Deep thoughts during road walks

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.

Pretending I’m hiking the desert on the Pacific Crest Trail on a 17-mile road walk out of Kalkaska.

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.

Just me and my shadow.

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.

A morel mushroom narrowly escapes getting crushed by my tent, but ended up in my soup pot.

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.

Wild flowers crowd this section of the trail.

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.

The blue dot is me camped out next to the longest, wisest stretch of marsh.

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.

Lady Slippers, my reward for hiking through a big swarm.

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

Miles: 87.15

Total miles: 297.9

Cutting myself some slack

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.

Dave Warner of the Grand Traverse Chapter.

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.

Huge sand dune river bank on the Manistee River.
Oxbow on the Manistee River.

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.

Site of former Ottawa village.

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.

Thank you, Patty and Dave!

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.

A 20-foot tall root ball near Snowbank Lake of trees knocked over during a 2016 “derecho” storm.

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

Miles: 74.9

Total miles: 212.90

My feet are putting themselves up for adoption

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.

Soaking my feet in Epsom salts helps ease the pain

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 sun sets behind my tent at McCarthy Lake.

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.

Camped at Pine Knoll Tree Farm.

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.

A card in Pine Knoll’s registry caught my attention. Sounds like this gentleman would have some good stories to tell around a campfire.

(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.

Hiking on top of an esker above the Manistee River.

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.

My gorgeous view of an almost full moon from my tent at Red Bridge.

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

Week 1: Mistakes were made, but this hike isn’t one of them

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!

At my starting point on the NCT. The new halfway point with the Vermont extension?

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.

Fiddleheads offer some welcome greenery in the browns of a spring forest.

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.

At the halfway point of the NCT

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.

Eating dinner with Joan Young, the first woman to complete an end-to-end hike of the NCT by foot.

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!

A whirlwind of nerves

Finally packed up and ready to drive to Michigan.

Having 42 things on my to-do list for the week before I left on my halfway thru hike of the North Country Trail meant that a frenzy of activity distracted me from my nerves.

I focused on getting my will done, a list of my passwords for online accounts, so my family doesn’t have logistical headaches on top of their grief if the worst comes to pass during my journey. I tested my InReach Delorme with GEOS. I made several disorganized trips to area stores, and took over my mother’s living room for two full days, an explosion of gear and dehydrated food.

As fast as I scrambled, I still left town 36 hours later than planned. Driving though Wisconsin and Michigan, through the Upper Peninsula, I studied the landscape for when I’d be hiking through the area again a month later. I slept in my car, then arrived just minutes before the Long-Distance Hiking workshop at the North Country Trail Association’s 2019 Trail Celebration in Bellaire, Michigan.

I met up with Lisa LaPorte Light, my first trail angel of the trip, who hosted me at her cabin for the weekend. She’d done a 13-mile hike that day. Both exhausted, we headed back to the cabin to get into pajamas and talk all things trail late into the night. It was the best sleepover ever.

The next morning, I went on a 10-mile hike in the Sands Lake Quiet Area and proceeded to get really excited about starting my journey. I was exhausted to the bone, but one walk along the beautiful Boardman River reminded me why I’d been working so hard.

Trumpeter swans on Sand Lake.

Getting to meet other NCT hikers, including Joan Young, one of only five women to complete an end-to-end trip, made me realize that although I’m hiking solo, I am not alone. I was overwhelmed with offers of assistance by everyone around me, and requests to meet up to hike with me along the trail. Gratitude was the emotion of the day.

Pleased by how my body stood up to its first long-distance hike of the season, I stuffed my face with pizza and then returned to the cabin with Lisa and hit my first tech roadblock. I’d shot so much video, my phone’s memory was full. I’d arranged to interview Joan, Luke Jordan, a 2013 thru-hiker, and Derrick Passe, a board member and maintainer of two wilderness sections of trail in Minnesota. Instead of heading back to the celebration, I was trapped beneath a gorgeous white pine at Lisa’s frantically trying to figure out how to transfer video to a memory card. Due to my late arrival, I’d also missed connecting with some trail chapters to discuss trail conditions. I felt like I was messing everything up already.

I bought Derrick Passe an IPA to say thank you for the incredibly hard work he and others did to clear the Kekekabic Trail, a wilderness section of the NCT, and the Snowbank Trail, another BWCA hiking trail, after 2016 straight-line wind storms destroyed the trails.

Finally, I rushed back to the celebration, got my interviews, and drove back to the cabin to collapse into a deep sleep.

It wasn’t until I was driving further south to my starting point near Croton Dam on Sunday that the fear and nerves started to set in. Hundreds of miles from home in territory completely unfamiliar to me, I started to fixate on all the unknowns, the dangers.

But having met so many people, having received so many offers of help, my fears and nerves were banished from knowing I’m not really alone out here.

Time to start this hike. I can’t wait to meet you, North Country Trail. Let’s make some Wild Stories together.

Why the North Country Trail instead of the Appalachian Trail?

Crossing a beaver dam on the Snowbank Trail.

Beginning May 2019, I’ll attempt to hike half of the North Country Trail, America’s longest National Scenic Trail at 4,600 miles. The North Country Trail (NCT) stretches from Vermont at its eastern terminus all the way to North Dakota.

I’ll begin my trek near the trail’s halfway point in lower peninsula Michigan, hike north to the upper peninsula, turn west toward Wisconsin, eventually cross into my home state of Minnesota, and finish at the western trail terminus in North Dakota.

I plan to hike 2,400 miles in 5-6 months. I’ll keep hiking as long as my body, money, and the weather hold out.

There are 11 National Scenic Trails in America. The three most well-known are the Appalachian Trail, the Pacific Crest Trail and the Continental Divide Trail. Instead of heading to a trail on the coasts or the divide, I want to stay in the northern woods that I love. In recent years, the Appalachian Trail and Pacific Crest Trail have become pretty crowded if your main motivation for backpacking is the peace, quiet and solitude the woods can offer, like me.

The number of people thru-hiking (or hiking an entire trail) the Appalachian (AT) and Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) has been increasing each year. In 2013, the Pacific Crest Trail Association (PCTA) issued 1,879 long-distance permits (hiking 500 miles or more). In 2018, the PCTA issued 7,313 permits, according to the PCTA’s website. The Appalachian Trail Conservancy asks AT thru-hikers to register their start date on its website. According to the registration charts for 2019, between March 1 and May 1 there are six days when more than 50 thru-hikers plan to start hiking northbound on the same day, and between March 1 and April 10, there is not a single day when fewer than 20 hikers plan to start the trail. That is a lot of people, so many people that the ATC has started asking people to “flip-flop” the trail to reduce damage to the trail.

Another way to reduce damage to America’s most popular National Scenic Trail would be to go hike a different one, which is my plan.

Even though I won’t complete a “thru-hike” of the trail (I’m calling my hike a “half-thru hike”) I will hike more miles than AT hikers, and a couple hundred fewer than PCT hikers. For me, the title of thru-hiker is less important than the experience of hiking 2,400 miles in 5-6 months. Although I’ll likely miss out on hiking with other people like the “trail families” that thru-hikers form on the PCT and AT, the tradeoff of having peace, quiet and alone time in the woods is worth it for me.

Follow along with the blog or vlog to see if my hypothesis that the NCT can offer an equally stunning and life-changing thru-hiking experience is true.