Chasing Deer Along Minnesota's Superior Hiking Trail
Since Ben and I started dating in 2013, we’ve made it a priority to go on weekend getaways to the North Shore. Each trip has been its own brand of special, mainly because the North Shore is a breath of fresh—albeit rather icy—air. It’s the one place in Minnesota that feels less like Minnesota and more like a chilly version of California.
I’m not sure if it feels like a California getaway because of the open expanses of water, the boats sailing in past the iconic bridge, the breeze slipping into our hats and the collars of our jackets, or the top notch seafood, but regardless of the reason, we’ve found the North Shore to be a welcome vacation. Practically one of the only vacations we can afford without leaving the state.
Ben and I tend to go up to Duluth in November or March. I don’t think we consciously decided this, it just happened. As Minnesotans, these are the months where we start to get restless for an adventure (I suppose that's because we're cooped up inside most the year). We’d love to go to warmer climates, but when your wallet is almost perpetually empty, you go where you can! In our case, we go north.
In February this year, I hit that point where I decided we needed to bail out of Saint Paul, hit the road, and explore new territories. Though I meant well and researched ruthlessly, those new territories eventually simmered down into revisiting our old stomping grounds.
We drove up to the North Shore at the beginning of March, and I might have pouted half of the way there. Suddenly, I sat up and turned down the radio. “I want to do something different,” I told Ben. “We’ve walked the streets of Duluth already, and I’ve seen the Superior Rock lighthouse more times in my life than I can count.”
(Note: During my childhood, my sisters and I joined Swedish dance classes at the American Swedish Institute in Minneapolis. As part of the requirements, we’d go up to Two Harbors once a year and dance in different festivals. So the North Shore definitely wasn’t new news to me as an adult.)
Ben tapped his fingers on the steering wheel. “There’s one thing I’ve been considering for a while,” he said, “but I’d been waiting to ask you about it. I wasn’t sure if you’d be interested.”
I turned in my seat. “What is it?”
“Did you know there are hiking trails around Duluth? They’re called The Superior Hiking Trails.” He quirked his mouth and glanced at me. “I’m actually an official member of the Superior Hiking Trails Association—this membership, of sorts, for people who hike the trails.”
“You are?” This was something I didn’t know about Ben. “When did that happen?”
“Before I met you. I haven’t actually stepped foot on the trails yet, but I’ve wanted to for a long time. Obviously this never happened, but a few years ago, I considered taking a summer off to hike and camp the full length of the trails. I think they run about 300 miles.”
I looked out the window at the frozen ground and shivered, but other than a few fingers and toes, what was there to lose? We had extra layers, and the poor, neglected camera in the back seat would be put to good use…
“That sounds fun,” I said after a few minutes. “What could go wrong?”
Less than twenty-four hours later, we stood at the edge of a trail in Gooseberry Falls. We’d hiked down the winding, stone steps and past the main waterfalls already, and it was windy. Windy and cold. The park was packed with people, though—these brave Minnesotans who abandoned their warm cars and bed to see a bunch of nearly-frozen falls at the very beginning of March.
But hey, I was one of those crazy nuts, so I couldn’t complain. Much.
I rubbed my palms together and huddled down into my thick black hiking sweater. Rather, Ben’s sweater, as I’d only brought an expensive red pea coat to Duluth … which wasn’t exactly built for “roughin’ it outdoors,” as Ben liked to say. Meanwhile, Ben the Boy Scout was bent over next to me, staring at a map of the trails through the park.
“So the dashed blue lines are the trails,” he said, “and we’re here.” He pushed his finger against the map. “If we keep walking ahead, we should leave the touristy area behind.”
“Yep, okay, let’s go.” I didn’t care about the maps; I just wanted to move. The frigid air seeping up from the half-frozen, half-muddy ground was starting to penetrate my socks and shoes.
Ben pushed his camera into my hands and pointed, like a heroic explorer spying new land in the distance. “This way!” And he burst into a brisk walk.
We wove along a cleared trail for half a mile. The woods were quiet, but every once in a while frozen patches of ice puddles cracked beneath our heavy hiking boots or random winter birds flittered over our heads. Ben would occasionally break the silence to kneel down and show me paw prints and other tracks he’d spied, preserved like fossils in the hardened mud.
I took a few photos of these, but my mind was distracted. What sort of animal made those tracks? The image of wolves stalking us floated into mind, and I hurried forward, leaving Ben and his wide-eyed wonderment behind.
Suddenly, Ben appeared right behind me and grabbed my arm. “Did you hear that?” he asked, stepping up next to me and gesturing ahead. I looked around, perplexed. I hadn’t heard anything but Ben’s breathing in my ear. “Deer,” he insisted. “We should go check it out. Quietly.”
‘Deer?’ I thought. ‘Or wolves?’ I looped the camera around my neck and gave Ben a look.
“Come on!” he whispered, a little too loudly, and tugged at my jacket sleeve.
The woods around us opened up as we came to a T in the trail. A chain-link fence stretched along the path to our right; I wasn’t sure what it contained, perhaps some sort of private land in the park, but Ben marched toward it, unperturbed.
“I don’t think we’re supposed to walk off the path,” I said as Ben stepped over the invisible line that divided trail and wild woodland. My ‘motherly instincts’ kicked in (note: I’m not a mom, yet, but I’ve been told I’d be a good one because of how closely I look after my friends and family), and I glanced over my shoulder. “Seriously, what if someone sees us?”
“Nonsense,” Ben said. “There’s a trail that runs along the fence, see?” He gestured at a small, trodden line that’d parted whatever tall grass and bushes had survived the winter. “People have walked through here! Come on. You can’t call yourself a hiker if you don’t stray off the beaten path once and a while.”
I took his words with a huge grain of salt but followed anyway. We crept along the fence, our coats brushing the frosty metal on one side and creeping tree branches on the other.
Ben reached back and put his hand out to stay me. “Shhh. I heard it again.”
We both stopped to listen, and sure enough, I could hear the whisper of a body—or bodies—rustling through the bushes somewhere ahead of us. I held my breath and strained to see, but the afternoon light was starting to dim into a grey haze around us.
“Hmm.” Ben moved again, taking measured steps until we reached the end of the fence. The trail then opened up into a gradual slope. Looking over Ben’s shoulder, I could see frozen riverbanks about a hundred feet ahead.
“I don’t think this is an actual hiking trail,” I said finally as we stared at the very brown river water that slowly gushed over huge slates of broken ice. “Maybe we should turn back now.”
“Yeaahhhh… These are probably deer trails, now that I think about it,” Ben said. He turned and smiled, looking slightly sheepish. “BUT, we should keep going. Why turn back now? The path continues down to the river. It could connect with other paths.”
“Yeah, other deer paths,” I grumbled.
“You’re welcome to stay here if you’d like … get eaten by wolves.”
I scowled at him and begrudgingly started side-stepping down the slope. Ben slid down, his shoes kicking up flecks of dead shrubbery and twig as he used the surrounding trees and bushes to slow his descent.
I picked my way down more carefully, but as I reached the halfway mark, I started to get nervous. The river was close, and the steps I had to take were getting steeper and steeper. For Ben, that wasn’t a problem—he had long legs and a keen sense of perception.
Me, on the other hand? My sense of balance is worse than that of a baby deer. I’d have to use Ben’s hands in addition to my own to count how many times I’ve tumbled down a hill like this.
“Ben,” I shouted, gripping the trunk of a young tree in one hand and cradling the camera in the other. “I don’t think I’m going to make it down there. What do you see?”
“Not much. It doesn’t look like the trail leads anywhere.” Ben popped up from where he was crouched in the reeds by the riverbed, a heavy stone in his hand. He studied it for a second, then shrugged and dropped it. “Hold on, I’m going to come back up.”
As he started to hike up the slope, his foot slipped on a patch of ice-covered mud, and down he went. I watched, shouting and waving the arm that once cradled the now forgotten camera, as Ben disappeared into a bed of tall grass.
Then, all I could hear was the crunch of twigs and brush … and Ben’s dramatic cursing.
“Did you fall into the river?” I shouted, not sure if I should rush to his rescue or save myself. “Did wolves get you?”
The grass shuddered as Ben picked himself up. “No … but the river almost did.” He walked out of the shrubs and grabbed a tree to steady himself, and I saw his pants were soaked up to the knees with mud and water. “It’s surprisingly slippery down here … and wet. Very wet.”
“No, duh. Good thing I had the camera.”
Ben muttered as he slowly inched his way—this time very carefully—back up the slope. When he was next to me, he looked down at his ruined pants and sighed.
“Stupid deer. I thought we’d see one for sure.”
I shrugged, took him by the arm, and hurried as quickly as safety allowed back to the path. The real, man-made path, not a deer path.
Ironically, we did finally see some deer, those stupid, sneaky deer, right at the entrance of the park on our way back to our warm car and even warmer hotel bed. I managed to capture a few photos as we left, but we never did manage to get those stains out of Ben’s pants.