We are back visiting our friends in Duluth, relaxing at the Chill-Inn and gathering our thoughts before we gather our belongings and head back to Chicago after five relaxing weeks spent exploring northern Minnesota. The song “No Regrets” by our new favorite artist, Forest Sun (check out his song “Morningbird”—it will melt your heart), is playing. Even though the song is written presumably following the end of a relationship, the words seem appropriate as we reflect on our experience of the Superior Hiking Trail—“Darling no regrets, I’m so glad we met, And even though we made a mess, I’m glad that we said yes…”
Sadly, a full thru-hike of the SHT was not in the cards for us this summer, but we did enjoy the first third of the trail NOBO, despite its challenges. Several summers ago, on our last day hiking the John Muir Trail, as we were descending from climbing Half Dome, a hiker asked us, “So, what have you learned about yourselves on your journey?” As a teacher, I was struck by the wisdom behind that question, and it continues to be at the forefront of my mind whenever we reach the end of another adventure.
I think, for us, we have been reminded (once again) that we are human and, therefore, imperfect. Things don’t always work out the way you plan. Sometimes it’s the weather; sometimes it’s the body. This time it was both! And yet that doesn’t invalidate the experience or make us regret the choice to attempt the SHT.
More specifically, we’ve learned that, when beginning a long-form hike, we should build up slowly, both in terms of the weight in our packs and the miles per day covered. We should also schedule a “nero” and sometimes a zero day about once per week to give our feet time to recover and our minds time to recenter and remind ourselves why we came in the first place.
With regard to the SHT, I think it would have been better to attempt the trail in September when the temperatures are cooler and perhaps the fall color would add a visual element to the photography. That said, we would have missed the birds, and especially the warblers, that give us so much joy and pleasant distraction along the way. So, as always, there are trade-offs.
When life gives you lemons, make lemonade, and so we did. We did not give up entirely on the SHT and the opportunity to explore Minnesota’s North Shore. The next morning after we made it to Grand Marais, we were picked up by locally famous, Harriet Quarles, who provides a shuttle service for SHT hikers and others on the north end of the Arrowhead.
We joined another couple in her big passenger van (all wearing masks) on a wild ride out to Otter Lake Road Trailhead. We needed the lift to pick up our car; the other couple from the Twin Cities was setting out on a 5-day SOBO excursion.
Harriet entertained us as we bounced down the gravel road, regaling us with local history, her thoughts on the trail, her rules for the road and tales of her business down in Miami where she shuttles passengers from cruise ships during the winter. By the time we said goodbye, we felt like we had experienced a really important part of the SHT.
As long as we were near the end, we thought it would be worthwhile to hike the last 1.2 miles to the northern terminus and see the 270 Overlook. We delayed a bit so that the other couple could hike to the terminus on their own before making our way up the last stretch of trail. We arrived just as they were leaving, so we had a few moments all to ourselves to take in the scene.
The 270 Overlook offers a pleasant view across the border into Canada and down the Swamp River. We took a moment to read some of the entries in the trail journal and found the one entered by the latest FKT record holders. After adding one of our own, we strolled back to our car, content with our decision to leave the rest for a better day.
As luck would have it, when we reached the trailhead we ran into two women who were just about to begin their SOBO thru-hike. Lisa and Shannon are each experienced thru-hikers in their own right: Lisa has completed the Appalachian Trail and Shannon the Pacific Crest Trail. Each was attempting to tackle the other trail this year when Covid hit and disrupted their plans. Somehow they found each other and agreed to attempt the SHT together.
It was comforting to talk to fellow hikers who are far more experienced than we are. They commiserated and assured us that stopping when we did was the right move. We shared a few tips about the SHT that we picked up along the way and wished them good fortune on their journey before driving back to Grand Marais.
So, then what? Since we had left our canoe in Ely to be resurfaced, we decided to drive over and pick it up the next day. For years, people have mentioned the Gunflint Trail as an alternate entry point to the Boundary Waters. We literally thought this was a portage path/canoe route until we talked to an outfitter and realized that it, like the Echo Trail, is the primary road access to the eastern half of the BWCA, that dead ends at the park boundary.
We were not ready to leave northern Minnesota, so we decided this was the perfect opportunity to explore a different sides of canoe country. We grabbed one of the last available permits and made a plan to go in via Poplar Lake for the next three nights. Apparently, with Covid disrupting so many plans for travel, there has been a significant increase in demand for canoe permits and fishing licenses. People are choosing to stay local and stay safe!
So, once more into the woods we went. We spent three lovely days paddling through Caribou, Horseshoe, Winchell, Omega and Gaskin Lakes before returning. An added bonus to the solitude and time off our feet—the baby loons have hatched. How thrilling it was to see the attentive new parents feed their little ones and begin to teach them to fish on their own!
We discovered that the Merganser chicks are growing, but, sadly, those huge broods we saw earlier in late June seem to be much smaller at this point in the season. It was still impressive to see the hardy survivors.
We had booked a room at Camp 61 in Beaver Bay as a resupply point during our trek, and the owners graciously allowed us to move the reservation, so we headed there next for a rare night in an actual bed, a hot shower and a great meal at their rustic-looking restaurant.
The next morning we spent catching up on our photos while taking care of laundry. There’s something comforting and reassuring about taking a domestic day when you’re traveling to have a break from the journey and take care of mundane tasks.
Later afternoon we decided to play tourist and head up to Temperance River State Park to hike up and down the river gorge, which was quite striking with its deep canyon walls and impressive waterfalls. We found a delightful state forest campground near Finland to stay at for the evening.
On our last morning, we walked up to Palisade Head for a view of Lake Superior from high above the cliff in the morning sun. As we crested the ridge, we stood face to face with a Peregrine falcon twenty feet away, perched on the rocky cliff edge.
He sat for 10 minutes before casually dropping off the cliff and gliding away. As luck would have it, neither of us were carrying a camera with a long lens, so we made due with a cell phone camera through the binoculars! How’s that for one last amazing bird sighting before heading back to Duluth?
I hope we are not blowing the secret, but there are SO many amazing things to see and do within two hours of this great town. It’s been such a pleasure to spend so much time here this summer, and we thank our friends Chris and Kim and their amazing kids for being such gracious hosts to us during all of our comings and goings at the Chill-Inn.
To all the hikers of the SHT—past, present and future—we salute you for your accomplishments small and large, and we encourage you to keep on truckin’ and take a hike!
Thanks for a memorable five weeks, Minnesota. As Forest Sun sings,
“Love is not a test,
I know we did our best,
Darling no regrets,
Here’s to your success,
May all you do be blessed,
I wish you every happiness,
Darling no regrets.”