7 states, 25 hikes, 100 unique miles, a 2,300 mile road trip, and plenty of iconic places. Enjoy this story from a recent Hike 100 Challenge finisher!
Guest post by Ken, a Hike 100 Finisher
In the last year I have been trying to improve my life physically after a pair of back surgeries. Honestly, I have always been trying, but within this last year I have actually been doing it by hiking, biking and kayaking.
On the first of this year I was planning a trip to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula from Oregon, OH, just east of Toledo, which would take me around Lake Michigan. I am a geocacher so I plan every trip with the goal of collecting a few geocaches in different states and at random geological or historic sites. I was zooming in on the websites map north of the Mackinac area and I found a string of caches titled “NCT – (all kinds of things)” making a big, weird S through Hiawatha National Forest.
In the geocache description there is an elaborate, but brief, explanation of the NCT. Needless to say at this point I was floored that I had never heard of the North Country Trail. Around here the AT, PCT and CDT are public knowledge but how did I not know about the NCT which runs only 30 some odd miles away from my house and passes through all the places I love to visit.
Hours of internet reading and book ordering later I had registered for the Hike 100 Challenge and adjusted my spring and summer trips to include a number of out and back hikes along the trail.
A storymap of Ken’s Journey:
In the first few months of the year I made the long round trip drive to do some short hikes along the historic Erie Canal, Wabash/Cannonball trail, through Maumee State Forest and of course the beautiful Oak Openings Metro Park. Then came our first planned trip.
My kids and I (they are 10, 6 & 4) have a goal to visit all 74 Ohio state parks in the next two years. My youngest has Cerebral Palsy and does not walk yet so he gets to ride along for all of the hikes in a pack that helps him build his core muscle strength and keep his legs stretched, but most of all it lets him see and experience the world.
So while in North East Ohio visiting parks we went a little further to Allegheny National Forest to collect some Pennsylvania and New York geocaches as well as to hike a few NCT miles. On one hike we went up from PA to the NY border. That was an 847’ elevation gain in just over a mile, a great challenge for the kids and beautiful hike. Later in the same trip we found ourselves at the Ohio / Pennsylvania border heading up into the state game lands. Another beautiful hike out (up) and back. [See if you can tell what the focus becomes for my hike 100 challenge – side goal]
I used “The North Country Trail” book by Ron Strickland to find some cool destinations and we decided to head over to Zoar, OH for a history lesson and lunch. That was a terrific stop and my hats off to Ron for the excellent guide, it led us to some fine sections of the trail already. Another interesting landmark was achieved on that short hike; it is the Eastern confluence of the NCT and the Buckeye Trail System.
In the last month or so I made the trek out to my closest points of the trail and did a few miles here and there. Oak Openings is about as beautiful and “challenging” as it gets in the Great Black Swamp region where construction levels are more crooked than our skyline. I did however complete a little section hike where the Buckeye Trail splits off of the NCT (or joins depending on which way you go) at the Western end in Liberty Center, OH, so that landmark was completed.
It is now July and my original vacation trip plans were getting finalized. Looking back I had already logged miles in three of the seven states, with both border crossings; why not add 12 or so hours to my trip to collect all the states and all the crossings?
Fast forward to July 26th, that is today for me, and I will share the tale of a 2,300 mile road trip week that led me not only around the lake but to the conclusion of my Hike 100 Challenge.
On a Monday morning at 03:30 I left work in a rain storm with a final destination of the Historic Fort Abercrombie in North Dakota. The rain relented early enough that I was able to stop quickly and walk across the OH/MI border without too much trouble. As any fellow geocacher will understand, I could have delayed my trip exponentially by caching everywhere so I limited myself to caches close to the borders, highlight earth caches and those all-important state souvenirs.
With only one side trip at the end across the South Dakota border I made it to ND as the sun was setting and found the trail. I set off for an out n’ back from the fort to Kent, MN across the beautiful Red River. It is interesting to note that just to the north in MN there is a pair of high water marks from 1897 and 1997 that are only made more ominous when arriving in Kent to find a nice memorial from the 1997 event. I had a nice local beverage at the pub before walking back and setting up camp in the state park to enjoy my sleep.
As the sun rose over the fort the next morning I set out for Lake Itasca and the headwaters of the Mississippi. While driving along Rt. 34 I stopped at the Hubble Pond trail crossing, I had to, it is a very well maintained trailhead with beautiful signage and information. I was really impressed, thank you. I did not spend as much time on the NCT at Itasca as I did at the actual headwaters (only about half a mile) but I will say that the pure energy of the people and atmosphere in that park was so refreshing, like we were all in on some simple but profound secret that was improving our lives, it was awesome to be there.
I was trying to make it into Ottawa National Forest in the U.P. to visit my Uncle and Cousin that I have not seen in 15 years by the evening so my MN/WI border crossing hike was quick and uneventful. The WI/MI border proved to be more difficult as just a few weeks ago the area received a rainfall…er, deluge really, of 12-14” in less than two hours. There were still a large number of washed out roads and detours but I eventually made it down to the Montreal River, parked and hiked across my sixth and final NCT border. Now all I had to do was put on some serious miles to wrap this up, Pictured Rocks, here I come!
Before I set out in the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, I stopped in Au Train for a loaded test hike. I parked at the river and headed west but it felt more up than out. There is something weird and beautiful about the Hiawatha National Forest and Au Train Region, somehow when I turned around I was still going up to get back to my truck. I know that is not physically possible but I could not convince my legs otherwise. I know you long hikers are giggling at me but hey, that was a tough 1.8 miles.
The only thing I had set up in advance was my Altran ride from Munising Falls to Grand Sable for 1230 that afternoon; this was almost a major mistake. As a sidebar from my story I strongly recommend anyone planning a trip through or to Pictured Rocks to call more than 30 days (it used to be 14) ahead to reserve your campsites and obtain your permit. I was able to get my back country camping permit on the first come basis but it meant in the next three days I was hiking 7, 14 & 21+ miles respectively based on available camping sites. I would rather have finished sooner on the third day but that was it. So, permit in hand I offload the pack and gear ready for transportation. About halfway to Grand Sable I realized my hiking poles were in the bed of my truck tucked under my kayak. Ugh. Second bit of advice is that a written list would have been better. I was able to use a pole that that had been left on the Altran by someone two weeks prior and offered by the driver. I am not a fan of single sticking it but that was 50% better than nothing, thank you trail angels, I hope I deserved it.
At the trail head visitor center I came upon a very adventurous soul who on his first ever experience backpacking had made it there along the NCT from Tahquamenon Falls, and found himself in the same dilemma I was in an hour earlier without reservations for the next 42.4 miles. He ended up with the same itinerary as I had so we buddied up to keep an eye on each other through the next three days.
I will save the details of my Pictured Rocks experience as my own but share the highlights. “Awe”, as in awe inspiring, or awe-some is really the only English language word to describe it as a whole. It makes me wonder if founders in Michigan gave names like Au Sable, Au Train or Point Aux Barques with that in mind while doling out city names. In Pictured Rocks the views are amazing, the hikes are challenging, the people are few (in the eastern two thirds) but quality, the geography is top notch, the thunderstorms are violent, the history is ever present, the flies are legendary and the water is scarce. Okay, the last one needs explaining. Along with leaving my sticks I left my iodine tabs, and filters break. Tap water is scarce; lake, river and stream water is plentiful, plan accordingly. This year PRNP is also having a 50 and 100 mile hike challenge so I kept track of the camp and water hikes and ended up getting 50.2 total miles during the three days in the park, another challenge met. But most important is that just as my feet and muscles were really starting to scream at me south of Sand Point I achieved the NCT 100 mile benchmark!
In the next few days as my muscles recovered I visited NCT sites at Tahquamenon Falls, St. Ignace, where the trail crosses M 123 (near the geocache that started it all) and the last stop on my way home yesterday was at Lowell, MI to poke my head in at the headquarters, visit a great cast and crew, and pass along my thanks for everything while collecting my patch and picking up souvenirs for the kids.
All told in 28 different hikes at 25 different locations I recorded 100.8 unique miles along 108.1 total miles in all 7 states to include all 6 border crossings with 5 different people and the kids were along for 19.8 miles.
The only thing left now is the East and West Terminus…oh…and those other 4,500 miles.