Blogging the North Country Trail

by admin on October 5, 2011

Welcome! The NCTA’s Insight blog is your source for extended coverage and inside information on what’s happening on and around the North Country Trail.

{ 16 comments }

What is Michigan’s Iron Belle Trail?

by andrea on January 30, 2015

What is Michigan’s Iron Belle Trail? We’ve been asked this more times than we can count and we’ve wondered ourselves.

More than two years ago, the Detroit Free Press ran an article about Governor Snyder’s idea for a “showcase” trail, connecting Belle Isle to Ironwood, and declaring Michigan “THE Trails State”. The map accompanying that article showed the North Country National Scenic Trail (NCNST) as the route across the UP. To say it took us by surprise is an understatement!

Since then, we’ve been in discussion with the DNR (the lead agency for implementing this idea) about if and how the North Country National Scenic Trail fits in with the Governor’s vision. Initial fears about the trail being motorized were quickly nixed, and the idea soon emerged that two separate trails were needed, one for biking and one for hiking, and that each route would weave together existing trails with new in order to bring the vision to reality.

This last week, the name of this new trail was formally announced by the DNR as Michigan’s Iron Belle (click here to read the press release). And again there has been a flurry of discussion. What does this mean for the North Country National Scenic Trail and for those who use it, build it and love it? Yesterday, we sat down with Paul Yauk, the acting State Trail Coordinator for the DNR, to discuss some of the details and we wanted to share some of our main points of discussion with you.

Iron_Belle_Trail_Route_small_479867_7

Where will the Iron Belle Trail overlap with the North Country National Scenic Trail?

The Iron Belle Trail will join the NCNST in Calhoun County and follow the route into Gogebic County on the Wisconsin border where we head west and the Iron Belle will head down to Ironwood. Explore the map

How will we sign the Trail?

The Iron Belle Trail will have its own logo and associated brand standards. The National Park Service, NCTA and our partners will draft our own guidelines for if, when and how it will be used on the NCT. If we have opportunities to include the name and/or logo on trail signage, access points, kiosks or in our materials, it would be welcome but not mandated and the DNR will provide the materials. The Iron Belle logo will not replace the NCNST emblem and blue blazes.

Is the “hiking” section really hiking only?

Although one route on the Iron Belle is being designated for hiking and one for biking, that does not trump any use designated by the local land manager. Those sections of the NCNST open to mountain bikes or on multi-use paths will remain so, just as you will be able to take a walk on the rail trails that are part of the designated bike route. Those two distinctions simply mean you will be able to walk the entire length of one and bike the entire length of the other.

Who will develop the trail in the gaps we have yet to build?

Planning, land acquisition, trail building and maintenance will still be under the leadership of the National Park Service, the North Country Trail Association and the land management agency or managing partner in charge of any given section. The DNR has made it clear that they are here to help where needed but will look to us to lead.  We’re seeing this as a great opportunity as the DNR ramps up its trail acquisition capacity to play a much greater role in funding trail protection on the NCNST. For this to work, it must be managed in partnership—something that continues to evolve.

How will it be funded?

Some new funding will be available for small grants through the DNR for projects that are part of the Iron Belle Trail. Combine this with existing grant programs like the Natural Resources Trust Fund, National Park Service and NCTA funding, plus partnerships with land conservancies and other conservation organizations, and the potential for further progress on the NCNST just continues to grow.

How will we promote the Iron Belle Trail?

The North Country National Scenic Trail will remain the North Country National Scenic Trail but we are proud to be recognized by the State of Michigan as part of the Iron Belle Trail. The DNR will point people to NCTA and our website for more information. They already have us listed on their website and they will continue to connect the public with us for maps, trail information and local contacts. Check out our new online map and data center.

We’ve been invited to join the DNR’s marketing team in discussion about further promotion and are helping them draft language for marketing materials. We also have some ideas to work together to celebrate the  100th birthday of the National Park Service and the 100th birthday of Michigan State Parks, both in 2016. What a party that will be.

This effort is not about one trail, or two, or even the dozens of existing trails, like the NCNST, that will make up the Iron Belle. It’s a national, state and local collaboration to showcase Michigan’s incredible natural beauty and vibrant communities. We’re excited to join the collaboration.

Inspired by the book Wild, Michele Oberholtzer backpacked more than 700 miles alone across Northern Michigan from Leelenau to Keweenaw. Here are some adapted entries from her travel journal.

  I was a terrible believer in things, but I was also a terrible nonbeliever in things, I was as searching as I was skeptical.

                  -Cheryl Strayed

nct-selfie-collage

The book Wild, by Cheryl Strayed relays her moving personal journey through the lens of a 3-month solo expedition across the Pacific Crest Trail. It was this book, which I read first as a married woman, and later as a divorcee that inspired me to embark on a long-distance solo hike of my own. It was this book, which I read with awe and appreciation, pen in hand while I underlined the many lines that so perfectly enunciated my confused feelings. It was Strayed, an outdoor enthusiast but backpacking novice, who convinced me that I was capable of doing the something grand for which I had no personal precedent. I related so much to her pain that it seemed reasonable that her method of healing might work for me too. I had tried everything to turn myself into a stronger, better person with unsatisfying results. The possibility of finding this cure in the unconventional therapy of intense self-reflection and prolonged self-reliance was so appealing as to become necessary.

Wild is not my favorite book but it is, without question, the book that has had the greatest influence on my life. It has marked me in ways that are powerful and irreversible and humbling. If I had not read that book, I might never have had the courage to go through with my divorce, might never have left everything to walk across Michigan, might never have started a new life for myself in Detroit and might never have experienced all the infinite possibilities that will come from there.

With the pack on my back and the powerful lessons of this book in my mind, I set out on a 700-mile journey along the North Country Trail in Michigan. My hike was an experiment in spiritual alchemy; an attempt to convert existential pain into something tangible, and then, hopefully, into healing.

On Starting

Day 1, Mile 15. Somewhere outside Traverse City

Starting sucks. I’m tired because I’m not in shape for this kind of work but also because, even though I’ve hiked 15 miles already today, it’s nothing in the grand scheme of things. I’ve accomplished such a miniscule fraction of what I’m trying to do that I feel like I don’t deserve to be tired.

The entire trail for this first day was a flat paved pathway, literally the easiest possible route. I felt silly with all my back-country gear in the company of people in roller blades or after-lunch bike riders with matching tourist t-shirts and hats. One of them asked me what I was training for and I told him “a walk across Michigan” without bothering to mention that the training and the actual event were one and the same.

I have piled so much meaning and so many expectations on what this trip will be, they roll around my head as I walk. The simplest explanation I can find for why I need to do this trip is that I have never done anything on my own before. I have so many fond memories from my past but I don’t know how to feel good about them now- they are things that we did and that “we” no longer exists. If I can do this alone, then I’ll have something to be proud of no matter what happens later or who I end up with.

My sister used to tell me that, whenever I had something I was afraid to say, I should just blurt out “I have to tell you something.” Then there would be no backing out. Even if I didn’t yet know how to say it, she told me, I’d find a way from there. I’ve done that for this trip. I quit my job instead of taking a promotion. I moved out of my apartment and put my belongings in storage. I spent thousands of dollars in gear. And, most important, I told everyone what I was doing. I created a framework for the success of this trip before I took a single step. Now, there can be no backing out.  I don’t know how I’ll do it but I’ll find a way.

As it turns out, you can doubt yourself every step of the way, but if you keep taking those steps, you’ll arrive someplace. I made it to my destination for the night, it feels wonderful to set up camp. I don’t have any of the conventional distractions of “normal life” but I’m busy with the little tasks of making camp and tired enough to relax in a way I don’t often allow.

Tonight, I broke in my stove, my sleeping bag, my tent (currently hanging between two trees in hammock-mode!) and this journal. The joy of doing is strong in me. With my bag on my back, I feel strong and purposeful.

I’ve thought of a lot of people and what I want to say to them. To Christina, how she inspired me to keep the promises I make to myself. To my mom, how I want her to live as she wants her daughters to. To myself, how I don’t know how this will end but I’m so proud to be out here trying. And to Cheryl Strayed, for inspiring the hell out of me.

On Curing Myself

Day 7, Mile 91

Today I crossed the 45th parallel in a place called the Jordan River Valley. For a long time I have been searching for a way to differentiate the past from the future, a reason why tomorrow will be different from yesterday. There have been countless nights where, head on my pillow in the dark, I make promises for tomorrow. But whether it’s a matter of hours, days or weeks, I always fall short. It’s like I’ve been saying “I’ll be different starting now….starting now…..starting now…” and after so many failures, the words have lost their meaning over time. I’ve been searching for some line in the sand and now I have one, an invisible but perfect line that marks the halfway in between the equator and the North Pole. For me, this line delineates the past from the future, the life of comfort from the life of purpose.

Near the 45th parallel, I reached a small creek where, I performed a little ritual to commemorate the experience. I faced the water, did a small sun salutation and “ohmed” long and loud. I crossed the bridge and said something like this:

“I declare that a new time in my life has begun and the old is over. I will no longer remain a prisoner of the illness that has suffocated me for 9 years. I will no longer be sick, I will no longer hurt myself. Though it will always be a part of my life, it is now in my past.”

I crossed back over and repeated the ritual from the north side. I washed my hands and face in the water, noting how there was dark dirty soil on the sides with a seam of sand running through the middle with clear water washing over it- imperfect but clean. It was hard saying those words but I honestly believe I can make them come true.

The Upper Peninsula

Day 15, Mile 211

I arrived in Mackinaw City wet from the pouring rain and angry at myself for getting lost. I decided to get a hotel room even though that feels indulgent and wimpy and lazy. There was a massive storm at night. I ran around taking pictures and delighting in the impressive clash between the skies over Lakes Michigan and Huron. It was nice to actually enjoy the storm knowing I had a safe dry place to retreat to afterward.

Back at the hotel, I took a hot bath, washed all my dirty clothes, and had a good look at myself in the mirror for the first time since I left. I decided my hair was too long and gave myself a spontaneous haircut with my camping knife. It felt great to know that, even if it looks horrible, it really doesn’t matter! As a matter of fact I think it looks pretty darn cute.

The Mackinaw Bridge is closed to pedestrians, so I decided to get to the UP by buying a round-trip ferry ticket to Mackinaw Island where the second leg took me north to St. Ignace instead of back south.

I’ve had a very built-up sense of awe and even foreboding when I think about the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. It’s mystical, a place of extensive unbroken wilderness. It’s not like I expected the dirt to be a different color or the trees to be up-side-down but I did expect it to have some intangible sort of “otherness.” The UP is not so different from every other place but just slightly more than. More trees, bigger forests, greater distances between people- it’s all the same as before but just turned up a notch.

As I lay here in bed, I hear the sound of wolves howling, and it makes me wonder if I’ve ever heard wolves before. Actually they are probably coyotes. They seem close by and very wild. It is incredible and eerie.

Lake Superior

Day 20, Mile 243

I have not spoken all day. I did not intentionally try to do it, it’s just that I never had reason to say anything. I am fairly certain I haven’t had a full silent day since I spoke my first word as a child.

Yesterday I was hoping to make it all the way to Lake Superior but, with a late start, tired feet, and strong winds, I came up short. I had gone over 20 miles but I realized I wouldn’t make it before dark so I set a rule for myself that I MUST stop by 9:30pm. I was running out of time so I decided to call it a day when I reached a little clearing by a lake. For some unknowable reason, I turned left and walked a hundred yards off the trail and found a beautiful little lean-to cabin. I looked at my watch- it was 9:27. I have been hiking for over 250 miles and this is the very first structure for campers that I have found.

It felt like such magical serendipity that I have decided to stay here for a full day. I wanted to have a Day of Nothing. I wanted to enjoy my own company without needing a distraction. I wanted to sit with myself instead of trying to Go Go Go. I wanted to wait for the emotions to rise up instead of hustling past them.

All day today I didn’t speak and I didn’t hike, but I certainly didn’t achieve a day of nothing. I didn’t meditate, I didn’t fast, I didn’t “wait for the emotions.” I kept busy and, when I couldn’t be busy, I slept. My first instinct is to be disappointed in myself but, then again, this reminds me that that I can’t just think myself into being someone else. I am who I am: outwardly diligent, inwardly tentative, alternately lazy and intense, desperately seeking meaning in everything. I am capable of change but I will always just be myself, some version of who I was yesterday.

What a day already- I was out on the trail by 8:15am and it’s only 9:30 now. I walked all of 5 minutes from my little cabin shelter and what a shock to see my first view of Lake Superior! I actually laughed out loud when I saw it because it was such a thrill. I can’t believe I was so close to for over a full day. There was still a bit of distance between me and the lake but I could see it!

I was nervous-excited as I made my way down to the shore. I knew I had to go into the water.

This part of the lake is called “the shallows,” which makes sense because I walked into the water for hundreds of yards before it even reached the top of my legs. Lake Superior is notoriously cold but, in that shallow water, I was almost warm.

Finally I took a surface dive and bathed myself. I floated on my back awhile, watching the clouds go by. There was a family of loons floating not too far away. The sun was just coming to from the clouds, still low enough to cast rays down in angled streaks. The water was beautiful and calm. I felt like the smartest person in the world for getting myself to that place in that moment.

On Being Lost

Day 32, Mile 483

I think I’m in an abusive relationship with the trail. When I lose it, I curse it, swear I don’t need it and I’m better off without it. And then, invariably, as soon as I see a blue blaze I am flooded with relief and take back every bad thought I ever had. This same scene has played out over and over.

What a fantastically terrible day so far, and it’s only 2:00. A day of walking blindly, turning around, finding my route, and losing it again. My “trail” this morning was actually someone’s 2-mile long driveway. So I backtracked to where I was last night, and found the trail. Yesterday I was lost, found the trail, and actually took a picture of the blue blaze out of sheer appreciation. But apparently I went the wrong direction because today I’m back at the same blaze headed the other way.

I have no map. My mail, which had my map, didn’t ever arrive in Marquette so I finally decided to head out without it. I remember hearing once that a blind person could make it through a maze if they just keep one hand on the wall and followed that wall forever. If I can just follow the blazes, I could get to the other end. But the trail isn’t marked the whole way and so I end up alternately following my gut and my eyes, worse off than that blind person because I keep changing my approach.

I know that there are a lot of unmarked areas of the trail in this area so, when I don’t see blazes, it’s hard to know if I’m in “the part of the trail that has no blazes” versus “the part of the world that has no blazes.” It’s a meaningful difference!

In the light of the day, I am retracing places I hiked yesterday and noticing that some of the blue blazes have actually been intentionally blacked-out so they are almost impossible to see. I’ve heard that this land west of Marquette was historically owned by auto magnates like Henry Ford. The untamed private property of massive back-to-back parcels leaves little room for such trivialities as roads (a little ironic for the founder of the modern automobile) and the people here have a reputation for keeping to themselves. Is that is why someone concealed the blazes- because they want to discourage hikers from coming here? If that’s the case, they are very misguided because I’ve spent a lot more time here walking in lost circles than if I had been able to follow the trail.

I’m entertaining thoughts of short-cuts and hitch-hikes but I am very alone out here. The sound of a river sometimes tricks me into thinking I’m near a major road even though I know I’m not. In a few days I’ll be leaving the North Country Trail to travel up the Keweenaw Peninsula and Isle Royale. I wonder when I will see my last blue blaze, I wonder if I’ll know it when it happens.

Being back on a marked portion of the trail this afternoon was cold comfort. The trail was utterly un-groomed and even when it stopped raining, the wild overgrowth smacked my legs constantly and made me soaking wet. It was extremely frustrating. The long wet grasses were like a thicket of sticky Velcro that tripped me at every step. It was like they were intentionally trying to keep me from moving forward. Finally, I fell. As I flew through the air I made a pitiful groaning sound that seemed to echo in the air forever. I was so demoralized, so exhausted, so down, I half-kneeled on my hands and knees for a few moments, waiting for the torrent of tears that I have been waiting for to finally come. But they never came. After a moment, feeling like a fool, I got up. What else could I do? Just keep walking.

On Ending

Day 44, Mile 700

This morning I decided to wake up early to watch the sunrise from my camp at Moskey Basin on Isle Royale. It was cold and I was tired. I packed up everything but my sleeping bag and curled up in it, leaning against my pack and while I tried to keep my eyes open watching the part of the sky where I thought the sun would come up. It’s funny how, with a sunrise, you don’t know exactly where to look. I waited for what seemed like forever while the sky slowly lit up. Almost an hour passed. Suddenly, a bright spot appeared and once the sun broke the horizon, it rose rapidly. Soon it was a full blood-red sphere in the sky. Somewhere from the deep recesses of my memory, a song came to me and I sang: “I think it’s gonna be alright, yeah, the worst is over now. The morning sun is rising like a red rubber ball.” The words caught in my throat as I sang, it was a mixture of anguish and joy. A few tears fell. I love that this song was somewhere inside of me. I could never have planned it. It was perfect.

I walked down to the nearby beach and skinny-dipped one last time in Lake Superior. I washed the sweat and dirt and blood off my body in the startlingly cold water. I spread my arms out to hug the sky and felt a deep gratitude for this one last taste of true solitude.  Will I ever in my life be that alone again? I wonder. I know I was the only person for many miles all around me. I howled as loud as I could. AaaaaaOooooooHHHhhhOOOooooo. I waited for the crying to come but it never did- I didn’t feel sad, I felt great. I hugged my little stuffed animal Lenny.  I snapped a few pictures. I packed up my things. I took a good, long last look.

With a stick, I wrote in the sand. Big curvy letters “I did it!” In math, the difference between zero and one is only one, but in life, the difference between never and once is immeasurable. I have done something, really done something, if only once.

What have I learned on this trip? So much more than I can even understand now.

One lesson that resonates with me today is that I can create my own milestones. Life goes by, the sun rises and sets every day. Those events aren’t inherently meaningful unless I weave them into the events of my life. The book Wild could have been just another story I heard about that happened to somebody else, but I used it as a call to action for an adventure of my own. The 45th parallel could have been a photo-op but I used it to commemorate a passage into a new phase of my life, which may prove to be just as imperfect as the one before, but different, nonetheless. Even just the act of waking up early to enjoy a beautiful sunrise was a way to create a milestone. Each of these things were there all along but they became meaningful because I made them so.

By setting so many goals, I simultaneously guaranteed my own success and failure. Inevitably, I fell short on some of them. This trip was supposed to help me convert my flawed self into a higher being. I guess it’s not surprising that this didn’t happen, but it’s still disappointing. Now I know that I can’t just think myself into being someone else. I can’t schedule an epiphany.

But within the confines of my single life, I can do a great deal. I am a whittler and my life is a single block of wood. It has fixed dimensions and limitations but within those, I am free to carve out whichever shape I want. If I pay attention, I can become attuned to the curve of the grain and work with that raw material to make something unique, unpredictable and beautiful.

IMG_1232

Michele documented her trip in her “Left of East” journal series. Check out that series and more of her writing at www.oberdoit.com

We’d like your feedback. Please share your comments, questions or your own experiences below.

 

{ 0 comments }

December 31, 2014

Wild in the North Country – Part Six

By Michele Oberholtzer On Ending Day 44, Mile 700 This morning I decided to wake up early to watch the sunrise from my camp at Moskey Basin on Isle Royale. It was cold and I was tired. I packed up everything but my sleeping bag and curled up in it, leaning against my pack and […]

Read the full article →
December 30, 2014

Wild in the North Country – Part Five

By Michele Oberholtzer On Being Lost Day 32, Mile 483 I think I’m in an abusive relationship with the trail. When I lose it, I curse it, swear I don’t need it and I’m better off without it. And then, invariably, as soon as I see a blue blaze I am flooded with relief and […]

Read the full article →
December 29, 2014

Wild in the North Country – Part Four

By Michele Oberholtzer Lake Superior Day 20, Mile 243 I have not spoken all day. I did not intentionally try to do it, it’s just that I never had reason to say anything. I am fairly certain I haven’t had a full silent day since I spoke my first word as a child. Yesterday I […]

Read the full article →
December 28, 2014

Wild in the North Country – Part Three

By Michele Oberholtzer The Upper Peninsula Day 15, Mile 211 I arrived in Mackinaw City wet from the pouring rain and angry at myself for getting lost. I decided to get a hotel room even though that feels indulgent and wimpy and lazy. There was a massive storm at night. I ran around taking pictures […]

Read the full article →
December 26, 2014

Wild in the North Country – Part Two

By Michele Oberholtzer On Curing Myself Day 7, Mile 91 Today I crossed the 45th parallel in a place called the Jordan River Valley. For a long time I have been searching for a way to differentiate the past from the future, a reason why tomorrow will be different from yesterday. There have been countless […]

Read the full article →
December 26, 2014

Wild in the North Country – Part One

By Michele Oberholtzer I was a terrible believer in things, but I was also a terrible nonbeliever in things, I was as searching as I was skeptical. – Cheryl Strayed The book Wild, by Cheryl Strayed relays her moving personal journey through the lens of a 3-month solo expedition across the Pacific Crest Trail. It […]

Read the full article →
December 4, 2014

A Book Club takes a Walk in the Woods – by Jill Hinton

There is something so breathtaking, so remarkable, so…fun about backpacking with women. Don’t get me wrong, the natural scenery is pretty amazing. But can we take just a moment here recognize that women who backpack aren’t like other women? They’re strong. They’re open to taking risks. They’re pretty much the most amazing thing ever Or […]

Read the full article →
November 16, 2014

North Dakota and Minnesota newsletter now available

The latest Call of the North Fall Winter 2014 issue of our newsletter is now available (PDF – 3.3MB).  In it, you’ll read about… a recap of the Dakota Prairie Chapter’s “Hike every mile” event on North Country National Scenic Trail Day a recap of the Minnesota Hiking Celebration event an update on what’s happening with several of our Chapters […]

Read the full article →