Our Stories

Heather Werderman: NCT Long Distance Hikers

Categories: Hiking Stories


Heather Werderman

Rochester Hills, Mich.
Central patch + all state and mileage rockers, including Mackinac Bridge, and the End-to-End Hike rocker and certificate. She is the 20th person to complete the North Country Trail on foot.

I did not grow up in a hiking or particularly outdoorsy family. Until I was an adult I’m not sure that I had ever been for a day hike, let alone on a backpacking trip.

In 2006 I was living in the upper peninsula of Michigan when I heard about this thing called geocaching. My obsession with geocaching grew and I started hiking so I could get to more remote caches. A few caches required short hikes on the NCT to reach, and thus I learned of the Trail.

By Brian Tanzman

I decided I kind of liked hiking, and maybe I’d like to try some overnight trips. I did some research, got some gear, and started backpacking. Some of my first trips were short sections in the NCTA Hiawatha Shore-to-Shore Chapter region, followed by Pictured Rocks, the Porkies, the Manistee River Loop, and the Jordan Valley. Over the next four years I spent many weekends out section hiking chunks of the Upper Peninsula.

In 2010 I met a man obsessed with the Appalachian Trail (AT), and by 2011 I was off to thru-hike it, starting my long distance backpacking career. At the time I figured it was a once in a lifetime sort of endeavor, but going home and living a traditional life no longer felt right after I finished it. I rearranged my life and work, and I’ve hiked long distances all but one summer since.

I’d never really considered doing the entire NCT, primarily due to its length, rumored long road walks, etc. Also, having grown up in Michigan I was initially drawn to new landscapes and not what I already knew. However, after a decade of hiking I started branching out into less common trails, and the NCT sounded like a fun option. It was exciting to think of walking the entire length of my home state. The NCT also incorporated some other places I’d always wanted to visit, like the Superior Hiking Trail and the Adirondacks.

I started my hike in May 2020 in North Dakota and was able to reach Defiance, Ohio by early November. I picked up again from Defiance in late April 2021 and reached the [eastern] terminus in Vermont by late August.

Along the way I got to see everything from the wide open grasslands of North Dakota to the rugged mountains of Vermont. There is a surprising amount of Trail that is actually complete, and most of it is well maintained. I liked walking along bike paths and canals and learning a bit of history along the way. Even the road segments weren’t generally as bad as I had feared. Most of the roads are pretty quiet, and I came to welcome them as a way to get in some fast miles and look around without fear of tripping.

North Dakota had some of the most amazing bird life I’ve even seen. In Minnesota I got to complete the Superior Hiking Trail, something I’d always hoped to hike. Wisconsin was short, but with lots of lovely miles of well-maintained trail. I loved revisiting the UP, especially all the miles near the Lake Superior shoreline. Ohio had some nice bike paths and some interesting canal history. The Allegheny Mountains of Pennsylvania were a pleasant surprise, tons of off-road miles and shelters to sleep in. New York had beautiful gorges and pleasant canal walking. Though short, Vermont had some nice trails, and it was really cool to connect to the Appalachian Trail.

Of course there were challenges. The mosquitoes of western Minnesota were some of the worst I’ve ever seen in my life. It rained on me for a good portion of my hike through Michigan. I got hit by storm after storm as I traversed New York. I saw many days with very warm temperatures and very high humidity. The unleashed dogs of southern Ohio resulted in some scary moments. Some sections of Trail are overgrown, or thorny, or exceedingly muddy. Finding camping was a logistical challenge in some segments.

Due to Covid-19, I didn’t have as much of a social hike as most NCT hikers likely do. I mostly didn’t see a ton of other hikers, meet up with Chapter members, stay with trail angels, etc. But the few I did were some of the highlights of my trip. The community that surrounds the Trail is really great.

The North Country Trail is improving every year. Even over the two years I hiked there were several map updates due to new sections of Trail being built. Someday I’m sure it’ll be totally complete with many more miles of off-road Trail. Still, I’m happy that I got to hike the Trail as it is now. I like the eclectic mix of trail types. The NCT has a bit of something for everyone. Most people won’t complete the whole Trail, but I think you can have a great experience even if you only do a few miles.

An excerpt from this essay ran in the Fall 2021 issue (40.4) 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. 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.