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Into the Woods (and back out again)

If you've been reading my blog you know that my last post was about my feet being in jail and I was lamenting the fact that we’d had to push our backpacking trip out from June to August while my feet got a chance to heal.  So, I wanted to let you know what happened with our trip!

The day finally came for us to head north. On a lovely Sunday morning in August after weeks of packing, even more weeks of planning and hours of food prep, we had finally thrown all of our packs into the car top carrier and headed for the North Shore. This year it was even better. We knew what we were getting ourselves into and we couldn’t wait. We’d hiked the Superior Hiking Trail (SHT) for four days last year and we were all looking forward to our seven-day trip ahead.

Now, we’re a motley crew – not your typical group that you see on the SHT. For starters, there are seven of us. That’s right – SEVEN – and only two of us are adults and can carry much weight at all. There’s Paul and I, our three daughters and our two dogs (the boys). Everyone has a pack. The boys carry their own food but not much else. The girls can carry a water bottle, their sleeping pad, sleeping bag, clothing, mess kit and snacks. Paul and I carry the rest – this adds up to around 10~15lbs for the girls, 40lbs for me and 50lbs for Paul.

Throw all that weight on and then climb steep rocks and slog through low, wet, muddy areas and you’ve got yourself an adventure!

This year we had planned to hike from Silver Bay almost to Crosby Manitou State Park. All in all, it was about a 40 mile route over 7 days.

Our ride up was uneventful. We drove past our starting point to place our secondary food stash, hanging it high enough in a tree and far enough off the trail as to avoid both bear and human contact. After that was all set, we stopped at a gas station in Silver Bay to enjoy flush toilets and junk food one last time and headed to the trail parking lot.

All loaded up, we set off on what is known as one of the most challenging segments of the SHT. While we probably wouldn’t have admitted it then, it was everything that we’d thought it would be and we were having a blast. We began on the trail around noon and hiked in five miles. The views along our hike were the best we’d seen yet on the SHT. The sun was shining and the creeks were full. We all agreed that we were finally getting our hiking legs at our water break around 3:30. There would be only three more hours until we found ourselves walking into camp at Palisade Creek.

Campsites on the SHT are basically cleared spaces with fire rings and a latrine (plastic toilet half buried in the dirt). Most sites have enough tent space for 3-4 four groups and our campsite at Palisade Creek that night was full. There was a group of young girls and two guides from Menogyn who were celebrating their last night on the trail.

We also met Ben – a kind young man who was on the trail by himself but seemed to enjoy our rowdy company, and Matt – another lone hiker out to disconnect for a few days during some time off. What we realized when we got into camp was that some time during our hike in, we’d lost our only length of rope. To you, sitting there reading this, missing some rope may not seem like a big deal. To us, this meant that we either got to protect our food from bears and raccoons or took a chance with a possibly trip-ending invasion of our food bag.

This is where Ben came in. Ben had one very, very small bag of food that he carefully lofted in a tree nearby. When we told Ben of our predicament, he not only helped us loft what turned out to be at least 20 lbs of food, but he also cut his rope in half and gave us a section. It seems a bit trivial now, even writing this, but on the trail, when you’re carrying everything you own on your back with no way of acquiring anything more, this gift was impactful.

After a quick dinner of cheesy potato soup and dehydrated ice cream, we all crashed into bed.

I wish that I could continue to regale you with more great stories of our additional six days on the SHT, but sadly, the story almost ends here. What happened is that the next morning, we realized that Ike’s paw pads were worn raw and some were starting to bleed. He was limping and with him weighing in at 70lbs, there was no way that we were going to be able to continue our trip. That morning, our trip went from a 7-day walk in the woods to a difficult and potentially dangerous hike back to civilization as quickly as possible.

That morning we’d said goodbye to Ben and the nice ladies from Menogyn as we continued to pack up our site. We lingered a bit, almost needing time to let things sink in. Matt also lingered that morning – petting the boys and helping us talk through our options. He also gave us his contact information and offered us a ride back to our car. Again, as you read this, it doesn’t seem like that big of a deal, right? We’d hiked in 5 miles, we could just hike back to the car, right? Wrong. Because of the difficult terrain and the possibility that we’d need to carry Ike out, we couldn’t go back the way we came. This meant that we needed to trudge forward to Tettegouche and the visitor center. Getting there was a 7 mile hike to the parking lot and an additional two miles to the visitor center.

There were a lot of tears shed on the trail that day. There were tears shed for Ike, of course, but surprisingly, the tears were mostly for me. I didn’t realize how much I really needed that trip until the end was in sight. I wasn’t fully aware of how much my body and spirit needed to be engaged with the quiet, peaceful, warm wilderness surrounding me. I didn’t realize how much I was clinging to this trip as one more week of “family” before the girls all went off in their separate directions to new and different schools.

As we hiked closer and closer to the end, all of this began sinking in. I realized how connected I’ve become over the years to the natural world and how important it is for me to take a technology break every so often. I needed this trip for me as much as for my family. I needed a break from myself – the self that continues to push, that rarely creates space for rest, that always wants to fit all the fun in no matter how crazy that makes the schedule.

In the end, our trip did last just two days and I did find myself in quite a funk for the following few weeks. What I took out of that, however, is the lesson that it is essential for me to spend long periods of time in nature so I'm beginning to make that time a priority.  I also know that the SHT is waiting there for me and that I’ll be back very soon.

As a side note to all this, the other thing I walked away from the trail with is a renewed sense of hope in humanity.  At one point this summer, I felt like I just couldn't handle any more news - no more stories of violence.  I am worried for the state of the world and it was at an all time high this summer. After having encountered the kindnesses mentioned here along with the couple who offered me a ride back to our car from the visitor center (what would have been another couple hour walk) and the man in his mid-60's who was running the trail all the while giving us encouragement to keep hiking, keeping taking our kids into the woods and staying positive - I realized that in such a short span of time, we were completely surrounded by loving people, none of whom we chose to be around.  They just showed up.  So this was another eye opening and healing aspect of my 24 hours in the woods.

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