When the path calls
Eleven days in, I was roughly halfway to Canada and the trail's northern terminus. It was time for an assessment. That evening, sitting at my campsite alongside the thundering Manitou River in George H. Crosby Manitou State Park, I dug into a pouch of freeze-dried pad Thai that I'd brought back to life with two cups of hot water. And I reflected on my hike.
In general, I was pleased. My hamstring, and entire body for that matter, were holding up well. That was impressive, given the Superior Hiking Trail's unending climbs and descents. Why, just since leaving BlueBerry and Green Tortuga at Split Rock River three days ago, I'd climbed up to the rocky cliffs overlooking Bean and Bear lakes, twin gems in Tettegouche State Park, then even farther up to the 1,500-foot summit of Mount Trudee. I successfully navigated my way back downhill and through the park's famous Drainpipe, a 150-foot rock crevice with treacherous footing, and across the Baptism River. Then it was another scramble skyward along a path that skirted the 1,500-foot Sawmill Dome, followed by another plunge back down to earth.
Today, with Ed heading south toward home, I continued north on yet another roller-coaster ride that led me up and down so many hills I lost count. The high point was running into Blueberry and Green Tortuga again, the low point was being misinformed about the whereabouts of my campsite, causing me to tack a few more miles on to what had already been a long day...
Continuing to mull over my hike, I realized that despite the challenges — and they were unending, from rocks, roots and mud to hills, inclement weather and mosquitoes — the outstanding scenery was worth it. I'd hiked 1,800 miles via three long-distance trails last year, and none of those trails contained such concentrated beauty. But, if I was honest, the joy of the trail would soon evaporate if I didn't slow down.
Normally when I tackle a long-distance path, I hike 20 to 25 miles a day, which equates to eight or nine hours chasing blazes. Knowing this trail was tough, and my body was still recovering from surgery, I'd scaled back to what I thought were modest 16- to 18-mile days. But the path's merciless, unending spikes to the heavens and back, coupled with the occasional wrong turn, meant that despite my lower mileage, I was often out a bruising 10 or 11 hours a day. Even the most stunning waterfalls or extraordinary glimpses of Lake Superior could not render that enjoyable, and the last day or two I was beginning to sour on the experience.
Downing the last spoonful of my pad Thai, I scratched out a new itinerary calling for 12- to 15-mile days. My reflection completed, I bear-bagged the rest of my food and went to bed.
The call of the trail
The Superior trail leads you out of craggy Crosby Manitou State Park in ruthless fashion, first pitching you steeply downhill to the Manitou River bridge, then forcing you to climb 300 feet in a mere 600 yards. After inching my way up the incline, I paused at the top to catch my breath. Then I began picking my way down its opposing side, so intent on my foot placement that I nearly bumped into the hiker climbing uphill toward me.
Derek Prescott of Andover was 10 days into a southbound thru-hike with his mutt, George. Clad in camouflage shorts, a sweat-stained T-shirt and navy bandanna, and clutching a stout walking stick, he looked like a man accustomed to the outdoors — someone who would be at ease wielding a knife, wrapping himself up in a tarp at night or even taking down a bear. So I was shocked when he told me he was a sculptor and ceramist who was here challenging himself to do something outside his comfort zone.
"In my 30 years, I had never spent a single night alone in the woods. Ever." Prescott said. "I came out way overpacked and had no idea what I was doing." Now, less than two weeks later, he was a pro, knocking out 13 to 15 miles a day and reveling in what, to him, was the abnormal. "Last night at camp, I took a bath in the river and slept by a waterfall," he raved. "I'm having an awesome time."
The trail calls to everyone. Some hear the call, while others miss its whispered promises of adventure, beauty and wonderment. So far I'd met more than a dozen folks — male and female, young and old, experienced hikers and novices — who'd heard the Superior trail beckoning. Intrigued, they'd grabbed their boots and never looked back.
Alex Senst and Branden Eggestein felt the draw of the trail as young adults. The duo, who I met the previous day, were heeding the call by sampling tiny bites of the Superior Hiking Trail every year. Minneapolis-based Eggestein said he dives into the woods to challenge his mind and body, while for Senst, of Rochester, the excursions are a good way to unplug from technology.
Like many area runners, Ryan Zimny felt the trail urging him to regularly tackle its winding, hilly terrain. I met Zimny on Day 2, finishing a run, and again four days later, hiking with his wife, Laura. When Laura decided to section-hike the trail with her husband, she set two rules: They had to hike the trail northbound, in order, and they had to hike together. His runs didn't count.
Mother-son duo Ta and Matthew Hang of Big Lake came here on a fact-finding mission: Were they being called to hike a monstrously long trail such as the Appalachian or Pacific Crest, both of which unroll more than 2,000 miles and take months to complete, or was their destiny shorter paths like this one?
A love of adventure lured Duluth residents John Vallez and Brittany Kuehn. But the couple also enjoyed the clarity of hiking — the way it allowed you to understand that all you need in life is water, food, clothing and shelter. Nothing else is worth the stress.
And me? I'd heard the trail calling since I was a child. I listened to it at times, ignored it at others. But over the last few years its call was louder, stronger — an insistence I could no longer ignore. Now, apparently, was the time I really needed what the trail had to give. Indeed, every trek into the wilderness bestowed on me a yin-yang gift of challenge and restoration, exertion and relaxation, thrill and peace.
That evening, as the sun's fading rays cast weak shadows onto the forest floor, I climbed into my hammock next to Fredenberg Creek, near Schroeder. Tomorrow was my final day of insane mileage. Once I reached Oberg Mountain, I'd dial it back until I reached the terminus. The trail murmured its assent by sending a soft breeze that caressed my face and quickly lulled me to sleep.
Melanie Radzicki McManus wrote "Thousand-Miler: Adventures Hiking the Ice Age Trail." She lives near Madison, Wis.