A small group of people gathered the morning of Saturday, July 4, at the southern terminus of the Superior Hiking Trail for the beginning of a very special thru-hike.
Six people joined Crystal Gail Welcome as she began the 310-mile journey from Carlton County’s Wisconsin border to the Canadian Border near Hovland in Cook County at precisely 8:46 a.m. The group continued with Welcome on the trail for 8.46 miles.
Welcome and her friends chose the time and distance to mark the amount of time a Minneapolis police officer knelt on George Floyd’s neck while he was handcuffed. Floyd’s death set off nationwide protests against police brutality.
Welcome, an activist and writer from Atlanta, said she wanted to honor Floyd with her hike, as well as promote the outdoors as a space welcoming to people of color.
“My main passion and mission in life is to make the outdoors inclusive and welcoming for all,” she said. “I gear that toward young people of color … I know that getting young people outdoors is our future, so I want kids to go outdoors.”
Welcome said she sees nature as not just a place to escape to, but a “healing space” that can help people overcome trauma.
On the other hand, she sees a lot of outdoors companies and organizations saying they support racial justice causes, but without a lot of action.
“Realistically, when we see this in practice, there’s not a lot actually happening,” Welcome said. “I’m like, ‘OK, this kind of sucks. … Right now we need more representation, we need to see more people that look like us in the outdoors.'”
Jaron Cramer, the development and communications director for the Superior Hiking Trail Association, said his organization supports Welcome and her message.
“I think it's really important to have leaders who are Black, Indigenous or people of color,” Cramer said. “In the hiking community, there are some but I don't feel that it's equal representation, unfortunately. For her to build this in — enjoying the Superior Hiking Trail as part of her message — I hope that it serves to invite and welcome more people of color and other people who perhaps had not considered it.”
Welcome has never done a complete thru-hike of another trail, but she said she has done more than 600 miles — about double the length of the Superior Hiking Trail — on the Pacific Crest Trail that runs through California, Oregon and Washington.
Cramer said the Superior Hiking Trail can be more of a challenge than some hikers think. It's not what many expect of a trail in the traditionally flat Midwest.
“The trail poses a lot more challenge than they expect because it's pretty constant either up or down — it’s never a huge hill,” Cramer said. “But the ruggedness of the trail itself is what makes it really difficult. There’s lots of rocks and roots. … We spend a lot of time watching the trail itself to make sure you don't roll your ankle and go down with a 40-pound pack on your back.”
In addition to the symbolism at the beginning of her journey, Welcome notified the sheriffs of Carlton, St. Louis, Lake and Cook counties as well as the Duluth Police Chief Mike Tusken that she would be on the trail.
“I understand that there is a great deal of racial tension in the U.S.,” Welcome wrote. “I am aware that as a Black solo hiker, I might face adversity and possible prejudice on the trail. However, I do not anticipate threats or violence, and I’d ask that if needed, you’d intervene promptly. I look forward to witnessing how your police department embodies Minnesota’s slogan of ‘Minnesota Nice.’”
In her letter, Welcome also noted she would not be armed and requested that law enforcement officers encountering her on the trip “DO NOT shoot” her.
While the Superior Hiking Trail's presence in Minnesota was part of the reason she chose it for her journey, she said she also chose it for the light blue trail markers on trees — a color often associated with police departments.
“When we think of police officers, we refer to them as ‘the boys in blue,’ and they have disappointed us,” Welcome said. “They've let us down, but nature doesn't let us down. The blue trail is symbolic of the boys who have let us down. But we're here with nature — I'm on this blue trail that won't let us down. This is like a blue that is supportive.”
Welcome’s activism also extends to environmental justice causes — like access to clean water — and she said she sees it as something that goes “hand-in-hand” with social justice.
“Yes, it makes sense to continue the fight for social justice,” she said. “But at the end of the day, if we don’t have a planet to live on, all of our efforts are kind of in vain.”