.
Two hours later, my tent was still dripping; the mist was still falling. I decided to hole up for the day on the dry porch, my body also eager to rest. My body is always eager for a rest these days.
By morning, my gear had dried out. I hiked toward Egge Lake, noting the fall colors coming on stronger. I was dismayed to find even after a day of rest, and eating a ton of food, that I still felt exhausted on a relatively flat stretch of trail. As I filtered water at Sonju Creek, I had signal and a voicemail came through from the U.S. Forest Service. Caroline had recently let me know they’d announced a prescribed burn period for the Border Route Trail, the next section of trail after the Superior Hiking Trail. I called the Forest Service back and a ranger told me the burn could start any time, and when it did, they’d close the trail. If the burn started while I was on the trail, I’d have to get off.
Despite this new deadline, and a desire to make it to the Kekekabic Trail early enough to meet up with Patty and Dave, I had to accept what my body was telling me, “Slow down, or I quit.” I decided to lower my goal from 20 miles a day to 15 miles.
I stopped for the night at Blesner Creek. Being in bed by 7 p.m. felt glorious. Sleeping in until 6:30 a.m. felt like the height of luxury. For months, I’ve been setting an alarm to wake me at 5 or 5:30 a.m. and hiking until 7 or 8 at night. I realized I’d been consistently hiking 12 to 13 hours a day, six days a week, for the past two months. No wonder I’m worn out.
At the beginning of my hike, I went to the NCTA’s annual trail celebration and met previous thru- and end-to-end hikers. When I asked Joan Young for advice, she told me she thought some of my distance goals were a bit ambitious. When I planned this hike, I’d hoped to be doing 25- to 30-mile days by western Minnesota. “But who knows? You might be able to do that,” she said.
When I was planning, I’d had no idea if I could do those distances, I just knew other hikers had done them before, and figured I’d try. I’ve been trying for two months to get my mileage consistently at 20 miles a day, or higher, and consistently failing.
As I hiked out of Blesner, accepting my new daily mileage goal, I felt lighter, happier. If I were going to be capable of those distances, I would’ve been hiking them already.
As I climbed 300 feet up in elevation in just 600 yards out of the Manitou River gorge, I felt stronger. I hiked just 14.5 miles to the Sugarloaf Pond site, and found I had cell service. I texted my friend Alyssa, who would be joining me on trail for a couple days. She offered to help me slack pack if I wanted to go farther than our meeting point at Oberg Mountain, my new stopping point, almost 40 miles short of my original goal of making it to Grand Marais. I declined. “You’re kind of rescuing me,” I said. “I’m almost out of food.”
Happy to have feet that weren’t throbbing at the end of the day, happy to be in bed by 7 p.m. again, happy to have a friend’s company for a couple days, I fell asleep.
I did set an alarm for the next morning, determined to hike about 12 miles to get some real food at Schroeder Baking Company, and pick up a couple subs and donuts for my last day of hiking on this stretch. I was practically salivating as I headed down the trail, moving quick. After getting around the skunk, I got to my campsite at Cross River at 1 p.m., way earlier than I’d thought. Why can’t I always hike this fast? I jokingly teased myself, and imagined asking someone to leave a sub sandwich every ten miles so I’d keep up this pace.
I set up my tent before hiking down the spur to Schroeder. I anticipated having a lot of company. It was a Friday night on a beautiful weekend, the eve of the Superior Fall Trail Race, a 100- and 50-mile ultramarathon, and traditional 26.2-mile marathon. The 100 milers had started at Gooseberry State Park at 7 a.m. that morning. They’d run through the night, and next day, to Lutsen. In 24-36 hours, most of them would cover more distance than I’d managed to hike in a week. “Remember,” I told myself, “when you hear something big running past your tent tonight, it’s a human, not a bear.”
At Schroeder Baking Company, I ate a ham and cheese sub, chips, drank a cherry Pepsi, ate a glazed donut and drank a cup of coffee, in that order. I used the restaurant’s WiFi to call my mom, and had a great chat, full of laughs.
Back at camp, I was shocked to have the place to myself. At 3 a.m., I woke when the head lamp from a passing runner lit up my tent. Runners passed by every 20 minutes or so, some talking with their pace runners to keep themselves awake in the dark. I’d set an alarm again because I wanted to have time to eat a sub sandwich breakfast while cheering on runners.
As I climbed up Carlton Peak, I shared the trail with these amazing athletes, their facial expressions an equal mix of determination, pain, and fatigue. Next came the marathoners, some still fresh enough to sprint. As they yelled, “On your left!” I almost always screwed up and stepped left. I started checking behind me every few steps to get out of their way proactively. I confess, seeing people running such great distances made me doubt my decision to go slower.
I met up with Alyssa at Oberg Mountain and we headed up to Grand Marais for a rest day and supplies. We were being hosted by Justus, Caroline’s fiancé.
I had one day to get supplies for the next 200 miles of trail, meet with my book publisher to review a first draft, arrange my permits for the Border Route Trail and Kekekabic Trail, write a blog, review videos, call home, get some new gear, and on and on. I managed to get about half of my to-do list done before Alyssa and I headed out the next morning.
Alyssa is a practiced bike packer, having done several long-distance trips. But this was her first backpacking trip, and she got a crash course in “Type 2” fun. Our first day was beautiful, but turned cold and windy. We hiked past grand views of the Poplar River, and my favorite inland overlook on the SHT, Glove Overlook.
The wind started gusting about an hour before we got to camp. I watched the skies warily as the temperature plummeted. We arrived at camp on Lake Agnes as rain started to fall. Alyssa was impressed by my ability to set my tent up under my rain fly, keeping it dry.
We scurried to cook dinner as the rain strengthened, our hands freezing. We settled for half-hydrated dinners, too cold and wet to be patient. “Mmmm, crunchy,” Alyssa said as she ate her sweet potato chili mac.
We crawled in our tents, and konked out. The next morning, Alyssa told me I’d slept through scary winds.
Alyssa and I have the same tent. As we broke camp, I noticed my rain fly looked glossy, saturated with water, while hers looked matte, still beading water.
We got out of camp late, and headed toward the Cascade River. Normally the ridges between Lake Agnes offer great views, but we were socked in by fog, the air misty.
“Is the trail always like this?” Alyssa asked as we slipped and slurped through another mud patch. “Uuhhh,” I stuttered. How much do I lie right now, I asked myself. “A lot of it is like this if it’s been raining.” I didn’t want to scare her off. But by the end of a pretty miserable hike, weather-wise, she was talking about section hiking the whole trail.
Having Alyssa’s company on trail was such a joy. Our conversations meandered like rivers, taking whatever divergences we wanted. We talked for hours, catching up on busy lives, then also hiked in companionable silence. She completely distracted me from a fear growing in my belly of the next stretch of trail.
We camped at Cut Log site our second night. “It’s so nice to not cook dinner in the rain,” Alyssa said. Then it started raining.
After setting up my tent, I noticed I had water dripping from the inside of my rainfly. I tried to wipe it down with a towel, but the beads of water continued to form all night. My down quilt was drenched the next morning.
We hiked up the Cascade River, enjoying having less mud, but soon cursing the alders growing into the trail north of County Road 45. The forest was soaked from days of rain. As we pushed through the brush, we got soaked too.
We flew down the trail; moving was the only way to stay warm. Soon, we were looking down on the city of Grand Marais, just a mile from Justus’s warm house, and a nacho dinner at Hungry Hippie Tacos.
Alyssa was up by 6 a.m. the next morning to bike back to her truck at Oberg. She owns a bike tour company, Minneapolis By Bike, and had to be back to work that afternoon. If you’re ever in Minneapolis and want to go on a bike tour, definitely look her up!
My plan for the day was to get food for the next 150 miles of trail, 100 miles of which is wilderness trail running through the Boundary Waters Canoe Wilderness Area. I needed to ship boxes to outfitters along the trail, and get permits. I wanted to be back out on the trail by 10 a.m. When I was still in town at 4 p.m., I conceded defeat and accepted Justus’s offer to stay another night. I ran into Andy, Doug and Gail again at the Co-op in town. Andy offered me a ride back to the trail in the morning, after getting donuts and coffee at World’s Best Donuts.
I tossed and turned all night. The weather had stayed miserable while I was in town, in the 40s and raining. I was worried about my gear. Caroline is unable to hike these wilderness trails with me like we’d planned; a family emergency came up. Even though I’ve hiked both of these trails before, I was suddenly terrified at the prospect of hiking them solo. Like the western UP, their remote location makes them harder to maintain, and often tricky to follow.
After getting almost no sleep, I walked down the hill to donuts with the Michigan gang without my pack. I’d decided to stay in town until I could make a decision about what to do. I confessed my fears to the group, and they gave me some practical tips for staying warm and dry in cold weather. After they left, I returned to Justus’s house and took a nap, hoping the sleep would bring clarity. I called my mom, who always helps me noodle things out. But no luck. I was paralyzed with indecision. I binge-watched Mind Hunter on Netflix instead, feeling like I was avoiding the issue, but also grateful for some real rest.
I woke to blue skies and temperatures back in the 60s. The forecast, always such fickle things, also looked promising.
I’m going for it, I decided. A couple hours later as I stood in the yard waterproofing my tent and rain gear, I spoke with Michelle Schroeder, a local backpacking guide who wanted to join me for a short stretch on the SHT. She’s going to join me on the BRT now too.
Although I’ve ended up being a much slower hiker than I thought, I’m happy. Every time something feels like it’s going wrong, something unexpected goes right.
I’m totally OK with this result. I will keep hiking until I don’t want to anymore. I’m not hiking for distance anymore; I’m hiking because I love it. I love the amazing friends I’m making along the way. I love the skunks who don’t know yet to be afraid of me. I love every night I fall asleep in my tent.
Forward I go.
Section: Split Rock Lighthouse State Park to Grand Marais
Total miles: 1,376.1