I spent my teen years climbing the White Mountains in New Hampshire. While walking down the mountain, I’d often play a game of make-believe in my head. What if I hiked out at the end of the trail and there was no parking lot? No more car? What if I went back in time 300 years? I figured my digital watch would be pretty impressive to the locals.
Sure, it’s a long way from New Hampshire in my teens to Minnesota in my late thirties. But I haven’t changed much. Ely’s Peak is a big whaleback of rock along a newer stretch of the Superior Hiking Trail (SHT) west of Duluth. When I went there last May, I was struck by how much youthful pretending I was doing. This spot overlooks all manner of ancient and modern pathways. In less than two miles of walking, I was able to time-travel through hundreds of years of transportation history.
In a lucky convergence of schedules, both my wife’s sister and mine were together in Duluth at the same time. This put my son and daughter into “auntie excitement overload” so we got out of the house to burn up some of their energy. We drove to the Becks Road trailhead of the Willard Munger Trail. I loaded my squirmy, 2-year old daughter onto my back. I figured I was a lot like the voyageurs who used the Grand Portage Trail of Jay Cooke State Park near here. They’d load their two 90-pound bales on their backs and get around the tricky parts of the St. Louis River. Okay, so my daughter is 150 pounds lighter than that, but I bet voyageur cargo didn’t kick them in the back.
As we wandered down the paved trail toward town, I sent out my 5-year old scout ahead through the light green of the spring aspens. I tried to picture an old Northern Pacific steam engine chuffing its way up the hill toward us, circa 1880. And then I started to feel actual rumbling in my feet. Dang, I thought, I’m good. Then the light bulb came on and I rustled everybody up to where the trail crosses the current bed of the Canadian National railway. Always a crowd pleaser to stand on a bridge directly over a non-imaginary freight train.
Just before the Munger bends through a cut in the rock, the SHT takes a left off the pavement and proceeds up a virtual staircase of rock. One of the joys of spring hiking is the great visibility. You can see further through the trees in spring than at any other warm time of the year. In a haze of green, we made our way up the trail. We marveled at the trillium struggling out of the flattened, brown forest floor, still squashed from the recently departed blanket of winter snow. I could hear the whine of far off tires as cars sped down the highway. I wondered if an old Model-T would make that much noise.
Good visibility in the woods wasn’t necessary as we emerged onto an open slab of rock. No problem getting views from there, nor would there be all the way to the top. A stiff east wind greeted us, however, and we remembered why we bring winter gear, even when it seems silly. I was grateful since my daughter was whooping in my ears as the wind took her breath away. There’s nothing like a warm hat and mittens (and a lollipop!) to solve that problem.
As we swiveled our heads to take in the scenery, we came upon a set of wooden stairs that help hikers up over a ledge. Watching my boy climb the steps prompted “I get down,” and “I do it,” from my daughter. No complaints from this junior varsity voyageur. As I followed my wife and tiny, walking girl up the hill, I tried to locate an old railroad tunnel I saw two summers before. I ran the Half Voyageur Trail Marathon somewhere near it then, but couldn’t pinpoint the cave-like opening now. Hmmm, I thought. As it turns out, I was standing directly on top of it when trying to spot it. That was why I couldn’t see the old Duluth, Winnipeg and Pacific railroad tunnel, punched through this giant rock ridge around 1912. There I was, playing on something that was nothing but an obstacle for a railroad man a century before.
The trail followed the contour line to the east for a while away from the rock and through the matted down, yellow grass of last year. I looked to the right toward a bird as it spun circles in the updraft. I wonder how many times over the eons this same scene has been repeated here: walker envies soaring bird. A sign points left to the Ely’s Peak overlook. Just the right amount of hiking for a couple of kids and out-of-town aunts. We pulled out the food right after my son hollered out a cartoonish, “I have conquered the mountain!” I wonder who taught him that silliness?
We all sat, chewed apples and drank water. I squinted into the wind toward Duluth. I could almost see Daniel Greysolon, Sieur du Lhut portaging his canoe right past where the Aerial Lift Bridge now sits, way back in 1679. Afterward, he likely came up the broad sweep of the St. Louis River, right below where we sat three centuries later. He was probably following directions given by the Native Americans who figured out the route for untold generations before. He’d never know that somebody named Duluth after him.
People have been traveling through this valley under Ely’s Peak for a long time. It’s a natural place for trails to converge, there at the head of the lake. From where we sat, we surveyed footpaths, the blue highway of water, gray roads, and at least three different railroad beds, all nestled in a sea of budding trees. I like to imagine paddling my way into Duluth all those years ago. Or having the conductor holler, All Aboard! Or turning the crank on my old Ford back in the 1920’s. From Ely’s Peak you can see a long way. Even a long way into the past. But on that sunny May afternoon, my family’s laughter brought me back to the present. I saw my kids smiling. No imagination required.