Fall is prime hiking season around Lake Superior. Linda O’Connell of Onalaska went on a 100-mile journey from the Canadian Border to Temperance River State Park in early September and put together this 37-minute documentary.
“Beautiful views, wrong turns and good food were experienced,” she writes in the YouTube description. “I am just an average American 50-year-old woman trying to get out of my comfort zone. Life is short. Make it count.”
Writing about hiking the full 300+ miles of the Superior Hiking Trail hasn’t quite taken as long as hiking it, but it’s gone on long enough. At sixteen years and thirteen chapters, the story now concludes.
I had just a dozen miles left to go in 2015, which were divided into four slightly quirky hikes.
The first was a 1.8-mile section from Triangle Trail to Oak Trail near Jay Cooke State Park. Some of it I had probably already covered a few years earlier, I just wasn’t quite certain. So I embarked on a “van-bike-hike” adventure to make sure any possible gap there was covered. This involved driving to the Jay Cooke Visitor Center, unloading a bike, cycling the Munger Trail to bypass parts of the SHT I’d already done, ditching my bike at the Greely/Triangle trail intersection, completing the short hike, and cycling back.
You’ll have to trust me when I say that was fun. The description makes it sound like I was running a complicated errand. The thing is, being obsessive and task-oriented can be a method for forcing one’s self into situations that can be a bit more out of the ordinary. So, compared to hiking the trail behind my house for the 17,000th time, the van-bike-hike was a memorable event.
Two months later I took on what was the newest and southernmost segment of the SHT at the time, the 5.9-mile stretch from Wild River Road to Jay Cooke State Park. This also involved covering some ground I had hiked in the past, because parts of the trail are old segments of long-existing paths in the park, such as Bear Chase Trail. (No bears were chased.)
The final four of my 16 years on the Superior Hiking Trail were spent filling in a series of gaps, the biggest of which was an 85-mile stretch from Martin Road outside Duluth to Split Rock State Park. I covered nearly three quarters of that distance in 2012 and 2013 through somewhat random day hikes. The 2012 hikes were in areas that are among the most beautiful on the trail. The 2013 hikes were marred by biting flies and scenery that doesn’t quite measure up to better parts of the trail.
When people find out I’ve hiked the entire SHT, they sometimes form a grandiose opinion of my outdoorsmanship and general machismo. Like I’m the kind of guy who walks around with a Leatherman multitool at all times, practically lives off the land and is prepared for Armageddon. In reality, I wouldn’t have slept a single night in the woods on my hiking trips if there were an easier way around it. Once I’d knocked the northernmost 180 miles off my checklist, there was an easier way around it, and I took full advantage of the opportunity to get dropped off at a trailhead and get picked up eightish miles away just a few hours later.
The fall colors in 2009 received mixed reviews. I thought they were outstanding.
“I’m sorry, but the colors were TERRIBLE this year,” one Perfect Duluth Day reader wrote at the time. “Very disappointed.” Another agreed. “They’ve been very dim up the shore.” One advised that it was important to “get off the shore 5 miles inland” to see the colors at their best.
It’s human nature, I suppose, to consider all things in relation to whatever else might be possible. Just this past week I was at Bent Paddle’s busy tap room and my wife quickly ordered two Harness IPAs, knowing it’s a beer I love. While that was happening, I was a few feet away looking at the beer options on the board and elated to see Barrel-aged Double Shot Double Black Ale was available. When a Harness landed in front of me I wanted to take that beer I generally love and pour it directly into a urinal to make a clear path for the Double Black—the only acceptable beer in the world at that moment.
So when I say the fall colors were excellent in 2009 and show a few pictures, it’s with the understanding that maybe they were the 974th-best fall colors of all time.
In the fall of 2008 I resumed my north-to-south march on the Superior Hiking Trail at Finland Recreation Center. I was dropped off in the early evening, with just a 2.5-mile hike to Leskinen Creek Campsite. When I arrived I discovered I would have to share the space with a group of young men who were already set up there. Sometimes a person goes off into the wilderness with intentions of being alone, then sleeps 50 feet from snickering 20-year-olds.
This was one of only two times I shared a backwoods campsite during my SHT trips, and the only time I shared one with a group of people. My mostly solitary experiences were probably not typical, however, because I tended to hike late in the season — usually the tail end of September but sometimes well into October. On this trip I arrived at camp on Aug. 16, which was by far the earliest I had started an SHT trip. It was still summer. Still T-shirt and shorts season. The last grasp of summer for those attending school in September.
I introduced myself to the neighbors and spent a little time with them at their fire. I don’t recall much about them eight years later. I want to say they were from Hermantown. One was named Andy and another was Dan. I think there were three of them in total. They were nice guys. That’s about all I remember.
By the end of 2006 I had completed the northernmost 140 miles or so of the Superior Hiking Trail over three separate backpacking trips. My methodical march from one end of the trail to the other was broken up that summer, however, when newly cut segments of the SHT in Duluth demanded my immediate attention.
I can’t fully express how awesome it is to have the SHT through Duluth, how quickly I’ve taken it for granted, and how I never even dreamed of it before it happened.
Somehow I actually thought of Duluth as an outstanding hiking city before the SHT. In retrospect, it really wasn’t that special. There were several excellent options — Park Point Nature Trail, Chester Creek, Hartley, Lester River, Congdon Park, Lincoln Park, Western Waterfront — and then there were a few gravel railroad beds, old roads and paved trails for walkers/bikers. Mostly, however, there were many muddy unofficial paths, swampy ATV routes and overgrown ski and snowbobile trails crawling with ticks. So, not really outstanding back then; more like pretty good.
If you wanted to hike the western hillside and view the overlooks from a footpath instead of Skyline Drive, you had to bushwhack before 2006. I grew up doing that, not realizing a group of organized and ambitious human beings could carve a deluxe trail through the entire city in just two summers. God bless them. Now, we have an outstanding hiking city.
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.
After hoofing over 90 miles of the northernmost sections of the Superior Hiking Trail in 2000 and 2001, I failed to hike a single SHT mile over the next five years. What went wrong?
Little tiny things, that’s what. In 2002 I was a freelance writer barely making rent. It was hard to turn down work to free up time to go on a hike. One weekend I planned a short trip, but the weather forecast indicated rain and I sissied out.
By 2003 I had made the mistake of accepting a fulltime position in the field of advertising, with no vacation time until after the first year — although I did manage to sneak off for a three-day weekend on Isle Royale.
Frustrated with my inability to get out of town for a good hike, and inspired by a discussion about how Duluth is a geographically wide city, I decided to organize a roughly 26-mile single-day walk from the Wabegon Supper Club in the Superior Township to the Lakeview Castle in Duluth Township. This complete traverse of Duluth was called the Nonchalant Jaunt.
Perfect Duluth Day was launched just three months prior to the 2003 jaunt, so there are a few posts about it in the archives. A group of seven hearty individuals completed the trek, which for the most part followed Highway 23, Superior Street and Highway 61.
The second leg of my Superior Hiking Trail journey began Sept. 14, 2001, at Cascade River State Park. Two friends dropped me off that Friday night at a campsite in the dark, then immediately turned around and drove back to Duluth. My first job was to get out a flashlight and put up my tent.
The big clumsy contraption I slept in the previous year had now been replaced with a fancy Marmot model I could scrunch into a tight bundle, which would make hiking a bit easier. This tent has gone on to serve me well for 15 years and counting, but I wasn’t impressed the first time I set it up. Yes, I broke a tent pole before I ever slept in the thing. Perhaps setting it up for the first time in the dark led me to force things too much. Whatever the case, a single broken pole is not a big deal and did little to hamper my experience.
The next morning I was up early and on my way. Maybe an hour into the hike, a bit of morning mucus had built up and I did what anyone alone in the woods in such a situation would do: I pushed one finger against the side of my nose, turned my head and blew snot out the other nostril. It was at that moment I noticed a female hiker was right behind me, and this would be how we would get to know each other.
“Oh, good morning,” is probably what I said. She replied with a hello, or something like that, and kept on hiking at a rapid pace. I think I saw her again when she stopped for a snack and I passed her. Then she passed me again later. I don’t remember how many times this happened.
Digital cameras existed in the year 2000, but it wasn’t until about 2003 that using one became mainstream. I started my quest to complete the Superior Hiking Trail with a cheap 35mm pocket camera and a roll of black and white film … perfect for capturing lush fall colors. A grand total of four photos were taken during this five-day hiking trip.
By contrast, I have 35 photos and three videos from a five-minute window when I finished my hike in 2015. So the world has changed a bit. I worked for a newspaper then, I work for a website now. The World Trade Center buildings stood then, the National September 11 Memorial & Museum stands now. Time marches on at a faster pace than my hiking boots, apparently. My first trip covered nearly 60 miles of trail, however, and that’s not too shabby. Unfortunately, things slowed down after that.
On the sunny afternoon of Sept. 23, 2000, my friend Jeff and I drove the winding way of Highway 61 to Grand Portage. It’s not a place that is necessary or practical to go when seeking the start of the Superior Hiking Trail, but it’s a fun location to stop and look out over Lake Superior while there’s time to kill on the day before the adventure begins.
The yearning for adventure is a pretty common human trait, along with the practical good sense to not get into a situation you can’t handle. The old Scout Motto is “be prepared,” a creed intended to make one think practically and plan ahead for potential disaster. There’s a colorful expression for those who are not ready for life’s misfortunes; they find themselves “up Shit Creek without a paddle.”
Not wanting to drift helplessly in liquid feces, people often put off serious adventure and plan to check their dreams off a “Bucket List” at some point between the impractical now and the day before it becomes physically impossible. When a Bucket List goes as planned, it’s a beautiful thing. More often than not, of course, it ends up being a list of unfulfilled wishes. That’s generally preferable to premature death in pursuit of pretty scenery, so lament accordingly.
There are also those perfect people in the primes of their lives, dressing up in expensive wingsuits and gliding majestically down from the world’s most spectacular cliffs. Are they the sons and daughters of the obscenely wealthy or did they persuade a gear manufacturer to sponsor them? Maybe both. Don’t be jealous. You probably wouldn’t take that leap if you could. I know I wouldn’t.
The new segment crosses the University of Wisconsin-Superior’s MacQuarrie Wetlands in western Douglas County and features scenic overlooks of the Nemadji River Valley and the basin of Glacial Lake Duluth. It also crosses a section of Douglas County Forest and Wisconsin DNR lands.
The champagne bottle popped shortly after noon today. In what must rank among the laziest accomplishments in endurance sports history, I completed the final stretch of my quest to hike the entire Superior Hiking Trail … 15 years after I started.
The 296-mile journey was tackled in about 45 different hikes spread out between Sept. 24, 2000, and Oct. 11, 2015. The longest single hike was about 15 miles. The shortest was today’s hike, which was less than a mile. Perhaps some day I’ll gather stories from the journey into some sort of narrative, but for today I’ll just present a simple breakdown of the mileage per year.
With a fused spine and partially paralyzed legs, Paul Hlina hiked the entire Superior Hiking Trail on crutches in 1995. He is credited as the first person to through-hike the trail, which at the time spanned almost 200 miles. It’s about a 300-mile trail today.