Trepidation on the Trail
How do three late-middle-aged guys hike 30 miles? With a lot of second thoughts.
My buddy Gregg is sixty-something and has enjoyed backpacking since he was a young man. When he invited me to join him for a trip on the Superior Hiking Trail, which traces Lake Superior in northern Minnesota, I enthusiastically said “yes” while harboring some quiet reservations. He also invited a mutual friend, Don.
My reservations were born of age, inexperience, and the 30 extra pounds I carry. While I have done some Boundary Waters canoeing that involved portaging copious amounts of gear over short trails, I have never thought of backpacking as something that I would like to do. Rather, I’ve thought of it only as the most dreaded part of a canoe trip: the portage. The thing is, I don’t do many “guy” things. No hanging out in the deer shack, no ice fishing, no poker with the boys, no road trips to Lambeau Field. So I figured that this was a guy-thing opportunity, and by golly I should do it!
A few weeks before the trip we met at Gregg’s house where he proposed a five-day trip beginning north of Lutsen, Minn., and heading south. The plan covered 38 miles in five days, including days of nine- and 14-mile hikes. The plan fueled my reservations and thoughts of, “Are you flipping crazy, Gregg?” I have never walked 14 miles in one day on flat terrain without a pack! I said nothing, but looked to Don for support saying, “Hey Don, what do you think of the plan?” Don responded with “Well, have you checked out these elevation changes? Looks like 5,000 feet of change on day three. … I will definitely have to train for this. Yes, definitely some training is in order.”
The next day Gregg emailed us to say he was reconsidering the route. What did we think of a hike that covered 30 miles, with the tough day being only nine miles? OK! I was on board! Don thought it seemed like a more “reasonable” plan for three late-middle-aged, out-of-shape men.
A couple of weeks later we met at Gregg’s, sized up our packs, and headed north with good intentions and no training under our belts. We stopped to check trail conditions in Tofte: snow (up to 24 inches in some places), wet, icy, and muddy. Believe or not it was May 14, 2014. The trail would be difficult at best, but we would not have any bugs.
I said nothing, but my out-of-shape, overweight body was feeling like it had done its work for the day. I really couldn’t think about the fact that we were only halfway and still had two mountains to climb.
The first mile and a half hike was a breeze and we set up camp early afternoon on beautiful Lake Agnes. It was an idyllic setting akin to a Boundary Waters experience as we watched loons, beavers, and fish enjoy the water newly freed from the ice and a beautiful setting sun. We built a nice campfire and worked on our conversational skills.
Day Two was going to be a five-mile hike. Thirty-degree temps provided for a chilly night and found us ready to move around daybreak. On the first leg of the day, we took in beautiful vistas and valleys as we hiked along the winding Poplar River. The trail deteriorated as the day went on and we encountered more ice, snow, and mud. I spent a lot of time looking down for my next step to discover moose, deer, and wolf tracks. Additionally, there was dung everywhere and based on some serious speculation we concluded that we were sharing the trail with coyote, wolf, deer, moose, and bear.
All of the scat proved to be very exciting and it fueled thoughts of magical encounters with majestic beasts. We did see several bears that turned out later to be stumps. By the time lunch arrived, we were tired, hungry, and confident that we must have covered at least five miles! During lunch Gregg began to study his map with a really serious look on his face. “Uh, guys, I hate to say this, but it looks like we made a little miscalculation. We have already come five to six miles and according to my map it looks like we still have another five or six to go to our campsite.” Silence ensued. I said nothing, but my out-of-shape, overweight body was feeling like it had done its work for the day. I really couldn’t think about the fact that we were only halfway and still had two mountains to climb.
In the next hours as we trudged over Moose and Mystery mountains, I began thinking that Gregg had a secret plan to kill us. The thought was tempered by reality: Gregg – six years my elder and not in any better shape than I – was carrying all the food, and his pack was 10 pounds heavier than mine. I also took some comfort in knowing that Don was a doctor and would know what to do when I started having a heart attack. I didn’t consider who was going to save Don.
Exhausted and 13 miles since we broke camp, we reached our Rollin’s Creek campsite around 4pm, set up tents, and fixed a meal of dehydrated spaghetti and peas that tasted downright gourmet! After hanging the food bag, purifying some water, breaking in the ranger box, and downing a few handfuls of ibuprofen, we headed for bed. It was 8pm.
Waking 12 hours later I could barely move, just enough to pop some more ibuprofen and lay back down to give them a half hour to work. Today was going to be an “easy” day. Just five miles without too many mountains to climb. If only I could stand up!
Lessons learned: When it comes to loading the pack, less is definitely more, but with water it is the opposite. Walking outside and making your bed on the ground and under the stars leaves you feeling connected to something both primal and real. Having an adventure with a couple of good friends creates lasting memories, deepens the bond of friendship, and is indeed a very good thing.