The Cepia Club Blog

The Cepia Club Blog: The Cepia Club believes individual awareness and activism can lead to a peaceful and prosperous world. This blog contains the pertinent literature, both creative and non-fiction, produced by the Cepiaclub Director and its associates.

Thursday, August 09, 2018

Low Adventures: Trekking the Superior Hiking Trail, Part 6: Winter Camping and the Mustard Man

Low Adventures: Trekking the Superior Hiking Trail
Part 6: Winter Camping and the Mustard Man
By Tim Krenz
April 10, 2018

In the middle of January 2004, my friend Craig Mueller called me on the phone. We had not done a trip to the Superior Hiking Trail in northeast Minnesota since the previous June. We both felt tormented that fall that our quest to hike the entire trail had not gone farther in our two years and 4 trips so far. On the phone that cold, snowy winter day, however, Craig repeated his now-infamous phrase, “Tim, I've been thinking. . .” When he says those words, I usually get talked into something that sounds nicer in theory than the way it turns out in practice.

I braced myself for what came next. “Let's go winter camping up on the S.H.i.T next month!” Seriously, winter camping? In northern Minnesota—by Lake Superior? It did not take me long to answer. “Sure,” I said. And we started to plan our next low-scale adventure to the Superior Hiking Trail, which we always reduced to a one acronym word: “the Shit.”

I always give Craig great credit. As a civil engineer by profession, he works out solutions to problems and obstacles. We would get snow shoes from his dad. Then, Craig ordered online some search and rescue harnesses, which we would wear to drag simple children's snow sleds carrying our gear. He also planned menus, as usual. He figured out the transportation schedules and arrangements and any temporary lodging.

We planned our trip for the last weekend in February, from Friday the 27th to Sunday, Leap Day, the 29th. Craig made plans, good ones, too. And he always planned for simplicity with appropriate details. In fact, just to make sure I could handle pulling a sled on snow shoes, two weekends before our trip, on his family's visit to his parents house in Wisconsin, he had me test the shoes, the harness, and a plastic sled filled with split firewood. I felt comfortable enough to do this, even though Craig, like a Russian winter Olympic judge, thought my technique and form needed some improvement.

Came the Friday for the trip, Craig and I rendezvoused in North Branch, MN, around 5 P.M. We arrived at our motel in Silver Bay, MN, north of Duluth and within sight of the big lake, three and a half hours later. The trips north always passed uneventfully, though I always forgot that we had gear in the open bed of his little green truck. As Craig drove, I would dump the coffee and grounds from my travel mug out the window. Unfortunately, I usually found some coffee and grounds on my pack when unloading at our destinations.

As at home in Wisconsin, the north shore of Minnesota had cold temperatures, but a lot more snow. Lake effects and winds did that. The weather the night we arrived at the empty motel felt a cold freezing though without the damp. The motel really did leave the light on for us, however, having turned up the heat in our room—their only guests that night. Starting in the spring in this trendy town, the motel would have a full house all the time. The motel, designed in late 1970s interior modern Soviet concrete style, nonetheless served our purpose. In the room, we watched a favorite Clint Eastwood movie of mine, sorted through my gear to figure out what weighed so much, tied our packs and bags to the sleds with nylon ropes, and went to our beds. I finally fell asleep by 11 o'clock.

The next morning we met up with Craig's co-worker who worked alone in the company's Duluth office. Craig arranged to shuttle the truck to the end of the section we would walk and camp. I bought the breakfast as my contribution. Vaguely, I remember something about an asparagus omelet at a fritzy bistro in Tofte, MN. Craig's co-worker chose the restaurant. Less vaguely, I remember something about one of us ordering two slices of maple-cured bacon, an addition that alone cost seven bucks. Well, since Craig and I usually ate cold, cooked bacon and precooked boiled eggs for breakfast when camping, we lived it up! Of course, we appreciated the ride. All things considered, an alternative arrangement would have cost more than two very expensive pieces of bacon. As for its taste, texture, and quality, it tasted like simple, store bought bacon, from a grocery chain store.

After leaving me with the gear at the Britton park parking lot, the other guys shuttled the car up to the Oberg Mountain lot. When they returned to the starting point, full of Saturday morning revelers, skiers, and children sledding, Craig and I got ready to go after we said thank you and bye to the co-worker. With our canvas and rope harnesses belted around our shoulders and waists, we tied the sleds by ropes to the loops in the backs, slipped on our snow shoes, and headed north into the woods. At the very start, we had to dodge sledders and cross-country skiers coming down the hill trails.

Happily, Craig and I saw that some other snow shoers had proceeded us up the main trail which made it easier to traverse. Using my ski poles, I found the balanced walking a good going, once we left the people behind us in the park. Whereas the Superior Hiking Trail used blue, green and white “sunrise horizon” trail markers nailed to trees to mark the path, the designated snow shoe trail used metal silver diamond shaped signs. We checked the maps on the wood post one last time and then started following the markers up the steep hill.

Up the hills, between the thick old growth trees and the younger growth beneath the canopy, the sleds would slide around the tree trunks when we took turns or corners. Going downhill required some extra pretty good special adaptations to technique and form. As I became more proficient pulling my orange sled filled with gear, Craig's narrower sled kept tipping over, causing him some expletive frustrations. We both learned to let the sleds down ahead of us, guiding with the ropes that twisted around our bodies, to prevent entanglement or tipping on the downhill walk.

After crossing the ski trail a second time, the fresh tracks that guided us so far gave way to older tracks. Covered by the last snow fall, we could still follow those older tracks by the deep indentations in the snow. We came to a small river or creek with a high embankment. Once we removed our snow shoes, we had to carry our sleds and gear by hand across a tricky bridge, too narrow to snow shoe, but through deep, powdery snow that came up above our knees. Above the bridge on a small hill, we rested from the toil. We crossed the groomed ski trail again, or one of its branches, and started up a high hill, one with a great deal of thickets and leafless underbrush. We lost the trail at that point. Someone, we could see, had cut away from a path and bushwhacked, back toward the ski trail. In looked like a doubtful direction. We tried to find trail blazes, but we found none.

Craig said that we should go back down to the ski trail and head to the northeast toward Mount Oberg. We took off our snow shoes, strapped them to the sleds and walked along the ski trail in our boots. Walking two and half miles, using the side of the ski trail, I tried not to ruin the classical cross country ski grooves. We saw only a total of three or four skate skiers this far away from the cars. The winter forest, with little wind, had the quiet of a weekday church, with the occasional bird in the belfry. The day, as the sunshine warmed the air, felt warmer than expected. We had walked a total of four hours since starting. At 2 P.M., we came to an un-plowed and ungroomed spur of the trail. We walked far down it, post-holing the deep snow when we could have easily put our snow shoes back on our feet. At the dead end of the spur we found an area that suited our needs well.

On one of those times that Craig's tipsy sled turned over, he managed to lose the handle to a miniature, collapsible, red snow shovel. My sister had given it to me for Christmas. The shovel useless without the missing piece, we dug out a campsite on the edge of the trail under some trees using the broad ends of our snow shoes. While he put up his big, blue “Hilton of the forest”-tent, I used my trusty hatchet to chop through the limbs and branches of a downed dead oak tree across the trail. Craig, as always, criticized and disparaged my hatchet and how long it took me to chip away at the tree. Yes, I admitted, after whacking with a relatively dull ax head for far too long, I could see the logic of a folding camp saw.

We stowed the gear inside the tent or outside the door under the cover of the rain fly vestibule. We had unrolled sleeping bags and the self-inflating mattress pads (I used an over-sized pad I borrowed from Craig's dad). Chores done, we built a fire in front of the tent, putting a good base of wood down on the snow. On top of that base, we built the little kindling tee-pee. We never, ever used accelerant to build fires when camping. Using paper as tinder, the wood kindling took flame just fine. We ended up with a very good and hot campfire. We fed the fire by pushing the long limbs of oak and other minor scraps we found into the flames as the ends burned away. The fire melted the deep snow around our ring, to expose a wet and dirty forest floor.

Craig had also brought a 20 pound bag of dried oak lumber scraps, the remains of his project when he built some very nicely done book shelves for the condo in St. Paul. (Those rather large and handsome shelves made three or four moves with Craig's family over the years. They now stand in his basement in Washington state, where I have some books hidden behind Craig and Jen's for when I visit).

We sat around the fire, my insulated wind pants soaked on the backside from sitting on snow. We remained there for the rest of the day and early evening, watching the fire which illuminated our campsite well. The partly cloudy sky glowed with the heavens, and it gave the snowy woods its bright aura of comfort and ease as the air around our site became much colder. Craig cooked supper, a very good one, in fact. He roasted some pre-cooked carrots and potatoes wrapped in foil, done “hobo style.” On some sticks we sharpened, the venison-pork bratwursts flamed and sizzled over the oak heat. Craig had shot the deer that made our meal the previous autumn at his dad's cabin in Wisconsin. The butcher processed them perfectly, and when cooked thoroughly, we put them on buns. And then I asked Craig if he brought any mustard.

“I didn't bring any damn mustard,” he retorted.

“What? Why not?” I responded. From that trip, mustard and other condiments became my responsibility. Craig always reminded me about it on trips, too, once we reached the far reaches of the woods. I would often forget the mustard, sometimes deliberately.

Melting snow in our mess kits set near the hot fire, for water to drink that night and for the next day, we learned a valuable lesson. In using old snow in the woods for melted drinking water, we realized that snow if not freshly fallen collected the debris of the forest—little pine cones, needles, twigs, sap, dirt and who knows what animal particles. The water tasted awful, even if one strained it through a clean cloth or a sock. In fact, water filtered through a dirty sock would have tasted much better.

Craig called his wife and daughter from his cel phone around 7 o'clock. I called home, briefly, to say hello to my girlfriend, who I met almost one exactly one year previously. In the tent by 8 P.M., Craig fell asleep immediately. I read a paperback copy of Melville's “Moby Dick” which I bought for the trip and started the night before in the motel. I fell asleep, too, exhausted, by 9 o'clock. I slept sound, in the cocoon of warmth of my sleeping pad and bag and with my fleece blanket wrapped around me.

The next morning, we woke at 6 A.M. It took both of us almost two hours to summon the gumption to exit the cocoons of warmth and challenge the cold, wet air. Our respiration at night had made the tent's interior damp. Craig checked the temps outside on the thermometer he found one previous backpacking trip. It read just under twenty degrees (F). We packed up our camp, expeditiously, then loaded and secured our sleds, and headed up the spur. Not far from the campsite, we saw signs of animals: Large footprints and fresh wolf or coyote scat. It looked funny, those long scraggly lines of pooh with mouse fur or something stuck into it. We turned right on the main ski trail, and we reached Oberg Mountain parking lot by 9 A.M. after a very short walk, again without wearing our snow shoes.

On the drive south, we stopped for coffee at the same high-bistro in Tofte, and we ate a hearty breakfast further down the road at Betty's Pies near Two Harbors. The drive home passed uneventfully. By this time, at the end of the winter camping trip to “the Shit”, we had completed a mere 44.8 miles in five weekends. Big chunks of trail remained. We would do some challenging hikes, some of them on extended trips. And as side note to this winter trip, later that year of 2004, at Christmas time, Craig and his family made me a present of a new collapsible, miniaturized red snow shovel. I treasure it still.