GRAND MARAIS — Harriet Quarles didn’t expect she and her 15-passenger van would become a Superior Hiking Trail icon.
A shuttle driver for decades, and every year when she winters in Florida, Quarles, a Grand Marais resident, said hikers on the northernmost sections of the trail knew she had a van and would call her up when they needed a ride to a trailhead or when their trip unexpectedly ended early along the 310-mile long trail from Minnesota-Wisconsin border to the Minnesota-Canada border.
“One by one, (the hikers) found me, and then they told their friends … it was an accident kind of thing,” Quarles said. “They found me. I had no idea about the Superior Hiking Trail.”
Now, she’ll sometimes shuttle six groups in a day and drive more than 200 miles without ever leaving Cook County.
But beyond the convenience of her shuttle service, hikers are drawn to Quarles, who is over 70 ("that’s the most I’ll admit to”) for her sense of humor and colorful stories. Some hikers have even developed lasting friendships with her.
“Harriet is also hilarious and never fails to entertain on the ride,” said Laurel Hay, who relied on Quarles twice this year when her backpacking partner fell ill on the trail.
The two hikers were on their way back home to Wisconsin when they saw Quarles walk out of a gas station. They offered her a friendship bracelet or “wish bracelet” that they gave to trail angels — people who go out of their way to help backpackers along a trail.
“Harriet graciously accepted the bracelet and a month later sent me a message with her bracelet on her wrist saying ‘Remember, you have a friend in the North Woods,’” Hay said.
While Quarles posts pinks slips of paper with her name and number on trailhead signs, she’s often the first recommendation by hikers offering each other advice online, and it keeps her plenty busy.
As she drove south along Highway 61 after dropping off a family of hikers at the lakewalk section of trail north of Grand Marais recently, her phone beeped and rang almost constantly with text messages and calls from hikers planning trips. Every so often, she’d pull over to answer it, explaining to the hiker on the other end to shoot her a text when they get off Interstate 35 in Duluth so she has enough time to leave Grand Marais and meet them at a trailhead.
“I’m pretty busy these days,” Quarles said. “I don’t want to be stuck back in that office environment, like putting another vehicle on or hiring a fleet of drivers. If I got that busy, that would be the end of it … I don’t want it to be overwhelming.”
In the mornings, it’s usually a set schedule of bringing people to trailheads. But by the afternoon, Quarles starts hearing from and picking up hikers looking to end their trip early due to exhaustion, injury or weather.
Jaron Cramer, development and communications director of the Superior Hiking Trail Association, said that makes Quarles “beyond a trail angel — she’s really kind of a trail saint.”
“When people have those kinds of situations on the trail, her sense of humor, her bright personality puts a smile on their face when they’re at the bottom — they’re covered in mud, the bugs have eaten them, they’re tired, they’re like, ‘I got to bail on this,’ and then they have this awesome ride with Harriet that sends them out on a really positive note,” Cramer said.
That was true for backpacker Cindy Bertelsen and her sister, both from Omaha, Nebraska, on a trip a few years ago. Harriet dropped them off at a trailhead to start their trip, but the duo ended up needing to leave the trail early.
Bertelsen’s brother-in-law got in touch with Quarles with a vague description of where the two hikers were and Quarles agreed to pick them up early the next day.
“She pulled up the next morning, crying out, ‘My babies, I'm here to save you!’” Bertelsen said as she met them at the trail’s Bally Creek Road crossing in rural Cook County. “We use her shuttle services every year and she is a highlight of the trip.”
Quarles fills the drives with stories, local history and gossip and will pull over to point out things of interest, like crimson-red lupine growing in the ditch or state Sen. Chuck Wiger’s cabin and its yard landscaped in rocks, animal statues, signs and a mannequin-head garden.
Although Quarles doesn’t backpack, she’s done day hikes on some trail segments, and knows plenty about the trail to offer guidance.
She recommended Amy Tappendorf, of Des Moines, start at a different trailhead earlier this summer.
“The entire ride she would explain everything that we were driving by, which actually ended up helping us in the long run because she was able to point out a campsite on the lake we would have never known anything about,” Tappendorf said. “But because she was so knowledgeable, we knew exactly where we needed to go and what regulations we needed to follow.”
Still, Quarles just tries to keep it fun for the passengers.
Under the van’s passenger-side visor are “Harriet’s Rules:"
"1. No Open Containers
2. No Sex in Van
3. No Pot Smoking
4. Puking = Death!"
Disobeying any of those rules will put you on what Quarles’ “Do not fly list,” but being rude will get you there, too. And although pets ride free, Quarles said a poorly behaved pet can be added to her "no fly" list.
“Overall, 99% of the hikers are just wonderful, and the ones that are d-----? They don’t get to ride again. They might not even get to ride a first time,” Quarles said.
Being a point-to-point trail with very few loops makes longer day trips and overnight hikes difficult without those shuttle drivers, Cramer, of the Superior Hiking Trail Association, said. Without them, hikers would often have to retrace their steps to get back to their cars.
“Harriet is a special kind of person, and it’ll be a loss when she decides not to come back from Florida in the summer,” Cramer said.
But retirement? Quarles said she’s already retired. This is just a fun gig.
“I like my freedom,” Quarles said. “I like being out and about.”