As I write this post, my feet are soaking in epsom salt. Around mile 15 yesterday, with a couple miles left to go to town, my feet let me know they’re putting themselves up for adoption. They would prefer a home, err, human who is not currently walking 15-17 miles a day. They enjoy dog walks. They can handle dog walks.
This week, my first ever of back-to-back 15+ mile days, I pushed my body and feet harder than I have before. By Thursday, my feet felt like hamburger. By late Friday, they were in full scale revolt, forcing me to stop several times.
The week started on a high note. Joan Young and I hiked from Bowman Lake to McCarthy Lake, a 17-mile hike. That’s the furthest I’ve hiked in a single day. I had a great time learning from her all about the flora, fauna and geology of the landscape. She pointed out the Kame hills, pointed glacial sand formations just like you’d get from letting sand run through your clenched fist at the beach, but on a glacial scale. Joan pointed out wildflowers like wood anemone and a flowering sedge.
Joan also alerted me to the fact that water pumps at USFS campgrounds might not be on yet, another crucial detail I missed in my planning.
My body and feet held up really well the first day. Joan left me at McCarthy, cached water further up the trail, and even dropped a resupply box off in Mesick for me. She made what became a difficult week much better. Thank you Joan!
The physical struggle I would battle for the rest of the week set in almost immediately on my second day. I had to take a break before mile 3, feeling weak and nauseous. I forced myself to eat more food, my first suspect whenever I start feeling off on trail, a lack of calories.
My hiking pace was very slow the whole week, for me. I averaged 1.5 miles an hour. Used to being in camp by 4 or 5 p.m., I’d reach that time of the day and still often have 4-5 miles left to hike.
Spring sprang in the forest this week, and its sheer beauty frequently charmed me out of thinking about how much I was struggling. Ferns that had been tightly curled are now unfurling. The scent of blooming flowers is in the air. Suddenly, the forest is humming with insects, and yes, the mosquitos and ticks are officially out.
I was chased by my first loose dog on a road walk after leaving Bear Track Campground. I knew it would happen eventually. The dog never got within ten feet of me, but she bared her teeth and lunged at me a couple times. Adrenaline really helps my hiking speed!
I stocked up on water before heading into the Udell Hills, my first climbing of the trip. I loved hiking the rolling hills, and was hiking in shorts within 20 minutes. It got hot and I drank my two liters more quickly than planned. Running out of water with still three miles to go to Cedar Creek, I emerged from the hills to find the water pump at the Udell Trailhead, which is not listed on the Avenza map, was on and flowing with cool water. I shouted with joy.
Exhausted, I debated dispersed camping somewhere nearer to the pump, but I was still a few miles short of my goal for the day, and a stretch of private land began soon, so it was camp near the pump or finish the 18 miles to the Blacksmith Bayou USFS campground, or so I thought.
As I walked along Cedar Creek road, a sandy two-track on a ridge above the creek it’s named for, I admired the little cabins I saw around me and imagined having one of my own someday. One property caught my eye as it appeared to be built from hand-hewn wood. The place was called Pine Knoll and is an environmentally sustainable tree farm, per signage out front. I walked another 10 feet and saw an NCT confidence marker with a campsite symbol pointing into Pine Knoll’s yard. What magic is this, I thought, as I spied a site with a fire pit, water cache, picnic table, latrine and even a bear line. The backpacking fairies had answered my feet’s prayers.
I’m not sure the owners want this site advertised, as it wasn’t on the Avenza map, but it is free and open to people arriving on foot. No smoking or drinking is allowed. Reading the guest registry was a fun evening activity as it goes back to 2001.
(Warning: If you’re a little squeamish about menstruation, I’d skip the next couple paragraphs, but the story is funny, I swear.)
I was about a quarter mile away from the tree farm the next morning when I got my period. Early and unexpected! Surrounded by private property, I dashed back into the woods to deal with it, but maybe not far enough, not wanting to trespass egregiously, when suddenly rush hour on Cedar Creek Road started up. Work trucks filled with burly guys we’re coming in to work on a new cabin while the neighborhood residents headed out for the day, and all of them were waving at me as they went by. I love how everyone waves at hikers, but this was a decidedly awkward moment to be waving back while crouched off in the woods. Finally situated, I started hiking and realized this is probably part of the reason I’d been feeling so weak and awful on top of the understandable exhaustion from increasing my mileage. My realization gave me hope that next week won’t be so hard.
The trail started its long run alongside the Manistee River, and I had some of the prettiest views of my hike so far.
Despite the spectacular beauty around me, my exhaustion was causing my attitude to tank. Everything that could annoy me did: my shoulder strap rubbing against my armpit, fly away hairs from my bun tickling my ears, the way my sleeve was lying against my skin. PMS. The realization hit me like a thunderbolt. I was having a truly terrible bout of PMS in the middle of the woods. I often joke I should be sequestered from other people when I have a bad case of PMS, and I got my wish this week. The only things I had to be annoyed with were my gear and myself, well, until later that night.
My mood improved by lunch when the trail drops into a gorgeous, expansive meadow, and I saw a perfect line of goslings swimming down the river between their parents.
After the meadow, the trail runs high above the river on ridges so water is scarce. I had to get to the Red Bridge campsite for water. Feet feeling like hamburger, I was hiking the trail toward the road on which the campsite is located when I heard someone peeling out over and over. When I got there, I saw a man in a red hot rod had someone standing on the side of the road shooting video of him peeling out, in the middle of the Manistee National Forest. After one final, spectacular peel out, the forest was a haze of burning rubber. I’m always hesitant to camp near trailheads or on roads because they tend to attract people who want to party in the woods, or drag race, apparently. No judgments here. I spent most of my 20s partying in the woods (not drag racing, though) but sleep is a miracle drug when you’re backpacking and I need it. I was so worried, I considered getting water then hiking back to the trail to disperse camp somewhere away from the road, but my feet weren’t having it. It’d taken me 10 hours to hike 16 miles, and they were done.
I was just falling asleep when a group arrived at 9:30 p.m. and accidentally set off their car alarm. “Sorry!” they quietly yelled to the camp. Another group arrived at 10:30 p.m. and proceeded to start chopping wood. They stopped five seconds before I was going to get out of my tent and attempt to confiscate their axe until morning, which likely wouldn’t have gone well. Ya, I’m a little crabby this week.
I was hiking by 7 a.m. the next morning thanks to someone’s alarm clock going off at 4 a.m., and I was vowing with each step to do everything in my power to avoid road-side campsites, hamburger feet or not.
My final day on this stretch brought me out of the hills alongside the river down to hiking lakeside all afternoon on the Hodenpyl Dam Pond. I waded in its cool waters to soothe my aching feet, and spent a lot of time watching a swan, turtles and frogs in a marshy stretch of the lake. It was my favorite day of hiking so far.
With 5 miles left to go, my feet hit a new level of pain, and I started worrying I was putting the rest of my hike in jeopardy by continuing on. I started fantasizing about calling a taxi to get to town. As I limped through Fletcher Campground, a little boy saw me with my pack and ran up and asked, “Hey, where you hiking to?”
“North Dakota,” I said.
“Wooowww!” He yelled.
But my feet were telling me I was a fraud. “You’re not going to make it,” they sniped. Oh ya, my feet started talking to me on this stretch. I’m totally fine, you guys, nothing to see here!
Later, a man saw me with my pack and made a bee-line straight for me, just like the kid, but with a very different question. “Hey, another backpacker told me you all carry pot,” he said (like marijuana, not cook pot). “Uhhh, well, not this backpacker,” I said. “But he said you all do,” he tried again.
Laughing hysterically inside, I didn’t have the energy to explain the multitude of problems with this statement, so I just mumbled something about needing to keep walking before I fell over.
These two exchanges delighted me so much in different ways that I got the surge of energy I needed to hobble into Mesick, a total of 17.5 miles, a new record for me.
My confidence in myself as a hiker took a real hit this week. I’m hoping that hormones worsened my exhaustion, but maybe I’m also not physically fit enough to be hiking these distances yet. I made a calculated gamble before this hike. Instead of hitting the gym 2-3 times a week and going for training hikes, I was finishing my first book. I’m incredibly proud of that, but I knew I was putting myself at higher risk of injury, and guaranteeing myself a painful start because of my lack of physical training.
If I’m still feeling this level of pain next week, I’ll have to adjust my daily mileage plan, and accept whatever that means long-term for my goal of hiking half of the North Country Trail. It could mean I don’t finish, or it could mean I actual do finish because I allow my body the time it needs to build its strength. I want the experience of traveling 2,400 miles on just my feet, but I have to let my feet decide.
Section: Bowman Lake to Mesick
Section miles hiked: 75.25
Total miles hiked: 138