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
Panting like a blown race horse, leg muscles shaking with fatigue, I reached the top of another breathtaking view in the Trap Hills of Upper Peninsula Michigan.
I should be feeling awe right now, I thought. Instead, looking at the giant hills stretching before me, knowing I’d have to climb up and down them too, I felt real fear for the first time on this hike.
Something was wrong.
I’d been warned about the Trap Hills since before starting my hike. Before entering the hills, I’d stopped at Old Victoria, the preserved 19th Century mining village on their east side. Mary, a woman who works at the village, told me something I hadn’t heard before. She said the Trap Hills have the most elevation change on the entire North Country Trail. That means lots of climbing up and down, and up again, and then down again.
The hills are also in one of the most remote parts of the UP. There are very few towns west of Marquette. Remote is a pretty mild word for, if something goes wrong, it’s going to be much harder to self-rescue.
For a trail that includes the Adirondack Mountains in New York, and the Superior Hiking Trail (SHT) in Minnesota (which has about 41,000 feet of elevation change), Mary’s fact about elevation change in the Trap Hills shocked me. My apologies, Mary, but I doubted it was true. I’d been told by another person who’d hiked the SHT that I’d be just fine. I figured the ups and downs would feel similar. The SHT is hard, but I’d successfully thru-hiked that trail in 2017.
So why were the Trap Hills feeling more like a dangerous trap every mile that I hiked? Every climb left me more sapped. Every downhill scared me more, especially after two days of thunderstorms drenched the forest, making the gorgeous rocky hilltops slippery, and turned a dirt trail into slick mud.
I’d taken a bad tumble my first full day in the hills, and fell onto a pointed rock. The rock was blunt-edged, I was lucky, but it felt like I’d taken a hammer to my left glute. The pain was so intense at first, I thought I’d done serious damage to my muscle. Every step hurt. Gradually the pain faded, unless I was climbing or descending, which I was doing constantly. I couldn’t sit without pain, which I was also doing constantly as my fatigue grew.
I’m hiking about 15-20 miles a day, day after day. Fatigue and pain are a daily reality. I’m always trying to assess whether or not the pain and exhaustion I’m feeling is dangerous or just hard. I push myself past my limits, successfully, all the time. But I’ve never hiked more than 800 miles in two months. I haven’t had conditions like heat exhaustion or muscle tears. I don’t know what they feel like. The unknowns are what make this experience an adventure, but also scary at times.
I’d been struggling physically before reaching Marquette 10 days earlier. I worried I was doing something wrong. Shouldn’t this be getting easier? Shouldn’t I be feeling stronger?
“No, it never really gets easier,” Alex Maier, my video editor, told me as we were literally sitting on Top of the World, a popular high point outside of Marquette. Alex and I met up while I was in Marquette. He has hiked some seriously difficult trails, the Pacific Northwest Trail and the Hayduke Trail, as well as the entire NCT in the UP.
A campfire burned at our feet, and the sun set behind us as we talked. The forest stretched below us to the shore of Lake Superior, which stretched to the horizon.
Alex’s comment didn’t discourage me, quite the opposite. He helped me realize I wasn’t really distressed by my performance on trail; I’d made it all the way to Marquette, after all. I was distressed by my expectation that this would get easier. “You do build more stamina,” Alex said, “but it never feels easier.”
I hadn’t been seeing other hikers on the trail, much less experienced long-distance hikers. I peppered him with more questions. He generously answered them all, and many of his tips have improved how I’m feeling on trail. In the heat, he said, “camel up” on water when you reach a water source, or drink as much as you can while at the water source. He also recommended eating a lot of food at night. “I think it helps your body recover better at night,” he said.
I confess, sometimes I’d set up camp so late and so tired, I’d just stuffed a Snickers bar or some cheese in my mouth to take the edge off my hunger and go to sleep.
The camaraderie I felt with Alex, his understanding of my experience, was a huge help.
I’d also been re-energized by the potluck with North Country Trail Hikers Chapter members. To be literally surrounded by people who love the outdoors, and this trail, was so fulfilling. We discussed everything from specific parts of the trail to gear to the physical changes you experience when long-distance hiking like a heightened sense of smell. We also talked about how spending long periods of time affects your spirit.
I told a story about hiking through a huge stand of old maples. Their branches soared a hundred feet above, growing toward each other to create natural arches crowned by jewel-green leaves. A rain-muted light filtered through the leaves. The filled-in canopy allowed only shade plants to grow, which in mid-June meant a thick carpet of blooming trilliums, violets, and freshly unfurled ferns. I’d been hiking in this amazing landscape for a while when the rarity of its beauty finally hit home.
For hundreds of feet in all directions, this cathedral of maples stretched. Because we logged almost all of the old growth timber in our country in the 1800s and 1900s, it is rare to see big groves of old trees.
I stopped dead in my tracks. The beauty of these woods felt sacred. I was overwhelmed by how lucky I am to be alive on this amazing planet, to be a human on it. Gratitude filled me to my fingertips. I was shocked to find myself crying. I’ve had some awesome moments in the woods, in the truest sense of the word, but I don’t know that I’ve been moved to tears before.
Thank you North Country Trail Hikers Chapter members for coming to the potluck. Your food was delicious, but your company and conversation fueled me in more important ways.
So I was feeling really good as I started working my way west out of Marquette. North Country Trail Hikers Chapter President Lorana Jinkerson hosted me for five days total. Her company was a joy to have, and her help a true gift. Not only did she invite this stranger into her home, and run me all over town to get supplies, she also shuttled me to and from the trail for three days, which allowed me to slack pack and get a running jump on the long, remote stretch of the Western UP. She drove as far as an hour on rough gravel roads to do this kindness for me. (And I’m really mad because I forgot to get a picture of Lorana and me.)
The day before I headed out on my own again, I managed to get lost on a road walk. Only by chance, Lorana found me off course. If she’d driven another way to meet me, we might’ve had a very late night. We headed back to her house. I’d ended the day 3.5 miles short of my goal, but it was more road walking, so I hoped to make it up easily the next day.
Lorana dropped me off at my wrong turn the next morning, and gave me a warm hug. Transitioning back to solo trail life after such good company in town grows increasingly difficult. I miss my people. I miss my dog.
I’d been advised to plan on hiking only 15 miles a day on this stretch as the trail gets much more rugged. I turned off the road onto trail above the Silver Creek Basin, and soon found myself in an aerobic workout from the constant up and downs. I loved this stretch of trail high on the ridge with views of the creek below, but not only did I not make up my miles, I ended up even further behind when I gave into my exhaustion and camped early after hiking just 11.5 miles. I had exactly the amount of food I needed to reach my next resupply six days up the trail. I couldn’t get further behind.
In camp that night, I discovered my shoes were starting to get holes and separate from the soles. The next morning, I sewed them up with floss, and hoped they’d hold until Ironwood, my next town stop 10 days away.
I headed into the unblazed McCormick Wilderness, which was rugged, beautiful, and hard hiking. The going was slow, and made slower by a flagged reroute I chose not to take at first. I’ve followed flags on a wilderness trail to a dead end before, so I wanted to check the original trail for myself before heading off into an unknown. Sure enough, a beaver dam had flooded the trail right up to a rocky cliff. I backtracked and followed the new trail without issue.
Another flagged trail appeared. Now trusting that flags meant a reroute, I followed them only to emerge into a clear cut. They don’t log wilderness areas. I checked my GPS. Sure enough, I was off trail and out of the wilderness area, but in a beautiful, mosquito-free meadow full of wildflowers, so I ate lunch and then back tracked. When I got back to the place where I’d gotten off course, I noticed two flagged routes, one with orange tape, and one with orange and pink tape. Follow the orange and pink flags if you hike in McCormick.
It’d taken me about six hours to hike 8 miles, but after the wilderness area, the trail was flat, and beautifully maintained, all the way to Craig Lake State Park. On the way, I saw a pond filled with more wild iris than I’ve ever seen in my life, thousands!
I’d seen my first moose tracks and scat on the trail above the Silver Creek Basin, all along McCormick, and into Craig Lake State Park. As I was falling asleep in my tent that night, I heard a moose walk through a small pond about 20 yards from my tent. I’d managed to catch up a couple miles that day, my shoes had held together, and I was happy.
I incorporated the croaking of the bull frogs into my dreams that night, slept hard and deep, and woke feeling amazing. I hiked quickly through the park, and down the road walk past Cozy Inn, where I’d planned to eat and grab more water, but they were closed. The rest of my day would be walking on roads. With little water and the heat and sunshine beating down, I took a long break by a small river. The heat is oppressive earlier and earlier in the day now, and lasts into the evening as the sun is up until 10 p.m. I was tiring out earlier each day. Every day, I’d try to get up earlier to get more miles done before the heat set in, but the heat was also slowing me down so much that I’d get to camp late, and so tired that I just couldn’t bear to give up the sleep to get going earlier.
I made up another 3.5 miles to a small parcel of public land about 500 yards from M-28, a state highway. I fell asleep the sounds of logging trucks roaring by and the alarmed bugles of deer in the woods around me. I feel bad for spooking them, but love having the deer close. Dispersed camping gets me closer to the creatures who call the woods home.
I managed to get hiking earlier the next morning, and had a beautiful break at the Humpback Bridge over the Sturgeon River. I found dozens of perfectly ripe strawberries, and ate them along with my morning snack.
I followed a gorgeous new trail between the bridge and Canyon Falls gorge, the Grand Canyon of the UP, as the Peter Wolfe Chapter calls it. The falls reminded me of many on Minnesota’s north shore like the Temperance and Split Rock gorges. I should have spent more time there enjoying the beauty, but pushed on and made my first major water mistake. I opted not to fill up on water at a bridge crossing because the trail appeared to run alongside the bank a mile further. Nope! I was entering the Baraga Plains, a sand plain that is hot, dry, and planted with young, shadeless tree plantations. I had a liter of water for the next 8 miles. My only other water sources were scummy ponds that would likely clog my filter.
The trail was level, and clear, so I hiked at a speed right below my full exertion level, and did fine until I hit a clear cut a couple miles out from Big Lake State Forest Campground, where I planned to camp for the night, and where there would be cold well water.
In the clear cut, the trail was destroyed. Slash, the debris left over after logging, was all over the tread, which in many places had also been completely destroyed by heavy machinery driving over it. Tall ferns were filling in the clearing, making the going difficult as I pushed through brush and stumbled on slash debris I couldn’t see beneath them.
The chapter does an amazing job of blazing on this section, thankfully, because often I couldn’t find the tread. I frequently got off on animal trails too. Eventually, I gave up on trying to find the tread and just made straight for the next blaze.
When I finally reached the road to Big Lake, I ran to the water pump. As the cool water hit my throat, I felt pure joy. I’d also finally made up all the miles I’d gotten behind.
Even at Big Lake, which is a big, marshy Lake, there were no mosquitos. I reveled in being able to sit late into the dusk at the picnic table, eating and journaling. After so much dispersed camping in dense forests, a picnic table feels like 5-star accommodations.
I woke early the next morning, eager to get hiking and meet up with Sara Wall, a local woman familiar with the NCT, who also works in the Ottawa National Forest. I headed out of camp and into another couple miles of trail destroyed by clear cut. I really wish that forest managers would leave the tread in tact, and a corridor of just a couple feet of trees on each side for the trail. National Scenic Trails are supposed to have a mile of forest corridor around them. A mile corridor is not always feasible, especially on private lands, but on public lands like the Baraga Forest Management Unit where I was hiking, I wish they’d leave at least a small corridor for the trail.
I’m not a trail builder. I’ve only ever done clearing trips before, but as I hiked these miles of clear cut, my heart sank for the Peter Wolfe Chapter at the amount of work that would be required to re-establish a tread on this section. I think it would take years of intensive work for a chapter that already manages a long stretch of remote trail with many of their members living 200 miles away or more.
I finally got out of the clear cut, and back to the Sturgeon River where I met Sara, and her dog, Guy, walking down the trail. Sara and I hit it off immediately. She was the one who clued me into the fact that we were in the Baraga Plains, and what that meant. “The sandy soil drains quickly, that’s why there are so many Jack Pines here, and no bugs,” she said.
Sara works for the Ottawa National Forest, so I eagerly asking her a bunch of questions about logging, and tree types. We talked about her time in Minnesota living in a yurt, the animals she and her husband raise here, and so much more. Just having someone to laugh with was amazing, but Sara also brought us a snack of fresh veggies and homemade chèvre cheese from her goats, and cold Gatorade. She cached water further up the trail for me on what would have been a 12-mile stretch in very hot, dry, sun-blasted conditions without water, which allowed me to camp earlier and reduced my risk of getting heat exhaustion or dehydration. When she and Guy turned back to her truck, I was sad to see them go. Thanks so much for coming to hike with me, Sara, and for caching water!
I continued on through the pine plantations before a forested area started again. I felt like I was melting in the heat and sun. I’ve come to accept during this hike that I am probably never going to be a desert hiker. I need shade like fish need water. Thanks to Sara, I was able to camp in a gorgeous oak grove with a clear understory. I expected some nighttime visitors because porcupine and deer scat carpeted the forest floor there. Sure enough, various deer came and went throughout the night.
The next morning, as I started hiking, I felt like the luckiest person in the world to be in the exact place I was, doing what I love to do. The trail returned to the Sturgeon River again. I saw a family of ducks swimming down the river as I filled my water bottles. The sand plains ended, and the bugs gradually returned as I hiked up and over low ridges cut by creeks like Wiggle Creek. There’d been so little rain in the past few days, many of the creeks marked on the maps were either dry or were more puddle than creek.
I discovered a new mosquito trick when I took a break on a forest road in the sunshine. During bug season, roads have become my favorite place to take a break because the bugs are sometimes a bit lighter. There is less foliage for the mosquitos to hide from the sunshine. I discovered if I get into the sun, and then starting swatting the swarm I’ve collected around me, they mosquitos don’t come back right away, and I can have a few minutes to peacefully eat a snack.
I was hiking toward Bob Lake Forest Campground. The closer I got, the thicker the mosquitos got. If I’m remembering correctly, Luke “Strider” Jordan (2013 NCT Thru Hiker) spent the night in a latrine because the bugs were so bad. The swarm became one of the worst I’ve ever experienced about 6 miles west of Bob Lake.
I put on my bug shirt, head net, and bug mittens for the first time since I’d left Marquette. I was meeting up with Patty and Dave at the campground. They’d generously picked up a resupply box I’d left with Lorana, and I planned to take a rest day and hang out with them at the lake.
The closer I got to the lake, the more intense the bug swarm got. Patty had planned to hike down the trail to meet me. I started hiking faster, hoping to intersect with her before she came too far down the trail and got swarmed. I made it all the way to camp in my full bug armor to find Dave sitting placidly by the lake. “That guy is so tough,” I thought, before Patty caught sight of me and exclaimed at the number of mosquitos around me. Apparently, there weren’t any mosquitos by the lake! “Hold on,” I yelled, “Let me kill these guys before I bring them into camp.”
I spent five minutes swatting myself, then went and gave Patty and Dave hugs, and stripped off my bug net armor. Patty handed me a sweating, ice-cold sparkling water, and it was the most delicious drink I’ve ever had.
The next day, Patty, Dave and I had a Perfect Day. We woke around 7 a.m., drank real, hot, perfectly brewed (by Dave) coffee. Around 9 a.m., I jumped in the lake in my bra and underwear, then walked to the back of the campsite away from the water to take a camp bath, washing myself and hair with biodegradable soap, and rinsing off with water Patty generously heated up for me. A hot shower on trail! Divine.
We ate an amazing breakfast of blueberry pancakes, bacon, sausage, eggs and juice, and sat and chatted until about 11 a.m. I started doing my rest day chores like getting my food bag ready for the next day.
As I packed up my food, a huge crack of lightning released a deluge from the sky, which built until hail was falling. After a light lunch, I took a long nap while Patty and Dave went for a hike down the spur trail. We cooked dinner over the campfire, and then went for what Patty calls a “Sunset Cruise” in the canoe, a paddle around the lake as the sun set. The water was still, perfectly reflecting the sunset to the west, and the moon rising to the south.
Patty and Dave offered to help me slack pack the following day, so I planned to do my first 20-mile day since east of Marquette and meet them around 7:30 p.m. at O Kun de Kun Falls.
I don’t remember much of the trail between the Bob Lake spur and 8 miles west when the mosquitos finally eased up, because they were the worst of the entire trip. My mosquito mittens were a failure. Anywhere the bug netting touched my skin was layered with bites. I ended up hiking without my trekking poles or netting on my hands because I found walking down the trail slapping my own hands in a kind of rhythm game was the best way to keep them off. I moved fast, though. I hiked 10 miles by lunch.
As I arrived at a small river, my next challenge was getting through a huge patch of Wild Parsnip, which has sap that can cause a poison-ivy like reaction if it gets on your skin and then is exposed to sunlight. The parsnip plants are getting huge now.
The brush was thick on this stretch of trail, the going hard. I came to a small creek and was shocked to find when I put my trekking pole in that it was at least four feet deep. I walked up and down the bank looking for a shallower place to cross, but the soil is turning to clay now, so when I tried to ease across the water, I still slipped and went in up to my hips. Nothing like an unexpected dip to refresh you!
Next, I came across a porcupine sitting on a tree that had fallen across the trail. It just sat there, totally still, staring at me. I stared back. Suddenly, it moved and appeared to be climbing down the log toward me. I quickly moved back. The porcupine changed course and instead moved off to the right side of the trail, or so I thought. As I was walking up to the log, it reemerged from the woods and walked the other direction on the log, eventually disappearing into the brush. I waited longer to make sure it was gone, then hopped over the log and continued on my way.
The Peter Wolfe Chapter plans to do a reroute on the next section, which consisted of clambering up and down hazardous, clay-filled washouts along the trail. I almost lost my shoes several times, but I was feeling really strong, moving fast, and having a great time now that the bugs had eased up. I was feeling so good, I wondered if my body had reached a new fitness level, and I could expect to feel this strong more consistently.
Just after I emerged from the woods beneath O Kun de Kun Falls, Patty crossed the huge bridge spanning the river. We took a picture in front of the falls, and then headed back to the car where they’d packed a hot dinner for me. They spoil me! We went and got ice cream in Mass City for desert, and had another campfire before going to bed. I was very sad to be leaving their amazing company the next day.
After a delicious breakfast of egg sandwiches, I gave Dave a hug goodbye, but we have hopes of meeting up again one more time even further down the trail for our most epic reunion yet. We’ll see! Patty dropped me off where we’d met up the previous night, and we hugged goodbye as well.
The trail to a ford of the Ontoganon River was quiet, level and perfectly clear. This ford had an interesting warning; the crossing was below the Victoria Dam. If I heard sirens blowing just before or during my crossing, I was supposed to not cross or go back as a wall of water would be coming my way. The siren sounds when they release water from the dam. We hadn’t had too much rain, though, so I figured I’d be safe. When I got to the ford, the river was low enough to rock hop. I filled up my water bottles and then began the long, hot, sunny climb on a road up to the Old Victoria Mining Village. I felt totally fried by the time I reached the top. I took a lunch break at the shelter there, and had a very hard time not just calling it quits for the day right then.
Eager to see this restored historical mining village, I pushed on. The trail enters the village from the back. I saw a woman working in one of the buildings, and went to ask her if there was water in the village. The chapter guide for this section said there might be a water pipe behind the cabins, but the one I found definitely didn’t look safe to drink. Orange rust and slime covered a trickling pipe. And so I met Mary, an employee at the village who loves staying there on the weekends. She offered to drive me the half mile back to a spring. I’d grabbed some water there earlier, but the day was already so hot, I needed more water already. As we drove, she alerted me that I was about to enter the Trap Hills. I hadn’t been entirely sure where they’d begin. Then she gave me a tour of the town, showing me how a family with 9 children would’ve slept in a single room while renting out the upper level of the house to as many as 12 lodgers at a time who worked in shifts at the mine. Thank you, Mary, for your kindness and the tour!
I headed off into the Trap Hills, and climbed up Lookout Mountain, a milestone of my hike. I’d officially completed a third of my hike, 800 miles. I looked out at the breathtaking view of the Victoria Dam and Ontoganon River, and my heart soared. The remaining 1,600 miles felt possible.
The Trap Hills amazed me immediately. The trail was arduous but so rewarding by granting some of the best views I’ve ever seen, not just on this trail. “This is AWESOME!” I thought. I was so excited to see what the next 30 miles brought.
Charmed by a perfect camping spot on top of one of the hills in a maple grove that had an amazing granite bald nearby with million dollar views, I set up camp early and ate my dinner grinning from ear to ear. I fell asleep to the sound of the wind in the maples, and heat lightning flashing outside.
At 3:45 a.m., a huge crack of lightning startled me awake. Thunderstorms raged until 7 a.m. I tried to fall back asleep all night, but couldn’t. I got hiking too late for how bad the heat has been, and felt terrible right away. The views were unbelievable, magical, but I was suffering, and finding it hard to really take in their grandeur.
At noon, I was forced to take a long break when I discovered I’d managed to over hydrate, which can be as dangerous as dehydration. Staying hydrated in this heat and humidity has been a challenge. Warning, this is a little gross. My trick to stay hydrated correctly is to monitor the color of my urine three times a day: morning, noon, and night. I urinate into a clear zip lock baggie, and check the color. My urine was clear, meaning I needed more salt. Most of us are familiar with dehydration, but an equally dangerous condition can develop if you drink too much water and get too few electrolytes and salt — hyponatremia.
I got hiking again after an hour, but I’d only made it about 4.5 miles. By the time I got to Whiskey Jack Creek, I could tell the heat was really getting to me. I started splashing water onto my head, face, neck and back, before finally taking my hat off and just dunking my whole head in the creek. I felt better. I was starting to worry about heat exhaustion. I’d been managing the heat so far by not overexerting myself, but that was impossible in the Trap Hills. It feels like there isn’t a level stretch of trail in the entire 30+ miles. Even on the hilltops, you’re climbing up and down constantly from one ridge to another. I started carrying a third liter of water not only for extra drinking water, but also to pour over my head if I started feeling too hot.
I finally hit a flat stretch toward the end of the day. I’d only hiked 8.5 miles in 7 1/2 hours of hiking. To have any chance of getting to town the next day, I needed to do at least another 6-7 miles that night.
The previous night’s four hours of rain had flooded the trail. As I tried to move quickly through mud patches, I was suddenly overcome by a powerful homesickness. I cried for a minute, but didn’t stop hiking, of course.
The sudden intensity of my homesickness is what finally got me to wonder if something might be wrong with me. Physically, I’d been struggling all day, but that struggle made sense. I was hiking the incredibly difficult Trap Hills in incredibly difficult conditions — wet, hot, and humid. To have my mental state change so suddenly was odd.
The temperature started to cool, and the forest was shady, so I picked up the pace, hoping to get back on top of a ridge to camp. Instead, the wind started gusting violently. The trees shook and swayed. I watched, my apprehension growing. Thunder growled a few miles away. I started hustling down the trail, looking for any place flat enough to pitch a tent, but I was in the middle of a marshy area.
The storm chased me down the trail. I finally saw a clear patch beneath some hemlock trees off in the woods and ran to set up my tent as the skies opened. Everything got wet. A line of thunderstorms, seven total, rolled over my head as night fell. I set my alarm for 5 a.m. with a plan to get as many of the remaining 16 trail miles done as I could before the heat. I had another 6-mile roadwalk to town from the trail, too.
The next morning, I woke up, struck camp fast, and got hiking by 7 a.m. I climbed up another Trap Hill, tried to appreciate an amazing view, followed the trail down off the bald, and fell again on a wet rock. I got luckier this time, no pointy rocks to jab me, but the fall forced me to admit that something was really wrong. I was too weak. I was dangerously weak. I had no idea what was wrong; there were too many possibilities. I just knew I didn’t feel safe anymore. At the first forest road I crossed, I sat down, and remembered Sara telling me as she and Guy headed back to their truck, “If you need any help, message me.” I hoped I wasn’t creating the memory. I pulled out my satellite communicator, and sent her a message asking if there was any way she could pick me up and bring me to town. I was still 19-miles away.
These satellite communicators can take a long time to transmit a message due to the fact the satellites are on a 20-minute orbit around earth. Sara could be busy at work and not reply. As the InReach gave it’s little chirp that the message had been sent, I sat there as the reality of my situation sunk in. I was physically unable to keep hiking. I had no way to get myself to town. I was running out of food and battery power. Worst come to worst, I could always pitch my tent, send my mom a message to let her know I was going to be late to town, and see if a day of rest would be enough to make me feel better enough to hike myself the 19 miles to town.
When I decided to undertake this trek, I knew I’d be taking risks, but I hoped none of my fears would be realized. Plan for the worst, hope for the best. As I waited for Sara’s reply, I felt my separation from my community, from the safety of town, keenly.
Thankfully, Sara’s reply came quickly. “I can come get you this afternoon,” she wrote. Relief and gratitude washed through me. I stared across the road at the trail heading west. I had no idea how I’d get back here. Would I have to skip miles? But I knew I’d made the right decision.
Sara arrived at 4 p.m. and drove me to the Konteka Black Bear Lodge in White Pine. I’ve met many trail angels on this trip. I’ve been overwhelmed many times by the lengths to which total strangers have gone to help me, but I am extra grateful to Sara for helping me off the trail. I don’t know what I would’ve done without her. The next day, it became clear why getting of the trail was the best decision, and that I wouldn’t have been able to get myself to town, even with a rest day.
At the lodge, I bought us dinner to say thank you, and then we parted ways. I lay down as soon as I got to my room and called my mom to tell her what had happened. I’d planned to go home for a visit once I finished hiking through Wisconsin, but I told her I was coming home as soon as I got to Ironwood a few days away. At this point, I still wasn’t sure what was going on, and thought a rest day might sort me out.
The next morning, I started to feel really sick. Body aches. Muscle cramps. Feverish. Chills. Then an intense stomach pain started, and diarrhea. After a few hours like this, I realized not only was I too sick to risk returning to the Trap Hills the next day, I was too sick to hike for a few days. I called and cancelled my reservations for Porcupine Wilderness State Park.
At the front desk, I asked if a staff member would be interested in making a few extra bucks to drive me to Ironwood, where I could catch a bus to Duluth, and then home. A wonderful woman named Cindy insisted on driving me for free.
I caught the bus home to St. Paul. I’ve officially been benched by my doctor until some lab tests come back. I still have no idea what made me sick. Hopefully, I’ll know more soon. I’m feeling better, and I’m hoping to be back on the trail in a couple days.
One of the major benefits of hiking the North Country Trail is that almost 900 miles of it runs through my home state, which means for the middle third of my hike, I am close to home. I knew that if I needed to get home quickly for any reason, I could. And I did. I’m very, very grateful to everyone who helped me to safety.
Section: Marquette to the Trap Hills
Total miles: 820
In this video, I hike from Kalkaska to Petoskey. I’ve got a lot of company in the woods, human, animal and insects. I find signal trees, a frog orgy, and morels! I also meet and am hosted by Dove and John Day, trail coordinators for the NCT’s Jordan Valley 45 Chapter.
I hope you enjoy.
I’d barely left Grand Marais after a rest day before the 80-degree heat of the day started getting to me. Luckily, to get into Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, I was walking the sandy beach along Lake Superior. I jumped into the lake with all my clothes on.
I’ve been hearing about how amazing Pictured Rocks is for years, so after doing 18- to 20-mile days on the first stretch of the UP, I decided to slow down to savor its beauty.
Walking the road along Grand Sable Lake, a car suddenly stopped in the road in front of me, clearly waiting for me. “This could be very good for me,” I thought, “or very bad.” To my delight, it was a couple I’d met days earlier on the other side of Grand Marais, Sherry and Hans (sorry for probably misspelling your names, guys!).
Sherry was so excited about my halfway thru-hike when I first met her. I get very mixed reactions from people I meet along the trail. I’d just gotten a particularly strong, “YOU’RE ALONE?! DO YOU HAVE BEAR SPRAY?!” reaction on the beach from some day hikers. I shouldn’t take these negative reactions to heart, but sometimes I can’t help it. I get a little peeved on behalf of the woods because some people fear them so much as to turn them into some kind of boogeyman. I have yet to develop the courage to quote statistics to these folks. Bears kill fewer than one person a year, according to a 2015 report by the Wilderness Medicine Institute of NOLS. According to the National Safety Council, more than 40,000 people died in car accidents in 2017. I want to say to them “If you’re getting behind the wheel of a car today, you’re in more danger than I will be.”
So discovering Sherry and Hans were in the vehicle with their beaming smiles and enthusiasm was a huge gift. They excitedly showed me a beautiful agate Hans had found, and I soaked up the joy and energy of these two people who love the outdoors as much as I do.
As I’d seen so few people on the North Country Trail in the UP, I was really looking forward to interacting with other backpackers in the popular and more crowded Pictured Rocks. I saw almost no one until I reached my camp at Sevenmile Creek, however.
I woke the next morning eager to hike as slowly as I wanted. I planned to hike just 11 miles to famous Chapel Beach. So far, the shoreline hadn’t differed much from the previous 50 miles, but as soon as I reached the Coves campsites, I realized why everyone raves about this park. The aquamarine waters and soaring sandstone cliffs shaped by millennia of erosion are enchanting. The beauty cast a spell over me.
I started taking breaks every mile or so, sometimes perched on soaring cliffs amongst the seagulls and ravens, sometimes on a beach with the wave-born breeze keeping the mosquitos and sable flies at bay.
I reached Chapel Beach as a light rain started to fall. I sat in my rain gear, the usually busy beach deserted, and ate dinner. The fact that the rain felt as comfortable to me as the sunshine earlier drove home the transformation I’m experiencing on this long hike. I was completely content. Satiated on jerky and snickers, I watched as a kayaker pulled onto the beach. Was this Tom, the friend Alex had told me to keep an eye out for? Indeed!
Tom handled a strange woman accosting him on the beach, in the rain, with much grace. We agreed to meet up later.
The rain strengthened as I settled in for the night. It felt downright odd to be in camp before 8 p.m. Feeling like I was taking a little vacation from the halfway thru hike, I slept late. I talked with a Boy Scout troop from Wisconsin. I discovered I’d be crossing paths with one of its members, Cameron, in the fall when I get to the Boundary Waters stretch of trail as he’ll be working at an outfitter where I plan to take a rest day. I also hung out in Tom’s camp for an hour talking with him.
I hiked to the Cliff’s campsite through muddier stretches of trail, and more forested cliffs with fewer views. I was alone on the trail and in camp again, except for a doe so tame she barely stepped off the spur trail to camp as I passed her.
The next morning, I hiked into Munising where I’d been planning to hop directly onto the ferry to Grand Island. I found myself instead bellied up to the bar eating a cheeseburger at a restaurant in town. I decided to take a rest day at the Terrace Motel, recommended to me by Patty and Dave. Despite hiking fewer miles per day through Pictured Rocks, I was exhausted.
Danielle Foerstch, a former Minnesotan who’d moved to the UP in March, joined me on trail my first day out of Munising. I was grateful for her good company, especially considering the bugs were out in full force. Having hiked many of the same trails in Minnesota, we fell easily into conversation. We talked about her move to the UP, our favorite trails back home, and she told me a bit about what to expect in the second half of the UP. “You’ll do fine in the Trap Hills,” she assured me.
The bugs were ferocious this stretch from Munising to Marquette. I concede, UP, you have bugs as bad as Minnesota. It’s a tie right now.
I pitched camp in the Rock River Canyon Wilderness and was half asleep when a mysterious, rhythmic booming noise started off in the woods. At first I thought the noise was a thunderstorm, but the booming was too short, just two beats. Over and over it sounded for 5-10 minutes. I couldn’t locate exactly where the sound was originating in the forest. There are few north woods night noises I don’t recognize, but I had no idea what this was. My sleepy brain ran through every possibility: brontosaurus (lol, no), human-made explosions, a cougar sitting outside my tent trying to decide if I’d make a tasty meal, Sasquatch. In the rational light of day, I’ll guess now it was a grouse, but I’ve only heard them do long drumming, not short beats. I was too sleepy to record audio of the noise, which I regret greatly now.
I’d decided to take four days to hike to Marquette, which started to feel like an egregious use of hiking time. I could’ve gotten there in three days. I started worrying I’m not making the right decisions to get to the western terminus before winter sets in. Every day’s plan feels like a gamble.
The trail gets more technical west of Munising. I spent the next days almost never walking a flat path. Hoards of mosquitos seized every opportunity to bite me as I slowed down through muddy pits, or picked my way carefully across boulders.
The humidity is at 80-90 percent. Combined with wearing my extra layer of bug netting, the heat started getting to me. The smell of my sweat changed as electrolytes and salt started pouring out of me. And the heat kills my appetite, a recipe for creating a weak, struggling hiker.
I missed out camping at the Lakenland Shelter as I hadn’t read my notes closely enough before leaving Munising, and it’s not marked on the NCTA maps. I was so mad! The shelter was built by Tom Lakenen at his fantastic sculpture park east of Marquette. I spent more than an hour wandering the park, and speaking with Tom, who gifted me cold water and half-frozen Powerade. Thank you, Tom! Manna from heaven.
After the artistic hiking interlude, I headed back out on trail, eager to get to Marquette and meet my host, Lorana Jinkerson, the chapter president of the North Country Trail Hikers Chapter. Tonight, she’s hosting a potluck for chapter members and me. I look forward to meeting them, and getting their invaluable knowledge of the trail to help me make the best plan for the remaining 269 miles of the UP, the best plan to get me to North Dakota before bitter cold and deep snows thwart me.
Section: Grand Marais to Marquette
Total miles: 640
After getting off trail for five days to attend a family wedding in Minnesota (Congrats Ben and Elisabeth!), enjoying greatly the company of my family, and getting in as many doggy cuddles as I could manage, I headed back to the trail June 11 on foot, at first. I walked to a local light rail train, caught a bus to Duluth, Minn., then caught two more buses to St. Ignace, Mich.
At 8 a.m. on June 13, I stood on the other side of “Big Mac,” the Mackinaw Bridge. Too excited to get hiking again, I started back on the trail straight off the bus despite getting almost no sleep.
Locals were having great fun regaling me with tales about how bad the bugs are this year. “The worst I’ve ever seen” is a phrase people keep using to describe the mosquitos, the flies, the ticks. “The wolves are a little intense this year,” a woman working at the St. Ignace bus station told me, reporting she’d seen four already this spring.
If I took too much to heart the things people say to me in town, I’d never go into the woods again. But the Upper Peninsula is completely new territory for me, and people who know the trail in this area use descriptors like “rugged” and “hard to follow.” I’ve been cautioned about the Trapp Hills, advised resupplying will be difficult, and been told not to plan to hike more than 15-miles a day west of Marquette. I’d been planning to do 20 miles a day. I appreciate all the information I can get, but sometimes knowing whose judgment to trust can be tricky.
I set off through Straights State Park, immediately noticing differences in the forest. Plants, mosses, ferns, and (gasp!) rocks more familiar to me from the hiking I’ve done in Minnesota’s north shore. I can tell I’m moving closer to the boreal forest.
The trail took me through town, and I decided to stop at the Museum of Ojibwa Culture as I think about the native peoples of this area a lot during my hike: how they lived, how the land shaped their lifestyle, culture and beliefs. I’m frustrated by my own ignorance, so I spent more than an hour there. June is “Strawberry” month. Each month is named for something related to nature, or the Great Spirit. I learned how extended families would come together during summer for specific hunting and gathering, and separate during winter for trapping season. I hope to learn much more about the Ojibway as I continue this hike.
Finally back in the woods, I saw only two groups on trail for this entire 10-day stretch to Grand Marais. The further I got, the crazier this seemed to me.
I disperse camped my first night after hiking 13 miles, despite my fatigue, but cut my hike short the next day and camped at Brevoort Lake when my 19-hour sleepless journey finally caught up to me.
At the M-123 trailhead, I reached in to grab the trail register and felt a feather-light tickling run across my fingers, a wolf spider is living in the box (I think it’s a wolf spider). I didn’t kill it or try to move it. Sorry everyone! I left a big warning visible on the register from the outside “THERE IS A SPIDER (WOLF?) IN HERE!”
I headed toward Guard Lake, where I planned to camp for the night, and suddenly found myself struck with pure awe at the towering, endless stretch of maples surrounding me. Their arching branches created the feeling of a cathedral. The understory was totally clear save for a blanket of wildflowers: trilliums, violets, ferns, as far as I could see. I was shocked when tears came to my eyes. The beauty of the trees had moved me that much. The “cathedral of the maples” lasted for miles, and I camped beneath their sentinel branches that night.
The next day brought the sudden eruption of the Niagara Escarpment, a the same rock formation over which The Niagara Falls thunders. Having hiked 400 miles without seeing many rocks, this giant formation shocked me into laughing out loud.
I ran into a group of Boy Scouts out for a day hike soon after. “6 months?!” they exclaimed when they heard how long I planned to be on trail. I love it when kids dig what I’m doing.
Despite the reports of heavy bugs, I’d been hiking without my head net more than with it, up until I reached the Pine River, a lovely, meandering, and half-swamp river. I was excited to head north into what appeared to be drier territory the next morning, but a large marsh to the west brought even denser bugs for most of the morning. Once the trail crossed into a timber harvest area that recently had been burned, the bugs lifted and the dozens of crows drew my attention with their raucous chattering. A sand hill crane took flight mere feet in front of me.
I sat down for a break at the Soldier Lake Spur, and quickly jumped right back up when I suddenly found 12 ticks on me. I swatted then off my legs, threw my gear out of the high grass, checked it for ticks and took off. That was the worst tick patch I’ve seen so far.
After several days and almost 100 miles of totally manageable bugs, my Minnesota pride started rearing its twisted head. “If this is the worst bugs people have ever seen in the UP,” I thought, “Minnesota wins the Worst Bugs title. Or loses, I guess.” But I quickly took my thought back. I still have hundreds of miles to go and the bugs could get much worse.
After a lunch at Stump Lake where the dragon flies danced around me, I headed up into hard wood ridges and the bugs disappeared. I dry camped in a clearing covered in deer tracks. Right as dark fell, the sound of something large stalking through the woods made my pulse quicken. Then the tell-tale bugle of a deer call issued from the darkening forest and I relaxed. I felt a little bad as I suspected I’d stolen its favorite place to bed down for the night. What do deer look for in a bed? This is one of the millions of questions I’ve asked about the creatures who call the forest home as I hike.
The next morning, I packed up quickly, eager to get hiking as I was just a few miles from reaching Lake Superior, Gitchi-Gami. I know its Minnesota shore like the back of my hand. I was dying to see what this lake I love looked like in the UP.
Stunning. It is stunning. And there is no one up here. Finding a solitary moment on a Lake Superior beach in Minnesota is a rarity. Since reaching her shores, I’ve found myself time and time again alone with her majesty.
I jumped into the lake to get water and cool a reaction to some poisonous plant on my leg that had been driving me crazy. Mosquito bites paled in comparison. I must’ve hit a poisonous plant while in lower peninsula Michigan as the itching set in as soon as I got back to Minnesota. The reaction would last almost two weeks.
The trail followed the lake for the next few miles. My heart sang and my feet flew. My next goal of the day was to make it to the Silver Creek Pub for a cheeseburger. After Bark Dock, the trail got very swampy as it shared first a snowmobile trail and then a dirt road destroyed by heavy logging machinery. I struggled through the sucking mud, the siren call of a cheeseburger and ice cold coke urging me forward. I have not been happier to reach a road walk on this entire hike.
At Silver Creek, I met wonderful folks who asked me fun questions about my hike, including Vicky, the bartender and NCT Trail maintainer of the Tahqua Trail segment in the state park where I’d be hiking the next day. As I packed up to head on to Tahquamenon State Park, Vicky let me know that Buck, one of the men at the bar, had purchased my meal. Thank you for your kindness, Buck!
Tahquamenon State Park generously allowed me to ship a box of supplies to the park, and even shuttled the box to the Rivermouth Campground, miles away from the main office. I’d booked the closest campsite to the trail and was blown away to find it a gorgeous site right on the swollen, smooth waters of the river. I pitched my tent in sunset mode, rain fly rolled part way up, and fell asleep to the river turning pink as it reflected the sinking sun.
I followed the river most of the day through the huge state park. I needed to hike 22 miles to the western side of the park. A hot, bug-filled morning slowed my pace, and the prospect of night hiking seemed certain. At the Lower Falls, I stopped and enjoyed a root beer float, and marveled at the beauty of the falls as a light rain fell. The River Trail, the four mile trail that runs between the lower and upper falls, reminded me of the Superior Hiking Trail with its cedar trees, river views, and mud. A beaver crossed the trail 10 feet in front of me.
If I hadn’t been racing the sunset, I would’ve hiked this gorgeous trail much more slowly. As I reached the lower falls with still 2.5 miles to go at 8:45 p.m., I seriously considered asking someone for a ride back to the campground at the lower falls. My feet throbbed. I felt like I couldn’t hike another step. But I kept going.
The trail out to my backcountry campsite was crowned with old growth pines, some 500 years old, a sign told me as night stole into the forest. I was nearly running at this point, but still couldn’t help but be blown away at the beauty of these old trees lining huge bogs. The bugs in this section of the park were approaching “apocalyptic” levels. I found the campsite just as I needed to put on my headlamp, and rushed to set up camp. I discovered my head lamp is not bright enough for night hiking, for my comfort level anyway, and dove into my tent. I’d hiked from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. and was exhausted to my bones.
I wanted to get up early the next morning as Patty and Dave Warner we’re camped out up the trail at the Mouth of the Two-Hearted River campground, and we planned to meet up, but I could not roust myself before 8 a.m. The cloud of mosquitos got me moving quickly though.
Despite my exhaustion the night before, I fairly danced up the trail, noting the changing wildflowers, clarity of the blue sky, the pine smell of the forest.
I rounded a bend toward the end of the day and was shocked to find myself in a burn area, I’d forgotten about the forest fire that had burned this stretch of forest years earlier. The stark beauty of the burned trees bleached by the sun contrasted against the pure blue of the sky and healthy green of new growth: oaks, maples, pines, and lots of blueberries.
Having not seen more than a couple people this whole stretch, Patty scared me a bit when suddenly she was in front of me on the trail. I laughed and gave her a hug. We walked into camp together. She showed me where the river flowed into Lake Superior. She and Dave planned to canoe down the river the next day.
Patty, Dave and I had a delicious dinner of chicken thighs, fresh corn, grilled beet, and potato salad, then headed down to the beach to watch the sunset over the lake.
Patty and Dave offered to shuttle me the next day so I could slack pack, and I wanted to kiss her feet. My feet were starting to feel like hamburger again at the end of this 10-mile stretch doing about 20 miles a day.
The next 20 miles of trail were all along Lake Superior. I grinned ear to ear, seriously befuddled as to why I was the only one on the trail. I enjoyed the alone time with Lake Superior. In Minnesota, we didn’t keep much of our Lake Superior shoreline public land aside from state parks that are some of the most visited in the state. To find a 40-mile stretch of public lakeshore deserted boggled my mind.
I crossed the 500-mile mark, and exceeded my previous longest hike of 516 miles. Every step I take now will be the furthest I’ve ever hiked.
I had to do a bit more bushwhacking in this section. It is remote, with fewer people around to maintain the trail, and many trees were down across the trail, especially near the sandy cliffs along the lake. I made it through just fine. Flooding in Muskallonge State Park routed me down a road instead of through the park. A magical moment came when a tiny fawn suddenly popped out of the forest. A group of ATV riders stopped, as did I, and finally the dawn darted across the road. I’ve been seeing a lot of tiny deer tracks in the woods.
I forded my first river of the trip soon after. With how high the water has been, and getting rerouted due to flooding just before the crossing. I was nervous and excited by the crossing. I don’t have much experience with fording rivers. I made it just fine.
I sent Dave and Patty a message using my InReach Delorme, my satellite communicator. Neither of us had cell service in this remote stretch of the UP. We’d planned to meet at a campground a couple miles up the trail at 8 p.m. but I was running behind schedule. I got no response and sent another. And another. Now starting to worry something had happened to them on their canoe trip, I emerged from the woods at Perry’s Landing to find them walking toward me. Just then, their reply message arrived on my InReach. A full hour had passed between sending my message and them receiving it. We loaded up and headed back to a warm campfire and roasted s’mores.
The next morning, we parted ways as I headed into Grand Marais and they moved to another campsite. Patty and Dave, thank you for your friendship!
I asked myself a question this section: Can I hike 10 days straight without a rest day. I can, but I limped my way into Grand Marais straight up to a cheeseburger. I won’t be doing that long of a stretch again.
I head into Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore now, and will do lower miles to savor the experience. My feet are grateful.
Section: St. Ignace to Grand Marais
Total miles: 536.75
Appalachian Trail and Pacific Crest Trail thru-hikers describe their “trail family” with such love, it makes people want to thru-hike. They settle in with a group of people, and sometimes hike together for 5-6 months, forming intense bonds. Finding a “trail family” was an experience I thought I’d miss on the North Country Trail.
Walking up Dove and John Day’s driveway and seeing their big red barn with the NCT emblem, I felt like I’d reached the hiker promise land! An effect compounded by their incredibly warm greeting, an immediate offer of a shower (what every hiker really wants). Dove showed me their beautiful hiker guest room, one wall of which is painted to look like a birch forest. My eyes leapt to a jar of snacks for those midnight “hiker hunger” pains we get, and then WiFi password right next to them. To be shown so much love by complete strangers has been the norm on this trail. I was dead wrong about not having a “trail family.” My trail family just happens to be off the trail.
A few miles into my day, I took a break to call Marcus Quintiliano, a local hiker who’d agreed to review my plan for this final section of Lower Peninsula Michigan. After having gaps in my research the previous section, I was trying to learn from my mistakes.
The big challenge on this section is a lack of water for 17 miles starting at Stutsmanville Road and ending at Wycamp Lake. The Harbor Springs Chapter maintains a water cache about halfway through that stretch (thank you, Tim!). Marcus let me know that one potential campsite I’d picked out did not have water nearby. He also let me know what to expect over the next 63 miles as far as terrain. “You’ll have three big climbs,” he said, “and then it’s flat all the way to the bridge.” He also assured me that the ticks were less abundant on this section. Later that night, Marcus checked to make sure a water spigot was running at the Pleasantview Township Hall, and dropped more water at the cache further up the trail. Thank you so much, Marcus! Another complete stranger going out of his way to help.
Feeling more confident, I hiked on along the Bear River, a beautiful river with class 4 rapids, which the trail follows all the way to Petoskey. I’d finally reached the shore of Lake Michigan. One of the main reasons I decided to hike the western half of the NCT is its proximity to the Great Lakes.
This stretch involved a lot of walking on pavement, which can be much harder on feet than walking on the soft tread of a trail. At mile 12, I took a break at an artesian well along a bike path east of town with water so delicious, I think it may have conferred immortality. I had about 7 miles to go to reach my goal for the day.
One of my favorite parts of doing bigger miles is how the quality of the light changes toward the end of the day. As the sun sinks toward the horizon, the light turns golden. Angled shafts of light cut through the trees, creating a bewitching, etherial atmosphere that makes me fall profoundly in love with the woods again every day.
After a last night in Dove and John’s comfortable house, and one more shower, I set out with my full pack and a plan to hike my first 20-mile day. I’d been rushing to finish a blog post and didn’t get on trail until 10 a.m. I was stressed about making it to Wycamp Lake before dark. Based on my pace recently, I figured it could take me 11-12 hours to hike 20 miles. Confession? I’m afraid of the dark in the woods. I prefer to sleep through it. The thought of hiking and setting up camp in the dark was really intimidating me. Toward the end of my hike when we start losing daylight again, I will be forced to confront this fear.
I set out at a strong pace, the weather perfect for a day of long water carries. The sun was bright, the temperature in the 50s, and a cool wind was blowing. After filling up my water at the township hall, I braced for another onslaught of bugs as a huge marsh stretched miles north of the trail, but no swarm ever materialized. I reveled in the fresh, verdant green taking over the forest now that it’s June. The woods in this section are very quiet, no ORVs, ATVs or gunshots.
At about mile 13, I hit what I’m starting to call “exhaustion hour,” a point that comes almost every day when I’m so exhausted that the idea of taking another step much less hiking more miles starts to feel impossible. I was halfway done with a 6-mile road walk to Wycamp Lake. I sat down on the side of a road for a break, then watched as a female turkey slowly inched her way out of the brush about 20 feet away from me. Suddenly, she turned around and ran back into the safety of the brush. “I guess she spotted me,” I thought, just as I heard the roar of an SUV coming down the gravel road. She’d heard the vehicle well before me. As soon as it passed, she inched out of the woods again, then trotted to the green field across the road, never aware of my presence. I pulled up the maps on my phone. My favorite thing to do during “exhaustion hour” is to consult my maps over and over to try and figure out a new plan that involves less pain. Usually, as soon as I start hiking again, I feel fine.
I covered the next 3-miles of road walking in about an hour. My feet and legs felt strong after my short break. I reached public land again, and knew I could pitch my tent at any point. I was aiming for the north shore of Wycamp Lake, which would get me access to water, and my first 20-mile day. This 20-mile day had become an important benchmark for me as the first section of the Upper Peninsula will be more difficult for resupplying. There is a 120-mile stretch without stores or a post office before Tahquamenon State Park, where I am able to send a resupply box. If I don’t want to carry 12-15 pounds of food so I can hike the section in 7 days, I need to be able to do 20-mile days to do it in 6 days.
I made it to camp by 8 p.m. with plenty of daylight left. I ate a quick, cold dinner after setting up my tent, hung my food and went to bed.
The next day, I set out with another 20-mile day as my goal, and a plan to meet Patty and Dave Warner of the Grand Traverse Chapter at the campground at Wilderness State Park where they were camping for a couple days. The trail ran along Wycamp Lake for a short stretch, then turned north toward the state park. I reached a section of flooded trail. A small wooden stake pointed out a bypass trail that the Harbor Springs Chapter had created. The bypass was flooded too, so I just went down the main trail, the water reaching my knees.
Some of my favorite hiking in the entire Lower Peninsula came after crossing into the state park when the trail started “rollercoastering,” as I call it, along old sand dune ridges now covered in forest. A vista of Lake Michigan appeared through the trees. I took a long break on its shore when the trail dropped down out of the ridges. I had the beach all to myself. The water in the bay was teal, like the Caribbean.
After my break, the trail started weaving its way through lakes, ponds, and marshes. Dwarf iris smaller than my finger lined the trail. The flowers in the forest are changing every day now.
Another tradition on the AT and PCT is to give thru-hikers a “trail name,” a nickname sometimes earned through a funny story or unique characteristic. I don’t have a trail name, and don’t want to give one to myself. But as I hiked toward the campground, I was teasing myself that my trail name should be “Bumble” because I seem to be just bumbling my way through this hike, with trail angels helping me out at all the right moments to prevent my mistakes from being more costly.
I’d fixated on my goal of hiking 20-mile days, hoping to make up a day. After finishing my hike in Lower Peninsula Michigan, I planned to get off trail for a week to attend a cousin’s wedding. Getting behind a day meant I was facing a 13-hour drive home to Minnesota, followed by a 6-hour drive the next day to the wedding. Dove gently tried to point out that 20-mile days were unnecessary with my timeline before I left her house, but my fixation on that number made me not hear her. I didn’t figure it out myself until I was hiking to meet Patty and Dave my third day into the section.
Every section of trail is a math problem. Always a weak mathematician, the farther I hike, the worse I seem to get. I had about 63 miles to hike from Dove’s house to the bridge. I started on June 1, and wanted to get to Mackinaw City by June 4. That’s four days. I never needed to do 20-mile days if I wanted to get to the bridge on June 4. If I’d wanted to get there June 3, then I needed to do two 20-mile days and a 23-mile day my final day, but I’d been planning to camp at Wilderness State Park’s campground on June 3. There are only 13 miles between the campground and Mackinaw City.
My math errors piled up. I’d miscounted the miles between the lake and the state park, between the park and Mackinaw City. My sheer ineptitude was sinking in as I saw Patty and Dave hiked out to meet me. “You’re early!” they said. Yep, because I thought the campground was three miles further thanks to my terrible math.
I wish I felt like Xena the Warrior Princess out here, but I feel more like Gabrielle, her naive, bumbling sidekick. By the end of the show, Gabrielle turns into a pretty fierce warrior herself, so maybe there’s hope for me yet.
Patty, Dave and I walked into camp where they had a beautiful site right on the shore of Lake Michigan. I almost decided to end my day then so I could lounge on the beach. Instead, I set up camp to lighten my pack and headed out to do another 5 miles, getting to hike with Patty and Dave for a mile before they headed a different direction to loop back to their campsite.
The mosquito swarms I’d been expecting finally arrived as the trail left the lake and became a narrow ribbon of dry ground running between a marsh to the north and south. I emerged from the woods 4 miles later with a cloud of them biting me. Dave picked me up, and we returned to camp for a dinner of “Pizza Pockets,” delicious pizza sandwiches grilled over a fire.
After dinner, Patty and Dave offered to shuttle me all the way back to my car in Howard City, saving me the $50 bus fare, and a six-hour ride, meaning I would make it home in time for a rest day before leaving for the wedding. Bumble had been saved again. I gave them both huge hugs and insisted on paying for gas. They are part of my trail family.
The predicted midnight rains never arrived, and I was awoken at dawn by a pair of seagulls bickering right outside my tent. Patty shuttled me to my starting point back in the buggy marshes, and I headed out toward French Farm Lake with only 8.6 miles left to go to complete my hike in Lower Peninsula Michigan. All morning, I contemplated how to manage the bugs of the Upper Peninsula. I usually avoid pesticides because, in my experience, they don’t work when the bugs reach truly epic proportions, so why spread toxins all over my skin and introduce them into the environment if they don’t help? But I’d stayed up until midnight on my rest day in Petoskey researching tick-borne diseases to refresh my memory about what ticks carried what diseases. Words like Babesiosis, Anaplasmosis, Powassan and, of course, Lyme disease were bouncing around in my head.
I saw my first yellow lady slipper, and took a break on a sandy beach on the lake to watch a pair of serene trumpeter swans glide by.
The miles passed quickly, and before I knew it I’d crossed into Mackinaw City limits and the iconic bridge was in sight. I played some music on my iPhone and more danced than hiked my way to the park beneath the bridge. It’d taken me a month to hike what takes 3 hours to drive.
We celebrated with a meal of fish sandwiches. When the waitress caught sight of my destroyed shoes, she asked me where I’d been. I told her I’d walked 300 miles to get to her restaurant. “Like, camping?” She asked. “What about bears? And foxes?” She was very concerned about the foxes, a first for me with this classic in-town exchange.
I picked up my car and headed home, opting to drive through the Upper Peninsula instead of Chicago. Summer had fully blossomed in the Lower Peninsula, but as soon as I drove across the bridge, the temperature dropped from 64 to 49 degrees. Huge clouds of bugs appeared whenever marshes bordered the road. I suspect the Upper Peninsula will test my sanity and my skills in a whole new way, and reward me with endless, rugged beauty. Hopefully, I don’t bumble my way through the entire 547 miles.
Section: Petoskey to Mackinaw Bridge
Total miles: 361.5
Setting out from Kalkaska at 11 a.m. on the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend with 17 miles to hike to a campground that was probably full was a risk. If I couldn’t find a site or a kind group willing to share their site, I’d be hiking another mile to make my own camp in the woods in the dark, an intimidating possibility at this early stage of my hike.
A ferociously sunny day on roads with little shade, I wore my bandana like a desert hiker to try and stave off the sunburn. I’m Irish; I burn easily.
The state forest north of Kalkaska was full of people enjoying the long weekend. ORVs, ATVs, dirt bikes, and dune buggies zoomed by me all day as people enjoyed the many motor trails in the area. I was the lone hiker.
I got used to the constant noise of the motors pretty quickly, but I can’t get used to the frequent gunshots you hear when hiking on public lands in Michigan. I’ve been told it’s legal to target shoot in state forests. I hear gunfire every day, more than this city girl is used to hearing. Where I come from, gunshots mean something very bad is happening.
The easy, 17-mile road walk to Pickerel Lake State Forest Campground gave me a lot of time to think. I thought about Ronald “Stronghold” Sanchez Jr., a thru hiker on the Appalachian Trail who was allegedly murdered this month by a deranged man with a machete. I thought about what a cruel death that was for a Veteran hoping a long walk through the woods would ease his Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome. I was heartsick for him, and his family. Violence found him again on the trail, which has seemed immune. I knew it wasn’t, but the trail has always felt like a refuge.
I thought too about a comment my mother made during our last phone call, something to the effect of, “I’m impressed by how you can be so happy while depriving yourself of so much.” (Mom, my apologies for probably misquoting you.)
A missing piece of the puzzle fell into place as to why people often use the word “crazy,” affectionately, when talking about this hike. Why leave the comforts, the safety, of modern life behind to go walk 11-12 hours a day with 30 pounds on my back through the rain, the bugs, the heat?
On trail, I have fresh air to breathe, heightened senses, the wind gently teasing my hair, the sun warm on my face, the kiss of a cool mist on my skin. I have bird song for an alarm clock, frog song to serenade me at lunch, and owls singing me to sleep. I’m surprised every day by snakes slithering away, grouse bursting from the underbrush, by how the beauty of the woods can be so profound that my chest aches.
I’m deprived of the people and the animal I love. I’ll concede that. I can’t pet my dog and I miss him every day. I miss my family and friends, but I can’t force them to come out here. They’d be welcome! I’d be depriving them of what they need.
My loves will survive my short absence. I couldn’t deprive myself of the woods anymore.
So while my 17-mile road walk was a bit monotonous, my thoughts were far from it.
I hiked into a full-to-bursting campground at 9 p.m. as the sun set and a thunderstorm crackled on the southern horizon, and asked a group of kind strangers for help. They allowed me to pitch my tent behind their ATVs and two tents. They declined my money, but I left $10 tucked under their vodka bottle the next morning as I quietly snuck out of camp before they woke.
I was happy to be back under the freshly leafed canopy on a foot path again for the 10 miles to Sand Lake, where I saw hundreds of frogs fighting and mating, more than ever before in my life.
In the afternoon, I think I found three huge signal trees, a way Native Americans marked their trails by bending saplings to grow with right angles that signal the direction of the trail. One tree had three bent limbs, and I wondered if it had marked a trail junction two hundred years ago. I tried to imagine what life was like for those who walked whatever trail existed then.
I was setting up camp near Five Lake that night and shouted with glee when I almost pitched my tent on top of a morel mushroom patch. I harvested a couple for my soup.
I learned this week to double check the Avenza app maps with my printed maps as some differences exist in what is marked as public land. Maps have a publication date and things will and do change. I feared I’d accidentally camped on private land when I looked at my printed maps that night, but hadn’t seen no trespassing signs. A closer look proved I was on public lands, but just barely. On my Avenza app, the entire area around the lake was marked as public land.
On Five Lake, residents celebrated Memorial Day by shooting off fireworks and guns until 2 a.m. I woke the next morning feeling pretty worn out, and ground out the road walk to the Jordan River Valley. Upon reaching the trailhead, I discovered dispersed camping is not allowed in the valley. Frustrated that missing this important fact would mean choosing between hiking only 8 miles or attempting my first 20-mile day, I struggled to decide. Would I go big? Small? I started to make the decision a reflection on how I would approach the whole hike. Not helpful. I’ll have to adapt my plan a lot on this hike, and I just need to make the best decision I can at the time. I knew I’d missed things in my research, despite the 60-page trail dossier I put together. I was also supposed to connect with people from this chapter at the Trail Celebration, but arrived late and never got the chance.
I hiked down the side steep river valley on a strip of brown in a carpet of green and white trilliums. I decided to take a short day and camp at Pinney Bridge State Forest Campground. As I set up my tent at 1 p.m., it started raining and didn’t stop until 7 a.m. the next day. Sometimes, I get the feeling that these sudden changes to my plans are someone looking out for me. I napped, journaled and finished a book. Delicious.
I woke just as the rain stopped, and felt like a new woman. I hiked fast, startled a huge snake sunning himself on a bridge along O’Brien Pond, where it hid from me under the bridge. Three trumpeter swans swam 30 feet to my right. And the first swarm of mosquitos descended around me.
I hiked even faster, fleeing the mosquitos. I filtered water while they made spill from slapping myself constantly.
After hiking out of the Jordan River Valley, I started climbing up into a high ridge of young forest of beech and maple. The woods felt close and cozy, and I really wanted to camp there but I was out of water and kept going.
I crossed a road and into a totally different forest, a valley huge trees already leafed out and blocking the sun. A riot of wildflowers stretched ridge to ridge. The change was so sudden, I laughed.
I was aiming to camp in a small patch of public land bordering a road walk, another difference between my printed maps and Avenza. I suspected when I got there, there might not be public land. Has Michigan been selling parcels of state forest, I wondered? So far the differences between the March 2018 Avenza maps and November 2018 printed maps always shows less public land. The uncertainty of dispersed camping on public land was one of the challenges I most looked forward to on this hike. Getting to make my own camp, figure out how to read the woods, find good spots, all drew me to this trail, but I knew it would push me out of my comfort zone.
As I walked along Dobleski Road, I saw private properties and no trespassing signs but no state forest, that I could discern anyway. Having already hiked more than 15 miles, I debated whether to go another couple miles to the next stretch of state forest, or ask to camp at a beautiful farm on the road. My feet weren’t complaining, so I hiked on. The long days of early summer are making my learning curve on this hike much gentler.
I found a place to camp eventually in a quiet, young beech forest, like I’d been wanting to camp in earlier. I’d hiked 18.65 miles to get there, my longest day so far.
Despite sleeping deep and long, my energy crashed around mile 4 the next day, halfway through another road walk. As soon as I made it to the footpath again, another cloud of mosquitos descended. I’d been expecting them because here the trail runs about half a mile east of an enormous marsh.
I’ve hiked before in swarms of mosquitos and black flies so thick in the Boundary Waters of Minnesota that 100 percent DEET didn’t work, and my sanity was tested. The sound of a mosquito swarm made me panic at first, but I put on my bug net and kept hiking. They only bit me when I stopped moving, so I kept going. After just 13 miles, I broke down and set my tent up, desperate for a reprieve. I sat inside while it felt like a hundred mosquitos waited on the mesh outside. Then I noticed the ticks crawling all over the outside of my tent. That was a first for me. I’ve found plenty of ticks on me during all my outdoor activity, but never had them swarm my tent like the mosquitos and black flies. I kept finding ticks inside the tent, likely carried in by me on my gear and clothing. As I went to grab one to eject it from the tent, it disappeared. I could not find it! I put all my gear and hiking clothing on one side of the tent and myself on the other, waiting for the tick to eventually crawl out and try to bite me.
Dread settled in my stomach. Despite knowing this density of insects was likely caused by the marsh, I started wondering if the bugs were officially out, and would be this bad every day all day until August or September. Luke “Strider” Jordan, a 2013 thru-hiker of the NCT, told me the bugs in the Upper Peninsula were the worst he’d ever experienced, and he’s also from Minnesota. Secretly, I’d been hoping he’d never experienced the bugs in the BWCA in July, because I’d survive those, but studying the outside of my tent, I stared to accept I’m probably going to face much worse soon. Luke almost ended his hike because of the bugs. The prospect of this being my life for the next 2 1/2 months made doubt for the second time I could finish this halfway thru hike. “I’m not ready for this,” I thought, as the mosquitos droned on.
I scrambled out of the tent in my head net, rain coat and pants to hang my food in a tree, grab some water from the stream, and went to the bathroom. Mosquitos bit me every time I had to stand still.
I dove back into the tent, and hatched a plan to wake up at 5 a.m. in hopes cooler temperatures would settle the mosquitos down. Nope! As I packed up before 6 a.m., they were as thick as the day before. A breed of mosquito impervious to sun and cold. I’m in trouble, I thought. The only solution was to hike. I hoped once I’d passed the marsh, they’d disappear.
I was hiking so fast, I tried to ford an area where beavers had flooded the trail. I missed a new trail to the right. Halfway across, water up to my knees and a series of downed trees blocking my path, I thought, “This can’t be right,” backed up, and found the trail. If I let them, the mosquitos affect my judgment.
As I broke out of the forest to a view of rolling fields stretching to the horizon in Cherry Valley, I noticed the high-pitched whine of the swarm had quieted. Cautiously, I removed my head net. They were gone. I immediately sat down and took a break. After a hot, sweaty, itchy morning, to sit without harassment felt divine. I flicked a tick off of my leg.
I stopped at a gorgeous property in the valley where the map shows there is a well. The owner plans to run a spigot out to the road for NCT hikers, but it’s not there yet. He generously brought me back to his well house and filled both my bottles with cold, delicious water while his friendly dachshunds circled my feet.
Climbing even further up out of the bugs in gorgeous ridge trails, I met Steve, the only other backpacker I saw on this whole stretch of trail. He’s hiking the entire Lower Peninsula in 10-day chunks, and has already completed the Upper Peninsula. “Do you have a bug net for the UP?” he asked. I pulled it out of my pocket and warned him about the bugs to the south.
The rest of my 15-mile hike to Dove and John Day’s home sailed by. Dove and John are the trail coordinators for the Jordan Valley 45 Chapter of the NCT. As soon as I walked up to their door, Dove emerged, a huge smile on her face, and asked if I wanted to shower. This woman speaks hiker love language, I thought.
I have about 64 miles left to hike to finish this stretch in the Lower Peninsula before I head home for a week to attend a cousin’s wedding. Then I’ll be back to face the bugs in the UP, and find the beauty through the madness.
Section: Kalkaska to Petosky
Total miles: 297.9
The weather forecasters are using words like supercell thunderstorms, flash flooding, and on their infographics, the entire state of Michigan is red. I look out the window of my motel room. The gusting winds are making the trees rattle and the clouds are dark and ominous. I decide to wait until check out time to make the call of whether or not I want to spend another day in town. I chide myself for what feels like leaping at an excuse to stay in town. “Real thru-hikers would’ve left by now,” I think. But thankfully, quickly ignore that voice. It doesn’t matter how other people would do this.
An amazing solution arrives through the Internet: Patty and Dave Warner are inviting me to stay the night with them. I finally head out having arranged to meet them further up the trail, but decide to take a shorter day to test my feet’s condition, and thunderstorms are predicted to move through the area at 6 p.m.
My feet felt like new as I walked out of Mesick. Back on the trail, it continued following the Manistee River, where I was treated to seeing trumpeter swans, a turtle or tortoise. Sorry, I was terrible about taking pictures this week. I got video! It’ll be out in a couple weeks.
Rain starts pouring down about an hour into my hike, and my least favorite part of the day was a 2-mile road walk, much on busy M-37, where I get rained on and splashed by passing cars, but the hiking afterward is beautiful. The trail north of M-37 runs though a small ravine and crosses back and forth across the creek with the Manistee River on the other side of a narrow ridge separating the two. I finally found some mud on this trail, and fall on my bum for the first time.
Dave Warner picks me up just as another round of pouring rain is starting up.
After dinner, Patty and Dave invite me to stay another night with them so I could do something called “slack packing,” taking just what you need for the day and leaving your overnight gear behind. I jump at the opportunity to cut my feet some more slack. The next day will be my first 15-mile day, and I fear another case of hamburger feet.
The next morning, I set out in the cool, misty weather hiking strong and fast. The trail followed the river all day, giving me some of the most breathtaking views of the hike so far.
I can’t figure out why I feel like I’m hiking fast, but Avenza is telling me that my pace, like the geology of the area, is glacial, just 1-1.5 miles an hour. I get frustrated and start thinking I’ll never be able to do 25-mile days at this speed, which I’ll need to do to finish half the trail by winter. But the sheer beauty of the trail reminds me I’m not out here for speed or distance records. I just want to be in the woods. That’s my real goal.
I also pass a marker for the Old Indian Trail, a trail that ran from Traverse City to Cadillac. No. 16 is at a former village site. I’m wishing we had some markers like this in Minnesota. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I learned a trail ran right through my neighborhood that Native Americans used for harvesting wild rice in now urban lakes. I remember to keep an eye out for signal trees, trees bent at 90 degree angles as trail markers by Native Americans to signal trail directions.
Back at Patty and Dave’s, I have the best meal I’ve had in months: cheeseburgers off the grill, home fries, corn on the cob, homemade baked beans and coleslaw, watermelon, and Dave’s delicious chocolate chip cookies for desert.
When I tell Dave my hike that day was only 13.5 miles, he pulls out his topo maps and assured me it was 15 miles. He and Patty know this stretch of trail like the back of their hand. Confused, I pull up the Avenza app and pull out my printed maps and discover that the three mile difference between their mileage counts drops to one mile after Harvey Bridge. I wasn’t hiking as slow as I thought. Avenza was catching up to the printed maps.
I hike 16 miles the next day. My feet feel great, and the hiking is perfect. I hike my final stretch along the Manistee, sad to leave it, but soon am charmed by Fife Lake Creek. The trail is far from major roads this stretch, and quiet. I see tons of animals — crows chattering, a garter snake sunning himself in the trail, deer flashing their white flag tails at me as they bound away, blue jays flashing through the woods like a piece of blue sky on wings, the pounding of pileated woodpeckers, and end my hike at the Headquarters Lakes to haunting Loon song.
The next morning dawns rainy, with gusting winds, and chilly. I’m ready to get back on trail full-time. I say goodbye to Patty and Dave drops me off at the trail. I wave goodbye, so grateful for their help, hospitality, trail information, and amazing cooking.
My fully loaded pack feels impossibly heavy after two days of slack packing, but I settle into hiking. The Valley of the Giants, a stand of old growth forest, is the highlight of the day, along with a massive beaver logging operation. There is a patch of forest so impacted by beavers, it looks like a logging company clear cut the forest.
I found a greeting from Tom (MacGyver), one of my first trail angels, in a trail register, which brightened my day, but haven’t seen any entries from Sir Dickspatcher, the other person hiking to North Dakota. Maybe he got off the trail? I’m sad to think that. Although I’m enjoying the solitude of the trail, I was looking forward to having someone doing the same hike at the same time with which to compare stories.
I set up camp at Scheck’s Place Forest Campground, and prepare for the 80 percent chance of thunderstorms. A gorgeous campground with towering white and red pines, I find a site with the shortest trees and a tent pad clear of roots. These are storm safety techniques recommended by Search and Rescue volunteers I interviewed this year. Lightning can jump from trees to you, so avoiding the tall ones, and tree roots is a good practice. Also, the latrines are close by if it gets really scary. I’m not sure when I got so concerned about thunderstorms. Maybe after hiking the Snowbank Trail in Minnesota, a trail that was pretty much destroyed by a straight-line wind storm in 2016. In fact, the brother of Minnesota’s current governor was killed in that storm. I am not afraid of bears or wolves; I am afraid of the awesome power of storms.
The thunderstorm never materializes, a good reminder that weather forecasts are changeable.
I do my first 15-mile day with a full pack on a stretch I’ve hiked before at the trail celebration along the Boardman River and through the Sand Lakes Quiet Area. If I could’ve ordered perfect hiking weather on a menu, today’s weather would be it: 60s, a cool breeze strong enough to keep the midges out of my face, billowing cumulus clouds dotting blue sunny skies.
I cross the 200-mile mark of my hike near Guernsey Lake. I can’t believe I’ve hiked 200 miles in just a couple weeks. 2,200 more to go.
I arrive at my mileage goal for the day, have some fun bushwhacking down to a lake to get some water, and discover an old stretch of the NCT near its shore, blue blazes and all.
I set up camp in a meadow. I’m loving dispersed camping because even though I don’t get the prettiest campsites all the time, they are all mine. When a deer starts yelling off in the woods for minutes on end (what is happening back there?), there are no stereos or shouting humans to prevent me from hearing clearly. The second noisiest animal to humans — the Canadian Goose — wakes me at dawn, but soon I’m serenaded by a Swainson’s Thrush. Please don’t tell the other birds, but the Swainson’s call is my favorite.
I hike 8 miles into Kalaska, a day later than planned but my feet are feeling awesome. I’m so grateful to Patty and Dave for hosting me this week, feeding me like a Queen, and helping me cut myself and my feet some slack.
Section: Mesick to Kalkaska
Total miles: 212.90
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
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!