Up ahead, Larry Sampson’s long legs were gobbling up wholesale chunks of the Superior Hiking Trail. He strode along in a rhythmic gait, like a metronome on stilts. The guy can move.
Not far behind him on this cool June morning, Charlie Nelson bounced along in an equally effortless manner.
The three of us had left a bit after 6 a.m. from the trailhead at 131st Avenue West in Duluth’s Fond du Lac neighborhood. The plan was to hike across Duluth on the Superior Hiking Trail from Fond du Lac on the west to Martin Road on the east — 32½ miles in all — in a single day.
I’ll admit the idea was mine. I knew a group of University of Minnesota Duluth students had done a similar hike several years ago. I just needed to find some hiking partners. I couldn’t have done better than Sampson, 67, and Nelson, 54.
Sampson is technically retired from a career with the U.S. Forest Service and U.S. Postal Service. But he works nearly full time with the Superior Hiking Trail Association as a paid trail maintenance supervisor on 100 miles of trail through Duluth and to Two Harbors. He knew every step of the route and has lugged in plenty of the lumber that allows dry-footed passage of wet areas.
Neither Sampson nor Nelson are strangers to long walks. Sampson once had walked the trail from Jay Cooke State Park to his home in West Duluth in one go, about 22 miles. One day many years ago, working at Isle Royale National Park, he got up early to hike the Greenstone Ridge Trail. He knocked off the 42 miles in one day.
Nelson, instead of taking his doctor’s advice to start cholesterol medicine a couple of years ago, started walking. He averages 300 to 350 miles a month. On May 7, preparing for our walk across Duluth, he had walked 55 miles from Carlton to Hinckley on the Willard Munger State Trail.
“I think I’m ready,” he had said.
We were fairly confident we were in good enough shape to do the walk. Still, it’s a long way to go. The Superior Hiking Trail is not the Lakewalk, which is to say it’s paved with rocks and roots, loose gravel, boulder gardens and open bedrock.
The only factor that could have slowed us was Sampson’s dedication to his work: It was difficult for him to walk past a downed tree across the trail or an annoying overhead branch without reaching for his loppers or hand saw.
“We’ll have to call this a 33-mile maintenance hike,” he joked.
At one point, he and Nelson re-erected a signpost that had been knocked down.
In the cool of the morning with fresh legs, we cruised through the forest above Fond du Lac at a quick pace, chatting as we went. We clipped off landmarks and trailheads along our way. Ely’s Peak. Bardon Peak. Magney-Snively Park trailhead.
9:15 a.m., Spirit Mountain
The common impression is that the Superior Hiking Trail goes across Duluth. It does, but it also does a lot of climbing and descending in the process. A GPS carried by the group of UMD students who made a similar hike in 2011 recorded elevation gains of 8,511 feet and descents of 8,088 feet in the group’s 39-mile walk.
We made the long climb along Knowlton Creek from the base of Spirit Mountain, including 138 steps carved into the hillside. Between Highland Street and Haines Road, somewhere above Skyline Parkway, the trail passed through a nearly silent stretch of open forest, lush grasses and tropical ferns.
“If someone dropped you here in the middle of the night, and you woke up in the morning, you’d have no idea you were in the middle of a city,” Sampson said.
That’s the beauty of this trail. It delivered us to striking vistas like Ely’s Peak, with all of western Duluth, the St. Louis River and a good chunk of Wisconsin sprawling below. It took us into deep ravines where creeks plunged toward the river. Every now and then, it popped us out into a city neighborhood again. Nelson had arranged for his wife, Susie, and friends to meet us at various points along our route with our food and water. We’d refuel and get moving again. We weren’t in a hurry, but we didn’t dally. We had a lot of Duluth ahead of us.
Is this kind of walk the best way to fully appreciate the beauty one encounters along a world-class trail? Probably not. The single-day challenge is arbitrary and perhaps a little nuts. But every now and then, it’s healthy to take on something you’re not fully sure you can handle — then go see what happens.
1 p.m., Piedmont Knob
We sat on an exposed mass of rock and ate our lunches. We had been walking for seven hours. My feet were talking to me.
Nelson pointed to the green ridge stretching east across town. On a distant knob, something that looked like a thimble protruded above the trees.
“That’s where we’re going,” Nelson said.
The thimble was Enger Tower. We were headed there, all right, and many miles beyond. As in any arduous endeavor, it seemed best not to look too far ahead. The important thing was to just keep moving.
Orange and yellow hawkweed flanked the trail. Coffee Creek danced toward the harbor. Young people played volleyball at Enger Tower.
We mulled the facts and did math in our heads as we walked. Let’s see: An average stride of 2 feet. About 5,300 feet in a mile. Roughly 33 miles. Hmmm. That’s 87,000 steps.
At Enger Tower, the trail took an unlikely side trip to downtown. It passed over Interstate 35 and past the dormant iron skeleton of the Bentleyville Christmas tree.
Great Lakes Aquarium. The harbor. The Lakewalk.
3:50 p.m., Rose Garden
As we passed through the Rose Garden, we did not stop to smell the roses. We did, however, notice the three police cars and several cops talking to a cluster of youths. One of the youths had been recreationally using a stun gun on his friends, apparently.
After walking about 20 miles through thimbleberry, ostrich ferns and forget-me-nots, the scene seemed a bit surreal. We met our support crew and sprawled on the grass, tending feet with Vaseline, moleskin, powder and fresh socks. We inhaled food, sucked down water. We’d need it for the 700-foot climb ahead of us.
Chester Creek. Chester Bowl. Bagley Nature Area.
Body parts began to complain: Hot spots on a toe or heel, a calf that was threatening to cramp, general apathy in the quadriceps group.
But now we had begun to taste it. We had begun to think, we’re going to pull this off. At this point, momentum began to carry us along. The novelty of the hike was somewhere back at Spirit Mountain. The trail banter had faded somewhere near Enger Tower. Now we had entered the zone of hanging on.
I began comparing the hike to other endurance challenges. It didn’t seem as difficult as running a marathon, certainly not as tough as a trail marathon. It ranked somewhere up there with the Bayly Portage in northern Manitoba, 2½ miles through a muskeg swamp leading to Gods Lake.
The idea of stopping — of just not walking any more — had taken on a certain appeal.
A buck in velvet munched leaves as we passed in Hartley Park. We took a final feed ourselves near Hartley Nature Center. We added a layer each as the evening’s cool settled over the city.
Somewhere, normal people were eating supper. Somewhere, parents were hauling kids to soccer practice. Somewhere, anglers sat on cushy boat seats waiting for walleyes to bite.
We marched on.
7:02 p.m., Martin Road
One’s mind begins to travel on a hike like this. You begin to entertain ideas of hiking all 300 miles of this trail. Or lighting out for a summer on the Appalachian Trail. Just keep going. Day after day — tired, sore, but trail-tough. Because it’s beautiful out there, and quiet and green and lovely.
As on any long trip, we didn’t let ourselves begin to think about the end until it was almost in sight. All that mattered was stepping on this rock, over that rivulet, up that ledge. Onward. One more step and one more step and one more step.
Just past 7 p.m., 13 hours after we had begun, it was over. One moment we were walking in deep green vegetation. The next, the trail spit us out into the parking lot on Martin Road where our pit crew awaited. No bands played. No crowds cheered. We just stopped and shook hands and smiled at each other.
The overriding impression of the walk was the realization that Duluth is an amazing place, full of deep forests and cascading streams and stunning panoramas. West to east, top to bottom, it would be difficult to imagine a more diverse and gorgeous landscape.
For this, we can thank those who envisioned the Superior Hiking Trail and the many volunteers who help keep it in top shape.
Most of us explore the trail in neighborhood snippets. But when you travel more than 30 miles of it in a single day without ever leaving town, the full impact of what we have here smacks you right in the face.
It can also cause a blister or two.
More about the hike
* Total distance of the hike: 32½ miles
* Total time on the trail: 13 hours
* Route: West to east — Fond du Lac to Martin Road
* Date: June 27
* Throughout our hike, we had great support from our “pit crew” — Susie Nelson, Jon and Patty Langlee and Noah Van Riper, all of Duluth. They carried most of our food and drinks and extra clothing.
* Superior Hiking Trail volunteers John Gellatly and Larry Scanlon of Duluth joined us for about 15½ miles of the hike, from Kingsbury Creek to Chester Bowl.
* For more information about the Superior Hiking Trail, go to shta.org.