March 27th, 1999
By Cary Griffith
The day is practically perfection; no wind in a cloudless azure sky, and by 10:15 am on March 27th, less than a week after the official start of Spring, the thermometer has climbed to a startling 47 degrees (it will be in the mid-50s).
At the start of our trip we are as contented and bright as the weather. In many ways it is the perfect beginning in my effort to traverse a significant portion of the Superior Hiking Trail.
Over breakfast in the Cascade Lodge we pour over the map (Oberg Mt. to Woods Creek, map 3 of 4 of the Superior Hiking Trail). The Cascade River section looks simple. It appears to twist with the river for the first two miles, then ducks into what looks like wooded highlands. The plan is:
Hike 3.1 miles up to County Road 45.
Walk along CR 45 for .3 miles, crossing a bridge before picking up the trail on the other side.
Wind under the bridge, and return on the north side of the river, hugging the stream almost the entire way.
The points of interest on the map describe opportunities to observe "moose, deer, bear and wolf, hawk migrations in season, and wildflowers and berries..." It also has a small section entitled: "Important considerations
• This is a wilderness trail with rugged terrain. Some portions will be very difficult for small children
• Because of terrain, plan on one hour for every two miles hiked, [and]
• Always carry water for even short hikes and wear comfortable hiking shoes or boots"
As we begin, our expectations are almost entirely opposite the map's important considerations.
• No hike is too rugged for men like us.
• It is a 7.7 mile hike: we plan on finishing in less than three hours.
• We are smart and excellent planners: each of us carries a pint of bottled water and some Snickers.
As we start our climb Noah, age 12, dramatizes our carefree ebullience. He holds his quart bottle of water by his waist, squeezing until the water sprays in a long stream. "I really gotta’ go," he says. (Two hours later I recall his lighthearted waste of water when he bends to eat his first fistful of snow.)
All of us are good hikers, though perhaps not in the best shape. Over the last year Noah has grown six inches. His feet have mushroomed two sizes. His childish belly is being absorbed in his body’s effort to rise. His voice has deepened. But he still prefers video games to outdoor exercise, and his favorite way of passing two hours is to watch any movie (regardless of quality).
Brady, also 12, is the shortest of the bunch by about six inches. He is on the edge of the first step of his journey to manhood, poised, ready to begin. He will struggle the most on the hike, and will end up for various reasons with over half of his body wet and icy. But he will never complain.
At 17 Nick is at the edge of launching his own life. He demonstrates his growing independence by leading our trek for most of the way, generally without effort. Unlike Doug, 46, and myself, 44, Nick is all leg and no fat. He glides and dances over the hardest parts of the path, while the rest of us struggle to keep up.
In John Pukite's Hiking Minnesota, the last three miles of the Cascade Trail (the part we've come to hike) is described as dropping "900 feet; in the last 0.25 mile it drops 120 feet in a series of cascades through a twisting, turning gorge, cutting through ancient lava flows." Elsewhere the hike is described as "moderate to difficult," and "gently rolling, as it crosses three creek valleys.....," Near the top there is an "almost mountainous view that looks down on the bends in the rumbling river, with its rapids, and on the forested valley."
We are excited. Back in the Cascade Lodge, over breakfast, we tell the waitress of our plan and ask her if the snow is deep near the top. She shrugs and says, 'you know, I've never been up there. There was a couple yesterday that said they were going to hike it, but it's pretty early in the year and I don't know how they did.'
"Did they return?" we smile.
"I didn't see them," she says.
It was a joke, I wanted to add, but we we’re anxious to begin.
Every year in Minnesota people get lost in the woods. The press is full of accounts of hiking misadventures. Almost four years earlier to the day three young men, all 19, set out on a hike in Gooseberry Falls State Park, less than an hour south of Cascade. A day later one of them managed to find his way to safety. Three days later, after a massive ground and air hunt, a second man was carried out in a snow mobile sled, barely breathing. The third lay face down in the snow wearing nothing but his underwear.
"People in the advanced stages of hypothermia will sometimes feel like they're burning up and take off all their clothes," explained Lake County Sheriff Andy Haugan, in the Star Tribune article describing the incident.
The reasoning behind the absurdity of getting lost on our hike was simple. Much of the trail appeared to follow the river, and at the mouth of the river was the Cascade Lodge, and our van. If you get lost all you have to do is return to the sound of the river and hike in the direction of the current.
We begin climbing up the south side of the river. As the trail rises away from the lake there are numerous steps, railings, bridges and spectacular overlooks.
In the 1930s the Cascade contained an Emergency Conservation Work Camp, President Roosevelt's answer to the Depression and unemployed men. Their fine craftsmanship can still be seen on much of the trail, which they first cut out of woods.
Halfway up on the lake we side step down an ice covered path, gripping a conduit pipe railing for support. Five yards further down we step onto a bridge and overlook one of the largest falls on the river.
We have passed several already, but this one drops over 50 feet into a beautiful gorge. At the crest of the falls, and all along its descent, huge ice formations hug the igneous rock. The chocolate water, stained a vague vermilion from tannin and the iron rich soil, roils into the gorge. The wet rock, mostly in shadow, appears darker than the boulders strewn along the path. Huge Cedars overhang this narrow part of the river, growing out and along the gorge in attraction to water and light.
The scene is so beautiful we can only smile and nod. The sound of the water drowns any effort to speak, which is fine with us.
The trail along the south side continues to rise. Near the top it dips in a sharp, icy 20-foot descent. On the right side of the descent is a pine log railing. We grip the railing, sliding along the snow and ice covered steps. Half way down, a thick splinter the size of a heavy gauge sewing needle pierces my index finger and I start to bleed.
Along the first two-thirds of the trail most of the river is free flowing, with remnants of thick ice sheets jagged along shaded shores. We move further up the trail, away from the lake. The snow grows deeper by degrees.
The day is so warm everything melts. As we move away from the river into the wooded plateau, we enter a snow field thinly populated with a mixture of two to three year old growth and slightly older poplars and birch. Every five or six steps the top crust of snow is still strong enough to support us. But every sixth or seventh step a foot breaks through, jarring every joint from toe to sacrum.
The snow deepens by imperceptible degrees until in the middle of the plateau, over two hours since our start, we stop and sit on a fallen long, hot, sweating profusely, feet soaked and wondering if we're on the right track.
"Snickers," we all agree. My sons down the last of their water, while Doug, Brady and myself conserve the meager allowance of a pint, shoving it back into the pack still thirsty.
Thankfully, the trail is well marked. The hard plastic crescent signs of the Superior Hiking Trail can be seen every 50 to 100 yards along this part of the path. In the last week someone ran a snow mobile over the path, making an easy depression to follow.
"I'm cold," Brady manages, after sitting on the log for a few minutes. "I can't feel my feet."
"Me either," Noah adds.
Whenever we've broken through the snow the top of the crust neatly raises our pant legs. The underlying wet, loose snow falls down into the lips of our boots. After only a couple of breaks a thick ring of melting snow cakes everyone's ankles. The melt water seeps down around our feet. It's like walking over a thin film of ice water.
As we start again Nick is already ahead of us, looking for an SHT sign. The Trail disappeared for a moment (it won't be the first time). I flounder off in what I suspect is the direction, but moments later Nick calls from slightly south of where I stand knee deep in snow.
"A sign," he yells. I don't take it personally.
Contrary to the map, the Trail is not level. It dips down steep hillsides almost to the river's edge, and then rises again up out of the valley. Three dips and rises, several icy slides and scrambling ascents, and a final traverse up a beautiful high-point in the river plateau and we stumble out onto County Road 45, exhausted.
Through my camera lens I see four feet struck forward onto the brown road gravel. The snapshot shows boots and pant legs soaked above the knee. We start the quarter mile trudge to the other side of the river, crossing the bridge until we see the sign signaling our return to the Lodge.
The Trail has been much worse than we expected. If we hiked back on the Country Road it would take us 10 miles out of the way, but we eye the expanse of road with serious consideration.
We have another Snickers and contemplate our ill fate.
"It's probably better on this side," Doug finally asserts. We all hope he’s right.
Fifteen minutes later he's wading through snow up to his waist. And this snow is at the bottom of a steep cliff, in the shade. It sticks to our wet pants like powdered sugar, encasing us in more cold. Brady slips into his father's tracks, falling several times before we finally decide to walk on an old X-country skit trail, barely visible on the ice covered water.
Three miles away from the Lake, and almost 1,000 feet higher the river ice hasn't melted in most parts. In places fissures and holes drop three feet through snow and ice to reveal the river below. This is very dangerous walking. We continue for about a quarter of a mile, the cliffs steep and beautiful on either side. There are ice flows down the sides of some of the cliffs where small tributaries have emptied into the Cascade basin.
We walk in single file, several yards apart. Doug, over 200 pounds with coat and equipment, walks first. Then Nick, Noah, Brady and finally me. I feel uneasy continuing along the river. Everyone walks without speaking. Then Doug, fifty yards ahead, falls through.
Later he says, "I remembered my old Boy Scout technique. If you fall through the ice spread out your arms and roll onto stronger ice." He thinks for a moment and adds, "or were you supposed to roll first?"
We move off the ice, picking up the trail and it climbs into a dangerous vertical ascent. We are on a thinly forested hillside. Far below the river murmurs under the ice. Twice Nick forges ahead to find another SHT sign. Finally, near the top, exhausted, cold and wet, we come out into the deepest snows we've yet encountered.
Noah and Brady want Power Bars, high energy candy bars. They devour them, adding snow to slacken their thirst. At the Bridge Nick filled his empty water bottle with clean snow and now the few swallows of icy water quickly disappear.
"Whoa," he says, "that's really good."
There is a mile and a half section of the Cascade Trail that winds through private lands and is poorly marked. Nick manages to stay pretty close to the path, which in the afternoon sun appears to continue through deep snow without end. We keep waiting for the first signs of the gradual descent to Lake level. We keep waiting for the snows to thin.
We stop three more times, speechless with exhaustion. Doug and I look at each other, smiling but genuinely alarmed.
"I'm miserable," Noah manages, giving voice to the palpable feeling in all of us. "We're lost. We haven't' seen a sign in over an hour."
Still we continue, because what else can we do?
I haven't felt my feet in over an hour. High stepping through the deep snow is like going to the Health Club and getting on a Stair Master for six hours, while someone periodically soaks your tennis shoes with ice water.
"That which doesn't kill us makes us stronger." Doug quotes Nietzsche, hoping for a smile, but his humor flies over the heads of the boys.
Finally the Trail starts its descent. Finally the snow thins, replaced by a sharp icy path. At one point the descent is steep and treacherous, only to wind down to the river’s edge. We think we’re close to the end when the Trail doubles back. It climbs out of the valley for fifty treacherous feet. Noah sits down in the middle of the climb, refusing to rise.
The feeling in my legs stops at my ankles. Stepping on my frozen appendages leaves me with a curious sense of being disembodied, as if walking is made up of more will than the physical act of placing one foot in front of the other. I remember the 19 year old face down in the snow, clad only in underwear.
"We have to go, Noah."
He is not happy to rise. He wants to take a nap.
Six hours after we begin we stumble back to our van. No one speaks. We're happy, but more tired than any of us can remember. My feet are two frozen stumps, but I leave the wet boots where they are. Only later, in the hot tub at our Lodge, do the white patches on the bottom of my soles begin to fade. My feet tingle and burn in the hot water. Gradually we begin to thaw.
Cary Griffith is President of the Electronic Book Company, a technology consultant and free lance writer. He also loves to hike (and write about) the SHT.
He is author of Lost in the Wild: Danger and Survival in the North Woods.