Still Learning …and Hiking

I’m still on trail. Or, more accurately, I’m back on North Country Trail for the third time this year. Apparently no amount of misery will keep me off of it.

This summer I’ve hiked about 1000 miles, finishing the 300 mile Superior Hiking Trail in northern Minnesota – a part of North Country Trail – a couple weeks ago. It’s become very clear that the time of year and weather matter a lot when you’re hiking, especially if you’re backpacking and cannot escape the elements.

When we came back from mountain climbing to hike central Minnesota, we found a beautiful well-maintained trail through the woods. Unfortunately, it was mosquito and deer fly season. It was also hot and very humid. We were the only ones on the trail except a man from Fish and Wildlife Department who was mowing the trailhead parking area.

He looked at us, shook his head and said “You don’t have to hike this trail in order, right?” We nodded. He said “You should skip on up north and get out of these bugs. Nobody hikes central Minnesota in July.” We were miserable and not at all looking forward to camping in heat and humidity with relentless biting bug swarms. That evening we drove up north, skipping over 300 miles of trail, and set our sights on hiking the Border Route section of this trail.

The bugs were far fewer, although it was still tough wilderness area hiking with very challenging terrain. The paths are difficult to navigate and this year all trail maintenance was canceled because of Covid. I am glad to say we finished it without injury. The campsites are beautiful and we often camped by a lake and had great views of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness at times. Plus, I felt like the challenge brought my experience level up a notch. I am glad we hiked it, …and even happier it’s behind me.

Next we started the Superior Hiking Trail, hoping to regain our love of hiking. It was a wet and somewhat buggy start and my hiking partner stopped hiking after the first full day. He decided there was more joy in fly fishing, but stayed nearby to shuttle me between trailheads. That way I could hike with a day pack instead of my full 29 pound backpack.

I hiked on my own a few days and then one of our trail angels from North Dakota, Rachel, joined me for a week. We had very good weather with some beautiful river and waterfalls along the way, plus good views of Lake Superior. It all went so well in fact that she is the reason I’m back up in northern Minnesota again.

A friend of hers planned a hike through another remote section of this trail, the Kekekabic Trail (Kek), with a permit to start next week. They invited me to join them and I took them up on it, as I’m probably not ready for solo hiking that type of wilderness area just yet. It’s a 22 hour drive up here, so I brought my bicycle and car to shuttle myself along the hike. I want to complete as many of the miles we skipped earlier as I can before we start the Kek next week.

The plan is to park at a trail head, then ride my bicycle as far as I want to hike, lock up the bike and hike back to the car. Then I can go pick up the bicycle and do it all over again the next day.

I did my first self-shuttled hike late yesterday after I arrived. It was only 3 miles but gave me a chance to try it out. I’m on a section of the trail that follows a bicycle trail called the Mesabi Trail for over 130 miles. I figure a shared bike/hike trail will be the easiest way to test this strategy.

I’m grateful to have the chance to hike the North Country Trail this year, even though it has been challenging in many ways that I never expected. I’ve learned a lot this year about hiking, reevaluating dreams, and about how stubbornness can both help you reach your goal and prevent you from reaching it at the same time. I hope to sift through these lessons and insight to be able to write about them someday.

In the meantime I’m going to keep hiking and searching for ways to make the reward worth the work.

Day 153 – Looking Up

The hardest days for me on trail were in New York, so we took a break from steep rock climbs in rain by spending time off trail in New York City. It was fun, although exhausting, to be a tourist, so when Mountain Dew suggested a third day off trail, I agreed. The three of us spent that day doing almost nothing.

I returned to the trail having missed the worst of the rainstorms and thought I would enjoy the trail again. I was wrong. I had been living trail life over four months by then and thunderstorms the next day knocked me back into misery. This post isn’t about that though, so suffice it to say that my friend’s prediction of “…every day a new misery” was absolutely correct.

Right after that a string of Trail Angels changed my attitude even though the rain kept coming. Looking back, it seems like an entire community of thoughtful people were where I needed them to boost my morale and keep me hiking north.

First, we ran into Bill, a thru hiker from 1998, who was doing shelter maintenance about four miles into our day. He invited us to go skydiving with him. We said “Yes!” and the day became even better. First, we had an awesome jump. I have wanted to skydive for 26 years and now I have! Loved it.

Afterwards, Bill dropped us back on trail so we could hike three more miles without our packs to his house. He treated us to ice cream and cokes, let us clean up and do laundry, then showed us to his rec room where we could sleep warm and dry. The next morning, his wife Amy made us a full breakfast while we visited with his kids. The whole experience was so unexpected and wonderful it was hard to believe.

A few days later, in Connecticut, we were facing a long rainy day punctuated by sudden hard rains. Heather, the daughter of my mom’s friend, Kathy, was going to meet us in a town about seven miles away. She surprised us by waiting at the trailhead with cokes and fruit and a plan for the day. We put our packs in her car and slack packed the next five miles with more of her treats in our daypacks, then called her when we finished. She picked us up after navigating closed roads and muddy unmaintained dirt roads, then took us to the post office and visitor center hiker showers before we headed for an early dinner.

All the while the rain simply poured, but we didn’t care because our packs were dry and so were we. After dinner, Heather brought out her laptop and we finally had a chance to look at our skydiving photos and post them. The whole day was awesome because of Heather. Without her help, we probably would have hitched to town and given up the extra hiking. Instead, she dropped us where we had left off and we hiked to camp in light drizzle which stopped before we set up camp. I know we were smiling all the way to camp and thankful to have had an easy way to put in a full day of hiking plus spend time cleaning up and enjoying her company.

The third set of Trail Angels came along on my second worst day of the trail. The rain had been relentless. There had been three flash flood warnings over five different days. Once, the trail literally was underwater 6 inches within minutes, and lightning was striking in front of my face. I woke up the morning after the third one and looked at Wingman and said “I don’t want to carry this pack anymore.” Of course I put my pack on my back and walked anyway. Four miles into our hike we arrived at the Cookie Lady’s house and our luck changed completely.

The Cookie Lady had a cat that loves hikers and gave us delicious homemade cookies, then let us pick blueberries in her blueberry orchard for no cost at all. We just needed to give her half of what we picked! It was wonderful – and delicious. While we were there, Tom stopped by. He was waiting for some southbound hikers that he was helping slack pack. He offered to let us camp out at his home which was on the trail in the town of Dalton, Massachusetts. Then he offered to take our packs the rest of the way there for free! We made really good time, go to the community center shower before it closed. Plus, it didn’t even rain that day which was a miracle in and of itself! The next morning by dawn, Tom had laid out an entire picnic table full of all kinds of donuts and coffee and juice for the 20+ hikers that were camped out at his house. He also took our packs all the way to Bascom Lodge, 17.5 trail miles, so we could make it there before dinner. Wow!

Finally, as we walked up to the top of Mount Greylock and Bascom Lodge, Brad, one of the co-owners and the brother-in-law of my friend Ellen, was waiting for us as we arrived. We were already booked to stay at his place, but he made it even more special by taking the time to to treat us to dinner and visit with us then – and at breakfast next day. The meals were fabulous as was his company!

We were able to hike a little over 17 miles that day, fully loaded and coming into Bennington, Vermont in the dark with headlamps down some steep rocks. We were happy though, because we made a lot of good miles and finally hiking is becoming good again.

I’ve finally recaptured my love of hiking again. If I can hold onto that feeling for seven more weeks, I may reach the summit a happy hiker!