There is a certain rhythm to walking in the woods that can only be achieved by doing it for days at a time. Step after step, rock over rock, root by root, the body and mind sink into a pattern and get worn into the soil. A perspective that gets lost in days spent with computers, cell phones, paved roads and CNN finds a voice when nothing matters other than not tripping over giant cedar roots, avoiding sinking into muddy ground or being able to get warm after a downpour without access to the indoors.
The superior hiking trail is a 240 mile foot path that winds along the coast of Lake Superior and the ridges of the ancient mountains that make up what Minnesotans know as the North Shore. It was born in the mid 1980’s and was built and is still maintained exclusively by volunteers. It is a wonderful thing to have close to home — and one to support and use respectfully whenever possible.
This trail is what supported us one October weekend as we wound through groves of cedars, baby maple forests, birch rimmed valleys and stands of stately oaks. All the forest plants were taking on their autumn wardrobe, and the hills were glowing with warm colors. This particular excursion started at a wayside off of Highway 61 where the Caribou River makes its crossing. We dropped the car a ways south and another great invention, the Superior Shuttle, carried us to our starting point. With a wave to the friendly van driver and hopes that his sunny weather forecast held true, packs were donned and we were off. Ten minutes later we were 300 feet higher, trying to catch the breath that we left at the trailhead while gazing at a torrent of rushing water as the Caribou cascaded over a cedar studded cliff on its way to the shore. Deciding that stopping for a long break ten minutes into a four day trip wasn’t wise, we continued…still gaining elevation, shedding layers and readjusting packs that seemed to gain weight every few feet. After what felt like a lot longer than it actually was, we reached our first view of many that invited us to stare out over miles of blazing aspens, groves of maples and sprinklings of pines against a backdrop of a misty Lake Superior. We were reminded why we hike. It’s one of the best ways to truly experience creation.
Michael Pollan, author of many nonfiction works about gardening, food and culture, writes of a “wilderness ethic” in his book Back to Nature. Part of what he argues is that in modern culture, we have a tendency to either pave over natural areas or put them in protective boundaries that don’t allow for much more than observation. There is not much room for partnership in either scenario. We are either destroying natural places or putting them up on pedestals that don’t allow humans to be a part of the flow of the natural world.
When we were out on the trail, carrying what we needed for a few days and sleeping in the woods, we did interact with the wilderness – and made a point to respect it, as well. Pollan talks of gardening as the intermediate step between the destruction and sainting of the land, and I see glimpses of that position in the act of hiking through unregulated land. We did our best to leave no trace of our presence, but we took dead wood to burn for warmth, filtered lake water to drink and would have gathered berries to eat had they been in season. The value of interacting with creation – respecting that partnership, and being a part of a truly alive world – is something that everyone can benefit from experiencing. With much of humanity largely removed from nature, it is no wonder it seems like so many can’t be bothered with protecting it – they don’t know what there is to lose.
This short backpacking trip was a good reminder of what’s important in life: Doing things to protect the planet we live on by eating sustainably produced food, driving less, supporting clean energy and living simply while making sure to appreciate and enjoy all that our home planet has to share. Waking up to the tune of dawn spreading fingers of light across the waters of Lake Superior just happens to be a great way to celebrate the abundance of earth and recall why doing what we can to keep the good alive is so crucial.
What can you do today to celebrate the abundance that the earth has shared with you?