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.