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Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Low Adventures: Trekking the Superior Hiking Trail #9: Kennedy Creek and a Little Light in Overthinking the Weight

Low Adventures: Trekking the Superior Hiking Trail #9: Kennedy Creek and a Little Light in Overthinking the Weight

By Tim Krenz
February 8, 2019

In our numerous trips to the Superior Hiking Trail in northeast Minnesota, Craig and I made great adventures, but we also competed. While we walked the same distances, climbed the same hills, and usually did the walking one of us close behind the other, the competition between us centered around which one of us carried less weight in his backpack. I always lost that race to the lightest weight.

In our next trip to the trail near the shore of the giant Lake Superior, the stifling, steaming heat of that second weekend of July 2005 afforded us the opportunity to cut massive amounts of weight from both our bags. With daytime temperatures that weekend in the high ninety degrees (F) range, we would need no heavy sleeping bags, and no massive coats and sweaters. I thought I had learned the lesson of the appropriate clothing to carry on a much earlier trip. For a one night walk from south to north on a section of trail to Kennedy Creek, we would not even bring complicated camping gear like cook kits. All these factors had their advantages, for both of us, even if my quest to carry less than Craig turned out more discomfiting over the course of the one night.

The day before our trip, on a Friday afternoon at my house in Amery, Wisconsin, I had to move some things in a closet to access some of my gear for the trip. In a far too complicated sequence of events to explain here, I picked up a short but full, and heavy, filing cabinet. I heard a crack and I felt a rip pull me in my back. Well, I thought I put the trip the next day in jeopardy. Thankfully, by the time Craig arrived early Saturday morning from St. Paul, I woke up feeling better and able to go walk with a pack.

Before we left, and while my girlfriend, Looey, talked with Craig, I threw out the heavy shit in my bag, repacking it into a lighter, more nimble, “less-Tim-stuff-than-normal” amount of gear. On my scale, I weighed my pack and belt kit at exactly thirty-two pounds. I had not packed so lightly for a camping trip since Boy Scouts. Unfortunately, following our three hour drive to where we planned to catch the shuttle bus, I lifted Craig's pack. His backpack still weighed less than mine! Disappointed, as always, I fell back on that old justified rationalization: “I carry the shit we need, that you use, but won't carry!” HA!

Walking the trail from the shuttle stop to one of the Kennedy Creek campsites we hoped to secure for the night, we sweated in that horrid heat. I felt, and Craig looked, completely drenched in perspiration. At the top of a hill, with no trees growing on the hard rock surface to obstruct our view, we could clearly see the big-big lake a short way to our east. The sunshine hammered that rock so hard that it literally burned hot and stinging when I sat down to rest. On those types of days without breeze, I now learned, the steam rose from the lake's surface in a tall and solid, shroud-like, wall of water vapor—hanging there like a curtain in a sky-high theater stage. I then found another power of nature that I never knew existed. I wondered at the immense forces of the gods of the wind, when calm, if Apollo drew his chariot close above the world.

On that rock, as we drank fluids greedily, an older woman, perhaps early in her fifties, and wearing tan slacks and a white, short-sleeve blouse, walked up to our lookout and chatted with us. She had ridden a shuttle, too, and just enjoyed the walk along the Superior Hiking Trail on that icky stickly, hot July day. Craig and I had sweat rushing down our faces, and we tried to catch some shade under the small shrub trees that grew among the lichen-covered rock. This woman, to our amazed and incredulous disbelief, showed not a drop of salty sweat in her hair, on her face, or on her clothing. After she moved along, and while we sat there a spell more, Craig joked that she must have carried a solar shower and changes of clothing in her small day pack on her back in order to stay fresh and clean.

We arrived at our camp around 1 PM, following a short but draining 2.4 mile total hike in the heat. We found the site nice but heavily used. After sitting around for a good part of the afternoon, a nursing student from North Dakota State University, a guy named Matt, walked into the camp and asked to share the site. We agreed, but when some women walked in to ask the same thing. Before Craig and I saw them, Matt had eagerly told them we had no room and they left to the second, already occupied site up the trail. (Idiot!).

While Craig read one of his pulp fiction books, I read the front sections of several newspapers, before we would use them to build a campfire. Although hot as hell, we needed a fire. Not bringing a stove to cut our weight, a nice fire later in the evening would serve a double purpose for cooking and the age old entertainment when camping: setting the scene for campfire stories. Matt had no idea about what would come at him that night. Yet, that afternoon, I learned a couple of lessons while hungry and eating from a giant bag of plain M&M chocolate candies. First, it took little effort to eat a pound of them unconsciously. Second, in bitterly hot weather, M&M's can very well melt in your hands and not just in your mouth! I had the candy coloring all over my hands and I needed to wash my them with soap in the same stream where we drew our water.

When supper time arrived early that evening, for me more out of boredom than the pangs of hunger, Craig used the one piece of cook ware he did bring: A small quart-sized aluminum camp pot for making our coffee and for boiling water over the fire. We looked incredulously while Matt, the student, used his ten piece camp cook kit of stainless steel, copper-bottomed dishes to make a delicious looking pasta dish with white sauce. When Craig got the stream water boiling, he and I used it to re-hydrated noodles, veggies, and chicken parts in prepackaged styro-foam cups. Later, now really hungry since I ate all the candies, I chewed on venison jerky and dried fruit around the campfire as the night entered. Dark will come quickly in the thick forest when the sun starts to settle over the hills. We kept that fire small but nice, and I enjoyed it and more snacks. To my intense jealousy, Matt roasted a juicy cheddar-wurst sausage over the fire. It smelled and look fantastic. Oddly, he did not use a stick from the forest. From his overstuffed pack, he had removed and extended a heavy-looking, metal, telescopic weenie roaster. I could only envy his culinary choices after our very Spartan meal of noodles, fare fit for a helot.

Around the fire, Craig spent the rest of the evening chatting with Matt, but the student did not have much to say. Craig must have needed to release all of his pent up boredom having only me to talk with him on so many previous trips. Poor Matt got an earful for a few hours, most of it stories from Bill Bryson's book, A Walk in the Woods, about Bryson's experiences on the Appalachian Trail with a guy named Steven Katz. Craig loved that book, and it provided him with a large part of the inspiration for staring this Superior Hiking Trail. I liked the book, too, though I heard the stories told, retold, and re-retold many times. In Craig's and mine's experience and our shared antics on the trails, we usually wondered which one of us represented Bryson, leaving the other poor one the personification of curmudgeon Katz. We still argue about that today, from time to time. I always defaulted to Craig fitting the description of Katz, as a tall, burly guy with a scruffy beard while camping

Tired, and surprisingly without back trouble until that evening, I turned into the Eureka two-man tent around 9:30 PM. I laughed to myself as I could just imagine poor Matt driven to tears by his boredom about a book he never read, explained to him by one of the consummate story tellers on the Superior Hiking Trail. I do not think Craig lacked for camp fire story telling skills. He always impressed me on that score. I do think Matt, however, just did not have it in him to listen, or laugh, or anything. I heard Craig's voice clearly but not a word from Matt as they sat around the dwindling campfire. After a while, Craig took to giving tips on carrying lighter weight packs and smarter, cheap gear.

Craig must have made it to the tent before midnight. I had barely slept. In my eagerness to remove weight from my pack, I brought only my self-inflating air mattress and two awfully thin sleeping bag liners. I did not realize how cold the forest at night would get once the sun's July hammer stopped heating the anvil of the earth. The dark, cold woods almost froze me that night. All night I slept miserably. At one point, in sleepless delirium, I rolled my back into something. I put my hand behind me to find out what I hit. To my shock and horrification, I realized I had my hand on Craig's ass! Quickly, I scooted my entire body over more to my own side by the tent door, as close as I could get and still stay in the tent. Morning came early, and tired and cold, I rolled out of bed to make a fire.

Craig and I packed up our gear that morning and drew two liters of water each into our bottles from the stream below our site. Craig then realized how freaking useless water pump filters get. They weigh a lot, everything gets contaminated anyway, and people do “things” in the same water from we drink. From that day, on Craig's useful suggestion, we never carried the pump again but instead would always treat the water with Puritabs. If necessary to get out particles, we could skim the water through our dirty socks. It would taste no different from the normal, filtered stream water itself.

In camp, getting ready to head to the truck, we watched in feigned shock when Matt packed his over-sized back pack. He even had extra things hanging on it. Craig supposed later that Matt must have carried 50 to 60 pounds of gear. I could easily see that point, considering the type of cook kit he carried. It reminded me of how much gear I carried when starting these camping and hiking trips three years prior. When ready, Matt went south and Craig and I headed north.

That Sunday afternoon, in the hotness and the breezeless air, Craig and I walked up what we titled Mount Motherfucker, a huge, hulking hill. To our relief, the trail eased up on switchbacks and not straight up the side. At the top, we found a look out view of the lake, now farther in the distance. Where in the thick of that hard wood forest the trees parted ways, we found a spot with a rest bench. After that tortuous climb, we almost brazenly prayed for a breeze. We got that almost-prayer answered—almost. While sitting, exhausted and drenched with sweat, the tree leaves rustled just slightly. It lasted a shorter time that it takes to write this sentence. We had a tantalized feel of cool, ever brief. Who says prayers will not get answered?

On the homeward stretch toward Craig's little green truck, we passed two guys coming south from where they camped at Sawmill Dome, a little round hill with a rock top. They had passed our campsite the day before, heading north. They had had no water since the previous night. Having almost drank all of ours, we shared and split with them the remains of the half liter Craig and I each had left in our supply. From their delirium and gratitude, we labeled them with the Trail name, “The Touched Ones.”

Of course, as it never fails, the trail took the path of most resistance about a mile form the road where we parked. It went up a high hill, skirting some low lying marsh that blocked the exit from the trail. Walking the edge of a cliff above the road, following the trail, I had to step over washed out parts that gulley-knifed off the ledge. One trip or stumble and the world would have hurt as gravity would have come up at me in a torrent.

The walk down the dirt road passed uneventfully. As always when finishing a section on the way to the car, I whistled the famous tune from The Bridge On the River Kwai—that colonel's march or something, otherwise known as “Comet—It makes you vomit. . .” We gratefully drank the extra water we stowed in the truck and it went down like hot tea. The truck cab itself felt like a furnace. On the way driving south toward Two Harbors, MN, Craig and I stopped at a coffee shop along the highway. We both ordered smoothies, which promptly melted before we got back to the car. Instead of ice cold drinks, we drank lukewarm, raspberry milk. The drink nonetheless refreshed us, with sugar at least, as the steam continued to vapor upward and high from the huge lake behind the little coffee shop building. The trip done, we drove back three hours to drop me off at my home, a drive without many words but with satisfaction of having done yet another low adventure on the Superior Hiking Trail.


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