As I waited for Sara to pick me up from the trail, I sat staring at the trail leading off west into the woods. I felt defeated, and unsure how I’d get back to this remote place.
I spent a total of 11 days off trail, eight at home, and relished the long visit with my mom, dog Buddy, and friends. But I worried I’d overreacted to my illness, and that it might cost me my goal of hiking half of the North Country Trail.
I ended up being sick for four days, and my illness felt worse than garden variety gastric distress. I wanted to make sure I hadn’t picked up a water-borne illness.
After a ton of cuddling with my puppy, and binge-watching “Stranger Things” on Netflix, I finally got the all clear from my doctor and hopped on a bus the next day back to Ironwood. Sara Wall, the woman who had rescued me from the Trap Hills, generously offered to drop me back where I’d left off.
As Sara drove away the morning of July 28, waving goodbye, the pit of fear that had been curdling my stomach for the past 24-hours turned to acid. I was afraid I’d get sick again.
I took my first steps down trail to the sounds of a thrush singing in the woods, which I had missed terribly. I started climbing onto another Trap Hill, warily listening to my body for any sign of the weakness and fatigue that’d had forced me off the trail. Sweat coated my skin in a matter of minutes, but my body felt strong, my feet sure, my legs and lungs eager to climb. The deep silence of the forest finally quieted the fear that had been churning in my gut.
As I crested the first expansive view, awe rocketed through my body, and I knew everything was going to be OK.
I’d decided to hike lower miles for a couple days just to be sure I was back to normal, so I lollygagged down the trail, stopping at every view. I spent half an hour at a creek where brush grew so thick, I felt like I was in a green, secret tunnel.
I even camped earlier than planned when I found a nice spot way off the trail near a rock outcropping overlooking the forest. In the middle of the night, I awoke to the sound of an animal sprinting past my tent. It sounded like the mad dash of an animal that expected me to lunge out of the tent, and I chuckled because every time I pass some dark hole in the ground, I get the exact same feeling.
Cooler temperatures made the climbing feel more manageable. As I descended Bergland Hill and reached M-64, I found an entry in the trail register dated 2017 from the couple who originally told me about the North Country Trail, Craig and Tara, www.midwestwandering.com. I’d met them while thru-hiking the Superior Hiking Trail while they were doing a long hike on the NCT. Seeing their entry warmed my heart.
The trail ran through big pines along Hooded Creek on the other side of M-64. Fresh cuts to the brush revealed someone had been doing trail maintenance recently. The brush is in it’s super growth phase. Near the bridge at Big Iron River, I found thimbleberries taller than me.
I camped out beneath big Hemlocks again near the West Branch of the Big Iron River and savored the pure quiet. I was five miles from the nearest road. A bugling deer woke me in the middle of the night. It’s starting to become routine! This guy added some antler banging into the mix.
The next morning, I set out for the Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park. I’d had to cancel my reservations for backcountry sites, and by the time I got the all clear from my doctor, all of them had been reserved until October. I was relegated to car camping sites, which meant I was unable to hike the future route of the NCT, which goes by Lake of the Clouds, and other breathtaking sites.
As I was hiking a nice, level stretch of trail, I met Zenquake, or Ron, a man hiking the entire trail in sections. He is traveling west to east, so has already hiked everything I’ll attempt to hike this year. We stood and chatted for 20 minutes, two sweaty hikers wearing matching big nets, and traded trail condition information. He let me know the trail through the state park was in great shape, but I could expect some rough trail exiting the park. He’d had to bushwhack out to a road on one section because the blazes and trail disappeared. He also said the trail in Wisconsin is in great shape, which reduced my anxiety about the unknowns ahead. Thank you, Zenquake! Michigan chapters, I let him know you all are amazing!
I hiked just 10.5 miles to the White Pine Extension campground, a short roadwalk away from the trail. I was getting more confident by the mile, especially when I realized I’d rather be hiking than sitting around in camp. Is there a mental equivalent to trail legs? I was getting my trail mind back.
On my bus ride back to the trail, I’d had a short layover in Duluth. The acid fear in my gut was hot. I was having anxiety-driven thoughts of wishing I could just head out on the Superior Hiking Trail instead of going back to the Trap Hills. The SHT felt safe. I’d done it before. I called Joan Young, the first woman to hike the NCT end-to-end by foot. Joan picked up on the second ring, “Well, hello!”
I wanted to run my fears by her. A blog reader had pointed out my illness could’ve been caused by heat exhaustion. I was stressing about an 18-mile day I was being forced to hike due to campsite availability. Joan listened, reassured me, but also did a practical thing. She reached out to her multitude of trail contacts and found people who might be able to help me if I got into trouble on that 18-mile stretch. I also realized my thinking had gotten pigeon-holed. Worst case scenario, if the heat got to me and I needed to stop early, I could just ask to share a backcountry campsite with someone. I’m sure park rangers would rather someone stay safe than follow rules.
After speaking with Zenquake, I was not only feeling better about this 18-mile hike, but excited.
I headed into the park on clear trails, and immediately met an awesome family camped out on the Lily Pond trail. One young boy shouted hello from way up in a tree. As I filtered water, we chatted about hiking with kids, and my hike. Meeting them was a highlight of the day.
I continued on toward Lake Superior, in love with the abundance of old growth Hemlock along the trail, and the series of cascades on the Little Carp River. This would be the beginning of nearly 30 miles of trail running from waterfall to waterfall.
At one river fords, a group of dads and sons were taking off their hiking boots, fording, then putting them back on when they’d crossed. I walked straight into the water, shoes and all, gave a quick hello, and then was gone in a blink of an eye. I think I heard one of the kids exclaiming as I hiked away that I’d crossed in my shoes. I giggled a bit.
I was moving fast thanks to clear trails, and reached Lake Superior by early afternoon. Joan had warned me that this could be a difficult stretch thanks to many small creeks running down into the lake, and the trail climbing up and down each ravine. Not only was there more climbing, many of the ravines were washed out and slick clay. Downfalls crosses the trail. The conditions were a drastic change from the other trails I’d hiked in the park.
After slogging, slipping and sliding the six miles down the lake, I reached Manabezno Falls. The trail crosses on uplifted ridges of angles sandstone.
I sat on the bedrock for a while, and knew that I was having a perfect day. “I’ll remember this day for the rest of my life,” I thought. My heart was singing.
I camped out at the Presque Isle Campground, and got to bed early, preparing mentally for a difficult hike.
I was up and moving by 6 a.m., and had my breakfast back at the falls. I needed to stop at the ranger station on my way out of the park. You’re required to “check-in” in person at the Porkies. But the ranger station on the east side of the camp is a 10-mile roadwalk or hitch up busy M-64. I don’t hitchhike as a solo hiker, one of my rules. So the park administration told me to check-in on my way out of the park. When I told the ranger at the station the same, he looked at me, confused. “Okay, um, are you okay then?” he asked, laughing a little because I was clearly fine. He seemed as confused by this policy as I was. But it was also an opportunity to ask him about the stretch of trail Zenquake couldn’t follow. He confirmed that the stretch wasn’t maintained, even though it was inside park boundaries. “The forest service is responsible for that stretch of trail, and they don’t maintain it.”
Intrigued by the prospect of bushwhacking the route, I still headed down the trail. There was a road nearby that would be easy to reach, need be, and Zenquake had said the forest was pretty clear.
The trail was easy to follow for about two miles, then the tread and blazes started disappearing. It was hot, muggy, and buggy. I bailed out to the road. I knew I had another difficult stretch coming up, and wanted to conserve my energy.
Logging roads and snowmobile trails offer walking trails a straight, level route, but they also collect water and weeds. The four miles down to Black River alternated between clear trail, shoulder-high weeds, and mucky stretches. Washed out creek crossings brought more up and downs, but I made it just fine, and emerged from the woods above the Rainbow Falls.
Hiking up the east side of Black River, I met Ni-Miikanaake Chapter member, Gilford, out for an evening hike. Almost 90 years old, I told Gil I hoped I’d still be hiking at 90. “Don’t stop moving. Keep hiking your whole life,” he said. Good advice, Gil!
We spoke for about 20 minutes. He told me about a short cut to the campground I planned to stay at that night.
I headed down the trail toward where the river met Lake Superior and started seeing a lot of people wearing bathing suits. I realized there must be a swimming beach nearby. I rounded a bend and saw kids and families swimming. Maybe the river outlet warms the water, I wondered? Usually Lake Superior is too cold for more than a quick dip, but folks were floating and lounging in the gentle waves.
I ran to the beach, dropped my pack, stripped off my sweat-drenched clothes, and waded in to the lake. I dove in. The stickiness of five days of sweat washed away. I turned and floated on my back, unbelievably happy. “Another perfect day,” I thought.
Thanks to Gil’s shortcut, I met Anne and Randy, a couple from Ann Arbor. They invited me to dinner, a much appreciated offer as I was running out of food. We ate and hung out until 10 p.m. I enjoyed their company thoroughly, and went to bed feeling stuffed, a rare sensation.
I got an early start the next morning. I had just 7 miles of certified trail left in the UP. The remaining 28.5 miles are road walking. I planned to walk 21 miles to Ironwood that day.
The trail going south from Black River Harbor was like the finale of a fireworks show. I passed waterfall after waterfall before finally reaching the road.
I sat down to eat the handful of my remaining food. I knew I’d be struggling the remaining 14 miles. Then Anne and Randy pulled up in their van! They were hiking down to the falls. They offered me food again. When I confessed I was out of food, they spread a blanket and we had a little picnic snack together, and more great conversation. Randy pointed out that I’m experiencing a close proximity to the hunter gatherer lifestyle, which is the lifestyle our species spent the most time practicing. I think a lot about this, how my body feels made to move great distances each day.
Anne and Randy headed down the trail while I turned toward Copper Peak. One plus of roadwalking is the chance that there will be stores or restaurants along the way. I don’t drink pop very much in regular life, but I crave Coke and root beer every day on the trail.
At Copper Peak, I found cold drinks and candy. As I enjoyed my root beer, I started talking with Judy, a woman visiting from Kentucky. Her family planned to ride the chair lift up to the ski jump at the top of Copper Peak where you can get a 360-degree view of the area. She had an extra ticket. Would I like to join them?
Say “Yes.” This is the new policy I’ve been following of late. Just like in real life, I can get so focused on my task of “making miles” that I pass up these amazing opportunities. So despite just having an amazing break with Anne and Randy, I found myself riding up the chair lift with Judy’s daughter Holly. Holly had a friend who’d hiked the Appalachian Trail. She knew exactly how special this field trip was for me, and their whole group – Judy, Holly and Holly’s husband Jack – incorporated me into their outing like I was an old friend. We got to the viewing platform and were buffeted by a cool wind traveling miles off of Lake Superior. I looked at the Black River, running miles back to Lake Superior, and felt blown away that I’d hiked as far as I could see in just one day.
After my joyous field trip, I headed down the road to town, covering three-miles an hour. A gentle thunderstorm rolled overhead and let fall a cooling rain. I raised my hands to the sky, ecstatic. The rain felt almost as good on my hot, sweaty skin as my dip the previous day in Lake Superior.
I reached the intersection to town, and found the Historic Hautala’s Tavern at the intersection. I ordered a pizza and was immediately invited to play darts, but did say no this time as I was exhausted and starving. As I was getting ready to head out, someone was catching a taxi to town, and shared their cab with me, which saved me the 4.5-mile roadwalk into town.
Time after time this week, things just worked out in my favor. I went from feeling afraid to be back to ecstatically happy to be hiking again.
I have just 19 miles of trail remaining in Michigan.
Section: FR 400 in the Trap Hills to Ironwood
Total miles: 893