In an effort to embrace winter in Minnesota, I decided to get out for a couple of multi-day trips on the Superior Hiking Trail in February. I haven’t done much winter camping before: perhaps 5 nights total prior to this season. The following are two (very different) trip reports, and a few thoughts/conclusions aimed at helping others somewhat new to winter travel.
Trip #1 started late in the afternoon of Tuesday, February 15th at Gooseberry Falls State Park. I didn’t have a lot of direction or much of a schedule heading into this one, so I just loaded up my gear and 5 full days worth of food and headed north with my parents’ yellow lab, Kaya, in tow. I had loose plans to meet a friend the following Sunday at one of a couple trail heads to the north.
Kaya, my hiking partner and wanna-be dog pack model.
Things started out benign enough, basically just coasting along packed down state park ski trails as the late afternoon sun slowly faded. I didn’t need snow shoes at first, but after a couple of miles the tracks stopped, and I was breaking trail through deep, heavy snow made dense by daytime temps well above freezing. I was able to make about 2 miles per hour in spite of breaking trail, and Kaya happily followed along, hopping from snow shoe track to snow shoe track. That night I stomped out a tent platform just off the trail at a non-descript site a few miles from Gooseberry, just south of Blueberry Hill backcountry camp, and set up my three-season tent (chosen to keep Kaya inside at night). I was optimistic about the coming days as the temps were almost spring-like and the travel was not all that slow…yet.
Aside from a pack of coyotes making some noise for a few minutes just down the trail (or so it seemed) around midnight and a nearly-full moon that lit everthing up like a street lamp, the night was uneventful. Warm overnight temps left a small quantity of water left in the vestibule completely unfrozen. I didn’t realize it at the time, but this would mean tough travel later that day.
After waking up and downing a no-cook breakfast we started down the trail toward split-rock river, enjoying some views from up high, but occasionally losing the untracked trail once out of the trees, resulting in us dropping our packs and tromping through deep, heavy snow until we found our way. Kaya was occassionally unimpressed with my navigational abilities:
Eventually we descended to the Split Rock River valley, where state park hikers left us with more easy walking on track out trails. A bit of open water even allowed me to fill my bottles without pulling out the stove....or getting too close to open water.
After ascending away from the river, the going got really tough. The afternoon sun was really heating up, and temps were in the mid 40’s. So much for The Nation’s Icebox! For most of the afternoon I actually was snowshoeing shirtless with rolled up pants, as I had drenched my wool shirt in sweat in spite of trying to maintain a steady, slow pace. With each step my 30” Northern Lites snow shoes were sinking in up to a foot, leaving me to then muscle my buried, heavy snow shoe out of a deep pit of soggy snow. This was hard work for me, and Kaya was forced to follow in my tracks as she would be instantly chest-deep and at a stand-still upon any attempt to strike off on her own.
We took a long break on Christmas Tree Ridge, during which Kaya decided my 36” ridgerest was from now on her own.
The rest of the afternoon was more of the same. The snow kept on getting softer and heavier, and at one point I realized that I was actually in a somewhat dangerous position: in spite of being in OK shape, I was exerting myself to an incredible degree to make even modest gains in distance. I had to stop to take breaks every 30 steps or so, and I could feel fatigue setting in. Even though I was only 5-6 miles from a trailhead, if I was injured, or if Kaya was injured, I’m not sure how I would have gotten out. During normal 3-season conditions, I could have eventually limped out with a sprained ankle or knee. Snowshoeing through what felt like quick sand would not be possible at anything less than full strength. I had never really felt this exposed on the SHT before, in spite of having covered the entire trail on foot at least twice. I didn’t really know what to make of this conclusion, and trudged on to an established backcountry campsite called “Beaver Pond”about 12 trail miles (felt like 30) north of where I woke up.
Not only did night time temps remain above freezing, but a steady misting drizzle set in. I woke up to an eerie quiet fog and more saturated snow. I was warm and dry inside my tent, but was well aware of what steady cold-rain could quickly do if I let my guard down. To make matters worse, even with fresh legs I felt my travel was nearly at a stand-still: I was grinding out perhaps 0.5-0.75 miles per hour. This was the hardest wilderness travel I had ever experienced, by far!
Some time that morning, I decided I needed an exit strategy: I’d either be faced with more wet, slow travel, or if the temps became frigid (as they inevitably would), I’d have potentially bigger issues as everything I had would be frozen and things could turn dangerous. I climbed to the top of a ridge, found phone reception, and asked my friend from Duluth if he’d be available any time before Sunday: he said that night would work for him, so I did something I'd never done before: met him at the Beaver Bay trail head and bailed early on a trip, with the intention of coming back up once the north shore was once again frozen and conducive to travel on foot. My pride took a bit of a hit, but I tried to remind myself that I’m still new to this sort of travel, and the important thing was getting myself and Kaya out safe and sound. Once I was within a couple miles of the Beaver Bay trailhead, I once again hit tracked out trail, and meandered around Beaver River for a while, waiting to meet my buddy.
I had mixed emotions at the time, but looking back I feel I made the right decision, both for safety and my own enjoyment.
Sure enough, things on the North Shore normalized during the coming days, and on February 23rd I again packed up my gear (though I was minus Kaya this time), and set out for the SHT. This time around my gear and food were a bit more dialed in, with a 15 pound base weight and a total of 26 pounds worn/carried excluding consumables. I contacted Cascade Lodge, who shuttled me about 34 trail miles south to Temperance River trail head.
I walked along the Temperance River for about a half mile:
The forecast called for mid-twenties and flurries that afternoon, but shortly after starting my hike a steady snow started falling as I ascended toward Carlton Peak:
As I skirted Carlton Peak, views were mostly obscured by falling snow, and I continued on to the north passing Britton Peak, and steadily progressing north at about 2 miles per hour. Even though I was only wearing a thin wool t-shirt and a wind shirt, I was overheating. In fact, the falling snow (4-5 inches fell while I was walking) started melting on contact on my upper body and arms, wetting-out my wind shirt. I kept moving to stay warm, and the moment I arrived at camp I added a light fleece and a puffy down layer under my drenched wind shirt to keep my body temp from plummeting at rest. I somewhat clumsily set up my Golite Shangri-la 3 in the falling snow (I didn’t need an enclosed shelter now that Kaya wasn’t travelling with me), crawled in and started melting snow and cooking dinner.
The snow slowed down overnight, and setting up under some large pine trees kept much snow from building up on or around my 'mid.
The next morning had a winter-wonderland sort of feel: blue skies, sunshine and everything covered in a few inches of fresh powder.
However, this meant that whenever I brushed up against a pine tree I’d have snow dropping onto me in piles from above. This is where I really grew to appreciate my windshirt: I left the hood up, and rather than getting covered in snow (which would eventually melt and leave me cold and wet), it all just slid to the ground.
I had some of the toughest snowshoeing of the trip this morning: I ascended the mountains around Lutsen ski area, which meant steep climbs through encroaching pine trees, then crawling under, over and around blown-down trees up on windy ridges. However, the views were awesome!
Dipping into the lower lying areas felt really serene, by comparison:
I skirted Lutsen Ski area, stopped to melt some water, then continued north.
Working my way north, the unpredictability continued. The poplar river valley was completely untracked, and for some reason I began randomly post-holing even with 30” snow shoes on! Also, thick brush made much of the hiking feel like bush-wacking.
As the day began to draw to a close, I was treated to a couple more views (of the Poplar River Valley), and even found some open water to fill up my water bottles.
Tired of negotiating downed trees, I hopped onto a lake to cruise the last quarter mile to my camp for the night: East Lake Agnes.
As I was setting up my tent, I realized the temps were dropping rapidly: all day, temps were in the single digits to low teens, but now the clear evening skies were clearly letting heat escape at a rapid rate.
I took one last look at the setting sun and settled into my ‘mid for a long evening of cooking and making hot drinks as a steady breeze picked up. An audiobook on my iPod shuffle helped the time pass.
Overnight I stayed warm, but I think I was on the edge of what my sleep system could handle. I can’t confirm just how cold the night became, but at 8 AM my thermometer (previously under my sleeping bag and not able to give accurate readings) still read -5F. I’d estimate overnight lows were anywhere between -10 and -20 F outside.
I stupidly neglected to put my boots inside my sleeping bag overnight, so was left to try to warm them up in the morning. I placed them (inside a stuff sack) in my bag for about 20 minutes, then put them on my feet still cold. I tore down camp and got moving quickly, still wearing my down parka and Patagonia micro puff pants over my typical snowshoeing clothing. After about a mile I was finally able to drop the puffy layers, and kept on, breaking trail as I went. The morning was windy, cold, and somehow had an ominous feel to it in spite of beautiful sunshine and clear skies. After covering 3 miles or so, temps had slowly reached low single digits (F), but I realized my left foot still didn’t feel right: it was numb, and wasn’t warming up in spite of my core being quite warm. As if on cue, I walked right up to a shelter built next to an adjacent snowmobile trail.
I decided it was time to take care of myself, and set up shop here for a solid hour. As it turns out, my boots were still frozen and were constricting blood flow to my two smallest left toes and the ball of my foot on that side: they were white. I got my stove running, loosened and warmed by boots with hot water, massaged my feet, and eventually restored blood flow.
I drank a liter of hot drinks, filled my bottles, ate heaps of snacks, and by the time I got moving again felt like a new man, physically and mentally. This was the turning point of the day.
As I travelled onward, I felt stronger and happier, and at some point entered an area apparently densely populated by wolves: most stretches of the SHT were near or covered by wolf tracks and occasional deer kill sites, all left since the new snow fell less than two days ago. The temp plateaued at around +10F for the remainder of the afternoon as I meandered along inland ridges, sincerely enjoying myself and watching occasional wildlife. At some point I decided that +10 F was a wonderful temperature at which to travel: I was completely comfortable, and could go up and down hills, exert myself and rest, and maintain a fairly steady core temperature by making minor alterations in my clothing/handwear/headware.
Looking north toward Grand Marais:
Trail on the ridge: A friendly wolf tried to break trail for me sometime during the past day or so.
By about 3:15, I had covered the remaining 12 miles in my route, reaching Cascade Lodge adjacent to Cascade River State Park.
I was greeted by these two:
Just like that, the trip was over. I made a quick clothing change, and started heading south again. This time, I had a profound sense of satisfaction after the successful completion of a challenging trip, more or less as planned. Before I had made it even half way home, I was already thinking up ways to return for one more winter trip this year.