After a good night of sleep because of the cooler weather, we pack up slowly, continuing to mull over our options. It’s so hard to stop short of our intended goal, but our feet are failing us right now. Maybe we pushed it too hard in Duluth, or perhaps we are just not used to this heat and humidity? Whatever the reason, we come to a unanimous decision that we can no longer continue hiking with the current state of our feet.
Sooner or later, if you hike long enough, there are bound to be bad days and situations that prove unfavorable, even dangerous, to continue. We found that out back in November when we had to stop our Grand Canyon trip early and bail out before a snowstorm hit that would have trapped us in the park for days.
I think we are additionally frustrated because we, like the rest of the world, have had to cancel so many of our travel plans due to Covid. With all of our future plans cancelled or in question, this just feels like another big let down in an already frustrating year.
We hike down alongside the Gooseberry River, feet still tender, before crossing a bridge and arriving at a beautiful view of Fifth Falls in the state park. We find a good vantage point, drop our packs and grab the cameras to go and explore. It’s early enough in the morning that we have this picture perfect place all to ourselves.
This is the first real jaw-dropping scene that we have come to on our journey on the SHT. As we sit shoulder to shoulder on a rock admiring the cascading waterfalls, everything becomes clear to us.
We are reminded that the photography is important to us and a central reason why we hike. For us, it’s not just about making miles and ticking off trails. Hiking is our way of getting closer to nature in search of beauty. We need to keep the joy in the adventure and not kill the fun. We have nothing to prove to anyone. Somehow it’s a relief to reach this point. Our decision is made: it’s time to pull the parachute cord.
We hike down to the Upper Gooseberry Falls under Hwy 61 to the Visitor Center. There are lots of people frolicking in the falls and enjoying a gorgeous summer day. The Visitor Center is closed (except for the bathrooms!), but the shaded benches are a welcome rest stop while we explore our options.
Our first thought is how to reunite with our car which is sitting in a parking lot several hours to the north. I recall seeing a shuttle bus in a parking lot up in Grand Marais. We are in luck! The Arrowhead Transit Shuttle runs once per week from Grand Marais to Duluth and back, and that day is today!
There is a saying in the thru-hiking community that “the trail provides,” and it certainly feels like this is some kind of divine intervention to have this weekly shuttle passing by in just a few hours from now. The dispatcher tells us that they can pick us up in the Visitor Center parking lot at Gooseberry Falls and take us directly to the campground office in Grand Marais, apparently for free (because of Covid-19).
We have several hours free until our pick up, so we use the time to reserve a campsite in Grand Marais and book a ride with Harriet Quarles (a local driver who shuttles SHT hikers) to pick up our car tomorrow. We’re lucky that there is a helpful, friendly person in the area who provides a shuttle service or else we would really struggle to find a ride back to our car at Otter Lake Road.
Once all of the logistics are taken care of, it’s down to the river to soak our feet and relax in the shade for a few hours. If we are taking a break from the SHT, it may as well start right now!
At 5 pm, the Arrowhead Shuttle pulls into the parking lot for us. It has three other passengers including a kayaker from Nebraska who is working his way down the shore of Lake Superior, paddling 20 miles per day. He’s already paddled from Grand Portage down to Lutsen, but his marine radio stopped working, so he is returning from a jaunt to Duluth where he found a replacement.
Our driver is from Grand Marais and makes the run to Duluth and back once a week. He’s a friendly gentlemen who served as a combat medic in Vietnam. He asks us about our hiking, waxes about going to the Boundary Waters with his dad when he was young, and offers a few tips on restaurants in town before dropping us off at the municipal campground. This could not have worked out better!
We check in at the office and stroll down near the lakeshore to our site. We are a little out of place, walking in and setting up a tiny backpacking tent, surrounded by RVs, trailers, pick up trucks and family tents. This is a huge campground with 270 spots with a commanding view of the harbor and lighthouse in walking distance of all that the town has to offer.
We make a quick dinner and then walk over to Voyager Brewing Company to toast the end of this part of our journey and contemplate next steps. It’s a gorgeous summer evening. We are sitting on the rooftop deck as the sun goes down over Lake Superior.
We kick up a conversation with several guys from town who are all talking excitedly about canoe trips into the Boundary Waters. Many of them have guided and offer suggestions on routes off the Gunflint Trail. Our canoe is sitting in Ely a few hours away. This seems like a good chance to explore a different side of the BWCAW and a perfect way to rest our feet while continuing our nature vacation.
We stroll (well, limp gingerly) back to our campsite feeling content with our decision. Tomorrow we will pick up our car from Otter Lake Road and take a short walk up to the 270 Overlook, the northern terminus of the trail, and pay homage to the end that never quite happened. As we often say, you always have to leave a reason to come back!
Day 10 Stats
Starting Point: Gooseberry Campsite
Ending Point: Gooseberry Falls State Park Visitor Center
Miles Hiked: 2.5 (+.2 bonus)
Miles to Canada: 182