I’m driving home after work and suddenly realize it’s Labor Day weekend. The weather is going to be good, I live in Duluth and I have two kids younger than five who are tearing up the house like tiny baboons. I try to figure out something new to do, but am out of ideas and energy. My wife and I look at each other on Friday night, shrug our shoulders and say, “Oberg Mountain” at the same time. There’s a good reason we’ve been there five times in the past two years. It’s a perfect all-season destination, especially for little ones. Not too long a drive and not too long a walk. Even toddlers stay interested on this hike.
We throw the child-carrier, blankets and snacks into the truck. Don’t forget the snacks. All adventures with kids are powered by snacks. Going “Bye-bye” gets my little girl out of the house and into the Big Red Truck. About 85 miles up the North Shore, the whining has begun, but I can say, “We’re almost there!” without lying. We’re about 5 miles past Tofte and not quite to Lutsen. We take a left turn at the Onion River Road (or Forest Road 336), which is just past the Onion River rest stop. Two miles of everybody hollering “Aaaaahhhhhh!” as we rumble over the washboard dirt road brings us to the Oberg Mountain trailhead parking lot.
My son leads the way out of the lot to the east, crosses the Onion River Road, and heads up the hill. In a few months, the road we just crossed will morph into a beautiful kid-friendly cross country ski trail. It’s wide with a gentle grade and is centrally located in the Sugarbush Trail system. I daydream about snow as we walk through the green tunnel of leaves. My daughter is on my back and says,”Hi!” to everybody on the trail. There are many comments like, “She’s got the good deal,” and, “Can I get a ride in there?”
Just after we pass through a grand old stand of big cedars, we meet the junction with the Superior Hiking Trail. My boy decides we need to take a little rest on the bench there. Ten seconds later, rested, we continue uphill. We see the spot where the Oberg Mountain trail loops back onto itself and bear right. This will put us in a counter-clockwise direction around the top of the hill. Shortly thereafter, we stumble out to the first overlook of the trip. There is a wonderful view of Leveaux Mountain off to the south, framed by the trees and backed by Lake Superior. This is also where I can see down to the parking lot and make my ritual comment, made on all hikes where the car is in view: “Hey! Somebody’s breaking into my truck!” Nobody ever laughs but me.
The big payoff is next when the trail opens out to a wide ledge and a log bench where the star of the stage is Lake Superior. This day it is hazy and white and blends in with the cirrus in the sky. On past days it’s been a brilliant azure and glimmering in the sun which hangs in the south. The spot never gets old and it’s only a little more than a half mile to here from the parking lot. A few times before, this is where we have picnicked and called it a day, but today we’re taking the grand tour.
We press on toward Canada on our hike and find the giant picnic table. Built of huge logs, the table is a perfect spot for the kids to fuel up. It’s tucked under the maples that populate this southern exposure. The dry summer has put these trees under stress and they are prematurely showing the colors of red and orange that should be waiting weeks to appear. Mama doles out the snacks and the sounds of munching fill the air. I watch some hawks and falcons doing lazy circles in the thermals as they migrate their way to Duluth and further south. I turn around and the kids are mowing down piles of raisins and crackers. We move on to the northeast after the tanks are full. At the last overlook that primarily faces the lake, I tell my son, “Sam, you can almost see all the way up the shore to Canada from here.” He looks at me, looks down and thinks. Then he looks up the shore and says, “Papa, you can see almost all the way to Canada from here.” Is that so? Son of a gun. Smart kid.
The hits keep on coming and the kids never get a chance to get bored. My favorite overlook is next. The northeastern-most view appears after a short turn to the left thru a tunnel of shady firs. And then, like Emeril the chef says, “BAM!” You’re standing next to a fence which protects you from walking off a high cliff! My wife cautions the kids to stay close and we all look at the sea of green that stretches from Lake Superior on the right to Oberg Lake on the left. Here and there are pockets of flame-orange that give hints of the future explosion of color. We wear out the digital camera here and continue on.
The trail winds its way past several more perches over Oberg Lake. A ledge and the red berries of a mountain ash frame the blue circle of water that beams back at the sky like a mirror. It sure is a pretty little pond. All I know is that the kids are still saying, “Wow!” at each overlook and we’re almost two miles and two hours along the path. The one mile per hour pace allows you to see the smaller things. My gnome-sized daughter squats down to see a bumblebee. My boy says, “That caterpillar was on the trail. He should pray he doesn’t get squished.” Indeed, my son. We are all one in our desire not to be squished.
The trail rejoins our previous route and my son perks up after he sounds out the word “Parking” on the sign. Once again, the mountain hands the kids some motivation right before their attention span expires. We retrace our steps to the car and head back to Duluth. I know it’s been another good Saturday when I am serenaded home by three unique snoring patterns. Thanks, Oberg Mountain. We’ll be back.
2005 Fall Color Reports (Minnesota DNR): http://www.dnr.state.mn.us/current_conditions/index.html
Sugarbush Trail Association Trail Map: http://www.sugarbushtrail.org/images/trail_map_final.gif
Superior Hiking Trail map of Oberg Mountain: http://www.shta.org/Trail/TrailMaps/s074.php