Thirty years after work began on the Superior Hiking Trail, the 302-mile path is nearly complete.
This summer, volunteers are constructing the last two-mile portion of the trail southwest of Duluth. Winding atop the steep ridgeline along Lake Superior's North Shore, the trail will connect the Canadian border to the Wisconsin border.
The trail's completion comes at an ideal time for the Superior Hiking Trail Association, the Two Harbors-based nonprofit that built and maintains the trail with a team of over 300 volunteers.
"It seems like backpacking is experiencing a gigantic boost everywhere and we're seeing that here for sure," said Jo Swanson, the trail association's outreach coordinator. "We're very busy here in the office with people calling and stopping and in planning their trips."
At least 25,000 people use the trail every year, said Gayle Coyer, executive director for the trail association. But that estimate was made before the trail in Duluth was completed in 2007, so the usage numbers are likely higher now.
New lightweight backpacking equipment is boosting numbers. Hiking poles help older hikers manage heavy packs, and a Facebook page devoted to the trail is also likely increasing traffic.
However, Coyer attributes a lot of the surge in backpacking's popularity to the recent movie "Wild," which features Reese Witherspoon playing a young woman who hikes on the Pacific Crest Trail.
The movie resonated with 65-year-old retiree Carol Gieszler of Duluth, who hiked the trail with a friend last fall from near the Canadian border to Duluth.
"I saw the movie 'Wild,' and that got me going, but I had been thinking about it, and that just kicked something off in my head, like, 'I'm going to do this,' " she said.
It took the pair three weeks to cover 210 miles.
"It was very, very challenging," Gieszler said. "We had our emotional ups and downs, our physical ups and downs. But we didn't get injured, no blisters."
Backpackers like Gieszler are increasingly taking advantage of the trail's 93 backcountry campsites, Coyer said. The evidence for this, she said, isn't pretty: "We can prove this because we know that the latrines are filling up faster than in the past."
While longer trips like that are increasingly common, still only a couple hundred people attempt to through-hike the trail each year. Most people hike shorter distances.
That was the intent when resort owners and Superior National Forest rangers first conceived of the trail in the early 1980s.
"The commitment was to have a trailhead parking lot every 5 to 8 miles so you really could just do a nice day hike on it," Coyer said.
After the trail was initially thought up, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources joined the effort and the Legislative Commission on Minnesota Resources kicked in $400,000. That built the first 135 miles of trail, nearly connecting Grand Marais and Two Harbors.
Years after the initial construction, the goal now is to finish the trail by Labor Day.
During a recent work day, a crew of six volunteers, mostly retirees, wielded pick-axe like tools called "Mattocks" to dig out roots and small stumps. Others followed with "McLeods," raking the 18-inch wide path and tamping it down, and angling it slightly to ensure that water runs off.
The trail will eventually connect with the North Country Trail in Wisconsin, which volunteers there plan to complete later this year.
But that doesn't mean work on the Superior Hiking Trail will be complete. It needs to be constantly maintained. It's even weed-whipped once a year.
"There's always maintenance," said Larry Sampson with the trail association. "And if it weren't for the volunteers ... this trail wouldn't exist. There's no way that this trial could be built or maintained without the help of volunteers. It's what keeps these trails in place."