story and photos by Nicole Vik
My story along the North Country Trail began last winter when my editor asked me if I was outdoorsy and suggested I cover outdoor events and news.
My first thought was, of course I’m outdoorsy, I grew up in Northern Minnesota. The question I should have asked myself was, am I athletic?
I decided to participate in a 3-mile snowshoe hike along a section of the trail in Itasca State Park because after all, hiking is just walking right? Wrong. Walking is not the same as hiking and hiking is certainly not the same as snowshoeing. It quickly became painfully apparent that I was desperately out of shape.
At one point I found myself literally waddling up an extremely steep hill. As I struggled with my overly-large and borrowed snowshoes, my chest heaving for air, my brother strolled past me effortlessly while he pulled his sleeping child in a sled that was strapped around his waist. How pathetic I was, being passed by a guy pulling the weight of another human-being. Up a hill. Covered in ice.
I’m sure I was quite the sight; leaning forward in a squat with my butt up in the air struggling to move forward to prevent myself from sliding backward on the icy slope; desperately trying to stay on my feet.
With one mile left, it became my sole purpose in life to finish without crying. By the time I reached the parking lot my legs and hips were so weary it became my new purpose to make it to my vehicle without collapsing. Despite my struggles I did finish the hike, but I had absolutely no intention of ever going back out there.
I had no shame, I published my humiliating story as a column in the newspaper I work for and the response I got was completely unexpected. A few days after the story ran I got an email from Bruce Johnson, who is an active member of the Itasca Moraine Chapter of the North Country Trail Association, he told me he was proud of me for gutting it out and that he hoped I would continue hiking because he was confident that my attitude and perception would change.
At the time I had never even met Bruce, he was a complete stranger to me and I was honored that he had read my story let alone taken the time to encourage me to see it through, if it hadn’t been for him I never would have accepted the Hike 100 Challenge.
Growing up, I was a lazy little girl. My mother would take my brothers and me hiking and I was a bit of a burden on her as I would sit down on the side of the trail like the obstinate little brat that I was and refuse to continue on. “Are you just going to sit here? There is no going back you have to keep going forward,” she would say.
She then started strapping a bungee cord around my waist that she attached to her pack to pull me along and prevent me from plopping my heinie along the side of the trail and she would bribe me with the prospect of a treat when we reached our destination, which worked every time.
I followed like a puppy but the soothing ambience of the woods was drowned out by my insufferable whining as she towed me along behind her.
I started documenting our adventures by writing a series of columns for the newspaper and so many different people reached out to me, all of whom not only shared in my excitement for the trail but were eager to help with any questions or concerns I had.
This sparked my enthusiasm and I began doing research online, reading books, studying maps and I even attended some outdoor expos to absorb as much information as I could; I became obsessed. We purchased some new gear and hit the trail.
I started this journey hoping that by publishing our journeys we would inspire someone else to do something bold in their own life; something that would challenge them.
Isn’t that the point after all? Isn’t that why we face the lifelong struggle? To strive to make everyday worth living and achieve something we can take pride in? But instead I got so much more. I became a part of something so much bigger than I could have imagined and several doors began to open.
I have met several incredible people that I would never have otherwise met without the trail. I did an interview with Dan and Ruth Durrough, and for those of you who haven’t had the pleasure of meeting them they are an inspiring older couple from New York who just completed their final six miles of the entire 4,600 miles of the North Country Trail in September at the 2016 NCTA Celebration in eastern North Dakota through the Sheyenne National Grasslands and the Ekre Grassland Preserve. Being a part of their journey and being able to say I was among many that hiked the last six miles of their incredible journey with them is something I will likely never experience again.
During our interview, we were discussing how many connections the trail has to offer and Ruth sat looking at me contemplating that idea for a second before she said “isn’t that what a trail does” connecting you from one place to another and all the places and people along the way. Being senior citizens, Dan and Ruth also encouraged me to keep moving because they told me that at their age if they could do it I could do it.
I was asked to speak at the 10th Annual North Country Hiking Fest at Itasca State Park which for me is not as easy as it sounds, I’m a writer not a public speaker but I faced that fear and I’m glad I did because by doing so I got the opportunity to meet more people as equally enthusiastic about the outdoors as I am who told me that they were thrilled to hear my story which pushed me to keep going.
It was just further proof that the hiking community as a whole is so warm and inviting to those of us who are new to the trail and they are the most genuinely kind group of people I’ve ever had the privilege of coming into contact with.
I’ve pulled several members of my family and friends onto the trail all of whom were at different fitness levels and varying ages. Some were more comfortable in the woods than others but they all thoroughly enjoyed themselves because every trek is unique; it’s exciting to step out onto the trail because you never know what you might see and who you might meet.
I’ve become more comfortable with who I am by stepping outside of myself to realize that it is a much larger world than we sometimes remind ourselves.
There’s a peace that you feel being so far removed from the technology-based world which so many of us would struggle to live without.
In the middle of one hike I realized that daydreamers make the best hikers. Letting the mind wander helps the miles go by faster and it is a nice distraction from the blisters that are turning into craters on the bottoms of the feet.
The best hiking advice I’ve received is from a gentleman giving a lecture on hiking who said, “Just shut up and enjoy the solitude.” And he was right you will never hear quiet anywhere else like you hear on the trail.
There are places along the trail where the wilderness is so vast. It can be so still with no noise, not a single sound. No wind in the trees, no birds singing songs, no humming of distant traffic, no wildlife, no humans; just pure, complete and utter silence.
I’d be a liar if I said every hike has been good. One adventure started beautifully, the sun was shining with a nice light breeze. After stopping for lunch, I added treatment drops to a bottle of water that I pulled from a lake along the trail which would be more accurately described as a pond.
Two swans swimming casually in the water a short distance from me watched with vague curiosity as I scooped and filtered the water through a handkerchief and added the drops.
It tasted terrible but due to circumstances beyond my control I got sick and I consumed all of the lovely filtered water from my hydration bladder and I was forced to drink that scummy puddle water.
The handkerchief had served its purpose with excellence. There was not a single bit of debris floating in the bottle but the drops could not eliminate the earthy flavor. I myself prefer flavorless water. I’m sure you won’t find “scummy puddle water” among the Kool-Aid drink mixes in the grocery aisle. I mean, I wouldn’t trademark that.
Anything can happen on the trail, no matter how diligently you plan you can never truly be prepared; obviously I was never a Boy Scout. Needless to say, any hiker at any level can gain vital knowledge with every step taken.
Throughout all of this I have gained confidence in my abilities with every mile that I put behind me and I feel a sense of pride within myself for sticking with it.
Bruce was right, by continuing to hike and write about my experiences my perception certainly has changed. When I’m not on the trail I miss it and I daydream about when I can get back out there.
The important thing to remember is that it is not about what you can’t do, it’s about the things you can do.
Start there and keep pushing and challenging yourself each and every day. Never stop growing and never stop thriving. And not to steal the thunder of Dan and Ruth but if I can do it, you can do it too.
-Nicole Vik is a staff reporter for the Park Rapids Enterprise in Park Rapids, Minn. This article first appeared in the Call of the North, the NCTA’s newsletter for ND and MN.
You can read more of her stories about her time on the NCNST here: