We wake up at 5 am and can feel the heavy humidity in the air and on our sleeping bags which we barely crawled into last night because of the heat. We are getting the sense that the drought and this kind of heat is a little unusual for Minnesota at this time of year. We move quickly but, tried and true, an hour and a half seems like our usual pace for packing up, so we hit the trail by 6:30, hoping to knock off some miles before the sun really starts heating things up.
Much of the path today follows the North Shore State Trail, which we quickly realize is not a hiking trail, but a winter snow mobile route. I’m sure it’s very scenic in the winter and a fun place to ride, but in the middle of the summer this translates to narrow paths that are overgrown with grasses and ferns, making it difficult at times to be sure of our footing and a real pain to hike through. Our only opportunity for a break from the tall flora is when we get to the bridges that cross over the dry creek beds. They are a welcome respite.
This section does not appear to have been recently maintained, nor does it seem to get enough foot traffic to permanently push back the plant growth. On top of that, the high humidity means that everything is soaked with dew. Our feet are sopping wet within minutes and remain that way all day long!
It’s a reasonably birdy start as we set out on the trail. At breakfast, we get buzzed by a Ruby-throated hummingbird doing his morning rounds, who then perches thoughtfully before moving on. We hear a loud calling but elusive Ovenbird, which makes us happy since we saw several in our own backyard in Chicago this spring. We also see a Mourning Warbler chipping and a Hairy Woodpecker attacking a tree, and we manage to surprise both a family of Spruce grouse and a hawk who flew off before we could identify it. (Can you tell we haven’t come out of our spring migration birding mode?!?)
It’s still fairly early when we cross paths with Molly (trail name “Green Bay”), a solo south-bounder from Sommerset, WI, who will be finishing at Martin Road today after 15 days. She looks like a seasoned hiker, with Dirty Girl gaiters, a head net and AT and CDT patches sewn on her pack.
We stop and chat for a few minutes, and she shares with us a few helpful tips about water sources, noting that many of the creeks are completely dry already. She has hiked the Appalachian Trail and the Continental Divide Trail and says that she has never felt as “gross” as she does right now on the SHT because of the heat, humidity and the bugs!
We must have a nervous look on our faces because she quickly adds that the trail gets a lot better as you go north especially as you approach Beaver Bay and beyond. We congratulate her on her impending finish and hope she finds the shower and cold beer that she is excited for!
Later we see she has written in several of the many trail journals that are stored in blue boxes (typically next to campsite entrances). These are fun to look at but also helpful sources of info. Molly has indicated that several waterfalls mentioned in the guidebook or data book currently don’t exist. This is helping us to be more mindful as we plan our days ahead so that we are safe and making sure to carry enough water with us.
The SHT shares its route with other state trails, but it also relies on private property owners who are gracious to allow the Trail Association to develop trails and post signage on their land. This sometimes produces a strange irony as we walk along the trail: On one side we see signs for “Hunting Prohibited” and then immediately on the other side we see deer stands. Somehow, I feel caught in the middle of two different approaches to land use. During deer hunting season these sections of the trail are actually closed.
We make a brief rest stop at Lone Tree Campsite where we meet Katie and Lydia, two young women from Price County, WI, hiking who are hiking NOBO over the next 30 days. They are breaking down their camp and chatting cheerfully, clearly in no hurry. They ask a few questions about other trails we’ve hiked. We are fairly sure we’ll see them tonight, so we move on and leave them to their packing.
From here the trail meanders through a variety of habitat, sometimes in cooler forest with tall trees that provide some shade but more often in open areas where the trees are shorter due to recent logging.
One way to mark progress on a trail like this is to tick off the natural features that occur, such as creeks and rivers. When we read about the trail ahead of time, we formed certain images based on past experience, so it’s always interesting to match printed description to reality. We are surprised by the difference between a river and a creek. The rivers here are, for the most part, the size of what I would describe as creeks, whereas the creeks are almost non-existent. If they were flowing they would barely count for small streams. We just have to adjust our thinking a bit to this new terrain.
We stop for lunch at Heron Pond and set up our portable camp chairs from REI in the shade. These are our luxury items for this trip, and boy are we glad we brought them. Today they are useful because they are allowing us to choose a shady spot rather than the campfire area which has no shade at all, which is brutal right now in the heat of the day. But truthfully there are few places along the SHT so far that are convenient for parking your butt and resting your sore feet, so pulling out these chairs becomes a great option. (Pro Tip: for a little over a pound, if you can afford the space and weight, treat yourself!)
It’s blazing saddles after lunch as we walk primarily through regenerating forest populated by spruce, aspen, birch and tall ferns. Unfortunately there is nothing tall enough to provide any real shade. We keep seeing signs saying that this area has been “Harvested in 2013” and is naturally regenerating. Still, it will be many more years before these trees are mature enough to provide a break from the sun to passing hikers.
It’s so hot that when we pour water on head the salt from our sweat stings our eyes. I have not perspired this heavily in a long time, and it takes a toll on my energy. In addition, there is no place to rest so no break for tired and swelling feet.
We run into one couple from Edina doing an out and back section of the SHT. It’s always interesting to take note of the different ways that people decide to tackle a trail—from day hiking and section hiking to straight thru-hiking, etc.
The last half mile to our camp at Sucker River gets fairly gnarly with downed trees that we have to negotiate with our packs on and at our least energetic moment of the day. It reminds us of the time we tackled the Northern Loop off the Wonderland Trail around Mount Rainier. The area had suffered a blowdown in the spring, and trail crews had not yet had a chance to get back there and clear the trails. This section could benefit from some TLC for sure.
Finally, we arrive in camp exhausted by 3:40. It’s been a challenging day—in addition to the heat and humidity the bugs have been a near constant source of aggravation, and we’ve attracted several ticks as well. Still, once you arrive in camp and drop your packs for the last time, the entire mood changes. A little chocolate never hurts either.
We quickly get the tent up and grab our water filters and head for the river. The water is a bit warmer than we would like but still refreshing. The deer flies are bad here, so we break out the patches that you adhere to the back of your hat and start catching a healthy number almost instantly.
As we are filtering, we notice a flock of five Cedar waxwings flitting back and forth over the river catching deer flies. Go birds! They don’t seem to have any concern for the heat. Perhaps we should be more carefree like the birds.
Day 6 Stats
Starting Point: White Pine Campsite
Ending Point: Sucker River Campsite
Miles Hiked: 13.1
Miles to Canada: 230.3
Bird of the Day: Cedar waxwings catching flies by the river