This weekend the wife and I decided to have an adventure on the Superior Hiking Trail (SHT). We were staying in Two Harbors, and wanted to get in a double digit run/hike. We decided to do the 10.8 mile segment from Split Rock Wayside to Beaver Bay. We decided not to run it together, but instead run in opposite directions, meeting in the middle.
I dropped Lisa off at Beaver Bay and proceeded to drive 8 miles south to the wayside rest to park the car for her to retrieve later. When I got to the trail entrance I was greeted by a sign informing me that the bridge over Split Rock River was closed. I knew there was another spur trail entrance just up Highway 61, so I decided to head down the road a third of a mile to that entrance to avoid the potential for getting stuck and having to backtrack.
Once I started climbing to the trail, the remote and wildness of the situation kicked in. When you’re out on the SHT you’re out in the middle of nowhere, despite being so close to a major highway. Occasionally, you can see the lake off to one side, but apart from that your only human interactions come when you pass by campsites or other runners on the trail. It’s an odd feeling, especially for an old city-boy like myself who thrives on the energy of people.
I plowed down the trail as best as I could, however, this first part of this segment is in dire need of attention. Much of the trail was overgrown, and there were many, many muddy spots. To top it off, the iconic blue blazes has mostly worn off of many of the trees. This means that you often wonder if you’re really in the right spot. I’m much more accustomed to the trail conditions further north, and an abundance of SHT signs and paint to ensure you know you’re going the right way.
I managed to make it through this first section well enough before more climbing, with my only encounters being a wandering porcupine and some snakes. When I saw the porcupine heading down the trail towards me I made so noise and he turned tail and ran. The last thing I needed was to get stuck by a quill only 2 miles into my run/hike. The snakes were less of a problem as they scattered as soon as I got close. I just had to make sure I didn’t accidentally step on one of them as they were scurrying to get out of the way.
Things started to improve by mile 3-4. I was encountering less mud, and the abundance of large rocks meant less encroaching undergrowth to block my view of the trail. Around mile 5 I hit this amazingly beautiful prairie section that was so different from anything I had encountered before on the SHT. It took me by surprise, and gave me a new challenge, finding the trail through waist high grass. For the most part I managed to stay on track, but I was always a little bit unsure. This section concluded with some chest-high plant growth that completely blocked the trail, causing me to stumble on one of the boardwalks that had been built in the area.
Very shortly after this I met up with Lisa and, standing in a lovely prairie, we compared notes on our two sections. I briefly considered heading back with her, but decided that the previous section has made me two grumpy to be around, and I was more excited by the descriptions of where she had been. We parted ways and very soon I came to realize that she got the much nicer first half. I started encountering the beautiful pine needle forest beds, that smelled amazing, and got to climb to the tops of some breathtaking overlooks.
All of the climbing, and stopping to take pictures, combined with being tired and worn out from the first half, meant I was going slower than I really should. I hadn’t run much in the past 4-5 miles, and even had a couple 25+ minute miles. As I hit the ridge line that defines the final part of this section I found a bit more stamina and managed to get back to a sub-20 pace. About a mile from the trailhead Lisa texted me that she was on her way. As it turns out she ended up with a bit more running energy, and through some confusion ended up on an unintentional shortcut. I texted back that I was almost done and that I’d be there shortly.
I moved well in this final section, and I really enjoyed myself as I descended to the road. The terrain felt more familiar and looked and smelled nicer. I managed a decent final mile before emerging out onto the road. Lisa had arrived mere minutes before me and was patiently waiting for me to finish. We were both tired, but excited for what we had accomplished. We spent a few minutes recovering at the car before deciding to head a bit further up the shore to visit Sugarloaf Cove. Unfortunately, the bugs were really bad there so we didn’t stay long, but it did extend our “outside” time a bit longer.
Once we were cleaned up and feeling more presentable, we realized that it was 2pm and we were famished, having only had a single donut for breakfast. It was time to hit town and get some well earned nourishment (and beer of course). I know that for people doing the Superior 100, this segment is just a small part of their adventure to get to mile 20. Seeing it for myself gives me new found respect for what they have to go through to earn that belt buckle.
Every section of the SHT is challenging in it’s own right, but when you combine mental monotony with mud, and going solo, it becomes something even more monumental to overcome. Mental toughness is often the muscle that gets the most neglected in our training regimes. I would encourage anyone who wants to work that muscle to spend some time somewhere remote, like the SHT, learning if you have what it takes to endure through the struggle; challenging yourself, and learning how strong you never realized you are.