DULUTH - After our first full day of backpacking along the Superior Hiking Trail, we hunkered down at a campsite along the Beaver River for the night.
With just over 20 miles hiked that day, my hiking partner Adam Wallenta and I were on pace to finish our 200-mile hike within the allotted 10 1/2 days.
We started our trip after work on a Friday afternoon at the West Castle Danger Road and headed north along the SHT to the Canadian border, where Wallenta's mother met us with her car nearly 11 days later. If we fell behind and missed a goal campsite one night, we risked not reaching the border by Monday. An extra day on trail wasn't an option - I had to be at work at 9 a.m. Tuesday.
Camped along the Beaver River, the rapids provided a calming white noise and made for easy sleeping, even on the rocky and rooty ground. We needed all the sleep we could get before our 5:30 a.m. alarm if we wanted to stay on pace.
But at 2 or 3 a.m., the sound of moving water was overwhelmed by the Northshore Mining train's horn on the other side of a narrow band of trees, and we jolted awake.
That's the SHT - one mile you're in the middle of nowhere and then the next you're passing through logging areas, roads, railroads, resorts or towns. The entire SHT spans over 310 miles from the Minnesota-Wisconsin border outside Jay Cooke State Park to the Canadian border, usually within a few miles of Lake Superior.
Even with a rude awakening, our spirits were still high, our stride still strong and our feet still relatively blister free, but that all changed in the next few days.
While we originally planned to hike the entire SHT, the amount of time we could get off work only warranted a 10-day trip, not the 16 days we had hoped for. By day three, that no longer bothered us; we agreed 10 days and 200 miles was plenty.
All that preparation we put in during the months leading up to the trip needed to count for something.
"We're doing it," one of us would remind the other several times per day as we shuffled down the single-track trail or stopped to lean over our trekking poles for rest.
Our trip, planned specifically for late spring, was intended to beat the heat, mosquitoes and crowds. We managed to avoid the first two, but were surprised, and delighted, to see so many other backpackers.
The apparent spike in popularity caught others off-guard, too, as we kept hearing the same thing from fellow hikers and campers: The trail was busy earlier this year than ever before.
At the Dyer's Creek campsite outside of Temperance River State Park, we shared a site with a high school group from the Twin Cities with five tents. A couple with a hammock strung between two trees was staying there, too. Thankfully, it's SHT rules to make room for fellow campers as there are no reservations.
The school group's teacher said the group, now on their third annual backpacking trip, never had to share a campsite with anyone in May. The trail was getting busier, she said.
A couple from New Ulm, Minn., we passed on the trail attributed the increase in popularity to the trail's favorable conditions. (Recent rains have likely changed that.)
"We've never seen the trail this dry," said the woman.
Jaron Cramer, development and communications director for the Superior Hiking Trail Association, said they're hearing anecdotal evidence to suggest more trail users, too.
Since camping in SHT sites is free and permits are not required, it's difficult to find solid numbers to back that up.
According to Cramer, however, the association is seeing their Facebook group - where hikers can interact with each other, share tips and ask questions - steadily grow.
In the first five months of 2018, the group grew by 1,300 members - up 12 percent. The group now has 14,444 members, Cramer said, and the association's website is busy, too.
"To me, these points definitely support the growth in popularity, though it doesn't concretely correlate with increased trail usage. I wish we had some kind of system to count trail users at trailheads, but that's a project yet to be deployed," Cramer said.
With an increase in trail traffic comes more wear and tear, and the association is now turning its attention to larger maintenance projects on existing segments; it's over 30 years old in places.
Wallenta and I noticed the trail was showing its age. In some places, we sunk in deep mud or balanced our way across a simple plank bridge that would tip like a teeter-totter.
But that just added another element of adventure to our trip. It's a hiking trail - not a sidewalk - I'd remind myself when mud reached the top of my shoe and oozed its way in.
Somehow, we reached our goal campsite each night - 17 to 23 miles apart from each other - and we made it to the trail's northern terminus: the 270 Degree Overlook of Lake Superior and the Minnesota-Ontario border forests. The spot was marked with a simple wooden sign reading "End of the Superior Hiking Trail." Selfies were in order before the short jaunt to the car where dry clothes, air conditioning, baby wipes and non-dehydrated food awaited.
"We did it," Wallenta said.