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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”

-Mary Oliver

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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’.

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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.

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_491b.jpgMy 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.

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The Blister Sisters

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.

unadjustednonraw_thumb_49b5.jpgIf 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.

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_2800.jpgThree 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.

My feet were trashed by day 2 and my sister had earned the trail name “Hornet Bait” with a sting that had evolved into a full blown swollen mess making it difficult to continue on. We ended at Temperance River State Park after a 20 mile day over the Sawtooths and my oldest son drove 4 hours North to rescue his Mom and Aunt the next morning. Ending our trip early was hard. I had my heart set on hiking the whole trail, but we knew ending here was the right decision.

img_3235.jpgI 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.

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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.

IMG_3527I 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.

IMG_4266I 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.

IMG_4263Post 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.

Happy Trails,

~WP

Next up:

Superior Hiking Trail |Part 2: Section Hike

Superior Hiking Trail |Part 3: My Hike

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15 thoughts on “Superior Hiking Trail | Part 1: Thru Hike

  1. I remember you and I were backpacking that first section at the same time. My goal was 100 miles and I was thrilled beyond imagination that I achieved it. Your goal was 310 and you stopped at 100. (And a 20 mile day! I still haven’t done that!) Although we both did the same amount, the response between the two of us was totally different. It all has to do with expectations and perspective. Can’t wait to read your next posts.

    1. Thanks Linda! I remember watching your youtube video after we got home and thinking ‘that gal is doing it right!’ I learned a lot in that first section and wish we’d gotten to hang out together a little more. Congrats on being over half way through the trail! We also appreciated your teal map trail intel right before the final leg. Happy trails!!!!

  2. Congrats!! love reading this and seeing how far you’ve come this past year! You really have embraced this crazy hiking life to its fullest and I can’t wait to read the next post.

    1. Thanks Mike! Remember when we met and I was just a baby hiker picking your brain? Im really lucky to have met you and John early on. You just made backpacking seem so ‘normal’ and like it was no big deal. Ha! Its so great to see you now—you hiked the WHOLE APPALACHIAN TRAIL! Woo hoo! Thats still so cool! Let me know if you are ever back in town, it would be so fun to catch up!!

  3. Thanks for being so brutally honest. Emotions can wreck havoc on bodies resulting in physical pain. There are so many ways of accepting our limits and you did what is right for you by finishing your goal in sections. I am curious how your sister dealt with this too. Hope it turned out OK for her. Love your posts!

    1. Thanks Gail, It took me a while to figure out what was going on, but Im glad to have worked through it. It made me stronger. My sis went on to conquer the Zion narrows a few weeks after our trip and has been healing from a broken ankle for most of the year. Although she wasn’t able to continue, shes doing well, has found other passions in life and has been a big support on the last 210 miles. Stay tuned for parts 2 and 3.

  4. That’s a big one down, Jen. What’s next? Sounds like you’re hooked. Thru-hikes, section hikes -what’s important is to keep on gettin on out there… weeks at a time or months… whatever works in your situation… and Lord knows our situations are always in flux, what w/ work, family and friends, and a surprise every now and then. Reminds me, gotta get my snow shoes into Midwest Mountaineering for some rehab work. Won’t be long!

    1. Thanks Mike! Im hooked for sure. I know not everyone can go on an adventure like this one and Im grateful for it. Whats going on with your snowshoes? Hopefully its something they can fix or maybe the manufacturer can repair? Im also a huge fan of Nancy at Repair Lair in minneapolis. She can fix anything! I cant wait for our first foot of snow, and we still have to go visit Utepils one of these days!!

      1. I popped a rivet on a snowshoe out in Custer SP last March -best get it fixed before the snow returns in coming weeks- can’t wait! I’ve been using them for at least 20 yrs and this is the first problem I’ve had w/ them…LL Bean!
        Then I fouled the zipper on my Big Agnes, Fly Creek 1 person, HVUL1 tent out in Theodore Roosevelt NP this past summer during the absolutely worst thunderstorm, w/massive lightening, that I’ve ever experienced in my life. I got the zipper replaced at Repair Lair over on E. Lake St. (REI had recommended them). Good to hear your recommendation as well!
        And, like you, I can’t wait for our 1st foot of snow… preferably all at once, and the second and third foot as well -gotta remain optimistic! Let’s visit Utepils before the snow flies (or after), maybe plan an outing over beers!

    1. Thanks John! Really appreciate your wisdom from the start, and that article is totally right on. It may be at a different scale, but its a real thing. Whats next for you? Ive got a couple of trips rolling around in my mind…have all winter to figure them out. 🙂

  5. Thanks for the wonderful shout-out and words of appreciation to SHTA volunteers. I read your post today in the hiker log at the So. Terminus as you completed that section as a LASH on 9/15/19. I am an SHTA volunteer and had just spent 4 hours improving the Red River campground when we found your notes of gratitude. I will share your enthusiasm for the trail as a motivator to other volunteers.

    If you love hiking next to Lake Superior, try the Canadian Nat. Park in Ontario known as Pukaskwa, the Coastal Hiking Trail. It is 38 km of epic wilderness trail which is extremely challenging yet packs epic rewards and beauty. – the Wizard

    1. Thanks Chaz! Im glad you found my note. Its volunteers like you that make the SHT the gem that is is. THANK YOU! I’ll check out Pukaskwa, Im always interested in learning about new places. Thanks for the suggestion!!

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