Last year, shortly after arriving in Minneapolis, I joined a Meetup group for backpackers, hoping to get ideas for places to hike and maybe meet a few hiking companions at the same time.
As the name suggests, Meetup is an online place where people organise activities. As far as I'm aware it doesn't exist in Finland, which is a shame.
Spending some time browsing the different hiking-related Meetup groups highlighted some differences in the interpretation of the word 'hiking' between the US and Europe. Backpacking in the USA is what people in Europe call hiking. Hiking in the States is what I (being British) refer to as a nice little walk.
And so I waited for a trip that someone was planning to catch my eye. Eventually the words 'Sioux', 'Hustler' and 'Trail' aligned to form a promising backpacking opportunity 'up north' in the Boundary Waters. And so it was that I found myself at the trailhead one September morning, waiting for a man called Fred and his dog, Bentley.
The trail head is about an hour north-east of Ely, MN along the Echo Trail. Unlike many more popular trials, the 32 mile Sioux-Hustler is notoriously unmaintained. However, after missing the first turning and heading a mile in the wrong direction, we backtracked and eventually found the first hidden signpost, conveniently located on top of a hornet's nest.
Almost immediately, we encountered a large beaver dam - the first of many.
We decided to make the first leg of the hike the longest - 13 miles. Or 15 if you include our initial detour. We took the clockwise route, planing on two nights out.
Much of the first leg was through dense forest. Only around Devil's Cascade were there any appreciable views beyond the trees. Fortunately, a group of volunteers had been clearing the early section of trail, which made progress a lot easier. For a while it seemed as if the trail wouldn't be hard at all, but we were soon clambering over and under fallen trees every five meters.
This made progress slow, tiring, and for the most part pretty uninteresting. Thankfully we had a nice campsite at Pageant Lake to look forward to, and the rest of the journey would be a little more in the open.
To our surprise we met a group of six other backpackers on the trail. We were a little concerned that we wouldn't all fit into the same campsite - there are not many pitching options in the lakeside camps. Fortunately (well, not for them) they seemed to get a little lost and we somehow overtook them. So at least we'd be alright!
Around this point, to my irritation, my Garmin Dakota 20 GPS failed due to a software bug, so I was unable to track the route as I had planned. Still, at least we had a map and a trail-finding dog.
After I'd set up my trusty Akto, I sat on the rocks overlooking the lake, admiring the view, and contemplating the similarities between Finland and Minnesota. It really is no surprise that during the Finnish exodus of the early 1900s that hundreds of thousands of Finns came here.
That night I was awoken by a strange noise. A loud SLAP on the lake, echoing around the trees. Another. And another - from a different direction. Whatever it was, it had Bentley scared. He ran off up the hill to hide.
Fred woke too and told me they were beavers. The slap the water with their tails to warn each other and scare off predators. He said the last time he'd tried to do this trail the same thing happened, and Bentley had run all the way back to the trail head, on his own, at night. I hoped he hadn't done the same thing again, but all we could do now was wait and see.
Next morning I awoke to find a familiar dog and a similarly familiar lakeside dawn.
The other hikers didn't turn up, and we started to worry that they might have got truly lost in the BWCA. After all, it has happened before. But what can you do? We had to carry on, and assume they had either turned back when they saw how rough the trail was, or taken the anti-clockwise route - in which case we'd meet them on the trail today.
Speaking of the trail today... it was much nicer. Rolling up onto rocky hills, through rare old pine forests which somehow escaped the logging and fires in the region. This far out, we were really out in the woods - not far from the Canadian border in fact. On the trail we saw plenty of fresh moose and bear scat, and to my excitement, wolf shit.
Today's trail encompassed more beaver dam crossings...
And a discovery of a more sinister nature...
But in the main it was fairly easy going. We did get lost at one point, but we won't talk about that.
Oh, and good news - we passed the group of six backpackers. Good thing they went anti-clockwise as there would have been no room for them at the camp last night, and other good camping spots were few and far between.
Eventually we came to a very elegant cairn marking the trail to the Agawato Lake campsite, our destination for the night.
The following morning we made the last leg back to the trail head, mostly over familiar ground - but not before another obligatory beaver dam crossing. Those little fellas really know how to use their teeth.
They chewed this tree down on top of a hill, ready to drag parts of it down to the lake below.
Personally, I think that's pretty impressive.
Apart from the group of six hikers, we saw no other people on the trails. The Boundary Waters are primarily are canoeing area. We saw several groups on the lakes, or portaging between them, but I'm pretty sure they didn't see us. If you walk, you have the entire area pretty much to yourself. And the wolves, beavers, and bears of course.
This was probably my last hike using all my old heavier gear. I'll probably still use the Akto in certain weather conditions. Sometimes it's nice to have a cozy shelter; when the bugs are out in force, when you know it's going to be windy and well below zero. I'd probably still use it winter camping up in Lapland for example. But now I'm moving rapidly towards a tarp-based setup.
As for other gear, I carried far too much: my old Halti backpack, a large gas canister of fuel, a bulky fleece and raincoat, far too much gorp and snacks for the trip (gorp=good old raisins and peanuts, for the uninitiated), and my annoyingly heavy water filter. All these things have seen the end of their days - but more on that subject in another post.