Our Stories

Michelle Olsen: NCT Long Distance Hiker

Categories: Hiking Stories


Michelle Olsen

Evansville, MN
Central patch + North Dakota and 1,000-Mile rockers
Compiled by Joan Young

By Gail Rogne

Mary Oliver, the poet, asked, “What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” I heard her and replied “I will walk.” And I will live close to life, where in my slow travels, I will see, smell, touch, hear and occasionally taste what life on the Trail offers up.

Spurred on by an article in Backpacker magazine listing hikes in every state, my husband Dave and I drove to the Sheyenne National Grasslands in North Dakota to hike on Labor Day many years ago. This became a tradition and finally, in 2016, the North Country Trail signs that we were seeing during these outings registered in our brains as something to check out. I printed out the ND NCT maps and we came back a couple of times in 2017. In 2018 I saw a Facebook post asking for volunteers to do some trail maintenance in the Sheyenne State Forest. We spent a great day there with Jerry Warner who told me about the Dakota Challenge and passed on his incredible enthusiasm for the Trail. That was all the incentive I needed. The next weekend I went on two group hikes on the Trail and also joined a group for a weekend of hiking in Lonetree Wildlife Management Area the following month. 

As you know, once the NCT bug bites, you are helpless to resist! Every group hike introduced me to fellow trail lovers and more opportunities to pursue. I became involved in my local NCTA Chapter, Minnesota Waters and Prairie, in August 2018 and gradually got to know and enjoy time spent with the local volunteers. The doors kept opening, more hikers kept walking through them, and my hiking world became so much larger, a real community. It helped that my official retirement from paid work was May 31, 2018 and we were free to come and go. 

Winter of 2019 started the trail year with 20 miles of snowshoeing along Lake Ashtabula. I was determined to avoid the cattle grazing along the Trail, and that was the best way to guarantee it! I have met some wonderful hiking buddies and lifelong friends that are equally goal-oriented and share the satisfaction of finishing yet another section of road walking across North Dakota. We have supported each other and are all willing to drive significant distances to achieve our goals together. I finished the Dakota Challenge on October 28, my birthday, by walking the final two miles through Lake Sakakawea State Park. Dave had shuttled me that weekend as he had for most of my solitary trail miles. Honestly, I had never been that interested in most of North Dakota before I started hiking this trail. We loved the area around Teddy Roosevelt National Park and had followed Lewis and Clark one year, but that was about the extent of our exploration of the state. While walking these 440 miles I felt a very intimate connection to the small towns, wide open spaces, big skies and the people that were encountered. What a gift!

Pushing myself to complete this goal has gradually transformed my body. No, I haven’t really lost weight or left all my aches and pains behind. But I feel stronger, more confident, and more able. I have always walked, but I seldom went more than a couple hours, maybe six to seven miles at a time. At first, it was intimidating to join a group that expected me to walk 10 miles every day but now 10 miles is just…10 miles, no big deal. I feel incredibly lucky to have fairly good health and the ability to keep going five, 10, 15, or 20 miles. I know that I could lose this ability any day and want to take full advantage of it while I can. Thanks North Country Trail for giving me goals, friendship, health and never-ending opportunities!

An excerpt from this essay ran in the Spring 2021 issue (40.2) of our quarterly membership magazine, the North Star.

In 2012, a program was developed to provide a modest award and incentive to people who hike a large number of unique miles on the North Country Trail. Many hikers love patches, so a central patch and rockers were designed to give to those people who hike either [at least] one complete NCT state or 1,000 unique miles. In addition, those who complete the entire NCT under muscle power are given a certificate, and an outer rocker. Those who hike (including snowshoeing or skiing) the entire Trail are said to complete an end-to-end (E2E) hike. If some portions are bicycled, an end-to-end trip rocker is awarded.

To date (Spring 2021) 53 people have been recognized as NCT Long Distance Hikers. We know there are other people who qualify for these patches, but have not applied for them. There are currently 19 known E2E hikers. Two people have completed E2E trips.

To see the complete list of NCT Long Distance Hikers and find out how to apply for recognition, visit explorenct.info/NoCoLo. There are also links to known essays, journals, and more by these hikers.