It’s been a couple of weeks since I last posted here, and the reason was that I was going to attempt a 15 day thru-hike of the Superior Hiking Trail with my friend Mike. As it turns out things didn’t go as planned for me. There’s a lot of emotion that I’ve been processing since I returned, but before I get into that, I want to spend some time just talking about the first few days on the trail: what I experienced, what caused me to fail, what I did right, what I did wrong, and what I need to do differently next time.
I’m a compulsive planner, and this trip was no different. I wanted to know everything I could about what I would need, and when I would need it, long before we set out. Mike and I laid out a detailed plan for where we were going to be each day, and what we thought was reasonable mileage for each day. At first we laid out a 14 day plan that was very aggressive, and then after Mike made a scouting trip this summer, we scaled it back to 15 days. This still meant an overall average of 20 miles per day, with a slower start and ramping up as we went.
I was also compulsive about packing. I laid out a full 16 days worth of food that totaled more than 2700 calories per day. I ordered special ingredients to help boost my calorie count for each day and packed everything in to neat and organized bags to make things easier. Every day would begin with a breakfast and snack bag. I would eat the breakfast, load the snacks in my pack, and then use that bag for trash the rest of the day. Dinner and lunch shared a bag that would then all get consolidated by the end of the evening.
Then there was the weight planning. I really wanted to stay under 30 lbs and after a lot of careful planning I managed to achieve 28 lbs starting weight with four days of food and 1 liter of water. I already owned some good lightweight gear including an Enlightened Equipment 30° (F) quilt, and a REI Quarterdome SL 2 tent. I skimped on extra clothing and instead focused on “packing my fears”, which involved a full roll of toilet paper.
After all the packing and planning was done, we were ready to set out. We had certain days where we had reservations at sites that we needed to hit, so the pressure was on to stick to the schedule.
Our first day was spent driving up the shore, grabbing a few last minute items, and staying the night at the Hungry Hippie Hostel outside of Grand Marais. This put us 45 minutes away from the start of the trail, which allowed us to have an early start.
The hostel was comfortable and quaint, and it had a very thru-hiker vibe to it. There were posters from various trails, as well as maps showing where people had hiked on even longer trails like the Appalachian Trail. Overall, a really nice experience.
Our first day involved parking 1.2 miles from the terminus and hiking up to the 270 Overlook. This marks the start of both the Superior Hiking Trail (which heads south) and the Border Route Trail (which heads west). My wife, Mike, and I all hiked up together and spent some time taking photos before kicking off the start of what would be a very long day.
The first parts of the trail feel more like the Boundary Waters area with rolling hills and low lying paths alongside small creeks and ponds. There weren’t the giant climbs and rocky outcroppings that are the signature of the SHT, despite the fact that the highest elevation of the entire trail it within this first section. Yet that means very little when it comes to the day-to-day. More important is the number of feet of climbing and descending each hike.
We stopped for lunch at a campsite around mile 9.5, enjoying a short rest before hitting the first ridge line of the day. Although we were still far northeast of the Sawtooths the patterns was familiar and we put our heads down to keep moving up and down the ravines. Soon the ridge line gave way and we got a respite for the final miles to our campsite. Our first night was at South Carlson Pond, a lovely spot in amongst a few different ponds and tall aspen and birch trees.
The first day ended up being nearly 19 miles which was a big haul for someone like myself who had never attempted long distance backpacking before. I knew I was in for a challenge. I was also dealing with the mental challenge of the entire experience, but settling in to camp that night felt good and I slept a solid 8 hours, awakening just before dawn.
To be continued…