All You Have to Do is Walk
When Beth and Jason Gary stepped out of the forest and onto the rock outcropping, they wanted to see Lake Agnes far below them. But a heavy fog had settled on the woods like a damp blanket and the scenic views they’d hoped for were hiding behind a wall of mist. They had two more days to make it to the Cascade River Valley and decided to move on.
Texas transplants, the Garys had lived in Minnesota from 2007 to 2015. “We both love the peace and quiet of the outdoors so we tried to spend as much time hiking and camping as we could”, Jason said. They had day-hiked the Superior Hiking Trail so far and decided to come back for some unfinished business, a four-day backpacking trip from Lutsen Mountains to the Cascade River Valley.
The Superior Hiking Trail snakes its way up Minnesota’s North Shore from Duluth to the US-Canada Border at the Pigeon River. Volunteers of the non-profit Superior Hiking Trail Association maintain its 310 miles of footpath and 96 backcountry campsites. Together with the Kekekabic and Border Route Trails, it’s part of the North Country Scenic Trail, which crosses the state on its 4,600-mile journey from North Dakota to Vermont.
On a Thursday afternoon in late August the couple met their shuttle driver, Harriet Quarles, in the parking lot of the Pincushion Mountain trailhead north of Grand Marais to get a ride to the Lutsen Mountain trailhead near Tofte. “Harriet was a hoot”, Beth said. By the time they made the 24-mile drive they both learned details about Harriet’s life and how she came to be a shuttle driver late in life, working seven days a week and driving hundreds of miles.
After some advice from Harriet about mosquito repellents, they shouldered their backpacks and set off for their first campsite on the East Poplar River. After a long day on the road, Beth said, this first hike was a short one. “We had a few hours to get to a campsite, so we opted to make it at least two and a half miles”, she said.
They woke up early the next day to find their tent wet from overnight rain and a mist hanging over the small campsite on the river. On the way to the lunch spot at Lake Agnes the weather didn’t improve much. “It was misty rain all day and we couldn’t see much of anything”, Beth said.
After passing up three scenic overlooks along the way, they reached the Agnes Creek Bridge. It was a steep climb to the Lake Agnes overlook from there, but they could barely see through the fog once they got there. Lunch was a quick affair of freeze-dried beef stroganoff cooked in the bag and the trip continued without much fanfare. The sun hadn’t made a showing all day and the cold was creeping in.
They reached Spruce Creek camp in the early afternoon after hiking eight miles through spruce swamp and maple forest and crossing many small footbridges. The Spruce Creek campsite was tucked into a small patch of forest between Spruce Creek and a steep rock face, sheltered by huge conifers. After dinner they washed up in the icy water of the creek and settled into their tent before the sun had fully set.
“We went to bed only to be woken by a storm”, Beth said. “The rain and thunder were so loud it was hard to tell the difference between the two. The lightning lit up the sky and gave the illusion the woods around us were on fire”.
Jason remembers it well, too “Laying in a tent during a strong thunderstorm, miles from any rigid shelter makes you understand just how insignificant you are in the grand scheme of things”, he said.
Several rounds of storms continued until the early morning. “At some point, after weighing options and realizing there were no good ones, we drifted off to sleep”, he said.
The next day started out much better. Storms had moved out, but a slight haze lingered. Spruce Creek roared, swollen by the overnight downpour. They dried out what they could, packed up the rest wet, and set out for Indian Camp Creek, their lunch spot. They met several hikers going the other direction and exchanged tales of the previous night, trail conditions, and the best campsites along the way.
“The hike was tough”, Beth said. “All of that rain made the trail muddy and slippery in parts, especially when climbing”. The higher they hiked on the ridgelines, the more fog burned off and, finally, the sun broke through the clouds. By the time they reached Indian Creek, it was sunny. They hung their damp tents, sleeping bags and clothes on ropes strung between trees. “I was hoping some of the gear would dry out, especially my boots”, Beth said.
After lunch, the climbing continued up to Lookout Mountain on Cascade River State Parks’ cross-country ski trails. The sun was growing stronger by the minute and they were glad they had filled their hydration packs with cold water from Indian Creek. When they stepped out of the woods into the clearing on Lookout Mountain, the pair was greeted by dozens of day visitors to the park who were scampering around the rocks and taking selfies at the scenic overlook. Families wearing clean polo shirts and tank tops in crisp, white sneakers and flip flops slowly turned their heads as the couple lumbered past them, sweaty, muddy and tired from a restless night. They dropped their packs and rested up for the last leg of the day, the final three miles to Big White Pine campsite.
This meant a steep descent from Lookout Mountain to the Cascade River, a difficult and rooted march along the banks, another climb, then a sharp drop to a small creek. After crossing the creek at a bridge there was one more short but steep climb up the bank to the campsite. Rather than hauling both their backpacks and water up, they decided to drop the packs at the site and go back down for water later. “After the climb to Lookout Mountain and the roots on the west side of the river, we were in no mood for another climb”, Jason said.
That evening they were joined by a single hiker from Catalonia (in northeastern Spain, bordering on France) who was out for a one-day overnight hike while visiting Minnesota. “He and Jason discussed bears, which I think made the poor guy nervous”, Beth said. They assured him that Minnesota’s black bears aren’t typically a problem on the trail and would likely stay far away from humans, but he still decided to hike 6 miles round trip to take his bear-proof food container back to the car.
The last day was the shortest at about four and a half miles and the couple lingered around camp a little longer than normal. They eventually shouldered their packs for one final hike.
Right away they passed by Cut Log campsite, which was dotted with huge pieces of white pines left behind by loggers decades ago. Then the trail traveled through old-growth maple forest where massive, moss-covered trunks flanked the path and disappeared into the canopy high above.
Finally, they came the end of their journey when they unceremoniously popped out of the woods on County Road 45, their shuttle pickup spot. They threw down their packs and hugged and kissed. While they waited for Harriet, they enjoyed the breathtaking views of the rushing Cascade River in the lush valley below.
Back in Grand Marais, the Garys revisited the last four days with a cold soda and pizza on the rooftop of My Sister’s Place Restaurant. It was finally sinking in that the 22-mile hike they had been preparing for the last six months, had finally come to an end. For Beth the highlight of the trip was when she saw a Bald Eagle fly from the tree tops just a few feet away at a scenic overlook of the Sawtooth Mountains. “Of course none of us had our cameras ready”, she said.
Although they said the hike was tough at times, both feel it was time well spent and they plan on coming back to hike another section of the trail. “I learned that the Superior Hiking Trail was much more challenging than I expected”, Beth said, but adds she would have liked more time hiking, regardless. Jason agreed. “I would like to have gone further and had more time, but overall the trip was enjoyable. I challenged myself physically, witnessed the power of nature close up and personal, spent quality time with Beth and enjoyed the break from the Texas heat”, he said.
While even the logistics of setting up a four-day hike from 1,200 miles away were daunting, Jason said, stress-free time spent outdoors was a huge reward. “Life gets simple when all you have to do is walk”, he said.