by Gordon Smith
Ed Talone, of Silver Spring, MD, hiked the whole North Country National Scenic Trail in 1994 - every step of the way! Sue Lockwood, my sister, hiked as much of the route as her medical condition and prescribed dialysis treatments permitted.
I sometimes joined them, or hiked in to meet them, but always drove the blue Ford van loaded with diabetic and dialysis equipment and supplies essential to Sue's life; and camping gear, food, maps, and treats that were, relatively, less important, but still nice to have around at the appropriate time.
Two other companions joined us: Mac, a Black Lab Leader Dog for the Blind, trained to assist Sue with her limited sight where others weren't around to help, and a noisy Terrier mix which I could never quite figure out why I had around. Since this is intended to be about the trail rather then those hiking it, I have simplified matters by using the first person plural pronouns throughout whether one, two, or all three of us were involved.
Backpacking roads coming into vogue with the American Hiking Society/ Backpacker Magazine American Discovery Trail undertaking, we decided to attempt the North Country National Scenic Trail although at its present stage of development it would involve a fair amount of "road walking". After having spent the past five years on the Continental Divide and Pacific Crest National Scenic Trails, we were concerned about how we would react to the eastern, and therefore more civilized, NCT.
Springtime in Ohio
To complete the whole trail in a single season we divided it in half, and began with its more southerly portion - near Cincinnati, Ohio, and headed eastward on the combined Buckeye/Discovery and North Country Trail routes.
We followed rural roads to the East Fork State Park where the first "off road" segment was a heavily used and eroded horse trail with accompanying spring mud. From the end of the State Park trail we continued through almost rural hills on back roads with minimal local traffic. The third night on the trail was unexpectedly spent in a motel as it was impossible to find a suitable "hiding place" to camp.
Ohio seemed to be dog heaven, and as we walked along streets through farming areas we were ever mindful that at the next farmhouse a horde of dogs howling at high volume might herald a friendly "Spot", or a cantankerous "Killer"; and one could never tell which ahead of time. Our route soon brought us to the Shawnee State Forest (known as "the little Smokies of Ohio"), with its pine forests and hills, and public lands on which we could safely camp. Farm roads led us onward to Tom Hollow State Forest with hills more worthy of the name "Smokies" than the Shawnee, and very reminiscent of the woods and hills of the southern Appalachian.
A brief sortie past small farms along single-lane roads (paved in front of farm houses to cut down on dust) led through open farm fields in the valleys, across forested ridgetops and brought us to Hocking Hills State Park, a spelunker's delight! The Grandma Gatewood Trail between Ash Cave and Old Man's Cave led us through a unique canyon area which combined the rock formations of Utah and the waterfalls of Oregon's Columbia River gorge with impressive stands of cedars and hemlocks for a truly memorable half day of hiking. Still within the State Park, we passed a rock rappelling area which completed the transformation of our preconceived notion of Ohio as a flat "Kansas" type farm area with just a "few hills" along its namesake river.
Next on our hike eastward we came to a section of the Wayne National Forest and followed along horse trail, less eroded than those of East Fork. We weaved erratically between private inholdings (which comprise 80% of the Wayne's area), reclaimed strip mines of a bygone era, and thumping coal gas pumps. The following day we mired along Burr Oak State Park's backpack trail which, after two days of steady rain added to the spring runoff, was goopy mud. Several sections of the trail, as a result of mud slides, had fallen into the lake; and we finally opted to walk along a state highway for the last part of our Burr Oak State Park trek.
Rutted dirt roads led through the Wolf Creek Wildlife Area and, along with some newly cut trail, on to the old covered bridge across Wolf Creek (the second of a number of covered bridges we would see in Ohio and Pennsylvania) and its adjacent dilapidated grist mill buildings. Before long we were looking forward to the next day's covered bridge as these unique structures built in the last century to protect bridge framework from the elements always provided a fascinating break in the day's walking. Cut trail continued from the covered bridge up Aldrich Run to a county road.
Shortly, at a graveled township road, we left the blue diamond blazes of the Buckeye Trail which we had been following up to now, and headed for a state highway. It was a 30-mile paved road walk into Marietta, Ohio, the last mile along the Muskingum River through an historic residential area and finally across the river on an abandoned railroad bridge.
Seven miles of road walking through and east of town brought us to another covered bridge, and cut trail once again, in the eastern section of the Wayne National Forest. Unusually heavy, wet snows of a month earlier had wreaked havoc on the well-built sixty miles of tread, which suffered now from mud slides and tumultuous blow-downs. The treadway climbed ridges and then plummented into deep ravines in constant sight of above-ground pipelines, gas wells, small storage tanks and a hodgepodge of derelict gas exploration equipment of the last century littering the bottoms of most ravines. Another forty miles of treadway is planned for the trail in this section of the Wayne.
April, and the inauguration of Daylight Savings Time coincided with our exit of the Wayne via county roads and the thirty-mile walk along a winding succession of paved and graveled roads back to the existing Buckeye Trail route near Senecaville in the Muskingum Watershed Conservation District. Seneca Lake is one in a string of man-made lakes along the Muskingum River and here we rejoined the blue-blazed Buckeye Trail route on a fairly new five-mile section of cut trail.
We then proceeded northward along roads crossing I-70 and US 40, and passing the appropriately named Buckeye Trail High School in Old Washington. We left the highway on a seldom used road through the Salt Fork Wildlife Preserve and then, from a group campsite in Salt Fork Lake State Park, we sauntered along two miles of cut trail to a shooting range another section of the "Wildlife Preserve". Following roads through small farms we crossed our fourth another lake in the string of man-made lakes making up the Muskingum Watershed Conservation District.
Outside Smyrna, impenetrable brambles forced us off cut trail and on to the highway, and then back roads led us on to the next MWCD lake, Clendenning, and then still another, Tappan Lake, all nestled between the ridges stretching down from Alleghanies. Two more lakes, Leesville and Atwood, were passed in quick succession, though the latter was never visible from the route we were following north.
Our first "significant" snowfall - leaving a "trace" of snow on the forest carpet of leaves, and melting by mid-morning - occurred on the twenty-sixth day of our hike after an all-day rain. Temperatures in the sixties and sunny days had been the usual March weather in Ohio.
The weather warmed again as we marched along in flatter terrain to a junction with the long-abandoned Ohio and Erie Canal towpath. During the next few days we passed through the Canal towns of Zoar, Bolivar (where it is hoped someday that the North Country Trail will intersect and follow a yet-to-be restored Beaver and Sandy Canal eastward to Pennsylvania), Navarre, and metropolis of Massilon, Crystal Springs, Canal Fulton and finally Clinton; our chosen point for leaving the blue-blazed Ohio Buckeye Trail. From here we headed eastward for the Pennsylvania state line following roads through a number of Amish farming communities, stopping regularly at farmhouses to enjoy conversations and delicious home baked cookies, often hot out of the oven. W e finally arrived at an abandoned rail grade paralleling the state line, and at then Negley, we turned east; 650 miles and 33 days into our trek we left Ohio soil and entered the Keystone State.
The leaves come out in Pennsylvania
We began Pennsylvania in the industrial warehouse section of the northern suburban fringes of Pittsburgh, walking mostly residential streets from Darlington to McConnell's Mill State Park - a gorge filled with old growth timbers and a mecca for white water enthusiasts and rock climbers, as well as hikers. We enjoyed following new and well-designed cut trail through this and Moraine State Park, a scant two miles further along our route.
We left the designated "high potential corridor" (which leads directly to Cook Forest State Park) followed rural roads instead south to link a series of "Rail trails" down to, and along the Allegheny River. While this route, technically, would not move us in our easterly direction, it would provide us with more than a week of relatively flat, well-defined tread. The Butler-to-Freeport Rail Trail had a couple of sections opened, and most of it was nearing completion. Only one small portion had to be detoured around due to a continued property dispute.
After crossing the Allegheny River on a highway bridge we followed the yellow-blazed Baker Tail route to its intersection with the Armstrong Rail Trail which we then followed. The Baker Trail headed more easterly, but we would intersect and follow it again before entering the Allegheny National Forest in another 10 days or so. We followed the gentle pathway of the Armstrong for 45 miles before private property considerations forced us to detour along roads for a day of hilly hiking.
We rejoined the level grade, and, near Franklin, PA, intersected the Allegheny River and Samuel Justus Rail Trails, the former nearing completion and the latter a completed hiking and biking trail along the rail grade. A week of hiking on nice level rail grade along the Allegheny River was refreshing after the hills of Ohio. The tunnels along this stretch were especially interesting, and a highlight of the day, just as the covered bridges had been in Ohio. Here, on a Saturday morning, we met David Howes, president of the Allegheny Valley Trails Association, the primary force in developing both trails now in existence, and the future route of the North Country Trail through this area.
A walk through the streets of Oil City brought us to another paved hiking and biking trail along Oil Creek through a state park of the same name which preserved the historical remnants of the 1860 Pennsylvania oil boom days. The 10 miles from the Petroleum Center to the Drake Well Museum traced with historical signs the development of Pennsylvania's oil industry as it led us through a beautiful gorge.
From the end of this series of rail trails, we hiked along paved highways with the incessant roar of 18-wheeler tanker trucks to the boundary of Cook Forest State Park and a junction with the Baker Trail at a closed bridge crossing the Clarion River.
The old growth timber which had escaped the loggers' saws for a century and the cool streams of the Cook Forest were a pleasant relief from the bone-jarring pavement of the last two days. Another few miles of connector trails and we gained the boundary of the Allegheny National Forest.
Through the National Forest we meandered along ancient grades, passing skeletons from Pennsylvania's oil boom days, logging areas of a by-gone era, splendid stands of virgin timber (including a 1 1/4 square mile area touted as the largest stand of virgin timber in the eastern United States), creek beds strewn with square boulders the size of two-story houses, and miles and miles of rusting iron pipes. Although threatening skies followed us all through this section, showers were generally brief during daylight hours and temperatures were delightfully warm. As we approached the northeast boundary of the Forest some 50 days from our Cincinnati start, we hiked side hill trails along the eastern shore of Allegheny Reservoir.The Finger Lakes Trail and the Empire State
We topped a ridge to enter New York's Allegany (the spelling in New York is different) State Park and began following the Finger Lakes Trail which would be our route through much of the Empire State. The whole complexion of our North Country Trail route changed as we crossed the Allegheny River for the last time on an abandoned road bridge and began following the many superfluous freshly painted white blazes, often only a matter of feet apart. The nicely contoured side trails of Pennsylvania's Allegheny National Forest gave way to trails climbing five and six hundred feet straight up from creek crossings, called runs, to ridge tops and plunging down again, often with little treadway. The Finger Lakes Trail, it appeared, was about to exact a far greater toll on our bodies than had the Buckeye Trail of Ohio or the Allegheny Mountains of Pennsylvania. However, with just shy of two months' "breaking in" on those trails, we felt up to New York's challenge.
We passed through a succession of small state forests, climbing to ridgetops and then plunging into deep ravines only to climb yet another ridge. Clearings along the way offered spectacular panoramas of the forested lands through which we were passing.
The state forest sections, which we shared with spring turkey hunters, were connected by short jaunts on rural roads, sometimes little more than dirt tracks. Soggy areas were chewed up by all-terrain vehicle use. Where our route crossed private lands, we were sometimes approached by inquisitive landowners and orally reminded that the trail crossed their lands at the landowners pleasure and if we were caught building a fire future hikers would have to find an alternate route.
As we approached the Genesee River Valley the trail relented of its constant ups and downs as public lands diminished and we walked along edges of farm fields across the rolling hills. We took a half day off to tour Letchworth State Park and view the Genesee River gorge with its impressive railroad trestle and waterfalls. It was well worth the extra time. Across the Genesee River the hills and "runs" resumed, though somewhat subdued; and our trek alternated between farm fields and small tracts of state forest lands - seldom over 2000 acres in size.
Cherry blossoms, bluets and trillium heralded the advent of spring as thunder and lighting, dark clouds and occasional cloud bursts, were our frequent companions for an hour or so each day, affording temporary relief from the gnats which flew in hordes around face and eyes whenever the sun streamed through the trees just beginning their annual growth. Clearings at the tops of hills, especially in the Hornell area, provided views of the checkerboard pattern of farm fields and forested tract. Two months after leaving Cincinnati we treated ourselves to steaks and the "Grand Buffet" at the Ponderosa in Hornell.
On the 63rd day of our trek, we met our first backpacker - a lad from Connecticut who was doing the Finger Lakes Trail - with car and moped "'cause he didn't like camping alone" and keeping notes for a book he hoped to put together on all the major hiking trails in the northeast from Maine to Maryland.
The following day we gained our first view of one of the Finger Lakes from a hillside southeast of Hammondsport. Then we turned south and literally wiggled through some more small parcels of state forest land.
At Sugar Hill State Forest we joined horse trails, and the trees sprouted multi-colored blazes of various shapes. There had obviously been a very recent "trail ride" to which paper plates with arrows drawn on them testified. A rainy couple of weeks combined with summer-like temperatures worked to revive dormant bugs, and the combination of mud, muck and countless insects combined for a memorable, if not pleasurable, weekend sojourn through the Sugar Hill en route to Watkins Glen and another of New York's famous Finger Lakes. Bug nets became a part of our daily attire - giving an aura of outer space aliens to our appearance.
A "connector" trail allowed us to travel down the beautiful and exciting gorge at Watkins Glen State Park photographing waterfalls and stone bridges as we went. We then detoured to Montour Falls via an old barge tow path and then hiked along the beach of our second Finger Lake - Seneca Lake. We climbed a side hill along the edge of some of New York's famous vineyards. Finally we reached New York's only, and one of the nation's smallest and newest national forests, the Finger Lakes National Forest, which we traversed for a whole two miles. Then, back to the usual pattern of private lands and public road connectors between small parcels of state forest lands. Occasionally we joined short stretches of muddy, chewed up horse trails, but we did retir e our bug nets for a while thanks to an un-seasonable cold spell - but with it came rain and snow!
We missed the third Finger Lake entirely, going south of Ithaca through R. H. Treman State Park and south of Buttermilk Falls State Park. We made up for this by having a visitor each of four nights - an old hiking buddy of Ed's who now lives in Ithaca - and he either took us to dinner or brought the makings for "a-better-than-backpackers-fare" dinner! Pizza, barbeque ribs, and steaks were a change from mac and cheese and Liptons which we usually consumed. It was a welcome change from our rather drab fare, and a new voice around the evening Coleman Stove was a real relief. The fact that he was working 8-10 hours a day and took the time to come and be with us each day meant a lot. The culinary delights he supplied were an extra bonus.
Near the Toughnioga River one Sunday morning we were passed by a succession of fast-moving individuals as we found ourselves in the midst of a Finger Lakes Running Club's Mountain Marathon, complete with aid stations. The last three days had been increasingly warm with the trees leafing out, May-apples spurting growth, wild flowers adding color, and increasing music from the bird population.
East of Syracuse the ridges traversed by the Finger Lakes Trail got appreciably higher and the trail itself steeper. Just short of the Cortland-Chenango county line we departed the white-blazed main trail which continues southeast towards its terminus in the Catskill Mountains, and followed the orange-blazed Onondaga Trail northward toward the edge of the Allegheny Plateau. A short road walk from the end of this spur trail brought us to the Old Erie Canal, our route across the upper reaches of the Mohawk and Lehigh valleys. From the end of the Old Erie another road-walk would lead us into the start of another famed New York natural feature - The Adirondacks. We were 1400 trail miles east of our Cincinnati starting point as Memorial Day and the official "opening" of the summer tourist season approached.
At the northern end of the Onondaga Trail which led past the beautiful Tinker Falls, we ended over 500 miles of continuously marked, blazed trail route which had led us through the Allegheny National Forest and around the south end of the Finger Lakes region of New York state. Now we shed our wet and cumbersome hiking boots, and donned lightweight sneakers to begin a 150 mile combined road walk and canal towpath route which would take us deep within New York's Adirondack Park.
The Old Erie Canal towpath provided relief from the constant ridge climbing we had been doing for much of the Finger Lakes Trail. A long, warm afternoon was spent in Rome resupplying and purchasing a replacement camera. We then hiked to Delta Lake State Park on a reservoir built to supply water to the "New" Erie Barge Canal which is still in operation.
Then, just south of Pixley Park, we joined the Black River Canal towpath (now a cross country ski trail) and hiked past 32 locks in 12 miles on the abandoned canal touted to have the most locks of any canal in the world. From the Mohawk Valley to the Black River this canal and one of its "feeder" canals was our route to State Highway 28 which we would follow to the famed Northville-Lake Placid Trail in the Adirondacks.
Our timing seemed to be perfect. Our road walk into the Adirondack Forest Preserve was on the first really warm weekend there - Memorial Day weekend. What might sometimes be referred to as a rustic woods road into the wilderness was for us bumper-to-bumper traffic. The peaceful tranquillity of a winter season in the Adirondacks had been destroyed by the traffic of the first big weekend of the summer season.
As if in protest to the intrusion we were mobbed by swarms of black flies beyond anything any of us had experienced. With travel trailers, boat haulers, fifth wheelers, and deluxe motor homes streaming by, we trudged along, sweltering under long-sleeved shirts, pants tucked in our socks and sporting ridiculous-looking green headnets to keep the black flies a few inches from their seemingly sole goal in life - our skin!
Medical problems resulted in a drastic change in plans and strategies as we approached the Northville-Lake Placid Trail in the Adirondacks. Sue and Gordon, along with the support van, had to make an unexpected three-week sojourn to Missouri. Ed continued alone, completing the Northville-Lake Placid Trail hefting his backpack; and then road walked to the Vermont line at Crown Point, New York, the eastern terminus of the North Country Trail route. A few days respite and an Amtrak ride and he was back on the blue-blazed Buckeye Trail heading north from Cincinnati along the Miami and Erie Canal. A record-setting heat wave finally forced him to abandon the Buckeye Trail route at Yellow Springs where the route leaves the canal and follows roads. He skipped north into Michigan, visiting friends, having a couple of hiking partners through a 90-mile section of the shady Manistee National Forest.Back Together in Michigan
Ed then returned to northern Ohio, and still with backpack and no support van, headed south along a grassy and sometimes overgrown canal towpath paralleling Ohio's western border. Dilly-dallying some to connect again with Sue and I returning from our medical trip to Missouri, he spent several nights in air-conditioned motels seeking relief from continued June heat in Ohio and protection from some severe storms accompanying the heat -- and enjoying his favorite pastime: watching baseball. We all arrived at the planned meeting place -- Yellow Springs, Ohio -- within an hour of one another.
After a few hours drive north, and an evening of conversation, we were ready, on the morning of July 6, to being hiking as a team once again, with North Dakota as our ultimate goal.
Three momentous occurrences took place that first day we were all back together. From Napoleon we struck north leaving the blue-blazed Buckeye Trail for the last time. We would be on roads through most of the southern portion of the lower peninsula of Michigan. Hiking 17 miles that day, Sue noticed no pain in her legs -- a circumstance which hadn't occurred in more than 15 years! It seemed that multiple blood transfusions during her medical sortie in Missouri had increased the oxygen supply to her muscles and suddenly hiking was truly effortless. The term "blood doping" had just taken on a whole new meaning!
By noon of that first day back together (by our best calculations) Ed had surpassed the 2,000 mile mark on his sojourn for the summer. It was only the first week in July and he had already hiked the length of a long distance trail -- but he still had that much and more yet to go!
Finally, on that first hot, muggy day back together, as the sun was setting, we crossed out of the state of Ohio for the last time, and set up out tent in Wolverine country -- Michigan. This was home for Sue and I, as we were raised in Michigan. It was also home for Mac, Sue's Leader Dog who had been raised and trained here thirteen years ago, making him three years beyond the normal retirement age of working dogs, and, we were sure, thousands of miles ahead of most, too.
The five-mile Baw Beese Trail from Osseo to Hillsdale turned out to be only a mile and a half of trail with the remainder on a park road. The M-99 bikeway was little more than a paved sidewalk along a much-too-busy state highway. Other than that, the next two days were spent walking along paved highways in our quest for Battle Creek and the "greenway" which supposedly ran through it. We did enjoy the visit of a brother and sister-in-law with accompanying pizza, coke, and new T-shirts and conversation.
A cold front arrived before we got to Battle Creek and ended the oppressive heat and humidity of several weeks. The "linear park" along the Battle Creek and Kalamazoo Rivers proved to be an exquisite trail experience with almost no sense of passing through an urban area, with the exception of a couple of blocks in the downtown area that were a bit confusing.
At Augusta, between Battle Creek and Kalamazoo, we chose once again to leave the proposed NCT high potential corridor. Instead, we hiked the thirty-three mile Kal-Haven Bikeway along an abandoned rail line between Kalamazoo and South Haven. While adding fifty-six miles to our overall hike, we hoped it would give us an opportunity to hike along the shoreline of Lake Michigan. However, the Lake Michigan shoreline proved to be mostly private land and generally not even visible from the road. We were able to get down to the water's edge at one public beach and later walked along one short stretch of road along bluffs overlooking the great lake, including a washed-out area we had to scramble around.
The lengthy road walk around the Grand Rapids suburbs to Rockford included generally too much traffic and too little shade, interspersed with an occasional rustic road. A friend of mine from Grand Rapids did visit us along here providing a short respite in the monotony of highway walking.
In Rockport we joined the abandoned Michigan Northern Rail Line for a seven-mile off-road hike to Cedar Springs. This rail trail is presently under development and will eventually link up with the present Kent County Bicycle Trail which begins in Byron Center and will provide a non-motorized north-south route through the entire Grand Rapids metropolitan area. Another day of road walking and we arrived at the marked trailhead of the Rogue River State Game Area.
The first six miles of cut trail were a pleasant relief from days of road walking, though the first mile did show signs of abuse by prohibited ATV use. The last mile of the trail presented a problem -- it didn't exist!! We had to cross-country to a road and walk around the northern perimeter of the game lands to where the trail was supposed to terminate. Sure enough, there was the blue-star logo signifying a certified segment of the North Country National Scenic Trail -- but not a trace of treadway leading back through the field of stinging nettle immediately behind the trail emblem.
It was only a matter of a day's hike from here to the Manistee National Forest and on to an unceremoniously marked trailhead for the White Cloud segment of the trail. Form here, there was primarily cut trail for the next 120 miles. However, we only hiked about 20 miles of it, as this was the section of trail that Ed had hiked with friends while Sue and I were in Missouri in June.
Though Sue and I were originally Michiganders and had, years before, hiked in many areas of the state we were surprised by the number and size of ferns we saw here, and these were only a hint of what was to come as we traveled north. In an hour and a half we drove five days worth of hiking ahead, to the area just west of Mesick. Here, my wife Linda joined us for a few weeks. She's not as outdoors a person as the rest of us, but certainly bolstered my morale!
A succession of country roads interspersed with Michigan Department of Natural Resources "Pathways" led us through the mosquito-infested Fife Lake State Forest and to a southern branch of Michigan's famed Shore-to-Shore Riding-Hiking Trail, which crosses Michigan's lower peninsula.
We followed the Shore-to-Shore Trail for about thirty miles through the Pere Marquette State Forest and into the Sable State Forest, then split away on a spur trail to the north, in the Mackinaw State Forest. A former fellow teacher of Sue's, and her husband joined us for a night at a Forest Service Campground providing some new conversation and, of course, improved diet! A road walk from here to just east of the Spring Brook Pathway led us once again to newly constructed trail. We enjoyed an evening with friends of Sue who lived near the trail, and enjoyed backyard hotdogs in a family setting.
We passed Arden Johnson, the Michigan coordinator of the NCT, who, with a single volunteer was painting blue blazes on the newest section of trail through a pine plantation just south of Petoskey. Eventually, the NCT route will lead through Petoskey and parallel the shoreline of Lake Michigan to Wilderness State Park near Mackinaw City. In the meantime, one must improvise. We chose a road walk to Alanson and then followed an abandoned rail grade, now a bicycle trail, to Mackinaw City.
At Mackinaw City, we took a day to hike the connector trail into Wilderness State Park, west of town. The trail, marked by blue ribbons, appeared never to have been cleared; but as soon as we reached established trail within the State Park the trails were clear and enjoyable to follow. We hiked about two-thirds of the NCT route within Wilderness State Park, but the access trail at the southern boundary apparently had not been completed so we did not see that part of the park.
Pedestrians are prohibited on the five-mile long Mackinaw Bridge which connects the two peninsulas of Michigan, so we took the ferry to historic Mackinac Island (our nation's second National Park, though now only a State Park) and hiked the eight-mile Perimeter Trail around the island. A friend of Sue's joined her and Ed, while Linda and I played tourists, and enjoyed the island from horse-drawn carriages.
We then took another ferry to St. Ignace on Michigan's Upper Peninsula. We had already made plans to join some 70,000 others on the annual Labor Day "Big Mac" walk across the bridge -- this is the only time pedestrians are allowed to walk the bridge. It would be a fitting finale to our NCT hike in Michigan and would allow us to say we had hiked every step of the way, an important concept for a thru-hiker.
A block from the ferry dock we found the beginning of an abandoned rail grade which would lead us to the North Country Trail trailhead in the Hiawatha National Forest. Linda left here, returning to the comforts of a home in Alabama. We continued on, though I was noticeably lonelier. Once we were within the National Forest we were again on cut trail, though at times confusing with all of the junctions of snowmobile and cross-country ski trails, of which the NCT was one of many. We crossed Michigan's Upper Peninsula, south to north, passing Brevoort, East and Soldier Lakes (to name a few), and crossing the Carp, Pine, Biscuit and Naomikong Rivers in quick succession.
The effects of Lake Superior were immediately noticeable as we crossed the divide between it and Lake Michigan to the south. Temperatures dropped measurably and lush, big blueberries appeared! Even Ed, who often compared things unfavorably with the magnificence "back east" had to admit that these were the biggest, most plentiful blueberries he had ever seen -- and they continued for days and days! The ferns here were gigantic, also, and we walked through waist high fields of them.
Before leaving the eastern unit of the Hiawatha National Forest, we arrived at the shoreline of Lake Superior at Whitefish Bay. The wind was blowing, the waves roaring, the surf pounding. It was an impressive introduction to the largest of the Great Lakes. There was no dispute about where to camp this night! It took all three of us to set up the tent in Superior's wind, but our lullaby that night was the waves on a sandy beach.
After leaving the eastern unit of the Hiawatha National Forest, we followed a state highway a short distance to the Tahquamenon River and then followed a state park trail to the falls for which the state park was named. The "claim to fame" of Tahquamenon Falls (there are really three major falls) is that they are second only to Niagara Falls in volume of water! It is easy to understand the volume of water that runs over Niagara Falls when you consider that the water of four of the five great lakes rolls over them. It is not as easy to understand where the water comes from to put Tahquamenon in the same category as Niagara! An evening walk between Lower and Upper Falls turned into a late night hike when insecure footing and too many roots made it difficult for a blind lady to negotiate gracefully.
After leaving the state park, several unsuccessful forages on marked trail routes in the Superior State Forest was indicitive of what Michigan's upper peninsula had in store for us. Overgrown trails and inadequately marked junctions with cross-country ski, snowmobile and motorcycle trails were two of the obstacles with which we had to content. We were disappointed each time we were forced to leave our intended route and find an alternate knowing that we were missing an area which may well be the established trail one day.
We wound up walking mostly roads to the shore line of Lake Superior in the vicinity of Muskallonge Lake State Park. We followed the NCT route on trail from here, crossing the Blind Sucker River on logs. Beyond the river, we were following a long unused and unmaintained trail, and finally we abandoned the trail and dropped to the shoreline of the now-tranquil Lake Superior and followed it.
At the City Campground in Grand Marais, we joined the shoreline trail once again, and felt the influence of the National Park Service as we headed into Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. We passed Au Sable Falls and the impressive Au Sable dunes on immaculate trail; shared with day-hikers galore, Boy Scout troops and summer camp groups on five-day treks through the National Lakeshore. While this area of Lake Superior is known for its rocks, the sand dunes here are equally impressive and our trail provided excellent access.
Three days and 44 miles of impeccable Shoreline Trail later we were in Munising having passed the fabled rocks, listened to blaring tour-boat descriptions of shipwrecks, walked stretches of sandy beaches and hiked high atop bluffs overlooking Lake Superior.
Five months had elapsed since the beginning of our trek down near Cincinnati and Ed had completed 2600 miles (perhaps a little more if you take our word for actual mileage), excluding wrong turns, backtracking and other non-progressing forages along the way. Still, unbelievably, we were only one day behind the projected schedule we had prepared the preceding winter. We knew that the Ottawa National Forest and Porcupine Mountain State Park lay ahead of us yet, and we had heard reports that they would be slow going. So, we were getting concerned with how slow Michigan's upper peninsula seemed to be going, but overall it appeared we were progressing very smoothly.
From Munising we followed a signed NCT connector route along highways south past Wagner Falls Scenic Area to an unobtrusive trailhead in the western unit of the Hiawatha National Forest. After three hours of trying to follow treadway through overgrown ferns, five-year-old saplings and innumerable raspberry patches, we abandoned the certified NCT route along an active rail line for the nearby state highway. Soon, we were trekking westward, accompanied by autos, trucks, and RVs on the "Great Circle Route", following the Lake Superior Shoreline, but this time with pavement under foot and the conveniences (and annoyances) of civilization along the way.
We paused briefly at the village of Christmas for novelty pictures, and then went a ways down a side road in the Bay de Noc State Forest to set up camp for the night. By the time we reached Marquette and followed a bike path into town, we were mesmerized by the sound of vehicles whizzing by on the adjacent US Highway. The floral displays along sidewalks and in front of buildings in this community were outstanding.
We took a few hours in Marquette for a nostalgic look around the Northern Michigan University campus. Sue had attended Northern her first two years of college. She was surprised at how radically it had changed in thirty years. The US Olympic Center for Education, on the campus, was really impressive and totally changed the University's "small college" atmosphere which had been its major attribute to Sue three decades earlier.
Ed called the local trail coordinator for an update on trail conditions north of Marquette, where the NCT route will someday connect wilderness areas of the Escanaba State Forest with those of the Ottawa National Forest. Work on this link was progressing, but not completed, so we were forced to continue along our temporary paved route in lieu of bushwhacking in uncertain areas with inadequate maps and directions. We were disappointed that we would miss these wilderness areas, but on a through hike the time involved in searching out a route sometimes cannot be spared.
We passed through the Finnish communities of Negaunee and Ishpeming, whose very names conjured up views of Scandinavia and Lapland from textbooks of long ago. We partook of the local flavor, enjoying pasties at every shop along the highway here. We left the by-now sickening traffic on US-41 near Humboldt for a rail trail from a lightly used country road to the trailhead in the Michigamme State Forest and once again joined the "official" NCT route.
Across the road from the trailhead, we followed new and excellently constructed treadway through the Craig Lake State Park -- a wilderness state park accessible only by one very rocky unimproved road. The trail markings continued west from Craig Lake, but we lacked information on what, if anything, the trail did between Teddy Lake, within the State Park, and the boundary of the Ottawa National Forest. We decided to play it safe, and returned once again to the highway. As always, it was disappointing to have to leave a route which we were sure would someday be the official route, but this was not the country or time of year we wanted to get lost.
Near Covington, we turned north and joined a Wisconsin Power Company trail to the Sturgeon River and then followed a cut, but overgrown, trail through the Copper Country State Forest to a little-used but well-maintained trail in the Ottawa National Forest. We skirted the eastern and northern boundaries of the Sturgeon River Gorge Wilderness, crossed over a divide between the Sturgeon and Ontanagon River drainages and began undulating across the many branches of the latter, sometimes on suspension foot bridges, others on road bridges, and still others by fording.
The many creeklets flowing into these branches were home to countless beavers, and walking across beaver dams quickly became almost second nature to us. Bog bridges placed across many of the swampy areas did little to keep our feet dry, but did help us to follow the trail.
Near Victoria Reservoir. it was necessary to leave the trail and walk along the highway again to get around private property where a right of way hadn't yet been negotiated. A Sierra Club group was in the area to construct trail and we were informed by locals that a bridge had been built below the dam, but the trail itself was still in the process of being put "on the ground".
We followed a one-lane dirt road which paralleled the route the trail would eventually take and finally rejoined the NCT route. The difference in trail maintenance between the Victoria and Bergland Districts of the Ottawa National Forest was immediately evident -- the former having cleared the trail recently, while the latter apparently had not been done for at least a year or more. Still, the treadway was easily discernible and the blue plastic diamonds nailed to the trees assured us that we were on the correct trail.
Stretches of relatively flat, soggy trail were interspersed with steep ups and downs as we progressed through the Trap Hills towards Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park and the Lake Superior shoreline once again. The third week of August was upon us and frost had already teased the hardwoods through which we hiked, and individual limbs here and there, and some bushes, showed a burst of flagrant color -- a hint of what was to come. It was an early reminder that winter was on its way, and we needed to keep pushing if we expected to beat it to North Dakota!
A short stretch of Park road along the south boundary of the state park and then towards Summit Peak brought us to the trailhead for Lily Pond. The park is dotted with rental cabins accessible via one to three mile foot trails. Popular for this reason, as well as for day-hiking and backpacking, the trails were in excellent condition and well signed at every possible junction. From Lily pond we continued down the Carp River to the Lake Superior shoreline and paralleled it to the Presque Isle River and the most western unit of the State Park.
The walk up the Presque Isle River rewarded the hiker with the gurgling sound and picturesque sight of a series of falls and rapids over which the river made its way to Lake Superior. Little did we realize at that time that this was just a hint of our next day's journey. It was a three-mile road walk from the Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park South Boundary Road to the NCT route to Black River Harbor. A two-lane track led from there to the Black River and the most impressive falls, cascades and rapids of the entire trip.
Perhaps lacking the volume of Tahquamenon and the height of Multnomah (in Oregon), the intricacies of the multifaceted falls, the diversity of the rocks and the excellent viewing points constructed by the Ottawa National Forest made the five and a half mile trek along the Black River a memorable excursion. The most avid waterfalls fan would quickly put this cascading waterway near the top of any list of waterfalls areas visited. The five hundred plus wooden steps and miles of boardwalk here were truly worth it. This was definitely a highlight of our NCT sojourn.
After twelve miles of paved road walk we crossed the unimpressive Ottawa River. After a month and twenty days, and about a thousand miles of roaming the length and breadth of the state of Michigan, we crossed into Wisconsin.
Wandering across Wisconsin
Some additional road walking led us to trail in Copper Falls State Park at the edge of the Chequamegon National Forest. The trail in Copper Falls State Park proved to be totally unconnected with anything north of the park so we wound up doing a delightful seven-mile spur trail with several impressive falls on it -- but not appreciated fully after the spectacular ones of the Black River.
Two miles west of Mullen, WI, we reached a trailhead in the Chequamegon National Forest and commenced the sixty-mile National Forest Trail that was the "original" North Country Trail, and from which the long distance trail we were following took its name. It was here, in the Chequamegon National Forest, that we would surpass the three thousand mile mark on our progressive data calculations, and we had no idea how many more miles on forays looking for lost trails, good food, missing gear, erroneously parked van and the myriad of other sorties that one inevitably makes in a five-month journey along a trail which isn't completed and lacks definitive guide books.
We hiked along cut trail, variously blazed with orange, white, or more often yellow metal diamonds nailed to trees. These were much more visible, especially in the darker spruce forests, than the blue diamonds which were supposed to eventually be the standard marker for the while North Country Trail.
The route along the northern boundary of the National Forest was indeed the picture most likely to be conjured up when the words "North Country" are spoken. Spruce and hardwoods, with ample white birch and aspen mixed in, made up the forest. Small lakes and ponds dotted the woods.
The two wildernesses along the route in the Chequamegon National Forest, Porcupine Lake and Rainbow Lake, were as different as night and day; the first with rolling hills and rock outcroppings, the latter flat as could be, and dotted with numerous lakes. In both, the forest canopy was unbroken and the mystique which is the "north country" was in one's mind. "Designated wilderness area" mingled to make the two comparatively small sections of trail really something special and worthy of the status they enjoyed.
At the road to Iron River we left the original North Country Trail at the Chequamegon National Forest boundary and the proposed NCNST high potential corridor to follow a rail trail toward Duluth. The high potential corridor proceeds from the National Forest to the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway and then north to Jay Cooke State Park on the southern edge of Duluth. Originally, it was planned to cross the Savannah Portage west of Jay Cooke and on to the Chippewa National Forest. Recent changes have brought the proposed trail more in line with the route we took.
The rail trail we followed to Seymour, though open to motor vehicles, was absent any during our traverse, and it was an enjoyable walk along a level, dry footway with a hint of fall in the sporadic flashes of individual trees changing color. The walk through Superior's historic district gave us an opportunity to indulge in every hiker's fantasy -- FOOD!
Minnesota -- with falling leaves
At the Bong Bridge, we crossed into Minnesota. It was a bridge to be admired and savored. A curving highway bridge with attached walkway, it is of unique architectural design and a fitting introduction to Duluth's waterfront hike and bikeway which whisked us through Duluth -- over and under interstates and businesses to the north edge of town without so much as a single traffic light. The old highway, now called Lakeshore Drive, provided a scenic alternative to the State Highway, though still quite busy on the Friday before Labor Day. We made it to Two Harbors near the beginning of the Superior Hiking Trail and called "time out" for nine days. On Labor Day, we joined 70,000 other walkers at the north end of the Mackinac Bridge connecting Michigan's two peninsulas, and arrived at the southern end of the bridge, officially finishing Michigan and behind some 21,000 other according to the numbers on our certificates. Then it was off to Isle Royal, our nation's only island national park, in Lake Superior, for five days of leisurely hiking on well-maintained trail where we saw five moose.
Our return to Duluth was accompanied by a couple days of rain, but we persisted and hiked a rail trail south of Duluth before returning to Two Harbors to begin where we had left off nine days earlier. We hiked along the highway to the present southern terminus of the Superior Hiking Trail, a 175 mile route paralleling the north shore of Lake Superior, usually a couple of miles inland.
The fall color, so evident now in Michigan's upper peninsula, generally had not yet arrived on the "North Shore", though occasional bursts of red and scarlet on the maples and yellows and golds of the birches reminded us that the September days with near 80's couldn't last. We were following a well built and maintained serious backpacking trail. Unlike most of the "cut" trail we had traversed in the first 3000 miles and five and a half months, the quality of maintenance on the Superior Hiking Trail was consistently tops! As we crossed Canadian Shield rock, wound along river gorges with exciting waterfalls, looked out across shimmering Lake Superior from atop 1000 foot bluffs and from highway bridges and historical lighthouses at the water's edge, autumn set in with a full array of colors. The dark greens of spruce and pines mingled with the lighter green of lower elevation birches not yet ready to turn color. As we climbed from river gorges a kaleidoscope of yellows, browns, reds and scarlets of birches and maples turning quicker at higher elevations greeted us. Bog bridges and corduroy pathways lined the three-foot swath of the the trail where necessary, reminding us of the amount of work which had been done to construct and maintain this footpath.
Mid-September found us following an array of pink ribbons and reflective "tubes" marking the route of a 100-mile mountain run the preceding weekend. Bright reflective pink arrows painted on rocks and pavement and along rock cliffs were telltale evidence of another type of trail user who rushed over roots and down steep embankments with a form and agility we couldn't even imagine. Occasional broken split-log plans across creeks and misplaced rock steps told of the wear and tear sixty mountain runner inflict even on a well-built footway. As we laboriously chugged up steep inclines and gingerly descended almost vertical walls into gorges, we could only wonder at how they could run on this terrain. Running it, to us, was pure lunacy! Yet, the pink ribbons tied to the tree limbs were mute testimony that at least the forty who completed the "run" were, in fact, lunatic!
Rain -- in two and three day sieges -- beset us, but the intervening days remained in the seventies, and night-time temperatures, even the last week of September in northern Minnesota, were often still in the low fifties! With each period of rain more and more sections of the trail became strewn with yellows, browns and reds of fallen leaves often right between tunnels of green where trees had not yet changed color. The birches here were amazing -- giants two and two and a half feet in diameter, often growing in clumps of four to eight, bark peeling off like curled leaves of paper.
In the Grand Portage State Forest, just beyond the Judge C.R. Magney State Park we left the Superior Hiking Trail route and continued along the coastal highway into the Grand Portage Indian Reservation and to the Grand Portage National Monument. There, we followed the trail of the 19th century French fur traders to the Canadian border. We then backtracked to the old highway and soon followed a two-rut road used as a cross-country ski trail to connect with the Border Route Trail which would lead us into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. Dissension between the Grand Portage Indian Reservation, the National Park Service and the Rovers Outing Club had apparently resulted in closure of an identified route between the Grand Portage Trail and the Canoe Area Wilderness. Though no signs on the ground indicated the closure, the route was obviously unmaintained at all of the access points we checked.
Now that we were at higher elevations and away from the effect of Lake Superior there was a noticable lack of reds and scarlets in the trees. The more subdued yellows blended into the various shades of green as the forests became more conifers.
The Border Route Trail (historically used by the French Voyageurs), we had been told was an unmaintained trail with lots of windfalls. Evidently someone knew we were coming because all the windfalls had recently been cut. Though the tread was overgrown, especially in areas with ferns, the trail was generally followable through forests of cedars and pines, except for the first fifteen miles which were outside the boundary of the wilderness. Maps and a guidebook for the Border Route, which we had, were certainly helpful at junctions and in the vicinity of the Gunflint Trail where intersecting ski trails could be confusing. There weren't the views as boasted in the writeups, but the historical aspect of the trail and the aura of being in a famous wilderness added significantly to the trail experience.
The Kekebabic Trail, which traverses the western section of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness cut a straight swath through colorful birches, aspens and hardwoods towards Ely on an obviously maintained footway contrary to reports fueled by out-of-date Forest Service information. The first portion was slow going, with lots of ups and downs; but the western half was flat and easy going. The weather, now in the first week of October, was holding good with daytime temperatures, even here on the Minnesota-Canadian border, staying in the fifties. We had frost only two nights in the last half of September!
We walked along Fernberg Road, away from the wilderness, past the International Wolf Center and into the canoe-outfitting community of Ely. We had hopes to follow the Taconite Snowmobile Trail from Ely to Grand Rapids but were informed that its track through large swampy areas made it generally unsuitable for foot travel (though we later learned that alternate routes for foot travel are marked and available). The Rails-To-Trails Conservancy and the Minnesota interests, we understand, are presently negotiating for an abandoned rail grade between Ely and Grand Rapids which will hopefully, one day, be the trail route. Rather than hazard its rough ballast and any property rights which may still be unresolved, we chose to follow public roads through Embarrass, Iron Mountain, Hibbing, and on towards Grand Rapids, crossing the world's largest deposit of iron ore en route. The Iron Range Reclamation and Rehabilitation Board has evidently done an excellent job of covering the scars of open-pit mining, at least along the roads, and signs proclaiming their tree plantings, as well as their cooperative efforts on recreational facilities, were conspicuous at several points. The yellows and golds of poplars, aspens and larches, intermingled occasionally with reds of a maple or a scarlet understory of sumac were set against a backdrop of the greens of cedars, spruce and other pines -- a kaleidoscope of color to divert our attention from the monotony of roadwalking. The second week of October brought freezing nights and gray, cloudy days as if to confirm what the trees had been telling us for a month -- the seasons were changing. Another sure sign was the shorter days which made it harder to maintain the daily mileage that 16 to 18 hours of daylight most of the summer had permitted. Additionally, Saturday afternoons at a bar with large-screen TV to watch collegiate football contributed to our dwindling daily averages. Still, we treaded on, always with North Dakota on our mind.
Out of Hibbing we altered our intended route slightly, and passed instead south of Grand Rapids, and rejoined the NCT route as we entered the Chippewa National Forest. The cut trail, mowed four to five feet wide, felt like an expressway compared to the other sections of cut trail we had followed. Sunshine and fifty degree days followed us through the forest as we threaded our way through some of Minnesota's 10,000 lakes walking on the wide, leaf-covered treadway.
Our last day in the Chippewa, as if in response to the Michigan loss to Penn State, the rains set in. We hoped this was not a prelude to the onslaught of winter though the locals kept telling us that snow on the ground was a fifty-fifty proposition for Halloween, and that notorious day was looming. Thirty inches of the white stuff had laden the ground on Halloween just a few years ago, we were often told. Still, with undaunted optimism, we took a few days off from out westward route to hike a portion of the Soo Line, a rail-trail which intersects the NCT route in the Chippewa.
A week later, after a couple of unexpected medical consultations and with Ed contemplating an elective "surgery", we set out once again in a westerly direction under gray, drizzly skies on the paved Heartland rail trail towards Park Rapids. We veered north along a county road. Then, as we followed a one lane dirt road, the rain changed to flurries, leaving a white dusting on grassy areas as we approached Itasca State Park and our next section of certified route.
The northwest winds which accompanied our change in weather was just a taste of what, we were told, we could expect in North Dakota in November, "Where even the telephone poles bent with the winds!" We donned a few more layers, thankful to be rid of the bugs and flies which had sporadically plagued us during the warmer days and even into October!
The Itasca State Park trail was recently signed with new NCT logos along the typical Minnesota wide-mowed pathway which served as a groomed cross-country ski trail in the winter, and weaved between numerous small lakes for which Minnesota is noted, and through mammoth red and white pines. We took a brief detour from the certified route to see the headwaters of the Mississippi River at the outlet of Lake Itasca, where the Mississippi, like any good trail, begins its journey south to the Gulf of Mexico by heading north toward Bemidji. The western half of the certified NCT route in the park followed newly built treadway.
The Bad Medicine Trail west of the park which we had hoped to pursue proved too difficult to follow, though pink ribbons indicated that it was being worked on. As a result, we decided to follow county roads through the White Earth Indian Reservation and onward to the Tamarac National Wildlife Refuge. We shared the woods here with Indian deer hunters whose hunting season was two weeks before the general Minnesota hunting population would be loosed on the forest. We stayed on refuge roads and followed an auto tour route through the refuge winding through some more of Minnesota's 10,000 lakes and learning that tamarack and larch trees are apparently one and the same -- the only pine trees that change colors and drop their needles in the fall. As we followed farm roads between the refuge and Maplewood State Park we felt the great plains approaching as wooded areas became more sparse and farms and their fields more expansive.
Our hopes of walking through Maplewood were dashed as roads and trails all seemed to be loop routes on a small map tacked up on a bulletin board near the front entrance to the park. There were no park officials we could find for further information on that last weekend in October.
We did hike in Maplewood, among a mixture of forests with bare trees and prairie grasslands, passing the 4,000 mile mark in our saga (by our best calculations, including side trails, missed trails, meanderings and whatnot). We had been underway now for seven months and 17 days since starting down near Cincinnati in March. We still had just over 500 miles to go, and hopefully would finish that in 23 more days -- meeting our goal of finishing in time to be home for Thanksgiving. We were eight days behind our original schedule computed some 10 months earlier with maps scattered all over the floor at home; when Tamarack and Maplewood were just dots on one of those. Now, those dots were visions of hunters and prairies, northern lights and honking geese; real places we had walked in!
Racing Winter West through North Dakota
From Maplewood State Park we followed county and state roads to the little community of Kent, on the Red River separating Minnesota from North Dakota. We had cut out a loop through Breckenridge and Wahpeton which the "high potential corridor" of the North Country Trail makes; and entered our final state, instead, in the middle of restored Fort Abercrombie (the road literally goes through the middle of the fort). We were now in farm land; agribusiness was king here. On Halloween, under sunny skies and with the thermometer hovering near the 60 degree mark, tractors, corn pickers and grain trucks were chugging everywhere.
We followed mostly farm roads through neat square cornfields which had already been harvested or were occupied by grain trucks, tractors, and corn pickers -- huge mower-type machines that cut down stalks and all, separating the kernals from all the rest. Our progress was measured by crossroads, evenly spaced one mile apart.
The Sheyenne National Grasslands interrupted this neat checkerboard pattern with a 25 mile stretch of cow pasture along the Sheyenne River. Through the Grasslands we followed posts with plastic blue diamonds nailed on them through fences, one after another. The route went up and down small dune-like hills and through occasional stands of bare trees. "Forest Roads" in the grasslands were little more than two-tracks barely distinguishable from the cattle paths which meandered everywhere. We followed these cattle paths much of the time with grazing cattle often obstructing our view of the next post with a diamond; cowpies were an ever present nuisance in the trail.
We splurged on steaks, crab legs, chops and lots of salad in Lisbon, west of the grasslands, and slapped ourselves on the back for having made it to the final state. A good night's sleep and we were off, following the Sheyenne River north, thankful for being through the grasslands twenty-four hours before the opening of deer-hunting season, but anxious about being out with the hunters for the rest of our trip.
Hunting along the Sheyenne River was different than hunting any of us had ever observed before. The hunters, dressed in blaze orange, came in truckloads, fanned out through the hundred yards or less of woods along the river, and started up river. One hunter walked to road (as we were) ready to shoot anything the hoard of hunters scared up. Time and again we met two or three hunters standing alongside the road advising us that a group were driving deer towards the road from over a bluff or through a cornfield. Soon, a dozen orange dots would appear on the horizon and grow larger as they approached the road.
After the first weekend, the number of hunters we saw dwindled and we continued along farm roads paralleling the twisty Sheyenne River's many "oxbows", often off the surrounding plateau. The Sheyenne River Valley itself was primarily hay fields, huge circular bales laying in long lines through the fields. Occasional herds of feeder cattle grazing along the way reminded us of where all those bales of hay would eventually wind up.
Temperatures continued to be in the fifties in the afternoons, and thirties in the mornings. The shorter days of November meant we were often underway with skies just beginning to lighten up, and evening hikes often lasted until stars were clearly visible. The prairie lands we were passing through afforded spectacular sunrises and sunsets which we walked into or away from mornings and evenings.
We quickly passed through several small game refuges and entered reservation lands of the Lakota and Sioux Indians. We followed small graveled roads through the Reservation, passing Free People's Lake and the Indian villages of Tokio and St. Michaels to Sully's Hill National Game Preserve. The big game part of this preserve which we had hoped to traverse was closed as they were "culling" the herds of buffalo and elk. We had to settle for a hike on the 1.2 mile nature trail with a gorgeous view of a November sunset over Fort Totten State Historical Site viewed across a small preserve lake. The next morning our attempts to visit the Fort, which had served the needs of the local Indians during the last half of the 19th century and as a boarding school during the first half of the 20th century were foiled by locked gates.
From Fort Totten, we headed south off the Reservation and towards now-abandoned irrigation canals which would serve as our route for most of the remainder of our trek. As we passed the eight-month mark on our journey and with less than 200 miles to go, the mild fall weather was predicted to change, and, as we began our trek down the New Rockford irrigation canal, the winds shifted from southeasterly to northwesterly with light rain pelting us in the face.
Our second day on the canal, the sun re-emerged and winter was once again held at bay for us despite the dire predictions to the contrary. The New Rockford and McCluskey Irrigation canals were two of the three planned canals in a grand scheme called the Garrison Diversion Project to provide irrigation for North Dakota wheat farms. There was always a lot of controversy locally over the Bureau of Reclamation project and the middle canal never got started. Finally, after Canada balked because waters flowing into her dominion would necessarily be disturbed, the whole project was scrapped, but not until millions had been spent on acquiring rights of way, hundreds of cement road bridges had been built and over a hundred miles of actual canal excavated.
The New Rockford Canal ended as it had begun -- in the middle of a farm field. It was a long, obviously expensive, ditch from nowhere to nowhere in the middle of the North Dakota plains -- but it provided us with a route westward.
We hiked graveled roads across the Lonetree Wildlife Management Area, where a 26 mile marked trail was to be in place for the NCT next spring, following the swampy, marshy and meandering Shawnee River. Then, in the middle of a field, we met the McCluskey Canal and our final leg to the waters of the Missouri in Audubon Lake and Lake Sakakawea. Our third day in the cuts through the rolling hills that marked the route of the McCluskey Canal, winter, North Dakota style, caught us! We were just five days from our ultimate goal. A few inches of snow whipped by forty-mile-per-hour winds, and we understood what "horizontal snow" meant. With temperatures dropping from the mid-thirties and "wind chills" unbelievable, we decided to get a motel. Friday temperatures were in the teens and the wind had not abated. It was a struggle to walk from the motel to the restaurant next door -- a mere 100 yards. We decided not to give up our motel unit that day, though we did do some hiking with the van very close at hand and used regularly as a warming station. We were too close to the end to stop now. We did abandon the McCluskey Canal route and followed the most direct road route to Garrison Dam, and, beyond it, Lake Sakakawea State Park. The next day, the wind abated considerably and we trudged through cold temperatures stopping regularly at the van for warming spells.
We proceeded through Mercer and on to Turtle Lake. The van delivered us nightly to a motel as nighttime temperatures dropped into the single digits. At Riverdale, on the eastern side of the Garrison Dam, we stayed in an historic Inn and had the pleasure of breakfasting with Shiela Robinson, a historian involved in the Lewis and Clark Trail development in North Dakota. With a wind chill of minus 18, we were interviewed by a reporter from Minot as we began our final day, crossing the Garrison Dam and climbing the hill toward Lake Sakakawea State Park -- and the end.
Park personnel, who had been alerted to our arrival, met us and directed us to the point within the park where the western North Country National Scenic Trailhead will be. We nailed an official NCT logo marker to a post in the parking area and retreated to the warm maintenance building.
We then sat around a pot-bellied wood-burning stove and enjoyed coffee, tea and conversation with the park employees, and talked North Country Trail. The words "Wow", and "I don't believe it," which were repeated often daily along the trail, were again uttered as we relived memorable moments. It was a diverse and exhilarating trail and we had lasting images of the North Country -- its wilderness, its beauty, its history and its people. Over 4200 miles of hiking in eight months. We had accomplished our goal -- hiking the North Country National Scenic Trail in one season.
Editor's note: Gordon Smith talks beautifully about the trail in his report -- but doesn't talk as much, understandably, about the people that accomplished the journey. The following article, by Ron Wilson of the Minot, North Dakota "News", the reporter referred to above, gives us a little glimpse of the people.
by Ron Wilson
The blue van with show-me state license plates rocked in the 30 mph wind blowing off Lake Sakakawea. The radio DJ earlier announced temperatures were below freezing and wind chills were nearing double digits below zero.
It was the kind of day in which the van's occupants would probably have preferred to stay behind windows and closed doors, but they weren't about to.
Ed Talone and Sue Lockwood instead layered their clothing, covered all exposed skin parts, and headed west from Riverdale to Lake Sakakawea State Park to finish the last leg of their 4,250 mile hiking odyssey of the North Country National Scenic Trail.
"We've heard so much about the wind in North Dakota, it would have been a shame not to have experienced it," said Lockwood of Van Buren, MO.
That's a pretty stoic attitude, which is not surprising. It takes plenty of stoicism and perserverance to hike from New York to North Dakota in eight months.
Talone, of Silver Spring, MD, said hiking an average of 18 miles per day from March to November came easy for him. Lockwood would probably say the same, just because she wouldn't want to dwell on the disabilities caused by diabetes.
"She walks through a lot of pain, but she'll never admit it," Talone said.
Lockwood is legally blind and forced to undergo portable dialysis four times a day. "It's a pretty fast procedure that doesn't interrupt my walking much," she said. "I would say that it's tolerable."
Tolerable! Many people wouldn't leave their homes, let alone walk a 4,250 mile trail end-to-end, if they had to subject themselves to such a procedure. But, Lockwood takes it in stride.
The dialysis is administered in a van driven by Sue's brother, Gordon Smith, also of Van Buren. Smith acts as the trip's support person.
Stuff -- lots of stuff -- was jammed and crammed into every conceivable corner of the blue van. It looked like, well, like three people and two dogs had been living out of the thing for the last eight months.
Smith, the support man, drops the hikers off in the morning and periodically checks on them at road crossings and other meeting points. He must be good at this. He's been doing it for 10 years since his sister went blind, got out of the teaching p rofession and took up hiking.
He's been the support man for Lockwood and others on the Pacific Crest Trail (2700 miles from Mexico to Canada), the Appalachian Trail (2,150 miles from Maine to Georgia) and the Continental Divide Trail (2600 miles from Mexico to Canada).
Actually, Smith is one of the main reasons Lockwood is able to hike. A vehicle is needed to haul the medical supplies that keep her going.
This easy going man, with a thick beard and gentle speech, looks like he belongs here on the backroads of America, hiking a little himself and providing support to those who need it. What he does may not seem monumental, but it is to the tired hiker. He'll sometimes catch up on a trail, packing along candy bars and water for Lockwood and whoever else needs it. Plus, he'll have a hot meal ready as the sun sets and the day's hiking is done. "With backpack meals, you just add boiling water," he said. "If it's not much more difficult than that, I can handle it."
Smith is kept company in the van by Bugsy, a terrier mutt. Bugsy takes readily to strangers. The day's end or rest breaks are probably Bugsy's favorites. That's when the terrier can lick and bug Lockwood's seeing-eye dog Mac.
Mac is a story in himself. The 14-year-old black Labrador retriever has seen his share of miles, having guided Lockwood around fallen trees and other trail obstructions in several states.
"He's four years past retirement," Lockwood said. "We like to say he was trained on the streets of Detroit and hasn't seen a sidewalk since."
In the comfort of the van, he feigns sleep while sitting up, and doesn't bother to snarl at the pestering Bugsy. But once outside, with a harness attached, a skip -- albeit a small one -- comes back in his step.
This hike on the North Country National Scenic Trail just may have been Mac's last. "I'm going to have to retire him sometime," Lockwood said.
Talone has a passion for hiking. You can hear it in his voice and see it in his eyes when he talks about the beauty he's seen along many a trail. He and Lockwood are the first hikers to make a "through hike" from end to end of the North Country Trail in a single season. The two met in 1992 on the Pacific Crest Trail.
"The feeling is unbelievable," Talone said of finishing the 4,250 mile hike. "I've had chills for several days thinking about it."
Talone was an auditor for 5 1/2 hears before quitting to make the trip. He quit a good job to live on the side of the road for months and hike. It may not sound appealing to some folks, but it is to Talone.
"I just wanted to do this while I could. I know it's going to be a hardship financially, but I probably wouldn't be able to do this when I'm 60", said Talone, 37. "Now that I'm done, I'll be going home and looking for work."
Talone, Lockwood, Smith and the dogs said good-bye to each other Monday. Talone caught a trail to make it home in time for Thanksgiving. Brother, sister, and the two dogs were doing the same by another route in the van. "This is the sad part becau se we have to say good-bye to a good friend," Lockwood said of Talone.
Now it's back to the real world and back to the rat race, she said. "But we're really not true rats," Talone added.
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