I’d forgotten the birds tell you when the rain is ending, because they start singing again just before it does.
I’d forgotten how eery it is when the constant wind suddenly stops in the middle of the night, and the forest around me goes silent.
I’d forgotten how truly miserable being cold is when I’m desperate for sleep, and how there is little room for error when conditions are wet and temperatures near freezing.
My first six days on the North Country Trail brought joy, validation, and only one night of misery, so I’ll count that a success.
Monday, May 6, Trail Angel Nancy DeJong shuttled me to the Croton Dam trailhead, shared my first steps on trail with me, and said a prayer for me before we parted ways. Thank you, Nancy!
The Muskegon River offered up a sighting of a mute swan right away. A gentle rain started, strengthening and weakening throughout the day, as I passed in and out of pine plantations and strands of native forest, and saw my first prickly pear in the Coolbough Natural Area.
The immensity of what I was attempting, 2,400 miles in 5-6 months, was far from my mind. The trail in this section is a delight to hike, sandy and perfectly maintained, which put me into a walking reverie early. One foot in front of the other.
My daily mileage goals for my first week were low in hopes of allowing my body an adjustment period to its new job as an endurance athlete.
Having never disperse camped before, finding a place to pitch my tent the first night was my first new challenge on this trip. I found a lovely spot a tenth of a mile from a creek.
My second challenge of the night came when it dawned on me there aren’t any rocks, which I usually use to weight my rope for hanging my food sack. I got creative and used my trowel to shovel sand into an improvised rope bag. Worked like a charm!
My third challenge happened after I was cozily tucked into my quilt. Tornado sirens starting going off. I jolted upright and pulled up the weather on my InReach Delorme, a device that works by satellite instead of cell signal. Only a 10 percent chance of rain for the night. Confused, I thought to check if my cell phone had service. It did! “Newaygo siren” I searched, and found a Facebook post from the fire department explaining the severe weather sirens would be tested the first Monday of the month at 7 pm starting in April. I started laughing. I’d been ready to pack up everything and run 2.5 miles to the USFS campground up the trail. In Minnesota, we test our sirens the first Wednesday of every month at 1 pm. These are the things you don’t think to check when you go for a long hike.
The next day’s hiking brought me through a series of Costal Plains Marshes requiring several wet-foot crossings. Now this is starting to feel like home, I thought! The marshes were bursting with new life: ferns with tightly curled fiddle heads, Marsh marigolds already blooming, butterflies, bees, midges, and dragonflies. No mosquitos are out yet, and I haven’t found a single tick so far.
Feeling so good and strong, I decided to extend my mileage for the day and hike into White Cloud’s campground. I wanted to send off my first batch of video to my editor, Alex Maier, who has hiked a lot of the NCT and has a series of videos on hiking the Upper Peninsula. His videos about thru-hiking the Hayduke Trail are my favorite hiking videos of all time.
Wind controlled my third day as 20-mile an hour guts knocked the warmth out of my body with the gentleness of a gut punch. A rain so gentle fell that I could hear on the carpet of oak leaves but not feel in my skin.
I hiked farther than I’d wanted trying to find a site for the night, hoping a larger marsh pond would have clearer water. The giant maples and oaks around me groaned and creaked so loudly, I thought they were the voices of people off in the woods. I watched the giant trees swaying above me, and felt my first fear of the trip. I’ve seen the total destruction winds can wreck on a forest. I pitched in a grove of young white pines, and said a prayer.
The winds finally stopped at 2 am as the first downpour and thunderstorm roared in. Lightning struck close by. Sleep was impossible. I stayed dry and warm, but slept in three layers on top and two on bottom. Anyone else wear their rain gear to bed for warmth?
I hid from the downpour in my tent, which lasted late into the morning. When I started hiking, despite the loud, scary night, physically I felt like a million bucks.
I passed the trail cutting off to the Birch Grove Schoolhouse, considered the halfway point of the trail, and that was when the immensity of what I’m trying to do sunk in.
The Trail crosses several creeks, one swollen by silt from the torrential rain. I fell in love with sweet Bear Creek and wished I could camp nearby, but I had more miles to go. The sun made an appearance for two minutes.
I camped near Tank Creek. The clouds cleared off and a half moon was so bright that I thought someone was shining a light on my tent.
The next day took me through beautiful lake country. I met my third Trail Angels of the trip, Tom (MacGyver) and Char (Gypsy) who not only gifted me a fistful of chocolate but drove me back to Nichols Lake to rescue a piece of gear I’d left behind, saving me hours of hiking back and forth. Thank you MacGyver and Gypsy!
According to the trail registers, there is another hiker from Toledo who goes by Sir Dickspatcher, also hiking to the western terminus. I hope I get to meet him, but he’s a couple days ahead of me.
Enjoying the sunshine, the sight of four white-tailed deer bounding away through the open woods, and a stunning red-furred raccoon, the miles flew by.
Joan Young, the first woman to complete the NCT on foot, would be joining me on my hike the next day, helping me pick up a resupply box, and hosting me for a rest day. Feeling confident and grateful, I turned in, and had my first truly miserable night on trail. As temperatures dipped below freezing, I could not stay warm and fear set in again. I couldn’t figure out why I was so cold until I realized with all the wet, cold conditions, condensation had likely built up in my down bag, and it wasn’t lofting properly. I made it through the night, and vowed to learn from my mistakes.
I set off at a fast pace, eager to meet Joan, when we discovered the trail mileage I’d given her for my location didn’t match the mileage listed on the NCTA’s web map. She’d hike further north on the trail looking for me, when I was still south of her. More lessons learned! Later we discovered the Avenza, online and printable maps differ from each other by 3 miles.
Joan is twice the hiker I am, both in speed and knowledge. Hiking with her was a joy as she pointed out different plants, harvested watercress, and showed me a tree in which porcupines were living.
Finished with our hiking, we headed back to her home where I got a hot shower and treated to a meal. Hearing stories from her end-to-end hike, reviewing my plan, and talking trail and gear were both fun and affirming. I think Joan understands better than anyone, even me, what I’m undertaking. And it feels like a good omen to start this trip with her guidance and generosity.
After quitting my job, investing a year and a half in prep, and budgeting most of my savings for this hike, I’d feared getting out on trail and suddenly discovering I didn’t like hiking anymore. Instead, this week confirmed I made the best decision.
Tonight, we return to the trail. Joan will hike with me for one more day. 62.75 miles down, 2,337.25 to go!