Grand Traverse 2015

Last year I attempted a 16-mile hike as part of the Grand Traverse event in Duluth. I only made it 12 miles, but it was a beautiful day and I took a lot of great pictures (it’s hard to take a bad photo in the middle of a forest at peak fall colors). I was really disappointed that I didn’t make it to the finish line and vowed that I’d do it again in 2015. 

There were several things working against me last year causing me to drop out with only 4 miles to go. The heat was one factor, but my downfall was dehydration. I had miscalculated the amount of water I was going through and the distance to the next checkpoint so I ran out far before I would reach the next resupply station. By the time I reached the 12 mile mark my legs were cramping up, I was dizzy and I could no longer control my footfalls well enough to prevent injury. My mind and my body were done for. I was proud of myself for having gone 12 miles, but extremely disappointed that I didn’t meet my goal.

The route this year was 17 miles instead of 16 and the factors that had killed me last year were not going to be a problem this time. It was foggy, damp and cool instead of hot, and I made sure to fill my water supply every chance I got. I also took a much smaller backpack and carried a lot less weight. This year did bring it’s own challenges, however. It had rained for 5 straight days leading up to the hike and that, coupled with the approximate 400 people who hiked that day, meant the trail was thick with mud. Every so often there are wooden walkways built by the SHTA over the trail in historically problematic areas and the mud tracked onto them made them slicker than snot. I slipped and fell on my ass three times.

Muddy, muddy trail
Muddy, muddy trail

The Superior Hiking Trail is not an easy trail, even the sections running through the middle of Duluth. It’s still a wilderness trail and can be very steep at times, like this bit just after Knowlton Creek. Same as last year, I had to stop and rest about halfway up the 138 stairs that climb the bluff on the eastern bank of the creek.

138 stairs just after Knowlton Creek
138 stairs just after Knowlton Creek

The challenges of the trail are worth it, though, even on foggy days. The hiker who keeps her eyes and ears open to the trail is richly rewarded for her efforts.

An enchanted forest of maple and birch trees near Knowlton Creek
An enchanted forest of maple and birch trees near Knowlton Creek
Jet black fungi growing on a birch log near Spirit Mountain
Jet black fungi growing on a birch log near Spirit Mountain
These fabulous mushrooms were prevalent along the trail
These fabulous mushrooms were prevalent along the trail

After Knowlton Creek comes Kingsbury Creek, which caused a lot of damage in the flood of 2012. Some of it still has not been repaired. After five days of rain, it was looking a little rageful to me.

Grand Traverse 2015, Kingsbury Creek
Grand Traverse 2015, Kingsbury Creek
Grand Traverse 2015, Kingsbury Creek
Kingsbury Creek. Taken in the same spot as a photo I took on the Grand Traverse last year. Just a few inches of rain really makes a powerful difference.

By the time I got to the last checkpoint, the place I quit last year, I had made up my mind. Nothing would stop me from finishing this hike. One thing that really helped, a bunch of my family members had done the 10 mile section and were ahead of me. When I was at the last checkpoint they were just a couple miles from the finish line. Knowing they were all there waiting for me helped motivate me to keep going no matter what. The downhill hike was far more difficult than any of the uphill sections and I had to use a trick I’d learned from a radio program called How To Do Everything. After running a marathon, they’d said, runners find going down stairs to be nearly impossible. To combat this, they recommended going down backwards because your legs are using a completely different set of muscles. I tried this on particularly steep sections or where there were stairs and it helped immensely. I made it down the hill and was moving pretty slowly, but feeling ok. My average speed was nearly 2 miles an hour (last year by the time I had quit i was going less than 1 mile an hour).

Then came the flat part. I was so grateful for the flatness, but it came at a price. It was paved for the last 2 or 3 miles and after walking 14 miles on a soft trail, the hard concrete was like a jackhammer on my joints. I hit a wall and faded unbelievably quickly. The last mile it was all I could do to put one foot in front of the other. My ankles, knees, hips, and everything in between were screaming at me, but I kept going. As one final “up yours” the Grand Traverse ends with a staircase going up from the Lakewalk to the Fitger’s complex. It took great effort and concentration, but I ascended and made it to the finish line.

I thought I would be happy, overjoyed at completing what I had set out to do, but honestly, I just wanted to cry and go to bed. I couldn’t believe the amount of pain I was in. My family congratulated me, but after their 10 mile hike it seemed none of them were in any pain; it made me feel like I had failed. Even though I had completed the 17 miles, I felt should have been able to do it better.

So I reflected on why I had done it. I’ve never been athletic and I’ve always been horrible at team sports, but hiking is something I have always loved to do. It’s a solitary activity, no one is counting on me, no one will be adversely affected if I fail, it’s just me and the woods. All along the hike I was confronted with nature’s beauty. In the mist, an ethereal forest that seemed like it should be filled with fairy tale creatures. A Sapsucker that landed on a tree just a few feet away, pecking away for his lunch, oblivious to me. A deer eating apples that had fallen from a trail-side tree, bounding away as soon as it saw me. A Northern Flicker—my favorite bird for it’s stunning beauty—is suddenly in front of me, searching for worms.

Northern Flicker, Yellow Shafted Male. Cornell Lab of Ornithology. © Tom Johnson, AZ, Tubac, February 2014

These are the reasons I love to hike. Why I committed to doing such a long hike, I’m not completely sure. But after a couple days of rest and recuperation, I can’t wait to get out on the trail again.

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