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Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Low Adventures: Trekking the Superior Hiking Trail Part 7: Oh, Christmas Tree! Oh, Christmas Tree! How that Ridge Belies Me. . .

Low Adventures: Trekking the Superior Hiking Trail
Part 7: Oh, Christmas Tree! Oh, Christmas Tree! How that Ridge Belies Me. . .
By Tim Krenz
October 10, 2018

After our winter sled and snow shoeing adventure in February, our most recent trip to the Superior Hiking Trail, Craig and I went on a side adventure to the backwaters of the St. Croix River. Camping on the “secret” un-designated site between Osceola and St. Croix Falls, Wisconsin, we spent two nights, Friday and Saturday, over the daylight savings weekend.

The site on the little spit of land above the backwater of Rice Lake, which we reached by canoeing from Franconia Landing in Minnesota and then by a short walk, often served as a useful escape since before Craig went to do Peace Corps service in 1998. The trip that April went rather well and fun. That first Saturday morning, I woke Craig up at the equivalent of 5:45 AM, on his day off, when I already had coffee made and breakfast cooked. As the saying goes, “Never wake a sleeping Craig when you come across him in the woods.” Craig stayed a little grumpy the rest of the day and on into the evening. Ah, yes, never wake a sleeping Craig in the woods.

The rest of strip on the St. Croix River held little excitement, even if fun. Then, the long summer passed, and we finally came up with a plan in the fall for a one-day hike of the imposing section of the Superior Hiking Trail named Christmas Tree Ridge.

The process of planning trips always takes its round the circle course, all to get to the objective in the best way possible. And planning also always becomes a trade off between schedules, physical and material requirements, logistics of travel and lodging (if any while not camping along the trail), and, of course, time factors. Wrapped around all these variables, the most inflexible usually becomes time, hence why we had not trekked the trail since February. For the first Saturday of October, 2004, our trip to the trail started as an overnight backpacking trip from Beaver Bay to Split Rock River. Then, the plan changed several times, from staying at a camper only about 40 miles from my house, to camping overnight at a municipal campground in Two Harbors, MN, and then several iterations of all these options.

Craig, the main planner and recognized “Quartermaster” for all the low adventures to the Superior Hiking Trail, always did a great job with the details. I usually just needed to show up, ready, with my gear and with anything he told me to bring. As an aside, I almost always, though, brought one thing he told me to leave behind on every trip: My trusty camp hatchet. He hated me wasting the weight in my bag carrying such a tool. He thought it a dangerous tool, too. (I had to agree, after all the narrowly saved accidents I had with it). But Craig usually did a great job with the planning and I followed the plan. And for this one-day hike of 11.1 miles of trail, doing it on a Sunday afternoon with light day packs, he made some pretty good choices. As a reward for his good planning, I gave Craig one of the best laughs he ever had at my expense on any of the treks to the Superior Hiking Trail.

On that Saturday, at 5 PM, I picked up Craig at his parents house and we drove a good deal farther north than Duluth or Two Harbors, MN, on Lake Superior. Craig's dad, Don, had an old college friend, Wade, who would let us stay with him. We pulled into the drive way in the dark, to a beautiful log home, high above the rocky shore of Lake Superior. In the night as we unloaded gear from the car, with stormy, rainy, and windy air blowing fiercely, we could hear the swells of the big lake crash water on the shoreline behind the house. The sound of it felt like danger to the unwary of the fortunes of that large, freshwater body of inland sea. I realized at that moment that I should always respect the lake for its power, neither good nor bad, just power.

We visited with Wade for an hour, who Craig last met when age 13. After that, Craig and I settled into a room in the basement. Wrapped in my sleeping bag, I read about half of Aldo Leopold's “A Sand County Almanac,” and then fell asleep, with the fierce churning of an overworked sump pump waking me occasionally.

The next morning we took Wade to breakfast, as a very inexpensive expression of gratitude for letting us stay the night. I say inexpensive because Wade only had a bowl of oatmeal, toast, and an orange juice that morning. Following breakfast, Craig and I dropped off my car at Split Rock and Wade shuttled us back north to Beaver Bay, to a parking lot on County Road 4. We said farewell to our last-minute host. Then at exactly 8:30 AM, Craig and I crossed the road and entered the trail.

As I had started to read Leopold's book for a newspaper review column, almost immediately as I climbed through a muddy path or over corduroy logs set over the trail, I began to reflect on the book by one of the original naturalist authors of the 20th Century. In the midst of ferns and walking under trees dripping after-rain down on top of us, I never had conceived of myself as much naturalist or a conservationist, nor could I identify any of the plants, trees, animal signs by proper names or even many by common names. I noticed these objects of sight and sound on all the trips, but I always used some adjectives to give those nouns some meaning. I could describe these things, hopefully, well enough for listeners and readers. This trip, with “A Sand County Almanac” in my head, I looked around more, instead of only at the ground immediately in front of my feet. I had the cool revelation about the things I would normally fail to appreciate. Of course, I always saw them or just awed at the big vistas of valleys full of trees or meadows with grass, or whenever Lake Superior came into view. But, did I really understand the things, like the REALLY big picture or the small details?

After having read a chunk of Leopold's book before bed, I asked Craig the difference between the aspen and the birch, the pines, and more annoying questions. I may not have understood his answers as he walked in front of me. Yet, now I wanted to know more than I cared to know at other times. Like a women at the coffee shop said to me on my way to pick up Craig, “we need to recognize that things have intrinsic value beyond what they may provide for human necessity and comfort.” Sometimes, as I think Leopold intended in his writing, we can act as stewards of nature to enjoy it for what it does to our souls. We can have a desire to help sustain itself, which in the modern world nature most likely cannot do without some assistance. In doing so, we directly—even inadvertently—sustain ourselves.

The walk the first four miles traveled some distance along the western ridge of a big hill, a course with some open views of spectacular valleys at this time of autumn. Through these valleys, we got views of the Beaver River as it thundered its sound after the storms. The guidebook described trees and plants “precipitously dangling” from a ledge. We found that ledge. We sat there on a rock cliff, some hundreds or so feet high, looking and resting. At least the storms of the previous days had passed. The sky, though overcast, gave off its bright yellow sheen, one that matched the brown, leaf covered floor of the land we could see through the bare tree tops. Yes, I guess, even without specific knowledge of the name, class, genus, or common nouns to things, I could see the big, the bigger, and also the smaller pictures. Inside of me, I began feeling intrinsic worth for what I could outwardly see, hear, and feel.

Coming down the hill and walking around Fault Line Ridge (which has an ominous name), we reached a multi-group campsite and we bypassed a group of campers we could hear and smell cooking breakfast on a gas pressurized stove. That memory of fresh cooked bacon in the woods stays and the thought always entices me to go back camping at odd times.

Ahead and onward, we stopped at a knoll with a clear lake view at 11:30 for a twenty-five minute lunch and rest. Craig ate a ham and cheese sandwich he brought with him. True to my form, I ate a boring crunchy peanut butter sandwich. Adding some chocolate snacks, fruit, and Craig's homemade venison jerky, we drank water because we brought no stove with which to perk coffee. Along the trail again we went, two miles to another campsite, to the half-way mark of the section for our one-day saunter. I looked at a deer in the valley below and once Craig used the latrine, we started the climb up to Christmas Tree Ridge.

For this trip I had somehow gotten out of shape over the summer. I had some weird breathing problems a few weeks previously and I knew that the distance of such a long power hike would tax me. I feared it would break my will. And we did not know what to expect in terms of the ruggedness or lack of it on the ridge in the months of planning. Without a stop, I plowed ahead for the second five or six mile push on this trip to the car. Ready, we got after it.

As Craig and I say, we always felt that on some of the harder, longer walks that we always “chased Gunther,” the German guy who lapped us, twice, doing the Split Rock River loop on a previous trek. Chasing Gunther. That guy, who we just arbitrarily named Gunther, looked so fit and walked so fast with those ski poles, that he reminded me of a philosophical “Superman of the North Shore.” That spring day on the Loop, he plowed ahead, passing us on our side of the river, and then passed us coming down the other leg on the opposite side of Split Rock River. He made time on the trail. We could never emulate Gunther in his drive, or his speed, or the smallness of his backpack.

Now after the day I had so far walking and thinking of Aldo Leopold and his book, could I, or did I want to, match Gunther's incredible speed in walking? Would I even want to do it so quick? Did Gunther even see anything, see the intrinsic value of the things he passed at “weight-light-speed?” Perhaps he did, and I should not judge him. Besides my out of shape ungainliness and heavy packs on the overnight trips, I would look ridiculous trying to walk so determined. Now, I could see these traces and reflections of the trail both ahead and around me walking Christmas Tree Ridge. Because Craig asked me to go along, and yes, because Craig asked me to go along, what could I hope to learn about this whole trekking experience walking the Superior Hiking Trail? I decided at some point that I no longer needed to go on this adventure chasing Gunther.

Going up to the ridge itself took a small, steep climb and it burned my legs. Then on top of it, the ridge to our intense relief became a flat walk over a large, beautiful meadow of tall yellow grass, outcroppings of rock, and (what else?) Christmas trees! Some trees, full evergreens hanging with healthy needles, stood tall between sawed off or burned stumps, and that all seemed natural in the order of things. Those stumps did not scar my experience and we had a wonderful walk.

We had seen several grouse or some sort of birds throughout the day, fluttering feather wings up from the grass along the ridge. Coming down the ridge miles later, we heard a wolf wailing, not far from us, toward the big lake to our left and east. What a cry of the solitude, he or she moaned. The cry sounded a call to which no friends of the wolf responded. A sad thing, always: Alone in the forest by circumstance, not choice.

Three times on this trip, we came upon beaver dams. One of them actually formed the bridge over a swollen stream at the last campsite before we ascended the ridge. It had held water at a table five feet above the lower level, in a U-shaped masterpiece of natural engineering. After the third dam, we climbed downhill from the ridge and sat for a break at a campsite. We nestled on crooked ground beneath a dark canopy of tall evergreens to relax, drink water, and where I smoked a few cigarettes.

The rest of the walk went through a darker section of thick trees, one that let in little sunlight, stunting any underground and leaving an otherwise dirt bare forest floor. The temperature differences between open spots and shaded woods, even on an overcast day, make a noticeable change in early October along the north shore of Lake Superior. I noticed it by its extremes. Then, after our rest, we came to the last hill climb. We climbed it. Craig outpaced me by far as I struggled up the steep incline on the dark brown dirt trail. We followed the eastern ledge of the hill until the Superior Hiking Trail connected with more trails, one on the north side of Split Rock River that formed one leg of the loop, and the other trails leading down to the road and parking lots near the light house.

On the way to the spur trail to the east, toward my car, we decided to skip checking out on the ski shelter lean-to structure but we stumbled across something rather odd. On a piece of ground on top of dirt and a gray rock face, someone or some people had made a medicine wheel, or a witches wheel (I could not tell which). They had structured it using small, brown rock chips (abundant objects on that part of the trail), setting them in a pattern of symbols, etc. inside a circle made of larger pieces of stone chips. Someone, or an animal, had kicked one quadrant pie around, messing up and disordering the wheel and whatever powers (good or bad) the wheel represented. Craig and I looked at it for a minute. When we continued walking downhill toward the lake and the car, Craig told me to step around it. Around I went, staring at the strange encounter with a language and experience I did not comprehend, something good or bad, but also symbolic to others.

At the parking lot, we reached the car I borrowed from my parents, the “Little Casino” green Dodge Shadow, at exactly 3:30 PM. In seven hours, we walked a total of thirteen miles, which included the side walking and spur trails. We had done a good, long hike and added a chunk of mileage to our Trail total over the past two and a half years of part low adventures. Skipping to different sections as we spent only weekends and day trips hiking or backpacking, we both felt better about our ambition after the ridge. We still had a lot of trail to go to finish, though.

On the drive home, I felt the burn in my body. Thank goodness we had only carried light day packs with food, water, rain gear, medical kit, flashlight, and a few other items. As I drove, I could barely move my legs. At the Moose Lake gas station stop for coffee, it hurt getting out of the car.

Craig had already made his purchase and sat in the car when I exited the store. I once again vowed to never get so out of shape again before our next trek. And I gave Craig the best laugh he had on the whole experience of walking the trail as I approached “Little Casino.” For when I walked across the parking lot, I had my left hand lifting my leg to walk. I literally carried my own ass to the car!


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