Superior Hiking Trail beckons: St. Scholastica teacher Shawna Weaver setting out on 300-mile hike

What started as a well-intentioned community-service project for the freshmen Shawna Weaver teaches at St. Scholastica could have the 33-year-old muttering to herself Monday morning as she sets out on a 300-mile hike that will blanket the Superior Hiking Trail.

After presenting the semester-long project to her students, one of them asked Weaver if she’d be participating and, if so, how. The 2001 Superior High School graduate recently had attended a Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness meeting, where attendees were asked how they would utilize their time if given a couple weeks to live as they did in college — that is, care-free. Weaver seized upon the idea of running the Superior Hiking Trail. All at once.

So why not fuse the two endeavors, community service and thru-hiking? Weaver graduated last year with her doctorate in sustainability education.

“So this idea became a way for me to use my degree and give back to the community that I grew up in and that fostered my interest in the environment,” she said recently.

Weaver will depart this morning from near the Canadian border. She plans to chew up 30-40 miles per day and arrive just south of Jay Cooke State Park on Aug. 30. That timeline — nine days — could establish a record for fastest thru-hike on the trail. Or at least equal a record.

Documentation isn’t an exact science and, because there are no Superior Hiking Trail backcountry campsites within Duluth city limits, a traditional thru-hike means starting (or ending) at the Martin Road trailhead. The traditional route, attempted by about 200 people annually, is 255 miles. Nontraditional — the whole thing — is 310.

Then there is the distinction between supported and unsupported hikes. Things get murky.

Superior Hiking Trail Association executive director Gayle Coyer says someone reportedly did it all in nine days.

“We don’t really keep track of it because we just want people to do what they like with the trail,” she said.

Weaver will camp at state parks for most of her journey. As she gets closer to Duluth, she will stay at home and return to the trail each morning. Along the way, she will stop to talk with community leaders and other activists about sustainability, resilience and adventure. The hope is to foster creative solutions to the area’s “continually changing economic, environmental and social structures,” according to an earlier news release.

Filmmakers David Cowardin and Joe Olivieri of Lola Visuals will follow her for an upcoming documentary.

“What I’d really like to do is weave together the many stories that make up the North Shore and give us an opportunity to celebrate who we are and where we live and what we have,” Weaver said. “And then also to show others what we have and how beautiful this place is, and motivate ourselves and others to protect and preserve what we have.”

Talking recently, Weaver used the word “resilient” often. It’s apropos for a woman who was diagnosed with spondylolisthesis when she was about 14 years old. Multiple surgeries to treat the spinal condition, a slipping of the vertebrae, followed. Weaver was told to reconsider the active lifestyle she so desperately craved. The chronic back pain, doctors told her, would be too acute.

“I wasn’t content with that, so I spent several years trying different approaches to either accepting pain, understanding my body and learning to work through pain, or manage it or alleviate it somehow,” she said.

Gradually, Weaver found comfort on trails. The pounding wasn’t as bad as running on pavement and, if she really listened to her body, she could add more and more miles. That active lifestyle no longer was unattainable. In fact, it has prospered.

Weaver says she’s done more than 10 marathons and ultramarathons. She finished a steamy Grandma’s Marathon in June in 4 hours, 21 minutes and 54 seconds, off her goal time of 4 hours but solid considering the oppressive heat.

Weaver is confident she’s capable of averaging 34 miles daily for nine consecutive days through thick northern Minnesota forest. And she will do so on a trail she’s adored ever since her father, Bill Weaver, introduced her to it when she was just a youngster. He was an avid distance runner himself before being slowed by health woes.

“He was a marathon runner when I was growing up, so I always looked up to him and was inspired by him to run despite feeling pain and despite having these health issues that would make me think that it was something that was out of reach,” Shawna Weaver said.

She is intimately familiar with the scenic Superior Hiking Trail, but says she’s excited to experience some of its more remote sections. And Weaver is curious to see how her body will respond to the stress. At this point, that’s an unknown, as are other variables such as, during this summer of storms, the weather.

“Weather, obviously, will be a huge wild card,” she said.

Weaver will be blogging daily at 310film.com; follow her by clicking on “Shawna’s blog.”

The Superior Hiking Trail is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year. But that’s not the trail’s only big milestone of 2016. Sometime this fall, a two-mile section will be completed that will connect its southern terminus with the North Country Trail at the Minnesota-Wisconsin border. The North Country Trail stretches 4,600 miles from upstate New York to central North Dakota.

Written by Louie St. George as published in the Duluth News Tribune.

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