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Tuesday, October 31, 2017

The Low Adventures: Trekking Superior Hiking Trail Part 3: Into the Naked Forest

The Low Adventures: Trekking Superior Hiking Trail
Part 3: Into the Naked Forest
By Tim Krenz
September 21, 2017

While trail maps without much detail as to topography do not outright lie, they do have a certain deception. They do not, though, deceive as badly as a guide book. A trail map in a guide book, well that comes between a half truth and a very good sales pitch.

For our next trip to the Superior Hiking Trail, one of the low adventures of Mueller and Krenz backpacking, we did not use the highly detailed, glossy maps Craig would later purchase for future trips. We had not even “upgraded” to the small flip book of maps we would use the next year, either. I use the word upgraded very cautiously, because as we found out, the flip books provided no better than the blurry, information-deprived maps out of a guide book. At least for this trip, Craig bought a newer version of the guidebook, which updated our information by almost a decade from that used in the first, uncertain trip a few months earlier, in June, 2002.

For this trip, we used just those maps photocopied out of the newer book. As I might add, the photocopies did not reproduce that well. Hence, we had very little detail on which to navigate while we hiked. As a backup plan for this and all future trips, we quickly reaffirmed the hikers golden trail rule: STAY ON THE TRAIL! It proved a good rule, until a winter camping trip over a year later, but generally the rule held for most of our trips on the Superior Hiking Trail. We stayed, invariably, on the trail.

We took our trip this time in October, very late in the month, on a raining day with chilling air. As I remember, vividly by their absence, the leaves mostly had fallen to the ground along the north shore of Minnesota. Those few remaining leaves turning a decaying drab of colors mostly brownish, and the wet ones on the ground sounding loud as we sloshed on them, we stepped out of the vehicle into a leafless woods. That drizzling, chilly afternoon, as my father celebrated his 69th birthday with our family back home, Craig and I grabbed our packs from the bed of the green little pickup truck, put the packs over our shoulders, fastened and tightened the straps, and headed into the naked forest.

Leaving the Caribou Creek parking lot, heading up the trail northeastward, we literally headed “up the trail.” For the first mile of the hike, we walked, painfully for out of shape guys, and always uphill. Again, the mild deception of fuzzy photocopied maps did not abate the sheer self-deception of our high ambitions. Instead of a book or map seduction via a- “We can do this easy-squeazy”-delusion, the experience highlighted our self-deception. The exuberant enthusiasm of a greenhorn backpacker will not contribute to the trail hiking savvy except by experience.

Craig and I did not foresee at that point on our trail quest that the Superior Hiking Trail creators followed one golden rule before all others for weekend camp poets like me: The trail must always try and go uphill and otherwise follow the path of most resistance. They who made the trail, we believed, hated flat, easily walked ground. If the trail could avoid easy, less punishing paths in favor of a steep challenges or a rigorous detours, the trail almost always followed the harder ways.

After the first mile “straight uphill,” we followed the next mile and a little more on a slight incline until we arrived at Crystal Creek Campsite. Since it still rained when we arrived, Craig and I established our camp quickly. I filtered water at the creek through a clogged, hand-held camp pump which Craig brought with us, and Craig pitched his large, and heavy, four man blue tent, which slept two with gear inside it rather comfortably.

As the first noticeable thing at almost every developed and maintained campsite, the latrine forms a vital part of the site's wilderness architecture. Taken together with the fact that when needed, in an emergency situation, checking out the latrine becomes an inevitable duty when setting up camp. In daylight, on the lower side of the hill (downhill!) of the tent pad, the latrine at Crystal Creek looked all the more typical of the campsites we found on the Superior Hiking Trail. Made of a hardened fiberglass conical shape sitting on its wider end, hopefully with some form of cover over it to keep critters from going inside the seat-less rim, the platform base of the cylinder just sat over a hole in the ground, a hole into which no one wants the latrine contraption to fall while sitting. Without moderate cover or natural camouflage to hide the user from view, this latrine used a fence of plank boards to provide some common privacy to the modest camper. Still, with a purposed-built latrine, one did not have to hang out in the woods, over a downed tree limb using tricky acrobatic formulae to stay balanced.

Further along the main trail from the campsite, crossing the direction we would continue the next day, ran the Crystal Creek, flowing down the hill. Down some steps, fifteen feet below, the creek ran through a large mini-gorge, the rocks and crystalline formations overhanging the water course as it streamed. Just below the campsite, we saw the remnants of some type of copper mine.

And still on the main trail beyond our camp, crossing over the creek, Craig and I marveled at a true and ambitious piece of wilderness architectural design and construction. We saw a long, narrow, wooden, covered footbridge—with open sides waist-high and up, railings, and a peaked roof of shingles (wood shakes, I recall, but without certainty).

“You know, Tim,” Craig the civil engineer observed to me, while we stood in the misting drizzle, “people had to carry all of those materials out here, over the trail, by hand or by some type of cart. I can't see how even a four-wheeler [A.T.V.] could have managed what we just walked through.”

I thought Craig's comment most astute.

“Plus,” he continued, “no power tools—built it by hand. They might have pre-cut the beams and boards, or had to carry a generator and fuel with them, too. Either way, that's impressive.”

A covered, old-fashioned colonial-looking footbridge gave both the forest and the creek some semblance of civilized esteem in the rather somber, brownish and gray woods. It looked at once out of place, but rather appropriate, even dignified, there over the creek.

As far as I can recall, we never again saw such a humbly-sized, well-shaped and -crafted structure quite like it on any of the trips backpacking the trail. Whoever built it amazed me, and their hard work would impress anyone. Someone built it, whether the committed trail volunteers who maintained the paths, or the civic group who did the project for some reason unknown.

All this time, the rain continued to drizzle. I looked into my mini-binoculars through the bare topped trees down the valley to the east, toward the big lake, Superior, which I could see in glimmering mirrored reflections of its gray waters on this dreary, wet, cold day. Craig used his cell phone to call his wife, to check in, let her know we made it, and to ensure that she would pick us up in two days. Jen, Anya, and Craig's engineering co-worker, Liz, planned to hotel hop around the north shore for the next day and night, and to meet us on Sunday, somewhere around late-morning.

A memorable part of the day came when Jen told Craig, who repeated it so I could hear, that the U.S. Senator, who promised to serve only two terms, died in an accident while campaigning for his third term. It shocked us, and as I lived and voted in Wisconsin, I felt somewhat neutral about the guy's politics. Like any pointless death on the earth, the god keeps his own appointments for us, regardless of our politics.

Since it continued to rain, and the rain increased its pace, Craig and I retreated to the tent as it began to grow dark. The view of the lake to the east disappeared into the mist of now falling sky water. It felt like time for the comforts of my new synthetic fiber-filled sleeping bag, for some supper of re-hydrated freeze-dried meals, and to relax with the copy of the novel Amerika!, by Franz Kafka, that I brought to read for this trip.

Underneath the tent's opened rain fly and vestibule, outside the unzipped front door of the tent, Craig boiled water on a gas stove, one that he would replace by the time of our spring trip. When the water roiled and pulled itself up the sides of the aluminum cook-kit pot, he poured the scalding water into his Mexican tortilla meal and into some sort of Cantonese shrimp meal for me. These bags of warm, slowly growing pieces of salty veggies and meat, along with some snacks of venison jerky and chocolate, served as our supper for the evening.

Since I could not eat all of my dinner, I found it too bland and salty, Craig suggested I dispose of it in the latrine—a campsite “no-no” of putting anything but human waste in the pit. Outside, walking briefly in the rain by flashlight, I threw the remaining contents of the aluminum foil bag into the latrine, and put the bag in the garbage bag inside the tent vestibule. Unusually for us, compared to our later trips, we did not secure the food and the other “smellies” (like toothpaste, deodorant, even cook kits, etc.) into a bag hung from a rope thrown over a high and convenient tree branch. We had no consciousness of any bears in our early low adventures. Later, due to some of the freaky signs we did see on some trips, we henceforth always secured the food and the “smellies” on a “bear rope.”

At some point, Craig fell asleep, reading by candlelight some book. I read Kafka by flashlight, and I fell asleep much later, probably near mid-night. I slept pretty fitfully, but my trip notes say I had a dream of some cross of the movies Damnation Alley and The Planet of the Apes. Even now, it sounds like a good story, but I do not remember how it went.

The next morning, we woke, boiled water for instant oatmeal, packed up and headed up the trail at 9:30 AM for a six mile hike to the next site at Dyer's Creek at Two Island River. On that morning and all afternoon, it sleeted its half snow and half rain off and on again and again, and before we stopped for a lingering lunch of hot soup and coffee, the sky turned into a menacing cloud covered gray. We crossed rugged country, at the tops of steep cliffs, over one-plank footwalks across really large marshlands and bogs, and by the very beautiful Alfred's pond, at which we rested and I meditated. We arrived at the camp at 2:30 PM. While we set up camp like before, Craig found a camper's thermometer hanging by a string on a broken tree branch. He used it quite often on later trips, and that day later in the afternoon it read thirty degrees, Fahrenheit, and it dropped from there as night crept over us.

We played with a stubborn fire, getting us just warm enough after two hours so we could eat the re-hydrated stew Craig concocted at home and heated on his rapidly failing gas stove. And then needing to let it die due to the cold and rain, we let fire go out and went to our tent. had a thin foam pad, and not just ground upon which I needed to sleep. I did not realize then that I needed to upgrade that pad into something more comfortable. Still, though, it got damn cold, and I felt damn cold sleeping. Craig commented before he fell asleep that it could get colder if the low clouds did not linger to rain and sleet on us. Soon, I would buy a proper camping self-inflating sleeping pad, but I did not learn that lesson good enough that night.

The next day, we backpacked with lighter packs the last, easy 1.1 miles to the next parking lot. I did a cold shave and washed up where we sat by the road, at the entrance to the treeline that partially concealed the dirt parking lot in the middle of nowhere, in northeastern Minnesota. Jen, Anya and Liz drove up, and they gave Craig a ride to the mini-pick-up truck at Caribou River while I sat against a fence post and watched the gear.

I sat alone, reading Kafka. Then, I heard a heavy banging noise in the lot. It sounded like a piece of metal on a hinge, like a garbage dumpster would sound, swinging on a hinge and banging. Just then, Craig drove toward me on the dirt gravel road along the grassy, treeless clearing stretch separating one side of the forest from the other. When Craig stopped, I put the gear into the truck bed and hopped in the passenger seat. Craig pulled into the lot to turn around. I saw a small dumpster, opened, while the lot looked otherwise empty.

“Huh,” I said to myself. I never did try to explain the mystery that made that noise.


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