At some point in the 1990s, I started hearing about the Superior Hiking Trail, a new footpath designed for hikers to see the sexiest peaks and rivers in the wilderness along the North Shore of Lake Superior. It didn’t come up very often in conversation until the year 2000, which is when it began to annoy me that I had never hiked a speck of it — other than maybe wandering away from the waterfalls at Gooseberry and noticing markings that told me I was on the not-yet famous trail I’d been hearing about.
It was April 2000 when an upstart Duluth newspaper called the Ripsaw began publishing weekly and I stepped up to be its managing editor. The paper had a weekly “Adventure” article and I suddenly found myself around people who had taken on parts of the SHT and heard stories about a handful of souls who had through-hiked the whole thing, which at the time meant trekking from Two Harbors to the Canadian border.
There was a rumor going around that Dusty Olson ran the whole trail in two days, which I found almost but not quite believable. The notion that such a feat could be close to true at least led me to think I could do it in fewer than two weeks. Then I heard the first documented person to conquer the trail had a fused spine and partially paralyzed legs, and hiked with forearm crutches. That made it hard for me to make any excuse that I wasn’t physically up to the task.
Below is a news clip about Paul Hlina’s 1995 hike.
I also heard stories of failure, like the Ripsaw production manager who planned a big hike and stopped on the drive up to stash a bag of food in a tree to resupply himself. By the time he hiked his way to it the satchel had been pulled down and ravaged by presumably a black bear, a fate that ended the trip.
After six months of putting in long hours publishing weekly Ripsaws, and hearing other people’s adventure stories, I decided it was time for my hike. September being a cool, mosquito-free month with potential for lush fall colors makes it the obvious choice. I told the paper’s owners I was taking an open-ended vacation. “I’ll probably be back in a week, but it might be longer,” I told them. “As long as I’m enjoying hiking and not finished with the trail, I’ll be gone.”
One of the advertising salespeople negotiated a trade with a now-defunct outdoor adventure gear retailer to supply me with a really nice $300 Arc’teryx backpack to replace the crappy green antique one I bought five years earlier at Ragstock for $20. The new pack would be my only nice piece of gear.
For a tent, I had a choice between a cheap and cumbersome four-person tent borrowed from a friend, or a claustrophobia-inducing bivy sack from another friend. Obviously the one-man canvas coffin would be easier to carry, but the thought of being bound up in a bivy night after night did not sit well with me.
For pants I wore denim blue jeans. For socks I wore cotton. To carry water I had two small green plastic jugs I bought at Minnesota Surplus. My protection from rain was a heavy Army jacket my father wore in the 1950s. I was a dirtbag West Duluth greenhorn and all-around ignoramus if there ever was one.
The chief book reviewer at the paper had a 1993 version of the Guide to the Superior Hiking Trail, which she said I could have for keeps. It was my only map.
For sustenance I brought exclusively food that did not require cooking. Traveling alone meant pots and pans couldn’t be divided up, and I wanted to travel as lightly as possible. Besides, my arrival in Grand Marais and other towns would be all the more celebrated if I lived on the barest essentials in the woods and then had mini-victory banquets at, for example, Sven & Ole’s Pizza.
So I packed bagels as my primary source of nutrition. They stay fresh for several days and don’t crumble in a stuff sack. For toppings: peanut butter, jelly, summer sausage and cheese. Snacks: carrots and miniature Snickers candy bars. None of these things are favorites of mine, but one can absolutely throw around, crush and abuse with reckless abandon a bag with those items and suffer no loss or mess.
I never packed coffee or tea or beer or wine. Sometimes I didn’t build a fire at night. I’d lumber into a camp site, throw up a tent, read a book if daylight was still available, then conk out until sunrise and get right back on the trail.
When it came to the hiking, my philosophy was this: Don’t hurry. Don’t get caught up in the mission to finish. Linger on the hilltops and sink toes in the cool rivers. Never skip an overlook, even though it adds extra hiking to the day.
A lifelong friend who was about to move to South Africa offered to drive me to the start of the trail, camp there, then abandon me and drive out of my life for four years. It would be a perfect going-away party for us.
“Sixteen Years on the Superior Hiking Trail” Index
Part one: Introduction
Part two: Preparations
Part three: Swamp River to Cascade River
Part four: Cascade River to Temperance River
Part five: Nonchalance
Part six: Temperance River to West Branch Bar in Finland
Part seven: Duluth Sections
Part eight: Finland to Silver Bay
Part nine: Silver Bay to Split Rock State Park
Part ten: Two Harbors Vicinity
Part eleven: Leaves, Needles, Mud
Part twelve: Loss and Lost
Part thirteen: The Double Finish
Part fourteen: Ely’s Peak Loop
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