Kel Anderson Treks Tamarack NWR in Eight Days
By Kel Anderson
The North Country National Scenic Trail is an absolutely crazy idea. So crazy, people actually volunteer to donate money, time, and labor to make this idea a reality. Mother Nature finds the whole concept rather comical and is constantly devouring all that labor. Still, the crazy idea persists. It’s amazing. My wife and I are members of the NCTA Star of the North Chapter, as well as the Ice Age Trail Alliance. We love hiking. Day hikes, multi-month thru-hikes, it doesn’t matter. They are fantastic. They are life-altering.
This year because of scheduling issues, I was on my own for a thru-hike for the first time. I had a small window of opportunity between wrapping up the summer semester of grad school and starting back to work at my job in special education. Matt Davis, NCTA Regional Trail Coordinator for North Dakota, Minnesota and Wisconsin, was a huge help last year when my wife and I hiked about 130 miles of the North Dakota NCNST, so I went back to him for more advice. He recommended hiking Tamarack National Wildlife Refuge through Chippewa National Forest. That’s 165 miles and I only had eight days to do it. That meant packing light and moving fast. At 53 years old, was I adding more crazy to an already crazy concept? Oh well, game on.
Over the summer I developed my own vegan, whole-food hiking fuel which I called “Kel Cakes.” It’s about 600 calories in four ounces. Seven of these gives me a little over 4,000 calories per day. This allowed me to hike without a stove or any utensils. To train for the hike, I rode my bike as often as possible, logging over 1,500 miles between May 1 and August 1. I also got out and hiked a lot. Beyond the more casual treks, I did two practice hikes of 25 and 27 miles respectively, with a 30-lb. pack to test the gear, legs, and Kel Cakes. Starting in August, I was doing around 1,800 lunges/squats with a 25-lb. pack six days a week.
On August 20, after driving from our home near St. Paul, Minn., my wife dropped me off at Hubble Pond Road [NCNST] trailhead around 10:30 a.m. to start the hike. My pack was around 38 lbs. with 16 of that being Kel Cakes. It was a perfect day for hiking and Tamarack did not disappoint. That was some of the best hiking of my life. Just gorgeous. I was smiling from ear to ear. Sixteen miles later, I was camping at the 400th Avenue trailhead. The great weather and excellent views continued for the next few days.
- Day 2 was 19.4 miles to the Horseshoe Lake campsite – beautiful! The Trail had been swallowed up by some blowdowns that took me a while to get through with the ol’ up, over, under, and around maneuvers. That is going to happen.
- Day 3 was 20.6 miles to the Hernando de Soto Lake campsite – exquisite!
- Day 4 was 19.9 miles to the Amikwik Cabin. What?! A cabin – what a wonderful surprise.
- Day 5 rain entered the picture. That was a 25-mile hike to the Sprinkle Road Lake campsite. I had been rotating socks each day trying to keep dry ones on, but this is when that system started to fail. Between rain, morning dew, and some thick areas on the Trail, I couldn’t get my socks to dry out. This would become an issue. There is always some problem on these little adventures no matter how much planning you do.
- Day 6 was 21.9 miles to the Gut Lake campsite – serene. Luckily, along the way I met NCTA volunteers Jerry and Melinda McCarty, who were out doing some trail work. Another glitch in my planning was not bringing enough mosquito repellent with me. I had run out about an hour before I met the McCartys. Trail magic in action straight from actual trail angels! Jerry handed me their can of repellent and I am greatly appreciative. More evidence that trail volunteers are the best people.
- Day 7 was the big challenge. My feet were starting to get stressed. I had hiked about 123 miles so far, and because of wet socks, my feet were almost constantly pruned up. Each step was met with a bit of pain, and I was doing over 40,000 steps each day. Still, what are you going to do? You gotta move forward. It is hard to explain, but these long, multi-day hikes provide more than the bounty of nature and a whole lot of desirable quiet. They teach you other life lessons that are probably different for everyone. For me, they are a reminder of the fact that I can do difficult things. I can persevere. They remind me of what is important in life and what is not. Off the trail, sometimes I get worked up about things that do not matter. The trail gives me more empathy. The trail makes me a better human being.Anyway, Day 7 was 27 miles to the Old Pines campsite. I knew it was going to be a long, hard day. I was up at 5:00 a.m. and moving down the trail just after 6:00. The Trail was in great shape which really helped out a lot. Surprisingly, I was in camp in just under 12 hours, but the feet were not happy. Blisters were on both feet now and I was doing all I could to manage the situation. After all the hiking I had done previously, this was the first time I had really had any issues with blisters. I had battled wet feet and soreness plenty of times. By rotating socks, using liners and properly sized shoes, I had avoided blisters before. I think maybe the combination of wetness and long mileage was just too much. Still, I had 15 more miles left on Day 8 to reach my wife, who would be waiting at Minnesota Highway 6 near Remer. Of course, it rained that night and it was raining when I packed up in the morning. You just have to smile and get on with the program.
- On Day 8, after about eight miles, I was approaching the Milton Lake campsite. Local Busy Beaver Union 217 had been active and submerged the trail. Good work guys. It didn’t matter because my feet were already soaked and the cold water was actually kind of soothing. Around 2:30, I came across my wife walking towards me down the trail. The car was about 20 minutes way. I did it. Success!
The wildlife tally was nine dear, seven bears, four beavers, three snakes, and one wolf. I lost count of all the swans and other fantastic birds. This was a great trip. I will probably forget about all the mosquitos I battled and the thousands of cobwebs I removed from my face. My current swollen feet and recovering blisters will become humorous stories. I will not forget all the work that NCTA volunteers do to create and maintain this unbelievably crazy idea. I am in deep appreciation of everyone’s efforts. Thank you. I would also like to acknowledge Matt Davis, who has answered so many questions and provided excellent advice. Additionally, the McCartys probably saved my life with their mosquito repellent. Many of those skeeters on the trail just laugh at the concept of DEET, but their bug spray allowed me to retain enough blood to cross the finish line. Additionally, Bruce Johnson of the NCTA Itasca Moraine Chapter, thank you for the wonderful bench tables at the campsites. They are awesome and greatly appreciated. And thank you to everyone who helped build the Amikwik Cabin. That was a pleasure.
Now, it’s back to cleaning gear, figuring out what alterations need to be made for the next hike, and just plain dreaming of where to hike next. Thank you to everyone who works to make these trails happen. You are the best.