Story and photos by Jo Oostveen
“What bridge did you say?” I asked in a puzzled voice.
“The Mackinaw Bridge”, he replied.
I was standing at the water pump with the only other person at the Pinney Bridge campground, early that May morning in 2011. I spied him as he came in late the previous night. I was on a two day hike of the Jordan River Pathway, which shares half of its miles with the North Country Trail.
Pondering his reply for a minute or so, I asked again, “You’re going to the Big Mac Bridge from here?”
The stranger told me that he had started near his home in Baldwin, and was determined to make the Bridge. My first thought was that he surely must be crazy, and I asked again, “Do you know how far that is from here?”
“Sure,” he said, and proceeded to tell me that six months earlier, he had had a massive heart attack. His doctor said that if he survived, he should plan to do “something special.”
The 40-something guy did get the chance, and he decided that he would hike all the way to the Bridge on the North Country Trail. I shared what trail information I had with him and we both went our separate ways.
Little did I know that this chance 5 minute encounter with a stranger would change the course of the next six years of my life. Sadly, I would never see him again, or ever know his name.
I was beginning the 60th year of my own life, and coming to the realization that my backpacking days may be coming to an end. My husband, Don, of over 40 years, was not a backpacker, but had always been supportive of my desire to “walk down the trail.” Therefore, I had learned to hike solo, and was pretty confident of going it alone. With the thought of turning 60 looming over me, I had been hiking all my favorite Michigan hikes, “one more time before I die.” As I hiked the final miles that day, I decided that if the stranger could hike to the Bridge, maybe so could I.
After researching the North Country Trail, I was shocked to find out it came within 4 miles of our home. That year, with the help of my husband shuttling me down the trail, I managed to hike from the Hodenpyle Dam on the Manistee River to the outskirts of Kalkaska.This was a whopping 69 miles.
The hiking trips were limited, because of our other responsibilities. We were the proud “parents” of six rescued husky mixed dogs, at our home we affectionately call “Sled Dog Heaven.” This unfortunately requires someone to be around to tend to the dog chores. Additionally, our daughter who lives in Kalamazoo has a disability and had recently started her own “medical mystery” adventures. Many times, either Don or I had to be with her in Kalamazoo for support, which left the dogs for the one left up north. These two responsibilities severely limited my time for “hiking down the trail.”
The second year, I worked a bit harder, and I did make the Mackinaw Bridge. I thought of the hiker who had started me on this quest, as I ambled into downtown Mackinaw City. Looking across the expanse of the Straits of Mackinac, I wondered what the NCT looked like in the Upper Peninsula. Officially, I had caught “blue blaze fever.”
In 2013, I crossed the bridge, started north, and managed to get to the Twohearted River by years end. My fondest memory happened just north of Tahquamenon Falls. It was October and the third day of continual rain In the middle of nowhere a lone hiker came towards me. It was Al Learned with his tiny pack and happy go lucky smile. On the other hand, I had a huge pack draped in rain covers, with a probably sour look on my face that said, I was tired of the weather. I learned that day to hike lighter and happier.
By the following year, I had poured over more maps and was serious. Deciding to start early in the year, I hiked from the Dam on the Manistee River heading south. I ended my southern hiking at the NCT Schoolhouse. The trails were wonderful (thank you Red Plaid Nation). I was hooked on blue blazes.
In the UP, I hiked from the Twohearted River to Munising. Along the way I met some fine NCT folks, and with some strong encouragement from the Superior Shoreline Chapter, I decided that I needed to join the Red Plaid Nation. I made a pledge to them that I would devote all my time to their efforts on the trail, well, just as soon as I completed my now new goal of completing all 1150 miles of the NCT in the state of Michigan by the time I turned 65.
My family now knew that I was serious about completing this goal of hiking all the NCT in Michigan “before I died” or “turned 65” whichever came first. With help from Don and my daughter Kristi, I hiked south from the NCT Schoolhouse to the NCT Headquarters in Lowell. In the U.P., I managed to go from Munising to Craig Lake State Park.
The kindness of strangers and the local NCT chapters, always amazed me. The Upper Peninsula was so beautiful and spectacular. After hiking in Michigan for about 30 years, I never knew such beautiful places existed, and that you only had to “take a hike” down the North Country Trail to experience them.
2016 came quickly, and so did my quest to complete the goal before my birthday. I still had about 175 very tough miles to complete in the U.P., and 160 or so from Lowell to Ohio. In early March, Kristi “delivered me into the woods” as she said, to my start south of Lowell and off I went towards Ohio.
There were three very difficult trips in the U.P. left before I could step into Wisconsin. The first trip included Canyon Falls, and Big Lake SFCG, as well as spending a night at the Oren Krumm Shelter over the Sturgeon River. The last day, I was hiking to O-Kun-De-Kun Falls at US 45 when a bear cub appeared 5 feet in front of me. For a split second I marveled at how beautiful and cute he was, until I remembered that Mama might be near. My trusty orange, loudest whistle ever, did the trick and I never did see Mama.
The second trip followed the NCT over the Trapp Hills. Ron Strickland in The North Country Trail, describes this area as “….one of the most varied, spectacular, and historically interesting hikes on the entire NCT,” and I agree. If you can put only one hike on your “bucket list” make it this one. You will not be disappointed!
The far northwest area of the U.P. was hit with a storm in July that dumped 15 inches of rain in just three hours. Needless to say, that storm and others that followed played havoc on the trail systems. In spite of the weather disasters, the Red Plaid Nation did their best to make the trail passable through the Porkies, and on to the Black River area. Finally I was walking across the bridge over the Montreal River into Wisconsin.
Returning home, I completed the final few day hikes to Ohio. My job was done. From a chance 5 minute encounter with a stranger, I had hiked all the way from Ohio to Wisconsin. I want to thank the entire Red Plaid Nation for all their hard work keeping the trail in good condition, and to all the “trail angels” and random strangers who offered kindness along the trail. Also, thanks to my husband Don, who put up with my nutty quest, and my daughter, Kristi, who during her medical adventures was willing be my spotter.
It was the adventure of a lifetime, and I thank everyone involved with the North Country Trail who makes these “adventures” possible.
See you on the trail……..JO