There is a meadow north of Grand Marais that I love on the Superior Hiking Trail. Meadows in the dense transitional forest between the deciduous and coniferous forests of the south and the boreal forest of the north are rare.
The meadow is long, at least a tenth of a mile, and offers an expansive view of Lake Superior, the tiny island of Five-Mile Rock visible off shore.
After losing my nerve in Grand Marais for a full three days, finding this familiar meadow a riot of fall color, a new sight for me, resolved any lingering fears. I may have hiked the SHT, the Border Route, and Kekekabic Trails before, but no trail is ever the same. They change every year thanks to different conditions; they change with the seasons.
I took in the brilliant burgundy of the sumacs contrasting with the yellow goldenrod, and a purple wildflower, the name of which I don’t know yet. The meadow’s beauty made me so glad I didn’t quit. This would be the theme of the week.
My unease with my ability to cope with shoulder season conditions, extended wet and cold, is not gone, but Mother Nature gave me a break this week with sunny weather and high temperatures in the 70s, and lows in the 50s.
Conditions seem to follow a pattern right now: foggy mornings followed by clear, sunny afternoons, and maybe a little rain in the early evening.
After camping at Kadunce River, I hiked down to the Lakewalk, a beloved and loathed part of the trail because it runs along Lake Superior, which forces hikers to walk a mile and a half in loose cobble, hard going.
About a tenth of a mile from the western end, I hit a lake block. The water of the lake is so high, it came right up to the impassable brush of the wetland that runs along its shore here. I’ve hiked this stretch twice before, and had no memory of being blocked before. Is the level of the water higher after our week of rain, I wondered? I tried bushwhacking around, but soon found myself in a bramble patch and backed out. Thwarted, I walked back to Highway 61, and roadwalked to the first road that led back down to the beach, about a quarter mile.
I hiked up the Brule River toward Judge Magney State Park, noting how the fall colors are really gaining strength. The poplars are turning golden, a couple weeks behind the red of the maples. The color change isn’t just happening in the canopy; the forest floor is also a mosaic of reds, yellows, oranges and browns.
I ate a big lunch at the state park and dried out my tent and quilt as best I could. Even with 70-degree temperatures, the strength of the sun has lessened enough that it can’t seem to overcome the humidity.
I met up with Michelle Schroeder, owner of Backpack the Trails LLC, a backpacking guiding service, at the trailhead just south of Hazel campsite, where we planned to camp. Michelle and I connected through the SHT Wild Women Facebook group.
We slogged through two miles of muddy trail, and found three other guys camped out at Hazel, a rarity for this dry campsite. Brad, from Duluth, had a beautiful fire going. Our group talked until 11 p.m. about John and Joe’s thru hikes of the trail, which they were just starting, Brad’s section hike, my long trek on the North Country Trail, and Michelle’s experiences backpacking all over the country, like her recent solo on the John Muir Trail in the Sierra Mountains. We bonded as the smoke swirled around us and the stars came out. I’d been craving a night like this in camp, and had been surprised to find myself solo more often than not.
Michelle turned back for her car after discovering a huge rip in her hiking shoes. Before joining me on the BRT, I encouraged her to get new shoes. “The BRT eats shoes for breakfast,” I said.
I planned to hike a relatively short day to Jackson Creek, and hoped to cross paths with John, a.k.a. Lynx, who I knew from a Facebook post had just finished hiking the Kekekabic and Border Route Trails before turning south on the SHT.
As I took a break near Carlson Pond, a huge beaver pond, I saw John coming down the trail. He reported the BRT and Kek were easy to follow, a little brushy, but overall in good shape, further reducing my fears about hiking these trails. John is averaging 25 miles a day. I confessed my difficulty with hiking more than 15 miles a day. He confessed his difficulty in not charging down the trail, something that frustrated him when he ended up finishing his hikes early. “It gives me a very productive feeling to hike that many miles in a day,” he said.
Ahhhh, I thought, this may be why I’ve never managed to consistently hike longer miles. I don’t feel a sense of accomplishment or reward. I just feel exhausted and harried.
I said goodbye to Lake Superior on Hellacious Overlook, the last vista of the Grey Lady I’ll have on my hike. She’s been my majestic companion since mid-June.
A rumbling thunderstorm cut our goodbye short as a steady rain began to fall. Just before the Jackson Creek campsite, thanks to my quiet hiking, I managed to startle Thad, a backpacker and grouse hunter gathering water from a small creek. He and his wife Lynelle were also camped at Jackson Creek, and on the eve of finishing their years-long section hike of the entire SHT.
Thad and I walked to camp together, stepping carefully on wet boardwalks, but still slipping frequently. In the rain, boardwalks get as slick as ice.
In camp, I set up my rain fly and just sat beneath it for a while, admitting to myself I’m really sick of being cold and wet, doubting that I have the mental fortitude to keep going on this hike should those conditions return for an extended period of time. I ate a quick dinner, set up my tent, and climbed into my dry sleeping clothes and quilt. The bliss of a dry bed after hours of soaked hiking is sublime. I also watched with dismay as hundreds of beads of water formed on the inside of my fly. My waterproofing in Grand Marais hadn’t worked.
The next morning, I packed up my wet tent and quilt, ate breakfast and chatted with Thad and Lynelle, then headed north with just 8 miles remaining of the SHT. On the ridge above Jackson Lake, I met Sean “Shug” Emery, a bit of a backpacking celebrity. He has a huge following on his YouTube channel, almost 90,000 subscribers. He is known and for teaching people about hammock camping, and his prolific hiking here in Minnesota. It’s thanks to Shug that I have a ULA Circuit backpack, a pack I love so much that I’ve had dreams about it. I’ve watched all of his hiking videos, studying his Boundary Waters hiking videos especially close. I’m a fan, and it’d been a hope of mine to meet Shug out on the trail for years. We chatted for 20 minutes, and he was as funny and charming in real life as he is in his videos.
I got to the northern terminus trailhead just before noon, when Michelle and I had planned to meet. After half an hour and no Michelle, I figured she hadn’t been able to make it back to the trail, and decided to cook some lunch before heading out solo. Fifteen minutes later she arrived, apologizing and explaining a problem had come up with the AirBnB rental she operates. With no cell service at the northern terminus, Michelle decided to drive back out to cell service and figure out a way for her to still be able to join me.
I took advantage of the wait to get some camp chores done, sewing up holes in my shoes, getting water, journaling, drying out my gear. At 3 p.m., I realized I didn’t want to hike the five miles to the Portage Brook campsite that night. The last time I’d hiked the eastern 12 miles of the BRT, it’d been so overgrown, I’d only managed a mile an hour. The sun sets at 7 p.m. now. Michelle came back and I proposed we meet 12 miles down the trail at McFarland Campground the next day. I camped at the BRT site on the Swamp River, totally calm and excited to start this 100-mile stretch of wilderness trail.
The next morning, I climbed up to the 270-Degree Overlook, the final northern mile of the SHT and the first eastern mile of the BRT.
At the top, the Swamp and Pigeon Rivers curling silver tracks cutting through the dense forest below, I remembered how ecstatic and sad I was to finish my first thru-hike of the SHT. Although I’ve never achieved the physicality I was looking for on this hike, the growth I’ve experienced as an outdoors woman and hiker was laid bare at this beautiful spot. My legs are corded with muscle, and my lungs and heart their equal match when I’m climbing on trail. My fears are based on experience, not ignorance. My senses are completely attuned to forest life.
In the forest, I am at my fullest potential. I use all my skills: mental and physical.
No trace of fear remained as I turned west down the Border Route Trail. The forest that started this intense journey lay just ahead: the Boundary Waters Canoe Wilderness Area.
My cousins introduced me to this incredible wilderness when I was in my late 20s. I fell madly in love. When canoe trips with them stopped happening every year, I realized I had to go back, even if it meant going alone. I started backpacking, knowing I didn’t have sufficient paddling skills to solo in the BWCA. And I fell madly in love with walking great distances, day after day, and that’s how I got here, walking into the wilderness years later.
After more than 1,400 miles and four months on this trek, one of the revelations that has shocked me is the lack of silence along the trail. I’d estimate I’ve experienced fewer than 10 days on trail when I didn’t hear the roar of some kind of motor, the shock of gunshots nearby, the humming or banging of logging or gas extraction, the sound of traffic on a nearby road.
Truly wild places don’t exist in great number. The Boundary Waters is one of them.
As I hiked the first five miles to Portage Brook, I experienced none of the difficulty of my first hike on this trail. The tread was clear, easy to follow. The hiking felt gentle. None of my fears were realized, and my excitement ramped up. Gorgeous weather made for clear views above Fowl Lake.
I praised and thanked the multitude of unknown volunteers who’ve been working to clear this trail since July 2017. It feels like a different trail.
I strolled into the McFarland Campground profoundly happy that I didn’t let my fears rob me of what may have been one of my best days of hiking so far. As I was settling on a campsite, Michelle arrived, and we settled in for the night. She’d brought manna: fresh fruit!
We crossed into the Boundary Waters the next morning, marveling at the sheer abundance of mushrooms along the trail, and the mind-blowing beauty of the trail.
We hiked to Gogebic Lake, a quiet lake off the popular canoe paths of the area. Campsites on the BRT are often canoe sites, and canoers sometimes don’t share sites like backpackers are used to doing. We had the site beneath cedars and soaring white pines to ourselves, except for a curious Canadian Goose, who joined us in camp for breakfast.
I’m starting to get rewarded for staying on trail so long with new woods knowledge. I didn’t know that white pines drop their needles. The tread is a fresh, plush carpet of needles.
The loons are still on the lakes. The sunshine has become my biggest ally instead of a threat. The bugs and birds hate cold rain as much as I do. I thought the dragonflies were done for the year, but they’re back out again in the warmth, as are a small contingency of mosquitos. I miss the butterflies, though. I haven’t seen one in weeks. My instinctual avoidance of tall grasses due to ticks is easing, and the grasses are transforming from a background plant to center stage in the beauty parade as they go to seed.
Michelle is a great trail companion, offering easy conversation but also an understanding of the value of hiking in silence for long stretches of time. It is a joy seeing her marvel at the beauty of this ancient lake country.
Our hike from Gogebic Lake to Clearwater Lodge offered the full gamut of trail experiences. Socked in by fog in the morning, hiking at 2,000 feet on the ridge above Watap Lake as a thunderstorm rumbled overhead, mist rising thick from the forest, to full sunshine glittering like diamonds on Daniels Lake.
After a rest day, we’ll head back out into the BWCA, back into the wild.
Section: Grand Marais to Clearwater Lodge (SHT to BRT)
Total miles: 1,468.40