Sixteen Years on the Superior Hiking Trail: Temperance River to West Branch Bar in Finland
By 2006 my life was in order and annual Superior Hiking Trail trips became a fall routine. The major development at the time, however, was that the SHT was being blazed through Duluth. So that summer, for the first time, I began covering sections out of order by simply knocking out a few day-hikes wherever and whenever nearby trail construction was completed.
I’ll have more detail on the Duluth hikes in future essays. This week the focus is on my fall 2006 trip, which began on the evening of Sept. 30 at Temperance River State Park. A short 2.7-mile hike through a birch and aspen forest brought me to a campsite at Cross River, where I’d spend the night before getting in a full day of hiking.
This would be my first SHT trip with a digital camera, so plenty of color photos are available to document the scenery.
The camera’s timer feature also allowed me to capture thrilling moments like eating a carrot at the Fredenberg Creek campsite.
I covered roughly 10 miles per day on this trip, which I’ve found to be the ideal amount of ground to cover for a good balance of enjoying the scenery and not carving blisters into my feet while still making reasonable progress. When the weather is perfect and the fall colors are doing their thing, there’s no reason to hurry. About a mile from Fredenburg Creek is Tower Overlook, with a fantastic view of Lake Superior over a lush forest.
A few more miles down the trail is Alfred’s Pond, where the evergreens set a nice contrast along the shoreline.
I spent my second night at Crystal Creek, then explored the Caribou River and its waterfall.
A long ridgeline offered expansive views for a good stretch of the morning hike.
I took this day at a very slow pace, so the sun was setting when I reached the Manitou River and found the bridge in rather rough condition.
Fortunately, the water level was such that the river was still passable. I don’t remember how long I had to spend finding the best place to cross, or if it involved carrying my boots, but one thing I know is that balancing on slippery rocks is not made easier while lugging a heavy backpack. (There’s also the possibility a new bridge had been built and I walked across with ease; strangely I don’t remember for certain.)
Having entered George H. Crosby-Manitou State Park, I started looking for campsites and after finding a variety of places where it looked like a tent could easily be setup, but not seeing any official campsite signs, I eventually decided to just pitch a tent in a nice spot by the river and crash out. In the morning I discovered I only needed to keep hiking a few hundred feet farther to reach a campsite where I could have followed the rules instead of being a forest-bed disturbing outlaw. What can I say? I felt the day’s energy dissipating and needed to arrange a bed and fall into it immediately, so I rationalized that maybe the spot where I was standing might actually be a park-recognized tent space and I’d feel foolish to pass it up. In the morning I was not proud of myself, but the past is the past.
Overall, the trip had gone very well to this point. I felt like I could easily continue, but there were two reasons I wanted to end the trip at the state park. 1) Clouds were moving in and the perfect weather seemed to be over. 2) The window of time in which my wife would be available to drive up Highway 61 to pick me up was closing. So I wandered the park for a while in search of a payphone. Crosby-Manitou, however, is not one of those state parks with a ranger station and a bunch of amenities. I found not a single solitary human being in the park. If there was a phone, I must not have found it. Or maybe there was one and it didn’t work. Whatever the case, I hiked on.
Though it rained for most of the day, it was a pretty light sprinkle. My boots were wet, but overall the hiking was still pleasurable. There were no signs of the rain stopping, however, so I made the full 13-mile push to the unincorporated community of Finland, where I hoped I’d find a tavern and a telephone. I found both.
The rain fell a bit heavier as I pulled off the trail onto Highway 7 and into town. Where Highway 1 intersected the West Branch of the Baptism River stood the West Branch Bar & Grill, my haven for the night. I walked inside and immediately threw off my backpack. As I did this I heard a loud rumble, and the sound of rain pummeling the roof. Looking out the window, I saw a flash of lightening and rain gushing from the sky. I had arrived just in time.
The only problem: No one in Duluth had plans to pick me up. I would have to randomly call people whose numbers I had written on a piece of paper in my wallet. How that might play out didn’t matter much, however, because I was out of the rain and had access to alcohol. Worse case scenario, I’d have to spend the night at the Maple Grove Motel & Bait Shop, although it was hard to tell if the place was open or not.
The first thing I noticed about the clientele at the West Branch was that camouflage and baseball caps were in high fashion. The more conversations I overheard, the clearer it became that everyone else in the room had recently killed something, be it a grouse or a farm chicken. The only thing I intended to kill, of course, would be a bottle of Karkov.
Fortunately, it didn’t take too many calls to find a friend willing to reorient his Tuesday night to drive to Finland, so all I had to do was relax and enjoy the entertainment.
Among the blaze orange and snowmobile-brand caps, one guy was wearing a hat with photos of President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney on it. The text read: “Meet the Fuckers.” A woman in the corner played some video amusement game called Force 2004 for literally four hours. Some guy told a fight story that required use of variations on the f-word in every sentence. There was a piece of graffiti I couldn’t quite read, but to the best of my interpretation it was something like “Killer + Phillis Diller.” Wheel of Fortune was on television, during which a commercial featured women spraying something on salads. I was out of the woods and back in society.
“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
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