Next month, a pair of hikers will step out on the Superior Hiking Trail not just to make the 250 mile journey from Duluth to Grand Portage on the trail, but also to make a feature length documentary called “Stepping the Sawtooth” to promote the trail as one of the natural gems for hikers in North America.
“The ultimate end goal of the film is to capture and highlight the beauty of the trail itself and nearby attractions both natural and man-made and share that with a wider audience or group of people that may be less familiar with the trail,” said Thruways Studios filmmaker AJ Muelemans.
Muelemans, who grew up in Wisconsin and now lives in St. Paul, said he originally had planned to hike the 2,200-mile Appalachian Trail this summer, but now he has a baby due in June and he didn’t want to be somewhere between Georgia and Maine when his first child is born. Muelemans said he has been to the North Shore many times before and has done a number of day hikes on the SHT. He loves the natural beauty the area offers and many of the man-made landmarks as well, like the Split Rock Lighthouse.
“What a better way to really explore that area in depth by hiking the entirety of it all at once and kind of fulfill that Appalachian Trail journey that I was going to take and do the mini version of that,” he said. “It will still allow me to take a long hiking trip and be here when my kid is born in June.”
The SHT, unlike some of the other major trails in the U.S., is not nearly as well known and he hopes that a feature length documentary can raise the trail’s profile and inspire more hikers around the country to check out all the North Shore has to offer.
“It’s not Yellowstone, in terms of attracting people from across the country, the continent or the globe, but it could be,” he said. “When you are up there, especially in the autumn, there is so much awesome stuff along the shore, both the natural side and the man-made side, it’s a great spot. The whole shore as you get further north just changes and evolves as you get away from the lake and toward the Boundary Waters type stuff.”
Muelemans said a secondary purpose is to highlight “leave no trace” and other responsible camping practices that people should be implementing when they are on the trails. Recently there have been some clashes with some landowners the trail runs through and the SHTA was forced to close and reroute a section of the trail.
“It’s situations like that that the film is partially trying to alleviate,” he said. “Encouraging hikers and other users of trails and parks to be responsible in their use and when they do run through or adjacent to private land, be respectful of that fact and that way we can avoid situations like where our trail gets closed and rerouted.”
Joe Swanson, the Superior Hiking Trail Association outreach coordinator, said most of the films made on the SHT have been unauthorized so the association was unable to promote those films and she hopes “Stepping the Sawtooth” will allow the SHTA to promote the trail in new and exciting ways.
“We’re hoping to see the trail rules emphasized and abided by in this project,” she said. “One thing that would be great for the Superior Hiking Trail would be to have more educated users. If the film can help educate people as to what the trail is actually like and what it takes to actually hike the trail, then I think it will be a benefit.”
Muelemans said he and his partner, Garth Zimmerman, have been training for months on the trails in St. Paul and Minneapolis. The pair will not have any support on the trail, so they will be carrying an extra 40 pounds each of extra camera equipment for the movie. That’s 40 pounds more than what a normal thru hike of SHT would require. The pair will also have tents, sleeping bags, food and other essentials to carry.
The pair originally planned for a 15-day schedule, but that schedule would force them to average nearly 20 miles a day and wouldn’t allow them to take any trips off the trail to explore the towns and state parks that lie near the trail’s path. The film isn’t just to highlight the SHT, but everything the North Shore has to offer, including what towns from Two Harbors to Grand Marais have to offer.
“When you really throw in the getting off the trail aspect and the documentary aspect, you really need extra hours in the day,” Muelemans said.
The pair added a week to their schedule, giving them 22 days to complete the journey and bringing their daily goal to a much more manageable 12 miles a day.
Muelemans and Zimmerman work at Friends of the Earth, a Minneapolis nonprofit focusing on environmental issues, and have taken time off from their jobs for this project. They’ve also been investing in extra camera and sound equipment as well as video editing software for the project and have started a Kickstarter campaign to help alleviate some of the costs. Interested persons can donate to their campaign by going to www.kickstarter.com and searching for “Stepping the Sawtooth.”
Muelemans and Zimmerman are also interested in meeting and interviewing as many people who live on or near the trail as they can and learning what local people love about the North Shore and the SHT. To find out their schedule, Muelemans can be contacted through the Kickstarter page or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Muelemans said the goal of the film is not just to highlight the beauty of the North Shore and the SHT or to promote responsible camping practices. It’s also about encouraging people to get out of their homes and appreciating the natural environment wherever they live.
“Ultimately, it’s about getting into our wild spaces and appreciating them and making sure that we don’t put the pursuit of profit ahead of what few wild spaces we have left,” he said.