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Starting at the 280º overlook: N. Terminus of the Superior Hiking Trail
I remember when I felt it. We were a little over 5 miles into our hike, climbing up Rosebush Ridge, to the highest point on the Superior Hiking Trail. I had already done a face plant and tweaked my knee at mile 2 on the overgrown flat section just south of the Northern Terminus. Moments later my sister was stung by a hornet on the bridge over Andy Creek that we had been warned about. We joked about our rough start. Even though we were only a few miles into our 310 mile thru-hike, we were getting our legs. I stopped to catch my breath on the steep climb and looked out to the West, into the vast wilderness of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area. There were no humans for miles and my brain shouted, “Don’t go that way! That’s where people get lost forever and die…you’ll end up on the evening news”. A well blazed trail, having my sister with me, and knowing Lake Superior was hugging us to the left snapped me out of it. That was the last time I remember feeling fear in the 300+ miles that would follow.
“I want to be light and frolicsome. I want to be improbable, beautiful and afraid of nothing as though I had wings”
I’ve been waiting to say this for a long time…
I finished the Superior Hiking Trail!
The Superior Hiking Trail, or SHT is a rugged 310 mile footpath in Northern Minnesota that runs along Lake Superior from the Canadian to Wisconsin border. I’ve been home for almost a month and I’m still processing the reality that my #SHTLASH (Superior Hiking Trail Long Awesome Section Hike) is behind me. It feels good to have accomplished a big, hard goal. You could say I am still unpacking it, pun intended. Every day I am reminded that it was so much more than ‘just a hike’.
Right after Mom dropped us off at the Northern End
What started as two sisters heading South on an epic 3 week adventure evolved into a year long effort involving a couple of dozen friends and family. If I had it to do all over again, I could not have hatched a plan as swell as this year has been.
Thru Hike: typically signifies hiking from the beginning of a trail to the end of it, in one trip.
Section Hike: hiking an entire trail in sections to complete it, in no specified time frame
LASH: short for long ass (or awesome) section hike, reserved for longer trails or sections.
There are different interpretations (and even arguments) about these terms in the hiking community, but for the sake of this post, these are the definitions I’m using.
My friend, Fancy Nancy, said my LASH “is like a thru hike with a bunch of zero days in between”…except those zero days aren’t really zero days…my days are full of work, family activities, volunteering and just trying to keep up on regular life. In some ways, I think a LASH was harder than a thru hike. Every time you hit the trail, your body and mind need to re-adjust all over again, but it gets easier each time. I’m still not sure I’d enjoy a long thru hike, I’ve never lived on the trail for more than about a week at a time. But a LASH was a great way to get a taste of completing a long trail without being gone for weeks or months.
I had a lot of help
My family, friends, Women Who Hike and Thrive Hudson communities were a huge support on this journey. I realize I could have hiked the trail on my own, but I knew I probably wouldn’t have done something like this just for myself (or enjoy being solo) and life is so much richer in community. That being said, my favorite day on the trail was also my longest day and the only day I hiked alone. I suppose I was never really alone that day, hiking through Duluth’s regional parks, and meeting my husband at the end. But, I enjoyed keeping my own pace and welcomed the day of solitude. Although this adventure did not go how we had originally planned, I’m so grateful for the way it unfolded and for all of the encouragement from friends and family along the way. Thank you.
If you are new here, I didn’t start hiking until I turned 40, but I’ve made hiking a weekly habit for 3 years now and it’s become one of my passions. If you haven’t checked out the 52 Hike Challenge yet, get on it! Hiking every week and having a goal to work towards was one of the things that gave me the confidence to even consider a thru hike. Deciding to hike the Superior Hiking Trail was the most challenging goal I’ve ever set and my biggest adventure to date! Every rugged section felt like the ‘hardest section’ and I probably said that every time I came home.
Three Hundred and Ten Miles
The Superior Hiking Trail is divided into 6 sections, approximately 50 miles long each. Each section has it’s own map and a corresponding number to organize them into a whole. Most people use these maps to plan their hikes. My friend Keith, created a full length map of the trail that is a beautifully detailed functional work of art. I used both of these resources to plan my hike, but had a bit of a mind-shift after my sister and I ended our thru hike early due to injury. Until then, I hadn’t considered the trail in sections, it was always a 310 mile deal. Shifting my mindset from ‘thru-hiking’ to ‘section-hiking’ and finishing one whole map at a time kept me motivated and made me feel like I was doing something big!
My sister and I hiked 100 miles on that first leg, covering the most remote section in the first couple of days, Southbound from the Northern Terminus.
I learned so many things the hard way on the Green and Burgundy Maps: the importance of listening to my body, taking care of my feet, building miles slowly and the importance of communication. I brought way too much food (that I am still eating one year later) and despite the hard lessons the trail taught us, I will always treasure that epic adventure with my sister. I couldn’t have done it without her. I still tell everyone that the only time I ever felt scared on the trail (it was more of a sober realization), was on day 1 of the trail as we climbed to the highest point and I looked out into the remote wilderness of the BWCA for the first time.
Our last morning at Temperance River State Park
I was prepared for fear, and expected more if it, honestly. What I was not prepared for, was how hard it would be physically and emotionally to let my expectations go and end our trip early.
I wanted closure for our epic hike, so on the morning that we planned on going home, I drew out our route on my beloved Keith Myrmel Map with a sharpie and memorialized it with pretty leaves and pine cones. I know…it was a little dramatic and a little like a funeral, but it seemed like the right thing to do at the time. I wasn’t sure I’d ever have this experience again. I went right back to work on Monday, kept my chin up, told everyone that it all worked out the way it was supposed to… and put on a brave face.
I thought I had Lyme disease
My symptoms started with a stiff neck, went to my IT Bands, knees, shoulders, shin-ankles, other body parts, then I had a headache, and just felt sad. I struggled with these physical symptoms because they didn’t make sense to me…and I wanted to be proud of our hike instead of feeling sorry for myself.
What I can only describe as a persistent ball of pain and sadness travelled around in my body for about 6 weeks after I got back home our hike. I felt worse at home than I did when I was on the trail and I was in denial about feeling like a failure. Pain relievers, stretching and rest didn’t help much and my long recovery was unexpected and disappointing. Aside from recovering from the physical demands I placed on my body, the emotional toll played a part in my malaise. Besides ‘just giving it time’; talking, praying and crying with a good friend or two was what really helped me move forward. Holding onto “my stuff”, acting like everything was fine and not dealing with my disappointment was not working, and it was physically manifesting itself in my body. It felt like it was just going to get worse if I kept ignoring it.
Post adventure blues are a real thing, research it. Marathoners, Hikers and all kinds of adventurers can experience a let down after a big event with months of preparation. If you are struggling, please seek help from your support network or a professional. It took until January for me to fully recover, but I finally felt free, and ready to start thinking about hitting the trail again.
This is the first installment of a 3 part post. To read about the next 210 miles and what I learned along the way, feel free to hit subscribe or check back for updates on new content.