Path to Friendship

Friends Bond on North Shore Backpacking Adventure

Seven Twin Cities friends – three experienced backpackers, and four first-timers – set off to conquer a four-day, three-night, 35-mile trip from Lutsen to Grand Marais on the Superior Hiking Trail (SHT) – Minnesota’s grand jewel of long-distance hiking trails.

After months of planning, discussions, backpacking tips, shuttle booking, gear accumulation and other coordination via a private Facebook event, it was time to hit the trail. We were in for lots of tranquility, sore feet, mosquitos, wildflowers, breathtaking lake vistas, smelly latrines, cold creeks, blisters, crackling campfires and strengthened friendships.

Day 1

After all seven of us had arrived at the Pincushion Mountain parking lot just outside Grand Marais, shuttle driver Harriet Quarles rolled up in her massive white passenger van. Harriet spent the half-hour drive sharing helpful trail condition reports, tips, advice and cautionary tales of unprepared hikers she had to pick up after bailing out.

At the Lutsen trailhead, we all applied sunscreen and bug spray in preparation for an afternoon in the woods. With a few final pack strap adjustments, five of us were on our way up a steep climb out away from the rushing Poplar River while two started late and hiked far behind. Before we knew it, our breath was taken away, either by the swift elevation change, or the jaw-dropping beauty of the forest and views of the valley below.

As the path descended back toward the river, the mud began. The obstacles, combined with the abilities and pace of each hiker, naturally separated members the group. Some moved quickly along the trail while others lingered. Everyone got some quality solitude.

One by one, we all reached a particularly breathtaking overlook where we regrouped for a lengthy break. Everyone busted out their cameras for a selfie along with snacks. One newbie, who had clearly over-packed, pulled out a camp chair while we lounged on the stone cliff waiting for our two companions.

After about an hour on the rock, some of us worried our two tardy pals were in some kind of trouble. Luckily, cell phone service is available atop of most of the hills, mountains and ridgelines on the SHT. A text message confirmed that the two hikers were OK and had a story for us once they met us at camp later that night.

Once the five of us reached camp – a shady area on a hill above Lake Agnes – everyone completed their basic chores: filtering water for drinking and cooking, setting up tents, gathering firewood, and cooking our various freeze-dried dinners. That’s when our two friends moseyed into camp.

They clearly had a rougher day. Apparently, they missed the very first turn where the SHT turns uphill from a wider state snowmobile trail. Instead, they followed the wide trail north for miles before it narrowed, then disappeared before coming out to a road north and west of their intended path. Scratched up and tired from the additional mileage, the two road-walked back east to a point where the Superior Hiking Trail met the road, and then back-tracked to the west side of Lake Agnes. While the first five of us had traveled just five miles, the other two trekked at least twice as far.

Despite the setback, the entire group was in high spirits while gathered around a flickering campfire sharing food, whisky, candy, s’mores and other treats. While it felt like a night of indulgence, it was actually a practical calculation that would lighten loads for the upcoming big-mileage day.

Day 2

It was a dead calm morning. There was no wind in the treetops above. Only the soothing sound of a creek babbled from the beaver dam downhill, punctuated by an occasional bird song and loon call. We weren’t in the city anymore. We had a taxing day of more than 12 miles of backpacking ahead of us, but everyone was stress-free enjoying the still morning.

The group leisurely cooked breakfast, and packed up. Nobody rushed. We finally stepped off around 9:30 a.m.

The trail took us along the western and northern edges of Lake Agnes, past another campsite and across two gravel roads before a laborious struggle up a steep hill replaced the lazy attitude of the morning. At the top, the trail opened to a clearing with several benches and a fire circle, and a tremendous view of Caribou Lake. We took advantage of the benches to rest after the climb and enjoy snacks.

The following sections were marked by difficult stretches of elevation gain, mud, bugs, roots and rocks. There were also payoffs: spectacular ridgeline vistas, shady forest canopy, pine potpourri aromas, and babbling brooks. We passed a beaver pond with an impressive boardwalk built by SHT staff and volunteers at the Jonvick Creek campsite, ate lunch at the Spruce Creek campsite, and soaked our feet in the cold water at Indian Camp Creek campsite.

It was well into the afternoon when fatigue set in. The late start and long breaks robbed the group of daylight. We hurried along a scenic ridge overlooking the Cascade River Valley on our way down to Lookout Mountain where we paused for photos.

We descended into Cascade River State Park, down the famed 96 Steps, and north along the west side of the raging Cascade River. It was some of the wildest and most gorgeous mileage we encountered, but no one was in the mood to linger. At one point, the leaders stopped along the river where a man and his dog had set up a tent and were sitting around a fire ring. Some staked out spots and set up their own tents until they realized it wasn’t the SHT-sanctioned site we were looking for. The slog continued another mile.

Finally, we reached camp and completed our chores. Life slowly returned to each group member as we enjoyed dinner and reflected on the hard day. Though the next day we planned to complete only eight miles, everyone agreed we should leave camp much earlier.

Day 3

We broke camp at 8:30 a.m. and were on our way north through the Cascade River Valley. With fresh eyes we were able to appreciate the rugged river and landscape. After stopping for photos and a snack at a dramatic overlook near a gravel road, the group continued on a quarter-mile road walk to a large trailhead parking lot and a climb to yet another ridgeline.

After the climb, the hiking was surprisingly easy and pleasant. The aroma of the red pine forest added to the calm of walking on a trail softened by fallen pine needles. As the trail continued downhill for an hour, the group couldn’t help but contrast the feeling with the previous day’s difficult march through mud, roots, rocks and more.

The fastest hikers picked a lunch spot in the shade along an old logging road where we ate, lounged and discussed trail names. The hikers were dubbed “Bolt,” “Blaze,” “Pixie,” “Mirage,” “Zilla,” Lancelot” and “Hot Lunch,” based on attributes and inside jokes.

After the previous day’s difficulty, it was a shock when the hikers reached Bally Creek Pond North campsite – the night’s campsite – at just 2 p.m. The early finish left time to enjoy an unburdened afternoon in the wilderness. Some napped, some soaked their feet in the creek and some chatted around the fire ring. Chores were completed leisurely with plenty of time before dinner.

For the first time, we shared a campsite with another hiker. A young man from the Twin Cities, he was nearly finished with his thru-hike of the trail starting from Duluth and ending near the Canadian border. Everyone peppered him with questions about his experiences, his food, his hammock camp, his gear and his life.

While eating dinner that afternoon, we took turns talking about what we had gotten out of the trip so far.

“Lancelot” shared how the trail helped her focus less on her body’s aches and pains, and more on bigger thoughts, feelings, spiritual practice and deep personal thinking.

“Pixie” echoed that sentiment and added that she took advantage of the solitude to practice some walking meditation.

“Bolt” also experienced some therapeutic benefits. He reported a blaze of childhood memories sparked by solitude and clarity of mind.

“Hot Lunch” was reminded of his childhood “Holiday Inn” vacations with his parents. The difficulty of the backpacking experience left him with a solid sense of accomplishment and reserves of confidence.

“Zilla” was also proud of rising to the challenge. She realized that her physical fitness in other areas didn’t exactly translate when it came to hiking uneven terrain with a heavy pack.

“Blaze” reported that she was pleased with the group dynamic and the leadership role she played. She said she played a much different role in other groups with whom she had adventured.

“Mirage” hiked the entire trail solo the previous year, and was excited to share the trail and everything it has to offer with friends. He said last year he did it for the challenge, and this year was all about having fun and building friendships.

Day 4

Everyone was up early and eager to finish the last eight-mile stretch into Grand Marais and enjoy a cold beer. The first hikers broke camp just before 6:30 a.m. and the last at 7 a.m.

The trail quickly reached a serene beaver pond dissected by a skinny boardwalk for hikers to traverse. The first miles of the trail were extremely pleasant, especially in coolness of the still morning air.

About halfway, the trail widened, flattened and met up with the state snowmobile trail. The experience turned decidedly less than pleasant as the wide trail weaved through wet, low-lying areas of tall grass and bugs, later dubbed “Mosquito Alley.” At one point, hikers reached a huge puddle that was impossible to pass without getting at least one foot completely wet in calf-deep standing water. After about a mile-and-a-half of snowmobile trail walking, the path crossed a gravel road and veered directly south downhill toward Lake Superior and Grand Marais.

The descent was sharp and slow going, especially for “Hot Lunch” who badly turned an ankle on the snowmobile trail, and “Zilla” who walked with the aid of an impressive, knee-saving wooden staff. Eventually everyone completed the steepest descent, crossed the wide Gunflint Trail roadway and climbed the final ascent into the parking lot, arriving at about 10:30 a.m.

We cleaned ourselves with wet wipes, deodorant, water and towels before donning a fresh change of clothes. Just as the brewery opened its doors, we arrived and raised a pint to our achievement.


Roberts man accused of stabbing cat to death

A 19-year-old Roberts man is facing a felony mistreatment of animal charge after his friend found her cat stabbed to death in her Baldwin apartment Saturday night.

Justin J. Albright was also charged with misdemeanor bail jumping for failing to comply with the terms of his bond stemming from a September 2014 incident.

According to the criminal complaint, Albright and a male friend had been visiting two women who shared an apartment in Baldwin along with five pet cats. The four hung out together at the apartment on Saturday from about 8 p.m. until 10 p.m. when Albright’s male companion asked for a ride home. The two women drove the man home leaving Albright alone in the apartment with the cats.

When the women returned 10 to 15 minutes later, Albright told the women he was leaving to purchase cigarettes. That’s when one of them found several areas of blood in a bedroom, and a dead cat rolled up in a T-shirt in the closet, according to the complaint. The women then called the police.

Police found a large kitchen knife behind the bed in the woman’s bedroom. According to the complaint, the knife had blood, black hair and fatty tissue on it.

The following day, Albright agreed to meet with police in Baldwin. According to the complaint, Albright told an officer that all four individuals were high on illegal substances the previous evening. He said that when the women left to drive his friend home, he left the apartment to get some tobacco and/or cigarettes at a Kwik Trip gas station. He told the officer that the women were engaged in an argument when they returned, and he tried to console them before deciding to leave to visit another friend in Somerset. He admitted to being in the woman’s bedroom, but denied having any contact with the dead cat or the knife.

The officer followed up on Albright’s claim that he went to Kwik Trip for tobacco and/or cigarettes, but no one matching Albright’s description could be seen on surveillance footage during the time in question at either Baldwin Kwik Trip location, according to the complaint.

Albright was taken into custody and booked into St. Croix County Jail. Cash bond was set at $1,000. Albright was scheduled to appear in court again for a preliminary hearing on Wednesday afternoon.

Our View: Plenty of other ways to recognize veterans

It’s an understatement to say that New Richmond has an active community of veterans and military servicemembers.

The military tradition is very strong in the city. American Legion Butler-Harmon Post 80 has a tremendous static display of a fighter jet in its parking lot. VFW Post 10818 is one of the most active posts in the state, and it is preparing an elaborate Loyalty Day celebration this spring.

The city is also home to a National Guard Armory and the county’s Veterans Service Office, which is in the new St. Croix County Services Center.

Park land in the city also pays tribute to our nation’s veterans with Freedom Park on the north side named in their honor and a tremendous veterans memorial with each of the services’ flags on the west side.

Our city’s patriotism and reverence for veterans will be on full display this September when a half-size replica of the Vietnam Memorial wall visits town.

While we applaud the city’s Public Works Committee and City Council for keeping veterans at top of mind with their move to rename a segment of Wall Street to 32nd Division Avenue, we think there could be better ways to honor these heroes.

Instead of creating headaches among mapmakers, GPS device users and the U.S. Postal Service, why not find something less disruptive in the city to rename for the 32nd Infantry Division? Perhaps a pocket park, or a conference room at city hall, or a specific ball field at Freedom Park would be appropriate. Perhaps the trail that rings Freedom Park could be designated the 32nd Infantry Division Memorial Pathway.

It’s very important to remember our veterans and their sacrifices, but I don’t think very many veterans are looking to the city to cause serious disruption to honor them.

We’re glad the council tabled the issue, and we hope a more appropriate tribute can be identified.


A Day in the Life of the Wastewater Superintendent

Minding your business: Wastewater treatment plant turns sewage into safe water

When New Richmond Wastewater Superintendent Dennis Holtz meets new people and talks about his work, it’s usually a pretty short conversation. Aside from those who work in the industry, sewage isn’t a very appetizing topic for dinner parties.

But Holtz, along with Wastewater Operator Steve Skinner, helps keep the city’s sewage system humming, which is more important than most people realize.

“I don’t think they care, as long as it goes away. Most of the time, people just don’t want to talk about it,” Skinner said. “But if you can put a little of the environmental spin on it, and educate them that way, that’s where they seem to be more interested. They have no interest in knowing what happens to their stuff after it goes down the drain. But the fact that we take the water, clean it and reuse it is very important.”

Holtz said the job he and Skinner do is actually a much cleaner than Skinner’s previous job as a mechanic at a local car dealership, where he would get covered in grease, mud and grime.

“People think it’s a stinky, crappy job, but it really isn’t,” Holtz said.

Morning checks and samples

On this particular day — July 18 — Holtz begins work shortly before 7 a.m. and Skinner is off to tend to a family matter. Upon arrival, Holtz checks the plant’s flow recorder and SCADA (supervisory control and data acquisition) computer system to get a sense of how the plant is operating.

“As you work here over time, you know what it should be and shouldn’t be doing,” said Holtz, who has worked at wastewater treatment plants for nearly 40 years — including 15 in New Richmond.

A quick look at the key gauges, combined with Holtz’s experience, tells him what he needs to know. He grabs his sample collection receptacles and heads out the door toward the multiple ponds on the property.

“We do the influent — that’s the water that comes into the plant dirty — and we check the effluent — that’s the clean water leaving the plant,” Holtz said.

While gathering his various samples, Holtz also performs a series of checks to ensure the facility’s basins, pumps and other equipment are functioning properly — and there are a lot of things to check. And today, he doesn’t have Skinner to help him out.

There are giant blower motors and massive sludge pumps, and those expensive pieces of equipment need to be carefully maintained. Each of the facility’s basins requires a check to ensure it has the proper amount of bacteria to break down the sewage, or that it isn’t collecting too much sludge at the bottom. A fine screen machine needs to be checked to ensure it’s not getting plugged by the large amounts of solid material — such as rags and plastics — it filters out of the wastewater as it enters the facility.

In the lab

With his sample bottles filled and the equipment checked, Holtz gets to work in the Wastewater Treatment Facility lab, complete with beakers, flasks and other chemistry equipment.

One of his first tests is to measure the settability of the sample extracted from the facility’s final clarifiers. If the plant is working its magic properly, the cloudy brown liquid should become clear at the top of the flask as the brown material settles to the bottom. And, sure enough, that’s exactly what happens after a few minutes.

Holtz explains that the clear liquid on top is pretty much clean water, and the material that settles toward the bottom is mostly the highly active bacteria that cleansed it.

A battery of tests that would make any high school chemistry teacher envious ensues. Holtz tests the influent wastewater for biological oxygen demand (BOD) and total suspended solids. The effluent water is also tested for BOD and total suspended solids, as well as for ammonia, nitrogen and phosphorous content, which is required to be reported to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.

The monotony of the sample tests is one of the challenges of the job, but Holtz takes it seriously knowing that the city could be fined or the environment could be damaged if the plant gets out of control.

“It’s all about the river. Environmentally, it’s the thing to do,” Holtz said. “It goes right through Willow River State Park, and they’re actually standing in our wastewater.”

Holtz wouldn’t say that the roughly 650,000 gallons of water the city puts back into the river every day is cleaner than what’s already there, but he said it was pretty close.

“The fact that we’re discharging all this clean water is just the greatest feeling there is,” Holtz said. “It’s crystal clear. You can put it up aside our drinking water and you can hardly tell the difference. It’s that good. It’s very rewarding.”

Around town

With most sample tests completed, Holtz jumps in a City of New Richmond pickup truck and heads out the facility’s gate where he meets Water Superintendent Bob Meyer, who was on his way to chat with Holtz about some adjustments inside the booster station at the edge of the plant. Holtz said the teamwork between the wastewater employees and the water employees is very beneficial to the way the city works. When one department is short-handed or has extra work to do, employees from the other department are cross-trained to lend a hand.

Holtz’s first stop is the Main Lift Station at the Nature Center. The unassuming building doesn’t look like much from the outside, but inside a metal staircase leads 30 feet underground to an important bottleneck in the citywide sewer system. Holtz said about 90 percent of the city’s wastewater makes its way through the Main Lift Station, and it serves as a final stop before entering the plant just across the river.

Another interesting stop on this particular day is at a lift station on East First Street where a massive portable pump is hooked up. The lift station’s pumps, overwhelmed with groundwater coming into old pipes, are being assisted by the portable pump. Holtz stops by to ensure the machine is still working its magic and there’s no trouble in that part of the system.

On this particular day, Holtz also took the time to check in on a few of the water department’s wells while out and about.

The rest of the day is filled with more sample tests and maintenance checks until quitting time around 3:30 p.m. Of course, Holtz or Skinner always have to be ready to come back to the plant in case of emergency.

Earning recognition

A wall in the wastewater office is filled with plaques Holtz and Skinner have earned over the years. Both men have been recognized multiple times by the Wisconsin Wastewater Operators Association (WWOA). In 2008, Skinner earned the organization’s Newcomer of the Year Award, and Holtz followed up in 2009 by earning its Operator of the Year Award. Skinner caught up by earning his own Operator of the Year Award in 2013 and becoming the first person to win both newcomer and operator of the year awards. Holtz one-upped him again last year when he was honored with the George F. Bernauer Award, which is WWOA’s top accolade. But that plaque is missing from the office wall, because Holtz has it proudly displayed at home.

“It’s a very big deal. I was so shocked. I never expected it,” Holtz said. “I just go to work every day just doing my job. It’s really quite the honor.”

Moving on

The award is a fitting end to a 40-year career as Holtz plans to retire in April. He’s looking forward to playing a lot more golf, traveling to visit his children and grandchildren and spending more time on his stained glass hobby.

Until then, he’s showing the ropes to Skinner and preparing him to potentially take over the superintendent position unless the city leadership decides to hire an outsider with more experience. But Skinner will be a strong candidate with nearly a decade of wastewater treatment experience already under his belt. If the powers that be see fit, Skinner could lead the next generation at the plant, and place an ad for a wastewater operator similar to the one he responded to back in 2005.

The wastewater journey

DOWN THE DRAIN: Anytime water leaves a faucet, pipe or hose, it becomes wastewater that enters the city’s wastewater system through drains in sinks, toilets, showers, tubs, floor drains and the like.

LIFT STATIONS: Once in the city’s sewer system, wastewater makes it way toward the Wastewater Treatment Plant with the aid of a complex system of pipes and 16 lift stations equipped with pumps. About 90 percent of the city’s wastewater travels through the Main Lift Station at the Nature Center just before entering the treatment plant across the river.

HUBER FINE SCREEN: Once inside the plant, wastewater travels through the Huber fine screen, which separates larger items, such as rags and plastics, directly into a dumpster.

PRIMARY CLARIFIERS: After running past a meter, the wastewater enters the primary clarifier, which separates floatable solids from settable solids. The material that settles to the bottom is called sludge, and it is pumped into an area of the facility where it can be stored until it is removed by an outside company.

AERATION BASINS: Here, wastewater is introduced to a biological process with the aid of certain bacteria that break it down and cleanse it. High-pressure air is forced into the bottom of the basin through tight rubber caps to expose the bacteria to the proper amount of oxygen.

FINAL CLARIFIERS: In the final clarifier, bacteria settle to the bottom of the wastewater, which is now called mixed liquor. Once settled, the bacteria are pumped back into the aeration basin while the clear water on top moves on.

UV CLEANSE: On its final stop in the plant, water quickly passes through an ultraviolet lamp system that neutralizes microorganisms and disinfects the water.

WILLOW RIVER: About five hours after wastewater enters the New Richmond Wastewater Treatment Plant, it flows freely into the Willow River as harmless, clean water.