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Celebrate Superior Hiking Trail's birth with a hike

ON THE SUPERIOR HIKING TRAIL, NEAR CASTLE DANGER -- Someone has been here before me. I am not surprised. I've come to the Superior Hiking Trail to steal a couple of hours of green silence on a May afternoon. For 25 years now, we have all been abl...

ON THE SUPERIOR HIKING TRAIL, NEAR CASTLE DANGER -- Someone has been here before me. I am not surprised.

I've come to the Superior Hiking Trail to steal a couple of hours of green silence on a May afternoon. For 25 years now, we have all been able to get away for a few hours or a few days on this narrow footpath that winds from Duluth to the Canadian border.

The 282-mile trail is here thanks to the Superior Hiking Trail Association, a remarkable group of about 3,000 who manage and maintain the trail almost completely through donations and volunteer efforts. It was a brilliant concept back in 1986, and it remains so today.

Other than an executive director and a tiny corps of paid staff, the trail is brushed, bridged, cleaned and cleared by hundreds of regular folks who adopt campsites and trail segments. The youthful Conservation Corps Minnesota chips in, too.

That's why I'm not surprised someone has been here before me. He or she or they have cut the spruce and balsam fir and popples that toppled across the trail during the winter. I can see the fresh chainsaw dust on the ground. My path is unfettered.

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Beyond that, the association leads guided hikes, supervises a shuttle service, updates an informative website, wrangles volunteers and even offers a "buddy" system to connect solo hikers with one another.

When the original 205-mile trail was mostly finished, someone suggested the association build an extension through Duluth. In three years, with mostly volunteer labor, the 39 miles in Duluth were complete. Immediately, local residents found this well-signed new path through their woods and began rediscovering their city.

Other trails existed before the Superior Hiking Trail. State parks have good trails. Superior National Forest has a few sprinkled around its districts. Isle Royale National Park has a good system. But there is nothing else like this nearly 300-mile path that leads hikers along the rugged North Shore of the largest freshwater lake in the world.

Tom Peterson, the now-retired Department of Natural Resources trails manager, and people who assisted him in laying out the trail missed no chance to deliver future hikers to splendors large and small. Cool rocks. Sleepy brooks. Wise old trees. Dark cedar bogs.

We come knowing we will find the big vistas of blue on blue and the distant green squiggle of Wisconsin. But we are just as apt to stop and marvel at the way a root has embraced a lobe of rock, or the way a batch of bunchberries grows in an old pine stump.

I move along behind the yellow dog. We flush a couple of grouse. We listen to wood frogs swallowing their quacks. We stop to watch a creek in a hurry.

If we wanted to, we could just keep on walking another 100 miles or so in the same direction. We won't do that today, but somehow it's valuable just knowing we could, in the same way it's cool to know you could plop a canoe in a lake near Ely and paddle all the way to Hudson Bay.

Our minds need that kind of scale, even if our bodies don't.

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I walk for a couple of hours, pausing just long enough to sit on a log and eat a sandwich for supper. What happens out here is what nearly always happens. You slip into the easy rhythm of walking and let your eyes and ears and nose sift through the sensory offerings you encounter.

You can take a lot of hurry with you to the trail, but after a short time, it all dissolves away. You discover, one more time, that three miles per hour is an ideal pace for moving through the world. A couple of hours later, you come off the trail bearing a sense of calm that you had forgotten was attainable.

All that from a little walk on a long trail.

SAM COOK is outdoors writer and a columnist for the Duluth News Tribune. Reach him at (218) 723-5332 or scook@duluthnews.com . Follow him on Twitter at "samcookoutdoors."

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