False Summit Club & 107 miles of the Superior Hiking Trail

Map depicting the Captains’ journey, more or less as it happened
DayMilesCampsiteNotes
19.2Jackson Creekstarted hiking after 4pm at 270 Degree Overlook; bear bag hanging difficulties that continued throughout hike; heard wolves at night
213.2Hazel Camptook delightful two-hour break at S. Carlson Pond; heard wolves at night
321.2Kimball Creekfollowed moose tracks in light morning rain; arrived at Magney State Park in full sun; cleaned and dried everything; walked along Lake Superior!; swam a little and filtered and drank Superior water
412.6 Grand Marais Campground & Marinaarrived in Grand Marais during the Arts Festival; resupplied and got Subway for lunch; bought new socks; very luckily got a spot at campground
519.3 Indian Camp Creekgot breakfast sandwiches at Holiday gas station on walk out of town; 2 mile road walk to trail; walked over a large beaver pond (no beavers sighted)
615.8 Mystery Mountain campsitearrived at Lutsen ski area; found drinking fountains and empty deck to dry tents out and make lunch; ate a pivotal plate of nachos at ski resort bar; got caught in slammer
716.6 Temperance River State Parkwalked up Carlton Peak with very pretty views of Lake Superior; reached 107-mile terminus at Temperance; ranger at State Park put a lot of effort into helping us get a wonderful camping spot right above the lake even though all sites were reserved through the summer
Chart showing mileage and interesting facts of the Captains’ partial thru-hike


“Eighty percent seems good enough.”

SPELLS

We, the Captains, sat eating nachos in a nearly empty ski lodge in northern Minnesota in July of 2019. Dark wood paneling covered the floor and walls, and carved bears holding signs that said things like “Get Lost” and “Gone Fishin'” stood guard in the corners. I eyed the growing grey clouds out the window while the bartender let us know there was a 400 — “probably even 500!” — pound bear in the area that recently and often helped itself to snacks from the restaurant’s bear-proof trashcans. A few seats down the only other patron in the restaurant, clearly quite a few drinks in, informed us that a bad storm was imminent and we had better not venture back into the woods just yet. “It’s going to be a slammer,” he predicted solemnly and maybe with a touch of schadenfreude, first to us and then once or twice more to his Heineken.

For me there are two variables of nature that feel particularly sinister: bears and lightning. Bears only sometimes, and I can normally logic my way out of the fear. Lightning, inordinately, and the faintest whiff of it sets a course of panicked adrenaline through my veins.

Captain Math paid for the nachos and we headed out. “I can do this!” I said to myself. “It’s an adventure, it might not rain, it might not lightning, it might not thunder, bears aren’t real, I can do this IcandothisIcandothisIcandothis.” It was an unhinged mantra, muttered without any conviction and dissolved without a fight by the first drops of rain.

It was a bona fide storm we found ourselves in, with real torrents of rain and real lightning and thunder. It was, indeed, the slammer that the barfly soothsayer had warned about. The sky darkened as though the sun had set and it made sense to wait it out before walking over Mystery Mountain, but there was no real danger, no call for real alarm or panic. But sometimes alarm and panic don’t need a real threat; they’re happy to settle in given the slightest opportunity.

At my behest, the other two Captains gamely agreed to turn back a mile or so to set up an early camp at a slightly lower elevation. The storm, and my anxiety with it, eased up, and after a relaxing evening of reading and a sound night’s sleep, we woke up around 6:00, made small talk with two other hikers who had waited out the storm in the same meadow, and walked 16.6 miles to Temperance River State Park. It was a hot and sunny day, with rare views of Lake Superior and all the Captains were in good spirits. After seven days of hiking, blisters were on the mend and aching muscles, though not becoming less sore, were starting to feel more normal. As we filled our bottles at a spigot inside the park I announced, 160 miles short of our goal, that perhaps it was time to call it a day on the trek.

Where it all began

It’s hard to tell why exactly I decided I was done with the hike. I had been eagerly planning it for six months, and I had felt excited to test my mettle on a relatively short and tame trail, with loftier hiking goals in mind. Perhaps it was the fateful plateful of nachos in Lutsen. If we hadn’t stopped for a nibble, I wouldn’t have been intimidated by the storm crawling across the horizon while the bartender spun his tall tales and the tippler offered his ominous counsel. Maybe the thunder-and-lightning spell of anxiety carried over into the next day and made me doubt that I actually wanted to be on the trail, when I had an apartment to pack and a big move to accomplish shortly after completing the hike.

Whatever the reason, it’s been quite proven in my life that quitting comes naturally to me. In fact, I’m a card-carrying member of the False Summit Club, whose philosophy is that sometimes reaching a false peak — literally on a mountain as well as metaphorically in other realms of life — is at least good enough, and often is preferable to making it to an actual summit. I discovered the joy of the FSC on a hike with my big sister, Amy, the summer I was 15. One and a half miles from the top of Longs Peak in Rocky Mountain National Park we decided that we’d had enough of walking in the dark over sharp rocks and along endless switchbacks. We stopped at the Boulder Field, shivered, ate an apple, and turned around, no worse off for having not reached the summit and glad to be out of the cold and thin air.

Fifteen years later, I’m happy to not give a situation one more go, a run one more mile, a job one more month. I’ve quit countless jobs (once I put in a two hour’s notice so I could go on a picnic), have been relieved on many occasions when plans fell through so I could stay home and read, and often consider cancelling trips right before I travel because it’s just easier not to go.

Yet, a year after bailing early from the Superior Hiking Trail, I feel a little disappointed about being so skillful at quitting. In the moment, I had felt so sure that leaving the hike was the exact right thing to do. I didn’t anguish over the decision. It cropped up in my mind, I perfunctorily considered it this way and that way for a few miles of walking, and from where I stood, there really was no other option. Only after I had made up my mind did I consult with the other Captains, not even considering how my new plan would affect them. They were kind and thoughtful about the choice, and showed admirable empathy and understanding, even when I couldn’t quite understand it myself.

Even as a truncated trek, it was still a highlight in a year full of highlights. The adventure started in Duluth in Harriet Quarles’s 15-passenger van. Harriet, a septuagenarian with pink hair and a penchant for Parliaments, runs a shuttle service along the Superior Hiking Trail, and drives in a slapdash fashion, cell phone in one hand, cigarette in another, a cursory turn on the steering wheel every now and again. By the time we had reached the trailhead I was completely enamored by her wild stories as well as had a splitting headache, and Captain Watch was surprised we had made it at all. Shakily, we tumbled from her van, walked a mile uphill in a light drizzle to the official northern terminus of the SHT, waved to Canada in the near distance, and turned back downhill to begin our journey. From there I got to spend seven days walking in the woods with two of my favorite people.

We followed moose tracks and walked over beaver dams. We heard wolves in the middle of the night and on the second night I convinced myself there was a dog in our camp so that I didn’t need to worry about the wolves. The dog had spirited away by morning, but I had slept better for its imagined presence. I swam in and drank from Lake Superior. I finally understood how handy hiking poles are. I got better at filtering water, learned (and have forgotten) how to tie knots and hang a bear bag, got more tolerant of bugs and proudly grew my biggest blisters yet. One evening we played a game of chess at a scenic campsite near a murmuring river. Another evening we feasted on sophisticated Mountain House meals my sister Laura had sent us. I learned that 2.5 days in the woods is enough for me to start to feel nostalgic for solid walls, electrical outlets and running water.

I vacillate between calling the hike a “failed thru-hike” and a “partial thru-hike.” In the last 12 months, I’ve generally preferred the latter. It has a delightful oxymoronic ring to it, doesn’t feel quite as defeatist, and nicely obfuscates the missing 160 miles. But lately I’m beginning to favor the former. I like its frankness. It makes clear that a thru-hike was not hiked all the way through. It lifts its chin high, unabashed that the goal was abandoned, the metaphorical summit left unclimbed. And it reminds me that, really for the first time in my life, I’m not quite satisfied with an ambition’s early terminus.

The False Summit Club in all its unconcerned, low-key glory is a valuable mindset to have. It can prevent you from being miserable in any number of situations, from not wasting time on a book you never will enjoy to not staying in a relationship past its expiration date. But I wish that I had made myself hike at least one more day, say another 20 miles, to give myself a chance to change my mind. I wish I had let the other Captains have more of a say; it was their hike, too, after all. Superstar climber Alex Honnold has said, “Nobody achieves anything great by being happy and cozy.” This is, more or less, the antithesis of how I live my life. I am unconcerned with “achieving anything great” (whatever that means), and tend towards coziness and comfort as much as possible. However, I’ve learned from this hike that my first impulse might not always be right. Perhaps—but only perhaps, because I still believe in quitting—it can be worthwhile to be uncomfortable for one extra day, just to see how you really feel.

End of the line: Temperance River State Park

One thought on “False Summit Club & 107 miles of the Superior Hiking Trail

  1. Nicely done. What an accomplishment… way longer than I’ll ever hike. Nice map, too! I’d call it a Successful Section Hike and focus on all the positive things, but when one writes, excoriation of oneself is always an option 🙂 There is some kind of wisdom hinted at here—how to determine the best false summit before turning around. Finally, your other captains sound like princes.

    Like

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