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Kyle Eller: Ugly spring snow brings back fond memories

I am sitting in an office full of people complaining about the latest snow to hit the Northland. As regular readers will know, at this point backpacking is what I'm thinking about most, so sloppy snow doesn't exactly mesh with my plans, either.

I am sitting in an office full of people complaining about the latest snow to hit the Northland. As regular readers will know, at this point backpacking is what I'm thinking about most, so sloppy snow doesn't exactly mesh with my plans, either.
Considering that, my good mood is an odd contradiction. It started Saturday, when the first batch of this wet stuff started falling. Like the smell that evokes a specific childhood memory, this particular snow -- its smell, its feel, its middle-finger-from-winter attitude -- took me back to a moment in a parking lot at Lutsen Mountain.
My dad and I had been planning a backpacking trip for weeks. We had mapped out a segment of the Superior Hiking Trail and talked about meals and campsites. We had pored over pack lists.
This was not the sort of thing my dad and I had done before -- we had mostly car camped when I was young, and I passed on hunting trips when I was older. I was just a beginner at the sport, and I was the more experienced at its peculiarities. Nonetheless, I had waited eagerly for some time in the backcountry with him.
My car had been left at our destination, Cascade State Park. Our packs were stowed in the bed of my dad's truck. We were sitting at the trailhead, everything a go.
But there we were, in late May, watching the snow come down. Hard.
The sinking feeling I felt is much like what I hear around the office today.
We sat in the truck and waited for a few minutes, heater running, hoping the snow would die out. We debated. We talked to Lutsen staff. Finally, after a last visit to indoor plumbing, we decided to do the trip anyway.
Heavy and wet, the snow stuck to what an hour earlier had been bare ground. It clung around our boots, a chilly annoyance. But as the temperature came up, things quickly became bearable. Feet were a little wet, and the trees were dripping, but the hilly country around Lutsen, dressed in white, was stunning.
Soon, the day melted what had fallen, and even a hint of sunshine poked through. Grouse drummed in the low areas, and moose tracks littered the trail.
When we came to our camp, we knew we had made the right decision, because it was beautiful, sequestered on a peninsula jutting into a small lake. Splashing beavers and a warm campfire were the evening's companions.
I was a novice backpacker. My pack weighed two or three times what I would even consider putting on my back now, filled with extra clothes, extra books and food enough for a month. The pack itself, a primitive military-surplus model, probably itself weighs half what my pack and gear weigh now. It was so heavy I needed help strapping it on.
And I was still getting my feel for the trail back. I grew up in the woods, but after high school spent too many years in cities, estranged from nature. I had a city-boy pace. I had to work to keep from racing toward my destination, fighting instincts that pushed me to exhaustion and slower companions toward rebellion.
But it had been a great day -- no pressure, just pleasant hiking. While I was hopeful for the next day, I had no idea how great it would end up being.
Waking up the next morning, there was only sunshine, no snow or clouds to threaten it. We broke camp and started out in a mixed hardwood forest. A short hike later, after a thigh-burning climb, we emerged on top of a ridge on the Sawtooth mountains that was almost alpine.
We followed ridgelines for the rest of the day, 68 degrees and sunny with a light, pine-scented wind. Seemingly every 10 or 15 minutes, a stone outcrop offering a glimpse at interior peaks or a creek in a valley or a fallen tree to circumnavigate gave us a chance for a break. One larger creek was blocked by a big beaver dam, which we crossed in a canoe the Superior Hiking Trail Association leaves for packers.
The day did end strangely: The pack weight, tired legs and a bit of homesickness caught up with us and convinced us to push through to the end. We skipped the additional night we'd planned, and upon my arrival home, my wife barely recognized me with my limp.
But with more highlights than I can recount in the space of this column, it was a trail experience that's still sweet in my memory, and keeps me returning to the sport year after year -- as long as my legs will carry me.
There's something telling that we had to slop through a couple of inches of slushy snow to get to that moment, something important in the idea that we had to commit to a trip that looked anything but promising.
That's why, in spite of this drizzly, sopping-wet, optimism-sapping last gasp of winter lying on the ground, I'm feeling surprisingly ... upbeat.
Kyle Eller is news editor at the Budgeteer News. Contact him at kyle.eller@duluth.com or at 723-1207.

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