The "Devil Track"
Posted Wed, August 25, 2010 - 8:49 PM
What a great name for a river! It's up on the north shore of Lake Superior, starting in the swampy headwaters of Minnesota's northeasternmost county, flowing south and east until it reaches a choke point in the coastal hills near Sawtooth Bluff and backs up as Devil Track Lake. The next four miles downstream from the lake, the river cuts a deep gorge through the Proterozoan rock and finally lets out into Lake Superior a few miles east of Grand Marais. In spring melt it becomes a completely wild river, full of twists, bends, cascades, occasional waterfalls, and very few places to climb out of the gorge that's often filled wall to wall. By late summer, however, the flow diminishes enough to expose much of the canyon floor, and the river becomes an attractive target for a little bit of "canyoneering". A few days ago, I just so happened to be in Grand Marais, and took that opportunity on a cloudless Sunday morning.
I actually didn't know what to expect. The best available map I had was the online MyTopo version (shown above), and although it easily shows the gorge, it's not fine enough to show any detail of what's in it. Mainly, I was concerned with whether I would reach any impassable areas (read: cliffs or waterfalls) and have to turn around, either to climb up and around the obstacle, or simply to give it up until the next try.
The section of the Superior Hiking Trail between Sawtooth Bluff and Woods Creek crosses the Devil Track gorge about two miles upstream from the lake - on the MyTopo map, between the two words "Devil" and "Track" labeling the river - and climbs up to the north rim of the gorge for the rest of the way. I'd trail-run this section before and knew where the bridge was, so I decided on it as a destination, unless, of course, I was stopped sooner than that.
I parked near the Highway 61 crossing and took a day pack with some food (donuts, of course!), water, and a camera. The river was only an ankle-deep trickle at this point, and the much wider valley was almost filled with shingles, testifying to the local history. The rock in this area is hard but brittle - it has a preferred fracture plane, and thus falls off as flat plates. As these plates are rolled and buffeted around in countless years of spring floods, the edges are rounded off and they're carried downstream to settle as deep beds of hand-size scree.
I was surprised to find that the first few hundred meters of shingles upstream from the highway crossing were filled with hardy wildflowers. Some of them, like the big patches of forget-me-nots, usually bloom much earlier in the season, but must have been delayed in flowering until the river settled down and stopped flooding in early summer. I was pretty slow through this section, as I spent a lot of time taking photos against the excellent rocky backdrop.
A sampling of the local flora. Clockwise from top left: Forget-me-not, hemp-nettle, sow-thistle, bladder campion, orange hawkweed, bull thistle.
The river continued as a relative trickle, and although I was forced to cross it every hundred meters or so, it was never more than knee deep. The biggest concern was how slippery some of the algae-covered rocks were. And as bad as those were, the half-submerged shelves of rock were even worse. I had to take care to use dry rocks when I could, and move carefully otherwise. It didn't help that I had some rather expensive camera gear with me that needed to stay bone-dry.
After about a quarter mile the walls started to rise and narrow slightly, and as I proceeded the trend only increased. Soon I was in the lower gorge - maybe about 10 or 15 meters wide, with nearly sheer rock walls of the same height and often higher reflecting tan, russet, and even orangeish in the high sun. It was the closest I've seen in this state to the redrock canyons of the West, except that the walls were hard, flaky igneous rock, instead of smoothly worn sedimentary sandstone.
View from inside the gorge.
At this point there was really no way to climb out of the gorge. Although I expected to find some places where a scramble might work, I didn't. The walls were surprisingly sheer and didn't support any vegetation to speak of. After about a mile I reached a tight S-turn to the right and heard a rush of water ahead. It turned out to only be a cascade over a steeper section of rock, but there was still plenty of room to the side, so I clambered up the slope. The flakiness of the rock meant that the steeper sections had multiple ledges that acted like steps, so the going was never difficult when out of the water. The next S-turn to the left revealed the first honest-to-goodness waterfall, but it was still easy to climb around it.
But a couple hundred meters later, I ran out of luck.
It's a little hard to see the scale, but this waterfall was about 20 feet high. Even if I had had climbing gear (and the skills to use it), it would have been difficult to get up and over the obstacle. A top-rope would have been a different story... swim out into the pool, attach a couple of jugs, and up you go! But realistically, this is where I had to turn around. I took a GPS reading to double check where I thought I was, and headed back downstream.
I'll have to admit I'm hooked now - I want to explore this canyon more! My next step is going to be starting from the bridge where the Superior Hiking Trail crosses the river. I'll hike downstream and see if I can reach the top of the falls that stopped me this time. Or perhaps, I'll be stopped by a second (or third or fourth) waterfall and have to investigate whether there's any way down to climb down into the canyon. From what I've seen, it's entirely possible there are sections of the gorge that aren't accessible without using ropes of some kind. I'd love to know for sure, and intend to find out!