Tom Peterson, “That section of trail we built last week is the best one yet!”

A Tribute to Tom Peterson

The Superior Hiking Trail has lost its “father.” Often touted as the father of the SHT, Tom Peterson passed away on June 14th, 2021.

I remember Tom as the always enthusiastic on-the-ground route finder and trail building coordinator for the first six years of the Superior Hiking Trail. He grew it from nothing in 1986 to 205 miles in length by 1993 before passing the torch to the Association members who expanded it today’s 300 miles plus.

Tom would come to monthly board meetings and say the same thing at every meeting, “That section of trail we built last week is the best one yet!” I’d be out there the next day to confirm his opinion. He was always correct. But then, why not? Tom was masterful in his scrutiny of the topographic maps, finding the best overlooks and most exciting waterfalls. He discovered them and then built a trail for the rest of us to enjoy. This was done in the days before GPS and satellite imaging. A compass, a pencil and a USGS map were his only tools. Of course, he did not build it alone. He hired and supervised the crews that did, including a rotating crew of young MCC (Minnesota Conservation Corps), and the “old timers” from Silver Bay, laid of mine workers who gladly toiled helping make Tom’s dream trail a reality.

In those six years Tom Peterson and crews built what became known as the “second best long trail in the nation” and “one of ten trails that leave the others in the dust,” both accolades from Backpacker Magazine.

When I interviewed him for my book, The Superior Hiking Trail Story, Tom expressed no bragging rights. He praised the workers that grubbed out the trail instead of himself, the guy who ‘just hung some pink ribbons in the trees.” But I later became aware of just how difficult that task alone was. I scouted new trail, bushwhacking through dense thickets and tearing up clothing, boots and skin. I knew the sense of joy when busting out onto another “best section yet.” Tom experienced that joy every week for six years! We, the hikers of the trail, almost effortlessly followed, doing as Tom intended—sharing that joy.

Jill Dalbacka summed up the legacy of Tom Peterson nicely in a 1993 SHTA newsletter, “Hiking the trail always causes us to reflect upon how the trail was laid out and who could have imagined that these wonderful places existed, let alone build a footpath to get there. We mumble to ourselves, ‘how did he know this was here’ and ‘if it’s a steep climb and hard to get to, it has to be worth it on top.’ It is always worth the climb. And while I know he would hate for me to say it, we owe it all to Tom, or at least a lot of it.”

Submitted by Rudi Hargesheimer

SHTA board member and President during the 1990s

Author: The Superior Hiking Trail Story