I’m sitting in the backyard of our place in Minnesota. The leaves above my head are a combination of gold, orange, and light green, glowing against the bluest of skies. It’s one of those warmer fall days, in the high 60s but feels warmer in the sun. Chickadees and nuthatches are watching me from the branches of nearby trees. As the breeze blows off the lake, I think about how lucky I am to be in this time and place, and how interesting it is that five years ago, I was desperate to leave this state.
Last week, Andy and I celebrated our 10-year wedding anniversary. And though the pandemic changed our grand travel plans the way it changed plans for so many others, we found something even better than a grand plan — quality time together in some of our favorite places.
After living in the motorhome in California and falling in love with hiking the foothills, we made it a goal to one day backpack the John Muir Trail. Slowly, we started getting our gear together, painstakingly discussing every aspect of each item — which tent offered us the most space while keeping it light, yet durable; which backpacks would appropriately fit us while housing all our gear; which boots would be supportive enough to bear the weight of our bodies and packs while we trekked across mountains and through valleys.
Upon returning to Minnesota, I fell into a kind of despair. The trails here were nothing like California; in my mind, they were just walking trails, not hiking trails. The only place of any worth was the North Shore, a place that holds a piece of my heart.
Two years back in our home state, our eyes have begun to open to the possibilities it has to offer. And I’m unashamed to say I’ve fallen back in love with Minnesota. But in love in the way that only someone who has left and returned can love. A love with new eyes. A love that developed after years of insulting the bugs and humidity and warm days (all things I’m still not in love with, but what can ya do).
It’s a love that shows a pride for where you’re from, for what we go through together each year as hard winters hit, muddy springs swallow us, hot and humid summers torment, and then we are blessed with the most wonderful season of all: fall.
So, as I sit in my yard enjoying this wonderful time of year, as the dogs crunch on leaves and chew up sticks, I figure it’s time to share our story of the magical anniversary trip that happened last week.
When we realized our original European travel plans were not going to happen, we tried to decide on a replacement. How do you replace Europe? I’m not sure that you can. But we decided to combine a few of our favorite things in an effort anyway. And what came of it was perhaps better than anything else.
We wanted to go to the North Shore, one of our favorite places on this planet and where we almost got married. But we wanted a combination of luxury, hiking, and something new. AND I wanted to somehow not spend an entire week without the dogs.
We decided to do all the things.
We opted for a luxury stay at a resort up north, a trial-run on the Superior Hiking Trail, and a trip to the family cabin with our pups.
This kind of adventure took more planning than we thought it would at the time.
First step was to finish purchasing the rest of our backpacking gear. You see, when we started to realize that Minnesota had more to offer than we thought, we decided we wanted to hike the SHT in its entirety by section hiking it (as opposed to thru-hiking it all at once). We figured this would be a beautiful way to enjoy our state and give us something to do in preparation for hiking the John Muir Trail (though in actuality, the SHT is longer).
Getting the rest of our gear meant that I had to stop fretting over each pro and con of every single item we needed. It took some internal discussion, but I did it. And by the end of the summer, I had acquired everything we needed to complete our backpacking gear. Years of research, preparation, and discussion all came to a head in a matter of weeks. I guess that’s what you get when you have a deadline instead of an ambiguous date.
The next step was a matter of determining where we would stay and how it would all play out. We decided to do one night at a nice place, one night on the trail, and the final night at a nice place, sandwiching our first backpacking adventure between two comfortable places. This idea looked good on paper but it was harder to achieve than I thought. Go figure, everyone else who isn’t traveling out of state right now might also want to visit the North Shore — and places were BOOKED.
I eventually found us a nice, reasonable rate through the Lutsen Resort staying at their Poplar River Condos. We planned to pick up the dogs after our stay and spend the rest of the week at our family’s cabin.
The week leading up to our trip made us realize just how crazy we were to think that essentially fitting three different types of trips into one week would be easy.
We had to pack for our Lutsen stay, our backpacking adventure, and our cabin time.
But we managed it, and we were soon on our way to our first destination — the Lutsen Resort.
Our excitement got us to the North Shore very early in the day (too early even to stop at any of the breweries in Duluth). We opted to fill our time by hiking a new trail recommended by a friend — Oberg Mountain.
We were fortunate enough to be hiking in peak fall colors. Now, I’ve been up north in the fall many times but I have NEVER in my life seen something like this.
Oberg Mountain is a loop that offers several different viewpoints of the surrounding valleys, including Lake Superior.
At one of the points, my breath caught in my throat and I slowly sat on the ground as tears rolled down my cheeks. It was stunning. I held Andy’s hand and thanked everything that we were in this place together.
After our Oberg experience, we reluctantly left the trail and headed for the main lodge to check in. We were a little nervous about hiking too much the day before we were scheduled to hit the trail with our packs.
Check-in didn’t go as planned, so while we waited for our room to be ready, we hit up North Shore Winery where we enjoyed some tasty beverages and chatted with another hiker. The hiking community is a fun one.
Finally checked into our room, we rested, looking at Lake Superior while warming ourselves by the fireplace.
A delicious dinner capped off the evening, and we headed to bed early so we wouldn’t be too tired for our adventure the next day.
We awoke early, groggy at first. But a visitor soon had us laughing and getting out of bed.
Yelling and cawing and cackling and gargling and all sorts of different noises from this guy got us out of bed pretty quickly. We packed up our gear and headed for the trailhead. We had planned to do a short section just south of Temperance River State Park, starting at the Cramer Rd./1 parking lot and hiking north.
We had weighed our packs before leaving home and only added a few minor things. Upon weighing, mine was 31.8 pounds and Andy’s 38.7.
The day was beautiful — chilly but not too cold, a little rainy but nothing crazy. We set out on the trail, following the little blue line that would become our guide over the next many miles.
It was a new feeling for us, having so much weight on our backs. It was our first time carrying all our gear, our first time using trekking poles, our first time doing anything like this. It felt scary and freeing. We were riding a high that only continued as we meandered through the woods.
Part of our journey took us through some lowlands where our Superior Hiking Trail guidebook said to look out for moose/moose tracks. Our voices grew quiet as we ventured into their territory.
Though we didn’t see any signs of moose, it was a peaceful place to visit.
Along our journey in the woods, we took note of the beauty around us. The thing about backpacking is, you don’t have to be anywhere by any specific time really. I mean, ideally you’d set up your camp before dark, but there’s nobody timing you, nobody judging your mileage, nobody telling you when to stop and where other than yourself. We felt like we had all the time in the world to explore.
To give you an idea, the trail is about 18″ wide in most places — a path made of dirt, rock, tree roots, moss, and occasionally manmade bridges, walkways, and stairs.
We hiked for hours, stopping at a campsite for a quick lunch before continuing onward. We visited another campsite and determined it was probably the one we would stay at for the night, but we wanted to see the rest of them along our section and so kept going.
In hindsight, our mistake was not taking our packs off and leaving them at the site we figured we’d end up at. We brought them with us for the next few miles, which ended up being much rougher terrain with a ton of inclines and declines that made me want to take my boots off and throw them down the mountain Cheryl Strayed-style.
By the time we made it back to our campsite, we were beat.
All I could think about were my bruising hips, the pack straps digging into my arms, and my feet which felt like they were going to fall off. On the last mile I had developed a kind of chant to keep me going — “these boots are coming off and I’m soaking my feet in the river” — though sometimes it just came out a mumble and a groan.
Wow, our bodies were not used to this.
I almost wept at the sight of our campsite. I dropped my bag, kicked my boots off, and headed down to the river for a foot soak.
Our campsite was just above the Cross River, and we could hear the current and water running as we set up our tent. The setup process went smoothly, and we were soon on our way to comfort.
Comfort and food, once we got our stove going. We said a little cheers with a small amount of wine and ate our dinner, listening to the sounds of nature around us.
A long day of new experiences and bodies that were exhausted put us to bed really early — probably the earliest we’ve gone to bed in years. A light rain woke us in the morning, and we enjoyed some breakfast and coffee (though neither of them will be products we purchase again, they were pretty gross).
A brief tour of our campsite will give you an idea of the space. We did share with another couple, but they set up away from us and kept to themselves. Take a look at what a backcountry latrine is like…you’ll appreciate your indoor plumbing the way I appreciated the lack of mosquitos.
One thing I learned is that bear canisters are also apparently Angela-proof, as well as bear-proof. I had such a hard time getting the little tabs to push in so I could take the top off that Andy and I joked that you’d probably find me in the woods, arms wrapped tightly around a still-closed canister, clutching it even in death. OK, morbid, I know, but it made us laugh in the moment.
After cleaning up our breakfast, we packed up our gear and hit the trail. The hike back out was done in record time. While we averaged 1.5 miles per hour the first day, we were definitely at 2 miles per hour the second (backpackers tend to average 1-2 miles per hour on this trail).
Seeing our car in the lot was cause for celebration — we had done it! Our first test was over. Yes, it was just one night on the trail but it was a first for us. We are going to be proud of any accomplishment, no matter its size.
And how did we celebrate?
We headed to Temperance River State Park and hiked some more!
Once we got back to our room, we crashed. We spoiled ourselves in the jacuzzi, ate pizza from Coho Cafe, and watched movies in bed. And I iced my knees because they had swollen to about double the size! We were bruised, beaten, sore, and tired. But we were so incredibly happy. We were hooked. Another delicious dinner capped off our evening, and the next day, we packed up and left.
We knew everything would go quickly because we were packing so much into such a small amount of time. But it was amazing just how quickly it all happened. Our experience was nothing short of magical, and we are so incredibly thankful for it.
We drove home to pick up the dogs, switch our gear to cabin gear, and headed for the family cabin. It was a long day of driving and running some errands, but we made it to our destination.
And here, we rested.
We played games. We ate. We drank. We laughed. We slept. We sat in front of the fire. We watched movies. We celebrated our marriage and our friendship. It was exactly the peace we needed after weeks of prepping and packing, crunching hours of extra work into already-full days, and beating ourselves up on the North Shore.
The week was beyond wonderful. It fulfilled any expectation I could’ve had — and more. I will forever be thankful to have found Andy. Someone who’s my best friend, my partner in life, and who is always down for an adventure or for a relaxing day.
Cheers to 10 years.