Editor's note: This First Person essay is one in an occasional series of stories by Star Tribune readers and staff members.
The day is practically perfection: No wind in an azure sky, and by 10:15 on March 27, 1996, less than a week after the official start of spring, the thermometer has climbed to a startling 47 degrees (it will be in the mid-50s).
At the start of our trip, we are as contented and bright as the weather. There are five of us: My friend Doug and his son Brady, 12, and my two sons, Noah, 12, and Nick, 17. Every year during the off-season, when it’s cheap, we take our sons to the North Shore, and have some kind of outdoor adventure. We call ourselves Les Hommes Du Nord, The Men of the North.
Over breakfast in the Cascade Lodge, we pour over a Superior Hiking Trail map. The hike goes up one side of the Cascade River to County Road 45, where you cross to the river’s north side and hike back to the lodge. It is 7-plus-miles long and appears to hug the water most of the way.
The map’s fine print contains three warnings:
• This is a rugged wilderness trail;
• Because of the terrain, plan to cover no more than 2 miles in one hour, and;
• Always carry sufficient water
Our expectations are almost entirely opposite the map’s warnings:
• No hike is too rugged for men like us;
• We plan on finishing the 7-plus miles in less than three hours;
• And, we are careful planners. Each of us carries a pint of bottled water and two Snickers.
We begin climbing up the south side of the river. There are numerous steps, railings, bridges and spectacular overlooks as the trail rises away from Lake Superior. Once up top, the snow grows deeper by degrees.
The day is so warm everything melts. As we move away from the river into the wooded plateau, we enter a snowfield. Every sixth or seventh step our feet break through the snow crust, jarring us from toe to sacrum.
Two hours after our start, we stop and sit on a fallen log, hot, sweating profusely, feet soaked.
“Snickers,” we all agree. We all down the last of our water.
“I’m cold,” Brady manages, after sitting on the log for a few minutes. “I can’t feel my feet.”
“Me either,” Noah adds.
Contrary to the map, the trail is not level and often veers far from the river. It dips down steep hillsides almost to the river’s edge, and then rises again out of the valley. After three dips and rises, several icy slides and scrambling ascents, and a final traverse up a beautiful high-point in the river plateau, we stumble onto County Road 45, exhausted.
We consider hiking back on the road, but it would add miles to our return.
We eat our last Snickers, cross to the other side, and contemplate our ill fate.
“It’s probably better on this side,” Doug asserts.
Fifteen minutes later we are wading through snow up to our waists. And this snow is at the bottom of a steep cliff, in the shade. It sticks to our wet pants like powdered sugar, encasing us in more cold.
There is a mile and a half section of the trail that winds through private lands, through deep snow and thickets, which is poorly marked and difficult to follow.
We stop three more times, speechless with exhaustion. Doug and I look at each other, smiling but genuinely alarmed.
“I’m miserable,” Noah manages, giving voice to the feeling in all of us. “We haven’t seen a sign in over an hour. We’re lost.”
The truth is, every year in Minnesota people get lost in the woods. Nearly four years earlier to the day, three young men, all 19, set out on a hike in Gooseberry Falls State Park, less than an hour south of Cascade. A day later one of them managed to find his way to safety. Three days later, a second man was carried out in a snowmobile sled, barely breathing. The third lay face down in the snow wearing nothing but his underwear. People in advanced stages of hypothermia will sometimes feel over heated and take off their clothes.
I haven’t felt my feet in over an hour. But I am not yet to the point of wanting to disrobe.
Finally the trail starts its descent.
Seven hours after we begin we stumble back to our van. No one speaks. We’re happy, but more tired than any of us can remember. Only later, in the hot tub at our Lodge, do the white patches on the bottom of my soles begin to fade.
“That was tough,” I say to Doug.
“Character-builder,” he assures. “Something we can remind them of when they begin having kids of their own.”