Saturday, October 29, 2011

Superior Hiking Trail | Day Three

Egge Lake to Section 13 Cliffs

Egge Lake, 6:30 a.m.

After a restless night without much sleep, I woke up for good at 6:30 a.m. and listened to loons calling on Egge Lake. A full moon hung in the sky above the lake, and it was very cold. Bundled up in fleece jackets, hats, and gloves, we made breakfast before packing up and heading back onto the trail at 9:00 for a nice, cold morning hike.

East Branch of Baptism River

Our destination was Section 13 Campsite, located at the top of the steep Section 13 Cliffs, which is a popular spot for rock climbers. Although we still did not have any views of Lake Superior, the trail was very scenic and interesting throughout the entire day. We crossed the Baptism River again and passed an old bear den which was marked with a sign. It was cold, but the sun shone through the trees, creating a beautiful green glow all around, with the occasional splash of fall color jumping out.

The green glow

We stopped for lunch at Leskinen Creek Campsite, which is spacious and could fit several tents. The temperature remained somewhat cold, the sky became overcast, and the wind picked up again as we sat on a bench by the fire ring, cooking and eating Mary Jane Farms' Chili Mac. We did not linger there long, as the weather was becoming increasingly temperamental, and we wanted to make it to the next campsite as soon as possible.

Awesome forest scene

There were many more steep climbs along this section of trail than during the previous two days, and a lot more scenery to enjoy as a reward. At one point, we climbed up a long, steep stone staircase surrounded by trees, which darkened the path and made me think of the
perilous, never-ending hidden staircase of Barad-dur. The trail skirts an enormous boulder, which was left behind by a retreating glacier at the end of the last ice age. It is a couple stories high and was a definite trail highlight.

The Glacial Erratic

We traveled across a few bog areas, and crossed a large beaver pond called Sawmill Pond on a long stretch of boardwalk. A trail register is posted at one end, and someone had recorded details in it of a bear sighting at the pond the day before. The only wildlife we would encounter that day was a grouse that scared us when we accidentally flushed it next to the trail. Just before I finished crossing the pond, it began raining. I put my camera away for safe-keeping, and missed the chance to get a picture of the beaver lodge, which eventually came into view. The rain didn't last long, but came and went several more times throughout the day, causing us to put our rain gear on, then remove it a few minutes later on more than one occasion. The sky was filled with dark, menacing-looking clouds, and the wind had continued to get stronger, leading us to believe we were in for a storm, but so far it had been just one false alarm after another.

The boardwalk crossing Sawmill Creek Bog Area

Crossing Sawmill Beaver Pond

There is no water access at Section 13 Campsite, but according to the guide book, there is a stream ½ mile north and another ½ mile south of camp. We did not want to rely entirely on these streams having water (many of the streams we had encountered so far were dry), so we stopped for a little water at a stream we crossed earlier in the day. If the streams near Section 13 were flowing, we would be able to collect more for cooking; if not, we would at least have enough to drink until finding more the following day. We eventually climbed to the top of Section 13 cliffs and reached our campsite at the top. The first of the nearby streams had been bone-dry, and by the time we reached camp, the weather had become frightening. It sprinkled off and on, a storm still threatening but holding back; however, the wind howled and was so strong that I was afraid to get close to the edge of the cliffs.

Aster along the trail near Section 13 Cliffs

We rested for only a short time before determining a good spot for our tent and quickly setting it up, staking extra guyout lines for the rainfly just in case. I had been excited about camping in this high spot with its amazing views, but my excitement began wearing off as the temperature continued to drop, and I watched the towering trees swaying in the wind all around our tent. Unfortunately, I would not be doing much exploring of the cliffs or drinking hot chocolate by a fire, which I had been fantasizing about all day.

Section 13 Campsite

It was only 4:30, and despite the weather and the day's strenuous hike, I was feeling energized and volunteered to hike to the next stream, an alleged ½ mile south. I put my winter hat and rain jacket on, grabbed one of our Platypus water containers and headed out. Almost immediately, I found myself on top of a bald where it is possible to take in a spectacular 360ยบ view of the surrounding forest, river valley, and other cliffs. The intense wind prevented me from spending much time here, however, and I returned to the trail and my quest for water. It began raining, and the wind drove the cold drops sharply into my face until I began descending into the woods, taking cover under the trees.

Looking out from near the top of Section 13 Cliffs

The trail descends very steeply here and there was no stream in sight. I hiked on, thinking that maybe it would be just beyond the next hill. Then the next. This went on and on until I was certain I had hiked further than a half-mile. At this point, I could see far enough ahead to determine that this supposed stream was either dry or a total fabrication. Turning around, I began the steep climb northward back along the trail toward camp. By now it was extremely cold and the wind was brutal. With only a small supply of water and the unpleasant weather, we skipped cooking dinner and just ate a quick snack before hanging our food bag and retiring to the tent. By 7pm we were in for the rest of the night. I had wanted to return to the excellent vantage point just down the trail to take some photos at sunset, but the sky was so overcast at this point that there would not have been much of a view. I crossed my fingers that the morning would be better, changed into heavier wool socks, long underwear, and a long-sleeved Smartwool t-shirt, and settled in for the coldest night of sleeping I had ever experienced (until the following night).

Sawmill Beaver Pond

To be continued in Day 4: Section 13 to Kennedy Creek

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Superior Hiking Trail | Day Two

Sonju Lake to Egge Lake

Sonju Lake in the morning

We woke up to the soothing sound of loud goose honking. The morning was chilly, but the wind had stopped sometime overnight. Sonju Lake was calm and still, and after coffee and oatmeal, I spent some time on Lilly's island taking in the reflection of the surrounding forest and blue sky above in the glassy lake. It was a gorgeous morning, and as much as I looked forward to the day's hike, I wished that I could spend more time on this little rocky island.
Sitting on a boulder at the tip of Lilly's Island in the morning

We left our campsite just before 11am, a very late start for us. We usually get going fairly early, but we did not feel especially rushed and took our time packing up. We passed the remains of a decaying trapper's cabin, but the majority of the day's hike was actually a bit boring. There would be no views of Lake Superior during the first few days of our hike, and this section did not provide much in the way of scenery. We arrived at Egge Lake around 12:30 and stopped for lunch at North Egge Lake campsite. Both North and South Egge Lake campsites are on the shore, and cables are provided for hanging food bags out of the reach of bears. We had never seen these types of cables before; they were strung between trees overhead, but didn't seem high enough to be effective.
The old trapper's cabin

After collecting water from the lake, we ran into a bit of a snag. Our water filter suddenly became very difficult to use. The internal filter should be good for several uses, and this one appeared in good shape before we left, but on only our 2nd of six days on the trail, it was suddenly so clogged that it barely worked. We must have put it through more work than we thought prior to this trip. Luckily we had water treatment tablets with us as a back-up in the event something went wrong with the filter. We managed to filter a good supply of water at Egge Lake, but throughout the rest of the week we used the filter sparingly and treated most of our water with tablets. It's good to have contingency plans.
My new favorite trail lunch. Wasa flatbreads with cheese or various Justin's Nut Butters.

The wind picked up again and we decided to stay where we were and set up camp. The last forecast we had seen had predicted rain on this day, and it seemed like a storm was coming, so we stowed our gear in the tent vestibules and decided to give the questionable bear cable a try. Most of our food was in an Ursack, which we just tied to a tree trunk, and we strung a stuff sack with some additional food and our garbage as high as it would go on the cable just in time for the wind to go nuts. The food bag swung back and forth violently, and we ended up more worried about the wind blowing trees down than a bear rummaging through our camp and testing the height of the bear cable.

Our campsite at Egge Lake

The sky darkened quickly and dramatically, turning purple above the choppy water of Egge Lake. We lingered at the shore and watched the storm blow in as long as we could before the increasing wind and scary weather drove us into the tent at 7:45 pm. Like the night before, we noticed ash on the surface of our tent, but again figured that the wind was carrying it from the campsite's fire ring. As we laid in the tent listening to the wind howling outside throughout the night, we felt the temperature drop steadily. The warmer-than-expected weather of the first two days was coming to an abrupt end. 

After about an hour, we both noticed the smell of campfire, which made us extremely uneasy. We suspected people were camping at the South Egge Lake campsite, but we didn't think anyone would be so reckless as to build a fire in this kind of wind. I started to think about things that had never occurred to me before: What would we do in the event of a forest fire? Would we be able to hike out in the dark, or would our way be blocked by fire? It was getting bitterly cold; would we have to take refuge in the lake to avoid being consumed by flames? How long would we be able to withstand the cold water before succumbing to hypothermia? (I had tried to get in the lake earlier in the day but wimped out because it was like ice.) What are the odds of a tree falling on our tent giving me a fatal head injury before escaping a forest fire becomes a concern? These paranoid thoughts combined with the loud wind kept me from getting much sleep, and it wasn't until morning that the wind died down enough for me to relax and listen to the welcoming sound of a barred owl hooting nearby. I'm sure it would have already fled if the surrounding forest was about to become a charred hellscape.
Stormy sky above Egge Lake

To be continued in Day 3: Egge Lake to Section 13 Cliffs

Monday, October 3, 2011

Superior Hiking Trail | Day One

Crosby-Manitou State Park to Sonju Lake

Sonju Lake

We parked at the Silver Bay SHT trailhead at 8:20 am. The shuttle was scheduled to pick us up at 9:07 am and take us to the trailhead at Crosby-Manitou State Park, approximately 37 trail miles north. The shuttle showed up around 9:15, and we met a couple from Kentucky who were being driven to the far north end of the trail and planned to hike it in its entirety (referred to as thru-hiking). They had stopped in the trail HQ in Two Harbors the day before and received an updated weather forecast. Temperatures were going to be colder than expected, and they were told there was even the possibility of snow flurries. This didn't bother Craig and I too much, but the woman we were speaking with was nervous; she had planned for the 50-70 degrees an earlier forecast had predicted, and in doing so, brought her +45 sleeping bag instead of one rated for colder weather. They were experienced long-distance hikers who have likely handled many challenging situations, but I would think of her now and then over the coming week as the weather did a spectacular swan-dive. I didn't think to ask what kind of shelter they were using, but if they were tarping, I'm not sure how she fared. I hoped that she brought some good warm layers, and wasn't too miserable during the cold, windy nights.

Reflections in the Baptism River

At 10:00, the shuttle dropped us off on a dirt road next to an unassuming trail sign that marks the southbound trailhead at Crosby-Manitou State Park. It was much warmer than we expected this morning, and mosquitoes were bothersome throughout the day. The trail was interesting, however, and within an hour, we found ourselves in a section thick with cedars, which provided shade and cooled things off a bit. Soon we reached the east branch of the Baptism River and a spot where the SHT intersects with the North Shore State Trail, which crosses the river on a bridge. The North Shore State Trail is a snowmobile trail that can also be used in the summer for horseback riding, mountain biking, or hiking. Beyond the bridge, the SHT re-enters the woods and we found ourselves at Blesner Creek Campsite.

From Blesner Creek Campsite, looking back toward the trail bridge

Blesner Creek flows into the Baptism River, and the campsite is situated between the two streams, just before they connect. It is a wonderful spot for a campsite, and although we had hiked only about three miles, we seriously considered staying there. While we thought over the idea of setting up camp and adding extra miles to the following day, I filtered water from the river and Craig made burritos for lunch. We ended up spending an hour there taking a break, eating lunch, and enjoying the surroundings before deciding to keep going. Even though we had not planned to stay at Blesner Creek, we hoped that we weren't making a mistake leaving such a nice spot to stick with our itinerary.

Blesner Creek Campsite
The site is up to the left; the trail goes off to the right
Blesner Creek is in the foreground, and the Baptism River is to the left, just out of the shot

Just after 2pm, we arrived at Sonju Lake, which has two areas for camping – a north site and a south site. We planned to stay at North Sonju Lake Campsite, because it was supposed to be right on the lake shore. This didn't appear to be the case once we got there. The lake was visible through the trees, but the campsite was in the woods. The guidebook says there are 4 tent pads there, but we couldn't see any spot that stood out as a clear place to pitch a tent and explored the area a bit to see if we were missing something. Over the coming week, we would learn that the book's “tent pads” are not always obvious, and are probably more of a guideline of how many small tents could potentially be set up at a campsite. 

We decided to check out South Sonju Lake Campsite, which was not on the shore and had 6 tent pads according to the book. Here a clearing in the woods provides a fire ring and enough space for several tents. Although we were the only people there and there was a lot of space, it took us quite a while to decide on a spot for our tent because the ground was very uneven and sloped in each place that looked promising. We finally found a patch of flat ground and began to set up, only to find that the ground had so many roots and rocks just under the surface, that staking our rainfly was nearly impossible. The questionable skies above the lake did not make us feel comfortable leaving the rainfly off, so we spent even more time moving our tent this way and that until we could coax all of the stakes into the ground. This would end up being a regular struggle throughout the week, and we just had to get used to the challenge.

Our tent at South Sonju Lake Campsite

Once camp was finally set up, we took some time to collect water and explore the lake. A narrow boardwalk provides access to Lilly's Island, a small rocky island near the lake's east end. This was a fun place to visit, and we spent some time there sitting on a boulder, cooling off, and watching wind ripple across the surface of the water. Despite the cold weather that would come, the week started out very warm, and it had been a hot, sweaty day on the trail. The wind had become fairly strong, and stormy-looking clouds gathered periodically overhead, drifting away and returning throughout the rest of the day. Lilly's island would remain one of my favorite spots of the whole trip, and I was glad that we had decided to come here instead of staying at Blesner Creek.

View of the lake from Lilly's Island

Back at camp, we noticed ash on the surface of our tent. This seemed weird, but we assumed it was being kicked up from the nearby fire ring due to the periodic gusts of wind, though the fire ring seemed undisturbed. Little did we know what was going on north of us near Boundary Waters (we would not learn the news until 3 days later). We made Packit Gourmet's tortilla soup for dinner and went to bed when it started getting dark. Small animals (probably mice) scurried around outside of the tent for a while, and I tried to read but ended up drifting off to sleep quickly. I tend to dream a lot when camping, and that night I dreamed a bear was lurking around the outside of the tent, sniffing at the ground. It rubbed against the tent above my head when it walked by, and I could feel it's fur sliding against the top of my head through the thin nylon wall. I woke up and there was nothing but silence.

View of Lilly's Island from shore

To be continued in Day 2: Sonju Lake to Egge Lake